4.10 / Review

Scanning the long sleeves of the shore

By Renny Pritikin February 26, 2013

Colter Jacobsen’s current show at Gallery Paule Anglim, Scanning the long sleeves of the shore, is perfect. I walked through it clockwise, deliberately, step by step; and the more I looked, the more I saw; and the longer I took, the more I could postpone the end of the experience. The show is made up of only twenty-one little collages, none larger than 6-by-10 inches, and all depict men’s collared shirts seen face on, yet their combination of immaculate workmanship and complexity-in-the- guise-of-simplicity is a thrill.

One of Jacobsen’s most acclaimed successes is his recent image/text project with the poet Bill Berkson, titled BILL (2008). Jacobsen’s current exhibition can be read as an homage to George Schneeman—the late, underappreciated New York artist known for his collaborations with poets and who made many similar works, of men’s shirts on hangers—and a tip of the cap to Berkson. Each of Jacobsen’s collages is unique, but the group can be sorted into three or four categories: shirts made of texts, of security-envelope plaids and paisleys, and of miscellaneous materials such as gold-foil candy wrappers and corrugated cardboard. All but a couple make at least marginal reference to text, further anchoring the artist’s thinking in the tradition of mid-century New York School figures, who poked and prodded at the boundary between text and image. In Jacobsen’s Untitled (Iceland) (2012), for example, the logo “POLAR” appears on found stationery.

These works are not unrelated to those of Charles LeDray, who makes tiny outfits with obsessive precision. The attraction of these, and of Jacobsen’s collages, has to do with charm, certainly; we are drawn to the miniature as tour de force and to the unavoidable redolence of baby sweetness. It also has to do with our nostalgia for toys and paper dolls. Yet Jacobsen’s work is more than merely coy. By positioning his art collegially with that of Schneeman, Jacobsen aligns himself with the modernist tradition, yet the methods and concerns that surface in his overall body of work place him squarely at the center of contemporary practice.

Colter Jacobsen. Untitled (Bill), 2012; collage on mat board; 5 ¼ x 7 1/8 inches. Courtesy of the Artist and Gallery Paule Anglim.
Colter Jacobsen. Untitled (Keep It Cool), 2012; collage (paper bag) on mat board; 6 x 9 inches. Courtesy of the Artist and Gallery Paule Anglim

Jacobsen can draw with consummate skill, but he problematizes this practice by setting up roadblocks for his hand and mind: he draws found images twice, once from memory or with strict and brief time limits. His work draws on his whole persona, including his passion for poetry and music, as well as his day job as a caregiver for the disabled (hence his interest in disabling his hand, perhaps). Finally, the concerns at the core of social practice—one of the continuing investigations of his generation—can be detected in Jacobsen’s ongoing responsiveness to the work of predecessors, colleagues, and amateurs, as he forms inclusive clubs, klatches, and mutual admiration societies.

The “POLAR” logo mentioned above depicts an iceberg, of which there is vastly more below the water surface than can be seen from above. Jacobsen’s shirts similarly offer us a way into the work, along the lines of judging a book (that is, a man) by its cover (that is, his clothes). Wherever the human subject is implied yet absent, we are asked to speculate on the reasons for that absence: death, exclusion, shame, fear? At the same time, the clothing in Jacobsen’s collages is often indistinguishable from, and blends into, its background, suggesting the propensity of individuals to disappear into social contexts. The figure of the artist—especially the poet—is absent from most American social constructions, both uninvited and, at the same time, hidden among us. In Jacobsen’s collages Untitled (Hearth) and Untitled (Bill) (both 2012), the shirts are essentially constructed of language, suggesting that human identities are text-based and, in the former case, made up entirely of the hearth, the earth, and the heart.


Colter Jacobsen: Scanning the long sleeves of the shore is on view at Gallery Paule Anglim, in San Francisco, through March 9, 2013.

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