Seeing double in a poetic memory tunnel
Four years ago this month Colter Jacobsen got his biggest break, his most bruising teardown, and his greatest opportunity in one 24-hour period. He'd been tapped to do a project in a much-talked-about exhibition, "17 Reasons," alongside John Baldessari, Jeremy Deller, Trisha Donnelly, and Chris Johanson, organized by California College of the Arts curator Kate Fowle and Mission gallerist Jack Hanley. Jacobsen worked for weeks on the sort of public art-slash-intervention the curators wanted, "inserting new works into street life," and finally draped the midsize bronze commemorative tablet erected by the state at the corner of Albion and Camp with a sculptural suite of water-stained packing boxes and fruit crates, altered with paint, glue, collage, watercolors, and pencil into a text-laden carousel of raw forms (and, incidentally, a tribute to Kylie Minogue). When the art walk began all was well, but as afternoon wore into evening road workers discovered the desecration, and by morning the piece had been demolished. Luckily, Matthew Higgs, whose work was also in "17 Reasons," had viewed Jacobsen's project just before dusk and invited him to stage an even grander installation at White Columns in New York City.
And when New York Times reviewer Roberta Smith singled out Jacobsen's work at the resulting 2005 exhibition, his crew in San Francisco cheered from afar. Since then it's been one thing after another for our lad. (He appears in and created the titles for The Key of G, Robert Arnold's 2006 documentary on the struggles of Gannet Hosa-Belonte, who lives with Mowat-Wilson syndrome in the Mission. Jacobsen was one of his caregivers for several years.) Finally, with gallery representation and a growing international fan base, Jacobsen, now 32, can devote himself to his art full-time. In a town rich with brilliant visual and conceptual artists of all stripes, it can be hard to get attention; in some ways Jacobsen's lucky, and he knows it. You won't find a humbler guy.
At a recent Jack Hanley Gallery show Jacobsen tried a lot of new things, but you couldn't get away from the doubling. A found photograph of a baptismal scene in a spooky arts and crafts church hung low on one wall. Across the gallery, just as low, Jacobsen had hung a tiny painting of the same scene same muddy colors, same dimensions. His delicate drawings seem to be already in ruins, as if commenting on the urban realities of life in the Mission. Many are what he calls memory drawings each an image taken from life and then matched with an identical one drawn from memory. The work's sort of scary that way, recalling Mr. Memory in Alfred Hitchcock's 39 Steps, who keeps the terrorists' secrets locked up in his brain and recites them under compulsion.
Just as impressive as Jacobsen's draftsmanship is his brilliant infusion of old-school, Mission school, DIY junk assemblage with a sophisticated gay semiotics. When the poet and curator Bill Berkson uncovered a series of texts he'd written 25 years back, he decided, well, Joe Brainard's no longer around to do the job, so why not ask Jacobsen? (The result, Bill, in 20 panels, was included in the spring exhibit at Hanley.) I wonder if you can judge a person by their artistic heroes; Jacobsen's wild grab bag includes Brainard, Fran Herndon, Jack Smith, Jess, Kenward Elmslie, Denton Welch, and Jack Spicer artists and writers with a vision off-kilter and sublime. Just like a burning radio, Jacobsen gives off sparks and a crazy echo of music.