gregory jacobsen
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interview by julie farstad

Gregory Jacobsen, Gravel Pit Gritted A Trifle Stilted, Dance Dance, acrylic on wood, 12x12 in., 2002. All images courtesy Zg Gallery, Chicago.

Let's start with a little bit of background.

I'm originally from Middlesex, New Jersey. It's sort of industrial. They manufactured nuclear bomb parts there, and at some point they had to remove all this radioactive dirt from the site, which they buried in a junkyard two blocks behind my house and covered with tarp and tires. There was another field of it next to the Catholic school down the street, where I attended catechism classes; they only recently removed it. Then, in the 1980s, on the street over from mine, it seemed like every factory blew up. There was also a company upstream on the Raritan that would dump all this shit in the river every couple of years, and it would run down into our neighborhood pond and kill all the ducks and fish. So, that's where I grew up!

Then you came out here for your BFA at the School of the Art Institute. What drew you to Chicago?

Well, I failed all through high school, and prospects weren't looking very bright. But SAIC will take any old idiot; your GPA doesn't matter. So it was pretty much the only school that accepted me. It was an escape route. And due to lack of funds, I've been stuck out here ever since! I never thought about was just this place that people liked for its basketball team.

So you want to go back east, but you can't afford it?

Yeah...anywhere but the Midwest. I don't like the Midwest, really. It's depressing, and people seem to be very uptight, generally. Some of them might seem wild and wacky, but they're pretty repressed sorts. And the accent makes me cringe. There are some great people and great aspects, but like everywhere these days, it's just becoming Disneyfied. It has become increasingly difficult to find the dirty little nooks and crannies. But fortunately, everyone from Michigan migrates here, and they're all crazy over in Michigan.

How was your experience at SAIC? Did you concentrate in painting while you were there?

The first two years I tried working in the painting department, but found that it wasn't really worth it. Although I did have two really great painting instructors. David Kroll was amazing; I learned a lot of technique from him, like glazing and layering. And Elizabeth Ruprecht. Her sense of culture ended at around 1950, and she really focused on Picasso. She had us working in this strange way of seeing planes and things like that, as opposed to being realistic. Otherwise, I thought the painting department was mediocre and unsupportive. The printmaking department, which I also dabbled in, was decent, but I really didn't get much feedback. So I ended up relating most to the sound department. In my experience, most purely visual-art people are very narrow in their focus, whereas the sound people have a full range of knowledge about art, from performance to sound to music, and to painting.

And you're now doing sound or performance work, as well as paintings.

Well, for me, the two mediums work off each other. With the sound work, I'm trying to create an environment that's sort of like a Three Stooges vaudeville situation, and I'm also trying to convey that in the paintings. Growing up, my exposure to art was mostly through music and album covers. Even now, I never go to galleries and rarely go to museums, so my art intake still comes through magazines, books, and album covers. Remember that movie Xanadu?

That cheesy roller-skating film with Olivia Newton-John?

Right. There was a guy in that film who painted music billboards, and when I saw that I thought, "Wow, I really want to do that!"

So you were inspired by...Xanadu.

Partly. And I always think of my paintings in terms of, "Is this going to look good on an album cover?" In the past it hasn't related 100% to the music I make, but I think it's getting there.

What sort of music do you listen to?

The Contortions, The Fall, The Residents--and I like Captain Beefheart a lot. And old, goofy, novelty songs from the 1950s and '60s, and old 78s. Anything that offers something not much from the past 20 years! In general, I like really discordant music. I don't think that translates exactly to my paintings medium-wise, but what you get out of it meaning-wise is there. At least, that's what I try to convey.

Well, there's definitely discordance in the work, in the sense of its surrealistic distortion--there's a lot of physical deformity, and human forms mutating into animals or meat. You seem to be developing a visual language that combines the abject or the horrible with things that are supposed to be delicious or cute.

That's kind of my weak point: always relying on putting these two disparate things--the cute and the abject--together. It's kind of an easy out, and I'm really trying to develop the work so you're not actually conscious of it as a juxtaposition.

It seems like you're starting to do that through your use of color. You're painting things like meat oozing mucus, but in this candy-colored, strawberry ice cream-looking palette. So there's a formal tension there.

That's the direction I'm going in.

The sensibility of your work makes me think of Henry Darger.

Yeah, he's definitely an influence. He created his own world, and it had its own logic. There are little girls with penises, and it's never questioned. It's what the world consists of: little girls with penises! That's what I strive most for in my work--that it creates its own world and logic. A lot of people's work falls flat because they have something "shocking"'s presented as shocking and it comes off as adolescent. Like, "Haha! I said a dirty word!" A lot of comedy doesn't work for me because of that, as well--always pointing out the joke.

Although I have to say that when I first saw your work, I imagined you to be this kind of middle-aged, Outsider hermit--which turned out to be completely unfair, because you're an educated artist, for one thing, and you're only 26 years old!

Well, I'm a bit of a homebody, but I'm not a hermit. I certainly wouldn't say I'm an Outsider, but I think that all depends on how I market myself.

But there's always this tendency, on the part of the viewer, to use artwork to read into artists' identities, or to psychoanalyze them. Have you encountered people who read your paintings as some kind of...well, cry for help?

I don't buy into that sort of reading. Certainly everything of me--my likes and dislikes--are in these paintings. But to actually psychoanalyze them is to pretty much just write them off.

When people see images combining in an illogical way that creates meaning, they fall back on Freud. But how would you like them to be read? Clearly, they're funny...right?

(laughs) And sexy. And abject. There's this amazing pornographic book by Aleister Crowley, Snowdrops from a Curate's Garden. The sexual language is hilarious--it must have a thousand different synonyms for things like the asshole--and the protagonist gets into these ridiculous scenarios. It's very idiotic, funny, and sexy in a way that cheesecake shit can never be. That book has been a big influence in my work. I think making art, whatever it might be, is sex for me. Everything about sex is in these paintings, and it's not just the obvious genitalia. It's about loving a form and seeing it close, with the pimples, and the little hairs. They're kind of gross, but they're also part of it. But to get back to the illogical combination of things--I think there is a logic behind the images, at least for me. I don't think I practice the tired, cheap "Surrealism 101" method of sticking any old shit together. The combinations work more viscerally than cerebrally.

Left: Gregory Jacobsen, All the Unlucky People into the Fire, acrylic on wood, 13x10 in., 2003. Right: Short-stabbing 50 Pounders, acrylic on wood, 14x11 in., 2003.

There's also a very sensual quality to the way they're painted; the images are quite beautiful and luscious. It's a very real attempt to get at this dynamic of desire and disgust.

Doing art for me is certainly a catharsis. If I'm truly happy at the end of the day, what the hell am I gonna make?

Well, you also come from a Catholic family--

Yeah. Although we were sort of armchair Catholics.

Eleanor Heartney wrote this interesting article about how such a high percentage of artists grew up Catholic. Maybe so many artists emerge from that upbringing because they've been confronted with this mind-body problem from the get-go. Your paintings do seem involved with that dualism, and the other side of shame--shamelessness, or coming to terms with bodily shame. Do you think Catholicism has impacted your work?

I never much cared for church, but I certainly see values creep in--like the mind-body values. Even in a relaxed religious upbringing, I think these issues are passed down through generations. But I always tell everyone that I'm proud to be raised Catholic, because it's so fucked-up that it formed a good part of my mind, I think. But I wouldn't say there is any shame in the paintings, and I don't think the human body and sex are shameful. I have a great body--slightly girlie...although my shoulders are getting a bit too broad these days.

A lot of your paintings depict landscapes that look like stage sets or scenery. The figures occupy a very shallow space, and at times they're on stages. How does the idea of the spectacle or the stage operate in your work?

It probably comes from my interest in puppets and puppet stages...Punch and Judy bashing each other with bats. And I really like flat painting, although I find it needs to have a bit of depth. Otherwise, it just looks like a bad illustration. But that deliberately fake space, to me, makes the painting more of its own world.

Your figures also have these recurring facial deformities. What interests you about the grotesque?

I try to start painting nice people, with regular features. Then I look at it and it doesn't have the emotional impact I want, so I have to go in and scratch out their nose, and mess their face up a bit. I don't know; it might be a sort of expressionism--it conveys this intense emotion, like maybe the peak of climax or the moment before death. There's also this patheticness, and for me, sex ties in with being very pathetic. I mean, sex is really silly; it's just thump-thump-thump. But I would love to paint beautiful people and still maintain that tension, like Balthus.

I see a lot of Bosch in the work, too.

Oh, definitely. Medieval painting is a big influence. I don't think knowing the narrative to the paintings is essential, because the characters have these looks on their faces that are really timeless. Especially when something really awful is happening: they're being boiled in a pot, and they're just staring off into space--real funny stuff. I always see people with that idiotic, glazed look in their eyes. Painting faces is very hard for me. It's really easy to do a cute face or an ugly face, but I need to give it a certain quality of helplessness and agony...and then slap some moronic smile on it. Birds' eyes are great; they have this ridiculous vacancy about them. I could watch pigeons all day; they make me laugh. But the Bosch faces are amazing. And what the characters are doing, even more so!

There's no hero in your work; all of your characters are equally stuck in this futile, absurd pageant. Everyone's losing--everybody lives a really base existence of suffering and sweaty sexual loserdom!

Yeah, that sums it up. Everything I tend to like--whether it's books or movies--always ends on a note of "Wah, wah, waaah." You know, there are these people trying really hard, like George Costanza on Seinfeld--

He just can't get a break.

Well, no--he gets plenty of breaks. But he's so self-serving that he has to constantly try to go one-up, and he always does himself in. No matter what he does, he'll just fuck up any opportunity he gets.

What is it about failure that appeals to you so much?

It's funny.

You seem very influenced by the carnival, and its notions of upending the prevailing social order. For example, you use masks both as a motif in your paintings, and in your performances. And many of your characters are neither boy nor girl; the genders morph into each other. There's no distinct struggle of male versus female, dominant versus submissive.

I'm glad you read it that way, because I'm always concerned people might take the work as being very misogynist.

You've performed in dresses, as well. What are your intentions or interests with regard to this bending or blending of gender?

To blur black and whites: all that male versus female, aggressive/submissive shit. I once had this nitwit assume that I would be a submissive partner--whatever that means--because I was a boy wearing a dress, even though the performance was very angular, off-putting, and aggressive. People just cling to these old values and stereotypes. I've always related most to androgyny, and I really like strong sexuality in people--I don't like it when they're sort of milquetoast. But I also don't like the extreme postures of being macho or ladylike. Both of those have always irritated the hell out of me; they've always seemed to be a pose so that people can more easily fuck each other.

You're not only subverting the hierarchy of gender, but by using the grotesque, you're also reversing the social power structures that privilege the manly, the strong, the attractive. You seem interested in what I think of as outsider desire, and the sexuality of the overlooked. In our culture, ugly girls are supposed to have zero sexuality, and it's sort of horrifying to portray a horny ugly girl, or fat girl. You say the work is all about sex, but the bodies you paint are not glamorous.

Actually, I like glamour, but it's sort of the glamour of the junkyard. I would guess it all goes back to a punk aesthetic--not like punk now, but punk from the mid-1970s, when it was very androgynous and experimental. It was dirty, but it was still very glamorous.

Top left: Gregory Jacobsen, Dog Food Clots Sweating Profusely, acrylic on wood, 6x6 in., 2002. Top right: Untitled, acrylic on wood, 6x6 in., 2002. Bottom left: Gregory Jacobsen, Untitled, acrylic on wood, 6x6 in., 2002. Bottom right: Untitled, acrylic on wood, 6x6 in., 2002.

Alan Artner wrote a review of your work in August 2002, and he said it had the same sensibility as Imagist work, with the volume turned up louder. Is Imagism that strong of an influence, for you?

I can certainly see the comparison, but that's a regional critique you wouldn't get anywhere else. I was unaware of Imagism until I moved to Chicago, and it's so big out here it's amazing. I really love Jim Nutt, especially his earlier paintings. The rest is all kind of cute. There is a bit of Imagism in my work, but it certainly pulls in a whole lot more from the past 30 years of underground comix.

I was going to ask about comix. Your work appears to have a lot in common with R. Crumb.

Yeah, I've always related to those ineffectual geek types who grow cynical and decide to destroy the world. I really love Charles Burns, Mark Beyer, Chris Ware, and Kaz. They all have this dark, fatalistic, hilariously funny view of the world. Philip Guston is also great; that's someone I think about a lot. He certainly taps into that absurd worldview--just strange pictures with such bizarre colors...and that thick paint!

Artner's review also characterized your work as "an infantile response to the world as a place unremittingly raw and full of confusion." What do you say to that?!

(laughs) Um, I can see merit in that comment. But to reduce it to that is just overlooking a lot of what the work has to offer. I have never bought into this notion of art as being transcendental, like Mark Rothko. It has to have some discord within, a bit of nihilism.

Well, when I think of that sort of infantile response, I think of people like Paul McCarthy.

Paul McCarthy's great. Sometimes, though, he doesn't seem to go any deeper than the clever joke.

It's what I call "boy-poopy art."

How would you define that?

To coin my own term, it would be this act of taking your own waste and wiping it everywhere. It's this gesture that ends in defiance, but doesn't go further than that.

I wouldn't consider Paul McCarthy's work as just ending in defiance. I laugh at it--I think it's hilarious. And some of the stuff he makes is beautiful, like the tomato head or the man fucking a tree. I relate to that kind of imagery, and would be a very sad man if the world was devoid of it. There's certainly defiance in my work, just because of what it is and how that relates to society in general. But for me, it's what I am, what I relate to. I'm not trying to press any issues.

There are these childlike motifs running through your work, though. A lot of the figures in your paintings wear little-girl dresses or little-boy underwear. Are you talking about innocence, or nostalgia for childhood?

It's certainly not nostalgia for childhood, because childhood was shit. I don't remember ever being innocent, and I'm sure no one else does. The figures wear this silly little underwear because it makes them look even more ridiculous. Most people are overgrown children. There are a few dead babies in the paintings, which is where most people's lives should start out.

I'm curious about the titles of your paintings. First of all, they're really long--for example: Blustering Bullies Embark on Bare-bottom Drills for Donut Muscle Diaper Bulge Thrills. Where do your titles come from?

I do a lot of cut-ups--usually found text from encyclopedias and pulp novels. Like William S. Burroughs, but a bit more intentional. But having done that for a few years, it's getting to be a bit limiting, because I notice a pattern in the kind of phrases and words I cut out. I go for phrases like "stuck in his dentures" or "chain hits with meaty thump" without really experimenting with the language. The vignettes start with something awful happening to someone and end with great gales of laughter.

Your artist's statement is wonderful, and I want to quote it at length: "A sad sack...indeed! ...Figures limp and hobble on and off the stage. Boils, pustules, bashed-in noses, big beefy hairy bodies flap, feeble wits sour! EVERYONE LAUGHS! FAILURE IS FUNNY!... Visceral meat clumps, steaks sitting slightly soiled, deeply split, sprouting tiny hairs. The curtain rises to reveal palpitating gristle groaning a song of lost love, 'uhdhbbbb, blub, uh, crrr.' It performs a burlesque dance, gyrating hips, stumbling on high heels, finally flipping itself into a garbage can. APPLAUSE! (curtain closes) A great big thick neck small head sweaty muscle man with a threatening posture exclaims to the audience, 'CONGRATULATIONS ON FULFILLING YOUR USELESS EXISTENCE! PLEASE LEAVE IMMEDIATELY OR I WILL KNOCK UPON YOUR HEADS WITH MY IMMENSELY BLOATED MEATY FISTS!' LAUGHTER! What pathetic impotence! Muscle man breaks down into a spasm of sobs. LAUGHTER! APPLAUSE!"--I love how they laugh at the muscle man, and then applaud.

Because he was so humiliated!

Well, you get the joke, and it's beautiful. It's also very literary.

Thanks! I do write, but I don't understand poetry, and I'm incapable of writing narratives. So it's always a very concrete sort of writing. There's an amazing book by Louis-Ferdinand Céline, Guignol's Band, and it's full of onomatopoeia and staccato rhythms. The first 20 pages are just description--people running in horror--and through it all he manages to insert these hilariously dark vignettes. Reading that was a big influence; so was Gertrude Stein.

Gregory Jacobsen, Greasy Girl Gaggle (Gunky Gob Girls! Greasy Girls! Girl Goon Greasy Glory Glop! Greasy Girl Gaggle Giggle Gurgle Gushing Glory Glop! Glory Glop!), acrylic on wood, 24x37 in., 2002.

Let's shift gears and talk about your performance work. You perform as part of a group called Lovely Little Girls.

It started as more of a performance group, focused around music, that tried to create a very violent, chaotic environment. But songwriting has been in the foreground lately. The theatrical elements are still there; it's a bit glam, like The Tubes or Sparks. To generalize it, I would say it falls into a musical camp people like to term "no wave." Very nihilistic and absurd. I also perform as Candy Shuntz--a sort of pretty-girl stand-up comedy routine--and Ritualistic School of Errors, which is more noise- and sound-based.

Could you describe a performance for our readers?

There are usually some spastic dancers and party hats. I started out performing at music venues and loft galleries; I sometimes worked with this fat guy named Joe Tannis, and we would do little tableaux. It was the old comedy model of little man and big fellow: we did this one routine where we would run, bash into each other, and fall down, and then run, bash into each other, and fall down. We would do it over and over until we were absolutely exhausted, while this woman in a white dress sang operatically. By the end of it, I would be swimming in Joe's sweat. But Joe was very narrative-based; he always wanted to have a story, and I just wanted to create these strange Dada-like situations. I've never really been able to find anyone to work with here; they're either artworld performance people or very trained movement people. I think I move well, but I'm not disciplined. Or they just take carnival too literally. I like carnivalesque aspects, but when you present something as a re-creation of a carnival--like all this burlesque stuff that's coming back these days--it's just nostalgia.

You mentioned Dada; are there any other performance models you're looking at?

I would love to be able to write situational comedy stuff, like The Young Ones, which was a BBC comedy from the 1980s that took on the youth subculture of that time. Or Blackadder, which starred Rowan Atkinson falling down the English social hierarchy through the ages. Aktion, from Vienna, is amazing, and the Kipper Kids--they're a two-man performance-art troupe that did a lot of vaudevillian physical humor, like punching yourself in the face. Just idiotic stuff. They were in this indescribable movie Forbidden Zone, written by Richard Elfman with music by Danny Elfman. It was this hilarious vaudeville musical, with Hervé Villechaize from Fantasy Island as the king of the underworld. Caroliner Rainbow is another inspiration--they play high-speed electronic jug music in ramshackle bull costumes on a black-lit stage.

You say that Lovely Little Girls started out trying to create a chaotic, violent environment. Sometimes in your performances, you're jumping around with a knife, and there's also a lot of bodily mortification going on in the paintings. How would you speak to the theme of violence in your work?

It's a way to frighten the audience a bit, especially the jaded crowd. I'm not into cutting myself up on stage; that would just make it too serious, too arty, too clichéd. It's all about the expectation and nervous laughter. The body mortification, as you call it, comes with the base nature and failure of the body--garbage cans that rule the universe. As for violence, I've always been attracted to it; it's inherent in everything, every little movement. I love watching the way people move.

We're sitting here in your studio, and it's crammed with bizarre stuffed animals, religious iconography, ballet tutus--and chicken toys. What are some of your other obsessions?

Dresses--like those little-girl dresses with the Peter Pan collars--are obsessions. And polka-dots, and stripes. And other things like Mary Jane shoes, big noses, Margie's Candies on Western Avenue, old theaters, eggs, asses, molded gelatin, mannequins with crudely painted eyes, Daleks from Dr. Who, ramshackle contraptions on wheels. And of course, the Texas Chainsaw Massacre--I could watch that movie over and over. It's genius, and it's not your typical horror movie. Every second is filled with, er, poetry, from the sound to the performances. Most snobs write it off, but from the details of the wallpapered house to Leatherface licking his lips in frustration, it's more surreal than any Buñuel film I've ever seen. And have you ever been to Bacci's Pizza on Chicago Avenue? There's this guy who works there who's really hilarious. He'll just start yelling at you, for no particular reason, "What the fuck you want?!" He's one of my obsessions!

Gregory Jacobsen is represented by Zg Gallery, Chicago, where his solo show Potatoland will be on view November 21, 2003-January 3, 2004. Lovely Little Girls perform around the Chicago area.