I am fascinated with simulations. Plastic rocks, virtual buttons, faux fur, and more are captivating, the more convincing, the better. I have a visceral love/hate relationship with these things, a true guilty pleasure. The Pretenders is a series that explores my fascination with the real/unreal and the lack of authenticity that comes with it.
This project started as an offshoot of the (Un)natural Habitats work from 2012, which was modeled in part on natural history dioramas and a departure from representational uses of color. Digital photographs of landscapes served as backdrops for brightly colored painted animals in hues that were deviated utterly from nature. This earlier series also dealt with illusion, where photographic elements were rendered in a painterly style and painted elements were rendered as realism. In essence, this is where the ‘pretending’ began.
Nearly every aspect of The Pretenders references a characteristic of unreal. The animals are based on a series of photographs taken from actual natural history dioramas. These setups, even at their best, are pale simulations of life with theatrical staging, harsh lighting, and creepy taxidermy. The landscape backgrounds of the dioramas have been replaced with wallpaper and decorative domestic patterns, amplifying the unreal context of space and place. Many of these patterns are executed in glitter, a cheap facsimile of precious gems and metals. The animals, as with (Un)natural Habitats, are represented with bright, unnatural hues to emphasize their unreal yet playful quality. There are even techniques of painting and surface that have been adapted out of architectural faux finishing to provide a final quality of visual trickery.
The Pretenders is not meant as a negative critique, however. In its own way, it is a celebration of the fake. Representational art is based on illusion. These works revel in this illusion in every possible way, introducing some humor and lightness in the serious debate over what is ‘real’. We live in an increasingly virtual world. The Pretenders proposes that it is okay to be compelled by what is authentic and what is not. There’s enough of both for all of us.
How can we simultaneously experience where we WANT to be and where we HAVE to be on any given day? This is the conundrum that [Dis]location addresses.
Over a period of years, I have developed a habit of shooting camera phone photographs of places visited and seen. Sometimes these places are close by and more frequently they are far away from home. Initially there was no purpose for these images other than capturing the beauty and interest of whatever caught my eye. However, they soon developed into the Lost and Found project, which started with sharing these images through social media and ended with mixed media photo-based paintings. These paintings used the original landscape photo along the geographical coordinates of the image location, date/time of image capture, and even the software filter used to modify the image. This project addressed the many tools one might need to rely on as a support for memory and its shortcomings.
[Dis]location uses a similar information delivery system, with photos taken and shared through social media first and then developed further as mixed media paintings. This is where the similarity to the earlier works ends, though. The importance of remembering is still there, but it has become secondary to new concepts. The geographical coordinates, date and time are still part of the image matrix, but they now reference the places of mundane tasks that are undertaken on a weekly basis. The grocery store, gas station, dry cleaner, office and many other random errand locations- all places of necessity- are represented through the text elements. The photo-based images are all taken from places traveled to, near and far, which represent locations of desire, where I (and probably anyone!) would like to spend time. They are beautiful, peaceful and relaxing. They are memorable and idyllic. Ultimately, the works in [Dis]location function as daydreams. The text is on the ‘outside’. It is the reality of the situation. The beautiful image is on the ‘inside’. It is the place we want to be instead. These seemingly disconnected concepts co-exist within the work, much in the same way that desire and obligation co-exist within our collective experience.
Lost and Found
Cartography is defined as the science or art of making maps. Historically, this process has involved the intertwining of science, aesthetics and technique in order to communicate a broad range of information, including geography, technology and even creative thinking. The goals of cartography often include identifying and representing relevant traits, economizing information to reduce complexity and eliminate irrelevance, and through design, orchestrate all necessary elements into an organized and effective information delivery system.
The works in Lost and Found can be thought of as maps. They include references to traditional mapmaking, such as the drawn and printed lines of topographical maps, text and symbols, in addition to latitudinal and longitudinal coordinates. They start with a camera phone photograph and are released first through social media, representing a first phase of communication through readily available, relatively low-tech methods. The locations themselves are unremarkable, other than possessing a time and place that felt worth remembering. Further documentation of time, place and image is collected in the form of coordinates, date, time and photo filter text. This process at times feels like hunting; at other times, an act of surveillance.
The images undergo a painstaking process of addition and elimination. References are layered, in full or in part. What was black and white becomes color, what was transparent becomes opaque, what was added becomes subtracted and scraped away. Qualities of light and surface are completely altered. Nothing is sacred; nothing is precious. They are controlled and released, structured and intuitive. In this way they have become a powerful metaphor.
The works in Lost and Found are maps. But they are not only maps of a place. They have become maps of memories and experiences. They include specific information of time and place, but very little of it is complete or reliable in the way a cartographer would require. They include multiple modes of examination and multiple modes of representation, but fall short of defining or fully representing with any clarity. It is here they find meaning. They are sharing without specifying. They are revealing and concealing. They have depth and significance, but can also be beautiful and fleeting. They are Lost and Found.
Discovery has long been a critical part of my creative process. New materials, new techniques and new subjects have been the fuel that has sustained my work for many years. The moment of epiphany that comes from taking a risk and stumbling on something new and unexpected never gets old.
This new body of work did not start out with radical change in mind. A renewed interest in subjective color provided the departure point out of my “Warning Signs” series in 2011. Thus began my exploration of animal subjects as metaphorical characters caught in a staged drama, alerted to unseen dangers outside of the visual field. Through an evolution of painting and many avenues of thought, these “(Un)Natural Habitats” paintings have become something greatly departed from what was before.
Everything about these new works carries a quality of artifice. The ‘natural’ subjects of animal, bird and insect are no longer bound by reality, having transitioned clearly into subjectively colored monochromatic versions of themselves. The photographic backgrounds are distorted and covered to the point of no longer clearly referencing their landscape source. The entire relationship of the creatures to the environments is modeled after natural history museum dioramas, which are pale simulations of historical and environmental experiences. There is even the presence of selected surrogate subjects, from origami roses to Japanese lanterns pretending to be the moon, which are playful, but not quite right.
The “Document” pieces expand on this avenue of discovery and historical record by simulating old journal pages from a Darwinesque exploration of impossible creatures. Strangely colored like their brethren in the panels, these animals and birds are rendered as traditional subjects while also representing strange new species of fantasy and invention. As with the other paintings, the artifice of these works is left evident, including the map coordinates and Latin designations of color and scientific classification.
By holding on to some reference to the ‘real world’ while simultaneously entering into a new and undiscovered realm, these “(Un)Natural Habitats” have become something very different from where they began. I can’t wait to see where they take me next…
I am an idealist. I long for things that are positive, uplifting and idyllic. Someone once told me that there should be no reason to hold back with the conceptual possibilities that my paintings promised. It was ‘my world’ and I could do anything I wanted in them. Wise words. They have liberated me and allowed me to created spaces of beauty that are just as much a part of the past as they are the present.
We live in dangerous times. Daily reports and dialogues alike present us with an ongoing list of threats, scares and warnings that color the way we live, creating an edge and static in the background that often makes it difficult to remain comfortable and still for long. These real or imagined dangers also promote a compulsion to protect the ones we hold dear.
The characters in my paintings inhabit beautiful spaces that are also a bit dark and cautious. Alert. Ready. There is also a sense that things are not always as they seem, a questioning of the ‘real’, a borrowing from natural history dioramas and retouched photographs.
In the end these paintings represent my yearning to trust, protect, and remain optimistic, even in times where anything can change, without warning.
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