“Redfish Pass” by Jack Pierson, 2105

These five watercolors, as well as a number of others not shown here, represent a small part of the considerable body of new work that Jack Pierson created from December 2014 through February 2015, while undertaking a private, solo retreat on North Captiva Island, Florida, part of the Lee Island barrier chain, created suddenly and violently when the Tampa Bay Hurricane of 1921 severed the 700 acres that are now North Captiva from the more populous and commercial Captiva Island to the south.

It’s a remote spot, North Captiva, and it’s hard to access.  Almost two-thirds of this mangrove=bordered island, for instance, consists of an undeveloped, state-owned wilderness preserve that sustains the natural habitats of over 100 species of migratory birds, manatees, dolphins, Loggerhead sea turtles, Eastern coral snakes, Dusky Pygmy rattlers, hawks, osprey, and, according to some sightings, two adult Floridaand.  The only way to reach the southern tip of the island, where Pierson installed himself and his materials in one of the only ten, mostly solar-powered houses, is by private boat.  When I visited Pierson there in late January—he picked me up at an old marina on Captive Island, in an outboard he was piloting—the winds became so high and the Gulf of Mexico so turbulent and choppy that we became stuck on North Captiva for four days straight, during which time we were the only occupants of the beach houses, each of which was surrounded on three sides by dead Australian pines, tall and slender and bare, with furrowed barks that have turned over time from grey to a bleached, ghostly white.  These pines, unlike many others, were those that had not been split or knocked over when Hurricane Charley bore down on North Captiva almost a dozen years before.  Often, ospreys built their large stick-and-sod nests at the tops.

Jack Pierson: Untitled, 2014, watercolor on paper mounted on linen, 14 by 11 inches; at Cheim & Read.

I describe this setting in some detail because it seems somehow foundational to much of the work that Pierson created there—these watercolors with graphite, for instance, on 14” x 11” Bristol boards—as well as to the intensely private process of artistic creation through which this work was made.  It was only by choosing the deep solitude of North Captiva, that is, that Pierson found himself able to make work without having its reception in mind.  Relatively small in scale and deeply intimate, this work stands somewhat apart from a number of works for which Pierson is famous, such as his large-scale wall sculpture installations, for which he creates outsized words and phrases—BELIEVE, for instance, or LOST IN THE STARS—from found and salvaged letters and signs, or from his evocative, haunting installations, such as the one for which Pierson created a full-scale simulation of a lonely, noirish fleabag hotel room, outfitted with a battered dresser, a sagging mattress on an iron bed, a cheap suitcase, a few threadbare towels, and an ashtray overflowing with cigarette butts.

Instead these watercolors—these “unabashed action paintings,” as Pierson describes them, with their spontaneous and flowing organic shapes and forms—feel akin to the automatic drawings favored by the surrealists, drawings dependent on the artist’s willingness to abandon his own intentions and pre-conceptions and to become completely open instead to what on its own comes through.  Each day on North Captiva, Pierson sat himself down at a busy worktable overlooking the Gulf of Mexico to begin anew a process of making an initial mark on a blank page or piece of Bristol board and then not stopping until the formerly blank space delivers a message or feels what one might call complete.  The method, as Pierson describes it:  “Make a stroke, and then and release it, and then do it again….”

At the same time, these watercolors, with their primal shapes and symmetries, bring to mind those now famous, bilaterally symmetrical inkblots created almost a hundred years ago by Swiss psychologist Hermann Rorschach as a tool for the diagnosis of schizophrenia.  Like these inkblots, the meanings within Pierson’s images are neither calculated nor transparent; instead, they are deeply projective, so that Pierson’s images allow—or even perhaps require —a viewer to respond not to fixed meanings but to unfixed, ambiguous forms that reveal the private, hidden emotions that the viewer projects into the images, providing access to—how did Emily Dickinson put it?—the “internal difference/ Where the Meanings, are—“

Welcome, then, to these five works, each struck from privacy and solitude, each a reminder of the power and importance of the opened unconscious, and each made from what one might describe as a kind of deep doodling, if you will, mixed with what Pierson himself calls “messages from the other side.”

  • Richard McCann is a writer of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. He lives in Washington, D.C., where he is a longtime professor in the MFA Program in Creative Writing at American University. Among his books are "Mother of Sorrows," which is a collection of linked stories, and the poetry collection "Ghost Letters." He serves on the Board of Directors of the PEN/Faulkner Foundation in Washington, D.C. and is a Member of the Corporation of Yaddo in Saratoga Springs, NY.

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