Jack Pierson’s early photographic practice is characterised by his ability to take a self-reflexive glance at the social milieu he describes. His portraits from the 1980s and 90s stand in opposition to that of his peer Nan Goldin, despite many formal similarities. And unlike the latter’s voyeuristic aesthetic (one that gives the peeping tom privileged touristic access to an otherwise closed social circle), Pierson’s portraits appear not only to reveal an image of a community, but also to remark upon the quality of this community ‘as image’. His photographs convey the very structures and stereo-typical value judgements that the viewer brings to the photographic subject, and this is nowhere more apparent than in his 2003 self-portrait series that used a series of highly sexualised surrogates as representations of the artist: lush portraits of Saint Sebastian figures are just as phoney and staged as the proposition of photographing Roman martyr sounds, and his numerous images portraying himself as an impossibly muscled and oiled hunk are just that—impossible.
Recalling Bourdieu’s assessment that the photograph is, at its root, simply the reproduction of an image that a community creates for its continual projection of a personal theatre (one that is ceaselessly re-enacted), Pierson has a heightened awareness of the camera’s role as aggressive agent for self-projection. Yet the artist’s execution has none of the withering judgement of the philosopher. Pierson’s common motifs—beautiful semi-nude men, silver-screen celebrity, nostalgic signage —reveal the multiple faces of desire, the alter ego of reality. And if his practice bears any singular motivation it is of his attempt to display ethos as topos; character as convention.
Yet Pierson’s most recent photographic series catches one off-guard. Almost entirely made up of still life objects and landscapes, the Bortolami exhibition, Go there now and take this with you, demands a reassessment of a practice that is largely portrait-based. On the four gallery walls hang 15 large-scale photographs of blurred seascapes, careful arrangements of books and flowers, cemetery monuments, and a series of vibrantly coloured abstract prints. Printed on thin cardboard and creased into smaller panels, the format (along with the show’s title) suggests that the individual works could be folded and posted in an envelope, carried in a jacket pocket, passed on to a friend as a memento. All of these transactions are casual, personal, and his presentation recalls Moyra Davey’s recent series of C-prints that were folded, taped together, addressed and mailed to friends and colleagues from her Parisian address. But there is something altogether odd about Pierson’s use, which parallels Davey’s utilitarian aesthetic, but refuses to act in the same way. His images appear hypersensitive to detail, colour and texture while the soapy opacity of his material and the images’ monumental scale hints at yet cannot quite don the character of an ephemeral object. Instead, each image appears as an opulent portable icon rather than a postcard or poster, a personal icon that encourages not the public act of contemplation in the gallery, but the space of private devotion.
Pierson has orchestrated a careful pattern of images that pose as refrains, formal echoes, visual rhymes: a golden hue finds itself repeated in three different images—as background, as fire, as pure abstract colour; a prophetic photograph of a burning palm at night mimics the curling pages of a book, while the concertina motif appears once more as a dazzling halo on nearby image of funerary sculpture. Time, meanwhile, is portrayed as entirely elastic, either caught in a momentary blur—‘Bird in Flight’, 2010, depicts the titular animal shown as a smudge darting across the shot —or it is caught else in a timeless stasis, where Pierson’s shots of a crucifix and headstone attest to such memento mori. It seems that, despite the absence of a narrative subject, Go there now… slowly reveals the chimerical properties of the artist’s photograph—properties most apparent within examples of polarity: in 15 photographs Pierson presents aerial shots and close-ups, both detailed and unfocused, intimate and monumental. In the exhibition’s lush vibrance and clever composition, Pierson reveals the photograph to be a cipher for desire rather than representation itself, and, once more, ethos is revealed as topos.
Pierson closes his new suite of images with a wry parting shot. On the last wall hangs a single photograph titled ‘Eden Rock’, 2010, an image that depicts a boiling sea taken from a cliff’s edge. Hovering above the watery rupture swings a series of ropes, hoops and ladders—a perilous gymnasium. Ralph Lauren-like machismo collides with a more romantic or perhaps naïve notion of a dare; the scenario explicitly details risk and pleasure, the invocation of a virtuoso performance that, much like Pierson’s photography, is rigged.
Isla Leaver-Yap was MAP’s editor-at-large until summer 2011