Activist art often conjures associations of hyper-political, in-your-face images and guerrilla performances that affront and assault the senses in order to draw attention to a particular cause or injustice and even more ideally, antagonize the viewer to action. Los Angeles-based artist Ben Jackel takes a different, more subtle tack. According to Jackel, art needs to be socially conscious, but first and foremost, “it has to be a beautiful object.”
Jackel’s monochromatic clay and wood sculptures picture the wincing realities of war, natural disaster and death, but are hewn with such fine craftsmanship that you can’t turn away. His interest in emergency equipment was first piqued amidst the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Coinciding with this national, large-scale catastrophe was the more personally affecting news of his beloved father-in-law’s untimely death, inspiring the poetically rendered Fallen (2005). The two events brought to the fore a tragic sense of angst and loss in realms both public and private, shared and solitary. Tuning into NPR in his garage studio, Jackel listened to a Katrina victim lamenting over her day-long mission to acquire the basic necessities of gasoline and ice. This simple statement loomed in Jackel’s mind, and it was then that utilitarian, ubiquitous objects like gas cans and fire extinguishers became strange, sturdy symbols of the fragility of life.
In his first solo-show at LA Louver gallery in 2009, Jackel presented a fire ax, a fire extinguisher, a fire hose, and a case of sprinkler heads, all lovingly rendered in dark chocolate clay with ebony cases and brackets, elevating these mundane objects into an otherworldly, ghostly realm. The objects are dark; not only in their rich color, but also in subject matter and the threat of danger they imply. Whether in a hotel hallway in Berlin or the Imperial Palace in Kyoto the fire extinguisher was an omnipresent feature. In Jackel’s view, these inanimate, unmoving objects are like loyal sentinels, ready to be called upon in case of emergency.
The interest in life, death and emergency situations coalesce with a concern over war and current events in much of Jackel’s work as he creates seductive and stunning objects charged with an understated activism. Resolution Authority (2009) is a delicately carved mahogany sculpture of the Predator Drone, a military aircraft used by the United States Air Force and Central Intelligence Agency, sanded down to an ultra-fine 800 grit and polished with a silvery sheen of powdered graphite. The alluring aesthetic belies its contentious subject: the highly controversial unmanned aerial vehicle, though deemed successful by the U.S. government in carrying out deadly airstrikes against Al Qaeda and the Taliban in Pakistan, also challenges the nuances of wartime conduct. IED (2008), a carefully observed clay sculpture of a High Mobility Multi-Purpose Wheeled Vehicle, or Humvee, similarly contrasts the abhorrent yet appealing, playing on feelings of both loathing and sympathy. The Humvee, a distinctively American symbol of strength, power and consumption, is neutered through miniature scale, a flat tire and combat damage.
Jackel’s second solo show, slated for late next summer, will revisit many of the same themes, but also demonstrate development and evolution in his oeuvre. For the first time, Jackel will introduce color with an enlarged wall sculpture of General David Patreaus’s impressive and brilliantly-hued decorations and medals. Jackel is also carving a relief of New Orleans beneath water, bringing the artist back to the event that has thus far inspired a burgeoning body of work. The miniature model of a region still plagued by the torrent of disaster and crumbling infrastructure will be set upon a beautiful Rococo base of sweeping arabesques and foliates, attracting viewers to that which needs to be seen.