Jack Pierson lives in a glamorous world. There are no gossip columns or paparazzi photos to prove this, but somehow viewers of his art are led to believe so. His diverse body of works—drawings, photographs, found-object sculptures, and installations—is autobiographical only in oblique ways, gently beckoning viewers to construct their own fantasies around them. Call it the glamour of the ordinary and prosaic, of anonymous scruffy young men, random landscapes infused with heart-achingly lurid colors, and textual scraps of unfinished sentences full of melancholy echoes. Though not entirely correct, there is a certain logic in the frequently drawn comparison between Pierson’s art and the hustler’s wanderlust in the writings of Jack Kerouac.
Silver Jackie with Pink Spot (1991), one of Pierson’s early installation works, occupies a corner in the gallery. A simple combination of a black plywood platform and strips of silver Mylar, it conjures up a makeshift performance stage, no bigger than four-by-four and barely large enough to bust a move on. Christmas lights hiding behind the curtains emit little pings of reflection on the silver, and a pink spotlight adds a sense of titillation. Two cigarette butts have been casually left on the stage, jogging viewers’ curiosity about the absent body: has she or he left for the night, or walked through the curtains never to look back? Although Pierson claims a post-Minimalist relevance for the work, calling it “a descendant of [Robert] Smithson or [Richard] Serra,” it is difficult not to think of it as a Warholian creature. For the name “Jackie,” in most people’s minds, is automatically associated with that most recognizable cultural icon, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, whose sophisticated, revered public persona Andy Warhol immortalized in numerous silkscreen paintings. But “jackie” is another culturally specific reference: an older, derogatory street term for a gay man. Pierson remembered a scene in John Schlesinger’s 1969 film Midnight Cowboy in which Ratso (Dustin Hoffman) says to Joe Buck (Jon Voight), “In that cowboy getup you look like every jackie out on 42nd Street.”1 When Pierson created the piece, his studio happened to be located on 42nd Street in Manhattan.
Photography, a medium he has employed regularly, creates equally rich associations, but in these works, the stories turn out to be even less revealing. Rather, they are fleeting moments of light, shadow, and hues that burn melancholy impressions on the negatives. Frankie & Johnny (1996), an enlarged photograph printed on canvas in acrylic lacquer, is a grainy, blurred image of a chain-link fence and ethereal foliage. The title is borrowed from an old folk song revived and reinterpreted over the years by singers such as Johnny Cash, Sam Cooke, and Van Morrison.
It is knowing muteness and insouciant detachment that are the source of Pierson’s lyricism and that also make his work “insidious,” as it manages to “get under your skin while pretending not to have any agenda.” Another work in the Walker Art Center collection, Beauty (1995), is a sculpture made out of old marquee letters he scavenged in junk shops. Mismatched and scuffed, they literally spell the word without embodying any conventional vision of it. Pierson, claiming to be “inundated by the media,” perhaps sees his polymorphous body of works as a tangent to, or an integral part of, the large mediated visual world in which we live, breathe, and fantasize.2 What his art seeks to do, then, is to find dimensions of beauty that are utterly of the moment—casual, wispy, and unexpectedly enduring.
All quotes in this paragraph are from Pierson’s artist’s statement, January 3, 1998 (Walker Art Center Archives). The line from Midnight Cowboy is as remembered by the artist. ↩
All quotes in this paragraph are from Jack Pierson, interview with Veralyn Behenna, “Jack Pierson: Little Triumphs of the Real,” Flash Art 27, no. 175 (March/April 1994): 90. ↩