It’s Never Too Late for Jack Early


Jack Early first showed New York how he craved attention in collaboration with Rob Pruitt, in the first half of the 1990s. Pruitt-Early championed a mode of installation that altered pop cultural mode in a decidedly non-artful to take on conventions of polite politics, gender, and art-making. The duo’s now-infamous 1992 exhibition “Red, Black, Green, Red, White and Blue” at the Leo Castelli Gallery included paintings and posters of Michael Jordan, and Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Jackson Five, among other prominent African Americans, exhibited with black obelisks, and an original rap soundtrack. This intervention into the representation and self-representation of African Americans was slammed as blaxploitation, and the ordeal ended Pruitt-Early’s collaboration. Each artist began making work individually: Pruitt recovered unapologetically with a series that included a monumental line of cocaine, while Early turned to music, and has largely fallen off the art world’s radar.

Jack Early’s Ear Candy Machine, 2009. Courtesy SOUTHFIRST : ART. Photo by Jeremiah Wilson

The room that broke up Pruitt-Early is now on view re-staged at the Tate Modern as part of the Pop Life show, and canonized as part of pop art’s ability to incite the mainstream. This month, Pruitt hosts yet another self-promotional exercise, the Annual Art Awards at the Guggenheim. Simultaneously, and 17 years since his last exhibition in New York (not incidentally, the exhibition at Castelli), Jack Early presents “Jack Early’s Ear Candy Machine,” at Southfirst Gallery, in Brooklyn.

The comeback exhibtion comprises a site-specific installation in a blacked out room. A rainbow painted on the floor extends up the wall, and then juts out into to the space to become a three-dimensional sculpture, at the end of which is a acrylic prism. From across the room, a spotlight shines on a white victrola, playing a collection of music written by Early.  The installation, Jack Early’s Ear Candy Machine, combines references to Pink Floyd, The Wizard of Oz, Pride, and Kermit the Frog, matching a metaphor for unfulfilled dreams with deadpan songs about young girls falling in love. Early suggests you follow your dreams; follow culture high and low, in equal parts political; follow yourself in circles.

PIPER MARSHALL: This is your first solo exhibition in New York in 17 years. How did your relationship with Southfirst gallery develop?

JACK EARLY: I knew I liked Southfirst Gallery the moment I stepped in. All the little things—the paperweight, the pens, the books on the shelves, the opened bottles of soda on the desk—told me it was the right place. So I introduced myself. We decided that day to work together.

MARSHALL: The exhibition consists of a three dimensional day-glo rainbow, paired with white victrola sculpture. The installation appropriates and immediately registers, as the cover of Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon.

EARLY I wanted to tip my hat to the “Artwork for Teenage Boy” work, that I began with…

MARSHALL: …To clarify: That exhibition, a collaboration with Rob Pruitt, examined expressions of white, male teenage culture. It consisted of sculptures of empty beer cans, canvases plastered with iron-on patches from rock shows, and even a sculpture that was van painted with a nude girl.

EARLY: Right, and now, the prism was the perfect image through which to shoot my new work Jack Early’s Ear Candy Machine. The show and the piece, … the whole thing.  the rainbow, the victrola, the prism, the lights, the show, the music, the whole room, it’s all called Jack Earlys Ear Candy Machine, which is a mirror of me.

MARSHALL: In the show, it seems like the rainbow, a symbol of both an ending rainshower and an unfound trasure, is metaphorically in tension with the songs, which are quite happy, and about people falling in love.
EARLY: I walked down the rainbow of the art world once and it exploded into a million pieces. I went though the prism and came out in a beam of light that showed me what I’m made of. I made it though the other end. The light in this piece shines onto a record that plays eight songs I wrote. In some I am singing; others are sung by friends or musicians. Everything about my journey in the past 17 years is in those songs. It’s all in the lyrics and the notes and in the light.

MARSHALL:  How does the music in this exhibition compare with your earlier work? 

EARLY: I’ve incorporated music in my work before. Pruitt-Early’s music videos, for example, were shown at 303 Gallery, and there was a hip hop soundtrack we mixed for the Red, Black, Green, Red, White, Blue, Project at Leo Castelli that’s at the Tate Modern in London now.

MARSHALL: How did you start writing after that?

EARLY: After the show at Leo’s I dropped out of the whole scene. I started to write these little songs maybe as a way of working through what I perceived at the time as a loss. These songs came to me very naturally, like bam! There’s a song. I am not a musician really; I never studied music or anything like that, these songs just kind of surprised me, and they made me so happy.

MARSHALL: Is that same type of reaction you are trying to get out of the viewer?

EARLY: People tell me it makes them happy and it seems so hopeful. Great!

Jack Early’s Candy Machine is on view through November 1. Southfirst Gallery is located at 60 North 6th Street, Brooklyn.