Artist Jack Pierson holds a machine gun in the noir-ish new ad for his soon-to-open exhibition at Regen Projects. A friend, movie marketer Tim Palen, helped him put the ad together. They aimed for the badass, aging-action-star feel, and what they came up with looks a lot like the poster for the Arnold Schwarzenegger feature set to open Jan. 18, in which the former governor/former Terminator plays an ex-LAPD hot shot adjusting to a new gig as a small-town sheriff. Schwarzenegger's movie is called The Last Stand; Pierson's show is called "End of the World," equally cataclysmic and just a little more clichéd.
While both men hold their weapons (Schwarzenegger has a machine gun, too) at an angle and have drawn, serious-looking expressions, Schwarzenegger wears black sunglasses and Pierson doesn't.
"I know sunglasses make you look younger," the artist says. "But it wouldn't have worked as well."
Sunglasses would have been too cool and hard-edged, and Pierson's work, no matter how much it toys with gimmickry, always lets blurriness in.
"End of the World" opens on Jan. 12, 2013. "Get it? 1-12-13," reads the press release.
"But there's really nothing to get," points out Pierson, who wrote the release himself. It's not a date with obvious significance, like 12-21-12, the end of the Mayan calendar, which caused so much end-times speculation a few weeks ago.
Pierson knew when he saw the date and chose his title that, by the time his show opened, end-of-world speculation would be over — the world already would have not ended. So from the get-go, the title and timing were anticlimactic.
It was still dramatic, though, and he planned to do something to fit that vibe, something more big-budget, polished and shiny than he'd done before — "like an indie star finally succumbing to all that."
Regen Projects' press releases, including those for Pierson's last few shows there, tend to begin, "Regen Projects is pleased to announce," so when the "End of the World" press release went out to Regen's mailing list two weeks ago, people wondered what was going on. It instead begins, "You've gotta love Jack Pierson. In this, his 19th comeback attempt in as many years, he still relentlessly bangs a drum for the critical and curatorial attention that has eluded him," and it's full of self-effacing hints of bitterness, Hollywood lingo and moments of indulgent lyricism.
It isn't exactly Pierson's "19th comeback attempt," since he started exhibiting circa 1990, which was 23 years ago; while he began showing at Regen in 1994, this is only his eighth show there. "19th just sounded realistic to me," Pierson explains. It's less resolved-sounding than a number in the 20s.
When his reputation began to grow in the early 1990s, Pierson was making big, sometimes out-of-focus photographs that he pinned to the wall and didn't treat as precious. They had incidental subjects and looked kind of like found images, except that they had a consistency that meant, weirdly, you could recognize Pierson as their author even though they seemed too impromptu even to have an author.
He also had begun salvaging letters from movie marquees and road signs and spelling out words with them on walls or floors ("desire," "despair," "teen star" or "anything helps").
Because his images and signage had fleeting subjects or sentiments, and because he began working when he did, he's often associated with that fixation on the beauty of ephemera that came after the 1980s and after AIDS.
He's also associated with the Boston School, a group of photographers who studied in Boston, as Pierson did, and took gritty, subversive scene photographs.
Then in 1991, critic Jack Bankowsky named him a "slacker artist" — the flip side of the "hyperfunctional persona" of an artist like Jeff Koons — with a "nose for the fissures" in any overproduced, plastic-perfect surface.
But most Pierson fans I know came to his work in the '00s, after AIDS, the Boston School and Bankowsky's slacker treatise had stopped seeming "of the moment," and found it just as well-suited to their 21st-century experience of the world.
A chemist friend in his late 20s, Daniel Suess, has an extensive Pierson library and said, after the opening of Pierson's 2010 Regen exhibition, that each photo — of palm trees, glistening water or a faux ancient Greek torso in a foyer — looked like it had been taken on someone else's yacht or from someone else's doorway, a conventional, comfortable place Pierson had been invited into, and had understood but didn't necessarily need to identify with.
"I always feel like his shows allow me to think about whatever I want, and make those thoughts seem relevant/important," Suess says.
Painter Greta Svalberg told me via text recently that every piece of Pierson's is "like a thrown-away punch line, always perceptive and sensitively delivered."
Maybe poet Eileen Myles' description is the best for getting at why Pierson's approach feels pertinent. She says seeing his work makes it seem possible that "anyone might start to look like a group," meaning that Pierson's work makes sense in an era in which people have stopped evading the idea that we're all collections of references and cultural preferences, records of the things we pass by, and started seeking the people who are best at tastefully collecting.
"People gravitate toward symbols," Pierson says. "But I also don't feel like it's my deal to [analyze] that. I'm not a graduate-school artist. I just depend on it working somehow."
"End of the World" will be Pierson's first show in the new Regen Projects gallery, which in September opened off the corner of Highland and Santa Monica.
The cavernous main exhibition space intimidated him at first, and he wasn't sure he'd be able to fill it in time for a January show.
But a friend uses that phrase all the time — "It's not the end of the world" — and Pierson likes the way it sounds. It tries to tamp down on overreactions by being slightly hyperbolic itself.
So when Pierson thought, of the Regen show, "I'll do it and it's not the end of the world," he realized he had a plan. He would have letters fabricated specially — huge, flashy ones that stood 14 feet tall, just shy of the 15-foot ceiling. They'd spell out "End of the World," and would be, as his press release suggests, "his biggest-budget disaster spectacle to date."
When I spoke with him the last week of December, he had only a vague idea of what the letters would look like in the space.
"If it looks dumb and brilliant on its own, I'll leave it," without adding anything else, he says, though he planned to bring with him a collection of photographs — mostly images of other printed ephemera, like photos of books and letter and other photographs — in case he needs them.
Lately, he says, he's been working like that: making instinctive decisions and following through on whatever idea he has, as long it's something he imagines he'll still want to look at and won't mind having his name associated with after the project is done. "It's like a message to the one other chic person in the world who shares my taste."
JACK PIERSON | Regen Projects | 6750 Santa Monica Blvd., Hlywd. | Jan. 12-Feb. 16 | regenprojects.com