Gregory Jacobsen: Potatoland

at Zg, through January 3

Jack Earl

at Perimeter, through December 27

The centerpiece of Gregory Jacobsen’s show of 37 panel paintings at Zg is Teratoma Tower, which recalls Hieronymus Bosch: among its grotesque small creatures in a surreal landscape are a peanut-shaped blob with an erection and a tiny figure pulling a man’s intestines out through a slit in his stomach. But where Bosch’s paintings are suffused with the hard-edged certitude of early Renaissance art, Jacobsen’s are unabashedly sensual, subjective, and even celebratory: the painter obviously likes this stuff.

Last year Jacobsen showed somewhat similar paintings at Zg, but these are better: the colors are lighter, gentler, and more transparent, giving his forms a feeling of contingency. As before, he’s not fixated on any particular weirdness. Witness the variety of horrors in Teratoma Tower–a woman hauls a severed male head in a cart while an androgynous figure has a knife in its anus and its arms chopped off. A teratoma is a tumor that includes several types of tissue–such as hair, fat, muscle–and the many figures in Teratoma Tower are grouped around an accretion of undefined fleshy forms: a three-toed foot, an ejaculating penis. It’s all capped by a giant chocolate doughnut, emphasizing Jacobsen’s twin themes of food and flesh. Answering Bosch’s sacred vision of hell with a humorous assemblage that includes mass-culture and machine-age objects, he doesn’t so much comment on our society as expand his range of grotesqueries.

Jacobsen’s obviously sexual imagery includes not only sex organs themselves but phallic shapes. Big Boy Bulbous Birthday Platter, picturing another tower in a field, includes a pearlike fruit, fleshy gourd shapes, and a tongue; it’s all crowned by a sausage dripping with white “sauce,” a flying cupid next to it. The range of fanciful phallic shapes, flat surfaces, and orifices creates the feeling that any form suggests and can be transmuted into any other form. Applying his paint in thin layers, Jacobsen gives his colors a sensual glow that helps diffuse solidity, adding to the sense that his subjects are transformable.

Born in 1976 in Middlesex, New Jersey, Jacobsen said in an interview in Mouth to Mouth that he lived near a street where “it seemed like every factory blew up” and two blocks from a “junkyard” where radioactive dirt was buried. “There was also a company upstream on the Raritan that would dump all this shit in the river every couple of years, and it would run down into our neighborhood pond and kill all the ducks and fish.” He also hung out with “hooligans,” including one who made several failed attempts to kill a neighbor’s chickens.

Jacobsen identifies a wide range of influences: his Catholic upbringing; Aleister Crowley’s pornographic novel Snowdrops From a Curate’s Garden; Bosch; the comics of R. Crumb, Mark Beyer, and Kaz; Francis Bacon; Gertrude Stein; Captain Beefheart. Now a Chicagoan–he moved here in 1994 to attend the School of the Art Institute–Jacobsen performs with a group called Lovely Little Girls. He likes to dress in women’s clothes, on the street as well as in performances, without going through the other steps, such as applying makeup, that would represent full drag. “I really like strong sexuality in people,” he said in the interview. “But I also don’t like the extreme postures of being macho or ladylike.”

In addition to obscuring the line between male and female, Jacobsen blurs the distinctions between humans, animals, and plants, in keeping with a tradition that runs throughout much “primitive” art. In Fancy Meats Curled Upward a duck with bulbous legs and feathers on its arms wears girlie shoes and socks, and there’s a strong suggestion of female genitalia in the crease in its panties and protruding pubic hair. The rich blue of the sky behind it is reflected in the light blue of the feathers, creating a chromatic continuity that obscures the distinction between figure and ground, creature and landscape.

The foreground image of Soiled Cherry Pie is particularly grotesque: two headless part-human and part-chicken figures are copulating. And as the title and spatters of blood and shit indicate, one of them is losing her cherry, though both are wearing women’s shoes. Behind them we see a green field under a blue sky through a window, the upper pane painted with diagonal white lines to indicate glass, the lower one presumably open. And the window feels like an opening–the colors outdoors are different from those inside, the textures of the land and sky gentler than the figures’ mottled orange and yellow ridged skin. The window offers the suggestion that these figures might also become something else: however hellish a particular form might seem, particulars are never fixed.

Jack Earl is a generation older than Jacobsen–he was born in Ohio in 1934 and lives there today–and his work has none of Jacobsen’s overt sexuality. But in other ways they’re kindred spirits. While both went to art school–and Earl taught art for many years–their work has some of the rough-edged originality of outsider art. And both display a wry humor based on undercutting human privilege: neither views us as distinctly superior to the rest of creation.

Earl’s eight ceramic sculptures at Perimeter (there are also two drawings) are of two types. In his five portrait busts, the head is shaped and colored to resemble a large rock, conflating animate and inanimate and suggesting that our species may not be quite the geniuses we think. Steely Eyed Stoneman has large metal bolts for eyes and only a squiggle for a mouth; clad in jacket and tie, he looks blind, mute, and appealingly stupid. The dog’s head on his tie has a more sentient face than he does, and his jacket and shirt are delicately colored: the jacket in many shades of red and orange, and the shirt in fuzzy light blues reminiscent of sky. In Stoneman With Five Senses, each of five pickles represents one of the figure’s eyes, his nose, his mouth, an ear, and one finger. Using a preserved rather than fresh vegetable to represent the senses offers a doubly mordant comment on humans as zombies. Once again the color of the shirt is a blurry pattern of light and dark blues, softening the sculptural shape just as Jacobsen softens his troubling paintings with gentle, translucent hues.

Earl’s other three sculptures also undercut the supposed superiority of human beings. In Love at First Sight, a dog on a pedestal shaped and colored like jeans faces a figure whose bottom half is a girl in a skirt while its top resembles a large bone. Earl festoons the base of this sculpture with cans, bricks, and other detritus colored in a gentle light pink. Edifice in Process is a large tower crisscrossed by boards and filled with junk, including a paint can, as well as several resting workmen; it’s crowned by a classical column perched at a precarious angle. But what’s most interesting here is Earl’s use of negative space: like his suggestive, soft colors, the sculpture’s gaps undercut its form and add mystery.