Colter Jacobsen uses a pencil to turn old photos into "Your Future"
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One of us is wearing green short-sleeved Lacoste, the other blue short-sleeved Sergio Tacchini. We've looked around his apartment, where he's leaving behind one shoebox-size tranquil bedroom — he’s now restlessly moving his belongings between two larger sun-drenched spaces. He jokingly calls one a massage room and the other a museum and talks about the patterns of shadows through his windows — how there's a shadow that looks like a dancing lady, and how the window that faces a church is both peaceful and a passage to a fantasy about priests. Then we walk down the 37-step staircase onto 23rd Street, and Colter Jacobsen and I start talking about his art.
One of Jacobsen's first shows took place in the exact spot we've just left behind. "Woods in the Watchers," featuring pencil renderings of nudes and seminude photos Jacobsen found at the shop known as the Magazine (on Larkin), was presented in and around his bedroom. "The funny thing is what instigated the whole project was Friendster," he says as we begin an uphill trek. "I was obsessed with it for two weeks and just started seeing everybody as a personal page — as if when they were looking at you, they were clicking on you. It was kind of fucked up. My response was that I wanted something more tactile. The idea eventually came to be one-hour timed drawings of guys wearing watches."
We pass a couple on a stairway taking pictures of each other — the man is shooting video, the woman taking digital snapshots. Jacobsen remarks that one irony of the "Watchers" drawings, which uncover a bygone snail mail universe of intimate connections, is that they're back on the Internet, via the Web site of local press Suspect Thoughts. I say they remind me a bit of the late artist and writer Joe Brainard's casually hot drawings for the book gAy BCs. "[Brainard's] stuff is amazing, it's intimidating to me," says Jacobsen. "It's gestural and quick. I use a mechanical pencil and just thinking about approaching a piece of paper without a pencil scares me a little."
If so, he has little reason for apprehension. In "Watchers" and especially in a recent group exhibition at White Columns in New York (where New York Times critic Roberta Smith singled him out for praise), and now in “Your Future,” a show at Four Star Video's attic space, Jacobsen displays a talent for drawing images in a low-key way that can still saturate the banal with potent emotion — a truly rare ability these days.
A Mormon upbringing and contemplative community college time in San Diego, where he took a single class on color, light, and theory three times, are a few extreme shorthand examples of what led Jacobsen to San Francisco and his current work. He counts fellow artist Donal Mosher and the writers Dodie Bellamy and Kevin Killian as friendly influences; in fact, he's created a gridlike piece charting Bellamy's and Killian's use of color in their fiction. "From reading their writing and not knowing what's fiction and what's real, I've gone on all these mind trips," Jacobsen admits, as we cross paths with a woman using her cell phone like a loudspeaker. "One time on the Fourth of July I totally thought they were going to kill me."
Jacobsen's favorite course at the SF Art Institute was a creative writing class taught by Bellamy. There, he wrote a story — O Rings, about a blind girl obsessed with the 1986 space shuttle Challenger explosion — that has somewhat eerily prefigured his current art and life. He's worked at Lighthouse for the Blind and currently is a caregiver and driver for the blind and disabled.
The walk up 24th Street has led us to Grand View Avenue, where the view is indeed grand. As we climb the coiled freeway overpass, Jacobsen talks about the "memory drawings" featured in both the show at White Columns and in the current Four Star Video show in San Francisco. "When I try to find a photo to draw from — which takes a long time — it's like me trying to predict what I'll be meditating on for the next couple of weeks," he says. "I don't take it lightly, and it's often related to something personal."
The element of prediction might be what Jacobsen is referring to when he says that these drawings stemming from old photos "are about the future." In Four Star Video's attic, Jacobsen has painted the titular words of the show over a newspaper obit page and fixed it to the corner of a wall so it can also read "Our Future." This melancholy verging on morbidity spills from some drawings, especially a truly great one of a waterfront snapshot that uses a film-frame crosscutting technique to convey romantic heartbreak.
The show's staircase climb to a heavenly Four Star "Future" is typical of Jacobsen's casual yet concise use of place, and there are many elements at play, some so understated that a viewer who isn't attentive might not even notice. Two papier-mâché teardrops hide in a corner, near the store's rare DVDs of Salo and Lilya 4-Ever. (Images are often presented in twos and fours and eights: "Eight is my favorite number," says Jacobsen. "It's like two circles or two eyes.") A pair of found-object mock columns stand next to the store's shelving units. In a practice that updates pop art chestnuts to the current moment, Jacobsen — who first used the technique while reeling from being "totally blind" about a guy he was in love with — uses Wite-Out to cover up most of Peanuts and other strips (including his least favorite, Family Circus) in a way that reveals the wartime aggression and tension seething beneath.
Though he uses newspaper “funnies,” Jacobsen refers to these works as his “Saddies.” "I just wanted to show what I was seeing," he says as we travel back down 24th Street past some children. Another irony: This newspaper is a space to discuss the deathly element within Jacobsen's use of newspapers as found material. "My friend Tariq [Alvi] sees paper as death, because he once saw a mummy and the quality of its skin was like paper," Jacobsen says when I mention the current bicoastal interest in works — especially drawings — on found or old documents.
As we near the end of our stroll, I ask Jacobsen about another walk, one in which he led a group of people — half of them blindfolded and the other half accompanying those wearing blindfolds — during a Sunday evening this June. The walk spanned from one Mission laundromat to another and included Jacobsen’s discussion of the visual theories of physicist Joseph Plateau, who went blind from staring at the sun. The choice of the event's landmarks stemmed partly from the laundry lectures of Portland-based artist Sam Gould of Red76 and partly from Plateau's interest in bubbles. "Does that all relate somehow?" Jacobsen asks as he explains it. "I have trouble figuring out how one thing connects to the next."
"Usually, where I start [with a project] is where I'm stupid or ignorant — which can be anywhere, really," he admits with a laugh, after saying that he even counted the number of steps — 313 and 168 — between the two laundromats and the walk's starting point. Right around then, we reach those 37 steps that lead back up to his apartment, the same staircase that Jacobsen's friend and musical collaborator Tomo (of Hey Willpower and Tussle) climbs, carrying a column, in a drawing within the Four Star Video show. When I say that the staircase's red steps are just two short of matching a certain famous 39 Steps, Jacobsen says Alfred Hitchcock is one of his favorite filmmakers. It's funny how one thing connects to the next — and often beautiful when Jacobsen renders the connections. SFBG
Through July 31
Daily, noon to 10 p.m.
Attic, Four Star Video
1521 18th St., SF