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Los Angeles
Richard Jackson
Armory Center for the Arts
145 N. Raymond Ave., Pasadena, CA 91103
February 11, 2012 - June 17, 2012

Painting Machines and Destructive Drives
by Jared Baxter

Appropriately enough, the first thing one sees is Richard Jackson's signature. A series of miniscule points, scored into drywall with small pieces of lead in a presumably tool-intensive application process, form the cursive letters of the name, evoking a playful and dual irony. On the one hand, there's the use of industrial-strength equipment to reproduce the typically effortless and everyday act of signing one's name; on the other, the very hubris of the gesture is deflated by the white expanse of wall that surrounds it, isolating it from the other works in the exhibition. As a standalone piece, referring mainly to itself, the signature points to its own author with a mechanical explicitness that casts into doubt the degree of authorship at play.

This question is expanded upon in the exhibition's centerpiece, a recreation of Accidents in Abstract Painting, 1998. The work consists of video footage of Jackson's paint-filled, remote-controlled model military plane as it charts its doomed course in the sky, which ends when it crashes into a large target emblazoned with the piece's title, in addition to the impressively preserved wreckage of this action. Amplifying the tension between control and chance, the gesture is as precise as its results are random, a senseless chaos produced by a technologically sophisticated process.

Particularly in the context of the Armory, itself a former military facility, the satirical overtones of the piece are hard to overlook. In one sense, it seems to allude to the current national hypocrisy that perceives atrocity in civilian deaths perpetrated by a ground soldier, while accepting those caused by remote drone strikes as part of the spectacle of contemporary warfare, as though the added layer of virtuality really sufficed to replace questions of intent and accountability with a vague appeal to statistical inevitability.  In another, the plane's kamikaze mission works as a comically literal example of cultural bombardment, articulating a wry critique of events like the very Pacific Standard Time Performance and Public Art Festival for which it was recreated.

More troubling is Jackson's 2007 installation, The War Room. Here, color-coded duck generals, facing each other in pairs, surround a 3D reproduction of Jasper Johns' Map (Based on Buckminster Fuller's DymaxionAirocean World), 1967, dotted with oil derricks. Circling around the piece to its rear, one of the map's triangular panels is lifted, allowing the viewer to see into the space inside, lined with a more colorful, school atlas-style map, upon which a white duck general is sodomizing a black duck general. The other duck generals, for their part, have ejaculated on each other, each shooting a color complementary to that of the duck across from it through the metal tube that stands in for its cock.

Originally presented alongside The Drawing Room, 2007, where a sculpture of a woman giving birth stands in for the generative powers of art, the piece takes the psychoanalytic link between homosexuality and the death drive and associates it explicitly with the Second Iraq War, a move that seems dissonant at best. In praising the work in Artforum, Tom Breidenbach writes that it references 'the covert homosexuality that exists within the military and occasionally surfaces violently in phenomena such as the systematic sexual torture conducted at Abu Ghraib.' In forcing detainees to strip and arranging them in poses resembling homosexual acts, however, the soldiers involved weren't expressing some kind of repressed homosexuality. Rather, their actions were intended to humiliate on the basis of the perceived degradation of such acts, a gesture that Jackson runs the risk of echoing in decrying warmongers by portraying them as gay.

In so doing, he seems to connect the fruitless expense of American foreign policy in the Middle East to that of queer sexuality as seen through the lens of certain psychoanalysts in an uneasily linear way. Where Breidenbach finds the piece's point 'no less worthy of reiteration' for the 'heavy-handed[ness]' of its 'metaphor,' I feel less and less certain that it even has such a stable and easily transmitted message; what to make of the fact that the ducks have tits for eyes, for instance? Yet to the extent that the piece fails as political rhetoric, it fails in a way as seemingly multifaceted as its polygonal Dymaxion map, staging a collapse of the sort of choir-preaching one might initially expect into an experience that's more complex, though queasily so.

Jared Baxter


(Image on top right: Richard Jackson, The War Room, 2006—2007, Fibreglass, wood, acrylic paint, hardware, canvas, 472.4 x 731.5 x 731.5 cm / 186 x 288 x 288 in; Courtesy of the artist and the Armory Center for the Arts, Pasadena)

Posted by Jared Baxter on 3/31/12 | tags: installation mixed-media sculpture

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