Art

Jack Early at Fergus McCaffrey

The singular New York artist looks back on his childhood in the South.

Jack Early at Fergus McCaffrey
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As an adult, Jack Early has already done all the things you and I would like to do. He made installation art cool. He had the first bad-ass white beard. He was a southern raconteur before the Johnathan-come-latelies. He was the lord of Times Squares both new and old. He hosted a party at Richard Artschwager’s house where the ceilings leaked blood. He’s put a severed finger in a Mountain Dew can. He and Tim Gunn go way back and he hung out with Grace Jones at the peak of her partying career. Having done it all as a grown up, it’s natural that his latest work should turn to his childhood.

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To be specific, the show at Fergus McCaffrey explores Jack’s childhood from roughly 9-12 years old “and all the memories that come before that.” Of course, Jack already had style at age 9. “I was a little hippy from the age of 9-12. Can you imagine? It was the late 1960s.” Jack suffered from asthma as a child and was confined to his bedroom surrounded by wallpaper that his mother let him pick out himself. Young Jack chose a charming toy soldier design that has become the backdrop for both his gigantic Popsicle paintings and as his vintage porn paintings.

The leather daddies wearing chaps on a motorcycle seem highly salacious at first, but they gain an innocence once you realize they are the trace memories of a child’s furtive glance. “The guys are reminiscent of sneak peeks I took at the Y. A guy takes off his shirt and raises his arm, and you see his armpit hair and you’re 10. Or your babysitter has a Playgirl magazine in her bedroom and you tear out a page and smuggle it home and stare at it for a year. And you think about it while you stare at your wall.” Of course, the wall he was staring at was covered in the toy soldier wallpaper.

For the Push Pops, once so evocative of childhood joy, Jack and his friends actually had to scour the country looking for anyone who still sold them. The Push Pop they ultimately produced looked so tasty and frothy in the painting, I was about to scour America just to find one for my own mouth.

In addition to his toy soldier wallpaper and his single sheet of Playgirl contraband, young Jack also had a rotating cast of 27 pets in his room (“There were a lot of funerals”). To capture this aspect, the show will also feature child Jack as a soft sculpture surrounded by a soft menagerie of his many pets. Jack describes these soft sculptures as “Based on a beanbag and a punching bag. Sort of a hybrid of the two.” They’re also about 5% throw pillow and 100% genius way of evoking a childhood in the late 60s.

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For Jack the show feels like a culmination with some twists. He used rainbow-colored inks this time to screen the soldiers. “I think about these bright, colorful works like when a movie ends and sometimes the film gets stuck and it burns bright on the screen. These soldier paintings are burning and forming these bright colors, and then that’s it. Movie’s over, and I’ll go make something else.”

Jack could be making the cold, finished-quality of an artist like Jeff Koons, but he chooses the hand-made aesthetic, creating photorealism with a hand-crafted touch and making bright yellow frames that, while pristine, still make their way across Brooklyn on a bicycle. Perhaps the best way to sum it up is that a lot has changed since jack was 9 years old, but he’s still a hippy at heart. And if you think otherwise, I imagine Jack would probably quote one of his favorite hippy pins and say, “Folk You.”

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