Jacks. This is how it began. I was in Oakland having dinner with a friend from Washington DC, our mutual hometown. Sharing amusing incidents of cultural contrast between those out West and back East, somewhere the subject of cigarettes comes up. I say, “You know what the crazy thing is tho’, no one else calls ‘em jacks outside of DC.” Perplexed, he raises both hands to his head and pauses. “Wait: I thought everyone called it a jack.”
Growing up in DC in the 2000’s, jacks was one of a number of local idioms that proposed a sense of place in a city so synonymous with political itinerancy. I wasn’t born there myself; my family moved to NW DC from Chicago in ’98 for my father’s job in city government. And as an outsider, the colloquial of Chocolate City constituted an introduction to the identity of DC itself. Kids at Jefferson were bamas cause they had to wear uniforms. Only youngins at Wilson got they North Faces stoled, if not they faces. The words we used as adolescents fundamentally made us Washingtonians. They were a point of reference in the school hallway and a verbal frame amongst friends. I still use them jonts to this day.
That conversation in Oakland demanded in me a manifestation of jacks. For years met with blank looks on the West Coast while using DC slang, my initial concept was simple: to juxtapose a universally known jack with a representation of its idiomatic meaning. Hence the Jack of Diamonds and the Viceroy ad. The purpose was to demonstrate the mutuality of both items in a kind of collapse of denotation, whereby the two would become the one subject of the page. Inclusion of the word “jacks” in the plural, I thought, would forgo any further explanation. They both be jacks tho’.
Yet when I finished “Jacks I” there was more to be said. A static illustration of definition would not suffice, for the term is not reducible to its definition. Rather, the value of jacks inheres in its simultaneous expression and mediation of the urban environment from which it derives. It is a word that foremost requires action, an active verb: “Dang I could use a jack right now.” So while I considered exploring its explicit relationship to life in the District, I decided the utility of jacks may be applied more broadly. Through it I found the wordplay of vernacular speech, the experience of the day-to-day, across America generally; and an exposition of the ritual of smoking, the messaging of tobacco brands, and the narrative themes of our nation, in no particular order. Jacks, in a word, is an avenue to lived culture. Its ingenuity is national.
This is the idea of my project. “Jacks.” And to realize the lived culture I sought to depict, my method of representation became crucial. Like many collagists, I had grown accustomed to using so-called vintage materials in my artworks. Case in point, the Viceroy ad in “Jacks I” was culled from a ‘60s LIFE magazine. The medium is the message, however, and as a project “Jacks” implied an aesthetic of the present-day and commonplace. I had cut out legion cigarette ads from dozens of Mid Century era magazines only to later employ these sparingly. Instead, the majority of component materials in “Jacks” would engage in the language of our urban ephemera. Cigarette packs, cartons and rollers, liquor store ads, paper bags, coupons, money, were all fair game. I simply needed to regard these as my palette. Expression followed.
Of course, articulation of the content and aesthetic of “Jacks” was born of artistic practice. When I finished “Jacks I” on 7 July 2015, I possessed a mere intimation of what the project might be. Experimentation was the order of the day. Over time, “Jacks” has thoroughly tested my intellectual, visual, and technical understanding of collage. I have isolated segments of cigarette boxes that few see or think of; I have sought to elicit motion from stationary objects; and I have glued plastic to paper. Most essentially, I have reevaluated the raison d’être of my artwork. And I have not been disappointed.
Still more remains to be said: as of this writing, “Jacks” is active and incomplete. I hope here to retrospectively document the process of its creation, while sharing with you, the reader, the particular inspiration behind each “Jack.”
As for the effectiveness of the pieces themselves, I’ll leave that determination to you, the viewer.
7 April 2016