Natural Nostalgia: Matthew Day Jackson at SCAD Atlanta

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Matthew Day Jackson, The Lower 48, 2006; 48 framed color photographs mounted on Sintra, each 13½ by 20 inches.

In the recent show “There Will Come Soft Rains,” artist Matthew Day Jackson presented an earthy and ethereal view of America’s landscape. The show [February 17-June 5] consisted of photographs taken across the country, reworked Audubon plates, a vintage slideshow, and a 1920 poem to tie it all together. The title of the show was taken from a work by American poet Sara Teasdale that imagines nature’s reclamation of a battlefield. The artist’s past and present is represented in photographs that span decades, and he even throws in a bit of family participation. A newly created suite of prints uses images of Americana and our natural landscape added to the show’s sense of nostalgia.

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Jackson created a portfolio of 12 new etchings for this show using rediscovered Audubon plates of American birds. The artist worked diligently to obtain the legal rights to use the plates, reworking them into something greater than an Encyclopedia Britannica image. Each print is created through multiple runs through a printing press—one pass for every color—and the birds pop with unnatural, tie-dyed color. The artist then added his own touches to the prints—dreamy landscapes, images of the Challenger explosion, and trippy images from space. The prints that were on view are all artist proofs, which show Jackson’s working process. They contain notes regarding the type of paper to use, which colors he prefers, and other ideas he has for the finished project; they are purposefully imperfect in their presentation.

Matthew Day Jackson, artist’s proofs of etchings using John James Audubon plates of American Birds

The show also featured older work by Day, a series of photographs called “The Lower 48.” This charming series depicts—you guessed it—the Unites States sans Hawaii and Alaska. What makes this work so engaging is that in each image there is a face hidden in some natural formation. At first, I stood in front of the overwhelmingly large display of photos and had a hard time making sense of it. Then, I saw a face formed in the outline of a rock formation in the woods. And then, I immediately saw another face in another picture; it soon became a game. While this series was printed in 2006, the images were taken over a long period of time, as Jackson traveled to various national parks.

To create a video projection, Jackson wrote lines from the poem on vintage slides of his family’s travels. He then projected a slide show, and recorded it, with a voiceover of his father reading the Teasdale poem, which encapsulates much of what Jackson has to say about nostalgia and nature.

Matthew Day Jackson, a video projection of a slide show.

There’s an element in these works that speak to loss and that carry a sense of sadness. The Audubon plates, whose printing was prevented by the onset of World War II, bear the weight of an unrealized failure. The photographs in “The Lower 48” resemble photos of long-ago vacations. Together, the works suggest that Jackson is concerned that the beauty of life is slipping by too quickly.

Matthew Terrell writes, photographs, and creates videos in the fine city of Atlanta. His work can be found regularly on the Huffington Post, where he covers such subjects as the queer history of the South, drag culture, and gay men’s health issues. 

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