New York

View of “Matthew Day Jackson,” 2013. From left: Nearside (rust), 2013; Pieta, 2013; August 6, 1945, 2013.

View of “Matthew Day Jackson,” 2013. From left: Nearside (rust), 2013; Pieta, 2013; August 6, 1945, 2013.

Matthew Day Jackson

Hauser & Wirth | West 18th Street

View of “Matthew Day Jackson,” 2013. From left: Nearside (rust), 2013; Pieta, 2013; August 6, 1945, 2013.

There’s so much to admire in Matthew Day Jackson’s practice—virtuoso technique in the service of a wide-ranging imagination, richly appealing and evocative production across a range of media, and a meticulous attention to formal minutiae that’s all the more impressive given the increasing physical size of his works. Indeed, attempts to assess Jackson’s deeper conceptual and ideological tendencies often seem to dissolve into airy generalizations when faced with the imposing, persuasive things he produces.

“Something Ancient, Something New, Something Stolen, Something Blue,” the materially and intellectually capacious show the artist designed to fill the vast territory of Hauser & Wirth’s Chelsea outpost, was a case in point. It was full of engaging artifacts and compelling tactics: Jackson’s ostensible baseline concerns—systems (sociological, technological, ecological, anatomical) and their involution; a figuring of violence and destruction that would seem to at once critique and mobilize their effects—were writ large, finding even more ambitious modes of instantiation in the almost comically wide-open spaces that were offered them here. The show was figured as a grand thing about grand things (“the measurable and the inexplicable, power and sacrifice, mortality and the infinite,” as the gallery’s slightly overbaked press release had it), and it all felt very much of a piece, going about its job with due diligence. Yet “Something Ancient” also seemed to wear its seriousness rather heavily amid the stately spaciousness of its surroundings, lacking as it did much in the way of outward acknowledgment that its informational and material density, its incessant recursiveness, had in it at least as much madness as method. This edging toward solemnity produced a strange kind of airlessness that crept around the edges of the individual works—twenty-five in all—and of the enterprise as a whole.

On some level, this was simply the airlessness of very high-end, very large-scale facture, the airlessness of Koons and certainly of Hirst, whose interests and strategies Jackson has imbibed, most obviously here in the colossal wall-mounted cabinet that served as the vehicle of Study Collection X (all works 2013), the newest in the artist’s series of hi-tech Wunderkammer. But the stuffiness also derived to some extent from the way in which the show tended to route its interests so consistently through art history—the relief map of Enshrouded Paris coated in International Klein Blue; the appearance of Albert Bierstadt in both the burned wood and steel “painting” Looking into Yosemite Valley and in one of the three views offered by the motorized billboard We, Us, Them; and the three effective centerpieces of the show, Pieta, Magnificent Desolation, and Scholar’s Stone. Each is a modified doppelgänger of an art-historical source, and all were fabricated from digital files that were created by inputting smartphone photographs into a free CAD modeling app (in the case of Scholar’s Stone, using a steel frame on which layer after layer of basaltic ash was laid down by an enormous 3-D printer.)

The welcome interruptions in these rather grandiose historical rhythms came mostly in the form of material memoirs—Me, Dead at 39, the most recent in Jackson’s mordant series of self-portraits in which he portrays himself deceased, or VICTA, the dragster designed and built by family members of the race car–driving artist, suspended for some reason on an auto lift above visitors’ heads. Similarly elevated, placed high above the show’s exit almost to the point of invisibility, was Hand to Mouth (after Nauman), a sculpture based on a late-1960s cast by Bruce Nauman in which Jackson used his own full beard and stout arm. This allusion to Nauman is an intriguing and useful addition to Jackson’s canon, and not just because of the interest the two men share in the body, both present in and absent from space. I had always figured Jackson’s strategy as one that built grand narratives primarily as a means to demonstrate their fundamental artificiality, but after “Something Ancient,” I’m not so sure anymore. Does Jackson believe that the true artist helps the world by revealing mystic truths? As Nauman once said, whether one sees not just the earnestness but also the silliness of the message of his 1967 work The True Artist depends on “how seriously you take yourself”—a question for Jackson, perhaps, and one this show complicates rather than settles.

Jeffrey Kastner