Arts & Theater

Swashbuckling belief: Richard Jackson makes a splash but does his bad-boy act resonate?

Funny, vulgar or both? Why this artist’s ‘alleged paintings’ might surprise you

Artist Richard Jackson, a Sacramento native, shows some of his works in the “Big Ideas: Richard Jackson’s Alleged Paintings” exhibit, Friday, April 26, 2019, showing at the Crocker.
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Artist Richard Jackson, a Sacramento native, shows some of his works in the “Big Ideas: Richard Jackson’s Alleged Paintings” exhibit, Friday, April 26, 2019, showing at the Crocker.

Richard Jackson is one brash, bronco-busting, swashbuckler of an artist.

Spewing, smearing, splattering and literally shooting paint onto walls, floors, ceilings and larger-than-life figurative sculptures, he takes aim at the value systems of the art world and asks us to consider: what is painting?

Big Ideas: Richard Jackson’s Alleged Paintings at the Crocker Art Museum is a survey of Jackson’s major themes spanning a 60-year career that has long been acknowledged in Europe, yet has only recently gained wide recognition in the United States. Born in Sacramento, Jackson studied art and engineering at Sacramento State. In 1968 he moved to Los Angeles. Fast-forward 58 years and his aggressively ambitious work returns to the Crocker.

Abstract Expressionist painting was Richard Jackson’s first love affair. He was deeply affected by Jackson Pollock’s groundbreaking drip paintings and was mesmerized by a 1950 film of the pioneering painter flicking and drizzling paint in a dance-like studio reverie. Pollock’s tropes affirmed Jackson’s view that paintings are not just pictures; paint is a substance, an embodied element, and a liquid capable of activating space. It is not merely a tool for representational illusion.

Jackson came of age as an artist when Minimalism, Pop and Conceptual Art were eclipsing painting as the premier art form in post-war American art. He understood that to reboot the relevance of painting as something worth doing, he needed to invigorate its discourse by stripping it down to the bone. He developed a provocative portfolio of formal strategies to include performance, architecture, sculpture and, cunningly, engineered mechanical fabrications.

The show’s “1000 Pictures from 5050 Stacked Paintings,” 1980-2012, conceives of painting as sculpture – and an idea. 1000 Pictures is literally what the title says: a curving wall of 1000 paintings stacked 100 high and 10 stacks wide. It is nothing less than a monumental commitment to the idea that painting is first and foremost a plainspoken object. It’s also a monument to Jackson’s belief. Jackson does not phone his work in or job it out. He believes in painting as a process and action. And the man takes action, personally sawing, cutting and constructing every frame, over which he stretches, gessoes and paints every canvas. No false fronts, no shortcuts. Stacked wet and face-to-face, paint oozes from the crevices, a colorful mortar of pigment cementing Jackson’s belief that painting is first intention and a thing, made of bones of wood, skins of paint, beginning with the first draw of a saw.

“La Grande Jatte (after Georges Seurat),” 1992-2010, lays bare painting’s foundations. Jackson’s “unfinished” 11 x 16½-foot work unpacks Seurat’s iconic masterpiece and is literally seen from the ground up. Using a pellet gun to mimic Seurat’s pointillist dots of pigment, Jackson plugged away at the work for 18 years, only partially filling in the imagery. The pigment clusters around pencil lines, like ants to honey. The work’s stunning tactility, energy, and life come not from virtuoso technical facility and illusion but from Jackson’s skillful deployment of his open-handed process. The work is a drawing, a painting, and a wall, with the glint off a metal staple carrying the same charge as a plug of paint.

“Little Girl’s Room,” 2011 is arguably the exhibition’s centerpiece. It’s certainly the biggest, brashest, and theoretically, the most ideologically transgressive work in the show. Constructed of wall-sized canvases replicating Frank Stella’s late 1960s rainbow-colored targets, the work is viewed from a door-sized opening in the painted environment. Large dolls, paint tubes, giant baby bottles, overturned paint buckets and a hobbyhorse sprawl across the floor. An enormous fiberglass girl hugging an upside-down pink unicorn revolves on a pedestal in the center. Red, blue and yellow paint has been mechanically spewed from the unicorn’s penis and, taking Pollock to the next level, Jackson slings and splats paint over the whole chaotic scene. It is a frozen moment of anarchy. It’s also a fossil.

Art isn’t about virtue, community standards, or quotas, but the vaguely sexualized scenario of “Little Girl’s Room” is now wince-worthy in its sexism. Jackson’s skilled stagecraft has become another kind of set piece arguing against decorative art. He is from the historically privileged class of white male artists, such as Paul McCarthy, Mike Kelley, Jeff Koons and Julian Schnabel, whose financial backing subsidizes such grandstanding work.

Jackson is the quintessential Bad Boy. But is he? Just how badass can institutionally supported work be?

If you go

What: “Big Ideas: Richard Jackson’s Alleged Paintings”

Where: The Crocker Art Museum, 216 O Street

When: Now to August 25 (Note: the Crocker Art Museum is closed on Mondays.)

Tickets: $12 for adults, $8 for seniors, students and military, $6 for youth ages 6 to 17, and free for children 5 and under. Every third Sunday is Pay What You Wish Day. (Note: Some of the pieces in this exhibition may be considered inappropriate for young children.)

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