L.A. Expanded: Notes from the West Coast
A weekly column by Catherine Wagley
Some Other Spring, the title of Jack Pierson’s current exhibition at Regen Projects, is also the title of a characteristically sultry but otherwise unremarkable Billie Holiday single. In it, Holiday mourns lost love in a way that’s lushly comfortable and totally unmotivated, clinging to “faded blossoms” that have been “crushed and torn.” Maybe she’ll love again or maybe not. She’s in no hurry.
Pierson’s not hurrying either. He’s not hurrying to make the lonely, clichéd loveliness of his photographs and text pieces go anywhere, and he’s not hurrying to assert himself as an artist, though, to be fair, at this point in his career, he doesn’t need to. An all-of-a-piece exhibition, Some Other Spring feels like Visconti’s Death in Venice might have felt had it abandoned its narrative and taken place in a pocket of Miami where everyone wears designer jeans and ventures out in private yachts at will: hazily unspecific, inexplicably banal and still somehow painful to watch.
Pierson, along with Nan Goldin, Philip-Lorca diCorcia and the late Mark Morrisroe, was one of the young Bostonians (they’re known as The Boston School, actually, but the James reference works—these artists were Sentimental Realists) credited with creating the “snapshot aesthetic” in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. It’s a funny distinction, because, of course, as soon as you turn a snapshot into an aesthetic, everything snappish about it disappears.
Goldin made a fetish out of togetherness, depicting people clawing at each other—usually metaphorically, sometimes actually—in hopes of finding themselves, while diCorcia honed in on aloneness, often depicting concisely lit people lost in the surreal space of self-hood. Morrisroe was the Julia Margaret Cameron of punk; his softly posed bodies lounged, bent or sprawled near the center of nostalgically blurred prints. But Pierson wasn’t after the truth that lurked behind the moment. He made, and still makes, images that, except for a specific, vintage sense of color he’s never been able to escape, looked un-authored and un-directed. This approach, paradoxically, has led to an all-over-the-map body of work that probably gets closer to the snapshot’s insincerity than anything else: self-portraits (often of youngish, naked boys, never of Pierson), overexposed hallways and ashtrays, sexy roses and guileless text pieces that say haphazard things like “Blue” or “Palm Trees.”
This expansiveness doesn’t make Pierson the hero of The Boston School. If anything, it makes him the anti-hero, the one who decided living in the luxurious space of ambiguity was worth the danger of never saying anything legible about the way life feels.
At Regen Projects, Pierson’s staggered photographs and text pieces command the physical space of the walls with a forcefulness that belies their discordant content. The first larger room includes 15 photographic prints, creased in a willful way that makes them look less-than precious, and two sculptures.
With the exception of an artfully limbless marble torso, the room includes only one body, the too-smooth-for-comfort figure of a 20-something poster boy who bends over as if in a leg-shaving ad. But, even if they’re not portraits, the rest of the images portray other lives. Pierson maintains the distance of a bystander, who, on a long vacation, stops to snap things that he suspects matter to people he’s met, or hopes might matter to him someday. The weirdly disengaged result contradicts the exquisite execution of each print. In one image of a tombstone, the words “God is Love,” written in small script, float just above, but not in, the image’s hottest spot. In another, of a boat stern, the mast precariously dissects a perfect blue sky.
The words “The Moon” hang on the back wall of the second gallery. Pierson’s text pieces always feel like stream-of-consciousness from a pithy mind. This particular one evokes small town signage, though each off-kilter letter would’ve had to come from a different Mid-America Diner. The images that flank “The Moon” feature palm trees, clouds, window sills and latticed patterns. They’re uninteresting to an extreme but precisely suited to one other. The balance between emptiness and perfectness that runs through this room and the rest of the exhibition almost hurts; it’s like looking at a gourmet spread and feeling desire without hunger, but wanting to feel both and not understanding how the two could disassociate.
As an epigraph to a 2006 essay about Pierson, curator Richard Marshall quoted Susan Sontag: “Boredom is just the reverse side of fascination: both depend on being outside rather than inside the situation, and one leads to the other.” Replace boring with banal and fascinating with consequential and that seems about right, except that, in Pierson’s work, it’s not about moving from banality to consequence and back again. It’s about making the two totally indistinguishable.