Matthew Day Jackson: Against Nature
May 12 – July 1, 2023
New York City
The Dungeons and Dragons Monster Manual, a book on the work of Albert Bierstadt, René Daumal’s Mount Analogue, and Roy Gallant’s Our Universe are arranged along the front desk of Pace. While these books index the aesthetics of Matthew Day Jackson’s exhibition, it is Huysmans’s Against Nature that inspired the show’s title, and its protagonist, the isolated collector of extravagance Des Esseintes, who acts as its aegis. Jackson sees America as a vampiric Des Esseintes, a Midas that strip mines the Earth and leaves it without feeling or affect.
Against Nature is Jackson’s first show at Pace and his first show in New York in a decade. His last show Something Ancient, Something New, Something Stolen, Something Blue at Hauser & Wirth was criticized for both its seriousness and its “Wikipedia binge” of seemingly unrelated interests. The binge however, is a feature, not a flaw of Jackson’s work. In the ten years that have passed since that show, the attention economy of subreddits and wikis continue to circulate information within middlebrow forms. Jackson’s interest over the years in what more broadly can be characterized as the sublime, courses its way through a discussion board sense of the epic—scrolling through the monumental and microcosmic scales of r/science and galaxy brain memes. It is this shareable sublime and its binge, compressed through screens to be both the curio and the hyperobject, that Jackson searches through to find moments that produce an excess of history and meaning. Specifically, in Against Nature, Jackson is following the material traces of Manifest Destiny. The show begins with a cast footprint of a moonwalk—the ending point of America’s expansion, buried in trinitite, slowly releasing poison.
Jackson’s critique of America’s genocide of the West avoids didacticism by focusing on its aesthetic. In his series of wall works, Jackson recreates the paintings of the Hudson River Valley school as neon polychrome low relief slabs. Jackson isolates the notorious composition of the Hudson River Valley, the half-pipe that walks the viewer back, side-to-side, into the back of the painting and towards the horizon. He manufactures this scopic regime through a pastiche that combines natural elements (wood, lead, and bismuth) with unnatural synthetic materials known for their permanence and erosion of the environment: plastics, fiberglass, and polyurethane. In its uncomfortable synthesis, Jackson forms a complicated and dark ecology, a plastic husk that is both living and dead, which importantly, registers a blank affect. In works such as Sunrise on the Matterhorn (after Bierstadt) (2023), the psychedelic colors of Gallant fail to compromise the viewer’s critical suspicion, or induce the Romantic immersion. If it is fantasy, it is dead on arrival. Each work, regardless of material, feels more plastic than rare element.
What needs to be said is that the aesthetic languages of the sublime often share in the affects of kitsch. The infinity mirror, Art Deco, along with the platinum and bismuth futures that Jackson explores, can just as easily find themselves in immersive play museums and theme parks as they can in major collections and biennials. As a method of approach to the sublime, Jackson’ ‘s interest in science fiction creates another layer of difficulty. As the poet Andrew Joron has noted, science fiction became popular alongside the acceleration of consumer society. As we entered further into societies of spectacle, and found ourselves shifting from a production economy to a consumer identity of freedom and progress, we aestheticized progress for its utopic possibility. Science fiction represents a past’s understanding of what the future could produce. Within each past’s future, within each future skeleton, we are confronted with nostalgia as a critical device—specifically a memento mori of the past’s future dreams. When Jackson mines the texture and impact of Gallant’s Our Universe, we confront our childhood more than some experience of otherworldly escapism. Jackson’s work makes time capsules of these lost prophecies, entombing them in affect-less and static visions of Bierstadt and Moran.
It is also important to acknowledge Jackson’s use of vestigial languages. Low relief sculpture and Art Deco have both been sidelined as historical gimmicks–like lava lamps, they’ve never fully materialized to produce their own discourse. While science fiction presents a hauntology of human progress, Jackson encodes them in hauntologies of aesthetics. Each one structures the vision towards the landscape through fantasy, framing our desire and expectations to be immersed in the lack of future before us. Jackson’s works represent worlds we won’t be a part of, the unrealized futures of pasts that came at unjustifiable human cost. It’s a hollowed out and haunted Eden.