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‘Reading’ the gluttonous hellscape of Gregory Jacobsen

American painter Gregory Jacobsen takes STIR on a journey through his corpulent and violent realm.

by Manu SharmaPublished on : Jan 16, 2021

American artist Gregory Jacobsen works in several mediums including printmaking, performance art, and sculpture. Yet, within his diverse body of works, it is his growing collection of paintings that form what is perhaps the most stunning and expansive portion of his oeuvre. Originally from New Jersey, the artist moved to Chicago in order to attend art school where he likely found his interests branching out in several different directions. His specific focus on visual exploration, grounded within a painting practice however, is something that comes naturally to him, and, perhaps as a matter of consequence, is an activity he sometimes finds a bit dull. He considers it to be “excruciatingly boring” unless he is in a specific disposition, and yet, affirming the paradoxical relationship artists sometimes share with their practice, this has not prevented him from creating a disorientingly large body of paintings.

Carrion Eaters | Gregory Jacobsen | STIRworld
Carrion Eaters Image: Gregory Jacobsen

Jacobsen’s paintings are generally small in scale but are densely packed and texturally rich. They tend to glow with a slick sheen; an aspect that functions in tandem with his bright palette to draw audiences into the colourfully grotesque world he is building. The characters within these paintings are presented through portraiture and tableaux, and often commune in bright and cheerful groves as they participate in orgiastic acts of corpulence and barbarism. Wherever they are joined by non-human entities, these members of Jacobsen’s troupe act not as predators or prey, but rather as enthusiastic participants within the brutal revelries, allowing themselves to be disembowelled and cannibalised. Certain paintings within the artist’s collection even blend the boundaries between that which is human and that which is not, until a strange middle ground emerges, wherein Jacobsen’s lush backgrounds become populated by uncanny, hybrid beings that are, at once, possessed of vaguely human features, yet posture themselves in an animalistic fashion, with clawed or furry appendages replacing their arms and legs. He says, “All of the characters are me in a certain way. I am painting what I wish I was, but also what I obsess over in myself: bad and good, disgusting and sensual”.  Functionally, this approach to character building seems to embed itself within Jacobsen’s work on two distinct levels: primarily, it fosters a preoccupation with the self, within the physiclaities of his subjects. Faces and bodies have a little too much flesh, display a measure of imperfection and are simply less than the idealised versions of themselves, and therefore Jacobsen’s self, and perhaps even ourselves, than they would likely wish to be. The comparison to us, the audience, is born of the confrontation we make with his work, wherein his figures, sans their absurd acts of violence, force us to come face to face with the strange idiosyncrasies of the human body. These physical imperfections Jacobsen’s human characters bear, are not necessarily monstrous in and of themselves, but rather, signal the mundane deficiencies that each of us play host to.

Magic Garden, a piece containing some of Jacobsen’s most recurring elements | Gregory Jacobsen | STIRworld
Magic Garden, a piece containing some of Jacobsen’s most recurring elements Image: Gregory Jacobsen

Secondly, Jacobsen’s preoccupation with placing himself within his work manifests itself through the creation of a psychic space defined by the gruesome events his characters participate in as well as the colourful detritus they produce. The orgiastic mess that typifies his paintings speak to the anxieties of modern consumer, capitalist lifestyles; anxieties many of us no doubt share with Jacobsen. He mentions that he “likes to capture that moment where one's facade falls away, be it during pain or climax, or a slackening through utter boredom,” and indeed, his work reflects this torpor with an oversaturation of consumption, consummation and the miscellaneous stimuli that we are perpetually submerged in. There is the distinct feeling of an epoch coming to a brutal and incoherent end as those who have traversed it are no longer content with its most extreme pleasures, and in their quest for perpetually escalating hedonisms, invariably arrive upon an abject and self-destructive depravity as the only logical solution.

Danny Gokey, who’s features evoke Arcimboldo | Gregory Jacobsen | STIRworld
Danny Gokey, whose features evoke Arcimboldo Image: Gregory Jacobsen

Along with the prevalent human condition, the artist incorporates several influences into his paintings in order to create the eclectic and inimitable visual language his works are built through. One may find echoes of Arcimboldo’s mannerism within some of Jacobsen’s more layered portraits, however, the artist denies drawing a great measure of inspiration from the Italian painter. Instead, he cites the vibrant theatricalities of fashion as a point of meditation, saying, “I love fashion and being able to create identities based on clothes. There's a power to costume and uniform”. Jacobsen’s work also speaks to a sense of magical realism, specifically of the fantastical variety popularised by Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. He agrees with this assessment, yet holds certain reservations, and says, “a lot of my early work was based on an Alice in Wonderland aesthetic, but I think it has moved on from there. It's still there, I suppose, in its construction of an alternate reality, my own personal world that I would like to exist in”. Jacobsen’s body of paintings, then, must be read not merely as a sum of its parts; as a melting pot of inspirations and influences, but more critically, as an entity that combines these parts to create something wholly separate from them; a unique and highly nuanced realm for the artist to inhabit, and for the audience to visit upon.

Gaggle | Gregory Jacobsen | STIRworld
Gaggle Image: Gregory Jacobsen

Jacobsen has to his credit a long list of solo and group exhibitions. While the artist has been active in the last few years, his shows are repeatedly being pushed back due to the presently unfolding global pandemic. He mentions that he is playing with the idea of doing a limited-capacity-appointment-only-online viewing show, but would much rather his work be viewed in person. This is an opinion that visitors to Jacobsen’s website will likely agree with, as there is a distinct, visually overwhelming quality to his paintings that demands audiences be surrounded by his work for it to achieve it’s true and total potential, as a beautiful and grotesque meditative instrument.

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