Jo Jackson: Positively Negative Art

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Jo Jackson paints icons. Giant hollow-eyed skulls. Silhouettes of couples fucking. Massive outlines of the United States and China. What do these things all have in common? Cold-hearted menace. Hiding underneath the paintings' façades of straightforwardness and candy colors lies a raging battle between the way things seem to be and the way they really are. Though Jackson's work looks strikingly graphic from far away, up close her brush strokes are jagged. Everything is flat and two-dimensional and lifeless-not a trace of 3D or shadow in sight. And why is there a video animation of a globe that only has the US on it, rotating around and around?

Jackson's work confronts our perception of popular symbols, albeit in a weird, non-threatening way. The same thing happens when you talk to her. I reached her at home in Portland, Oregon, where she recently moved with her husband, the artist Chris Johanson, and Raisin, a dog so small and poorly genetically engineered that it has to wear a sweater at all times. She was soft-spoken and nice to a fault, and it wasn't until the hour-long conversation was over that I realized how profound and sometimes disturbing the topics were. We lurched from discussing Jackson's distaste for her childhood in Columbia, Maryland, to her formative years as a young artist in San Francisco in the late '90s. Along the way, I learned that she is preoccupied with the boundaries between the fake and the real; that she used to be obsessed with drawing crosses (because it wasn't allowed); and that she likes to listen to TV shows about rape, murder and incest on the radio while she works. "The sitcoms are too dark, though," she confesses. "They're too scary. Real family life portrayed in that way gives me the willies."

XLR8R: When you reflect back on the time you spent in San Francisco, how do you feel it shaped you?

Jo Jackson: It was such a rad place to be a young artist. I think that it was particularly awesome because almost everybody was doing something or making something. I lived in D.C. before that and it felt like you had to prove that you had the right to be creative, whereas in San Francisco it's just every freak making things Lite Brite sculptures or whatever.

People have quantified that time you were painting in San Francisco-alongside people like Chris Johanson and Barry McGee-as such a ''scene.''

I never felt a part of a scene the way it was talked about from the outside. I was never mentioned as a Mission School person. Most of the people I thought of as my little scene were people that hung out at the Adobe Bookstore.

It seems like Adobe Bookstore, where you worked in San Francisco, has nurtured so many artists.

That place is really rad. The foundational people that hang out there are disenfranchised intellectuals-super politically and historically informed people that are not going for any earthly reward. It makes it a really safe place to rest yourself. You get the feeling that just hanging out and thinking is plenty and it really opens life up. It's really scary to be making [art] and putting your stuff out there all the time-if you take the winning and losing out of it, it makes it really nice.

Can you mention any things that have directly inspired a painting of yours?

There's an autobiography of Beverly Sills called Bubbles. She's a Republican opera singer, and it seems like the whole book is a giant lie-in the way that little kids, when they write journals, say things like, ''Today, I was the most popular girl in school.'' That is really inspiring and is making me think a lot right now. I think I might be feeling weirdly interested in identity art again-the yuckiest art in the world. [Identity art] is the way art was in the '90s-it's a lot about ''Who I am and what my place is and being a woman'' or being whatever. It really seemed really tedious and terrible at the time, but now it seems really funny.

So you're not interested in making identity art as much as you are in making art that comments on it?

Maybe. It seems like a lot of times in culture right now we look at something ironically or make art about it ironically-like fake abstract art or that kind of fake gnome music people were making a while ago. But then a few years later, that turns out to be what you really like. I think [my interest in identity art] is a slightly ironic doorway, but maybe that's what I'm really interested in sincerely right now.

Do you purposely set out to explore themes that are totally different from your personal life and experience?

It's weird that all the details would be so opposite, but that maybe I would find this weird core in there-something that unites all of us. [In Bubbles], I think that's there in the lying. It just gave me a really personal feeling to tell the story of your life and to bullshit it. I relate to that immediately. [Laughs] One of my deepest senses is that most people are pretty much the same as each other.

Part of what's so striking about your paintings is that they look precise.

I like to have a sort of fake control. I like to cut the icons out and make them fit on top of the painting instead of them melding into the painting. [When you look at my paintings] in print, they look really clear but when you see them in person they are messy and there's a lot of struggle to keep things in their lines and you can see the bumps and the rips. So I think a big part of it is that struggle to be precise, which calls precision and perfection out as a lie.

When you were a kid what was your ideal of beautiful and perfect?

Well, now I really do have a role model in this guy that hangs out at Adobe. He's a chess player named Steve. He lives really super cheaply and he's super smart; he has an amazing mind that remembers all the books he's ever read and he's not struggling for anything. Maybe not struggling is really the ticket to a certain kind of beauty.

How do you feel about Ryan McGinness and Geoff McFetridge? All three of you seem to have a similar interest in iconography and a bright color palette, but they seem to come more from a graphic design perspective.

I really like Geoff McFetridge's work a lot. I think it's so...nice. (What a great adjective!) I mean, it's sooo comforting and sort of preppy-like public library advertisements from the '70s. It just seems really wholesome to me, and I really like that. I don't feel like my art is like his art or Ryan's; I wouldn't mind if it was more. Ryan's work seems a lot about the perfection of his body whereas my work is this gross struggle against my body, which refuses to be obedient and refuses to be precise. He makes these things that slip into each other really effortlessly and cleanly and everything knows where it is. Geoff's art seems so much about the ease of making the right mark just happen. It doesn't seem to struggle very hard with itself-it just seems to talk. But it must feel really weird to make something that well. I can hardly make a left turn!

When did you incorporate video into your show?

My first video was four years ago and I made it in Flash. Now I think I'm going to make animation using 16mm. I always wanted [my stuff] to be in motion and the first time I saw it move I fully cried. I never really watched TV growing up but I''m really psyched on animation. It's so fake and imitates life a little more than a drawing does-it really thrills me.