If you like paint, you’ll like “Richard Jackson: Ain’t Painting a Pain,” the artist’s 40-year retrospective exhibition at the Orange County Museum of Art in Newport Beach. It’s awash in the stuff.
Thick, brightly colored paint oozes like mortar from between thousands of canvases stacked like bricks into a kind of room-size temple, and it’s smeared in rainbows that unfurl across white walls. It’s shot from a pellet gun at a big drawing and out of the rear ends of carousel animals toward spinning canvases and sculptures on surrounding walls.
Paint is pumped through neon tubing that spells out the show’s title, clogging illumination, and into a bathtub copied from one where a hero of the French Revolution was ignominiously murdered. It has dripped from glass models of human heads, oozed from squashed metal models of a ballerina and spewed from a hose wielded by a sculpture of a reclining nude glimpsed, voyeur-like, through the crack in a barely opened window. It puddles on pedestals and the floor.
Gloppy paint covers tall walls in a narrow hallway-maze, which a visitor is invited to enter. I didn’t go in. This is the only museum exhibition I’ve seen that posts a sign at the entry warning visitors not to touch the art for the specific reason that the paint might not be dry.
Why all that paint? One reason is that Jackson, born in Sacramento in 1939, started making art in Los Angeles around 1968, when painting was in one of its periodic death throes.
This time painting was under assault as a quaint irrelevancy to an industrialized, mass-media world. Jackson’s veritable mania for paint comes across as a smart, assertive and sometimes funny retort — “Oh, yeah? Take that!” His paint fabricates a theater of the absurd.
In the museum lobby just beyond the entry, an actual Ford Pinto tipped on its side is splattered with red, yellow and blue paint, as are the pedestal that hoists the automobile up, the nearby walls and columns, the surrounding floor, plus two canvas spheres on top. These two large balls are attached to the Pinto’s upright wheels.
When the car engine was revved, Jackson, standing on a ladder, poured paint onto the spinning spheres, flinging paint everywhere.
The subcompact Pinto, once a wildly popular model that was pulled from production in 1980, has a controversial reputation for bland design and questionable safety. Admirers and detractors line up on both sides. Jackson’s composition, worthy of a carnival sideshow, inserts the dispute into the tonier context of abstract art.
The paint-splattered auto with the dangerous reputation obliquely evokes Jackson Pollock, the coincidental namesake artist whose 1940s drip-paintings revolutionized Modern art. Pollock famously died in a 1956 car crash, at the tender age of 44.
Four years later, Jasper Johns made a three-panel work slathered in red, yellow and blue in which a pair of small spheres was wedged in between two stretcher bars in the middle. The orbs are like eyes peering back at you from inside the painting.
Johns’ “Painting With Two Balls” makes fun of the macho posturing prominent in Pollock’s Abstract Expressionist era. Jackson’s 1997 automotive version explodes the scale of both its predecessors, reflecting the outsize prominence Pollock and Johns hold in recent art history.
Notably, Jackson’s contraption is not just “a painting” with balls. It also performs the action of using balls to make the painting, instead of using a conventional brush. Pollock’s revolution came from removing the brush from the canvas, instead drawing in space above a canvas laid out on the floor and letting the paint fall where it may. Jackson ups the ante, pushing action painting to absurdist lengths.
The process orientation of Jackson’s work is intimately tied to what other artists have done. A partial list of artists whose work specifically inspired what’s in the retrospective includes Jacques-Louis David, Edgar Degas, Pablo Picasso, Pollock, Marcel Duchamp, Johns, Sol LeWitt and Bruce Nauman. It tracks the modern history of art, starting in 19th century France and continuing into the American present.
Jackson’s Sacramento birthplace was also the home of painter Wayne Thiebaud, a nationally recognized artist whose 1960s still lifes of voluptuous cakes, pies and ice cream cones are known for being slathered in thick strokes of luscious paint. Art comes from art. So does a worldly acceptance of the absurd.
Sometimes, the absurdity doesn’t get beyond a mild joke. For the museum’s front lawn, Jackson constructed a giant sculpture of a friendly black dog who lifts his leg on the museum building, now ignominiously sprayed with yellow paint. Jackson’s “Bad Dog” is less a take on Claes Oldenburg’s monumental sculptures of ordinary things than an overblown riff on Banksy, the anonymous but popular British graffiti artist.
Banksy has employed the same image of a urinating dog as a metaphor for the way graffiti is an ongoing pissing match between renegade artists and establishment society, as well as among competitive street-artists themselves. I’m not sure that applying the observation to nongraffiti artists enshrined in institutions adds much to the conversation that we didn’t already know.
One of the most appealing features of Jackson’s work, though, is that he seems to approach art as a job — not as some high-flown calling or mystical impulse, but as a conscious line of work. Labor has value, and it’s not always as obvious as one might think.
Take that claim about painting’s supposed death amid the phantoms of our powerful media age. The claim ignores a salient fact, which is that painting has always been dead. For art, the dull reality of pigment smeared on a piece of cloth or board is pretty much irrelevant to the question of its significance. Any painter’s job, past or present, is to make painting live.
The retrospective, organized by OCMA director Dennis Szakacs, divides its 19 installations, 38 drawings and four project-models into two parts. The early work (1969-1988) is composed of wall paintings and free-standing painted sculptures, all made using paint-slathered canvases as primary materials. The works since then are mostly infernal machines, like “Painting With Two Balls” and “Bad Dog.”
A pivot between early and late is “1000 Clocks” (1987-1992), the show’s only work made without paint. Begun as Jackson approached age 50, it is a large room entered and exited through Dan Flavin-like corridors of white fluorescent-light tubes. The walls and ceiling are constructed entirely of identical, handmade clocks.
Every 60 seconds, all 1,000 minute-hands move in unison and generate a very loud click. As much as a measure of time’s passage, the startling noise sounds like the cocking of a gun.
Given the inevitability of the next tick, “1000 Clocks” swells with quiet dread, like some gigantic time bomb. The work is suffused with a relentless, audio-visual plea for taking action — somehow, anyhow, even if only contemplatively — before it is too late.
“Ain’t Painting a Pain,” with its title’s anagram-like construction, frames the show inside a puzzle. Look closely and you’ll find that the floors in several Jackson installations are likewise composed of giant puzzle pieces.
Notably the title is a statement, not a question, which suggests that the puzzle is to be, well, puzzled over rather than answered. Jackson’s art does it in a host of ways, some more trenchant than others. Pain might reside in that puzzlement, but so does considerable pleasure.
‘Richard Jackson: Ain’t Painting a Pain’
Where: Orange County Museum of Art, 850 San Clement Drive, Newport Beach
When: Through May 5. Closed Mon. and Tue.
Contact: (949) 759-1122, https://www.ocma.net