Richard Jackson, The Little Girl’s Room

The Little Girl's Room, 2011, fiberglass, steel, stainless steel, mdf, acrylic on canvas, wood, rubber, motor, acrylic paint, 190 x 288 x 312 inches (482.6 x 731.5 x 792.5 cm)

I wondered, when visiting Richard Jackson’s recent exhibition, The Little Girl’s Room, at David Kordansky, just how angry this famously crabby artist must be? Jackson labored for some forty years hand crafting his sometimes huge painting installations – many of these were made to be exhibited only once and then destroyed. He always worked alone and supported his practice by taking on contracting jobs and working as a Mechanical Engineer – another profession for which Jackson-the-artist is trained. In the meanwhile he hunted, drank beer, taught young artists his versions of truth, and was signally ignored by the art world.

Especially in this, Jackson’s home town, he was left out of the conversation. After Rico Mizuno and Rosamund Felsen in the early 1980’s I don’t think Jackson showed again until Paul Schimmel curated him into Helter Skelter in 1992 at MOCA, and I believe this exhibition at David Kordansky may be his first gallery show since that time. I also think I am safe in saying that no Los Angeles museum owns work by Jackson, and certainly no institution owns a major work by this star in our firmament.

I can understand why Jackson might be angry – I’m disgusted on our behalf. What Jackson himself once said of the number of good ideas that a single artist has also applies to the number of great artists who live in any one city, “Not many.” Richard Jackson is one such artist.

But onward to the degrees of Richard Jackson’s anger.

The Little Girl's Room, 2011, (exterior view) fiberglass, steel, stainless steel, mdf, acrylic on canvas, wood, rubber, motor, acrylic paint, 190 x 288 x 312 inches (482.6 x 731.5 x 792.5 cm)

The Little Girl’s Room featured a canvas cube within the gallery’s main space, almost filling this space in fact. I visited first the day before the opening and was alone in the space. As I circled the exterior of this painting room I was occasionally pressed between the wall and the stretcher bars which held the canvas in place. In the 1970’s Jackson made navigable painting mazes – in some of these installations Jackson would paint an interior room, offering a visitor views inside through a series of cut-outs, in others fresh paint might line the corridor – forcing one to engage in an uncomfortable sort of union with the painted walls.

Jackson’s art has always been of an experiential, and sometimes a confrontational, nature; similar to his contemporaries Bruce Nauman, Dan Graham and the various artists who built environments where light altered one’s perceptions. Similar yes, but Richard Jackson mostly stayed true to painting and to paintings. He painted several rooms of an apartment in Pasadena, he invented wonky machines that created abstract paintings on the wall, in a piece from those earlier days that he revisits in the current MOCA show, Jackson stacked painted canvases hundreds high –  and at one early LACMA show he filled the Ahmanson Atrium with a sphere of piled up paintings so that it towered over everything. But it was still a painting.

It occurs to me that denial of an experience has also been a part of Jackson’s work over the years. In the mid 1980’s he had back-to-back two-room shows at Felsen’s gallery, he elaborately built out the rooms with plywood and/or painted them with wild designs and then allowed viewers to see only from a window – no entry was allowed. In the painting stacks, although he painted all the canvases himself and on site he then he squished them one atop another, blocking out all but their dripping edges. (And, as a matter of fact, he also built the supports for and stretched every one of what ultimately became thousands of paintings.)

In the recent exhibition some denial is at work, too. (By the way, this exhibition closed on October 19, 2011.) Upon entering the gallery, I saw only a stretched canvas cube-room whose walls reached almost to the ceiling, and from inside the room I could not see outside, except up. In both instances the entry door to the painting-room might be open, and this slender doorway reinforced the psychological divide between in and out. As I walked around the cube, watching the lovely tan canvas slip by me, I so wanted to peek inside – I imagined  climbing the walls, peering through a hoped-for crack,  or do something/anything to get a glimpse of what was being done in The Little Girl’s Room. The writing of this paragraph makes me awkward – like a hetero teenage boy fantasizing about spying on the girl’s locker room. Suddenly I remember watching the movie Porky’s and enjoying the famous Taliwacker scene, and the scene that followed with the girl grabbing the invading member.

This thought of teenage girls and humor humanizes Jackson’s current subject: the aforementioned “Little Girl,” and it also brings me to confess a whole bunch of creepy feelings that kept me from writing about his show until now.

The Little Girl's Room, 2011, (detail) fiberglass, steel, stainless steel, mdf, acrylic on canvas, wood, rubber, motor, acrylic paint, 190 x 288 x 312 inches (482.6 x 731.5 x 792.5 cm)

Jackson peopled his cube with shiny fiberglass sculptures: a pink unicorn standing on its horn whose genitals spray paint, a smiley-faced little girl hugging this horned horse, a clown hidden in an alcove with a hard-on, a popped jack-in-the-box whose head hangs from overhead pipes and whose box contains the pump that activated this hidden performance of squirting paint around the scene, a happy baby with bottles, a hobby horse, and oh – right, a bunch of Frank Stella Protactor paintings. All over dripping and flooding with red, yellow and blue paint.

Being inside a painting is a pretty rich thing, and being inside a painting that serves as a critique of painting is… gravy on top of meat.

The Little Girl's Room, 2011, (detail) fiberglass, steel, stainless steel, mdf, acrylic on canvas, wood, rubber, motor, acrylic paint, 190 x 288 x 312 inches (482.6 x 731.5 x 792.5 cm)

The young girl aspect of things is disturbing. Outside the main installation were several additional sculptures, each of which showed a child – and a baby – being sexually violated and used as painting-makers. I know that the verb aspect of Jackson’s work is important – I ran up against Jackson’s use of an active verb in Painting With Two Balls. But still, part of me can’t get away from Jackson’s depiction of childhood sexual abuse.

I wonder whether his anger is behind this work? I wonder if Jackson thinks to himself, “Fuck you. I put up with being ignored for years. I made great art during that time. I still make great art. Deal with this.”

I’m happy to deal with it – this show was beautiful and provocative and has kept me thinking for weeks now. I visited several times. I went back and looked at old catalogs, I looked again at the images on Kordansky’s website, I am and was truly amazed by my experience of walking around and inside Richard Jackson’s installation. Action is latent within Richard Jackson’s work – my mind is the only thing that makes anything happen – because it’s all there, or what is there is all that Jackson allows.

The rape of a girl by a unicorn’s horn and the blow-job-giving clear glass baby – well, if I can think of the actions depicted that they exist as channels rather than behaviors, if I think of these as channels for paint, then I think I understand that what Richard Jackson has been showing us all these years is how to make a painting. His materials begin in an equilibrium, they are acted upon and they move through a conductor: the artist, a glass baby, a merry-go-round of deer, etc., and so on; and then the paint dries. Finally we, the viewers, enter. If some of the stuff is still wet and gets on us, and we are made dirty… well?

David Kordansky Gallery website:

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