Monday, November 24, 2008
Here's another new one just finished- I know it's tough to tell from the photo, but I am most pleased with the texture and thickness of the paint here. My mentor has suggested extending my paint with Galkid Gel, which she uses to achieve lucid paint that covers and maintains texture but isn't chunky. This is the first time I've tried it, and it definitely allowed me to paint in a way that's more natural to my style. It does speed up drying time, so it also forced me to mix all the colors in an area and paint them quickly. It's a fun way to work and a step in the right direction I think. It's way to easy for me to over-work things to death. As for the image, it gave me an opportunity to push the vintage color palette and experiment with some busy-ness in the patterns. I also got some better flesh tones out of it. I'm pretty pleased- it's my favorite painting so far this semester. I have 2 more at about 50% done and another 2 to make by January-
Tuesday, November 18, 2008
Here's a painting that I've been working on for 2 months and just finished. I'm not super happy with it, but at this point I'm moving on. The image is from an old family photo and I found it pretty funny. The people were obviously posed to show the ocean but its such an unflattering photo. They seem almost disinterested, and the scenery isn't much at all- just a bar of color across the back and wooden boards. This is a poor photo, but shows a little bit of the new color palette I've been using; almost no ochre and instead dustier colors inspired by old color film. I still have 5 paintings in various stages of completion- more to come.
Saturday, November 8, 2008
After ditching a few total failures I've reevaluated some things and set a course. I have about 6 paintings at 50% complete, so my goal is to finish 1 a week into December. This carnival image was one that I made a study painting of back in February. Based on feedback both at the residency and on my blog it was one of the more successfull images. What the study painting has is an energy and gestural quality that changes everything. It's something that gets lost when I paint bigger and with thicker paint. I tend to over work things until they become a huge mess. That's been on my brain in finishing this painting. It isn't quite there for me yet, but getting it to this point feels good. Comments are appreciated.......
Saturday, November 1, 2008
THE DISCONNECT OF 50s AMERICA
My aim as an artist through my recent work is to view American nostalgia through a 21st century lens and present my images in a way that provokes greater thought and challenges modern perception. For this reason, I am looking deeper into the cultural history of the American 50s in search of a greater understanding of the period. The 50s represent an unprecedented time in history were the idealization of the family and the pursuit of the American Dream were at odds with the reality of daily life. It was a decade of great disconnection, where positive perception of the good life existed in conjunction with the Cold War, McCarthyism, racism, and sexism. It was also a time of insecurity for an America in the midst of enormous changes. The goal of this writing is to examine the relationship between advertising and the ideal 50s in hopes of further defining my work and answering the question, why use 50s images?
Post War America was an era of unparalleled growth and consumption. Personality and the self became commodified products to be bought and sold during the 1950s. America immerged from WWII the richest nation on earth, with 24 Billion dollars worth of new factories and millions of workers to fill them. All at once, the majority of Americans had the money to buy whatever they wanted. All they had to do was switch from making tanks and airplanes to cars and refrigerators. In his memoir about growing up in the 50s, Bill Bryson recalls how his neighbors would sit around for hours discussing new appliances. “There was a wonderful simplicity of desire. It was the last time that people would be thrilled to own a toaster or a waffle iron” (Bryson 6). The rise of consumer capitalism gave birth to modern advertising, which looked for ways to separate the buyer from reality and make them believe there was more to a product.
The American dream is itself already a commercial aspiration. Americans are led to believe there is always more and always better and if they can afford it, and they deserve to have it. In the 50s advertising had a profound affect upon domestic life. The focus on the housewife in advertising wasn’t on the elderly housewife; it was on the young glamorous housewife and all the products that would bring about that kind of idealized world. Adds often featured happy well-dressed women cooking and cleaning. Many housewives at that time were young. Advertisers realized that these women were mainly at home and some not so happy about their lot in life, so by glamorizing products used in the home they were able to infuse mundane household tasks with purpose. The message was buy our product, have a great household, make the man in your life happy, and you will be a very proud and accomplished housewife. “It was all meant to convince women that the role of housewife was natural and fulfilling, and that to step beyond these normative roles was in some way abnormal, even deviant” (Abrams 128).
It’s no surprise, notes Bill Osgerby, that the central figure of Hollywood films in the 1950s was the white, middle-class breadwinner. In his article entitled “Muscular manhood and salacious sleaze: the singular world of the 50s macho pulps”, Osgerby explores the roles of men and women as defined by advertising and products, particularly men’s adventure magazines. “During wartime, entry into the labor force or living it alone as a wife or mother had been an empowering experience for many women. In peacetime, however, such independence was seen as a threat to the stability of the traditional sexual order, and government and industry united in a campaign to return women to the home and the secure confines of the nuclear family” (Abrams 127). The macho pulps constructed a hard-boiled and aggressively masculine universe where wholesome white American men bravely saved scantily clothed white American women, often from Nazis or wild animals.
Osgerby believes the macho pulps were about regaining a position of dominance for traditional American manhood, and were a reaction to a declining patriarchal structure. Conformity was also seen as a challenge to manhood. In his book “The Lonely Crowd”, David Reisman saw conformity as an “emasculation, post-war America seeing the rise of an ‘other-directed’ man who followed blindly the lead of those around him in a desperate search to belong” (Reisman 26). It was this fear of conformity that was seen as a threat to individualism. Indeed, though the 50s were a period of great prosperity there was a deep seeded feeling of insecurity on multiple fronts.
In his book “The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit”, Sloan Wilson captured the mood of the generation. The main character, Tom Rath, is a typical ‘other-directed’ New York businessman with a home and young family in the suburbs. In a defining chapter in the book, Tom wrestles to make sense of the society he feels stuck in while suppressing the horrible memories he has of his experience in WWII.
“The trick is to learn to believe that it’s a disconnected world, Tom thought; a lunatic world, where what is true now was not true then; where Thou Shalt Not Kill and the fact that one has killed a great many men mean nothing, absolutely nothing, for now is the time to raise legitimate children, and make money, and dress properly, and be kind to one’s wife, and admire one’s boss, and learn not to worry, and think of oneself as what? That makes no difference, he thought- I’m just a man in a gray flannel suit. I must keep my suit neatly pressed like anyone else, for I am a very respectable young man” (Wilson 98).
Sloan Wilson’s novel was most useful in understanding the heart behind the 50s. There is no idealism to “Flannel Suit”. The characters fit into a world where pleasantness is the norm and wrestle with real life. It was refreshing for me to read a work that while fictional, sheds light on the real disconnect between advancing 50s culture and the day to day lives of people. Tom Rath struggles to appear as if everything in his life fits into the realm of happiness, but in reality, his life is messy just like everyone else.
Bill Bryson talks humorously about the 50s disconnect on the most basic of levels. As a child, he learned to read by reading the Dick and Jane books, which in simple words portray the absurdity of idealized America. In the Dick and Jane books, Father is always called father, never Dad or Daddy, and always wears a suit. Mother is always Mother. She is always on top of things, nicely groomed in a clean frilly apron. “The family has no last name. They live in a pretty house with a picket fence on a pleasant street, but they have no radio or TV and their bathroom has no toilet. The children- Dick, Jane and little Sally- have only the simplest and most timeless of toys. No one ever shouts or bleeds or weeps helplessly. No meals ever burn. No dust ever accumulates. The sun always shines. The dog never shits on the lawn. There are no atomic bombs. Everyone is at all times clean, healthy, strong, reliable, hardworking, American and white. Every Dick and Jane story provided some simple but important lesson- respect your parents, share your possessions, be polite, be honest, be helpful, and above all work hard” (Bryson 146).
In terms of my own personal work, understanding the disconnect of the 50s is enormously helpful. In my previous body of work, several of my sources were from posed photographs used in advertising, while others were candid shots of families. At the time, I almost saw them as one and the same in representing the time period. The posed photos, while not realistic, do speak to the nature of advertising and the idealized view of the 50s. I’ve since changed my photo reference to personal images that reflect a real snapshot of 50s time. I’ve also embraced those images that have a sense of ambiguity or vagueness about them, so that I am not making a personal statement or advocating a specific issue in comparing the past to the present. I am more interested in the open-ended functions of painting. If anything, understanding the disconnect present in every aspect of 50s life brings an entirely new element to depictions of housewives and breadwinners.
In my research, I’m reminded not just of how different things are today but also how in many ways they remain the same. It has been estimated that we are exposed on average to 3,000 advertisements every day. Perhaps we are more aware of the ads, but we still are drawn to those products we feel a personal connection to. Advertising has even turned presidential politics into a visual media, a commercial game of who comes across best and who identifies the most with people as a product. Even now we are living with the consequences of an American Dream where we can have all that we want because we deserve it, even if we can’t afford it. The disconnect is still there for many people in American society, and will remain for as long as people find their identity in products and in denying the reality of life. I hope in my paintings I can address this disconnect as it was in the past and still in some ways is today. I’d like to think that perhaps we are starting to wake up from that dream.