Matthew Day Jackson at Hauser and Wirth Zurich: where has the mountain guide gone in the meantime?


Among the shows that are not to be missed if you are around in Zurich, there is the Matthew Day Jackson’s solo at Hauser and Wirth: “Family”, this is the title, is not just a comprehensive self-portrait of the artist, but also a detailed analysis of certain characteristics of the Western society that seem to have many things to say about our present time and the fear we are dealing with, not merely as artists, but as members of the same great family.


From this point of view the exhibition’s key piece is the white custom-made cuckoo clock that the beholder meets at the incipit (while the two-dimensional column telling “A brief history of the domestication of animals”, placed near the gallery entrance, seems to be a sort of exhibition’s prelude). This cuckoo clock is called “Frivolous time piece”, but this is not enough to grasp its meaning. The text available at the gallery’s desk provides the basic information. The clock is a replica of the Apple 2 house in Nevada – watch the video! – built in 1955 by the Army Corp of Engineers who wanted to discover how the average American home would fare under nuclear attack. The text also notes that prior to testing the house was dressed like a life-sized doll-house. “Mannequins, food, linens, and home décor were shipped to the testing site to create a more realistic destruction of the home as well as demonstrating the roles in the narrative of American life in the1950s”. At this point the visitor doesn’t need to read more to realize that the characters on the scene are indeed the artist himself, his wife, their two kids and their dog. The clock plays “Enola Gay”, by OMD, and “Winter Wonderland”, at quarter past and quarter to the hour.


The gallery text provides the essential information about three other pieces: “Commissioned family photo”, “Self-portrait progression (monster-self)”, and “Synthesis of Canine Dynamism”, this latter clearly addressing Umberto Boccioni’s “Forme uniche della continuità nello spazio”. But it doesn’t say much about three other pieces that has drawn our attention because of their “cold” tone, which somehow reminds of Cormack McCarthy’s novels such as The Road, or also Blood meridian.


The first one is titled “LIFE, February 8, 1937”. A brief research on line will unveil that this cover of LIFE magazine re-enacted by the artist describes an extraordinary cold winter in Wyoming. The solitary cow walking in the snow is a sort of real presence in the show, and it seems to be linked, in a traditional symbolic way, to the other two pieces in the room. It could be useful to add that a feature dedicated to Nazi Hermann Goring was also in that issue, published 19 months before Hitler attacked Poland.


The three-dimensional piece placed beyond the LIFE’s cover is titled “Scale dilemma”. An architectonic structure, that could be either industrial or for residential use, is on the top of a canyon-like topography model. Evidently the “scale dilemma” is the one between nature and human presence. The black paint covering the model embodies a hint of pessimism, thus influencing the meaning of the beautiful two-dimensional panorama placed in front of it. “Yosemite Valley, Glacier Point Trail (after Bierstadt)” is a sort of collage of mirrored acrylic sheets in a stainless steel frame. The painting by Albert Bierstadt (1830-1902) it re-enacts – a typical romantic vision expressing the purity of nature – is in the collection of the Yale University Art Gallery. In this context it is interesting to note that the mountain guide on the bottom left side of the original painting, who is instructing his companions where to look, is not present in the replica Matthew Day Jackson has done 141 years later. The rest of the exhibition will tell you where he has gone in the meantime…

September 22, 2014