Matthew Day Jackson's Terranaut II towers over the viewer, an intricate and complex mirage-like vision. This picture, created in 2008, shows an psychedelically colourful astronaut hanging from a tree, reminiscent of Goya's Disasters of War; through the finely-worked surface of his visor glows the spectral image of his skull. In the background is an inlaid image of the Tower of Babel, referencing Pieter Breugel the Elder's celebrated painting of circa 1563, now in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, a subject matter that invokes concepts of human hubris that finds contemporary resonances in the twenty-first-century image of the strung-up skull-headed spaceman. After all, what was the Space Race if not an attempt, like our biblical forebears, to reach for the heavens? Day Jackson has made this picture with meticulous attention to detail, creating it from deliberately and provocatively humble materials. Synthetic stone finishes have been inlaid with a skill recalling the craftsmanship of old, while the hi-tech spacesuit has been rendered using coloured twine, adding a folksy dimension to this image of space exploration. Meanwhile, geometric lines in the background stretch from point to point, each circle reminiscent of the gleaming mother-of-pearl buttons of a cowboy shirt. By using materials such as this, Day Jackson has deliberately taken the era of the Space Race, which had been at its height during the late 1950s and the 1960s in the period just preceding his birth, and has pulled it into the hand-crafted realm of the American quilt. In this way, he equates the technological innovations that defined so much of the Twentieth Century and which have had so much of an impact on the economic, scientific and political landscapes of the world we inhabit today with mythology, aligning the adventures of the astronauts of the Sixties with the tales of derring do of the pioneers in the Wild West of the late Nineteenth Century. They are both a part of the cultural fabric of existence today.
Day Jackson's work straddles the realms of science and culture, exploring the ways in which they dovetail with each other, and also investigating the tension between them. Day Jackson places the science of yesteryear within the general context of the today's mythology; one of the reasons for this is because of the Romantic aspirations of so many scientists, whom he sees as aligned to artists: the trailblazers in various fields, and in particular those of the Twentieth Century, who sought to make the world a better place through their innovations are given credit in the pulsing, psychedelic colours of Day Jackson's astronaut, the cosmic pioneer of the modern era. The willingness of scientist and spaceman alike to put their own lives on the line for their beliefs is here granted a monumental tribute.
At the same time, Day Jackson's Terranaut II carries a message of warning: the viewer is all to aware that the Tower of Babel was built by humans insistent on reaching the heavens, thereby equating themselves with God. Spaceflight, in Terranaut II, becomes a contemporary parallel, and the skull-headed astronaut hanging from his tree a cautionary tale, recalling the punishment - the many tongues - that had followed the biblical attempt to touch the stars. In an exhibition that took place in two venues during the same year that Terranaut II was created, another work, Terranaut, was shown, a sculpture which seemed to consist of the crisped remains of an astronaut hanging from a tree. Was this accident, suicide, murder or execution? In Terranaut II, the viewer cannot decide.
Even the materials that Day Jackson has used highlight some of the unwitting by-products of the frenzied developments of the Twentieth Century and their problematic legacy in the Twenty-First. Day Jackson has deliberately used synthetic stone, humble twine and indeed plywood, a material that contains a narrative in its own right according to the artist. 'At the turn of the century you could find a plank of wood that was 16 inches wide!' he has explained. 'Now, you can find these things but it's not readily available, it makes more sense to build these things out of plywood. So a simple thing like plywood has embedded into it the entire history of our depletion of resources. Our history is built into these materials' (Day Jackson, quoted in I.D. Peterson, 'Interview with Matthew Day Jackson', June 2006, reproduced at www.portlandart.net).
In this way, Day Jackson manages to investigate one of his key themes: the abuse of scientific knowledge, so often based on a desire to improve the planet and the lot of humanity. Perhaps the coloured twine is intended to refer to the paintings of Friedensreich Hundertwasser, who famously shunned the cold reason of the straight line. Throughout the Twentieth Century, the misuse of science was a phenomenon which struck again and again, perhaps most famously in the use of theoretical physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer's work to create the atomic bomb. Another example exists in the form of the Geodesic Dome pioneered by Richard Buckminster Fuller, a multi-disciplined thinker and inventor who worked in several fields. His dome, invented to help people in times of crisis and also to invoke a connectedness in all things, has also become the basis for the shieldings for military long range sensor arrays of various types. It appears to be no coincidence that the interconnecting forms of the stars and lines in the background of Terranaut II, as well as the tiny triangles that comprise the branch from which the astronaut hangs, recall the constituent parts of the domes made by 'Bucky', who himself has appeared in several of Day Jackson's works.
The Tower of Babel perfectly encapsulates some of Day Jackson's own feelings regarding specialisation, which he sees as an overly-limiting way of thinking. While it is a natural result of the increasing reams of knowledge that have emerged during the last century, it nonetheless suppresses the chances of innovators such as Oppenheimer or Bucky, who were both widely-read thinkers with a great frame of reference. Bucky, for instance, has a legacy that continues in the form of the Geodesic Dome, the Dymaxion Globe and the popularisation of the phrase 'Spaceship Earth.' The Geodesic Dome, which is echoed in Terranaut II in the form of the geometric shapes in the tree and the background, hints at the interconnectedness of everything; Day Jackson is promoting that concept in an artwork that references the Old Masters, the map of the globe, space travel, folk art and American mythology. In this way, while the Terranaut takes on the appearance of a 'terrornaut' with his skull gleaming through, this picture is also an image of celebration of the human spirit, encapsulating that romantic, though inherently flawed, ancient desire to excel and exceed, to gain knowledge and experience, to strive, to travel, to know, to build and to heal. WP