After winding through Newport Beach’s pristine main streets and upscale shopping centers, the sight of artist Richard Jackson’s recent commission- a 28-foot-tall black dog nonchalantly relieving itself against the Orange County Museum of Art (OCMA)- both shocks and intrigues. With his head cocked towards the sky and rear leg raised above telltale yellow paint dribbling down the building’s otherwise austere exterior, Bad Dog (2013) blatantly eschews the traditional formality of both the bourgeois environ and the institutional structure for a defiantly critical point of view. Moreover, as a humorous, yet disconcerting, publicity tactic pulled straight from the Barnum & Bailey Circus playbook, the work not only immediately proclaims Jackson’s outsider status to visitors, but also posits his first retrospective, Richard Jackson: Ain’t Painting a Pain, curated by OCMA Director Dennis Szakacs, as more than the average (read: stodgy) art historical enterprise.
Szakacs is quick to defend this atypical irreverence as befitting an artist who, despite practicing within Los Angeles since the 1970s, remains relatively unknown outside of the city’s inner art circle. For example, past installations of Jackson’s work, such as in Curator Paul Schimmel’s lauded survey, Helter Skelter: L.A. Art in the 1990s, at the Museum of Contemporary Art in 1992, only scraped the surface of his both prodigious influence and multidisciplinary approach. Consequently, Szakacs attempts to instate Jackson within the larger art historical canon through a monumental retrospective of site-specific commissions, reconstructions, and preparatory works.
However, while such an impressive and diverse checklist visually emphasizes what Szakacs considers Jackson’s “maverick” legacy, the curator does not wish to win the artist critical recognition through scale alone. Acknowledging his “little understood” conceptual background within the introductory statement, Szakacs also endeavors to canonize Jackson’s diverse practice through analyses of his rebellious methodology and theoretical questioning. Consequently, due to the numerous wall texts situated thoughtfully throughout the exhibition, the visitor encounters each work with a basic understanding of the essential dichotomy between Jackson’s predilection for Abstract Expressionist painting and his desire to expand such a masculine aesthetic beyond the medium’s two-dimensional support. This didactic curatorial technique enables each viewer to engage thoughtfully with the work and its context, therefore strengthening their understanding, and potential criticism, of Jackson’s overriding concerns regarding institutions and legacies.
Unfortunately, Szakacs’ persistent framing of Jackson as an unsung art hero materializes unclearly at times. His particular desire to consecrate the artist’s early, “revolutionary” work often finds expression through crowded gallery spaces and redundant installations. For example, multiple versions of the site-specific commission, Untitled (Project for Orange County), fill three of the four walls within the rectangular first gallery. A tongue-in-cheek homage to hard-edge painter Frank Stella’s more serious-minded protractor series of 1967-69, these messy, colorful “wall paintings” find Jackson playfully redefining the role of the canvas from surface to applicator. However, when placed alongside one another, their competing scales deafen the radical aesthetic of Jackson’s intended conceit. Moreover, the remaining fourth wall is dominated by an entirely unrelated work- a 2012 neon and acrylic language-based piece from which Szakacs mined the retrospective title. While interesting in regards to Szakacs’ curatorial mission, the piece feels lost amongst the grandiosity of the other installations and perhaps would work better closer to the exhibition entrance.
This congested sensation repeats sporadically throughout the following galleries. On one hand, Szakacs’ close hangings of Jackson’s both intricate preparatory drawings (1969-88) and the project 100 Drawings 1978 (1978) encourage an overall reading of these less monumental works as “significant… in their own right.” The repetition also emphasizes the magnitude of the artist’s vision and conceptual dedication. Meanwhile, the persistent emphasis on Jackson’s multidisciplinary practice distracts with the installation of 5050 Stacked Paintings (1980-2013). The piece consists of 5,050 painted canvases arranged with the geometrical precision of an ancient Mesopotamian ziggurat. While the resulting structure clearly visualizes the artist’s interest in merging painting with more sculptural and architectural tendencies, its experiential effect markedly decreases both within the constraining corner gallery space and alongside multiple preparatory drawings and models. Furthermore, either hung above eyesight or pushed awkwardly into a corner, these cramped, secondary pieces are difficult to view.
Fortunately, Szakacs allows for more space within the following gallery. Dedicated to a reconstruction of Jackson’s Untitled (Maze for Eugenia Butler Gallery, Los Angeles), 1970, Szakacs elegantly balances the room-size work with a single preparatory drawing and small-scale model. This permissive atmosphere enables the viewer to actively engage with the installation. Unencumbered by Szakacs’ subjective vision, the viewer may construct his or her own experiential interpretation of the maze. This personal connection resonates particularly with the work’s indexical quality; i.e. the footprints visible upon the path’s glossy, painted surface. Left behind by either Jackson or an earlier visitor, this understated element resonates with a strong bodily presence akin to the traces of cigarette ash often discovered on Jackson Pollock’s similarly dripping canvases. In this manner, the seedlings of Jackson’s own myth can be seen to take root within painting’s fertile substance.
This difficult balance, however, between adequate representation and interpretive space becomes obsolete within the subsequent galleries. Showcasing Jackson’s mechanization of the painting process from 1989 onwards, the second half of the representation witnesses a complete collapse of the institution’s previously inhibiting structure. For within such total environments as Deer Beer (1998), the viewer forcefully encounters the specter of Bad Dog’s shameless spectacle. One immediately notices a large, rotating pedestal upon which rests a cacophonous arrangement of decoy deer and a neon light blinking from “deer” to “beer.” The room’s patterned floor resembles a jigsaw puzzle while the walls feature neatly arranged canvases of hastily painted targets. Lines of splattered, color paint sully this pristine hanging job and quickly reveal the centerpiece’s true function as a painting machine. This realization inspires an uncanny sensation by forcing the viewer to slowly comprehend his or her precarious position within the machine’s range. Akin to the carnival funhouse’s distortion of reality, this, and such other mechanized installations as The Blue Room (2011), a voyeuristic reinterpretation of Picasso’s famed, monochromatic series, ultimately destabilize the viewer while questioning the assumed rigidity of institutional and socio-political frameworks.
Jackson’s simultaneous rejection of both the traditional white cube and the sanctity of the painterly gesture reveals a tangible dissatisfaction with the modern art canon as espoused by the notorious critic Clement Greenberg beginning in the 1960s. Greenberg’s championing of certain artists referenced within Jackson’s work, like Pollock, Stella, and Kenneth Noland, positively influenced their now-historical status. However, his fervent ideology conversely constricted the careers of those, like Jackson, invested in the radicalization of painting and sculpture beyond that achieved by the Abstract Expressionists. As specifically exemplified within Szakacs’ retrospective, from his early upheaval of the painted canvas to his current, mechanized spectacles, Jackson always flouted Greenberg’s staid emphasis on two-dimensionality and medium specificity. Instead, his defiant practice reveled in the theatricality also sharply renounced by the critic’s devout follower, the art historian Michael Fried.
In his 1967 essay “Art and Objecthood,” Fried condemns the anthropomorphic gestalt of Minimalism for its reliance upon the viewer’s physical experience. Predating theorist Douglas Crimp’s 1981 herald of Postmodernism and “The End of Painting,” Fried concludes that this shift from pictorial towards theatrical engagement ultimately threatens paintings livelihood- that “theater is now the negation of art.” Within the context of this heated ideological climate, Jackson’s unabashed theatrics appear especially poignant. His practice emerges not only as an emblematic critique of the difficult transition from modernism to postmodernism but it also reinterprets his rebellious antics as serious pursuits for free expression. While Szakacs contextualizes this poignant aesthetic development in terms of Greenbergian medium specificity, he fails to mention Fried’s notion of the theatrical. Such a gap in Jackson’s background seems remiss, especially when given the overwhelmingly dramatic environments within the retrospective’s second half.
Nevertheless, despite such historical lapses, Szakacs’ retrospective provides both a literally and conceptually engaging framework for encountering Richard Jackson’s diverse practice. While at times heavy-handed with the installation of the early preparatory works, his clear visualization of the artist’s trajectory from the canvas to the machine, or from the white cube to the funhouse, provides an illuminating survey of an underappreciated talent. Szakacs also more importantly succeeds in the difficult task of presenting “an index of Jackson’s inventive mind and versatile output.” Whether through the faint footprints of Untitled (Maze for Eugenia Butler Gallery, Los Angeles) or the fresh paint splatters of Deer Beer, Szakacs allows the artist’s presence to activate the work. In this manner, Richard Jackson: Ain’t Painting a Pain escapes the curator’s authoritative subjectivity for a momentous, ongoing dialogue between artist, institution, and visitor. Ultimately, Szakacs proves that like Bad Dog, the retrospective’s most personal and evocative installation, Richard Jackson has clearly left his mark.