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Jack Early

by Elizabeth Kley
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Sharing an immaculate sense of design and a love of popular culture, Pruitt and Early was a win/win combination at the height of their short-lived career. But as soon as Rob Pruitt and Jack Early split in 1992, their pathways dramatically diverged. Pruitt sold couture dresses and dreamed up craft projects for Martha Stewart Living, while Early painted houses and started writing music. Later, Pruitt laid out a feast of cocaine for art world insiders and then exhibited his work at Gavin Brown. Meanwhile, Early impeccably decorated a 10 x 16 room in a Times Square SRO.

The couple had moved to New York in the late ‘80s, at the height of the exploding art market. After cannily starting at the top with blue-chip jobs -- Early at Leo Castelli Gallery and Pruitt at Sonnabend -- they had a solo show at 303 Gallery in 1990 called “Artwork for Teenage Boys.” Their readymade accumulations of six-packs, head shop stickers, heavy-metal idol posters and iron-on motorcycle logos could be described as warmer versions of Cady Noland’s scathing beer-can installations.

But with “Red, Black, Green, Red, White and Blue,” their 1992 show at Leo Castelli, Priutt/Early resoundingly put their feet in their mouths. Mass-market posters of black celebrities and naked women -- athletes, entertainers and even Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. -- were mounted on obelisk-shaped posts inside a paint splattered gallery lined with gold foil. A year before the “political” 1993 Whitney Biennial and in the midst of a dramatic economic downturn, their (white) examination of the kitsch manufactured for African American consumption was critically lambasted -- the New York Times’ Michael Kimmelman called it “degrading” and “sensationalistic.” Pruitt’s now-flourishing career went on hold for five years and Early’s was kaput.

“I didn’t step one toe in a gallery for over thirteen years,” Early recently explained in an ArtSlant interview with Trong Gia Nguyen. “I couldn’t even look at an art magazine without feeling sick. I sort of just went off and painted houses, became a doorman, worked in a thrift shop, raked yards. I suppose I should have been sad, but something happened; I began humming songs in my head, nice songs with melodies and everything . . . I had never been happier in my whole life.”

Pruitt burst back into the art scene in 1998 with Cocaine Buffet, a rather sadistic (or generous) installation that consisted of a line of genuine powder laid out along a mirror that ran all the way across the floor. Enticed into self-abasement, partakers got down on their knees. The piece disappeared up their noses in ten minutes flat, possibly even destroying some recoveries. Pruitt’s star has been rising stratospherically ever since.

Titled “Pattern and Degradation,” Pruitt’s most recent one-person exhibition took place at Gavin Brown and Maccarone in September, 2010. Over 8,000-square-feet in the two enormous galleries were filled with huge self-portraits along with paintings of cinnamon buns, Ikea wall art, T-shirts and Amish quilts and oversized sculptures of tires.

Early, in contrast, has been more modestly edging his way back into the art world only over the last three years, with well-received solo shows in 2008 in Athens at E321, in 2009 at Brooklyn’s Southfirst Gallery, and at Daniel Reich this spring. Drawing on his love of music, he has exhibited two versions of Jack Early’s Ear Candy Machine, a musical installation featuring a day-glo rainbow in a room painted black.

Early’s latest foray into pocket-sized art, a tiny movie called What to Do with a Drunken Sailor?, lasts for four minutes and has only two characters, but it was made by a team of professionals, including a producer and a director. It can currently be seen at Forever & Today, Inc., a 100-square-foot non-profit exhibition space on Division Street started three years ago by Ingrid Chu and Savannah Gorton.

In spite of the fact that their gallery may be the smallest in New York, Chu and Gorton are very ambitious. Every show is a specially commissioned project created over several months, with artists as varied as Alison Knowles, Conrad Ventur, Rashawn Griffin and Nina Katchadourian. Site-specific installations and performances, published books and educational programs are among their many endeavors.

Influenced by the late ‘70s TV late-night musical variety show The Midnight Special, whose guests included Diana Ross, David Bowie and Joan Baez, the movie at Forever & Today begins with an image of Early leaning on the railing of the Staten Island Ferry, staring across the water like so many New Yorkers have done. Later, he’s seen walking across a bridge with a sailor’s bag slung over his shoulder, a glamorous yet humble incarnation of a soldier returning home.

Cut to Early, dressed in shirt, tie and vest with his last name projected in block letters on the wall behind him, crooning his most successful composition, It Don’t Rain in Beverly Hills. Previously recorded by the pop duo Dean & Britta in their album, 13 Most Beautiful: Songs for Andy Warhol Screen Tests, the song has been frequently played on the radio and was even featured in a major TV show, but this is Early’s first performance of it.

The lyrics, both sad and optimistic, touch on the universal American fantasy of “making it” -- and then feeling that success is a fraud:

They said you belonged on the silver screen . . .
And they flew you out to Beverly Hills . . .

You read your lines you read them beautiful
And you smile, you always smile on cue

And you shine just like a star
When you're giving the best of you
And you cry and you're wondering why
And who will take the rest of you? . . .
It don't rain in Beverly Hills
No matter what they say
The pain never washes away . . .

Return the starfish to the sea
Take my hand return with me.

A bittersweet commentary on stardom once within reach, the film is now hidden behind a black curtain to keep the room dark during the day. During the opening, it could be seen from across the street, resulting in a series of eerie reflections of Early’s face floating on the gallery’s glass windows -- a light echo of an image already made only of light. A far cry from Pruitt’s extravagant rooms, stuffed with expensive objects, Early’s film is shining proof that less is often more. The installation’s price hasn’t even been determined, but it can be seen at Forever & Today until December 18, 2011.

“Jack Early: What to Do with a Drunken Sailor?”Forever & Today, Inc., 141 Division Street, New York, N.Y. 10002.

ELISABETH KLEY is a New York artist and art writer.