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The Sculptural Signage of Jack Pierson

In his January exhibition at Cheim and Reid, Jack Pierson appropriates text in the form of outdoor sign lettering to reinforce emotional meaning, narrative, and humor. Pierson’s words are constructed from outdoor sign lettering which once graced small town movie theaters, diners, and night clubs. His letters are relics of suburbia, fashioned of wood, plastic, aluminum, and neon in a multitude of typefaces, which weathered for decades on vanished façades and billboards. Pierson’s work embodies the plasticity and mutability of language in a personal way that is closer in spirit to the Dada text collages of Raoul Hausmann than conceptual works of Joseph Kosuth and Lawrence Weiner.

Jack Pierson, Roses, 2000, colored plastic and painted metal, 31 x 93.5 inches, courtesy Cheim & Read.

Icarus, a floor piece, is spelled with mixed lettering. A blockish aluminum sans-serif “I,” with a yellow face is followed by a black metal serif “c” and an illuminated blue neon script “a.” The “r” is a massive yellow Styrofoam affair that is broken in two as though damaged in a fall. The “u” is a thin sans serif metal letter, painted Pompeiian red on the face and black on the sides and the “s” appertains to the same blockish yellow aluminum font as the “i.” The letters overlap one another and together form an arc like that of Icarus’ ascent to the heavens and fall back to earth. There is a Berniniesque quality about this piece, both in its classical allusion and through the theatrical device by which he transforms letters into theatrical players which animate his tableau.

Cocaine consists of mixed type together with the brush painting of a figure that Pierson realized directly on the gallery wall. With sumi economy of line, Pierson paints a seated male nude from behind, whose head is bowed down. Letters spelling “cocaine” are mounted along his back. Some letters are black metal, others brushed aluminum, and another transparent neon. The attitude of the figure suggests melancholy and Pierson uses type to reinforce the variety of a drug experience. The “c” is black, appertaining to the line of the figure’s silhouette, or perhaps the stuff of daily life. The brushed aluminum type of the “o,” “a,” and “i,” however, have an ethereal almost cloud-like quality and become larger and smaller than the black type that surrounds them. The transparent neon “e” (unilluminated) characterizes a lucidity and fragility induced by the drug.

The most exciting piece in the exhibition, however, is Psycho Killer, in which mixed type (presumably spelling the title) lays in a pile on the ground. It outwardly resembles a John Chamberlin car wreck. Some of the letters are weathered to reveal colors from previous incarnations while other letters are shiny as though they came off the shelf. Still others, cut from Plexiglas, conserve their protective paper coating, having never ventured out into the world. This ungainly repository of signifiers becomes a new sculptural reality, in which letters become abstracted into new shapes and colors. Through Psycho Killer, Pierson has erected a monument to the artifice of language.

© Daniel Rothbart, 2000.

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