A plumber’s son who grew up in Plymouth and made his way to extraordinary success in a variety of media, Jack Pierson always feels a bit defensive about the bona fides of his profession.
“A lot of it is my working-class discomfort in saying I am an artist,” he says, chatting amiably in the breezy cottage he’s renting at Cold Storage Beach in Truro. “I would think, ‘Don’t be a fool.’ I was four years into making a good living before I could say it.”
Today, he is firmly established in the art firmament, based in New York with solo shows all over the U.S. and Europe and in Korea and Brazil. His “word pieces,” sculptural assemblages of found letters, and his photography — snapshot-style memories and lush portraits, notably of nude young men — are in the collections of major museums coast to coast, from the Metropolitan and Whitney in New York to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. “I kiss the ground every day,” he says. “It’s incredible. You can have a fun and interesting life.”
Pierson has been coming to Provincetown regularly — and showing at the Albert Merola Gallery — since the early ’90s. His 30th-anniversary exhibit at the gallery, “Miss Otis Regrets,” opens this Friday and will fully occupy the space for a month. It’s made up almost entirely of word pieces but will also feature a wall of “Remnants” — test prints, proofs, and other shots he has stored in his studio that will be tacked up onto a wall collage. The pieces will be available for a few hundred dollars each, signed and stamped by Pierson himself.
It was a long journey to get here. He was a “teenage poet,” he says. He studied graphic design at MassArt to make New Wave album covers, worked as a stylist for photographers, created installations, and even painted — “You could say I had a ‘blue’ period, making paintings on paper that were blue,” when he was a fellow in 1993–1994 at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown.
In his 20s (he was born in 1960) Pierson hung around with artists who collectively became known as the Boston School — punk photographer Mark Morrisroe was his boyfriend; Nan Goldin was a strong influence. He first came to Provincetown in the early ’80s with Morrisroe and the drag queen Taboo! and fell in love with the bohemian vibe. (He was photographed by Joel Meyerowitz on that trip as part of the book Redheads.) But, Pierson says, “it just wasn’t financially feasible to come here, and I didn’t come back for about 10 years. I was super-involved with making a living, paying the rent.”
When he did come back, he stayed with a friend and rented a room at Capt. Jack’s Wharf. “Ever since then, I don’t think I’ve missed a year,” Pierson says. “Sometimes I’ve stayed from Memorial Day to Labor Day. It’s one of my favorite places to be. I like the beaches; I like the light. It’s great being here in Truro, but I also love Commercial Street — within two days, you know who’s here. Maybe somebody you’re with knows somebody else. It’s magical the way social connections are made.”
His first 10 years out of art school, Pierson struggled to find what his practice would be as an artist. “You start to think of the reasons you can’t do something,” he says. “If you’d been alive at the same time as Picasso, you’d never do it — they did it. There’s nothing original you can do. That sense of futility opened up the playing field. I was no longer engaged in being the newest and freshest. I’m more of a fan of art. I can make stuff that looks like art. And, in fact, it is art, if I say it is. I can do whatever I want.”
He has been criticized, he says, for being “just about style — ‘It will die with him, because it’s all style.’ Yeah, it’s style. But that’s not a bad thing. I think it’s a great thing. All art is style. If it’s good style, it’s good art. It’s important because it looks great.”
Pierson offers a dichotomy: there are artists who awe people with their talent — “How can they do that?” — and artists where no craft is evident: “Anyone can do that.”
“I’m part of the anyone-can-do-that camp,” he says. “Any shop or café has mix-matched letters. I didn’t invent it.”
He started collecting letters when he had a studio on 42nd Street in New York, and found plastic letters that adorned the many third-run movie marquees. “It was like words from the sky,” he says. “I like old stuff. I like how letters look. The impact words have. And there’s something when the piece looks like the word it is. It has to have visual authority.”
In his self-deprecating way, Pierson adds, “I’m a glorified flea-marketer.” It’s the same with his wall of “remnants” — saved and repurposed prints. His photographs are unabashedly lovely — it’s an aspirational vision. The work mirrors his stance as an artist.
“I want you to think, ‘This is the world I want to live in,’ ” he says. “I want people to see the beauty in their own lives.” If that sounds like a chestnut, Pierson doesn’t care. “I deal in clichés,” he says. “I like them. They’re clichés for a reason — because they’re kind of true.”
The event: “Miss Otis Regrets,” a show of new work by Jack Pierson, and “Remnants,” a wall of leftover prints
The time: Aug. 19 through Sept. 14; opening Friday, Aug. 19, 7 to 9 p.m.
The place: Albert Merola Gallery, 424 Commercial St., Provincetown
The cost: Free