In conversation: Jack Pierson with Lyle Rexer – The Brooklyn Rail
6 September 2023
Jack Pierson is one of the artists who has turned photography back to its roots and made it personal. Even as his work has celebrated mass media and the icons of popular culture and gay life—images in widespread circulation—it has awakened a poignancy and nostalgia at the heart of even the most commercial images. Drawing heavily on the cultural image pool, his work nevertheless seems always to insist that meaning—and feeling and a sense of beauty—reside in the eye of the beholder. Thus, no image can be dismissed. The artist, by some miracle of intuition, is there to convene the latent sentiments and memories that photographs can evoke.
Pierson began exhibiting in 1990, and since then every kind of image and material has found its way into his work: snapshots, publicity photos, beefcake, and formal portraits on the one hand and paintings, drawings, installations, collages, video and word-based sculptures on the other. He has also become an active editor and publisher in a series of magazines titled Tomorrow’s Man, which recalls The Yellow Book series of the 1890s. Lisson Gallery will present a selection of Pierson’s recent work at its New York gallery from September 7.
Lyle Rexer (Rail): I remember the first picture of yours I saw, and this would have been back in the late 1990s. It was the cover image of your book The Lonely Life. It was very stage-y, a stage itself. And it was grainy and out of focus. Lots of orange-yellow light in it. It was printed in the negative. One of the things that I was so taken by was that it seemed, at one and the same time, a bad picture of an obvious subject and enormously evocative. Poignant and mysterious. I wanted to start there, with how photographs work, and the complicated ways in which we relate to them. I wonder if you’d talk a little bit about what the attraction of the medium was for you, how that’s grown or changed, as you’ve used photographs.
Jack Pierson: As a child of the 1960s, between TV, magazines, and books, that’s how I received most of my information.
Rail: And you’d go to the movies, too.
Pierson: Yeah. So that’s a language you learn. Those are the images that you have. I didn’t go to museums. I mean, there was a yearly local art show in Plymouth, Massachusetts that my mother would take me to, but not much beyond that. But I was lucky in that by the time I was fifteen, my family had made friends with New York people, because we lived in a town where people “summered.” Our friend was a doctor who would go home for two weeks at a time. I was a good kid so I was invited to go with him. By the time I was fifteen, I was going to museums, but it still seemed like a wide open and confusing world. It wasn’t until my first year of college at Massachusetts College of Art, now Art and Design, that I saw the classic Diane Arbus monograph.
Read in full via The Brooklyn Rail.
Portrait of Jack Pierson by Phong Bui, courtesy The Brooklyn Rail.