CREATIVE PEAKS: Skin Deep
Peeling away the layers of a new exhibit by Matthew Day Jackson.
JACKSON HOLE, WY – I wanted to get close to the skin. The hanging flayed skin, that is, on view at the opening of the companion art exhibit to Rural Violence III. It was a thick membrane and its pallor said it hadn’t had blood and muscle underneath it for a very long time.
Hanging from a tree branch affixed to the wall, the skin, or “Bartholomew,” was a creation by Matthew Day Jackson, an artist known in part for his unsparing investigation of the human form. Jackson was in attendance that night and when we were introduced, I told him that I was sufficiently creeped out by the flaccid human likeness.
“Oh really? I think it’s kind of sweet,” he replied. “It’s a sort of devotional to Michelangelo.”
As I pried my foot out of my mouth I remembered what curator and artist Andy Kincaid had told me about “Bartholomew.” It is based on Michelangelo’s painting on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel where Saint Bartholomew appears holding his own flayed skin. However, Michelangelo painted the skin in his own likeness.
In his version, Jackson imagined skinning a human to be a piecemeal job (rather than the unmarred skin dangling from St. Bartholomew’s grasp in the Sistine Chapel.) Jackson’s figure is sewn together with colored thread. The facial features are distinctive and the skin has hair on the legs, arms, belly and head. It’s a striking piece and the longer I stood with it the more familiar it felt, like a costume I wouldn’t mind donning.
I caught up with Jackson several days later. He keeps a low profile but is an artist of significant merit. The New York Times called him “one of the art world’s most ambitious talents.” His work has been shown in the Whitney Biennial, Ballroom Marfa, and in galleries around the world. He and his family moved to Wilson two years ago.
“When you decide to be an artist, you try on the skin of other artists, maybe to finish something they started or continue a trajectory,” he said. “There’s something about—trying on that flayed skin—that is more in the realm of masturbation.”
On this day, Jackson expressed another side to “Bartholomew” that wasn’t so sweet as what he had indicated the night I met him at the opening.
“Trying Michelangelo’s skin on? Even if you knew how to hold the tool,” Jackson continued, “you couldn’t turn the stone to flesh. There’s no one alive who can do that.”
Getting under the skin has been a theme threading through Jackson’s work for many years. One notable body of work is his mixed media paintings depicting TIME magazine covers. The covers’ colors are often altered and appear sand blasted and eroded. One striking piece of Ronald Reagan laughing but with his lips worn away is entitled “Man with No Lips (Aside from being a total Dick, Ronald Reagan is a Good ol’ Boy).”
The day I spoke to him, Jackson was angry about another Republican politician, this one a presidential candidate every bit the showman Reagan was but meaner. Jackson said his anger about The Donald is coming out in his work.
“I took a plywood board and shot out the center,” Jackson said. “It’s this violent, fucked up place we are in as a nation. We made that guy—it’s our laziness and complacency and resignation.”
When The New York Times Style Magazine profiled Jackson in 2013, Matt Healy wrote: “There’s something unmistakably masculine and American about Jackson’s artistic pursuits: bending and conjoining and manipulating material, forcing his will upon it, in order to comment on the blood lust and destruction baked into American history, a past he believes we are, on one level or another, still implicated in.”
It’s for this reason that I expected Jackson’s work to make me uncomfortable or disgusted. But I was quickly learning there may be another way to look at art we typically think of as masculine—a flayed skin, a shot up board. It was vulnerable.
“‘Bartholomew’ is also sweet,” Jackson said. “It’s both—like how you love your parents. They are fallible and they fuck up and you loved them. Art should be complicated like that too.”
In a symbolic sense, skin represents what we keep inside, what we hide; skin on an animal is called a hide. Jackson says he has been thinking about how personal boundaries have shifted with social media. “The things that we feel have become deeper because we share so much more of ourselves than people used to,” he said.
The artist’s job, Day continued, is to recognize one’s feelings and be able to convey them. “Being an artist is about articulating feelings and your ability to see,” he said. “It’s up to artists to separate the feeling from its body. Like an anatomist.”
“Bartholomew” is one of five startling artworks on view at Holiday Forever, an artist run space on Cache Street. The show includes a difficult-to-watch video by Matthew Barney (Cremaster Cycle) excising ingrown hair. Also on view is a drawing by Lionel Maunz of a young child with a skin disease. Jackson has a 2-D piece on display. Barney also contributed a delicate drawing of a boy holding the skin of a wolf. PJH
Holiday Forever is open by appointment, email email@example.com.