New York

Matthew Day Jackson

Peter Blum SoHo

Matthew Day Jackson aims high: life, death, presence, absence, the A-bomb. Like Damien Hirst or Jeff Koons, he’s a go-for-the-glory kind of artist, less interested in gray subtleties than in absolutes, extremes, and what literary critics used to call “the great tradition,” the canon-building heights of art’s capacities. Where his contemporaries, in dealing with history, might lean toward Foucauldian deconstruction or the view from below, Jackson tends to opt for big events: Hiroshima, the moon landing, the death of Philippe Pot (a pretty big event, apparently, in Renaissance France). In dealing with current experience, he goes in for drag racing, which, in Chariot II—I Like America and America Likes Me, 2008–10, he dares to set level with religion by outfitting a Corvette with a stained glass window. The car gets electrical power from solar panels, which might seem to nudge its gratuitous expenditures of energy toward political correctness. With Jackson, though, the idea seems less likely to be any practical or moral constraint than the unlimited potential of harnessing the power of the sun.

It’s all rather boy, rather golly-Mr.-Science, except that it’s so deeply shadowed by death. A photograph of a corpse in a burlap bag is titled Me, Dead at 36, 2010, and that car in Chariot II is rebuilt from one that crashed. Meanwhile the show’s tour de force, installed alone in the gallery’s downtown space, is a tomb, or a modern version of one, based on a work in the Louvre. In that remarkable stone sculpture, from the fifteenth century, eight black-robed men bear the body of Philippe Pot, a Burgundian nobleman of the time. Jackson replaces the mourners with space-suited astronauts—their helmets modern versions of the deep hoods veiling the faces of their models—and recasts the bier they carry as a high-tech coffin of stainless steel and mirrored glass holding a skeletal corpse made up of anomalous scraps: casts from the artist’s own body, a tree root, one of the molded-plywood splints that Charles and Ray Eames designed during World War II. What is at first most arresting in the mourning figures is their fabrication out of plastic and compressed wood carved by a computer-controlled lathe, so that the surface here undulates like skin, there is terraced like a hillside in China, there again evokes butcher block or marquetry—a bravura display of finishes and effects. The work is inseparable from these material qualities and from its lofty scale (it is rather taller than the pious original), but what stays in the mind is the friction between the motley variousness of the wood and the glass-and-steel geometry above, between the emotional sympathy implied by the role of the pallbearer and the anonymity imposed by the astronauts’ helmets, and above all the question: Where are the nine men going? Is a trip into space, in Jackson’s cosmology, today’s heroic replacement for a French nobleman’s sad passage to the afterlife? The synecdochic links between the body in the coffin and Jackson himself may suggest hubris, but the work’s internal conflicts—and its grand and basic weirdness—demand more careful pondering.

Jackson, after all, can be funny—he has a sense of humor. The central piece in the Chelsea space, and a sort of key to other works there (which themselves often reprised earlier works by the artist), was the video In Search Of, 2010, a flawlessly executed faux documentary of the Discovery Channel kind. “Science, art, and technology bring us closer and closer to answering the fundamental questions that have haunted man for millennia,” the narrator begins optimistically, as if those questions were ever ultimately answerable, but the talking heads who follow—David A. Mindell and Deborah G. Douglas, who actually do teach and curate at MIT; Alexander Dumbadze, who actually is a professor at George Washington University—provide perfectly plausible commentaries. The video’s overall solemnity of tone is a little hilarious, and in parts it is clearly fictional, but in others we may wish to disagree yet find we can’t. Simultaneously parodic and enigmatic, In Search Of is expertly poker-faced, and it sent us back to the rest of the show in a revisionist frame of mind.

David Frankel