“In the shadow of a big tree, another tree cannot grow.” — Constantin Brancusi’s reply to his mentor, Rodin, when Rodin suggested that Brancusi become his assistant

Throughout Paradise NOW! Matthew Day Jackson begs, borrows and steals from a variety of sources, among them Dorothy Iannone, Constantin Brancusi, Iron Eyes Cody, the Black Power movement, his mother, the Jackson family homestead in Malmo, Nebraska and, if my suspicions are founded, the Rebuilding Center right here in Portland. These disparate sources coalesce into an exhibition that unfolds like the whirlwind trips through history offered by “credible” institutions and tourist traps alike.
Jackson’s press release indicates that he “expunges the sins of the past while wrestling history’s demons to the ground.” Apparently, making his mom look silly is integral to this process. I made the decision to begin my tour of Paradise NOW! in the small annex off the main space which forms a sort of video art cave. I consider the bulk of video art to be an esoteric form of torture, so I ensconced myself in the video annex with a certain gritting of the teeth, determined to watch each video all the way through, regardless of length, editing or lack thereof, quality of image etc. It took 13 minutes for Jackson’s mother to sufficiently beseech some nebulous “powers” of the four cardinal directions to bless her son’s art, while outfitted in a purple batik wrap over classic mom wear–a pink t-shirt, sweatpants and sneakers. Jackson’s mom is perhaps the most archetypal American mother imaginable. She appears to be middle-class, middle-aged, middlebrow, of average length and width for a woman of her 50-odd years. She recites the lines of her incantation with a seriousness that makes you believe she means it, but with a lightness that suggests that her performance was motivated more by an accepting, slightly indulgent love for her artist son than personal compulsion. She brings to mind the phenomenon of empty-nest homemakers taking up New Age spirituality and the awkward way white Americans of Christianity-influenced cultural backgrounds interpret some of the more intuitive religions of foreign cultures, arranging an office cubicle according to the principles of Feng Shui and such. I had to assume that any artist who possesses the sophistication necessary to land a slot in the Whitney Biennial also has a finely tuned sense of irony in his conceptual toolbox, whether or not he chooses to create art using it, and is thus aware that his mother, an endearing but supremely unromantic figure, looks a little absurd self-consciously performing a sacred ritual in sneakers. Her role, however, is complicated and deepened by the video’s relationship to the rest of the female figures in the show.
Jackson begins the exhibition with his first art purchase, a print entitled Statue of Liberty, by renowned German artist Dorothy Ianonne, showing the titular sculpture reinterpreted as a naked goddess figure with undescended testicles and a rather phallic torch along with the words to the well-known, unrealistically idealistic poem engraved in the statue’s base–”give me your tired, your poor, etc…” Jackson has photocopied a fax from Iannone giving him her blessing to include the print in the show and praising his work in a upbeat maternal tone broken only by her admission of having recently caught a “dreadful flu.” Jackson also shows a large-scale photograph of a female figure in a wooded area clearly inspired by Ianonne’s print. This woman holds a crystal-topped staff in place of a torch and she has her eyes closed with open eyes painted on her eyelids. This metaphorical mask and magic wand indicate that the dumpy figure is a source of mysterious spiritual power, while her trendy blond twig keeps consumer culture in the picture.
The other video, also clocking in at 13 minutes, stars a man whom I assume to be Jackson himself. He plays both the careless litterer (read: colonialist) and the soulful Native litter victim in a surreal retelling of the classic public service announcement Keep America Beautiful, in which litter provokes a single tear from an otherwise stoic Native American. Or does it? My research revealed that this PSA stars the ironically named Iron Eyes Cody, a man who passed as Native American and acted in scores of Hollywood films before an investigative report by the New Orleans Times-Picayune revealed that his real name was Espera DeCorti, that he was the son of Sicilian immigrants, and that the background he’d invented for himself was a myth. Jackson manages to present a multilayered critique of the way both Native American people and Native American identity have been used by the white man for a wide range of purposes from the horrific to the banal. Throughout the installation, Jackson makes a point of implicating himself in the racial crimes of the past. He points a wooden cannon at a figure identified as a Native American Chief; the barrel is a rotting pillar from his family’s Nebraska homestead. I was inspired to consider the storied history of the name Jackson in America–Andrew Jackson, Stonewall Jackson, Michael Jackson, Samuel L. Jackson…..oh wait, those are slave names. Suddenly the Black Power fists scattered throughout the installation made a little more sense. Jackson is trying to cleanse his karma. He sees the angry ghosts of racial injustice murmuring just below the surface of our increasingly Rome-like empire. A photograph of a black fist attached to a multicolored wooden arm emerging from a pile of charred wood while a mushroom cloud explodes in the background illustrates this idea with a clarity that’s a little heavy-handed.
The whole installation is a little bit Kountry Kosy. There’s a lot of unstained wood–a wooden boardwalk, vaguely native woodcrafts, huge pieces of driftwood, a framed picture of a log-cabin fort in the woods. If you ignore the electric ghosts writhing in the foreground of that image, along with a few other sour notes, the installation feels like the kind of place you pull up to after hours on the freeway to stretch and pick up a cup of weak coffee. But what’s Brancusi’s Sleeping Muse doing here? With a spike through its head? Or his Bird in Space cleverly camouflaged as a multicolored piece of wood? To tell you the truth, I don’t know. It probably has something to do with appropriation. Here, as always, Brancusi’s forms look great and Jackson employs them to striking visual effect.
The PSA video ends with a scene in which Jackson lights some torches in an empty warehouse. As the space darkens, we watch them slowly flare and burn out into pairs of white dots…we are in a sweatlodge, we are being watched by the eyes of our ancestors and the ancestors of those whom our ancestors fought. It sets a meditative mood, and, had I entered the video room last, I would have spent it meditating on the way the different groups that comprise my genetic stock exploited and were exploited by one another. But, since I entered the video room first, I spent it wondering about Matthew Day Jackson’s relationship with his mother.
Paradise NOW! is open Wed. – Sat. 12-6 through October 7, along with The American War, several works of video art and a mysterious cross-cultural homage to the aesthetic of the shut-in that delivers yet another rebuttal to Clement Greenberg’s lofty ideals. All at the fabulous Corberry Press art compound at 18th and Northrup.

Jessica Bromer