'The show's most emblematic work was the large panel Phoenix (Peace Eagle). Made of oddball ingredients such as scorched wood, faux bricks, glued-on yarn and worked leather, it depicts a cartoonish turkey vulture, bright wings unfurled, standing atop a pile of rubble beneath a night sky studded with eyes instead of stars...his political references are most effective when they give way to a wonderfully weird formal alchemy. But his beautiful surrogate for the regal bald eagle, a vulture that cleans the earth by removing carrion, seems pitch-perfect.' (K. M. Jones "Matthew Day Jackson", in Frieze, no. 97, March 2007)
Perched on a pile of rubble, blazing against the night-shrouded backdrop, the magnificent bird in Matthew Day Jackson's Phoenix (Peace Eagle) is a flaming mass of colour. Every square centimetre of this vast, imposing work, created in 2005 and exhibited in Day Jackson's first solo show that year, bears witness to the artists incredible attention to craft and detail: the stars that are flecked across the background are in fact inlaid mother-of-pearl, the wings have been made with applied yarn, the bird's head with marbled enamel and its body with tooled leather, and the backdrop itself features fake bricks and scorched wood. The twists of material that make up the wings and the vivid colours in the phoenix's head are colourful to an almost hallucinatory degree, an effect that is heightened by the contrast with the dark background.
In his works, Day Jackson inspects problematic areas of history, and nowhere is this more clear than in Phoenix (Peace Eagle), which taps into elements of Native American mythology and thus invokes the tragic history of invasion, exploitation and reservations that those peoples all too often suffered in the United States. The bird that dominates the composition is a turkey vulture, referred to as the 'Peace Eagle' by the Cherokee because it was majestic, like an eagle, but had weak talons and therefore was unable to kill. Instead, the turkey vulture is a carrion-eater. In this sense, it is similar to the mythical phoenix, the firebird whose young rise from its ashes, revealing a cultural simultaneity. This is a hybrid image, filled with colour and hope: in the case of both birds, rebirth emerges from destruction, and this is embodied in the incendiary form standing here on a pile of rubble that is strewn with skulls, bones and other debris. Yet those ambiguous aspects of Day Jackson's work remain in the complex relationship between bird and rubble: the phoenix causes the fire from which new life emerges, and the 'Peace Eagle' feeds from and relies upon death.
In the case of both the vulture and the phoenix, transformation is key. Both of these creatures create life from carnage. In a sense, this is an apt metaphor for the act of artistic creation, and Day Jackson himself has tapped into those transformative processes, taking scorched wood, elements from craft and enamel, the result of a process that relies on extreme heat, in order to make this aweinspiring, hope-filled monument.