It loves me, it loves me not. It as if each petal picked off in this decision-making process has been collected and stored to memorialise the conclusion of this inquiring game. In Jaylon Israel Hicks’ C-print Untitled (2012), several pink petals that are browning and dog-eared sit in the foreground. They are flat and distorted, compressed into the image as they would be between the pages of a book. Their faded colour is vibrant against the black background of the image. At the top left of the image, two used matches lie side-by side, creating two parallel lines. The tips of both matches are blackened, signaling that something has been set alight, either to activate or destroy. In the background of the composition, an eerie smile lurks. A thick black line curves downward before curling back up to meet an arrowhead at its right end, transforming it into a smile and arrow all at once. It is the Amazon logo, but it is slightly distorted. The line curved line bulges and bleeds at its centre as if the mouth has let out a thick, black mocking tongue. It taunts the viewer while it forebodes whatever its arrow suggests comes next.
Amazon’s logo is not the only one featured in the American artist’s first European show, at Maximillian William. On wall opposite wall this photograph, four of Hick’s Ex paintings, which incorporate the “Ex” part of the FedEx logo, are displayed side by side. FedEx, known for its transportation and e-commerce services, also incorporates a rightward arrow in its logo. Lined up together, the repetition of this directional symbol creates a dampening effect, signaling that whatever comes next will be more of the same, just repackaged a little differently. This feeling is afforded additional heft by Hick’s use of polystyrene, also known as styrofoam, a multipurpose synthetic material with a range of applications, prime among them packaging to protect and preserve consumer products. From egg cartons to the Styrofoam peanuts protecting online purchases, polystyrene is everywhere, and yet ignored for the item – the valuable thing – it protects. Although polystyrene probably filters out of an individual’s consciousness as an innocuous material after it has been removed and discarded, it reappears on a larger and more threatening scale in the context of our collective existence. It is produced en masse but cannot be recycled. It just accumulates, mostly in landfills where it sits for roughly half a millennium, waiting to decompose.
Hicks, a student of material science, plays with the significance of polystyrene through the prefix “Ex”. Extract, excel, exploit, excuse. These verbs, and others, relate to ideas bound up in discourses on climate change and consumption. The materials Hicks uses in conjunction with the polystyrene to create these artworks reinforces the connection. One artwork, Ex (Gold), 2023 is covered in chunky gold lacquer. It drips into some of the spaces where the outline of the letters has been carved out. In other areas, it gathers in raised masses. Excess? In Ex (skull), 2022, a raccoon skull is embedded into the work, but is hard to discern among urgent strokes of black and white paint. The choice of these colours, and their forceful interaction with each other, creates a sense of teetering between two extremes. The outline of the letters in this work are hidden within its textures but are easier to pick out given the repeated placement of text in the works flanking it on either side. Some parts of this work look rough as if hacked out with a dull implement, other parts look like they’ve started to melt and accumulate in thick gooey masses, adding to the topographical effect. Once found within the activity of this artwork, the skull seems to clarify what is at stake: life, death, extinction, existence.
Polystyrene’s dual function as protector and threat is mirrored in other aspects of the exhibition, which includes painting, drawing, photography and sculpture created by the artist between 2012 and 2023. There is a painting of acrylic on wood, ZZZ (2017), depicting the famous pangram “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog”. The fox is mid-air, directly over the dog, dangling between defending and attacking. However, this tension is more explicitly demonstrated in works like Line Study (2018) and Gun wound (Eagle X-Ray) (2021), which take guns and bullets as their subject.
In Line Study, the Minnesota - based artist takes a more matter-of-fact approach. Hicks divides a sheet of paper in two equal parts. The left side shows a charcoal sketch of a bullet, aimed toward the bottom left of the frame. His rendering has an unsettling softness, but it avoids emotionality with directional arrows that pass through it, all intersecting in the bullet’s centre, that give it a diagrammatic appearance. On the right half, there is another composition, consisting entirely of lines, that looks like a more complex, more abstract version of the bullet diagram beside it. The directions and angle of several lines are mirrored, but a key difference on the right is a cone that opens toward the top of the frame. The lines that extend from opposite sides of the cone’s circular base reach farther down, past their intersection, to form an “X”. This shape looks like an illustration of a parallax, which shows the difference in the apparent position of an object when viewed from two separate lines of sight. This feels especially fitting in illustrating a bullet which, when fired, creates two perspectives: attacker/attacked, threatened/threat.
Hicks also explores the geopolitical applications and implications of this threat/protection dichotomy in works like The Button (2016) and Untitled (2020- 2021). The latter features a metre-long polystyrene version of the ubiquitous gold Made in China sticker, found on innumerable consumer goods. The gold surface of the work looks tarnished and melted. The work looks as if a chemical reaction has taken place on its surface, warping its texture. It looks like some layers of gold have peeled off, and in other areas the work is an oxidised copper colour. There are lines of small text across the work that include phrases like “Regulation cuts we passed”, “I stand before you today” and “In the history of”. It is hard to make out a full sentence as these are distorted along with the layer of material on which they were inscribed. However, it is clear that these snippets could easily be included in a political announcement on a number of topics. However, the word “Oklahoma”, visible in several spots, takes this text from the generic to the specific.
In 2021, when the work was created, there were concerns about the growing trend of Chinese ownership of agricultural land in Oklahoma and other parts of the United States. In an opinion piece about the matter, Alexander B. Gray, a fourth generation Oklahoman who worked in a National Security role in Trump’s White House, described it as a threat to “the integrity of Oklahoma’s rural economy and the national security of the United States.” This brings new sense to “Made in China” given that the country’s influence extends beyond its borders and now operates behind an American barrier previously considered impenetrable. Things that were once made in America, particularly agricultural products grown on American soil, are also, in a sense, made in China. Thus, the function of the “Made in China” sticker to delineate “us” from “them” dissolves in an increasingly globalised world, like a gold veneer revealing something corroded beneath.
In The Button, Hicks takes a book titled “The Spread of Nuclear Weapons” and covers in it what looks like a sad and radioactive slime-green hue of paint so that just the title is visible. It looks like it is either in the process of being destroyed or restored. The book, written by Scott D. Sagan and Kenneth N. Waltz, professors of political science at Stanford and Columbia Universities, respectively. The book records the academics’ debate on whether nuclear weapons should proliferate. Waltz argues that more nuclear weapons will allow states to deter threats and preserve peace. Contrarily, Sagan contends that “novice nuclear states lack adequate organisational controls over their new weapons”, which could increase the chances of deliberate or accidental nuclear war. Although both scholars disagree on whether there should be more nuclear weapons going forward, neither seems interested in giving up the arms already on the table. They may not want to press the proverbial button, but they certainly want – America, at least – to have the option. Hicks’ treatment of the book, a metaphor for the presence of nuclear arms and the debate on their proliferation, suggests a certain continuity. Despite attempts at damage and destruction, changes made to its appearance, whether buried or unearthed, its fundamental function and threat remains intact.
Walking around the perimeter of the gallery, I return to where I started, with a group of four C-prints created in 2012. Three of them depict flowers. The fourth shows two pocket watches. They mirror each other and their hands are in the same position. The one at the bottom is stretched long, melting into an oval shape. If this were a still from a film, I imagine those that would follow would show the lower watch stretching down, further and further, until it exits the frame. Time literally running out. Hicks’ work creates a pause, a space to think while balancing the knife’s edge between so many things in our world that can offer safety or destruction. In many cases they provide both, time is what transforms them and changes their impact. Thinking about how this image of clocks would change if it were hung upside down – time rushing into the frame, rather than evacuating it – I realise position does as well. I return to the first photograph I looked at, with the collections of petals. Considering it again, I now think a different game was being played, and a different conclusion reached: it protects me, it protects me not.