Richard Jackson: Ain’t Painting a Pain

Review by Merideth Hillbrand




“Now a lot of artists don’t make anything themselves and the most useful tool in the studio is not the cordless drill, it’s the cordless phone. They are on the phone all day begging for money or telling people what to do. That’s not the way I choose to spend my time.”


I remember first meeting Richard Jackson.


It was in a dark room of a bar on the brink of closing. A red light glow emanated from behind the liquor bottles being counted, stacked, rearranged, not opened or served. A thirst unquenched. He talked about many things in those initial sixty minutes, but what really caught my attention was his hatred for the windmills. The fields of windmills you would see driving into the desert, or along the hills off the 5 freeway after miles and miles of blonde hills in the summer. Having been a child raised in California, I was taught to love the windmills. They were a monumental symbol for the progression of energy in the ’90s landscape of California. In the windmills was our future: here the groves of wind in the desert hugging the freeway as if they are placed for the passerby enjoyment. And yet here is Richard Jackson, asking the question: who really likes those things anyway? As if the windmills could be more beautiful than the view of the landscape they so savagely destroy. Who gets to decide what is aesthetically pleasing? The disapproval of the windmills became the disapproval of the object as an answer to the problem. As if they even do anything other than be a three-dimensional placeholder for a grand narrative of a societal desire.


As an undergrad student, my art school’s library was having its annual sale of degenerate books. A yearly purge of the lesser checked out titles. There was a library bound blue book—reminiscent of YKB, Picasso’s blue period, primary blue– it’s title in an embossed white font What’s so American about American Art?




Richard Jackson Ain’t Painting a Pain OCMA exhibition catalog neatly lays out several essays that both educate a viewer of the academic and historic relevance of his oeuvre as well as presenting a portrait of the man himself. The essays highlight the references Jackson makes in his work to art history, references that are both comrades of Jackson and influences from the past, centering him in a history of painting, performance, action and sculpture. The histories aren’t always those that quite fit into the Grand Narrative of art history—even if—nonetheless—the protagonists are the same. Philippe Van Cauteren reads Jackson through “a ‘conceptual baroque’ filter in which his monumentality is measured on the scale of the artist and not on that of art history. In Dennis Szakacs’ essay there is an anecdote from Bruce Nauman as relayed to him from Nauman’s assistant: “The camaraderie of the Jackson clan during those trips made a lasting impression on Nauman, who recalls eating the heart and liver of a freshly killed deer and the vivid sight of deer carcasses hanging from trees.” The hunter-gatherer in Jackson reflects back at these histories, creating his own references and rearranging the carcasses of the masters.


“It’s about independence. It’s an American thing, you now, ‘This whole son-of-a-bitch is mine and I don’t need any help.’ And you’re not going to get any help, which is also very American! The United States can go to the moon but what can an individual do? I’m more interested in the kind of person who wants to go to the moon on their own.”

Jackson’s work makes visible aspects of action and artistic gesture not historically idolized but nonetheless intellectually important. His work is a gesture towards the importance of the artist, not the market, in deciding what is important and relevant for art, in a historical context and in a contemporary context. The labors of experiment aren’t a capital relation where time connotes money, but a space for the individual. Visually the book highlights Jackson’s architectural drawings of painted environments, some of canvases on the walls some of nearly inconceivable stacked drawing mazes. There is both humor and utter horror in imagining “5050 Stacked Paintings” existing: as a zig-zag staircase, as a mobius strip or as the first step in Jacob’s ladder. Also along Jackson’s poignant humor are sketches for painting ideas all graded on their realistic practicality. A+ denotes anything easily producible, F for the more complicated and abstract ideas; F as in good job, F for flying to the moon alone. The Jacksonian work ethic and sense of individualism acts as a metaphoric mantra that becomes a reality. If you keep the drill in hand whose going to pay you, if you keep the phone in hand what happens when they stop picking up? The artists’ lifestyle dictates their history, how one chooses to spend one’s time determines how one’s use of time is perceived, so why shouldn’t it dictate art history as well. The last time I saw Jackson, his wife, Alberta, kindly handed me a purple round pin, written in scripted yellow letters following the edge of the circle was the word: BULLSHIT.


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Dennis Szakacs, ed., Richard Jackson: Ain’t Painting a Pain (Prestel,  2013)
Images: Cover and interior images from Richard Jackson: Ain’t Painting a Pain: The Little Girl’s Room and Painting with Two Balls.