Jack Pierson, "Go there now and take this with you," June 24-July 31, 2010, at Bortolami Gallery, 510 W 25th Street, New York, N.Y. 10011
"Sprezzatura" denotes the art of concealing thought and effort, according to Baldessare Castiglione in The Book of the Courtier, the infamous Renaissance manual for getting ahead in aristocratic circles. Despite its long pedigree, the notion that naturalism is best achieved through pretense seems eminently postmodern. Indeed, for the contemporary photographer Jack Pierson (who is also celebrated for word sculptures made with letters from old signs), this paradoxical concept is crucial to "Go there now and take this with you," a peripatetic collection of photographs first seen in Los Angeles last March and now up at Bortolami until the end of July.
Turning the gallery into a temporary location for travel souvenirs from an exotic life of leisure, Pierson’s lush shots are printed on matte paper and pinned lackadaisically on the wall, instead of being framed under glass. All bear the creases of having already been folded into eighths, as if they were casually taken from a suitcase to be shown for an instant before being carried away to adorn the next hotel room. Locations, mostly tropical, range from Egypt to Paris to Florida to Southern California, and the overriding colors are the blues of water and skies and the saturated golds and reds of sunsets.
As usual, Pierson blends references to death, religion, eroticism and the ephemeral. Allusions to mortality include a Cape Cod tombstone, a pyramid against a pink twilight, and a bronze relief of a young man’s corpse in a bed surrounded by flowers. Religion is lightly referred to in a shot of a white wood cross that crowns the top of Leonard Knight’s Salvation Mountain -- an outsider installation celebrating Christianity in brightly colored acrylic paint that can be seen for miles. Typically for Pierson, the only color to be found in his evocation of this garish extravaganza is the background‘s blue sky.
Eroticism appears in a picture of an antique stone sculpture of a male torso and in several other images of sunset and flight that could signify the swift disappearance of sexual pleasure. A copy of a Fauve Kees van Dongen painting of an Arab boy with glowing red skin is an oversized once-folded snapshot of an also once-folded newspaper reproduction. Distance from the original work is thus redoubled, and the painting turns into an idea that floats in the imaginary space between the material object and its recollection.
Ephemeral moments are captured in photos of a palm frond burning in a bonfire at Pierson’s California desert home, a pair of tropical fish, and colored electric lights reflected in the Nile at sunset. And the foamy waters of the sea at a Miami resort appear in an image at once inviting and dangerous. A rope ladder and a swing dangle from a metal pole emerging from the side of a cliff, suggesting both plunging into the water and escaping from drowning.
Pierson materializes an easy-going fantasy world where the effort of solving everyday problems and coping with sadness and loss has faded to insignificance. What’s missing doesn’t mean that trouble isn’t present in his life -- it’s just that capturing the nonchalant gestures of nature and art before they disappear is of overriding importance in his photography.
ELISABETH KLEY is a New York artist and writer.