Matthew Day Jackson has the very refreshing (and very rare) quality of making you think you’ve known each other for ages, even if you’ve just met. I’ve only known the multimedia artist for a few minutes before we sit down in the photo studio of NeueHouse Madison Square, yet once we start talking the conversation flows seamlessly, jumping from humor to the philosophy of art in a completely organic manner. “I think as artists we are…trying to see something new all the time, even if it’s something we’ve seen 7 million times before,” he says, before making specific notes about the room we’re in, “like that tile being out of place from the rest.”
The Pacific Northwest native is as hilarious as he is smart, with a contagious laugh and an impressive array of references – a quality which is as evident in his work as it is in his personality. While the gallery upstairs put the finishing touches on the dinner table honoring Day Jackson and Neville Wakefield, the artist and I discussed everything from robbing Anish Kapoor to the anxiety and accomplishment of participating in life.
Ana Velasco: Your work has a conversation with history and humanity, while using a lot of reference points – such as the cockpit that looks like the Millennium Falcon. When creating a piece do you have an ambition to deliver a particular message or would you rather the viewer create their own interpretation?
Matthew Day Jackson: No, what I’m trying to make are things that are open enough so anybody can enter into them, either through iconography, mythology, color, or texture. You make reference to the Millennium Falcon. That becomes an entry point for you to the work, which might be different from that of other people. It’s sort of like a trap – allowing entry points for as many people as possible, while recognizing that we live in this plural world where things have a lot of different meanings.
Matthew Day Jackson | The way we were, 2010 — Titanium, aluminum, steel, iron, bronze, copper, lead, stainless steel 32.4 x 320 x 35.4 cm
AV: Is there a specific source that keeps informing your work overall?
MDJ: No, I think I try to maintain an openness to the world I live in. I want to recognize moments when I see my reflection, and then being open enough to recognize the reflection I see often times isn’t pleasant. When I see that reflection, it’s sometimes in relation to other things I’ve been thinking about for a while that are emerging from the darkness of my subconscious and into the front of my brain.
In terms of a particular source, it can come from anything. Maybe even tonight, here and now, as we talk. Whenever I talk at universities, or if I’m driving a car for a long time, that seems to be a highly active moment. I think the panic of being in front of a bunch of people brings ideas to the forefront. You begin seeing images fly by that you don’t call upon, rather, you happen upon.
AV: That reminds me of this Louis CK bit about having existential anxiety, and how we, as humans, are prone to reach for our phones and call or text somebody, as opposed to sitting with that overwhelming dread. He talks about being in his car and feeling that horrible humane fear and having the impulse to escape it through communication validation, but instead letting himself feel it. I believe that is what art is and where it comes from – not denying yourself the humanity that is in all of us.
MDJ: I actually would take it one step further. I think anxiety is motivated by a fear of death. I think the way social media functions – in the way that we need to check to see if somebody likes us or our picture, or responded to our text – the insignificance is somehow elevated to this moment where you see yourself largely reflected. It’s a recognition that you are in fact participating and that you are in fact alive, and being absent from it is a sort of death.
Matthew Day Jackson | Odalisque, 2015 — Bronze, IPE wood, stainless steel, wax 123.2 x 243.8 x 78.7 cm | 48.5 x 96 x 31
AV: What has been the biggest challenge you’ve faced in pursuing art as a career?
MDJ: Probably the first time I decided I wanted to be an artist. For a long time I used to say I made things, but I never wanted to say I was an artist because I felt like an impostor, or not worthy of that title. Somewhere down the line that changed. I think I can thank Joseph Beuys for saying “Everyone is an artist” (laughs). I was like, ok, well I can say I’m an artist now since it’s not that special.
There’s always something, but I think that’s part of the charge, too. We can see in our contemporary culture how fear is a huge motivator, and I think on the micro level being a little bit fearful or wrong, yet still needing to do this thing is exciting. Excitement and fear somehow co-mingle. They hang out and sleep together and drink (laughs).
AV: If you could work with any material at all (without any limitations) to create a large scale work, what would it be?
MDJ: I just bought so much fake blood, actually, that they gave me a bulk discount (laughs). I would really love to steal that black shit from Anish Kapoor, but I would only wanna use it if I could break into his studio to use it (laughs). He bought that blackest color [vantablack], which is now a trademark material.
Matthew Day Jackson | Musicians of Bremen, 2015
AV: I wonder what it actually looks like – darker than black.
MDJ: It’s like seeing a ghost, I would assume. I just painted this entire house black and for two months I didn’t allow furniture in. I would sit on the floor and think and stare into blackness (laughs). I love thinking about the house being like that, because you could essentially disappear an object that way.
AV: What is it like to sit in a room completely surrounded by darkness?
MDJ: For me, the studio is generative. Being in the studio is a place to work, it’s not a place where ideas come. It’s like Church, and I’ve said this a bunch of times. A Church or a Mosque or a Synagogue are places where people join a community as an expression of faith, but ultimately it’s like a Tuesday when life is asking you difficult questions, and that’s when this reservoir of faith comes to play. I’m likening creativity and awareness to that faith, so the studio is a place to come celebrate it. Ultimately, though, it’s during a Tuesday when you’re taking your kids to school and you see a soggy newspaper with a story that you partially read from three days before, and that’s the thing that starts the engine of creativity.
AV: What is the most beautiful thing you’ve ever seen?
MDJ: Well this is kind of corny, but I don’t care if it’s corny. The insane joy of a small child when they’re become aware of something on their own terms. When they’ve accomplished something and they’re like, “WHAT?!” – that’s beautiful. I think as artists we are trying to go back to moments when we don’t necessarily have labels for things, and we’re trying to see something new all the time, even if it’s something we’ve seen 7 million times before. To look at something anew and to think about it, that’s where criticality comes in. When you witness that excitement in kids, it’s awesome and hilarious; it’s a rasa where so many emotions are happening simultaneously, to the point where it makes you weak. You know? Like when you love somebody so much you can feel it, like your heart is stopping.
AV: Absolutely. I always say if I could do something for the first time again, it would be to see the ocean. Can you imagine what that’s like? Do you remember the first time you saw the ocean?
MDJ: No, but I do remember seeing the Los Angeles river for the first time, and I think the flip of scale is what makes you realize, “Woah, I’m tiny.” You know what was really beautiful? I remember the first time my oldest son was the furthest from me while in my care. He was about 200 yards away, maybe, on his bicycle, and I heard him scream, “Dad you’re tiny!” (laughs) But I don’t remember seeing the ocean for the first time. I actually don’t remember seeing a lot of things for the first time, but that’s more to talk about with my therapist (laughs).
AV: What has been your proudest accomplishment so far?
MDJ: It’s pretty simple. My proudest accomplishment is having maintained a flexibility and openness even in the face of failure.
AV: Which do you prefer: the beach or the woods, breakfast or dinner, film or tv, rain or snow?
MDJ: Woods, hands down. Breakfast. Tie, they both offer so much weirdness. Snow.
AV: How would you define freedom?
MDJ: I think freedom is agency, and having the ability to give self-permission. Not waiting for anybody else to say you’re wonderful or great or smart, but rather, recognizing there’s this thing that motivates us and to be in touch with that.
Photography: Chris Luttrell for NeueJournal