Imagine, if you can, a naked man standing on the edge of a cliff. His body is contorted, torso parallel to the ground, his head against a large stake, like a man listening to the top of a fence post. The sharp end of the stake is only partially embedded into the ground. There is a giant hammer in the man's hand, pulled back awkwardly, painfully, ready to strike another blow against his own temple, driving the stake further into the Earth. Behind him are hundreds of stakes already planted in this manner. It is a classic vision of Hell, of self inflicted agony. Then again, maybe not.
"I'm interested in irrational behavior," John Jacobsmeyer says as he prepares his latest canvas for exhibition. Tomorrow it will be trucked from the artist's studio in the Portsmouth Button Factory. "The whole point of making a painting at all is to pose provocative situations."
Here even the frame is provocative. It is curved at the bottom and top, like an egg with either end lopped off. It is large; the nude is near life-sized. It is colorful and maddeningly precise. The beautifully depicted figure could have dropped from the Sistine ceiling. The sky is a brilliant blue and the scenery is both familiar and strange. Clouds seem to float upside down. The landscape and vegetation is half comforting, half nightmarish. And that giant hammer, on second look, appears to be made of soft plastic, not a weapon, but a child's toy. So why is the man hitting himself? How is he driving in the stakes with a toy hammer? In a world used to easy answers, Jacobsmeyer delights in discomfort his images evoke.
"I'm not teaching you a lesson here. I'm not asking the questions. I'm just providing an environment and planting the seeds of a narrative," says Jacobsmeyer.
The viewer may feel otherwise. The painting appears to scream questions while hiding great insight. Jacobsmeyer insists that his painting, revolting at first glance, is merely a catalyst. Most viewers are used to film, Jacobsmeyer says, where ideas are actively presented and the viewer is carried along with the images and the story. In a painting, he says, it is the medium that is passive and the viewer who moves through time, catapulted by a single provocative image. The image may come from the artist's revelation about life, but the revelation cannot be taught. It can only be discovered again by the viewer. That's why, Jacobsmeyer says, the artist must work only with raw material he knows well. The painter represents the truth he understands. The rest is up to the viewer.
But many viewers are not willing or able to do that work. Viewers frequently tell the painter that they admire his skill, but not his subject matter. For the artist, he says, they are inseparable. A recent series of pictures continually depicts cattle. Why cattle? Because Jacobsmeyer knows cattle. His father raises them in Northwood nearby.
"I'm in a meat locker," Jacobsmeyer says, describing the genesis of a recent image. "I'm painting a pastel. I'm freezing. Half of these giant carcasses are wrapped in sheets. Two men came into the meat locker and began to undrape the meat, revealing the carcasses. Then they left. Then I knew what the painting was about. It was about revealing of truth, undressing the truth."
Jacobsmeyer, who teaches art at the University of New Hampshire and the NH Institute of Art, has joyfully chosen a very solitary path. His work, at least, draws powerful reactions. He likes that. And he loves painting in a way that seems to play along the edges of the sublime and the mischievous. There is no better feeling, he says, than when a painting is coming together well, when the ideas and images begin to resonate. But what about the poor viewer? Jacobsmeyer smiles.
"You can't have the sublime without the vulgar," he says categorically. That may be where his resonance begins. Jacobsmeyer's work is most disturbing, at first glance, because it comes out of a classical tradition many viewers find so comfortable. In the midst of all that is comfortable, just for the truth of it, the artist makes a shocking suggestion.
"If the art of traditional painting is a church, then I guess you could say I am misbehaving in the church of painting."
Photo of John Jacobsmeyer by Gary Sampson
By J. Dennis Robinson
Pictures © 1997 John Jacobsmeyer
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