“Playground of my Mind”: Julia Jacquette Educates the Eye
Julia Jacquette: Unrequited and Acts of Play, at Visual Arts Center of New Jersey
September 22, 2017 – January 14, 2018
Joe and Marité Robinson Strolling Gallery, and Main Gallery
68 Elm Street, Summit, NJ 07901
Alongside her oil paintings, Julia Jacquette is showing a suite of text-image gouaches on paper she titles Playground of My Mind. This unique book-form graphic narrative, splendidly published in 2017 by the Wellin Museum at Hamilton College (where this exhibition originated and accompanying installation shots were taken) explains a good deal about the methodical fun that characterizes her painting.
Playground begins with a supergraphic portrait of the artist hand-in-hand with her mother, striding forward circa 1970 in a “strikingly minimal” (as the text puts it) blue wool coat inscribed with a red circle. Design in Jacquette’s family was a progressive force. “Less is more,” her mother says of an over-ornamented Christmas tree in the lobby of the modernist public housing tower where they live. Jacquette’s carefully crafted pagespreads –– distilled from snapshots into deft grisaille with rare spots of color –– describes and, indeed, demonstrates how the artist’s upbringing was design-centric and infused with feminist pride. From “deep play” toys to innovative, modular playgrounds, she was taught defiance of garish patterns and of the over-ornamented, passive version of womanhood peddled by Madison Avenue and Hollywood.
The bulk of paintings in the current show are canny photorealistic zooms into exactly such luxuriously soft targets: glittery fashion and jewels, cosmetics, scotch on the rocks, pools and yachts, movie star lips and hairdos. If her debts to the three Rs –– Rosenquist, Richter, and Ruscha –– are obvious, so is the potency of the lessons learned about reviving skillful painting through emulating, not the photograph per se, but the image of the photograph. In Reclining (2014) and Actress, Gold Dress (2015) Jacquette takes guilty pleasure in close-cropped mirages of pearls and klieg-lit skin, depth of field and lens flare. Heidi Klum Throws Glitter (2012) is a quietly dazzling abstraction. Closer in spirit to Vermeer than to Audrey Flack’s or Marilyn Minter’s operatic treatment of similar material, the paintings are hermetic in their even-tempered, unfussy surface. Every mystery of appearance is resolved and blended to a sheen.
Jacquette put her mark on this atelier approach to media seduction in the 1990s by adding ambiguous, possibly personal texts that accumulate into overt feminist dissent. A couple of paintings on view restate this signature approach. In Thirty-six Sofas (2104) the titular subjects are cleanly differentiated with saturated color, as in a superstore catalogue. Below are 36 sentences labeling not the furniture, but thoughts of inadequacy, such as “A relentless self-judging inner narrative,” and ” Guilt about experiencing pleasure.” Do these assessments come from a coruscating diary, a self-help manual or a psych ward evaluation? In any case, the collision with the plush sofas is diagnostic, providing an oblique view into the alienation of consumer capitalism. Another text/image painting, Your Every Word (2014), is a stand-in for a large body of work in which romantic pathos delicately intrudes upon luscious desserts. Here, an array of flawless parfaits, whose vivid, slightly stiff illusionism feels like taxidermy, is tagged by the rebus, “Your Every Word a Perfect Jewel and Knife in My Own Heart.”Disciplined, cool, yet in love with excess, Jacquette’s paintings manage to critique her cake and eat it. Although Playground of My Mind says nothing about the source of Jacquette’s pathos –– defying the voyeuristic conventions of the autobiographical novel –– it makes abundantly clear how she comes by her design acumen.
If Jacquette’s story begins with her mother, it centers on her father, a landscape architect during a dazzling moment initiated by New York City parks commissioner Thomas Hoving, future director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Playground design, cookie cutter during the long Robert Moses era, was suddenly open to liberal ideas of child development and Bauhaus-inspired design. The artist narrates how her father and his partners were responsible for building audacious and imaginative meccas of free play, in particular in Central Park, that exceeded even the best European paradigms. Richard Dattner’s pioneering Adventure Playground, built in 1966, and Ross Ryan Jacquette’s Discovery Playpark, following in 1973, brought principles of modularity and geometry, but also non-linear variation, earthy textures, and ancient, monumental forms to generations of lucky New York children and urbanites in general. With keen insight from a child’s perspective, and in documentary detail and lucid schematics, Playground of My Mind resurrects the optimism of that ambition. (Disclaimer: my own father was an architect during those halcyon, or at least less dystopian times and worked with some of these designers, making Jacquette’s story in many ways my own.)
Playground is both a moving filial tribute and a required architectural history. It is also a design polemic, in which the medium is the message. In ways that recall David Mazzucchelli’s masterful graphic novel, Asterios Polyp (2009, Pantheon), a gripping metafiction about an architect, Jacquette deploys architectural wit in telling her tale, which unfolds (and folds) through plans and isometrics, diagrams and visual puns. At one point Jacquette asks, of childhood fun and games: “Can beautiful design teach us?” In fact, Playground educates the eye. Read the book and then give it to a kid –– and then take that kid to one of the playgrounds Jacquette eulogizes. Even after cheesy, risk-averse modifications, these still work their magic.