Photography by Kelly Halpin


Painting as Illusion

Matthew Day Jackson on the Art Historical & Science Fictional Underpinnings of His New Landscapes

Published Friday, Jun 10, 2023

In his expansive practice, Matthew Day Jackson explores various subjects—from the historical and scientific to the futuristic and fantastical. The artist’s first solo exhibition with Pace, on view at 510 West 25th Street in New York through July 1, reflects his deep and longstanding interest in visual paradoxes, particularly the simultaneity of beauty and horror. Named for Joris-Karl Huysmans’s 1884 novel Against Nature, Jackson’s show is anchored by ten new landscape paintings in which the strange and familiar converge.
In the following text, Jackson discusses the art historical, science fictional, literary, and pop cultural allusions that emerge in his latest works. His statements below have been edited and condensed.

Against Nature by Joris-Karl Huysmans

There are a bunch of books on the shelf above my desk—many of them I haven’t read. They just kind of sit up there, taunting me. Against Nature had been up there for a really long time, and it was Don Eyles, of NASA Apollo fame, who gave me the book nine or ten years ago. It’s a dark comedy, which is what attracted me to it.

As I started reading it, I fell in love with the way it would make me laugh out loud the deeper that I began to understand the main character, Jean Des Esseintes. It was published in the late 19th century, and although it is focused on the musings of Des Esseintes, it captures a moment in time which was the precipice of great change in the fields that interest me deeply. The camera, flying machines, and motorcars were becoming common, and as Des Esseintes grapples with his age, he is unwilling to move forward. He is a man without a place—as if he were a dinosaur aware of his imminent extinction.

Against Nature doesn’t have much of a plot—it’s the reveries of an aged aristocrat entertaining his material privilege and wealth. He’s bubbled himself, removed himself from Paris, out of the salons, and placed himself in a pleasure center where he can entertain all of his sensory interests. One could really think about the book in relation to the ways that people bubble themselves today—whether that’s by disconnecting from the environment through the auditory field of our headphones or the way that social media algorithms follow our clicks and just give us more and more and more of a reality that we can accept as being real.


Matthew Day Jackson, Two Trees (after CDF), 2023 © Matthew Day Jackson

There’s also this outsized use of resources in the US, as compared with other countries. The material reality of Des Esseintes’s life mirrors that of our present: you can go on Amazon and get a $20,000 Rolex, a sex toy, a can of green beans, cosmetics, and, I don’t know, tweezers, and it all arrives in the same box. I don’t see that slowing down anytime soon. Whether it’s Des Esseintes entertaining himself with a symphony of liquors or perfumes or a turtle encrusted with jewels that dies upon its arrival to his home, there’s this senselessness about it. In the book, there are several moments when the author muses about how means of production have eclipsed that which nature can provide. The bounty of never-ending innovation, abundance, and consumption is a product of our treatment of the environment. We treat the Earth as if it were extraterrestrial, or as if we are extraterrestrial with somewhere else to go.

River of Shadows by Rebecca Solnit

Rebecca Solnit is really inspiring to me. She has a deep love of nature, and her book River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West is such a beautifully written, brilliantly researched, poignant picture of that intersection of technology and wide-open space. It goes into the technology of the camera and the photograph and how that informed not only science but also painting in the 19th century.

Reading that book framed a lot of the things I was already interested in, and I really fell in love with Solnit’s writing on the early photographer Eadweard Muybridge. She writes about how his images of land and sky in Yosemite were never photographed at the same time, but rather fused together in the dark room. This is how images in science fiction are also made—there’s that same disconnect between land and sky.

19th Century Landscape Painting

I’ve made a lot of work that very directly, very clearly references Albert Bierstadt’s paintings of Yosemite Valley. I’ve always approached Bierstadt—and the way his paintings have come to inform a lot about American identity as it pertains to the American West—through a critical lens. That connects to almost a century of devouring land and moving west all the way to the Pacific Ocean. The concept of “Manifest Destiny” emerged before Bierstadt painted Valley of the Yosemite (1864), but this painting as an image really captures a lot of that ethos—the sort of boundless, unbelievable, brutal majesty of it. The painter and the image maker, as a colonial tool, are really important to think about. I've always thought about Bierstadt in relation to the advancement of Manifest Destiny and the advertising of the American West as a bountiful land that must be inhabited straight away, and everybody in its path will be crushed under the wheels of your wagon and the hooves of your farm animals.

Bierstadt also paid his way out of the Civil War, and his painting about the Civil War—Guerrilla Warfare (1862)—is echoed in one of my new works, Desolation (after Cole / Bierstadt) (2023). You see the tree and the fence present in that painting by Bierstadt and then a reference to the mountain range depicted in the background of Thomas Cole’s Course of Empire (1833–36), which is a series of five paintings.


Matthew Day Jackson, Desolation (after Cole / Bierstadt), 2023 © Matthew Day Jackson

Thomas Moran is, I think, a superior artist to Bierstadt—he is connected to Yellowstone, a place that I deeply love. Moran was a painter on the 1871 Hayden Expedition, and his painting The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone (1872) was fundamental in Ulysses S. Grant’s decision to make Yellowstone the country’s first National Park.

I have a lot of people coming from Wyoming to see my exhibition in New York, and it will be fun for them to see this place they know so intimately depicted in the paintings. The fact that I put Castle Geyser in the middle of Grand Prismatic is going to elicit some humor. There is comedy in these paintings, but they’re also very sincere.

And then there’s Cole, who wasn’t so interested in the American landscape because it lacked the architecture of Western Europe. I wanted to pair Muybridge’s ideas about sky and Earth with Cole’s desire to make images where there’s always a trace of human inhabitation. But in my paintings, the trace of human occupation comes in the form of fake mountains—namely, the fake mountains of the Disney Imagineers.

The Matterhorn

When I was a little kid, I would fall asleep in the back of my grandmother’s Cadillac Coupe DeVille. She had a big, beautiful, brown Cadillac, and I can even remember what it smelled like. We would go to Disneyland and stay there until after the parade. It’s interesting to think of Disneyland as a major public work—it’s not a small part of the 20th century American psyche. Those stories are baked into our childhoods, and, as a business model, it’s all kind of baked into the aspirations of the 20th and 21st centuries—of space exploration, of creating bounty. Furthermore, the creation of a mountain in Anaheim, for me, embodies much of Des Esseintes’s feelings about the progress of society. We humans have learned to create a reality more full than that of nature. With that said, this 21st century reality is not one of production, but rather representation or illusion.


Matthew Day Jackson, Sunrise on the Matterhorn (after Bierstadt), 2023 © Matthew Day Jackson

Disneyland’s Matterhorn is a place where you can ride a roller coaster and see waterfalls. It’s perennially new. That might be the most terrifying thing about it—mountains are old, and they made this one look brand new. That newness of the Matterhorn is kind of like Bierstadt’s Valley of the Yosemite. It’s a thing that’s shiny and new and must be consumed.

I’ve been making paintings of the Matterhorn forever. One of my very first paintings was of the Matterhorn, and I used it as a sort of massif of capital. It’s this unmovable thing that always catches the wonder of everyone whose eyes have happened upon it. Also, if one were to consider the mountain in the context of the golden age of Alpinism in the mid 19th century, it became more a symbol of human achievement, just as the moon became a symbol of conquest and a benchmark in the development of first-world nations from the 20th century to our present moment.

Science Fiction

Science fiction is a really poignant tool to talk about a hopeful future and also to talk about the ills of our current moment. It’s a genre that lets you look at something closer without it becoming grotesque. I’ve leaned really hard into fantasy art in my paintings, and I’m excited by that. It’s taboo.

I love films by Andrei Tarkovsky and Alejandro Jodorowsky because they’re both really asking questions about our humanity. The thing about fantasy art or fantasy painting is that it transports you to a place that is at once familiar and strange. Horror and science fiction both do that—taking the familiar and then, in the case of horror, making it unrecognizable, or, in the case of science fiction, elevating the familiar as a foothold to imagine the unthinkable.


Matthew Day Jackson, Geyser (after Moran), 2023 © Matthew Day Jackson

The Dungeons & Dragons Monster Manual or artists like Bierstadt and Cole are not subjects that contemporary artists tend to gravitate towards. I gravitate towards these images because they’re either so heavily trodden or they represent a space that isn’t seen as fruitful for image-making. The reason we return to making landscape images or basing a world of fantasy upon our experience of this planet is because, I believe, we position ourselves in relation to nature. It is perennially strange, and it seems that, in contemporary art, the flora and fauna that surrounds us is considered overused and boring. I see the challenge as: ‘How can I make this space strange again? How can I add something new?’ I think in the exhibition at Pace, I did that. Some of the paintings are so strange and outlandish—they’re really satisfying in that regard.

These new paintings are all about filling the pictorial landscape with something magical so that they transcend representation of a real place to become strange, otherworldly, and seductive. They’re really weird. When you get up close, you can’t tell how they’re made. Color has really happened to the paintings. It’s not applied. It happened.

I want to disappear into these works as their author. I don’t want me in the paintings, while at the same time I’m fundamental in their creation as a magician. It sounds pretentious, but that’s what I try to do—perfect illusionism. The viewer is really encouraged to forget the genesis of the works and experience these very common materials that I use as strange.

  • Essays — Painting as Illusion: Matthew Day Jackson Discusses the Art Historical and Science Fictional Underpinnings of His New Landscapes, Jun 2, 2023