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Jack Pierson with Lyle Rexer

Nov 12, 2023Nov 12, 2023

Jack Pierson is one of the artists who has turned photography back to its roots and made it personal. Even as his work has celebrated mass media and the icons of popular culture and gay life—images in widespread circulation—it has awakened a poignancy and nostalgia at the heart of even the most commercial images. Drawing heavily on the cultural image pool, his work nevertheless seems always to insist that meaning—and feeling and a sense of beauty—reside in the eye of the beholder. Thus, no image can be dismissed. The artist, by some miracle of intuition, is there to convene the latent sentiments and memories that photographs can evoke.

Pierson began exhibiting in 1990, and since then every kind of image and material has found its way into his work: snapshots, publicity photos, beefcake, and formal portraits on the one hand and paintings, drawings, installations, collages, video and word-based sculptures on the other. He has also become an active editor and publisher in a series of magazines titled Tomorrow’s Man, which recalls The Yellow Book series of the 1890s. Lisson Gallery will present a selection of Pierson’s recent work at its New York gallery from September 7.

Lyle Rexer (Rail): I remember the first picture of yours I saw, and this would have been back in the late 1990s. It was the cover image of your book The Lonely Life. It was very stage-y, a stage itself. And it was grainy and out of focus. Lots of orange-yellow light in it. It was printed in the negative. One of the things that I was so taken by was that it seemed, at one and the same time, a bad picture of an obvious subject and enormously evocative. Poignant and mysterious. I wanted to start there, with how photographs work, and the complicated ways in which we relate to them. I wonder if you’d talk a little bit about what the attraction of the medium was for you, how that’s grown or changed, as you’ve used photographs.

Jack Pierson: As a child of the 1960s, between TV, magazines, and books, that’s how I received most of my information.

Rail: And you’d go to the movies, too.

Pierson: Yeah. So that’s a language you learn. Those are the images that you have. I didn’t go to museums. I mean, there was a yearly local art show in Plymouth, Massachusetts that my mother would take me to, but not much beyond that. But I was lucky in that by the time I was fifteen, my family had made friends with New York people, because we lived in a town where people “summered.” Our friend was a doctor who would go home for two weeks at a time. I was a good kid so I was invited to go with him. By the time I was fifteen, I was going to museums, but it still seemed like a wide open and confusing world. It wasn’t until my first year of college at Massachusetts College of Art, now Art and Design, that I saw the classic Diane Arbus monograph.

Rail: That Aperture published.

Pierson: Yes. It was one of those before and after moments that people describe, like Brian Wilson hearing “Be My Baby” on the Pacific Coast Highway and having to pull over, and everything he knew about music changed in that moment. That’s how I felt about that book.

Rail: What was Arbus communicating to you about pictures, about photographs, about feeling, about other people?

Pierson: I had a feeling there was a world like this, and all of a sudden, it was made visible in front of me. People living on the edge, on some margin, it seemed to me. As nerdy and cliched as it sounds, I felt like a freak at that time myself, an outsider. So it was like, “Oh my God, freaks can be cool.” They deserve this much attention and communicate so much in her photographs. I don’t buy the exploitation critique. It seems to me there is a pure exchange taking place.

Rail: I think, in some ways, that’s what Arbus thought too, and so did many of her subjects. It brings me back to a primal experience of photographs: their subjects are there, but they’re not there. The world is like this, but it isn’t.

Pierson: Real but not. I can remember one night lying awake in bed at sixteen or seventeen, thinking: David Bowie is somewhere alive. He’s alive on earth someplace. How could that be? But not in the picture. The photographs are something else. All the pictures of The 1980 Floor Show entranced me, and when I finally got to see the film of that scene, on The Midnight Special, it was like, “Oh, my God, this is so pinned together and cheap as fuck,” but the photographs made it seem like, “WHAT!? HOW!? THIS. YES!”

Rail: Hearing you talk like this and thinking about the posters I had in my room as a teenager, I come back to the idea that all photography is personal. All photographs are personal. That’s how they mean. And that’s very different from seeing this incredibly large documentary image of a luxury hotel in Hong Kong or a black-and-white grid of water towers. These Düsseldorfian photographs are not something you are invited to enter. You’re not invited to project; you’re not invited to have any kind of emotional reaction. There are other things to do with them. But whether you find it, whether you take it, whether you steal it from somebody, or rip it out of a book, those are the only kind of images that matter, the ones you can project onto.

Pierson: Yeah! I tried not to pay attention to that deadpan approach. I just felt so oppressed by it. And it seemed so unnecessary to me. For one thing I really like to look at paper, no matter how beaten up. I like the idea that the image can hold up in any way. I was never satisfied with color photographs, even though I made them. What made photographs art to me was all the artless stuff—“Oh, there’s a scratch in it. Oh, it’s overexposed.” Meanwhile photographers at that time doubled down on skill, craft, size. “See, photography is just as hard to do as painting. Just as important.” Of course, when they work that hard to perfect a color photograph, they’re not gonna pin it up.

Rail: Speaking of pinning things up, at the time you went to art school and saw the monograph, were you collecting photographs? Were you gathering things, ripping pictures out of magazines, sticking things in a shoe box, pasting them up?

Pierson: I forget what year it was, but I was a huge Diana Ross fan. And when she transitioned into Lady Sings the Blues, I learned everything I could about Billie Holiday, and I became obsessed with all the advertising. I gathered as much as I could. And that was my first collaged collection on a subject, ads for a movie. [Laughs] By the time I was in college, I transferred to Patti Smith. And there was a moment where every place I moved the first thing I did was put up my picture of Patti Smith, which wasn’t necessarily the Mapplethorpe one. I learned that from photographs, in magazines or record covers, you could get all these signals, about places, people, yourself.

Rail: Like some kind of secret messaging. Where it really lives is in that place that’s completely yours. Which gets me to your using photographs of other people by other people as a kind of autobiography. You are implicitly saying: here’s how you find me. You find me in all these things that attracted me. The subjects I’ve taken on the road, the things I put up over my bed, my obsessions, men’s fitness magazines, photos of a friend, or appropriated photos of James Dean.

Pierson: Those early—what do you call them—collages, I guess, were kind of an exorcism, a response to the anxiety of influence, that was the phrase that used to be current. I think the first one I made in the 1980s was photographs of title pages from the Arbus book. I didn’t know what was going to happen, but I got lucky. Ghost images of the page behind changed the view, the appearance. The whole piece was this beautiful white, like a Robert Ryman painting. The James Dean collage came entirely from a memorial magazine that told the story of his life. It had all this great stuff, pictures of him playing bongo drums and making sculpture. One of the headlines was “Melancholy Genius.” I never called any of the pictures with me in them self-portraits before, pointedly, because that just seemed pretentious. But this collection of images of someone else was my first “self-portrait.”

Rail: Was this when the idea of organizing, manipulating, and making suites of images became a self-conscious art practice?

Pierson: Not exactly. I was a late bloomer. I didn’t have my first show until I was thirty. That was in 1990. I had been in New York seven years by that time and from age twenty-three to twenty-seven I had the feeling: forget it. It’s been done, you can’t, there’s no point to your little things. Picasso, Warhol, what’s left? I was the same age as Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat, and they were already dead millionaires! I was also surrounded by people carrying around sheets of slides. They would pull them out at whatever opportunity. I didn’t have that kind of self-esteem. [Laughter] So I did painting. I had a studio, I made “bodies of work.”

Rail: Gestural seascapes, or sky views. Simple. They still look good.

Rail: I managed to get the gallerist Simon Watson to the studio, and he said, “Aren’t these kind of tiny?” Right. I didn’t want to be stuck with huge things, and I didn’t have enough money for anything grandiose.

Rail: And you can’t frame any of the work because frames are too expensive. Stretchers are expensive. Canvas is expensive.

Pierson: The only way I could make something big was to make it out of little pieces. For me, it’s always been a question of when I take them down off the wall, do they fit in a cardboard box? I can carry them with me if I have to move.

Rail: None of that Jeff Koons “go big or go home.”

Pierson: In terms of photography, too, the cost was intimidating. You want to be a photographer, fine, but at that moment Cindy Sherman was not printing small black-and-white film stills but huge C-prints that cost thousands to put up on the wall. I was on the Lower East Side getting film developed cheaply, and the shop advertised “Your memories made into posters, $9.99.” The ad showed a Puerto Rican girl at her Sweet Sixteen party, and I was like, “Oh, my God, Look at her! It’s so good!” Just the size of it, big enough to announce itself. I could go big that way. This was 1989 or so, and I had already been taking pictures in Miami, Boston, California. Those pictures added with the ones I had been collecting all of a sudden made sense. I could see a story.

Rail: A way of doing things. Different sources, different sizes to tell a story.

Pierson: But I still didn’t think it was anything that could fly. It wasn’t what I showed Simon when he came over. I was like, here are the new paintings. He looked around, saw the pile of new photographs and said “What are those?” I had already been thinking, why does photography need so much shit to make it into something, frames and aluminum mounting and all that? What if it just gets pinned to the wall like a butterfly?

Rail: In all your work, there is sympathy for demotic materials, minor things, things that shouldn’t be good, but they are. It’s a redemption of experiences that people are willing to dismiss. Take this piece from 2021, Mint Secession, diaphanous green plastic with pieces of black tape. A surprising, simple, ragged minimalism, like Ryman’s.

Pierson: Thank you so much for that. My attitude is and always has been “Why not?” Why can’t I use that? It comes out of life in the late 1980s and early ’90s. It was the end of the world. There was no antiviral cocktail. So there wasn’t a lot of thinking “How does it align with the trajectory of my career?” It was, “Get it out there now! If you like it, it’s good enough, go.” Nothing lasts. It can’t be made to last forever. I sometimes heard people say about the work that it was all style, it’s all theatrical installation. Who cares? Style is all any artist has. Goya or Picasso or whoever. In any case, I won’t be around. I’m not hedging against mortality.

And then there was a cocktail, and I lived. And I kept going. The collages you see on the wall came out of the COVID pandemic. I saved all my recycling and started pinning things to the wall, again. I was all by myself thinking it’s the end of the world, again. Play, have fun.

Rail: Offering a form of permission.

Pierson: Part of what people like about my work is that it doesn’t seem skilled. They think, “I could do that.” And that has been my essential message: Go ahead. Your pictures are good enough. Blow them up. Do something with them. You don’t have to have a frame.

Rail: It’s like, why are you wandering around all these galleries looking at stuff? Why don’t you go make stuff yourself?

Pierson: That’s the spirit! But not everyone has seen it that way. Not everyone sees art that way. After the show with Simon, I made a piece with pages I took from an Edward Hopper catalogue. That led to a summer show at the Whitney Museum in which pieces I did were paired with Hopper’s work. It wasn’t my idea, but I thought, “Why not?” I liked the show. But I got a review that was eviscerating. I don’t think I’ve had a curator visit my studio since.

Rail: Oh, man. I won’t ask who it was.

Pierson: I was tagged with putting myself up next to the genius, and my work, piece by piece, did not live up to it, in his opinion. Meanwhile, I thought: what it needs to live up to is the poster and the catalogue. Because that’s how I experience Hopper most frequently, and that is how most people actually experience Hopper’s work—as images in a different medium, often in print.

Rail: Was that rough?

Pierson: It was rough at the time. I was really young, and it was humiliating. For years, I said to myself, if I ever see that fucker… [Laughter] But in the last ten years I’ve gotten over it.

Rail: I can see how your sense of photographs existing so compellingly on paper would segue naturally into a love of books, zines, and low-end publishing, all of which you have been so active in.

Pierson: As I said, I love paper. And I love the way photographs look on paper. Even more important, it is a way of expanding the scope and impact of my work. Making it more accessible. Reaching the hinterlands.

Rail: Photographs have always been about that, not coterie possession. They were nothing until they circulated in books, magazines, and newspapers. Paradoxically, as everyone declares print dead, we’re living in the golden age of making photo books.

Pierson: Right. And whenever I have a student, I tell them that the first thing they should do is make zines. There is such a big difference between “Here’s some pictures,” and a staple. Staple them together. People like this gesture. It is easy, and you can hand it to people. That’s how Ryan McGinley got to me. He said, “Here’s this zine I made.” “Oh, this is pretty cool. You made this?” It’s a calling card, it does everything.

Rail: As opposed to saying, “Oh, check my Instagram feed.”

Pierson: Or come to my studio.

Rail: You mentioned earlier the image world you grew up in: television, movies, magazines. But it was also a word world, with innovative typefaces everywhere in advertising. Your word pieces run the gamut, from the confessional to the sculptural—sculptures of collaged letters that are as disjunctive as ransom notes. Tell me about your interest in text. Did it come out of an interest in the conceptual art of Lawrence Weiner, On Kawara, et al.?

Pierson: I had working class parents who said, “Art school, what can you do with that?” I told them I can be a graphic designer and make a lot of money, blah blah blah. That’s what I would study. I thought graphic design meant album covers for punk rock bands, not brochures for Mass General. That didn’t seem like art to me. In the first-year design course at Mass Art, we were asked to design a container for an egg that you could drop off a balcony and not break the egg. That sounded hard, so instead I wrote this whole thing in arty handwriting about a bird trying to save the egg and why not let the egg hatch and let the bird fly by itself. The professor said, “What is this? You should be in SIM.” Which stands for Studio for Interrelated Media, at that time one of the few places where they taught doing performance art. Thanks to two SIM professors, Harris Barron and Donald Burgy, I was encouraged to think performatively, you might say. I would organize performances and handle the advertising. I even began to make money doing graphic design because everybody wanted a poster by me. As for Lawrence Weiner as an influence, yes. Dada of course, but more Fluxus. The whole SIM department was into Fluxus, which fit with the period, intensely new wave. I was more new wave than punk, and Fluxus seemed to me, even in 1980, contemporary.

Rail: The word pieces are performative. Like ransom notes are performative.

Pierson: Or film credits or roadside billboards. You know how, driving south, you see huge signs as far north as Delaware for South of the Border, that roadside attraction at the border of South Carolina. I didn’t think of it when I set about making sculptural word pieces, but certainly now when I see the scale of what I do, I realize that I understood how powerful it was to see typefaces at an inflated size.

Rail: You’ve explored different approaches. An early one was handwritten emotional messages. I mean, they look spontaneously scrawled but…

Pierson: I had had the show at Simon Watson’s, I was maxed out on my credit card, and I thought, “What the fuck do I do now?” I was also constantly having my heart broken at that time. And so I just started writing on sheets of paper, things like “Fuck you, you bastard, I hate you!” [Laughter] Wait a second, these look like they were written by some—

Rail: Sad, isolated person—

Pierson: —in a hotel room in New York City. I’m gonna keep going with this.

Rail: It became a performance, a performance of “as if.”

Pierson: That’s what I kept telling myself until it dawned on me, no, I actually feel like this. Those are my cigarette butts. I am smoking too much. But I could never dare say it aloud. If it was a performance, it was like method acting. That kind of “as if,” where you believe it. Anyway, those drawings hit in a minor way. Simon sold them all. This would have been in 1992. One day I was walking to my studio and passed by a salvage tent on Houston and Chrystie streets. Inside, among other things, were letters from signs piled on the ground, for ten dollars each. I was with my studio manager at the time. He said, “If you spend forty dollars on those, I’ll kill you. You owe me money, and we’re two months behind in the rent.” I thought, this could be good, this could be really good. I bought them, went to the studio, pinned them up, sold the piece almost immediately, and went back the day after that to buy as many letters as I could.

The first piece was made of four different fonts and colors. The second batch, however, was red marquee letters, the same size and scale. And a couple of black ones maybe. I didn’t think they would be interesting. But when I laid them out in a grid, I noticed that in the middle, the letters spelled God. Just like that, boom.

Rail: There’s grist for the interpretive mill. I look at them and I want to know what these letters are telling me about a phrase such as, “as if.” I want to think about why the S is shiny, and why the A is a different font and flatter, reflective. I find it a revelation to encounter these words that are so abstract and familiar in a way that’s completely visual and physical. If they look like this, what do they really mean?

Pierson: You’re asking the right questions about why this or that letter. But I have to struggle with those questions because people want certain kinds of answers. They want a backstory. “Do these letters come from signs from Las Vegas?” I think maybe one of them is. “Is that from the Sands Hotel?” Yes, why not. “The original marquee?” Sure. Sometimes I’m thrilled by the provenance. But the provenance isn’t the story. The story is the way I put them together and how their appearance hits you. The upcoming show at Lisson Gallery is called Pomegranates, the title of one of the pieces. Pomegranates, what does it mean? It means that particular shade of pink next to that green, with that little hint of bright red there. It’s a painting. I’ve gotten better at it, and I’m not constrained just by what I have lying around. Not, “Well, it’s an S, and I need an S.” Now, if I want it to look Gothic, I can make it look Gothic, I’ll get a Gothic letter. If I want it to look clean, I can do that.

Rail: Calculation and capacity change the game. And I have to say, I can see this developing in your work, an increasing precision, let’s call it.

Pierson: I appreciate your remarking on that development because I have been working at it.

Rail: It’s great to walk through the studio and see all the raw materials, like an abandoned carnival or a ruined Coney Island. But looking at what’s on the walls, I see something that completely surprises me. Pinned up are large scale—slightly larger than life size—black-and-white portraits of people. Absolutely straight. It’s as if I had wandered into an extension of the Met’s last Avedon show. Are you embracing the objectivity of the large format camera? That doesn’t seem like you.

Pierson: I love Avedon’s work, and the show at the Met was stunning. As a photographer, I get how hard it is to do what he did. It’s not just, “Stand against the white backdrop.” The picture of Allen Ginsberg and his family is so difficult to achieve, that presence. The subtext of everything we’ve been saying is that I come to the material and the approaches to my art from the point of view of a fan. I’m like Rupert Pupkin in The King of Comedy. I see something and say, I think I’ll try this. I’m a fan more than a practitioner, and my work is all about letting you know what I’m a fan of.

Rail: But this is a bit more complicated because the change is so dramatic.

Pierson: I have been taking pictures of people for many years, but the impression they made on viewers was often one of remarkable intimacy. So, if a young man is sitting on a bed, the inference was, there must have been something going on. But there never had been. It was all made up. I know how to make signifiers work and how to stage images. They were compelling and balletic, and, I think, beautiful. But it would be unseemly at sixty to make a picture that suggests I just got out of bed with this guy. I still want to be in the presence of naked youth and physical beauty. So how do I do that? How do I convey that? Can I do that without languor?

Rail: Without the anecdote.

Pierson: I am staging people to present them as though the photograph is not an offer.

Rail: Not a come-on.

Pierson: Exactly. What if I can just look at you standing there?

Rail: You seem to want to give the subjects more autonomy, but you don’t want them disengaged. You want them there for you. It’s tricky to get right.

Pierson: Yes. It’s a function of never having used a fancy camera and now moving into the digital age. As high-end as I ever got was a Rolleiflex film camera, and my style was based on images being out of focus, overexposed or underexposed. But I reached a point where I felt, “Okay, I’ve done it.” And now I’m obsessed with—

Rail: Precision. Detail.

Pierson: So I have moved from Arbus to Avedon. I am full steam ahead. Can I get it that good, man, as good as Avedon? Let’s give it a try.

Lyle Rexer is the author of many books, including How to Look at Outsider Art (2005), The Edge of Vision: The Rise of Abstraction in Photography (2009) and The Critical Eye: 15 Pictures to Understand Photography (2019).

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