Wednesday, November 25, 2009
Monday, November 9, 2009
Wednesday, November 4, 2009
Tonight I finished the final draft of my thesis, and after 5 months of continuous work on this one document I cannot describe how surreal it feels to finally be done with it- wow. I've also been working my tail off the last 3 weeks on a batch of new paintings, all being done at more or less the same time. We'll see if these end up coming with me to Boston in January- My mentor really wants to see new work in December and it has been lots of fun to get away from the late night computer head and neck aches and back into the studio. I have missed it and it will be so great to have that be the 1 thing I can give my time to. Next I send off the thesis to AIB and start turning the entire thing into a 15 minute artist talk with images... I will post some new images soon, hopefully sooner than a month. Sorry about that.
Monday, September 28, 2009
These last few weeks have been pretty frustrating- Images were due for the graduate catalog a week ago and I've hit a little bit of a creative valley as of late. I never sleep anymore- maybe that has something to do with it..... Thesis writing has also been tough. I'm in between drafts 2 and 3, and have felt stumped, mainly because its tough for me to see problems with ideas and flow after having worked so much on it. Anyway, I pushed through and finished the work for the catalog and had high quality pics taken last weekend, so that's done and feels great. I also sent out multiple copies of my writing to trusted friends for positive criticism and that has really inspired me to tackle the thesis this week. I'm making major changes to it now, and can see it really coming together. I'm tired and beat, but I'm starting to sense the end coming....
It is the glimpses of the everyday- the shape of a chrome bumper, the stylized design of kitchen objects and period fashion, or the odd positioning of figures in personal snapshots- that remain connections to real people and speak to a collective national identity born in post-war America. In many ways they are icons; instantly recognized representations of the decade’s ideological connotations. I am actively exploring this ideology as both American history and pedigree. Through painting, archival images of the everyday become a means to explore the mystery of the past and its implications for the present.
Wednesday, September 9, 2009
Monday, August 17, 2009
Thursday, July 16, 2009
Tuesday, July 7, 2009
Thursday, June 18, 2009
My work addresses the way we approach history through images. Currently, I’m exploring the American 1950s through the creation of paintings based on vintage slides from the period. My Images are taken mainly from internet sources- in particular, online groups who purchase old slides at estate sales and antique shops and restore them digitally. I am attracted to these images for the distance they represent. They were taken not for commercial purposes but as a way for the unknown photographer to chronicle the time. They are often humorous in their composition and depiction of people. I selectively crop and fragment these pictures to heighten their formal qualities as paintings.
The intended result is a group of works that are visually engaging while retaining a close tie to history. As a child of the 70s and 80s, I cannot experience prior history through memory of experience. Rather, my understanding of the period comes through processing visual information. How we process this information and the impression of history that we get from it is what I am exploring.
Represented are two bodies of work that address the idea differently. The three large paintings were made to harness the awkward composition of the original slides, and then manipulated with flattened color and pattern to accentuate the images formal qualities. The 20 small images were created to fit within a grid, and use selective cropping to function like a box of scattered photos. These paintings are still in progress and contain colors intended as under-painting. The cropping of each image links it to the surrounding paintings through lines and shapes. I view this grid as 1 large work, though am still in the process of determining how best to present it.
Monday, June 1, 2009
This semester has been a time of artistic and conceptual growth. I left the last residency in January with specific goals for the semester. I knew that I needed to begin planning for my thesis a year out and return in June with work that would give me options for the final semester. The last thing I wanted to do was narrow down to a limited idea with a thesis to write and final work to be made. My 3rd residency work was intentionally confusing and open-ended in it’s approach to 50s imagery, so I wanted to find ways to greater explore my source material and give more of my take. I devised early on that that I would make 2 distinct bodies of work that would use the same reference imagery in different ways. I created 3 larger paintings that continue in the same vein as the previous work, and also a grid of 20+ small paintings that utilize the selective cropping of reference images.
I entered the semester eager to start painting and full of ideas. Residency responses from January revealed that my work was mainly coming across as confusing and disjointed. I was initially frustrated with this comment because I was very much trying to harness the random awkwardness found in family snapshots. Most comments seemed to be that the work needed more of the artists take in it. The most common question was “what do the 50s mean to you and why are you doing this?” It’s a fair and essential question to my work that I’ve been looking to answer for some time. I spent time early on sorting through my thoughts in an attempt to figure it out. What really interests me is time and history, the way things change/remain the same, and the changing aesthetic associated with time periods. It made me realize that my perception of a decade such as the 50s comes completely from photos and films rather than actual memory. The way that images speak to fragmented memory, either collective or individual, is that truly interests me. Along with this, I find the idea of America’s self-image fascinating. I think this is a big reason why I was initially drawn to 50s imagery. It represents and idealized past that polarizes people today.
What I realized is that I am not bound only to the 50s. In other words, my desire to reference the awkwardness of the personal photo in composition, color and content extends to other decades as well. I debated including other time periods and going that direction with this semesters work, but ultimately decided that I’ve invested too much into the 50s at this point. I’m now viewing my 50s work as a current faze that I’ll eventually move on from. I’m very interested in investigating other decades and allowing the palette to change along with the imagery. It’s challenging to rein in these ideas for future work, but for the purpose of my MFA I think it’s best to not make the idea any more broad at this point.
I made 3 paintings this semester that continue trends in my previous work. The main idea behind these works is to lift the often-awkward composition of the painting directly from a 50s snapshot. It’s been a way for me to make the paintings seem like enlarged pictures void of context or commentary. I knew this semester that I had to infuse more of my artistic take into them. My mentor Tim Tozer has been helpful. He is very much a purist when it comes to painting, and from our first meeting had a lot of suggestions about the application of paint and the color palette. His main suggestion was to play up the formal qualities of the paintings. He was able to understand why I had created the 3rd residency works to be intentionally confusing, but also felt that there were other ways to change up the reference image and reveal more of the artist in the work without necessarily addressing a specific issue or inserting my likeness into them. He challenged me to be more deliberate in my color mixing. His suggestion was to go to the hardware store and take as many color reference cards from the paint section as possible. He wanted me to use those cards to mix areas of flatter color instead of feathering colors in. Being more conscious of color choices from the outset was very helpful. I didn’t think that my palette needed improvement, but now I can see a huge difference compared to last semesters work.
In addition to refining my colors, I wanted to play with pattern and repetition and see how much I could insert into a painting before it fell apart. I found that the busyness of pattern really made the paintings stand out. Previously, I had seen my work progressing to an ever simpler style, but when I began to paint this semester I started to use images that were more complicated and detailed. Adding excess detail helped to shift the focus from merely the figure to the entire image. They did take much more time then anticipated to complete, but were great fun to do. The goal of these works was to speak directly to the aesthetic of the 50s through their formal qualities. We’ll see what kind of reaction I get from them.
I realized that another take on the personal photo was to radically crop them and assemble them into a grid. During the course of this program I’ve been frustrated in finding the balance between what I want to make and what I actually have the time, space and money to make. Rather than go large and lose time in exploring new ideas, I decided on a grid of 8” x 8” squares, each containing small cropped sections from larger reference photos and placed in careful relation to each other. The idea is that dominant lines, shapes and colors in each image will relate to the ones surrounding it and lead the eye through the entire work. It also occurred to me that a large group of unrelated images presented together in such a way would invoke the process of memory, in the same way we recall fragments of past experiences or images we’ve absorbed.
With the images in the grid, I looked primarily for reference photos that contained strong shape and contrast. For a while, I’ve been drawn to classic cars, so they made great grid images. I also wanted to add pictures with people into the mix, so I again looked for those images with strong formal qualities. I returned to previously used imagery from older paintings as well. I pondered the inclusion of word and type into the grid for a long time. I decided to add images from 50s signs as they worked well alongside the other images. The sign pictures have great lines and contain iconic fonts that immediately reference the era. I was particularly amused by the words on one sign after I cropped the image: “Thrifty -the Values”- which plays off of the idea of 50s family “values”. I’m well aware that I’ve established criteria for choosing which images are in the grid, which raises issues about the reality of the 50s versus the reality depicted in the chosen images. At the same time, these paintings were all based on vintage slides and personal snapshots taken during the period, and represent the way that I assimilate imagery to gain a perception of past time.
I’ve developed a system of under painting that works well with the 50’s palette. Most of the paint is completely covered later on, but trace amounts show through in thin areas, giving the painting a bit more life and vibrancy and keeping them from becoming drab. The colors I use are yellow ochre, a neutralized purple/blue and bright cherry red. While I was making the grid, I wanted to complete the under painting in order to work out the special relationships between works before adding the final full-palette layers. When my mentor first saw the grid, he commented almost immediately that something about unifying the works with only 3 colors made them work. He encouraged me to make the entire grid before painting the top layers. As of now, there are no top layers, and the work will arrive at the June residency in an incomplete state.
My plan for this residency is to bring both the grid and the single paintings to see how they read in critiques. I have really enjoyed making the grid and while it teeters on the brink of excessive busyness, I like where it is going. I would like to continue work on it into the final semester, perhaps doubling the amount of paintings and adding top colors. Conceptually, I feel that I’ve researched and written enough on the American 50s and artists who work in similar ways to provide a framework for my thesis. This is the first semester where I feel I’ve done all I can do to set myself up for the residency and the following semester.
Saturday, May 2, 2009
Last weekend my wife went out of town for the weekend to attend a bridal shower and took the kids too- It was a real gift. I spent the entire weekend in the basement making the most of the time (in all about 25 hours). I finished a new larger painting I'm calling the joke, and also finished under painting a third row on my grid series (five 8"x8" paintings). I'm floating all kinds of ideas on how to finish off the grid, but at this point I'm leaning towards bringing it in it's incomplete state to the next residency in June and finishing it for the thesis show in January. I'll be starting a 4th row this week. Comments appreciated-
Artistic Lineage: Influential Artists
As I further develop my ideas and continue to create new work, I find great importance in researching artists who have already explored and continue to explore common artistic ground. My aim is not to find my artistic identity in the work of other artists, but to bring together those ideas that I resonate with the most in hopes of further defining what I wish to accomplish in my own work. For the purpose of this paper,
I’ve managed to narrow this list down to four painters among many that I identify with visually and theoretically: Edward Hopper, Gerhard Richter, Wayne Thiebaud and Robert Bechtle. This odd grouping of artists will provide a framework for discussing ideas and concepts critical to my work: The use of the photograph as reference, the use of light, shape and color (or lack there-of), and the common theme of isolation and detachment.
Edward Hopper’s work and concepts have been very influential in my work. He remains today among America’s most popular artists, which speaks not only to his skill as a painter but also to the way his images connect with the viewer. Hopper used strong light and shadows to illuminate his spaces and freeze them in time. Hopper used the strong formal qualities of his paintings to imply a sense of narrative, while at the same time leaving them free of commentary. A lifelong fan of theater and cinema, Hopper treated his subjects with cinematic lighting, framing, and angles of view.
The ability of painting to show reality was something that Hopper constantly wrestled with: “I was never able to paint what I set out to paint”, he once wrote. Instead, he altered his scenes by removing the unnecessary details and people, and simplified forms to shapes of color and light. “Among Hopper’s strategies, then, simplification looms large. It characterizes most of his paintings. More than any other quality, these simplifications foster that emotionally charged silence within which Hopper’s suspended visual narratives become so compelling” (Wells 13). Many of his scenes are quite awkward, especially those with figures- and somehow the way they are painted makes their strangeness acceptable and appealing. Through all of his work, there is a sense of timelessness and an appreciative eye for the simple beauty of surroundings that contributes to an overall feeling of isolation and detachment.
Another artist whose work evokes feelings of isolation and detachment is Gerhard Richter. Though very different from Hopper and still very active in the art world, Richter’s approach to images, particularly his use of photography, is essential to what I’m trying to do. Gerhard Richter has been and continues to be hard to define. His body of work is extensive and broad across many themes and media. He has never been content to repeat himself. Despite the scope of his work, Richter’s paintings (according to the artist) consistently reinforce a common dual theme: “That images (and ideas and ideals) are static, superficial, unachievable and are to be doubted; and reality is a process of imagination, material creation and revision. Richter’s subject is the range of relationships between illusion and this reality, his painting” (Adriani 8).
Richter has stated that the use of photographic imagery as a starting point for his early paintings resulted from “an attempt to escape the complicated process of deciding what to paint, along with the critical and theoretical implications accompanying such decisions within the context of a modernist discourse” (gerhardrichter.com). To achieve this, Richter began amassing photos from magazines, books, etc. Beyond using photos as reference to escape meaning, he simplified his painting style to loose brushstrokes and his palette to neutral gray. Most of his works from the 60s were made this way. On using gray he remarked, “‘there is no other color so suitable for illustrating nothing’. He especially liked images from the media because they were available in profusion and, he said, liberated him from personal experience.” (Fineberg 364).
Before I was aware of Richter’s use of photography, I had gravitated towards using 50s photos as reference for the exact same reason- mainly because I wanted subject matter that was distant from personal experience and fun to paint. Richter has rejected those who read into the content of his images as personal, which has also been a challenge of mine. He views photography as the modern sketchbook for artists, and has often discussed the inherent qualities to photography that he finds most appealing: “There are only pictures, which have value to many people or to very few, which remain interesting for a very long time or only for a few seconds, and for which very little or a very great deal is paid” (Obrist 772). This duality of response in photographs is absolutely a draw for me.
While I certainly resonate with Richter’s approach to photos and find his gray paintings fascinating, I would have difficulty in scaling back my paintings in such a way. That’s because I love the formal qualities of painting, particularly the use of shape, line and color, and I see in detached images- particularly from 1950s color photos- a highly desirable aesthetic. For me, no artist embodies the joy of pure painting like Wayne Thiebaud. “The real motives behind Thiebaud’s work are the direct pleasures of looking at things, of analyzing them into patterns, and of handling paint” (Fineberg 212). In his writings and interviews, Thiebaud has often stated that painting is more important than art, a view he formed early in his career after viewing the works of Willem DeKooning.
The influence of Edward Hopper is evident in Thiebaud’s paintings; particularly in the way he depicts painted objects with strong shapes of solid color and cast shadows. Like Hopper, who rejected many modernist ideas and stayed true to his own unique vision, one could also say that Thiebaud is a movement unto himself. People are quick to consider him a Pop artist, mainly for his use of color and depiction of common American objects, but Thiebaud’s work doesn’t have any of the irony present in Pop art and as a west coast artist, he was removed from the New York scene.
Instead, he just painted, and few American observational painters have so wide a range. Even in his old age, he continues to paint storefronts, as well as exaggerated San Francisco landscapes. Much has been written about the meaning of the work to Thiebaud beyond the formal aspects of creating. Thiebaud himself has warned against reading too much into their symbolism. “The symbolic aspect of my work is always confusing to me- it’s never been clear in my mind… I tend to view the subject matter without trying to be too opaque with respect to its symbolic reference, mostly from the standpoint of problematic attractions- what certain aspects of form offer.” (Nash 17).
I have always resonated with Thiebaud’s approach to painting things. Before I ever looked intently at his work, I was far more interested in the process of composing an image than in speaking to an issue. In painting from still photos, I found frustration in the way that objects painted realistically could easily look flat and uninteresting. I began to under-paint my canvases with bright colors, leaving little bits of intense color to show through in the outlining of objects. The result was an infused vibrancy to the still image. I was feeling pretty proud of myself for the discovery, until I realized that Wayne Thiebaud had been doing the same thing much better for fifty years.
One artist whose paintings address both the photographical concerns of artists like Gerhard Richter and the formal/thematic style of Hopper and Thiebaud is bay area photorealist Robert Bechtle. I have only recently become aware with Bechtle’s work, and I see in it a culmination of the previously discussed artists. His paintings center on wide, empty spaces and the urban landscape of San Fransisco. “Bechtle’s flat, sun-bleached palette and his detached mode of recording random details impart a singular sense of alienation to his subjects. His deadpan paintings capture the essence of the postwar American experience” (Auping 3).
Considered a pioneer in photorealism, Bechtle began painting in California in the early 60s and was immediately caught up in the Bay Area figurative movement. A growing number of Bay Area artists, including Wayne Thiebaud, viewed representational painting as an enticing challenge to the dominant, New York-based current of Abstract Expressionism. Bechtle began creating scenes of cars and the streets of San Francisco by implementing a grid and using small random photographs. These photos were amateur at best, taken by other people and often blurry and strangely composed. Betchle discovered in them a way to look at the ordinary in a way that was striking and unique. In time, he gravitated towards taking his own images and projecting them onto canvas for tracing. He continues to work this way.
There is much in Bechtle’s work that I relate to. While I certainly do not view my work as photorealistic, I do share Bechtle’s approach to the snapshot- a photograph taken by an everyday individual to document everyday life- as a viable type of source material. Until the 60s, Bechtle didn’t really see himself as a realist, but rather he was “striving to paint without affection, in a kind of style-less style” (Auping 11). Working from snapshots led me to purge style and meaning from my work, though I found that the actual act of doing this gave the work style and meaning! Robert Bechtle’s work eventually became closer to that of Edward Hopper, in that his street and car scenes were largely void of people and centered on the shapes of shadow and light. I differ most with Bechtle in his process. I have always been apposed to using a projector, in that I tend to manipulate my images in important compositional ways through the process of planning and drawing them. For me, the snapshot is reference, but the goal is not a photorealistic copy.
Researching this group of artists has helped in understanding the scope of concepts I’ve been exploring. In seeing the way other artists use of the photograph as reference, I’ve become more aware of how my source imagery functions, and more deliberate in my choosing and manipulation of images. On a formal level, artists like Thiebaud and Hopper have shown me how color, lighting and emphasis on shape contribute to an overall feeling of sensory observation. These artists all have found different ways to infuse their work with themes of isolation and detachment. Ultimately, I would like that my images would connect with viewers on such a level- to at the same time seem comfortable and disquieting.
Sunday, April 19, 2009
Finally a new painting- sorry for the delays in posting. I started 3 larger boards with the intent of working quicker, and exactly the opposite has happened. These are taking me forever to do- often I'm working on an a little area for what seems like days. It's frustrating to be working so slowly, but at least I'm somewhat satisfied with the finished product (at least for know). The reference picture for this painting struck me as funny and full of great shapes and colors. My mentor has been encouraging me to be more deliberate about my color choices, so I've tried to do that here. Parts of it are quite flat with thicker paint, which I think does make it more engaging. This next week I plan on working as much as possible to finish a few things and leave the following week to work on my May paper. Is it almost May already?!?
Wednesday, April 1, 2009
Tuesday, March 31, 2009
As a child of the 70s and 80s, I cannot experience prior history through memory of experience. Rather, much of my understanding comes through processing visual information in the form of photographs and films. The way we process this information and the impression of history we get from it is what I’m exploring in my paintings. Questions can then be raised: Is my impression of the period accurate? Am I taking part in idealization? Most importantly, what are the social and cultural contexts of the images and of my viewpoint today and how do I reconcile the two?
The idea of approaching the perception of historical time is one that I can envision applying to many different time periods and subjects. For the duration of my MFA work, I’ve decided to continue my exploration of the 1950s. This program has forced me to be deliberate and intentional about every aspect to my work, which is why, in addition to creating the painting, I need to understand the historical concepts that inform the reference photo. This paper is my attempt at that. I’ll be exploring the socioeconomic context of the 50s to provide a framework for seeing these images, and what I believe are the deep connections between the past and the present. The key to understanding the 1950s lies in recognizing the monumental cultural shift that took place after WWII- specifically, the way that prosperity radically changed America and created the world we live in today.
I first began using 50s photographs as reference a few years ago. I recognized in those images a simultaneous detachment from and connection to the present. They are humorous and strange, and contain a particular look that lends itself to painting. Initially I incorporated all kinds of photographic reference, including period advertisements, movie stills, posed photographs and personal snapshots. I have since narrowed my use to the personal snapshot only. I am finding the best reference images through groups of people who purchase old photos and slides from estate sales and antique stores. The images are often restored digitally to their original brilliance. They possess a displacement brought about by the anonymity of the photographer and the absence of any verbal or written explanation of intent. What remains is an often-clumsy composition made by someone who at one time for whatever reason valued what he/she saw and decided to capture it. The process of making that image into painting further detaches it from its original context. There is a mysterious distance then between the viewer, the artist and the unknown photographer. For all of the uncertainty with my source imagery, knowing the framework of the time period is a matter of great importance.
I’m convinced that there is great relevance to the 50s in 2009. We’re living in a fascinating time in America. With our current economic downturn, we’re learning the hard way the reality of American Dream. If any good has come from the whole financial mess, it’s that it happens to coincide with my study of mass affluence in post-war America. Everyday we read about people loosing their homes and jobs, all because our financial system is built on careless lending. This system operates to satisfy the American sense of entitlement; the notion that as Americans we feel we deserve to have what we want when we want it (even if we can’t afford it). It’s the logical response to a culture driven by advertising and mass consumerism. All these ideas can be traced to the remarkable boom of consumer culture brought about by mass affluence in post-war America.
The 50s were a complex decade of rapid cultural changes brought about by the abundance of wealth. Post-war America was the wealthiest society in the history of the world. Modern advertising and consumerism can be traced to the early 20th century and the changes brought about by the industrial revolution, but it wasn’t until the 50s that America changed from “a scarcity-based mentality of self-restraint to an abundance based mentality of self-expression. The aversion to material luxury was the first thing to go, as Americans reveled in wave after wave of new factory-made comforts and conveniences” (Lindsey 62).
In his landmark 1952 book “The Lonely Crowd”, David Riesman acutely observed the rapid changes in the new middle class. He correctly wrote that Middle America was changing from an “inner-directed” to an “other-directed” ethos (Riesman 20). In other words, people were not so concerned about what they had to do to contribute to society. Increasingly, other people were the problem. This represented a huge cultural shift from the previous generation. Riesman saw in the new middle class the dangers of conformity, but he also saw it’s potential: “The more advanced the technology, on the whole, the more possible it is for a considerable number of human beings to imagine being somebody else. [The technology] spurs the division of labor, which, in tern, creates the possibility for a greater variety of experience and of social character” (Riesman 247).
Fifties America is often criticized for being complacent and shallow. While there is obvious truth to that assessment, it’s far too easy to dismiss the period as self-delusional. Americans were living the good life, but they were filled with anxiety. They had known the Great Depression and seen the horrors of war, and now they had constant fear of nuclear war with the Soviet Union. It was a popular belief among many that World War 3 was inevitable. It’s understandable then they turned to the home and family for stability.
Often seen as a stereotype on television shows such as “Leave it to Beaver” and “Father Knows Best”, the pleasant American family was a new invention. During the war with so many young men deployed oversees, women filled the holes left in the workforce. When the men returned and the baby boom began, things changed drastically. For the first time in more than 100 years, the age for marriage and motherhood fell, fertility increased, divorce rates declined and women’s degree of educational parity with men dropped sharply. Men were now expected to seek emotional rewards from participating actively in the family, but for women the expectations soared much higher. “Being a wife and mother- managing the family’s consumption, attending to the emotional needs of dad and the kids, and generally choreographing and producing the suburban idyll of harmonious togetherness- came to be regarded as the highest and best outlet for female self-expression” (Coontz 110).
Families in the 50s were not so naïve as we often think. Rather, they were living in the midst of profound societal changes and facing challenges previous generations didn’t have to face. Eventually, the 50s family wilted in the reality of daily living, which led to profound changes in the next two decades. Today the image of the 50s family endures as a strong symbol. For many it represents repression and false idealism, and for others a nostalgic lost paradigm of family values. The legendary family of the 1950s was not, as common wisdom tells us, the last gasp of ‘traditional’ family life with deep roots in the past. Rather, “it was the first wholehearted effort to create a home that would fulfill virtually all its members’ personal needs through an energized and expressive personal life” (Coontz 27).
It was only natural that with the shift towards an other-directed philosophy of consumption came a boom in advertising. Advertisement was not new in the 50s, but the demand of an affluent culture transformed its role in society. In his 1956 culture study, “The Organization Man”, William Whyte wrote: “We are now confronted with the problem of permitting the average American to feel moral even when he is flirting, even when he is spending, even when he is not saving, even when he is taking two vacations a year and buying a second or a third car” (Whyte 19). To solve this problem, advertising fused the marketing of products into every aspect of culture. Advertising and marketing had been around for decades, but it wasn’t until Americans discovered television that it began to drive American culture. With television, advertisers were welcomed as guests into millions of living rooms.
Television and advertising have completely transformed the way we function in culture. In the 50s TV radically changed the cultural landscape of America. In his 1985 book “Amusing Ourselves to Death” Neil Postman observed the consequences of a world altered by TV, mainly that TV has conditioned us to see everything as entertainment, measured out in doses of time. TV has taught us to process information through privately seeing from a distance as opposed to using language and dialoguing with others. Being bombarded with media has a numbing affect on us. I have never known a society apart from television and mass consumerism. This is one of many reasons why I find the 50s so intriguing. I have never had to process how television and life with all of its comforts has changed me, because it has always been there.
Postman’s writing on photography speaks directly to concepts in my work: “Photographs have the capacity to perform a particular kind of dismembering of reality, a wrenching of moments out of their contexts, and a juxtaposing of events and things that have no logical or historical connection with each other” (Postman 73). What Postman correctly sees as a key problem with TV, mass media and the way we consume (both images and material goods), I see as great potential for making art. With media, we have been conditioned to accept as ordinary truth “a wrenching of moments out of their contexts”. In my paintings I’m attempting to place found images back into a proper context.
What interests me is the way that we approach history through imagery. What that looks like in my paintings is something that I’m continuing to discover. The challenge is to incorporate an understanding of the period into the paintings themselves, a difficult task considering there is no virgin territory with this kind of cultural exploration. The ideas behind my work are not necessarily new, but working with photographs will always require contextual knowledge. What makes my idea different is that it looks to the past when all eyes look to the future. I think that too often we neglect lessons from the past and fail to appreciate where we’ve come from. The American 50s represent the monumental shift to an abundance-based mentality of self-expression, a philosophy we live with everyday. This is what makes history relevant.
Friday, March 27, 2009
Wednesday, March 4, 2009
Here's the first painting I've finished- It's a little larger than my last work at 18" x 24". When I think about my attraction to old photographs, it all boils down to the look. I saw this photo (which is a compilation of multiple photos) and was instantly drawn to the crazy bullet pod ashtrays, the goofy guy lounging in the back and the "modern" feel of something that was considered cutting edge in the 50's. The picture is of smoking car from a passenger train. Anyway, because the look is something I'm so drawn to, I've been looking for ways to push that look- Here I'm thinking about how far I can push it before it's too much. I may have overdone this painting with all the patterns and detail, but it was a good exercise. I've started a separate project of small fragmented paintings at the same time- I'll try to post some in-progress pics of those paintings soon.
Saturday, February 28, 2009
Norman Rockwell and Disavowal
My opinion of Norman Rockwell, until very recently, has been a mixed one. I have always appreciated his amazing ability for visual storytelling and his exceptional talents as an illustrator- particularly the subtle ways in which he stylizes his figures to achieve the maximum nostalgic appeal. On the other hand, his art is one that I often find too accessible. Anyone can understand a Rockwell painting, which is the great predicament of his work. No one was better in making art for the masses, but its commercial nature detaches it from the level of “high art”, or at least that has been the case. At times, I have often felt put off by the sentimental and kitschy nature of his paintings, even while simultaneously admiring his technical achievements.
It came then as a both a great compliment and a frustration to find Rockwell’s name come up so often in connection with my work. In using 50s reference images and balancing the borderline of nostalgia, his works are understandably unavoidable. Five months ago I reluctantly wrote a paper on Norman Rockwell to appease the constant comparisons. It was a frustrating exercise in that every book I looked at reinforced the opinion that Rockwell’s paintings speak only at the shallow nostalgic level. Looking at his paintings left me with a strong desire to purge narrative from my work completely. It was only after writing that paper that I was referred to a controversial new book and current swell of new appreciation for Rockwell that’s gaining momentum today.
Since he remains so essential to the work I’m trying to do, I’ve decided to give Rockwell another chance by looking deeper into who he was and what he means to my work. In his book “The Underside of Innocence”, author Richard Halpern discusses the innocence found in the works of Norman Rockwell as an act of “disavowal”. He borrows the term from Freud, who in his writings on psychoanalysis wrote that disavowal is one of several ways of suppressing something unbearable. In Freudian terms, disavowal is different than repression or denial, or simply banishing unwanted knowledge all together. To disavow something is to simultaneously know and not know something. It involves a splitting of the self. For Halpern, this is the way to approach the works of Norman Rockwell. “Rockwell’s paintings do produce an innocent world, and to that degree they are acts of disavowal. But at the same time, under the guise of innocence, they often present potentially disturbing materials that they then dare the viewer to see and recognize. Rockwell’s work thus lays bare the mechanisms of disavowal. What Rockwell paints is not the innocence itself but its manufacture. And his work confronts the viewer with the ethical choice of seeing or not seeing” (Halpern 6).
It goes without saying that this new theory of Rockwell is controversial. Rockwell’s middlebrow admirers have always loved his work in part because it looks wistfully toward the past. It both partakes of and contributes to the myth that the world was a simpler, happier place than now. Rockwell was obviously intentional in doing this, but he was also much more clever than we give him credit for, and his work is filled with nuances that are easily looked over.
A great example of Rockwell’s deliberate trickery is “The Art Critic” from 1955. In the painting, a young art student in an art museum holds an easel and paints as he leans forward to investigate a painting of a baroque woman, who humorously leers back at him with a raised eyebrow and strange grin. It’s a painting that anyone would find funny for the way the painting interacts with the art student. The picture takes on a completely new meaning when it’s discovered that the boy in the picture is Rockwell’s son Jarvis, and the woman is Rockwell’s wife Mary. In short, the entire painting is an Oedipal joke- one that his family found embarrassing.
In the painting, the young art student gazes through the magnifying glass at a broach on the bosom of the woman, the same broach the mythological Oedipus used to gouge his eyes out upon learning of his despicable actions. A group of men in the painting on the adjacent wall smirk at him in disgust. Through it all, the art student is unfazed, completely unaware of what he is doing. Jarvis Rockwell later recalled, “My father made it very plain that the sexual joke was important to the painting” (Halpern 86). It’s clear from Rockwell’s writings and the work itself that he delighted in playing jokes and in hiding things in plain sight, especially on the magazine covers read by millions. Not all of Rockwell’s jokes are sexual. Uncertain of his place in the art world, Rockwell often makes distinct references to traditional themes in the history of art, which the Oedipus complex of “The Art Critic” also demonstrates.
To the untrained eye, Rockwell’s work is all about innocence. Rockwell knew as good as anyone that innocence is a commodity, a fact he makes known in his book through frequently disclosing how well he was paid. “Rockwell and others such as Walt Disney purveyed a view of American culture that was patriotic, optimistic, and imbued with middle-class values, secure in the virtuousness and rightness of the American way” (Halpern 8). For generations of Americans Rockwell symbolizes a better time when life was simple. He also remains the poster boy for American conservativism. In reality, he was a progressive thinker who often felt stifled in his limitations as a commercial artist. The Saturday Evening Post didn’t allow him to place African Americans on the cover except for rare instances. Only near the end of his life when he was painting for himself did he tackle issues such as racism head-on in his work.
As a well-paid illustrator, Rockwell understood the commodity of innocence and had personal reasons to value it. Rockwell battled feelings of inadequacy his entire life. As a young man, he was gangly and unatheletic, constantly made fun of for his beanpole frame and large Adam’s apple. Throughout his career, even at the height of his popularity, he was banished by the art world for being a commercial illustrator. “That is the essential paradox of Rockwell’s life: he was America’s best-loved and most famous artist but, according to the gatekeepers of the institutional world of art, he wasn’t an artist at all” (Marling 7). These deep-seeded insecurities translated into opposite themes in his paintings; scenes of nostalgic innocence and great humor. There were episodes from Rockwell’s childhood that profoundly shaped his views on innocence and idealism. In his autobiography “My Adventures as an Illustrator”, Rockwell relates a powerful memory from his boyhood in New York City, which continues to haunt him even as an old man:
“The memory is of a vacant lot in the yellow light of late afternoon, and a drunken woman in filthy gray rags following a man and beating him over the head with an umbrella. The man stumbling through the coarse littered grass, his arms raised to cover his head, and the woman cursing and screaming, beating him incessantly until he fell, then standing over him, kicking and striking him again and again about the head and belly and legs. And I remember that we kids watched, silent, from the edges of the lot, until a policeman ran up and grabbed the woman. The man got slowly up and seeing the policeman struggling with the woman, attacked him, swinging drunkenly and swearing. Against this image of the city, exaggerated and distorted as it is, I have never been able to rid myself of it entirely” (Rockwell 31).
It was with deep personal insecurities and doubts about potential for the world that Rockwell made images for the masses. Understanding his viewpoint is helpful in understanding his work. The big question remains: how can I use the example of Rockwell’s work in my own? Having researched this new approach to Rockwell, the topic of disavowal is something I am deeply interested in. I’ve always been aware of the duality in my subject matter, and Rockwell’s use of hiding things in plain sight is intriguing to me. I do not aspire to make Rockwellian paintings that so blatantly grasp nostalgia, but I do see commonalities with his work.
If disavowal is simultaneously knowing and not knowing something, I think it’s a proper context to explain how my work functions and a good concept to push in future work. When the viewer encounters my paintings, they know the images on a surface level. With 50s images, there is an undeniable nostalgia that resonates with people, regardless of age and experience. The viewer can understand scenes of families and resonate with the collective idealized American memory of post-war America. Also inherent in the imagery is the reality behind 50s optimism or the “not knowing” of disavowal- the absence of diversity, the differences in family dynamics and domestic roles, and the presence of constant cold war fear. These are a few of the many aspects to the period that get glazed over by idealism. When I confront old photographs of unknown people, I’m interested in who they are behind the veneer. I’d like to think that the viewer is also confronted with this question. I’m also interested in making my painting accessible and visually alluring in a way that speaks to idealism while at the same time saying more. Merely consuming an image- as opposed to confronting it- is what allows disavowal to do its work.
Richard Halpern sums up Rockwell best: “If disavowal bespeaks an inability to bear complication, and if it reacts to its discomfort by splitting and idealizing its subjects, then Rockwell’s lessons about disavowal can never be grasped unless we are willing to see this artist for the complex creature he is: a wholesome pervert, a knowing innocent, and a kitschy genius” (Halpern 52). Rockwell’s work and the concept of disavowal has taught me that I can be more deliberate about introducing those undercurrents to my work. The trick then becomes doing so without tuning the painting into an overly accessible Rockwellian narrative. And so, the work continues.
Halpern, Richard. “Norman Rockwell: The Underside of Innocence”. The University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London. 2006.
Hennessey, Maureen Hart and Anne Knutson. “Norman Rockwell: Pictures for the American People”. Harry N. Abrams, New York. 1999.
Marling, Karal Ann. “Rockwell: Americas Most Loved Painter”. Taschen, Köln, 2005.
Rockwell, Norman. “My Adventures as an Illustrator”. Henry N. Abrams, New York. 1988