When it comes to describing the magnetic power that California has held on the American imagination, where do you start? In 1848, when gold was discovered in Sutter's Mill? Or 70-odd years later, in Hollywood, when they discovered glitter?
The artist Jack Pierson, 52, was born and raised about as aesthetically and spiritually far from California as you can imagine: in the 393-year-old Yankee stronghold of Plymouth, Massachusetts. His first visit to Los Angeles, in 1983, was love at first sight. As an adult he has always lived in New York City and kept California a getaway, but he invested more heavily in the dream 13 years ago when he bought a house in the desert hamlet of Twentynine Palms.
And as his big new show at the mammoth Regen Projects gallery in Hollywood demonstrates, his admiration for California is the size of Texas. The exterior of the gallery is adorned with a 7-by-13-foot neon sign of two letters: CA. Inside, the show is dominated by a sculpture 100 feet long that is made of 14-foot-high plywood letters recalling the Hollywood sign and vintage movie marquees. They're painted silver and spell The End of the World.
Like a good 1950s movie star, the piece winks in several directions: at the old credo of manifest destiny that bid America to spread from sea to shining sea; at the state's allure to apocalypse-centric cults; at its residents, who live in fear of its earthquakes; and Hollywood's inspiring way of being able to make movies and money out of it all. It even winks at the art industry's shiny new blockbuster ethos of ginormous galleries stocked with ginormous art.
But when Pierson was asked what he had that best embodied the California spirit, the artist picked a small and humble object: a child's chair made out of plywood and old orange crates that he found in an antiques market near Twentynine Palms.
"It was there for maybe a year before I bought it," he said. "I was never really sure — you can't sit in it. Then one day I thought, 'This is incredible, I have to have it.' It has everything I want from a thing."
What is that?
"A story," he said. '`You know, where something interesting is made into something useful, and then years later it just seems so chic. It has this great look as if it was made by someone who knew something about Bauhaus or Modernism, but I'm pretty sure they did not. It was just someone saying, 'This kid needs a chair,' and making one.
"I don't know, maybe it was later, maybe some hippies in the ‚70s needed one and put it together. I remember when I was a teenager, I had all my records in orange crates because I think I'd seen pictures of someone's house in California where they had that, and it seemed like the coolest thing."
That mystery of its maker is still compelling. Was it a farmer who fled Oklahoma in the 1930s Dust Bowl? A Modernist architect — say, Richard Neutra or Rudolph Schindler — who arrived in Los Angeles in the 1920s? It's hard to say: the pieces of orange crate look old, but the plywood looks more recent. Was it made, then remade? Who knows?
It makes sense. Pierson is known for a sophisticated way with ambiguity that often leaves little or no trace of his hand, like his famous 'signs' of mismatched letters or his pre-folded, poster-style photographs that have that bittersweet quality. The chair's blurry link to the past and a possible style-savvy authorship may be cut from the same cloth.
"Maybe it's just a story I am telling myself," he said. But then, scratch the surface of many things you love and you find that the reality does not quite measure up. As they can tell you in Hollywood, it's just a white wall until you turn the projector on. (David Colman/The New York Times News Service)