For a long time, Nashville artist John Jackson dodged technology. Avoided cell phones while working as a bassist for a couple of traveling acts. Shunned social media while throwing one of the longest running parties in Nashville, Johnny Jackson's Soul Satisfaction, which hosted Justin Timberlake and other big stars.
Then he gave in. Wanting to promote the 10th anniversary of his party in 2004, he lugged home his first computer, and plugged it in, and then the circuits started to wrap him up in their web.
Passwords. Crashes. Spinning wheels. Hard drives. All the headaches and gum and molasses of a life tied to tech.
"I went from skipping through life freely to sitting behind a fucking device for hours and hours getting stressed out," he says.
As his own resentment brewed, he surveilled folks around him.
"I started noticing in real life how people were completely compelled and distracted by their devices, and not paying attention to each other," he says.
In 2010, wanting to vent his internal turmoil, he started on a five-year project to capture this moment we live in. The result was his Technology Series. It's a couple dozen cynically funny canvases that perfectly capture the way technology has captured our eyeballs and attentions. In essence: we'd rather chat than talk, and we'd rather text than fuck.
Many of these paintings came dead straight from his life. Let's let Jackson tell us the story behind a few of the paintings, now on sale through the Rymer Gallery In Nashville.
"I was battling with myself, with my life before tech devices and life after tech devices. I was at dinner and a couple was sitting across from each other and they're both on their devices. In the painting, I just sort of exaggerated the theme a little bit by putting two upside down nudes. It's like, 'I'm standing upside down nude in front of you and you're still looking at your phone.'"
4th of July
"That's my son. I was driving him back to his mom's house one night, and he was on my phone, and there were some fireworks going on off the distance. I was like, "Check it out, fireworks!" He looked up for a second and then went back to his phone. You're missing the actual experience of life right in front of you."
"That's pretty much me. I was having sex with my girlfriend in that position, and there was a football game on TV, and I was watching the football game. And somehow she sensed it, and turned her head up toward me and said, "Are you watching the fucking football game?" I was, "No no no!" (Laughs.) It's two great experiences combined. All I needed was some nachos and then it would have been perfect. (Laughs again.) Then again, I suppose that if we had been in opposite positions, and if she was the one who was disengaged, I don't know how it would have been for me."
"I was going to paint a woman who was looking at her computer while she was breastfeeding, ignoring her baby. Then I decided it would be more interesting if it was the baby. Because even babies are attracted to the screens. Cradle to grave. That hypnotic effect of the glowing screen."
Girl with a Pearl Cell Phone Case
"That was right around when that movie, 'Girl with the Pearl Earring,' was coming out. It's that old Vermeer, of course. I was thinking about that painting, and that movie, and I was just sort of putting the two together, throwing art history into the mix of contemporary culture. If that girl was around today, she'd have a cell phone at her ear."
"The real painting that the pinwheel is covering up, The Hay Wain, is the second most popular English painting. In the foreground of the real painting is a wagon crossing a river. The main focus of the painting. And the pinwheel is covering up that wagon. Sometimes when you have a spinning pinwheel on your computer, the main subject of your life, the thing you're trying to focus on, writing a letter or whatever, gets replaced by this spinning pinwheel of death. Your whole life is shut down and you have to deal with that spinning pinwheel."
The series has gotten a huge reaction, including interviews and features in magazines like this one.
"I think I've hit a nerve," Jackson says. "It's something universal. I took this anxious stress I was feeling, and channeled it into something positive and something people could enjoy."
Jackson's even heard about people switching up their behavior because of these paintings, dropping the phone when they're with their baes.
Jackson himself has moved on from the tech series to doing more abstract works, but the series changed his behavior. And so even though he can't time travel back to his pre-tech days, and he Instagrams, and he's got a MacBook Pro and an iPhone 6, he turns the ringer off and put the phone to the side when he's with his girlfriend, and tries not to fuck and watch football at the same time.
"You can have both tech and people," Jackson says. "I can have time relating one on one, in a very human personal manner, and then still have time with my beloved tech devices."
John Jackson proves: once you pick up tech, it's hard to put back down: but you can try.