New York

Matthew Day Jackson

Nicole Klagsbrun/Peter Blum

Any exhibition that name-checks Jorge Luis Borges while explicitly quoting a list of artists including Goya, Bierstadt, Brancusi, Buckminster Fuller, Bruce Nauman, and Charles Ray would seem all but fated to read as a hopelessly derivative muddle. Yet Matthew Day Jackson’s recent project rarely felt like simple epigonism. (And make no mistake: While it was split into two independently titled shows, each in its own Chelsea gallery, this was unmistakably one project.) In fact, it rarely felt like simple anything—rummaging through the histories of culture and society, looking for fungible commodities on which to build his unorthodox meditations on belief and mortality, Jackson engineered a physically sprawling and intellectually complex twofer that more often than not lived up to its considerable ambitions.

The project was divided so that primarily two-dimensional work appeared at Klagsbrun and three-dimensional work at Blum, but there were countless conceptual and formal echoes between the spaces. The Klagsbrun portion of the show—a dozen elegant, wall-based constructions of framed original and found images—was called “Drawings from Tlön,” after Borges’s classic tale “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius.” In the story, an inexplicable surplus entry in an old encyclopedia leads the narrator (Borges) to discover a world created through the collective imagination of a “secret society” of interdisciplinary thinkers, a journey from the page to the object—from thought to thing—that found clear parallels in Jackson’s project.

Concerned primarily with exploring cracks in systems of belief—sociopolitical, scientific, religious, aesthetic—and the way in which artistic gestures can function alternately as bridge or wedge in these fissures, Jackson deployed a canny eye for meaning-laden appropriational juxtapositions. Utopia and its discontents were vivid, if not always nuanced, in Jackson’s 2-D structures: A sequence of poster images of the Tower of Babel, that familiar symbol of collectivism gone awry, has been built into Jackson’s Brancusian Endless Column (all works 2008); the Art Workers Coalition’s famous My Lai protest poster connects via a Flavinesque fluorescent tube to an inverted image of a floating (sinking?) astronaut in And Babies? And Babies. The body as analogue and symptom of a larger dystopian environment was a similarly recurring thread. In Missing Link, for example, x-rays of Evel Knievel and Jackson himself are interleaved with an image of a prosthetic rib cage resembling a geodesic structure—a prospective technological fix for organic structures whose integrity has been compromised.

For all their recombinatory novelty, the two-dimensional works sometimes suffer under the weight of their too-explicit sociological references. But the sculptural pieces in “Terranaut,” the companion show at Peter Blum, are compelling and persuasive despite being founded on an art historical mash-up of historical proportions, a testament both to the artist’s inventive strategies of détournement and his bravura technical skills as a sculptor and scenario maker.

The echoes across the two shows were pervasive and explicit—the spaceman of And Babies? returned in an effigy made with Vietnam-era military blankets and pinned to the wall with a plank, à la early 1970s Charles Ray; the Dymaxion x-ray form in a life-size sculpture lodged in a David Altmejd–esque mirrored box. While Jackson ornamented many of the works with precious materials—onyx, mother-of-pearl, gold-plated steel—the show’s centerpiece was a trio of three large wall-hanging panels made of more modest stuff. The enormous pieces of charred wood, improbably augmented with Formica and brightly colored yarn, reimagine three of Goya’s “Disasters of War” etchings, departicularizing the now-familiar images but also locating startling beauty in their counterintuitive material juxtapositions.

“Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” opens with Borges and a friend engaging in a late-night discussion of the “monstrous” nature of mirrors, a position they later find echoed in the philosophy of Tlön, where the objects are considered an abomination because they “multiply and disseminate” the communal deception that is the visible universe. It’s an observation that begins a journey down the rabbit hole into a world where the external environment is purely the product of its inhabitant’s inner thoughts, its forms the product of ceaseless reimagining and recombination: a world that, like Jackson’s, puts the stuff of history and culture at the service of idiosyncratic imagination, in pursuit of new meaning rich enough to build something real on.

Jeffrey Kastner