(Short Descriptions of Selected Works 1995-2002)
Mascot I and Mascot II
This little diptych includes one monkey (imitator; brand-loyal consumer; metaphor for addiction) sitting next to a bouquet of poppies, a flower that refers both to memory and to oblivion (as with opiate drugs). He wears a cloak covered with the logos of multinational consumer brands. The frame says, “HE WHO HAS SERVED THE CAUSE OF THE REVOLUTION HAS PLOWED THE SEA”. The quote is attribute to Simon Bolivar, who led South American revolutionary armies for independence from the Spanish in the early nineteenth century. My use of the quote is not specific to Bolivar’s cause, but to the hopes of revolutions in general as they succumb to the interests of greed and power. The other monkey (humankind’s animal nature; greed; selfishness—these are some things that monkeys represent in the history of painting) wears a blue cloak decorated with stars (a reference to our democracy) as he hoards a pile of ripe fruits. It’s a portrait of a certain kind of American politician. The frame says, “THOUGH THE MONKEY MAY WEAR SILK, IT IS STILL A MONKEY”. I have lost the reference, but the meaning of the phrase should be pretty clear.
Allegory of Politics—Nostalgia and Nationalism Overcome History on a Heartland Battleground
Also known as
Allegory of the Triumph of Nationalism
This painting was made as I listened to the 1996 Presidential and Vice Presidential debates on public radio, and all I could think was that these people were a bunch of chickens and turkeys whose politics were limited to sentiment, jingoism, and fear, or some delicate combination of all three.
The composition and painterly rhetoric of this work are meant to recall the plethora of 19th century French imperialist war paintings that depicted French victories over Middle Eastern forces, including Algerians, Arabs, Turks and Egyptians. The Orientalist propensity to depict Araby as a dark, chaotic, dangerous Other certainly functioned adequately as propaganda in support of imperialist exploits. Certainly national identity and an assumed superiority of European civilizing structures are clearly asserted. Images I had looked at included Theodore Chausseriau’s Arab Horsemen Carrying Away Their Dead, 1850; and Antoine Jean Gros’ Battle at Aboukir (Murat Defeating the Turkish Army at Aboukir), 1805.
My chickens and turkey are not engaged in the kind of extreme physical activity of most battle scenes since the violence they are committing is less spectacular, less obvious: they are consuming the butterflies that float in the air around them. Butterflies, in the history of painting, represented the loss of corporeal presence and transformation into pure spirit and memory. Though the content of those metaphors was specifically the transformation of the Christian Resurrection, I am using a secularized version of the metaphor to suggest that the insects represent memory as it becomes history, and that which we must remember for its lessons. The butterflies are labeled with names of people, organizations, and publications, as well as phrases, dates, and other references to various historical expressions both of this nation’s best qualities and highest ideals and it’s sad betrayals of them. The following lists these notations as they appear left to right:
1. Mother Earth Bulletin 1900-1917
3. Colors representing the Spanish flag with the date 1936
4. Names of Americans unjustly sentenced to death or killed for their political views, including Albert Spies, the Rosenbergs, Fred Hampton, Sacco and Vanzetti, George Engel, Albert Parsons, Adolph Fisher, Joe Hill
5. The Pink Triangle
6. Towns suffering from deindustrialization and the relocation of jobs to cheap, exploitable labor, including Flint, MI; Centralia, IL; Gary and Hammond, IN
7. History; Citizenship; Tolerance
8. South Chicago, IL, Memorial Day 1937 (striking workers shot by police)
9. Haymarket May 4 1886
10. 1787 (Ratification of the United States Constitution)
11. Decatur, IL, 1995 (Staley and Caterpillar strikes)
12. Cleveland Citizen 1891-1920
13. “Lest We Forget”
15. Trail of Tears
The birds are all red, white and blue, displaying in their plumage the ideals of liberty, equality and brotherhood (I use that gendered term with reluctance and in the absence of an alternative that wouldn’t sound forced) represented by those colors in the French, British, and American flags. But these bird feathers are for show: they have “wrapped themselves in the flag” even as they destroy the lessons of history. While the eggs are decorated in the birds’ own image, they suffer breakage and destruction as the big birds feed. These were added as I listened to political rhetoric about the lives of children even as I saw no evidence of real concern among politicians.
The painting has a line of text at the top that includes these words: LOTTO, CRIME, decay, dichloro-dibenzo-p-dioxin, POVERTY, money.
There is a line at the bottom, which includes the following magazine and book titles:
LIVING, TRADITIONAL HOME, COUNTRY HOME, COUNTRY JOURNAL, IDEAL HOME, COUNTRY LIVING, MOTHER EARTH NEWS, COUNTRY LIFE, and O! PIONEERS!
The top line refers to my daily experience as I commuted during the winter of 1996-1997 from Chicago through Calumet, Gary and Hammond to my job in Valparaiso, Indiana.
The bottom line refers to contemporary myths of the romantic countryside ideal.
The frame is gold and royal blue with an American eagle in each corner. The eagles resemble a large carved eagle my parents gave me and which hung over their front door as long as I can remember. It now hangs in my studio. It is gold-leafed, and it clutches an American flag in its talon, and in its beak it holds a banner, which reads, “LIVE AND LET LIVE”. This object has great meaning to me; as it evokes personal history, it invokes an obvious but rather painful irony. It asks us to believe in it, but its text is full of references that prevent our wholehearted faith.
Allegory of the Free Market
The pictorial rhetoric of this painting is meant to recall any number of depictions of battle that suggested a dark but still romanticized and glorified vision of violence, including European war paintings from the 17th through 19th centuries. The sky’s sickly, smoky yellowish cast is meant to evoke the dramatically battle-darkened skies of war paintings as well as suggesting the dramatically emissions-darkened skies we are more familiar with in contemporary urban life. The figures are in action, but not explicitly in conflict with each other. They are flooding down a hillside as though fleeing a single unseen enemy. I had looked at a Gericault painting, in which a dismounted and possibly injured cavalryman, an officer, looks fearfully with wide eyes over his shoulder as he limps down a steep slope. The figures in my painting are wild-eyed but without focus as they cascade down their hill. They are mostly deer-like creatures whose hides have turned from the dun camouflage of ungulates to the predatory camouflage of wild felines, suggesting a transformation of their nature from defensive to offensive. Their antlers, instruments of ungulate war, have grown insanely and wildly huge, suggesting the dramatized effects of pathologically excessive testosterone, perhaps caused by a substance in their environment. The scraps of fabric tied to their antlers like little banners, though they also resemble bandages, are printed with the names of multiple toxic emissions that are the common products of industrial activity, such as lead, sulphur dioxide, carbon monoxide, and mercury. A small deer that bears, perhaps to some viewers, a passing resemblance to a well-known cartoon deer and icon of romanticized Nature, stands screaming at the top of the slope. Monkeys resembling the fallen soldiers of Romantic painting lie at the bottom. Presiding over the scene, tied to the antler of the largest animal, is a white ribbon banner printed with the words, “Laisses Faire”.
This painting took as its starting point the 17th century convention of the Lion Hunt as a subject for paintings depicting dramatic graphic violence and the extreme physicality of man and beast. Delacroix painted several, as did Rubens. The existence of the paintings, as well as the practice of the hunt, suggested the pleasure taken by the viewer in the spectacle of violence. The participants depicted in the Lion Hunt were not typically European; the whole tableau was often an exercise in Orientalist representation, yet the audience for the painting was European. The interest in violence was thereby projected onto the subject of the painting in a way that allows the viewer to construct a hierarchy of savagery, in which the European viewer is the most innocent. This propaganda strategy seems to be enthusiastically embraced by a wide variety of societies; the violence committed by one’s own is always somehow not simply justified, but cleaner, less brutal, less hideous, committed by the normal and the civilized against the pathological. Even the innocent are less than human. This is evident in spectacles of violence from TV. crime dramas to Fox News to Yanomamo creation myth. It serves the cause of politics without empathy. The frame for this piece resembles a pediment with fluted columns on either side, a reference to institutionalized violence. The top of the frame is carved with the names of violent spectacles from Coliseum through WWF. The bull at the center of the action strikes a pose reminiscent of the Merrill Lynch logo. This is not a specific indictment of that one institution, but rather a suggestion that the “bullishness” of our economic interests is at the center of economic violence, which remains largely unseen.
Small Quetzal (Banana Republic)
Small Indonesian Bird of Paradise
(Reiteration of subject matter also treated in Return of the Quetzal: Imperial Eyes 1887 and Indonesian Bird of Paradise: Imperial Eyes 1997, which is in the collection of the Brauer Museum, Valparaiso University)
This pair of paintings combines two art historical styles, nineteenth century American landscape and seventeenth century Dutch aviary painting. More specifically, these works refer to paintings of tropical sunsets, jungles and mountains made by Hudson River School painters including Church, Cole and Heade during the 1850’and 1860’s. These paintings reflected the interests and the myths of the culture at the time, including scientific and scenic wonders, as well as the expansion of the nation beyond the doctrine of manifest destiny. They reflected a transcendentalist mood and attitude toward an idealized nature at a time when the nation was coping with the brutal realities of the Civil War and its aftermath. Dutch aviary painting often depicted exotic bird species native to the far reaches of Dutch colonial interests, and were bought or commissioned by householders whose wealth likely reflected those interests, or wished to appear as though they did. My interest in a hybridization of these two styles (with a nod to contemporary advertising images that use idealized Nature as a subject; SUV ads, for example) is in invoking the idea of exoticism, the touristic impulse, and its less innocent corollary, colonial vision in a depiction of romanticized landscape. The quetzal is a member of the pheasant family. It is green and red, with a long tail. It has a limited range in Central America, and is the national symbol of Guatemala and gives that country’s currency its name. It was held sacred by the Maya. My quetzal has gone mutant with rage at the pressures it has endured as the object of colonial fantasy and exploitation. The burlap around the frame refers to the cooptation of the land by European and American powers for the cultivation of exports to satisfy American and European markets—the Banana Republic. The Bird of Paradise painting has a similar rationale, except that I am using that creature as a metaphor for a similarly exploitative colonial relationship with that part of the world. There are over 40 species of Bird of Paradise, all of which were driven to near-extinction by the trapping of them for hat decorations. Their feathers, and sometimes whole, taxidermied carcasses could be seen on late 19th century clothing. We currently look to Indonesia, among other places for cheap labor to manufacture our goods—I have a Mets cap made there, quite likely in sweatshop conditions. Certainly, the mid-90’s brought many revelations about the terrible working conditions for people who made goods for such popular manufacturers as Nike and Gap. There are several versions of both these paintings.
The Effects of Substances in the Environment
Cherry Frost and Olive Camouflage
This pair of paintings is a diptych representing a pair of strange crane or egret type birds, painted in a style that mimics and combines traditions in Dutch 17th century aviary paintings as well as Audubon and other American and English naturalist illustrations. The Dutch aviary paintings usually portrayed exotic or spectacular species, and were emblematic of the Dutch Golden Age interest in exotic flora and fauna. Audubon and other naturalist painters reflected an intense interest in and love for nature and natural history, and dovetailed with transcendentalist and romanticized views of nature.
The pair may or may not be a breeding pair, nevertheless they represent the male and female of their imagined species, and are mated as images since the canvases, frames, frame corners, bird figures and landscapes are all similar. As in naturalist illustrations, color and markings identify each bird’s gender, but instead of those characteristics reflecting nature’s evolutionary imperative for avian display or camouflage, these creatures are marked according to conventions developed among humans, specifically in contemporary Western culture. Their gender identities are described by the fluffy pink of the showgirl’s costume, or by the green and gold of the soldier’s uniform. The frames provide further clues: Cherry Frost is the name of the nail enamel that decorates the frame of the pink bird, and Olive Camouflage the name of the patterned fabric surrounding her mate. The white fruit hanging from the tree behind Cherry Frost represents an assumed fecundity; the fruits are strangely albino and also resemble bird eggs. The golden oak leaves in the tree behind Olive Camo echo the insignia on an officer’s uniform.
The title, The Effects of Substances in the Environment refers to the idea that the markers of gender identity are so pervasive as to be analogous to substances in the environment. They are facts of life on this earth, in this culture, that are so powerful they permeate each individual sense of self. Our bodies carry not just the natural realities of male and female but the cultural markers that describe masculine and feminine. I could think of no cultural icons that described masculinity and femininity better than the soldier and the showgirl, respectively, and I could think of no traditions in painting that better described an interest in markers of gender than traditions in bird painting.
The Law of Unintended Consequences
The format, landscape space, and composition of this painting refer to conventions of portraiture in the landscape, from Velazquez through Joshua Reynolds and George Stubbs. The landscape in this case is sickly yellowish and languishing. Brown-leafed vines bear glassy-red berries that resemble candies, or the fruits of poison ivy as well as the kind of plastic beads you’d find on dime-store jewelry. Monarch butterflies in the colors of industrial warning signage—fluorescent orange, pink, yellow and green—flutter about. The portrait subjects are a group of mutant roosters attended by a few other birds of indeterminate species, including stork-like and quail-like birds and a number of oversized eggs. The color of the birds is emblematic, referring to flags or other insignia. This painting’s title comes from the first report I heard about the unintended consequences of genetic engineering of crops here in the heartland. BT corn is a variety of corn with a gene from the bacterium bacillus thuringiensis, which has been used as a pesticide against plant-eating caterpillars, including Gypsy moths. There is a lot to recommend it, as it is a safer, non-polluting alternative to certain chemical pesticides, and was used in the engineered corn to kill corn borers. This sounds wonderful, but it was discovered that the corn was also killing Monarch butterflies, with unknown consequences for the ecosystems of which they were a part. The GMO issue is fraught with questions about unintended consequences. The roosters are both a reference to the agricultural landscape I see outside my studio, (which has been layered over with grid after grid of agro-industrial activity for hundreds of years, starting with the activities of the native populations to the surveying activities that laid out the county roads; the monocultures that followed the plowed-under prairies, the layers of pesticide and fertilizer technologies, and now GMO crops. I heard recently that most of the corn grown here goes to make ingredients, chiefly corn syrup, for processed foods like soda and fast food. So much for “country goodness”.) and to the association of the rooster with “cockiness”, arrogance coupled with foolishness.
The Last Monarch
This piece takes the narrative of “Unintended Consequences” and elaborates to describe a fictional allegory of extinction, coupled with a comment on the depiction of nature as a theatrical, Darwinian tableaux. Such narratives, popular in paintings and desktop bronzes of the second industrial revolution, reified the “survival of the fittest”. Science tells us this is the way of nature. In a perversion of Enlightenment ideals, the theatre of the evolutionary struggle as represented in the art of the time suggested the “naturalness” of the exploitation of the weak by the strong. Science modified into pictures made images in service of politics, as it always does.
This piece reiterates the composition of The Last Monarch, but replaces the mutant crane-like bird species with mutant duck-like birds. It is intended to remind the viewer of the kind of hunting prints and nature paintings that serve to remind the gentry of creatures they might like to kill, or fantasize that they have a right to kill, like the lords of English manors. Of course, the gentry in this country don’t hunt—that’s mostly a working-class pastime—but English hunt scene prints still dominate the Ralph Lauren aesthetic, and speckle the pages of Architectural Digest and other fine shelter magazines, granting a certain worldview. The duck- and partridge-like things in the painting are showing, in their glares back at the viewer and their mutant plumage, the effects of their subjecthood (in both senses) in a post-industrial, post-suburban landscape. The painting has a cozy, masculine, red, plaid fabric on the frame, which, I was astounded to notice, almost matches the cozy, masculine, green, plaid fabric on the walls of the “Gentlemen’s Lounge”—a banquet hall with a large oak bar—in the Champaign Country Club in Champaign, Illinois. What was I doing there? Spying.
I Imagine Myself a Hero
This painting was in response to the fountain of images of soldiers, firefighters, and policemen produced in popular culture in the era of Baby Bush militarism and its attendant mythologization of narcissistic masculinity. The cultural cache of symbolic masculinity—even hypermasculinity—seems to be at a pathological premium in this post-feminist era. Feminist analysis—hell, even Freud way back when noted that a threat to the altar or the flag would be met as a threat to the phallus. George Bush himself seeks to manipulate by dressing in flight suits and landing on aircraft carriers, clearing brush, driving a pickup, wearing cowboy boots and giant belt buckles, among other things no one at Andover or Yale does except for fun. All these signs of heroic masculinity come unmoored from their origins in the lives of real people who do heroic things, and float about, asking us to believe. In New York after that horrible day, banners proclaiming the first responders as heroes flew above the streets downtown even as the unions representing police and firefighters had to fight for fair treatment and adequate benefits, for radios that wouldn’t fail, for acknowledgement of the health effects of the air at Ground Zero, where they did heroic things and got only fantasy in return. Soldiers in recruitment ads look like the armored, impermeable cyborgs of film and video games. I have a student, an Iraq combat veteran, who resents this for obvious reasons. My painting refers to a long history of battle scenes of the kind that showed battle as a rather glamorous form of theatre, and not the ones where the soldiers are stuck in the mud and doing their best to protect one another. Why are the combatants rabbits? As with all my “bunny” paintings, there is a disconnect between the animal as allegory and the animal itself, as it is with all mythologized bodies. A mythologized figure has no agency. It asks us to believe, to emulate, and to forsake our own humanity for the sake of heroic identity. This is not fair.
Nymphs at an Oasis
This painting, like the earlier O!Nymphs (which is in the collection of the Addison Gallery of American Art in Andover, Massachusetts) is based loosely on several sources, including paintings of bathers by Poussin and by Eakins. These paintings celebrated the pleasure of looking at sexualized collectibles—smorgasbords of available flesh, set in and equated with nature, oblivious in their objecthood and reveling in their state. These paintings were early consumerist displays—Pornotopia!—healthy in their sex-positive attitudes but a tad problematic in the negation of the agency of the objectified bodies—a pictorial trope all too common in Western painting and all too suggestive of narcissism and power. My Nymphs at an Oasis was contextualized within a solo exhibition at Koplin Del Rio in Los Angeles in 2002. The show was titled “Bazaar”, intended to invoke the history of Orientalism at the dawn of Bush’s racist, oligarchic, commodity-grubbing war. Images including Ingres painting of belly dancers and popular photos of colonial harems also informed the narrative content of this painting, but my bunnies, as always, never, never let you forget you are looking: they look back. They snarl. They lick their lips. They are not what you thought.