Risk, Bravery, Desire: Derek Jackson's 'Ladyboy' at Border Patrol

Ladyboy is a solo exhibition featuring new works by Derek Jackson.

It's the second exhibition at the new Border Patrol gallery, a studio of three modestly sized rooms in the State Theatre building, whose curator-proprietors (Elizabeth Spavento and Jared Haug) describe its mission as exploring the notions of government agency and the intersections of contemporary art and corporate aesthetics.

Put another way, it's a converted office space on the third floor of an old and stodgy building, and it contains one of the most directly confrontational, ecstatic, and liberatory shows I've seen in Portland in a while.

I want to talk about trans and gender narratives that aren’t featured in the mainstream. I want to talk about cross dressing. I want it to be about genitals, just for one day. And sex work. And faces. Beautiful faces. And gender expression that isn’t about craft or identity, that isn’t an end but a means.

Growing up near Houston, Texas, Jackson has been making art in Portland since moving here in 2003. In my first time writing about him, for an exhibition called “Honey Cling To Me," a show of paintings of male friends’ bodies — specifically bears — that he rendered in fantastical visual vocabulary at Two Point Gallery in 2010, Jackson rendered his subjects on “large fabric canvases dripping with ecstatic paint.” But those subjects were only mostly naked, depicted wearing loin cloths or towels, or their genitals otherwise obscured by painterly fantasia.

In Ladyboy, the stakes are higher. (Yes, that’s a phallic pun.)

These are the stories we aren’t supposed to hear or tell. They subvert our fight to not be murdered just for being who we are. I feel honored to be an artist and to hold these stories. I feel compelled to make them beautiful, to embellish and seduce. To convince you that this is ok. Then I remember, it’s not about pleasing the audience or being ok. It’s about Ladyboy.

Ladyboy is the latest in an ongoing series of Jackson's fascinations with bodies and types, most of them male-identified. Although this one’s different, as it’s noticeably, unapologetically suffused with desire. Adorning the front room of Border Patrol are several paintings of relished bodies of individuals Jackson has graced with some gender-transcendent flourish. Many of them are pictured belly-up and supine, holding healthy, tumescent cocks in the foreground which seem to split the frame into two hemispheres. Their bodies are in positions that seem to emphasize both their taut musculature and vulnerability, as if seen through the lens of a webcam. They're crude, maybe, but they're not exactly vulgar.   

I'm going to draw and paint the fuck out of this painting with an urgent need to engage in pleasure and expression without persecution. I don’t care if it’s the same painting over and over. I don’t care if I’m good at drawing hands. I don’t care if it’s a simple expression of a couple of ideas. I need to do this.

One of the most prominent elements of Ladyboy is indeed its repetition. Jackson draws and paints these images over and over, again and again, with in different colorations and patterns and swells. On different surfaces and mediums. Even different bodies in the same formation. Directly on the white gallery wall. Unlike the earlier series, where he's endeavored to capture the quiet spiritual wisdom of bears, the indeterminate fierceness of "faery cunts," and the taboo and "exploitable" society of twinks, desire is a primary fuel for this work. He speaks about it to me in the same way he seems to paint — with equal parts respect, hunger, and care, and with no time for the tired gesticulations of shame or the social rituals of furtively dancing around the subject. This is about what it is about.

And it reminds me that Jackson's is, to borrow another artist's description of Derek once said to me in a private conversation, an incredibly "anti-Yankee" way to make art, meaning that it has little regard for the ministrations of temperance and privacy that many of us in New England perform. They meant it as a compliment. (And yes, he is good at drawing hands.)

I'm reflecting the desire to dress, to cross dress, as a way to get to a different place. To be different than I was before, than we were, before. Maybe drugs or alcohol makes it easy for you to go there. Maybe it’s a place you return to on occasion or every day. But this isn’t just about totems either. I'm finding humanity and strength in the simple play with things I love. I am handling materials like lumber and sheetrock — stereotypically thought of as masculine — in a way that subverts their intended use, regardless of validation or whether any house was built. Am I holding up a roof caving under the weight of expectations around respectability? Does this show do anything to make it safer for anyone? I so desperately want it to. This world is not safe. I would be kidding you if I believed a painting could change that. But this isn’t about the world. This is about Ladyboy.

In a darkened room softlit by lush purple LEDs in the back of the gallery hang several small woodboards (each of them roughly 12" by 18" inches). Upon them, Jackson has affixed a photographic cutout image of a naked man — "dadbods," he affectionately calls them — each of them femmed up with long, flowing hair Jackson's drawn in the empty space surrounding their figures. The images are gathered from the internet, he tells me, which is supported by their blank, poached-in-space poses and slightly vacantly desirous stares. This back room, Jackson explains, is a tribute to those in pornography who perform on the business end of glory holes, a practice in which, he explains, one man who's generally of a lower status remains largely concealed, "exalting" another from a superlative class, like a fireman or an engineer. This room is in tribute to the one doing the exalting.

This is about life in the shadows and on the fringe. This is about your brother, father, coworker or friend. This is about being a tech geek during the week and letting down your long black hair as an androgynous goth lord on the weekends. This is about transforming pain into a flawless ability to serve contour for days. This is about a big load from daddy all over your face because you’ve been a good girl. This is about violence and beauty living side by side in the perfume of sex for sale. Ladyboy is here and she’s dressed for you.

And it strikes me that, in the present-day art milieu of Portland, Derek is one of the only artists consistently making risky work. We love our digestible art up here, our dappled landscapes and old master paintings whose only permissible expression of sex is some obscure symbolic reference one only picks up if they look through the imperious peephole of the male gaze. Jackson's other full-time project, the music/dance hybrid performance poetry of Hi Tiger, is similarly unabashedly body-positive and intimate. I bring that up here because it's revelatory to witness Derek's work, to read the way he describes it (his exhibit description is included in full in the italicized text here) and at once feel the twin sensations that this work is risky, and this work is positive. Positive in the sense of its goodness and its bravery.

It's a bravery so powerful that I have to say it guides me here, where as a straight cis white man who writes about art and culture, I'm acutely aware of the risks in attempting to "critique" such a show for the broader public, as well as the limitations in the language available to me in describing this exhibition (along with the deficiencies we at this paper and all of Maine media carry in covering the work of marginalized and oppressed artists literally all the time). And while audiences for this sort of thing tend to be self-selecting, it's with a great deal of admiration and awe that I recommend that you familiarize yourself with the work Jackson's doing, here or elsewhere. Even if it's only to take down that inner Yankee a peg.

"Ladyboy," works by Derek Jackson | Through May 12 | Border Patrol, 142 High St., Ste. 309, Portland | border-patrol.net

An earlier version of this review misstated the gallery that showed Jackson's "Honey Cling To Me" exhibition in 2010.  

Last modified onThursday, 20 April 2017 15:13