The sculpture of a giant black Labrador outside the Orange County Museum of Art looks friendly, nose to the sky and tail up. But with a hind leg cocked, "Bad Dog" is designed to spray gallons of yellow paint through a powerful gear pump onto the museum building.
"We'll see how long it lasts. I don't think it's such a big deal, but you never know how people will react," said Richard Jackson, the 73-year-old artist behind the dog. "Sometimes people feel they should protect their children from such things, then the kids go home and watch 'South Park.'"
Jackson made "Bad Dog" for his first museum retrospective, opening in Orange County on Sunday. It is also something of a surrogate for the artist himself, if not a true self-portrait.
Jackson is a museum outsider, rarely getting shows in U.S. institutions. (A 1988 mid-career survey at the Menil Collection in Houston is the biggest exception.) He doesn't follow the rules. And he is one messy painter who likes to mark his territory.
For nearly two decades now, Jackson has been building machines for making paintings with a basement inventor's sort of ingenuity and a wicked sense of humor: sculptures rigged with pumps or other devices designed to spray, spew, splatter, pour, spurt, excrete, fling or otherwise deliver paint onto a surface like walls or floors.
OCMA Director Dennis Szakacs, who curated the retrospective, describes the work as difficult for museums, not to mention collectors who have a wall to fill. "His work is large, it's messy, it's complicated, and some pieces require huge amounts of labor only to be destroyed, so it confounds standard museum practice," he said.
But the challenges are not, Szakacs suggested, gratuitous, and several younger artists are fans. He called Jackson "wildly inventive" and overdue for reappraisal — "one of the most influential and least understood artists working today."
"I don't think anybody has expanded the definition and form of painting as much as Richard has."
The early work
Early on, Jackson pushed painting in new directions by exploiting the sculptural potential of the painted canvas. He also did stunts with canvases akin to the sorts of things that contemporaries Chris Burden and Bruce Nauman were doing to their own bodies.
In the '70s, Jackson nailed paintings face down to the floor of his studio. Or he pressed freshly painted canvases onto the wall to stain them with color.
In one breakthrough work, originally installed in 1970 in Eugenia Butler's L.A. gallery, he propped up a series of eight large canvases to create a maze that the viewer could walk through. He painted the canvases, then forced a clean canvas through the narrow corridor like a spreader, creating Gerhard Richter-like scraped-paint effects throughout the maze.
It all makes for an uncomfortable viewing experience. Once inside the maze, you can't stand back to view any painting from what feels like a proper distance. And once you enter the inner chamber, you are confronted with the backs of four canvases — further upsetting any expectation of contemplating a painting.
Jackson has just finished re-creating this piece, not seen in California since 1970, for the show. Also in the show will be a new "stacked painting" of the sort first shown in 1980 at the Rosamund Felsen gallery.
In the original version he used 1,000 freshly painted canvases, laying them on top of one another like bricks to make a 16-foot-tall wall. The acrylic paint worked like a sort of glue. At the time, he did everything himself, from cutting the wood for the stretchers to priming and painting the canvases.
This time, for an installation involving 5,050 canvases arranged in a stair-like formation (each stack is one painting taller than the one before), he didn't make his own stretchers and had an assistant mix paints for him, but he still did the paintings himself, as many as a hundred a day. Most were abstract, but he did a few landscapes to mix things up. "I like trees," he said.
"I'm interested in what one person can accomplish on his own," he said from his studio in the foothills of Sierra Madre. "Even if I don't finish something, to me that's more interesting than what a corporation could do."
A prickly individualism