Artist Profiles | Visual Arts

Building Dreams, Forging Realities: The Life and Art of Jason Metcalf

Jason Metcalf

Jason Metcalf

With so many artists and so many mediums in today’s art world, to make it an artist needs to find big shoes and have feet large enough to fill them. A young artist is hard pressed to find his or her way through artistic channels to actually become a success and make it in the art world. One might not know it of Jason Metcalf, but his maturity, honesty to himself and the art he produces just might propel him to become one of our best. His oeuvre is already surprisingly broad for an artist of 23; and the bodies of work within his dynamic oeuvre and his immense creative impulses make him a formidable figure as an artist. He has already explored avenues and created projects that require creativity and ability that many will never achieve in a lifetime. Metcalf’s drive and tenacity and his passion for art keep his creativity in overdrive with no signs of losing speed or individuality. It is a bold, unpremeditated trajectory that has driven Metcalf from his early years in high school art classes till now, where he has a chance to look back and realize himself and go full throttle ahead in his life and his art.

Indicative of the mentality and breadth of Metcalf’s art is his idol Joseph Beuys. This 20th-century revolutionary embodied identity in his art and a Utopian dream that he conveyed to others. He encapsulated the ideals of his own in an art which others saw to accept or reject. He was an icon like Duchamp or later Warhol, but marginalized in his eccentricity. Metcalf, though, will never be marginalized; his art and his persona are far too direct, his personality too bold. He is authentic in his idealistic desire to allow others to see his work as they choose, to take from it what they will, with Metcalf mediator between his own reality and the experience of others.

Metcalf’s career commenced explosively after leaving high school when he was accepted with a scholarship to the School of the Museum of Fine Arts Boston. In Boston, he had already engaged in preparatory work on the figure and academic studies when he let his mind take place over paint and brush in a performance piece he calls Original Skin. The piece consists of a latex tube 20 feet long. For the performance, Metcalf dressed in latex shorts, coated himself in red paint and in the “narrative about birth, exploring the relationship between me, my sister and brother,” and his “own cleansing process- a baptism,” the artist crawled through the tight length of material, like a child forcing its way through the birth canal, emerged at the end, and then washed himself clean.

There are overt references in this performance, but Metcalf is quick to state that, as in all of his work “I always have a personal narrative I don’t tell people. I will explain, but I want people to take from it what they will.” This idealism, as Metcalf mentions, is prevalent in all of his work. His processes are consistently elaborate and developed in his eyes, but leave room for interpretation in those of others. Such idealism allows for a dialogue that Metcalf initiates, but which may result in a plurality of meanings as numerous as there are viewers of his work. Metcalf was born a triplet, one of whom died while he and his sister were still connected in vivo. Much of Metcalf’s work explores his feeling for a lost sibling and love for his sister; but only he, when emerging from this tube of latex, will understand, feel or reflect on the metaphorical life blood which he washes from his body- his, his sister’s and his lost brother’s.

Some of the themes of Metcalf’s first performances are revisited in later works, one of which he presented at the Scope Fair, Miami, 2006. Metcalf constructed a small-scale house, and, referencing his idol, Beuys, covered it with felt. From out of the house came another latex tube. In this performance/installation, Metcalf, his wife and a colleague emerged from the frame, through the tube, covered with red paint, and proceeded to wash themselves, in what Metcalf describes as “a never-ending cycle of life and death.” |2| The themes represented are far-reaching, performatist, and engage the viewer in a dialogue of ideology. Using media-hybrids is not new; Metcalf’s idol, Beuys, did so, as do other more contemporary artists that interest Metcalf, like Matthew Barney. But Metcalf’s hybrids are unique. Some of what motivates Metcalf’s are his deep-seated religious beliefs. These performance/installations may be read, according to Metcalf, also as a cleansing process, baptism, and meeting with the creator. Ideologies like these are as accessible to the audience as they are to Metcalf who initiates them. It is a remarkable interlude of presentation and experience.

Metcalf’s use of the theme of the home was initiated in Boston. In one of his sculptures of a small-size home, he created a domestic interior, with a Plexiglas roof to be opened and closed that could be rolled and placed in the school’s atrium. Metcalf realized he was able to fit into this space. For nine hours, emulating the “endurance artists,” he sat in this tight interior without eating or using the restroom. From inside, he had with him a large amount of clay, from which he made small sculptures. He was unseen from passersby. When a curious onlooker would come to see what was inside this wooden, doll-like house with a Plexiglas roof, Metcalf passed a clay sculpture to them. Then a group would gather, look, and pass on while Metcalf remained inside his domestic interior. From this sculpture, he created an environment, another hybrid-installation-performance-sculpture-environment. This environment is created by the artist and the reception of the onlookers. Again, no explanation was needed, there was no commentary and no one was aware that who they were seeing was in this tight environment for nine hours. Yet an intercourse of meaning was exchanged by this installation, an intercourse potent with ideology from both sides.

In the Scope Fair at Lincoln Center this year, Metcalf constructed a large-scale home — a house on wheels — an interpretation from his earlier Scope work.|3| As well as processing his thoughts on the home and family, Metcalf was also thinking in terms of commodity and the idea of a fair as a place to invest in cheap art. In this home on wheels, Metcalf again sat inside and staged his taciturn performance. This house was also a factory, fully functional in its process of making small-scale sculptures placed in capsules with seals of authenticity. Metcalf was the sole mechanism of the factory. As each sculpture, made on demand, cost $2, the purchaser passed a dollar bill through a slit while Metcalf would summarily make a buzzing noise, accepting the bill, or often, to great amusement, reject it and accept it on the second try. This performance is purely performatist, an utterance, a provocation eliciting a preponderance of reaction.

In Boston, where Metcalf’s method of house-building was in its nascence, it was with great profundity that he built a replica of a home in the courtyard of the school. In this instance, the “participant” of this environment was invited to climb through a 4-foot-wide latex tube where upon viewing the interior of the house, they would find Metcalf seated at a typewriter. What they did not know, as Metcalf’s work is packed with meaning he alone is cognizant of, he was typing assiduously about his relationship between his sister, himself, and his brother. The artist is allowed to follow through upon his or her trajectory while the viewer in this relationship is invited to experience what he or she will. Similar to the work of Bill Viola, Metcalf’s is successful because he weaves his integrity as an artist into the fabric of his work. The reaction to his art also solidifies the integrity and puissance of it.

One of Metcalf’s most poignant, and eccentric works was a performance he gave dressed in a body suit with a zipper, a hood, dramatic lighting and a telephone on his head. The objective with this absurd contrivance was a simulated conversation, via the telephone, between Metcalf and his sister. The success of the performance elicited real tears from the artist, and admiration from the audience who believed in the legitimacy of the “conversation.”

Metcalf’s devotion to his sister and family has been present in much of his work, but became more so in his second semester at Boston. His sister’s cerebral palsy, and its resulting ambidexterity stimulated Metcalf to devote the entire semester to drawing with his left hand. Metcalf states that he was already adept at figural drawing, but these childish representations — he finished over 200 — were again open to the interpretation of the viewer. Metcalf did not advertise the method.

A final piece done at Boston signifies the nature of the utopian ideal and the ideological interpretations that are freeform in Metcalf’s work. His neo-Guernica piece titled “Awe” is a 12-foot-wide scroll of canvas painted at the time when the United States was considering going to war with Iraq.|4| Metcalf’s work was in a state of equivocation, similar to the state of flux in the country. The images could be read in many ways, some pro and some against the war depending on how the particular image was read. Death and life could be one and the same in this monumental picture, fear and joy were united only to be interpreted by the viewer, free to explore the iconography in the picture as they chose.

Metcalf came to Utah to continue his education at Brigham Young University, where his first projects involved sound painting, an obscure genre first exploited by 20th-century artists. Metcalf’s experiments stemmed from a watercolor class where he was not content to create a painting but with a colleague applied for a $4,800 grant and delved into a new body of work which widened his oeuvre considerably. Most inventively, the two developed a set of frequencies for sounds they measured in Salt Lake. From that evolved a median sound frequency which became the core of the experiment. Metcalf states that “sound is a frequency like light and we see that spectrum interpreted by sound waves.” He unofficially calls these works a “portrait of the city.” As paint was dripped onto watercolor paper pulled over stretchers, the frequency allowed the vibrations to create patterns on the paper.|5| The project was displayed at the Rio Gallery, where Metcalf and his associate also had an iron grid welded with a sheet of water which reacted to the same frequencies, leaving patterns of various sorts. Guests were invited to run their fingers through these patterns. This assuredly was a sublime experience.

As Metcalf has traveled through his creative journey, he has continued to evolve and try new media. Working on paintings at the moment, something he has not devoted a great deal of time and energy to, he is finding many of his ideas and ideologies coming together. “The work I am doing now is another extension but it is something tangible that conceptually states the substance of what I want. If I can’t I will use another medium.” These canvases are lucid visions, vivid, palpable symbols and suggestions of systems in a metaphorical utopia. It is not correct to say that all of Metcalf’s conceptual body is to be found in these works, but it would be safe to say the work’s ideology is all encompassing. These are not communist hopes but contemporary forging of cities and building new realities. This is not Fritz Lang’s towers of steel but communities whose substance is organic, whose livelihood is built on the present and not an abstracted tomorrow. Metcalf uses motifs repeatedly, all very grounded, such as the honeycomb and the Red Cross symbol. |6-8| His is a viable utopia, but one Metcalf leaves to the viewer to take or leave at will.

“Painting is a tool, sculpture is a tool, it will eventually turn into performance,” Metcalf says. At 23, Jason Metcalf’s head is swimming with thought and creativity and it is interesting to see where this artist has been and exciting to imagine where he will venture next.

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To view more of Jason Metcalf’s artwork and additional videos of his performances, visit www.jasonmetcalf.com.       

Ehren Clark studied art history at both the University of Utah and the University of Reading in the UK. He is now a professional writer living in Salt Lake City.

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