THE IMPOTENT LANDSCAPE
"The highest achievements of our material civilization--and at their best our hotels, our department stores, and our Woolworth towers are achievements--count as so many symptoms of its spiritual failure,"
-Lewis Mumford (1922)
At the early part of the 20 th century, Western society underwent drastic transformations due to the increased tensions between industrialization and culture. As new technology unfolded, artists responded with work that delved into what it meant to be human against the stark contrast of the machine. Questions about the authentic verses imitation resonated within the writings of Walt Whitman and Henry James, and were confounded by photography as documentation and modernist architecture. This pivotal moment was bound by Romanticism on one end and Modernism on the other, as it grappled with whether the machine was indicative of progress or the scourge of culture.
Irony is the chief method for framing the unachievable desires that the Romantic longs for. In Romantic Desire in (Post)Modern Art and Philosophy (1990), Jos de Mul cites Friedrich von Schlegel for his characterizing of the Romantic as an oscillation between enthusiasm and irony . Carol Jackson's tooled leather signs offer (the enthusiastically ironic) testimonial to her culture's pivotal moments of excess (Fig. 2). Describing her work as existing primarily in the domain of painting, Jackson (like the folk-artist who indulges in religious epitaph), creates texts that are simultaneously celebratory and warning: frank, stylized engravings which are the dark forecast of impending decline. Her tooled, stamped and enameled drawings of real-estate and commercial signage question the tension between the natural and cultural through the symbol of building and development. The liminal moment that is 'contracting', where the land has been acquired from itself (nature subjugated), and remade into luxury real-estate (culture celebrated), is magnified by Jackson who invokes an Arts and Crafts ghost, hovering between industrial revolutions.
As de Mul points out, "irony embodies the capacity that people have to reflect upon their impotence, to distance themselves from it and thus...to rise above it" (pp 10). Jackson's signs negotiate that point of irony by combining man's vanity in architecture and ownership with the complex sign-system inherent to the 'skin'. The animal skin is associated with luxury, but also with handicraft and subjugated nature. It also the human body or skin, on which Jackson engraves an extravagant tattoo (Fig. 3).
In the 19 th century, the industrial revolution made it possible for machines to mimic handcrafted things, Jackson takes that handcrafted thing to mimic the grandiose signifiers of that initial progress. Her signs are an ironic benchmark between the Romantic and the Modernist, compounding turn-of-the-century American optimism with the irony of a weary post-modern culture, sifting through the past century's junk.