Jack Pierson: Traveling Show

at the Museum of Contemporary Art, through September 3

Hana Fechtner Golan

at Gallery 1633, through July 30

“Everybody is a narcissist,” Jack Pierson told an interviewer. “That’s why people can respond to my work.” His photograph Palm Springs, one of 37 photos, drawings, and installations now on view at the Museum of Contemporary art, addresses this matter more directly than artists typically do: it’s a frontal nude shot of Pierson, with a flowering bougainvillea in the background. But he hasn’t taken any special efforts to make himself look good–or bad. While his body is illuminated by the sunlight, much of his face is in shadow. His hair, bleached light blond, natural for the beach, seems out-of-place against the dark background leaves, and his nudity seems odd in this apparently residential area. His pose, with his shoulders tilted somewhat indifferently. is hardly that of the proud figures of Classical sculpture, but it does suggest sexual availability. Pierson’s narcissism is more complex than simple self-love: he gives us neither total glamour nor sordidness; his view that lies somewhere in between.

This photo, and the others on view with it in the exhibit’s initial room, have an oddly fugitive quality; in none does the photographer seem at home. And in fact, some were taken as Pierson traveled across country in the mid and late-80s, soon after graduating from art school. None are, by the conventions of art photography, particularly good images; they have the offhand compositions and technical “mistakes”–most of them planned, Pierson says–of the amateur snapshot. All seem incomplete, like pieces of a lost narrative that itself never came to a sensible conclusion. Two men, Pierson and his lover, eat a fast-food meal on the roof of a car in Drive-in Saturday; A Woman Left Lonely names a shot of an anonymous apartment-building entrance, no people visible, whose gray haze suggests it was the light-fogged first or last shot of a roll. Images and titles produce a powerful evocation of a sadly displaced world, in which little connects and everyone is ultimately alone.

These snapshots are enlarged to twenty by thirty inches and displayed in plain wooden frames which, compared to the photos, look positively elegant. Some Peaches is a “modern” still life: peaches, but also a milk carton. It’s badly out-of-focus, rendering the colors more sensuous, but on its own is hardly worthy of a great still-life painting. Its size and frame encourage careful viewing, but the unaccountable emotional charge it produces seems to come not from details of the image’s internal organization, its composition and colors. Rather, its size and framing make the act of looking at it into its true subject, as if the artist seeks to reclaim all those random scenes in ordinary kitchens that normally go unnoticed. Pierson, hardly a self-aggrandizing sort of narcissist, finds pleasure in simple eyesight. While acknowledging that the incomplete narratives suggested by these photos encourage viewer participation, because they have the ability to “become a part of someone else’s story,” he also declares that “One thing I feel I’m doing is giving equal value to everything.”

Well, almost. The woman in The Call Back is not just anyone, but a Lucille Ball look-alike. As she looks fetchingly into the camera while standing in front of the giant palm leaves that can make the southern California landscape look so absurd, we realize that these artificially watered plants are but another part of a culture which emphasizes surface appearances–that which can be captured in a photo or movie image–at the expense of all else. The woman we see may have a rich inner life, but that’s invisible here. She’s pert and pretty, yet the photo exudes an overwhelming sadness: what other humans could she ever connect with? Of what culture could she meaningfully be a part?

That’s a question that Pierson asks of himself in many of his works. He makes signs of used, pre-manufactured letters, some of the movie-marquee variety, purchased in junk shops. The plaintive words of Stay and Lost are each composed of several different types of letters, a mixture of styles that adds a typographical displacement to the signs’ messages. Display-sign lettering conjoins them with the world of advertising, acknowledging, as Pierson also has in an interview, American narcissism’s cultural context: it comes in part from the image-glut of our media-made world. Personal pleas take the form of advertisements for movie titles.

The most obvious of the several meanings that exhibition curator Dominic Molon teases out of Stay in his helpful catalog essay is “a simple plea for companionship,” and a number of other works in the show suggest that it’s addressed to an about-to-depart lover. In Paris Blues, a moody series of ten gouache and colored pencil drawings, the thick abstract ground of blues and blacks is both lushly sensuous and impossibly sad. There’s a bit of camp distancing here, in the use of blue coloring to depict a “blue” mood, yet the work carries a real emotional charge: by printing and then crossing out words, Pierson effectively conveys the way abandonment by a lover can lead to a mood of utter negation. In the first, “L’Amour” is written and crossed out; the fourth, which says “I was your man,” is followed by one in which the crossed out word “you” is repeated three times. In the eighth there’s a bit of word-play: we read “Good Bye” with the “good” crossed out. The four textless images, neither romantic or erotic, are line drawings of wasted time: a hand holding a cigarette, a table with ordinary objects, a palm full of capsules and pills. The resulting hint that wasn’t much “amour” to begin with gives the references to loss an added edge.

The “problem”, then, goes beyond the sorrow caused by the loss of a lover, to the emptiness within. The fact that the only explicit image of a romance is Drive-in Saturday, and that depictions of loss are frequent, can perhaps be explained in part by the work titled Self-portrait. Here we see not Pierson but a large collection of 50s magazine articles about James Dean–who, it should be said, is rumored to have been gay, though there’s no hint of that here. The headlines suggest some other reasons for Pierson’s identification with him: “Melancholy Genius;” “The Secret Love that Haunts Jimmy Dean.” By displacing his depiction of himself not onto the persona of Dean but onto magazine articles about him, Pierson portrays himself as doubly alienated, as a person whose self-image comes from media-made fictions. This is narcissism’s flip side: a primary focus on one’s self leads to a loss of that self.

This is cultural as well as personal. The strip of pale, pinkish-gray photos in The Golden Hour shows stars set into a famous Hollywood sidewalk, but with names not yet on them. Self-centered glamour is presented as a vacancy, no more interesting than the shadows of trees and people that fall across the sidewalk in a number of the photos, or the edges of curbs visible in others. Even more explicit is Silver Jackie with Blue Spotlight. Here a small empty plywood stage, paint faded and two cigarette butts carefully placed on it, is installed in a corner; on the walls behind are strips of glittery silver mylar. Red and white spotlights reflect off it, the light patterns changing as the viewer moves or as the mylar flaps about in the air; two bands of white lights amidst it go on and off periodically. It’s all rather beautiful to look at, a stage suitable for a star, but it too is empty, its glitter serving not to enhance anyone but to, like Pierson in Palm Springs, only display itself. I watched the shifting light patterns for a while, and found its light gentle, tenuous, and unassertive; it’s all too much like a child’s home-made theater to really glamorize a person who stood in front of it. I found myself thinking of the random fruit in Some Peaches: both works have an oddly hollow beauty. The vacancy at its center is a kind of homologue to Pierson’s absence from Self-portrait: a vision of the emptiness that underlies our culture of display.

Pierson’s works are effective not so much because “everybody is a narcissist,” but because he depicts narcissism less as a series of specific attractions than as a way of being. You don’t have to like his, or his boyfriend’s, body to be affected by his imagery. But his works are still about looking and being looked at, and are tied to his specific passions and sorrows. The five sculptures and three photographs by Hana Fechtner Golan at Gallery 1633 strive for something more transpersonal. The ladders that they center around serve as symbols of transformation, pointing upward, out of the physical art object. These are not works about ladders themselves, but about what they might suggest to the viewer, where they might lead.

Golan, a Prague native who fled the 1968 USSR invasion, has lived in the Chicago area since 1970. A painter who has gradually shifted to sculpture, she only began making ladder works recently. The first, an untitled work installed in the gallery’s garden, is constructed mostly of wood from a discarded pile she found. The rough, discolored, and irregularly shaped logs are lashed together with rope to make a ladder about 14 feet high; two tiny white androgynous figures climb its sides. First placed on a lakefront beach–the three photos document this installation–it was swept away by a storm the next day, and when it washed ashore the top rung was broken. Golan left it that way because the intent was to welcome “whatever happened as part of nature’s action,” but the effect is quite striking: as one’s eye follows this tenuously tied ladder upward it completely stop functioning at its top rung, even before it ends. Seeing its physical structure as limited in space, the viewer turns toward its symbolic import.

The way Golan combines acrylic paint with junk wood in the four smaller pieces also de-materializes her imagery, making it more symbolic than physical: the random gnarls and abrasions of wood scrap are shown to harbor the illusion of almost infinite depth. One of two works entitled Four Ladders is typical. A ladder, mounted separately on the wall, is nailed together out of thin flat wooden planks. To its right, a darker vertical wood piece has three images of ladders painted on it. All four ladders point upward, and the three painted ones are arranged vertically on the dark wood slab, each higher one smaller than the lower, so that they seem to trail off into the background. More significantly, all the ladders, including the constructed one, get narrower near the top; this forced perspective creates the illusion that they are receding in depth, ascending into the distance, contradicting the wood’s very visible rough surface. This effect is heightened by the fact that the white, gray and black paint used for the ladders is carefully modeled, hints of light and shadow suggesting that the sides and rungs are of round logs.

Thus on this irregular and discolored wood we see-three dimensional ladders trailing into some imagined distance, while the actual ladder beside them is relatively flat. Two of the painted ladders also cross a deep crack in the wood’s center, painted as if Golan is oblivious to this interruption. The painted ladders seem more “real” than the constructed one, which is precisely the point. These works direct one’s attention away from their physicality; the ladders are all meant as metaphors for movement, inner growth, transformation. If Pierson takes seeing and being seen as his subject, Golan takes the opposite road, searching for forms that will lead the viewer out of the world of daily, physical things, and hence out of the trap of the self.