“Our engagement with nature, to occupy it and to flatten it to a certain extent … That’s the beginning point,” says artist Matthew Day Jackson on his exhibition ‘Pathetic Fallacy’, the result of a months’ residency in Somerset. During his time in England, the American artist had what he described as a mind-blowing experience of the countryside and kept thinking about how space was organised around the human body, nature, architecture and sculpture.
‘Pathetic Fallacy’ is taking place in Hauser & Wirth, Somerset, a farm turned gallery with residency spaces and a dedicated education building that still functions as a farm. In the middle of nowhere, it feels like the perfect place for this exhibition. It starts with Day Jackson’s ‘Pathetic Fallacy Encyclopaedia’, which gives us an opportunity to access the theoretical framework of his work. This should be a serious attempt by the audience, as it is a serious wall. It brings Bauhaus, the Atomic Age, Ikea, Oppenheimer, Pieta, descriptions of utility, narcissism, satellites and many more together alongside a print and two sculptures by the artist.
In the first room of this ‘middle of nowhere’ space, we see the ‘Solipsist’ series, paintings of the earth from above. The source images are from NASA’s collection of astronaut photography, which is a huge public archive. Day Jackson followed 4 elements in these paintings: earth, fire, water and air. Elements represented differently in the works, some by their presence and some by their absence. Collage paintings, which are made predominantly of Formica, also have lead melted to fill some space. The artist says that he tried to make things that are engaging and hopefully mysterious. These large paintings make you look closer and notice the landscape cut into pieces or made by small pieces sitting together perfectly. Borders, created by colours, subtly define the tragedies; shrinking lakes, expanding sea and big chunks of smoke. These are pictures of New Mexico, Colorado and Yellowstone Lake in Wyoming. Day Jackson says that these are pictures of us, not the earth.
These paintings are hung in a room designed to look like a part of a football pitch with white lines and artificial grass. There is also a yew tree and two strange chairs. In the middle of beautified and alienated images of a decaying earth (us) and on the surface of some potential for games, these three sculptures represent death. Day Jackson created a chair for Michelangelo’s ‘Pieta’ and Käthe Kollwitz’s ‘Mother and Dead Child’, a version of the ‘Pieta’. They are the chairs for mourning and death to rest.
A mixture of playfulness and darkness can be found in other works too. It feels at first like a relief to find myself in the next room, seemingly full of joy and happiness. This is a dining scene with a large table, chairs, ceramics made by the artist’s partner, flying objects, and little mountains and creatures under the table which were made by their children. This family-made sculpture is called ‘Brewtonya’ and feels personal, intimate and like a really happy place. The creatures and flying objects feel like products of the children’s subconscious, made to entertain themselves during a family dinner. Maybe mother and father are telling stories to the kids, which include themselves and their dog – who are also represented amongst the figurines under the table. The scene gives hints of a blissful childhood in a not-so-blissful world. The table is surrounded by Day Jackson’s large nature mortes, big collages of flowers in vases, which are inspired by Brueghel, both the elder and the younger.
Talking about nature morte, Day Jackson says “I wanted to make happy art, I wanted to make something that makes me happy, that was fun. At that time, we believed that we were going to have a woman president. It was a different time. Looking at Brueghels’ still lives; they were exuberant, also were expressing some of the darker narratives that I was interested in. The paintings were holding the flowers, classifying, squishing together, forcing into this predicament …” The main material in these collages is once again Formica, and the flowers are cut out of lace, cotton, denim, wool, and polyester, all found in New York City. “I think of the house I grew up in as a body and Formica as its skin. In these paintings, the flowers are made out of fabric, which similarly covers us and is used to express ourselves to each other.”
This happiness – secretly calling for recognition of nature’s suffering – is looking out through a window covered by printed vinyl in the design of the stained glass from the Lady Chapel of the Wells Cathedral in Somerset. It is as if this complete family scene and the idea of family get their protection and validation from the church.
“I am interested in the things from the past, and how they reflect into the present, and how I bump into past.” From the beginning of the exhibition, the death hanging in the air and chairs for parents holding the dead bodies of their children, to a whole scene from a child’s dream, from an ideal childhood … there is a sense of the full circle of life in ‘Pathetic Fallacy’. The relationship between humans and nature, and the boundaries between nature and the human body are defined and destroyed over again. For some strange reason, the darkness embedded in innocent light cheerfulness is not too mood determining. Perhaps being in a gallery in the English countryside also helps.