After returning from London where he opened his first solo show, Everything Leads to Another, at Hauser and Wirth (May 20 – July 30), Matthew Day Jackson came by the Rail’s headquarters to talk about his work, creative process, and drag racing plans with Artseen contributor Charles Schultz.
Charles Schultz (Rail): I think most people would consider you a sculptor, but you really came to that in your MFA program at the Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers. You were a printmaker and a painter before then, no?
Matthew Day Jackson: I went to the University of Washington in Seattle for my undergrad and I studied printmaking. After graduating I went to Los Angeles and worked at Gemini as a professional printmaker and was very lucky to meet many of the artists Gemini worked with, most notably Ed Ruscha, Robert Rauschenberg, and Richard Serra. I worked with Richard for about a year and a half while at Gemini, and those were really, really influential times. I started painting when I was in Los Angeles. I had never been taught how to paint. Kind of ironically I was never really taught how to make sculpture either. But I was accepted to Rutgers in painting and printmaking and the first thing that I did when I got there was throw everything away—this is a reoccurring theme throughout, even until now.
Rail: Who were some of the professors that had an impact on you at Rutgers?
Jackson: Hanneline Røgeberg and Thomas Nozkowski and Geoffrey Hendricks were really important to my development. Hanneline was a very important part of my education. I think she saw that I was extremely immature and kind of flailing about.
Rail: That’s not so uncommon. What kind of advice did she have for you? What made her so important?
Jackson: I think she had patience for me, and I like to think that she thought I was worth the patience. There are still things that came from her readings that are part of the work.
In hindsight I really saw the university as something to fight against, which was just an outward expression of my immaturity. This made me sort of un-fun to be around at times.
Rail: Did you come to New York straight after Rutgers?
Jackson: Actually I lived in Brooklyn for my last year at Rutgers. I found New Brunswick to be a pretty depressing place. Ironically, I lived in a totally depressing basement on North Seventh and Berry, underneath what is now a furniture store.
Rail: The sculptures you were making at that time were very craft oriented. Now—almost exactly a decade since you graduated from Rutgers—your work involves a lot of professional fabrication. Has that shift had an influence on your creative approach and process?
Jackson: Not really. I’ve always worked to the maximum of my ability—financially, spiritually, in terms of space, in terms of my physical energy, and all of those things in conjunction at any given point throughout my entire life. In terms of craft, it probably came from growing up around people that were really good at making stuff. My grandfather is an exceptional craftsman, my cousin Skip is a brilliant fabricator; he builds cars from the ground up. My mother is incredibly gifted at making things with her hands. There is a power to making things. On one level it just makes you feel good, like therapy or something, but at the same time when you make something, it’s a measure of proof that you exist.
Rail: I like what you’re saying about the idea of making art as a kind of claim on your existence. One of the things I’ve often thought about when looking at your work and its bountiful references to historic events and famous people is that this is a history you’re affected by. But the more I thought about it, the more I felt your work was not so much pointing to these things as it was claiming them. A statement like, “I’m affected by this history” becomes “this is my history,” and that’s much more empowering.
Jackson: I think “embody” is a better word. It’s not necessarily that I’m claiming history. It’s not even something that I’m truly cognizant of, necessarily. History is a part of every single action, every single thing that we do. We don’t choose it; it kind of chooses us. We are a product of our environment. I think that it’s a matter of seeing things in the world around me, things I read, a photograph on the Internet, things I see riding my bike down the street. There are these moments where its almost like a radar ping. In being who we are, we are constantly sending these signals out to the world, and when you start to get a signal back—that is the thing that’s acknowledging our presence, our vision. And at that moment, that’s the point when you’ve chosen it. We’ve sent the signal out, the signal comes back to us, and at that moment we embody history and as we send these signals out its just showing that we’re aware of doing so.
Rail: I think the idea of recognition is important because it plays heavily into what you’re saying about being aware. The more you open yourself up to different experiences, different perspectives, the more pings you can send out, and the more opportunity you have to be pinged back. But I’m not so sure that everyone realizes when they’re being pinged back. You really have to pay attention to what you are embodying, what is at the root of your motivations.
Jackson: That’s true. For me its preverbal, I can’t really quantify it in any other sense. Aware, present, passionate are all things required to maintain an open position. I can tell you where it started though. I think in 2000. There was a Damien Hirst show at Gagosian Gallery that I went to with my grandfather. We are extremely close, like best friends. We argue, argue, argue, argue, and then we’ll have dinner together—its really healthy. I learned so much about how to express who I am verbally through talking with my grandfather. So we went to the Damien Hirst show, and you know, I was pretty vulnerable as a graduate student. I was just beginning to grasp the immensity of the world that I wanted to participate in. Going to the Hirst show where the level of production is so extravagant and the mythos of the artist is practically palpable, everything in that space just gave me a “holy moly!” reaction. My grandpa was like, “What is that crap,” and I was like, “Yeah that sucks too, yeah you suck, that sucks, everything sucks.” And then when I walked out I was like, “Wait, that didn’t suck. Why did I feel that way?” Taste aside, art was something that I cared about. I felt I owed it to myself to give it serious attention rather than just falling back on simple knee-jerk reactions, which are motivated by comfort. So I forced myself to go back many times. I tried to involve myself in the conversation these objects had in relationship to one another. I read a lot about Damien Hirst and really got into it. In the end I actually found myself opened up rather than just reverting to knee jerk reactions and I’ve worked really hard ever since to maintain that openness. I think that is where awareness starts, with openness. Comfort is proof that the devil exists, and that comfort keeps you from being able to actually see or truly experience something. We come with these preconceived notions that we already know what it’s going to be, but we don’t. I mean this is still a struggle, a daily struggle. I’ll die trying to stay open.
Rail: I think there’s a fine line between discomfort, vulnerability, and insecurity. Insecurity shuts you down, but to be uncomfortable in a situation comes one step before insecurity. At that point you’re not yet self-consumed. It’s the opposite; you’re acutely aware of everything affecting you.
Jackson: Consider the base level. In an emergency situation, the very first thing that kicks in is our creativity. How do I get myself out of this situation? How do I get through it? Of course I don’t believe that’s the best use of creativity. I’m not necessarily saying you have to maintain this moment of discomfort, it’s not like that. But at the very beginning, to start understanding creativity, to start understanding the location of it, to start understanding its essence and its importance—maybe that begins with a traumatic experience.
Rail: When you talk about creativity having a starting point in trauma, Joseph Beuys comes to mind right away. His entire artistic career was born out of a mythic trauma: the “Tartar legend” or “Tartar myth.” Your work came into the popular conscience in 2005 with the Greater New York show and in 2006 with the Whitney Biennial. Those were traumatic years. Did that post-9/11 atmosphere of trauma influence your creative perspectives?
Jackson: No, not really. I think that the formative thing that came from that was the conversation of terrorism. What is terrorism? Who are terrorists? It forced me to look into the history of my country. There’s a large part of the foundation of this country that is born through terrorism. Think about our slave history, or the suppression of political organizations through the ’50s and late ’60s. There are levels of terror that aren’t the work of a band of religious zealots but by the same corporations and government that make up the foundation and backbone of our country. That’s what generated a lot of the earlier work.
Rail: One of your major sculptures from that time is “Sepulcher (Viking Burial Ship),” which was the start of what would become an ongoing series of—for lack of a better word—suicide pieces.
Jackson: They’re not really about suicide though. I mean, it was a willful death, but it was more like an exorcism. When I made that sculpture I wanted to make something that was at once a burial and was built entirely out of everything that I either lived with or made. I wanted to make something that was setting forth, if you think of Richard Serra’s verb list: to cut, to chop, to tear. I was thinking of the boat along the lines of how I learned prepositions as a small child: in the boat, under the boat, next to the boat. In that sense, the boat becomes a sort of locus of where I am in relationship to the ideas that revolve around it. It becomes a device to understand formal structure, to understand the formal aspects of making the sculpture that I was setting forth to make. It’s still an important piece actually. I guess I would say it’s central to my practice. Everything else that came from that is mobilized by that piece. I wanted to make something in the affirmative of what I felt sculpture should be, while at the same time casting away the artist that I no longer wanted to be. I was at once becoming and sort of falling away. And it was really new and exciting. I made it in my living room, and it felt urgent, like a thing that had to be made. I felt that it was a line that I had to draw in the sand, except I was the only person that was going to see whether or not I crossed the line, you know?
Rail: That piece does seem to have a profound sense of energy to it. I don’t know how it couldn’t considering all the personal material that you put into it. You mentioned that piece as a kind of touchstone for much of your later work. Has it all felt as essential?
Jackson: You know, I think that there are different levels of engagement, yet I see every single thing that I make or do as being as important as that. And I think that there will be people that will think that some things are more successful than others, but I don’t see it that way. I don’t make things to satisfy anybody other than myself, which I know is a bit selfish, and maybe ridiculous, but I want to maintain the intensity and the integrity of that initial experience.
Rail: Can you describe that intensity of experience?
Jackson: It’s like smoking crack. You make something and you’re like “whoa!” because it totally goes against everything you are comfortable with, or reveals something you have only seen in a dream. I can’t understate the power of that. But there is also a sense of awe or amazement. You say to yourself, “I, or we, made that and it was really special.” It’s a feeling that lasts about three and a half seconds, and then immediately you’re looking for that next fix and the only way to get it is to follow the formal strategy as set forth by all of the previous work. I think that you always have to follow that. I might be coming from the same nexus of thinking; I may be the same person and this is where the structure lies. In maintaining a fixed position of openness the work can change all the time. I also would say that each work is a failure, and to go about making the same work over and over again would be to live as a fool. It’s the search for that moment and the drive to always get better that are the prime motivators.
Rail: I think the Study Collection series is good example of that kind of change over time. The format is pretty standard—shelves on wall with objects on shelves—but every piece carries a different realm of objects, most of which were actually experiments that didn’t work out technically-speaking, but were still valid evidence of an effort and idea.
Jackson: Yeah, absolutely. But you have to remember that the Study Collections feature figure sculpture. I look at them as figures. The way that they are separated is basically by eight-foot units, which is the length of common lumber, plywood, or two-by-fours. I think of that unit in terms of a scale of one, as I would think of my own height as a scale of one. This could be thought of as an expression of the power of the individual, and the influence that individual has on the whole. This is a sort of constructivist notion. The way that all the shelves from top to bottom are divided is based on the basic structure of a human body. Head, torso, hips, femur, shins, feet. The objects on the shelves can relate to one another side by side, or maybe diagonally, but definitely in terms of thinking about the location of thought, the location of one’s soul, one’s libido, the parts of the body that give you support and mobility. But at the same time, the Study Collections are a cross section of the show, and a cross section of who I’ve become in making whatever show that was. And so I think of them also along the lines of self-portraiture, as if these sculptures are material facts of my becoming.
Rail: As if they mark a passage. It’s not exactly a state of “being,” but of “becoming,” which is kind of a liminal space, like a threshold. Would you agree?
Jackson: I am always on the threshold; we all are. So, since I kind of don’t believe in a here or there, I am always somewhere in between. It is sort of like this: I don’t believe in a masterpiece, and I don’t believe in epiphany. These would suggest, respectively, the end of learning, and perhaps a lack of attention. Life is an accumulation of everything, and it is all of this that informs our thinking. In trying to be open I recognize that the past is present, and as now happens it is subsumed into the mass of history. We live on the edge of the ever-expanding orb of history. “Becoming” is a place to be. Or “becoming” is the place to be.
Rail: That’s interesting. I’ve often thought of the Study Collection pieces as stem cells because they contain all the information, albeit in a highly concentrated form, of the histories and themes that are extrapolated in other works.
Jackson: Yeah, you could think of them that way. But do you know why they’re called Study Collections? In many museums there are parts of the collection that are called the study collection, which are available for academics and researchers to have an intimate relationship with a part of the collection. You can handle pieces of the study collection if you’re writing a paper, or whatever, and actually live with them—experience the object with your hands, without some sort of plastic barrier keeping you separate from it. Really, I hope that people would feel comfortable enough to just go up to the shelf and take parts off of it and investigate it for themselves. If you look, many of the supports aren’t permanently attached. Some of them are, but most of them are actually meant to be taken off, to be handled. It’s really interesting that that’s still a taboo: to handle art. It’s kind of funny. You know in a national park the only animal that’s not allowed off of the path is the human animal because, invariably, it’s going to fuck everything up. It’s a shame that it would be the same for art, but I’m kind of still figuring that out. We’ll see what happens.
Rail: This takes us to the idea of the archive. One of the things I’ve seen in your work, moving from “Sepulcher” to “Chariot” and “Chariot II” to one of your newest sculptures, “Axis Mundi,” is that they all either carry relics or are themselves composed of relics. They become vessels that carry, or embody, these different histories and ideas. Can you talk about how the idea of a relic fits into your work?
Jackson: The artifact or relic operates in the same way that reference does in my work. These are simply open doors through which people can enter the work and utilize their own knowledge to decode meaning in any of my work. So, whether it’s a Bruce Nauman reference or the real cockpit from a B-29 bomber, these are things that many people already understand. I love how this creates meanings that I never could have orchestrated, and is essentially an expression of faith not only in the work, but in the viewer as well. This is not how I think about it when I am working, as I am not concerned with the viewer because I could never guess what they like or what would hold their interest. The work will find its friends, which in turn directs me towards kindred spirits as well. I think this has much to do with the Drag Racing Team, not so much the car but rather a conversation of a sort of social sculpture.
Rail: Well, talking about race cars, I understand you’re a fourth generation driver in your family, however I think you may be the first artist to start a super comp dragster racing team as an art project.
Jackson: For me there is a connection here that goes back to seeing my cousin and my uncle’s shop. My cousin built I don’t even know how many racecars. And being around that, around somebody who knew exactly what he was doing—he’s not just a maker; he’s also a practitioner, and a damn good one! I always looked up to him. When I think about it, I really learned how to make much of what I call sculpture by going to his racing shop.
Rail: Will he have any part in the construction of the dragster you’ll be driving?
Jackson: No, he will have a sort of advisory role and is hopefully going to answer really important questions like: What do you do when you second-guess yourself? [Laughs.] He’s been a driving teacher for a very long time as well, so I’ll be calling him a lot to get whatever information I can get from him.
Rail: If I understand correctly, the car that you’re racing will eventually become a sculpture. Could you talk about what that transition means?
Jackson: Sure. I was thinking that as the car moves from the racetrack to the gallery that it transmutes all of its purpose from utility to meaning. If you think about a racecar, it has no extraneous parts. Every single nut and bolt is absolutely necessary. A successful sculpture is the same way; nothing is extraneous. And, so, when the car moves from the racetrack to the showing space—from a car to sculpture—you’ll be able to project this car in your imagination and understand what it’s made for based upon what it’s made of, the location of the materials in reference to the form, and what those things are telling you in terms of its meaning.
Rail: What about the team? You mentioned how the team might function as a kind of social sculpture. Can you talk about that aspect of this project?
Jackson: Well the drag racing team is a nonprofit organization. Any money that’s generated from this project is going to go directly into a grants organization. If the car sells as a sculpture, for instance, that money will go towards this organization. The grant will be a visionary grant, which I know sounds a little hokey but it’s not at all. It will be for people that are on the edge of thinking with regard to their practice, whether it be cooking, modern dance, poetry, art, science. And maybe there’s not an object, maybe there’s not a thing that they can sell, or anything like that. Basically I want to create a grant for people that are pushing our thinking further in any medium.
Rail: It all comes full circle in a sense. I mean, this project is inconceivable without a team of people. So it seems true to form that it would resolve itself in some kind of a community focused program.
Jackson: I think that for me there are moments where you feel very alone, like nobody understands what you’re doing, but it’s incredibly important to push through that. There are very few systems in the city of New York or in the United States in general that will foster the sort of bravery it requires to see through the pressure to fill the status quo. And I think that if I could do one thing that gives one person the feeling of validation, the chance to work out their ideas—that’s what I hope this is will create. The drag racing team is going to have many people involved and I’m totally open to whomever wants to join me. We have a team poet, we have a team photographer, a team video documentarian—we don’t have very many engine guys or gals [laughs]. I don’t know how it will work out; we’ll see what happens!
Rail: Indeed, we shall see. It seems like it has the potential to be a pretty transformative experience in a lot of different dimensions.
Jackson: Transformation, yes—almost certainly. I think of the whole transition as an expression of transmutation too, and this connects back to what we were saying with regard to pings and personal radar. A kind of transmutation, or maybe transference, happens when you’re walking down the street and something goes by you—an advertisement on a bus, let’s say—that makes you realize there’s a particular thing you’ve been wanting to make for a very long time, but you didn’t really know what that thing looked like until the bus passed by. And that’s the point when you realize that art needs to be made about it. I think that in terms of the transfer from utility to meaning, from racetrack to museum—that relationship is very, very clear. It has its own sense of balance, with its fulcrum point directly in the middle. But going back to what I was first saying about the influence of the outside world inspiring a certain part of one’s vision which then gets turned into or transmuted through one’s mind and hands into an object that’s a record of that experience—I’m not entirely sure where the fulcrum is on that.
Rail: What you’re describing is a pretty complex chain of association. This process no doubt repeats itself, but probably rarely in the same exact manner. It’s a bit like a learning curve. It’s a universal experience, not only different for everyone but usually different for the same person, depending on the situation.
Jackson: That’s true, and here’s the other thing: If I can see the outcome of what I’m setting forth, I lose interest in it almost immediately. I think that there is the idea of “learning through making,” which for me was inspired by Larry Bamburg, who is right up on the edge of what sculpture is today. Once the learning is done, the object is complete. It may not be a complete sculpture per se, but the learning experience is expressed. So then the viewer becomes involved in the process of learning. I’m very inspired by that idea, and part of the drag racing team comes straight from that inspiration. I’m heavily, maybe sometimes even to a fault, sort of seduced by some of my friends’ passion and inspiration, but whatever. That’s not a bad place to be.
Rail: Not at all.