Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Glamorous Piles

I first met Gregory Jacobsen in 2003, when I was living under a bridge and working the concession stand at Chicago's last great 1920s movie palace. Gregory was an assistant manager at the theater. I made less than minimum wage, but the work was incredibly easy and I was granted a great deal of freedom to read, sketch, smoke and spend my downtime however I pleased. I got on well with Gregory. He was pale and thin and had a gloomy, tragic air about him, as if he'd spent years locked inside the projection room; it was difficult to imagine him ever seeing the light of day, riding a bike or playing frisbee in the park.

I soon learned that Jacobsen did far more with his time, though, than simply brood. I happened to see his band one night, at the now-defunct Buddy Gallery in Wicker Park. Named, quite appropriately, Lovely Little Girls, the band put on one of the most gruesome and sinister spectacles I had ever witnessed. As the music plowed ferociously forward, with all the raunchy swing and intricate clatter of the Magic Band but none of the blues-rock residue, Jacobsen, dressed head-to-toe as a pre-K ballerina, twirled and squirmed and slithered and flopped all over the room, writhing and sibilating, pouting and preening--screeching and caterwauling all the while, in a highly histrionic style reminiscent of Jello Biafra at his most unhinged. One did not get the sense that one was watching a performance; Gregory fully was this little girl, not so much acting out her rites and rituals as inhabiting them. She was a bit of a nasty girl, maybe, one who was in the habit of torturing her dolls, who ate her own boogers and defiantly touched her privates, but like one of Darger's girls there was something para-ethical in her childish abandon. A grown man exorcising his inner little girl, Jacobsen was deliriously creepy, but never quite perverse.

The Lovely Little Girl act, though, was only one facet of Gregory's overripe oeuvre. He also painted. He painted with daunting profligacy, actually. Browsing through his collection over the internet, Gregory's seemingly-enormous body of work bore the elegant brushwork of a classically-trained artist. No paint-flinging expressionist, Gregory had clearly slogged through years of rigorous technical training to master light and shadow, color theory and other such mundane trade secrets. Armed with this old-world skill set--the sort of painter who delighted in the folds of a tunic, or the intricacies of a sky at sundown--he set about exploring the goriest corners of his little girl's imagination. Here in Jacobsen's ruined landscapes, the pageant princesses frolicked in piles of rotting fruit and dessicated innards, their orifices spewing forth a bawdy banquet of fluids and flesh--a realm very much through the looking glass, where one pill made you taller, one pill made you small, and the pill that Mother gave you caused dayglo maggots to wriggle forth from your sputtering vulva.

I finally took the opportunity to see some of Jacobsen's paintings in person--his fifth solo show is up now at Zg Gallery. The works on display here are very much those of Gregory Jacobsen, replete with oozing girls and piles of entrails. One hapless reviewer recently described the show as "immoral", suggesting rather melodramatically that "the works would find pride of place in any Satanist's home, above the taxidermied goat's-head sofa or in a rapist's rumpus room". Which makes for flashy copy, but is far from accurate. Jacobsen has in fact toned down the grotesquerie quite a bit in his new paintings, many of which are fairly formal still-lifes of meat and rubbish--piles, he calls them. The piles are lavish in their slimy detail, each phallic gourd and vaginated sea-anemone rendered with loving precision:

"I paint piles of garbage, guts and bodies... pathetic monoliths, towers of shit and garbage," Jacobsen says in his brief artist's statement. "These monoliths are the discarded evidence of obscure personal rituals of masturbation and sex"--refreshing candor in an po-pomo art world full of high-concept inflatables, inscrutable installations and the still-ubiquitous fabric art. I'll take obscure rituals of masturbation and sex any day of the week! Some reviewers have noted the continuity between Jacobsen's visual and sonic outputs--set the paintings to music and, viola! You've got Lovely Little Girls; and indeed, both are clearly sprung from the same fecund imagination. Other critics studiously chart historical precedents in the Chicago Imagists or the Dutch Masters ("like looking out of Breughel's window at Mike Diana's crotch," observes one smartaleck scribe); and nearly every critic who's considered Jacobsen's paintings seems to relish the linguistic possibilities they afford--it's a banner day at the art writer's desk when his subject oozes and secretes. But the paintings certainly don't need all of these referents and citations--they hold up perfectly well on their own, thank you very much, these patient products of Gregory's febrile imagination. "The paintings are about my obsession with bodies and their inevitable failure," Jacobsen summarizes--surely a subject art-lovers everywhere can rally around.

Gregory recently quit the movie theater, after many years of dedicated service, and is now, presumably, a full-time painter. His show at Zg, entitled Prostrate, has been extended until Feb. 27--the gallery is at 300 W. Superior. Now if we could only get the dormant Lovely Little Girls back in action...

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