You were born and raised in Utah and spent a lot of your childhood driving around the desert. Do you think those childhood desert drives drew you especially to photography as a medium? If so, why?
I think the desert lends itself to photography in an important way. The desert is such a vast and open place and the camera is a tool that limits and controls space. The camera makes it much easier to access something that is overwhelming and a bit incomprehensible in scope.
To answer the question more directly, I think that when we drive through the desert (and this really the only way to navigate such a vast space) the window of the car acts like a frame to the desert. It frames the space. So maybe there is something about driving and looking through a window that is connected with the camera frame. The same would be true with a helmet/goggles when riding a dirtbike. I’m not sure if that’s what happened, but it is an interesting way to think about framing and limiting a space so that it can be digested more easily.
In your artist statement, you write about the myth of the American West: “I’ve always thought that the fabricated vision of the West was a misrepresentation of reality and that my job was to lift the veil, so others could see the ‘truth.’ I’m now making work where I am less interested in direct truth or reality and more concerned with how the myth says something that truth could never approach.” Can you speak a bit more about getting away from direct truth and what the myth you speak about says?
In art, I don’t think there is any real benefit to truth. It is boring and unrealistic and doesn’t really tell us anything about ourselves, others, or the places we inhabit. I am much more interested in the lies we tell and retell and what it says about us that these myths continue to be told. I don’t think there is much to gain from artists showing true things if there isn’t an exploration of untruth. Lies though, I love a good lie. If we look at the lie we can find something a lot more substantial and lasting. I know why I tell the truth. I’m a bit more mystified by why I tell lies.
What is the role of performance in your work? I’ve heard it described as surrealist, humorous. Is that still true of your work? How has humor or performance evolved in your work over the years?
I think humor is a good device for dealing with difficult things. I often think about the dadaists working in this way. Comedians do the same thing. It provides an entry point. I don’t know if my work really ‘deals with performance.’ It is a necessary byproduct in my work and I try really hard to make it look like nothing is happening. I suppose the nature of doing something to make it look like nothing is happening is a pretty comical process.
The light rods of 2020 works “Hahaha, Shelter” and “Presence Tent” remind me of land art, or land art appropriation. Your work has an installation element and is compelling how you transcend mediums to capture your concepts. Can you tell me about your process with those works, in particular the concept through execution.
I think the most important thing in my work is to recognize that everything exists for the photograph. It is how I think and operate, knowing that it will become an image. The actual installations are quite boring in situ. They have flaws and are often held together in really unimpressive ways. But the photograph has a way to elevate things by way of hiding. The light tubes are a great example. They are just acrylic tubes with little flashlights in them. They are really silly objects. But in the photograph they have a commanding presence and feel magical and serious. I think some earth artists do this more than others and that is the work I like the most. Heizer, Mendieta, Holt, and even Goldsworthy keep this magic intact. It seems to me that artists like Smithson, Christo, and Judd are more interested in material than magic or even material as magic.
Some photographers, like Sally Mann, argue that photography robs us of our memory. You write that, “the image produced is simultaneously a hyperreality and an incredible truth-teller.” What do you think about memory, truth, and reality in your work? And in photography as a medium?
I may be wrong, but I think what Mann is saying is similarly said by Sontag when she talks about the violence of photography. Photography is inherently a violent medium. At some level memory robs us of our memory and photography can either confirm or deny it. Either way it complicates our understanding of what is going on. I think the way we really get robbed is when we stop thinking about what is being communicated, by the image, our eyes, our brain ---or some combination of the three. Photography gives us permission to forget, but that isn’t photography’s fault. In this way, photography transcends these various modes of understanding the world and leaves it up to us. And that is a pretty terrifying thing. But one that can, I hope, be rectified.
There has been a history of artists, especially land artists, coming to the American West from New York City for projects and escape. How does it feel to have done the opposite? Going from a childhood spent taking long-drives through the desert to studying at Pratt Institute and learning the chaos of the city? Do you think you were prepared?
I think it was necessary for me to figure out how much this place means to me. And no, I wasn’t ready to realize that at the time, but I’m not sure that I could’ve been. There are certainly things about New York that felt like the West. Both are pretty lonely. Both are chaotic. The West just hides its chaos better because there is more space to sweep things under the rug.
There is something about the West that pulls you back. Why did you decide to come back to Utah?
It is home.
What projects are you currently working on and where do you see you taking your work this next year?
I have been planning a more involved video work for the past couple of years. That will be the focus for 2021-22. I have some rodeo paintings I want to get done when it gets too cold and pretty to make work outside.
Levi Jackson uses an interdisciplinary approach to his work combining photography and installation with nods to performance. His work revolves around the Western landscape, where he was raised, and challenges the historical perceptions by pairing it with contemporary understanding. Levi received his MFA from Pratt Institute (2013) and now lives and teaches photography in Utah. He has shown work nationally and internationally with a solo exhibition at the Utah Museum of Contemporary Art (2015) and group exhibitions at Kunsthalle, Osnabrueck (2017), Gerish Stiftung Foundation (2015), HPGRP Gallery (2012).
Lately, I’ve been thinking about the value of myths. A lie, a meaningful lie. I have been trying to understand how a legend or folk tale operates, why they exist and what purpose they serve. I’ve always thought that the fabricated vision of the West was a misrepresentation of reality and that my job was to lift the veil, so others could see the ‘truth.’ I’m now making work where I am less interested in direct truth or reality and more concerned with how the myth says something that truth could never approach. I choose to use photography in my work because the image produced is simultaneously a hyperreality and an incredible truth-teller. It can make us see and understand things, not as they really are, but as we want them to be. This photographic thesis aligns itself naturally with my vision of the West. What does this process of myth-ing the West tell us about ourselves (myself)? How have our choices to portray this landscape as a sublime oasis or rugged cowboys, informed our role as colonizers and conquerors? I am looking at the Western landscape and its incorporation of bent truths and tall tales as metaphors for humanity in a contemporary context. My work is closely tied to physically being in the landscape, while simultaneously existing for the aftereffect. I make and think for the photograph. Constructing the sets, photographing, dismantling and revealing all become analogous to creating a reality. The removed site and creation of truth is central to the perception that I am critiquing and questioning. It is the reality, and the lie, of the mirage that most draws me in.