VISUAL ART In 1988, Jeff Koons unveiled Michael Jackson and Bubbles, three ceramic sculptures of the pop icon and his pet chimpanzee. Koons' sculptures, syncing his kitsch with Jackson's gaudy tastes, were the conclusion of a series titled "Banality."
In "Universal Remote," Bay Area artist Jaime Cortez reintroduces Michael Jackson as an art subject. But Cortez is after something other than Koons' surface banality. His exhibition's variety of media — including a globular sculptural centerpiece that's a counterpoint to Michael Jackson and Bubbles — form a mythic narrative. By turns revelatory and enigmatic, "Universal Remote"'s look at history and human nature (to employ two Jackson keywords) is akin to Adam Curtis' recent documentary It Felt Like a Kiss, which uses Phil Spector's music to score the insidious maneuverings of the 1960s. If, as Cortez notes, the U.S. tends to sanitize the violence and viciousness of fairy tales, that clean-up work is trumped by a return-of-the-repressed within pop culture. I recently visited Cortez at Southern Exposure as he assembled the show, which includes a Jan. 29 program of readings and performances.
SFBG When did you decide to tell a Michael Jackson story?
JAIME CORTEZ It started a year ago. I was struck by how much Michael Jackson's music was a part of my personal history. I'm at just the right age so that by the time I could be conscious of pop music, he was there. I realized that he did something that hardly anyone had done — he'd been a part of my life for decades. I started thinking about him more, and became fascinated with the aftermath of his death.
SFBG The degree of public scrutiny he received was akin to passing through the looking glass — you could say that he passed through the looking glass more often and intensely than anyone.
JC That's a beautiful way of putting it. He was a creature of media. It was completely symbiotic — media tapped him, and he tapped media. My friend Ignacio [Valero] compares him to the frog put into boiling water that enjoys the heat until it's too late.
He was consumed by this obsession with his own stardom. It's almost as if he was making his face into a graphic brand. Everything was being flattened out: hot red lips, extremely pale face, shiny black eyebrows and hair.
SFBG His nose is central to your photo-collages. To me, it has fatal connotations. He marred or restricted a part of his body that is central to breathing and respiration.
JC I would look closely at photos of him and try to see him. There's such a haze of media static and lies and mythologizing around him that it's hard to get a bead on him. I feel that he was either in a deep state of constant denial, or a liar. He was constantly giving contradictory statements.
It actually made my eyes tear up when I took a good look at his face, his nose in particular — it was beyond repair. He had all the money in the world to change his face, but something went terribly wrong, and he was deformed.
SFBG Your show has many different forms: drawings, rotating scrolls, photo-collage, and sculpture. Why did you create more than one series of works?
JC There are theories about the five steps in the grieving process, and I was thinking about the different ways people deal with the passing of a person. The drawings of the animals represent a clean mourning. Michael Jackson was surrounded by so many parasitic people — those dependent on him for their financial well-being and sense of fabulousness — that his pets might have been the only place where he could get real love, besides maybe children. The pets are a stand-in for everyone's grief.
The [show's] lamps relate to the process of mythologizing from the record companies and the media — after a while, you couldn't tell if the National Enquirer was more reliable than People or Newsweek. And then on top it all was his self-mythologizing. He alternated between extreme humility and grandiose egotism. The unadulterated rotating lamps that you buy for children's rooms present a little story, one that illuminates a child's space. I felt they were the proper form for exploring a very adult fairy tale about Faustian tradeoffs.
SFBG How did the text accompanying the lamps come about?
JC I was having dinner with Gary [Gregerson] and Jill Reiter, and Gary joked, "Michael Jackson was a castrato." When he said that, I had this Tetris moment where all the blocks fell into place. When I began studying the castrati, it really got interesting. The most famous of them were basically rock stars. Women would faint or go gaga when they saw them. Women wanted to have sex with them. They looked different from other people because they developed differently from being castrated. And they had these gifts — the best of them had the lung power of a grown man coupled with a high, boyish or womanly voice.
SFBG How did you create the elaborate encasement that is the show's centerpiece?
JC It's built from a bunch of vases attached to each other with industrial adhesive. The statue is polymer modeling compound with wires for an Afro. The bubble on top is an acrylic globe I ordered from a street lamp company. On one hand, it makes him look like a specimen under a bell jar. Overall, it has a feeling of grandiosity and loneliness.
SFBG The mirror at the base adds another dimension.
JC Yes, it make the sense of space ambiguous. But most of all, I wanted to make something that looked precarious. For me, the piece is a visual analog for all the unbelievable machinery behind making a kid into a star. There's an amazing amount of publicity and technology and image management, in addition to training and performing — this amazing apparatus, all of it built around a little 70-pound kid.
JAIME CORTEZ: UNIVERSAL REMOTE
Through Feb. 19, free
3030 20th St., SF