Andrea Hill, Curator, New York
Daniel Buren's seminal 1971 essay "The Function of the Studio" had artists turning away from the traditional studio in droves, toward space-specific ways of working, for example, or strategies of outsourcing artistic production. For Paul Jacobsen and many other contemporary artists, however, the studio remains the center of their work, a real place where creative mental processes are set in motion. Thus Jacobsen's studio proves to be a constantly moving arrangement of paintings, embedded in a hodgepodge of photographs, images from the Internet, counterculture literature, hand-picked wooden boards, window frames, glasses with feathers, or randomly found chairs and stools.
Jacobsen is a passionate collector of unique objects that once required true craftsmanship to make - so it's hardly surprising that his paintings also transpose pre-industrial principles into a post-civilization age where those skills will once again be in demand. The imagery in his studio is drawn from a wide variety of books, private and staged photographs as well as images downloaded from the Internet of freedom fighters/terrorists, mind-control developers, and cult leaders. Here Jacobsen creates a stage where the natural world and its values such as craftsmanship, skill, and beauty regain the upper hand over the industrial and technical values that have dominated modern society since the 18th century.
The paintings from 2005 - 2009 show a natural world, still recognizably influenced by the formal language of traditional landscapes, but plagued by overpowering evidence of the throwaway society. In this series Jacobsen deals with the idea of life after the end of civilization. People are returning to the old skills, building their dwellings in the form of traditional yurts, teepees and earthen structures, making their own clothes, playing with animals and enjoying their time off from work. The few remaining females in Jacobsen's world nibble fruit in the nude or bask in the moonlight. These idyllic scenes must have been preceded by a fundamental new beginning - and possibly violent conflict, as suggested by the monuments of piled garbage in "The Last Spectacle" (2005) and "The Final Record of the Last Moment of History" (2008). The mountains of rockets, tractors, car parts, and scrap metal are reminiscent of historical funeral pyres such as Girolamo Savonarola's "Purgatory of the Vanities" from 1497 or the book burnings of the National Socialists in 1933. Beyond the idyllic façade, the question arises here whether the return to paradise was only possible through a violent overthrow.
In Jacobsen's work, the symbols of revolution are the infinity sign and the flag. "Infinity Rainbow Bubble" (2002), the earliest work in the exhibition, is a pink tondo with the rainbow-colored Möbius strip as a talisman of the new age in which nature reigns over industry. The same infinity sign is also found on a tattered flag carried by birds over an idyllic pastoral scene in "Ludic" (2009) and fluttering in the wind next to a peacefully grazing horse in "Black Horse, Black Crow, Black Flag" (2009). Borrowing the pink bubble from the Wizard of Oz and the imagery of Disney films, Jacobsen communicates his own spiritual logo. Born in Denver in 1976 and raised in Colorado's Roaring Fork Valley, the artist was surrounded from an early age by idyllic natural landscapes as well as the back-to-the-land movement, feminist groups, and New Age currents as a spiritual aftermath of the 1960s. As his personal banner, the rainbow infinity sign represents the spiritual quest to return to these fertile surroundings.
In the more recent Charcoal Drawings of 2011 - 2013, Jacobsen focuses on the flag as such, omitting all insignia and abstracting the fabric into a dark form, fluttering loosely in the wind. In contrast to the Anarchist Flag, which is a jet-black field suggesting the absence of a flag - as well as a country - Charcoal Flags is subtly graded from jet black to medium grays and white to flowing layers of charcoal dust. Closer inspection reveals that the seemingly dark, slightly irregular frames have been carefully flamed, a reference to the process of charring wood. Fire creates heat, the primary energy par excellence. Fire-making can ensure survival - but seen in the context of our precarious environment today, it also leads to deforestation and the exploitation of other natural resources. Jacobsen cites Aric McBay's concept of "Cascading Industrial Collapse," according to which the "declining revenues of a petroleum industry beyond peak production, or an electric grid pushed to its capacity limits by an economic system dependent on endless growth" present several possible scenarios for the collapse of the industrialized world. The Charcoal Flags fly as a protest against this reality, referencing their own means of production through the materiality of the flamed frames and coal. The traces of coal dust falling from the fabric, as it were, suggest that the flag itself may also be burning. What remains are the ashes of a wasted civilization.
As we can see in Paul Jacobsen's entire oeuvre, the picturesque, masterfully executed images always prove to be illusions full of profound warnings regarding our contemporary way of life and possible scenarios after the collapse of industrial society. Perhaps Jacobsen's most beautiful and at the same time most notorious motifs, however, are the lens flares, by-products of the kind created in photography and film by the scattering of light in the camera.
The lens flare first appears in "Interventionist" (2004), with supernatural aspects as the result of UFO-like flowing beams of light. In the following works "Primitive Domestic" (2005-07) and "And They Returned to the Green Wilderness to Live off the Land" (2009), the lens flare becomes a landscape element, its veil of light appearing on forests and figures. Here, photography and the presence of the camera are further emphasized by the hyper-realistic painting style. "Forest Path" (2009) focuses on the lens flare as such, especially its atmospheric and hallucinogenic properties. Says Jacobsen, "I initially chose the lens flare as a motif in response to its use in the 24-hour news cycle, New Age flyers, and soft porn. For me, these works distill the Light of God out of the history of Western painting (and Hallmark cards)..." The sky light is filtered multiple times, starting from the camera and ending in a multitude of darker intentions.
"Village" (2006), the image on the catalog cover, suggests a multicultural community of teepees, yurts, and other handmade huts, a concept Jacobsen developed into sculptural forms in his 2011 solo exhibition at Klemens Gasser & Tanja Grunert Gallery, New York. Collected wooden beams from building demolitions in his studio became structural elements in "Petrify," "Seminary," "Pine Badge," and "Sprucehead" (2011), introducing the motif of the vernacular log cabin. For example, Jacobsen constructed an object on the first floor of the gallery that served as a camera obscura and was also furnished with personal objects and arrangements from his studio. "American Language" is Jacobsen's most ambitious installation and represents a crossroads between painted longing and the ambition to create a home with his own hands. This symbolic home allowed the artist to shape and define his own environment with the aid of time-honored basic skills of cabin building. As his strongest statement yet on the question of how civilization might continue after the collapse, Jacobsen begins to follow and live the principles shown in his earlier works - and here the artist's studio, work, and life merge into one.