The work in Levi Jackson’s Bushwacker exhibition now on display at the Utah Museum of Contemporary Art has a conflicted and ambivalent view of the West. This is in part due to two distinct and pervasive notions that permeate such depictions. The first is the West as an idealized and picturesque blank canvas that is the fulfillment of manifest destiny, the land of the great and vast America. The second is that of the cautionary West, whose discourse is largely moralizing. From this view, the western landscape is a site of a suffering and wounded wasteland maimed by human destruction. It is a difficult legacy to resist, to negotiate.
Yet both camps are a kind of extreme and each legacy informs and embeds itself in the work of Jackson, quoted throughout the exhibition in ways that are complex, at times sincere, ironic, or disingenuous. Such a paradoxical approach speaks to an overall vacillating mixed-feeling view of the West as a site. In part, it is a perspective that emerges from lived experience: Jackson grew up in rural Utah and throughout Bushwacker makes references to ATVing, shooting, hunting, and trucking. He does so not with the common critical urbane eye that condemns the rural as antiquated, backwards, and bumpkin; but rather, such quotations are one part observer and one part participant.
Take, for instance, “Man Up!”, a performance piece in which Jackson drove a 1981 three-wheeler ATV through printer’s ink and then up the gallery wall a full 10 feet. What followed was inevitable: dragged down by gravity, the vehicle crashed to the ground, spilling gas all over and landing within inches of Jackson’s leg. At its root, “Man Up” is an arrogant performative gesture a la Chris Burden in its danger, in its notions and explorations of masculinity, and in its pure craziness, really. The gesture’s strength is in its use of violence both to the gallery wall and to the artist himself— a violence that deconstructed white cube, colonized the gallery space, and renders Jackson at risk.
Leaving the ATV in the gallery as artwork is an interesting choice. At its earliest inception, the all-terrain vehicle created access to the inaccessible. Such access was granted to rank-and-file explorers, who could position themselves like the earliest pioneers of the American West, discovering, marking and, at least momentarily, colonizing the non-site, non-mapped corners of wild America. But this particular model, the 1981 three-wheeler, was marred with reports of danger that resulted in its being banned from production for safety concerns. Thus, by using an ATV, a vehicle that typifies rural culture, Jackson equipped himself with a tool, and a position, that is, in its very structure, problematic.
Then there is the beautifully haunting video “Esterbend,” which makes reference to the federally funded bounty given to hunters to reduce the coyote population. Certainly there is a critique of such practices, but the criticism does not fall on the hunter nor the hunted. Paired with Mahler’s Symphony No. 4, which is known for its reference to Christian resurrection, the coyote pelt floats with the whims of the wind, and, at least momentarily, appears to reanimate and take on a new form. Watching it move is both majestic and beautifully horrifying. It is also absurd, uncanny, and abject. Despite its dance of motion, the pelt’s limpness and mortality persists. Here is the remnant of a body being dragged in the wind. It flounders and falls flat on the desert landscape. The emptiness of the dried desert is marked by tire tracks, so by people, and fails to be blank, to be self-referential, to be non-political. The coyote of Joseph Beuys, which stood as a metaphor for the wild and terror of the West, is a ghost lost in the barrenness still echoing, “I like America, and America likes me.”
Coyotes are not the only symbol for the American West referenced in the exhibit. In “Columbia,” Jackson takes on the quasi-mythical female symbol of Columbia, the female figure who stands in for notions of exploration and the United States collective identity, whose name emerges from Christopher Columbus. But rather than taken the form of a woman’s body to stand for an ideal, she is a discarded cloth, floating in the Great Salt Lake, being held up by a pole. She is floundering, forgotten, trash. It is also funny too. Here is your Columbia, in all of her majesty, the embodiment of American exploration.
“Untitled” is a grouping of sterling silver chains that hang on the gallery wall awkwardly like tchotchkes found at a truck stop. Custom-made by Jackson,each pendant was created from forgotten and discarded trash found at the Spanish Fork and Payson public shooting range. In part, an extension of Jackson’s book The Range, the broken clay skeet, shot-up can of beer, bent paint can are all comically transformed when wrapped in new material and when isolated in the gallery. Similarly, the photograph, “I Hear There Is Land There Man Has Never Seen” is a snapshot of such a stop, the modern-day version of a frontier rendezvous point, now populated by Taco Bells and Subways, mediated through yellow acrylic. Seen in this way, there is something rooted in surveillance in the vantage point but also something tremendously picturesque. The lights give off a soft glow, the stop feels like an Edward Hopper painting. But it is not necessarily critical. There is no lamentation regarding the expansive globalization of corporations or the pervasiveness of American commercialism as I see it. Such stops are what allow drivers and truckers to go long distances, to temporarily rest, fill up their gas tanks, and then to keep going. Like ATVs, they allow for modern-day manifest destiny, they string the country together. It could just as easily have been called Columbia, as our new patron saint of exploration.
Then there’s the painting “That Tickles,” a re-creation of Looney Tunes’ Yosemite Sam, who despite being castrated from his ever-ubiquitous guns, cries out in bold lettering BACK OFF! The reference is hugely sarcastic and the irony comes not only from Sam’s stance, which, when removed from the guns, looks almost like a receptive hug, but also from the medium itself, scratch-and-sniff paint on canvas. Visitors are invited to engage with the work by carefully rubbing and smelling the body of Yosemite Sam, and the smell lingering on the fingertips is a mass-market- pine smell. The West mediated through simulacra, inviting the viewer to come, explore; but truncating the process by mediating it.
UMOCA Artist in Resident Curator Jared Steffensen says, “Jackson balances humor and seriousness, comfort and bizarre, pathetic and monumental, in order to better illustrate the complexities that are imprinted on the American West. For Jackson, there is something profound and tragic that exists in this culture, landscape, and mentality.” I would agree, but suggest that such dichotomies manifest Jackson’s own shifting view of the West.