Little Epiphanies That Scar You for Life
The art, film and music of Gregory Jacobsen
photo: Helene Palser
by Mike WoodDo images of the grotesque make a comment on gluttony and lust or celebrate them? For multi-media artist Gregory Jacbobsen, horror and failure are funny since they break down illusions and reveal humanity at its most approachable. But damn man, approach him with care. Jacobsen is a Chicago artist who combines the sort of creepy cartoonish world of outsider artist like Henry Darger with the almost embarrassingly honest portrayal of the body like Hans Bellmer, and his work is not for players. I don't scare easy, but some of his artwork, short films, masks, and music that make up this CD/DVD make Eraserhead seem tame. His organ playing alone makes the pseudo-carnival/creepy work of Anton LaVey seem like the happy noodlings of anonymous matching-suit proles in Lawrence Welk's band.
Jacobsen's Ritualistic School of Errors (Resipiscent) is a collection of songs that accompany live dance routines and audience assaults. Horns and the organ dominate, and the vocals sound like wounded animals or pouty children trying to wiggle their way out of paper bags or from nailed-shut closets. The music sounds muffled, distant, an invitation to dance or a mockery of the dancer. "Dance of the Retarded Girl Slumped Sideways," "Massive head, foul smelling," "Choked off Clotting Lamp." These are not so much songs as endurance tests, uncomfortable, and almost like audio recordings of crimes. Likewise "Unbelievable Threatening Postures" and "Mysterious Touches From Crab-Like Claws." There is no escape from the world that Jacobsen creates, thrusts upon you and infects you.
The DVD merely gives further image choices to those already created by your imagination. Short films of violating raw chicken, invisible voices laughing at a drag queen carrying chairs clumsily across a gym floor; men in horrific, pained masks dancing, tickling each other, assaulting strangers. The live clips of the "band", which seem to have played everywhere from boiler rooms and wedding receptions in addition to clubs, are by turns naked, awkward, horrific and endearing. In a time when even granny gets off on TV forensics and your boss may look at rotten.com at night, it is rare, and oddly exhilarating to find something that can penetrate our jaded sensibilities and truly horrify. Jacobsen is an acquired taste, and his worldview may not be palatable, or in instances even recommended as a curiosity, but there is genius here, and it makes your freakin hair stand on end.
Recently, I interviewed him via email about his work and ideas, and his thoughts on the body, shame, and dignity.
PSF: Talk about the "Fat Fuck" photo (a photo on his website of himself during grammar school, so titled); how has childhood affected your work?
I wouldn't say the "Fat Fuck" photo isn't so much a sign of childhood influencing my work but more so evidence of my constant fascination with my body. Eh, call me vain- but I have always been very aware of my body. I was fat when I was younger but not grotesquely obese and the fat only stayed around for four years or so. But those four years, when you're a kid, seem like an eternity. There's a personal fascination with that photo because I am far from fat these days and it amazes me how flexible the human body is and what transformations you can put it through.
But yea- childhood factors into it as well. The fat kid is always the schlump, the loser followed by a constant soundtrack of a descending "whaaa whaaa... whaaaaaaa." His corpulence is pathetic. No matter what he has to offer, the roll of fat on his back will still be hanging over the greasy waistband of his sweatpants. I am, of course, referring to myself. I was a mess.
But, no matter how socially unacceptable your body is- it really is only about how you hold yourself, your confidence. I guess this gets back to the paintings, as the characters portrayed are completely oblivious to their maladies and so-called imperfections; they are completely comfortable with them. I only wish I could be that comfortable with myself.
PSF: Are Henry Darger, Bellmer strong influences?
Definitely. With Darger- he had a whole personal cryptic mythology that was innocent but kinda creepy and deranged.
And Bellmer- he really had a love for form. Those drawings of his are so fluid and precise. The photographs of the sculptures are, even though the parts are disconnected and interchanged, extremely alive. He was able to bring a sort of horror to sexuality that wasn't so black and white. You don't look at the photos and say, "ooh, pretty but icky..." They just are their own entity, making no moral judgments on what is portrayed.
PSF: Talk about the line between horror & humor in your work; and awkwardness, fear, in terms of sex or growing sexuality.
The humor, as the old saying goes, is to defuse the horror. But there is a fine line to walk before it turns crass- I try to get to that point where, because of the horror, the only thing to do is laugh and accept your pathetic fate.
One of my favorite scenes from David Lynch's Wild At Heart is when the Harry Dean Stanton character is bound to the chair and about to get shot. There's this great reaction shot from him that is the whole movie for me... he sorta rolls his eyes, accepts his ridiculous fate of being a henpecked fool his whole life only to end up with some weirdo prancing in front of him threatening his life.
In terms of awkwardness/fear/sex- explaining it through my performances would be easiest. I try to create a character (which end up appearing in the paintings in different forms) that is repulsive and creepy but has some sort of sexual magnetism. By "creepy," I'm not speaking of, you know, sexy zombies or what have you... but a person whose mannerisms are strange yet self-assured- make your skin crawl but make your cock hard. I suppose I'm trying to sexualize the sexual failure.
PSF: Music & musical influences?
Lately I have been saying anything but indie-rock. There's something about indie-rock's pathetic arrogance that gets under my skin. The chords, the tone, the singing- the pretense that they are letting their hearts bleed and are conveying some personal yet universal themes. Right now I am listening to Corrosion Of Conformity's "Eye For An Eye."
PSF: In the short films I see a moment either of complete freedom and whimsy or one of total despair; which or both?
Both. I can't really explain it- I wish I had more time to develop that end of things (film). Most of them were collaborations and I suppose I will influence any project I put my hand in... which I guess you can say is a good mix of whimsy and despair.
PSF: What genre is your most honest?
I would say they are all equally honest- although each medium spotlights different aspects of myself than another. All the mediums work off each other and reveal different things that eventually get absorbed into each other.
PSF: In other interviews, it was said about you: "He doesn't so much comment on our society as expand its range of grotesqueries." Do you agree with that? How about: "He creates the feeling that any form can suggest and be transmuted into any other form." Is that your intent?
I wouldn't say I comment on our society (cringe) but I think simplifying the work to say that it's an expansion of grotesqueries is missing a lot that the work has to offer. To say I just paint gross and icky creatures... Well, I would be a bit disappointed at that conclusion- I find work of that nature enjoyable but lacking in truly demented pathos. Usually work of that nature calls attention to the fact that you should either be gawking, feeling sorry or sympathizing with the character. What I really want is a grotesque experience, a grotesque dissonant feeling without calling attention to exactly where the dissonance is coming from.
The second comment concerning transmutation might be one of my favorite observations made about my work. In terms of the paintings- it's all about obsession with form- human form, meat form, pure form. I could be absolutely disgusted with a body one day and fetishizing the imperfections the next. A big belly might look bloated and ridiculous to me one day- completely abject and disgusting while on another day I might find it completely sensuous and obsess how it falls over fabric.
Bodies are going to grow old and rot and I'm always thinking about their degradation. You can eat a cow and convert it into fecal matter in a matter of hours. A body can be chopped up and the beautiful head broiled in the oven. Yadda yadda yadda... we are just meat- it's all been said before but I'm more interested in the pointlessness that rot and death reveals rather than wallowing in some melodrama.
I try not to be so literal with suggesting other forms but let what I am obsessed with come out. Of course there are some cunts and cocks and some phallic vegetables in there- obvious stuff. I try to approach it more about what I am obsessed and disgusted with; they're usually interchangeable. I have found through the years that not over-intellectualizing creates better art (well, I guess I always knew that but it took me a long time to free myself of that). Art shouldn't be approached with such stupid simplicity- which many people do through symbolism. Throwing around a bunch of reference points and signifiers does nothing for me- it's as if I am asked to look at a bunch of street signs in a different language. Whereas I do like the cryptic nature of that idea (as in medieval painting) most people's approach to symbolism is simply x=y. I would rather have some non-conclusive equation.
PSF: You have great compassion towards your subjects, but why? Why are your subjects expressing themselves the way they do? Is ugly beautiful? Are they happy in their degradation? Do they feel degraded? Is there hope for redemption in their whimsical acceptance of their situation?
I would say they are a bit of self-portraits. I have a couple odd kinks that I used to flaunt because I thought they were so ridiculous... but over the years I have learned that it creeps people out- so I conceal them. Ha ha- it's nothing truly horrifying, just stupid and ridiculous things. But I think everyone has their own little kinks they keep to themselves, their own little sexual rituals they only do in private. The characters are happy in their degradation, but I don't feel they think they are being degraded. Self-degradation is OK. Really, it is. Degrading a willing partner. That's OK too._ People have their own issues to work out and these sorts of things let off steam, help them figure themselves out. Too much PC morality police around applying archaic textbook standards. Although, I see things changing.
PSF: The best Dada has always been funny, to me. I'll take Monty Python or the second season of the Monkees over Tzara or Hulsenbeck any day. I see Dada at work with you too--angry truths told with uneasy humor. Am I in the ball park?
Finding Dada was a revelation as it spoke to my anger at things while laughing and declaring the world pointless. Up till that point I was doing these absurd expressionist paintings. Ooh. As if some wild uncontrolled slash of the brush is conveying the weight of the world bearing down on me, I realized- what the hell am I whining about? I'm only 17 and I think I can convey some sort of universal hurt and pain? What makes my pain, or myself, so unique? I'm just another idiot using clichéd motions to represent some teenage angst. You know- most kids go through it, some don't outgrow it, few develop it into something genuine.
Dada makes angst much more poignant. It's more about freaking the fuck out, smashing shit and building something new rather than going to your bedroom to moan and weep on your bed. Once Dada developed into Surrealism it attained some tedious melancholy about it. For the most part- it lost the dark humor. But back to your question... I find Monty Python and The Monkees to be more in the Absurdist tradition. I don't want to split hairs here but something like The Monkees or Monty Python can be dismissed as being whimsical... which I generally find they are. While I find Tzara a windbag and Hulsenbeck a bit of a propagandist... someone like Hugo Ball and Schwitters (although not calling himself part of the movement) really upset the order of things... and they did it with such wicked humor.
I find it a bit sad when people try to revive the Dada name from the dead. Sure, it can be part of your influences, but to call yourself 'neo-dada' is a bit silly. It really was a movement defined by its time and place. Usually rich art school grad students latch onto the wacky and zaniness of it without much having the dark humor and anger of it.
PSF: What are you reading these days?
Cormac McCarthy. He has a way with prose that is brutal and unsympathetic. The atrocities that occur in his writing are that much more powerful because of the lack of sentiment. Awful things happen and plenty of people die undignified deaths.
Louis Ferdinand Celine will always be my favorite writer, though. The absurdity in his novels are truly horrific. And, of course, the way he writes- those rhythms... it's like a pile of trash is constantly tumbling down on your head. Celine finds true dada in the world- he doesn't have to fabricate absurdity; he's able to weave it from reality.
PSF: Obviously all artists use their own history as an influence, at least on topics; how much of your past is your work?
Everything, I suppose. I'm never conscious of it though- it just comes out and when I look at it later I realize where it's coming from.
I never had any awful traumatic experience. But there are those little epiphanies that scar or inspire you for life... one of my favorites being when a couple friends and I rode our bikes up the mountain to see some girl. We didn't leave until it was dark and when we made our way back down, my goddamn brakes gave out. There were no lights on this steep street so all I had to go on to keep me on the winding path were cars passing by lighting up the road in front of me. It truly was suicidal. Somehow, I made it down to the bottom of the hill, which led into a major interstate. I quickly turned into a Pizza Hut parking lot and I was triumphant, shaking my fist in the air screaming- of course I still had plenty of speed on me and I didn't see that speedbump and I smeared myself on the Pizza Hut parking lot.
Plenty of banal stories like that, where you think you're triumphant. On top of the world and then, well, something unexpected happens and you're dead. I'm not a big Friday the 13th fan- but one of the things those movies had going for them is that that deaths usually happened at funny times. Like Kevin Bacon thinking he's some hot shit... smoking a cigarette after having sex with a girl and OOPS. He gets a spear through his throat. And there is usually at least one undignified death on a toilet in every movie.
And I guess that ties it back into childhood and dada... when you're a kid, you quickly learn that no matter how on top of the hill you are, someone's going to knock you down. A life of constant failure. After so many beatings and seeing how petty people are, it's only natural, at least for me, to sequester myself in my little hole and make my own ridiculous little reality.
PSF: I have to ask about the pork neckbrace (he recently did several readings with his neck wrapped tightly in pork), and about anything you are currently working on.
Ha. I never thought of it as a neck-brace, That's good. Oh, I just like meat tied to women.
There will be a new Lovely Little Girls CD coming out soon on APOP. I am slowly working on new Ritualistic School Of Errors material... maybe expect that sometime next year. And as always- I'm painting... Few group shows here and there, probably another solo show in Chicago in the fall (2006).
Also see Gregory Jacobsen's website
and Lovely Little Girls site and the Resipiscent website
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