Curated with clarity and vision by Orange County Museum of Art director Dennis Szakacs, “Richard Jackson: Ain't Painting a Pain” is the first retrospective of the L.A. artist's long, anarchic career and will be its only stop in the United States before traveling to Europe. Brilliant in myriad ways — as the historical documentation of an underground artist, as an intellectual experience, as a middle finger to convention and in its refreshing disdain for disciplinary boundaries — any show for the rest of 2013 that wants to compete for best of the year has freaking giant-sized clown shoes to fill. If you've never heard of Jackson before this show, you won't forget him after seeing it.
The irreverence begins in the parking lot with the hilarious new work Bad Dog, an approximately 28-foot-tall sculpture of a puppy lifting its leg and leaving an impressively bright yellow spray of paint dripping down the museum's façade; it's already drawing amused prime-time newscast reports. There's even more just inside the lobby as you pass an unopened crate, which is part of an OCMA contest: The most cleverly written review of the show (submitted by visitors) allows the winner to open the crate, remove the paint machine packed there and activate it inside the museum, finishing an unidentified painting — Jackson standing by with a grin.
With 11 installations (and more than 150 preparatory drawings) providing a compact introduction to the artist and his obsessions, the exhibition revels in Jackson's working-class demystification of the painting process by not hiding from the labor-intensive work behind it. Paint drips and spills are left intact on the museum's floor, buckets of dried color and the clot of used whitewash brushes haphazardly thrown into corners visible at every turn.
At the entrance to the gallery, Jackson takes the piss out of Degas' precious Little Dancer, Age 14 with his ruthless trio of victimized dancers, Ballerina. People often fawn over Degas' bronze statue, but the reality of the lives of Paris Opera dancers was fairly bleak, less about art than prostituting themselves to the Opera's male patrons. Jackson de-prettifies things: His dancers are upended, their legs in the air, heads crushed, flimsy tutus clumped above their waists. Paint poured into the statue through the base flows out from the crushed head into viscous pools that bleed over the pedestal and onto the floor. Using three different colors for the trio, the first one on display is particularly striking since the red paint used makes her look like she's suffered a head injury.
Pablo Picasso's painting of a girlfriend bathing, The Blue Room, is treated more affectionately than Degas' dancer, with Jackson's installation of the same name featuring a nude and a primary-color room — but the similarities end there. The stark room in Jackson's eye-popping piece is stripped of all the things that make Picasso's room a home, and Jackson's woman doesn't have someone watching and painting her in an intimate moment. Watched and admired by no one, she's pensive, alone, melancholy, pondering life's puzzles like the jigsaw that provides the floor of the room.
Meanwhile, peer through the cracked windowsill in 2006-07's The Maid's Room, and the shaved genitalia spread-eagle on view through the gap is instantly recognizable from Duchamp's notorious Etant donnés installation. Minus the wild nature surroundings of the original, Jackson has his nude sprawled out on a bed in a gaily colored room, holding the grip of a vacuum cleaner splattered with red, with stacks of gray bars of Ivory Soap replacing Duchamp's original. The image has a ludicrous “fuck your laundry, I'm lounging around naked” eroticism to it, , especially if taken in context with the paint-spattered washing machine and pile of half-folded, sloppily painted garments on the table nearby in 2009's The Laundry Room (Death of Marat). That bemusement changes rather abruptly to discomfort when you take a few steps more and see a three-dimensional, whorehouse-red sculpture of the famous Jacques-Louis David painting The Death of Marat, updated with a laptop showing an email from Charlotte Corday, the French Revolutionary leader's assassin. Side by side, it's not that difficult to envision a narrative connection between the two pieces: a servant's revenge fantasy straight out of playwright Jean Genet's The Maids.
But it's 1,000 Clocks, an installation in which the paint is much less conspicuous, that has the most dramatic impact (it debuted in MOCA's famed 1992 “Helter Skelter” exhibit of L.A. artists). As you enter a room through a bank of fluorescent office lights, your mind is wiped clear. Inside are 1,000 identical working clocks covering the ceiling and walls, each painted by hand.
For Jackson, now in his 70s, in continuous battle to challenge himself as well as the art form he clearly loves, standing in this labor-intensive room watching 1,000 minute hands simultaneously, audibly click over every 60 seconds, must have a deeply personal significance, but it's no less relevant to us.
Despite the bright white hallway at the exit lying in wait to wipe your thoughts like a fluorescent Neuralyzer, the indelible image of time passing won't leave you, either. Instead, like much of this unforgettable exhibition, it punches you in the chest.
RICHARD JACKSON: AIN'T PAINTING A PAIN | Orange County Art Museum | 850 San Clemente Drive, Newport Beach | Thru May 5
| (949) 759-1122 | ocma.net