"I am an editor of my own past. I collect versions of my pre-history, arrange them, rearrange them, and then tell them to you" (Janette Turner-Hospital, cited in Lifton, 1993, p.74).
The discussions presented thus far revolve around the key issues of identity, memory, family and culture. The relevance of these issues to the development of artwork with an autobiographical narrative is significant, in that the content of my artwork is based purely on a set of family photographs, and the physical experience of remembering. Also, I am an immigrant and in a dislocated context, displaced from my country of origin by thousands of kilometres and many years. I have come to new understandings of the intersections I have created, in my experience as a hybrid of two separate cultures and many subcultures.
Compounding this hybrid condition is the changing psychological landscape of our era. Over the years of my lifetime the world has shifted from a modern paradigm to a post-modern fluidity. This has created a shifting sense of self that "differs radically from that of the past, and enables us to engage in continuous exploration and personal experiment" (Lifton, 1993, p.1). There is a growing tendency to anchor in memory, and hang onto the cultural moorings of identity that usually spring from childhood experiences. I have asserted that I do this as a reaction to the multiplicity of my contemporary experience, to take refuge in the "home" of my consciousness. In Lifton's book The Protean Self: Human Resilience in an Age of Fragmentation, he states with regards to Americans that:
The protean self did not suddenly appear in full bloom. It emerged from a certain social and historical context. What we call the self - one's inclusive sense (or symbolisation) of one's own being - is enormously sensitive to the flow of history... Our history has included colonization and revolution, movement toward the western frontier, the carnage of our civil war, massive immigration, participation in at least five major wars outside of our territory during this [20th] century, and continuous technological development and social change - all of which have had a formidable influence of the contemporary self (1993, p.3).
In an artist's world, the symbolisation of the self is an integral part of the art making process, as the art work is an extension of the identity of the artist, whether or not the work is autobiographical in nature. The perceptions of the artist are unique and a product of her or his accumulated experiences that spring from local or global culture. As well, it is impossible to separate culture from symbolisation which develops from "historically transmitted patterns of meaning" (Lifton, 1993, p.13). Our evolution as a species has depended on our creative ability to make use of our cultural resources and adapt to new situations. Our ability to symbolise helps us to interface with our society, to function, grow and maintain relationships in the face of change in the world in which we live. For example, rituals such as weddings symbolise both a conclusion and beginning in phases of relationships within a complex social situation. I believe that artists extend from this position by objectifying internal thoughts and feelings into works of art. Entering our studios and engaging in a regular art making process is a ritualistic process, and neatly parallels this concept.
"Proteanism" is a term that Robert Lifton has developed to express the evolution of a malleable self, both individual and collective, that has responded to a post-modern need to continuously re-create itself, using imagination. It derives from the Greek God Proteus, who demonstrated an ability to change in response to certain pressures.
He also asserts that proteanism is most evident in America, due mainly to the unique political forces and the freedoms that have evolved there, and that it has accelerated in the last half of the twentieth century, "so much so that the protean self has become a modus vivendi, a "mode of living in our time" (Lifton, 1993, p.3). Over the course of my lifetime, the American sense of identity has shifted from conformity and a uniform perception of traditional culture, to one of an unremitting renewal of national identity. The symbols that used to stand for a common sense of culture and identity are now clichés that are used for marketing a nostalgic past. New symbols are created by accelerated intersections between cultures in an ever-shrinking global environment.
Contemporary experience today seems to be dependent on an ability to change and surf the shifting tides of social and economic forces, not to mention technological innovation and inventions, and sustain our selves and families despite the unpredictable nature of the world. This unpredictable quality is a global phenomenon, and my participation in the MFA program has exposed me to many artists working today that are responding to this psychological environment. People today seem more aware of the possibility of change, more malleable and easily embrace things without a sense of permanence as it suits.
This is reflected in the increasing use of technology in artwork, which in turn mirrors current experience. I have also been keen to involve technological processes in my work, by using multi-layered digital film making as a drawing medium in my art practice. The density and complexity in the layers, and the movement and sliding frames parallel my experiences of Post-Modern change and malleability. I have also used photo-mechanical screen printing processes to carry the position of photographic document from the family album. This process allows me to fluently articulate the repetitive nature of autobiographical recall, expecially via the album, which is often sampled out of linear sequence of the actual events depicted.
Historically, there are numerous examples of artists eager to pioneer new technology as an art making material. For example, it is well known that the Impressionist plein aire paintings were the result of the development and availability of paint in tubes, which gave artists portable materials so that they could paint while experiencing the lighting conditions outside their studios. Prior to this, pigment powders were mixed into paint as needed and stored in pig's bladders. These were incised with small holes and the paint was squeezed out as needed, then the holes would self-heal, keeping the paint from hardening (Personal Communication, Michael Shepherd, January 24, 1998). Imagine the freedom an artist would have experienced not having to transport twenty pig's bladders in order to paint outdoors. This simple invention gave rise to the beginning of a new way of painting, and opened doors to new ways of seeing and recording light.
In the 1950s artists began using industrial materials and processes in the production of their works. Again, there are numerous examples of this: Jackson Pollock's monumental drip and splatter paintings that were the result of his use of acrylic house paints, that were previously not available; Roy Lichtenstein used Benday Dot stencils for his paintings, mimicking mass produced comic books; and Andy Warhol used commercial screen printing techniques.
My art is still primarily concerned with the presentation of images, on flat or three dimensional surfaces, which are read by the viewer. These images are not only inspired by, but contain, the photographic references within them through photomechanical screen printing processes and techniques. By imbedding these images within the paintings I have symbolised the nature of my memories within my life's experience. The photographs are mainly of family and slices of time from my past, sometimes significant moments such as birthdays, or just snapshots in day to day life, or vacations. The artworks are necessarily restricted by the photographs I have available to me, which is a very small quantity selected from slides my father took over twenty two years. The focus of my work is history as poetry, written and re-written, and using the photograph as a fixed hold within the malleable world of "history". The photograph has been challenged as a document of a shared reality and revealed as a simulacrum of a shared moment, where everyone's experiences are seen quite differently. As well, this private world is constantly re-building itself based on the needs of the rememberer today.
It is important to mention here that my childhood was very much fixed within a Pop-Art context. At the time when the media was projecting the new hip culture, my favourite shop at the corner store was a "head shop" that sold drug paraphernalia, posters, clothing and jewelry. I had no idea what the pipes and drug equipment were for, being in the sixth grade, but I vividly recall the art and the colours of the shop. There were the famous Robert Indiana posters, LOVE (Fig. 18); it was reproduced on a postage stamp, edition of 330 million, shag rugs, Christmas cards and other consumer items such as a poster that I bought for my bedroom in 1968, while my father was in Vietnam, and numerous Warhol posters of the famous Campbell soup cans (Fig. 19). The clothes I wore had psychedelic paisley prints with enormous collars, and I revelled in the bright and fluorescent colours. My bedroom was wallpapered with pop art posters and I had a "smiley face" desk organiser kit on my bright orange furniture.
As a young child I was not conscious of the theoretical backbone of the Pop Art movement. I was caught up in the experience of the culture that was youthful, energized and vibrant, and an enthusiastic consumer of it. The intentions of the artists were to reflect the new mass produced consumable marketplace, and the throw-away mentality of a new generation. Andy Warhol succeeded in commenting on the commodification of everything American, from national icons such as portraits of Marilyn Monroe, to everyday items such as the Campbell's soup cans. It was at once reverent and sardonic, obsequious and derisive. The mocking parody escaped most Americans, who saw the images and products as a celebration of a new way of thinking, feeling and experiencing life. They were caught up in a world of dichotomy and conflicting principles, for instance the "summer of love" hippie revolution on the one hand and the communist-fearing cold war and Vietnam on the other. Roy Lichtenstein captured this theme in his Benday dot painting series Blam! (Figure 20). These large paintings depicted comic book-style images of pilots firing bombs, complete with text bubbles.
The content of the work focused on the contradictory and incongruous attitudes of the American public during the Vietnam War (1965 - 1973). He was not necessarily taking a political position, but attempting to reflect society and its prevalent attitudes back at itself. The Blam! series is intriguing to me on a personal note, as my father fought in the Vietnam War in 1969 and 1970, which brought the cultural conflicts directly into the experience of my family.
Lichtenstein's technique with the Benday dots was created by the use of large sheets of aluminum that were drilled with small evenly spaced holes that he used as a stencil to create dots of colour on his canvases. He would build up layers of these coloured dots to create his images, and in doing so mimicked the technical processes used to make comic books. This process had the effect of washing out the horror of the war to an entertaining and colourful illustration. The technique suited him and his intentions, as the mass produced nature of a comic book was devoid of the marks of a personal authorship.
The greeting card featured in Figure 21, sent to me by my father from his tour of duty, exemplifies this dichotomous experience illustrated so well in Lichtenstein's painting. I have used this image in one of my paintings (Fig. 22) because it is a perfect example of cartooning the horrific. For me there was an unreal sense of my father having "fun in a war zone", as in Lichtenstien's work; it just didn't add up! My father would send my family long reel-to-reel tape recordings of hours of the sounds of distant bombing, interspersed with his monologue about his day. He wanted us to feel the reality of his experience, and yet he still wanted to portray a sense of control and order in his bizarre situation. Meanwhile, back in Sunnyvale, California, we waited for his return, amongst the supermarkets and the sitcoms, the war protests and a still tangible sense of nationalism.
The ambivalence of the public attitude towards the war had a direct effect on my father's mental health upon his return, where he was not celebrated as a hero as he was after World War II. He also privately harboured doubts about the purpose of the war and had his own internal conflicts concerning the objectives of the American government (Personal Communication, Sandra Carlan, April 19, 2004). He saw many Vietnamese killed, including women and children, and I recall him being very depressed and emotional in the years following his return. This historical dislocation had a profound effect on his world view and his ability to anchor himself in a previous symbol system and he experienced a "sense of loss of a fit between what individuals feel themselves to be and what a society or culture, formally or informally, expects them to be" (Lifton, 1993, p.14). Lifton continues, saying that this type of loss or "sense of place relocation, of home - psychological, ethical, and sometimes geographical as well - can initiate searches for new "places" in which to exist and function. The protean pattern becomes a quest for "relocation", and an effort to overcome spiritual homelessness" (ibid., p. 15). This indeed was the case for my family, and my father retired from the military a year later, after twenty eight years of service. This resulted in a radical change of lifestyle: a move to the suburbs of Silicon Valley, California, and stability rather than mobility.
Lichtenstein's work was responding to a tide of public sentiment that was sweeping the nation, and was sensitive to the widening gap between different sectors of society and their world views. American politics and economic forces (consumerism) were gaining momentum, combined with inevitable consequences of numbing and desensitisation caused by the "galaxy of effects" of the media (Lifton, 1993). The focus of Lichtenstein's work was on the frightening realisation that the majority of the public were completely unaware of the effects of the "massage of the media", not to mention the "message of the media" (McLuhan, cited in Lifton, 1993, p.19). His use of parody, using a comic book format for depicting scenes from a highly controversial war, certainly emphasises this. Coming full circle as an adult rememberer of my childhood during this era, and making personal connections between art, history and my memory, has been a large part of understanding my own artistic directions and intentions. I have employed the language of these artists in the creation of my work by employing some of their techniques and devices. For example, the use of screen printing and an alternative take on the graphic media objects from my childhood (Fig. 22).
The grandfather of fine art screen printing was Andy Warhol. His images were a ubiquitous element of the pop art culture and he established printing processes as an acceptable technique, one that had previously been contested by mainstream museums and fine art galleries. He used photomechanical processes using images with which the American public were already familiar, but re-presented them in fluorescent and contrasting colours that forced the viewer to see them from a new perspective. Warhol used multiple run colour screens, registering and overlaying the bright colours to achieve a glowing effect. However, he did not intervene in the printing process beyond this.
My work is not concerned with the same conceptual issues as Warhol but, to a point, does utilise the some of same studio processes. Unlike Warhol, I interrupt the print process while the ink is still wet, and then paint in a series of layers over the printing. Then, using clear filling agents I build up the surface, over the paint, with gestural and realistically rendered images, and sand and grind back the surface using a power sander in order to re-screen images again, then paint again, and so on.
In places, I also leave holes and windows in the paint, which allow the viewer to catch glimpses of buried family moments (screen printing) within the painting. These holes and windows are created with stencils and shapes that I take from a variety of sources (for example maps), but mainly from the human figure (Figure 23). The gestures and poses of the figures - sometimes a model's, sometimes my own, done from videos frames (on the trampoline) or photographs (underwater) of myself - best communicate the experience of the living and constructed memory I am exploring. I am not concerned with the memory itself, but the interaction with it. I am interested in figures being in weightless or floating positions, and exploring the effect of these positions of the figures on the compositions and content of the paintings. Weightlessness is symbolic of the dreaming or meditative quality of the memory experience, and represents well the point in time when a conversion is made from the past memory to the present experience.
I have encountered many artists that work with the figure but there is one which I find a strong and compelling resonance with. Mary Frank (b. 1933) is an American artist still working and living in New York. Her work explores archetypal psychological landscapes, and involves the use of figures in a large percentage of her work. She began her very successful artistic career largely in the field of sculpture, using slab techniques and dealing with the human form. The sculptures were often disjointed and parts of the figure severed, which contributed to readings of the works as psychological. The figure was not presented realistically in many portions of the work, but was stylised into shapes that created intriguing negative spaces and contrasting areas of shadow. The faces were usually portrayed realistically with the eyes closed, suggesting a dreaming or altered state of consciousness. She began painting seriously using similar themes and subject matter. The figures often are portrayed with simple lines scratched into wet paint, or are cut out of the background with the use of stencils, although she does render the figure realistically as well. This varied approach to the representation of the figure is also a method I employ in the development of my artworks. Frank's figures often appear in small groups that highlight the relationships between them, which is emphasised by titles such as What Color Lament? (Fig. 24).
My works have been exploring familial relationships based on the autobiographical narrative. Many of the issues I have raised are universal, in that, regardless of the individual circumstances, the archetypal feelings of longing, loss or joy in these primary relationships find a resonant chord in most people's psyches. Previously in this dissertation I have dealt with these concepts in depth and, in this respect, I have found great inspiration in Mary Frank's work. One way in which our works differ is in her recurrent use of animals, either on their own or combined with figures (for example, an owl's head on a human figure). She explores the spirit of the animal in relation to the posture or gesture of the human, or body part, as in Kazakstan (Figure 25) - a jumping horse over a human hand. This work is a response to Mary's interaction with a woman from Kazakstan, who made a strong impression on her.
The treatment of the paint itself is also important to me as it contributes to the textural feel of the artwork and how the viewer interacts with it. The textures create a slow surface that forces the viewer's eye to get caught in the cracks and crevices, and mirrors the nature of the remembering experience for me. I acknowledge this experience is extremely individual and personal to myself, and that it may not find any resonance with viewers of my work. It is part of the intimate process that is my studio investigation. Mary Frank's work is layered, but she achieves the layers with splattering and direct application of the paint with brushes, rather than with the filling agents and screen printing processes that I use. I also find a great affinity in our use of colour and saturated pure pigments that make bold contrasting statements about the subject matter presented. Using a synesthetic approach, the content is underlined and reinforced by the tones, textures and colours used by the artists.
Mary Frank's exploration of an archetypal focus on relationship and collective memory does differ from my work, in that mine springs from personal family items and documents specific to my life and family, and the sub-cultures of which we were a part, in a specific time in American history. The setting of the narrative is important in my work as is the setting in any play. The focus of my work is history as poetry, life story as an ongoing ballad, written and re-written with the process of remembering, and using the photograph as an anchor in the flexible and fluid world of "history". The photograph has been contested as a document of a shared reality and revealed as a simulacrum of a shared moment, where everyone's experiences are radically different within their own private world of memory. As well, this private world is constantly shifting and re-building itself based on the psychological needs of the rememberer in the present. This is an important comment that I make within each painting.
Another relevant feature of Mary Frank's work is the three dimensional constructions into which she places her paintings. Most often these are monumental book formats (Fig. 26), where there are actually two images presented: one when the book is closed, the other a much larger version when it is opened. The colour themes are related to one another, but the compo-sitions and dominant colours are quite radically altered between each one. When the viewer opens the work there is an element of surprise and change, yet the paintings have a definite relationship to, and dialogue with, one another. I, too, am not content with creating flat rectangles for my images and have experimented widely with various three-dimensional supports for my works (Fig. 27). The purpose behind this has been to reiterate and echo the nature of memory as a form of travelling, requiring not only the artist to physically move to experience it, but the viewer of the artwork as well. In Mary Frank's works, the viewer necessarily has to open the work to reveal another layer within, and then also to read the work. This reading is embedded in our accepted Western semiotic system of a book format which adds another frame to the content of the works. I am attempting to involve the viewer in a similar fashion, and in the movement and postures they have to assume if they wish to experience my work.
An artist working in New Zealand who deals with a very personal journey of recollection is John Pule, a Niuean born man (b. 1962). I heard him speak about his latest series of work at an Art Educator's conference in Hamilton, New Zealand, in April 20031. His slide presentation detailed his journey back through his childhood, achieved by going back to his birthplace of Niue and visiting his extremely skeptical relations. However, his uncle was obliging enough to show him the foundation of the house where he was born, in an overgrown plot of land. He spent some weeks there, making drawings and photographs, and living with his relations. He continued his personal investigations when he returned to New Zealand, where he was able to access the state house in Onehunga where he and his family once lived. The house was unoccupied at the time, and he made extremely detailed photographs of the house and details within it, such as the loose floorboard under which he used to hide things in his wardrobe. His talk was full of anecdotal stories about his family; this not only entertained us, but gave us a deep insight into the mechanics of his identity as a hybrid New Zealander. The searching nature of his investigation into the location of his home and the dynamics of his familial relationships made a deep impression on me, as I have felt the same pressing needs within my own work.
However, the distinct images he has created do not resemble mine, nor does the subject matter that carries his investigation. His work includes many images of people carrying chairs, which, he stated in his presentation, symbolise the peculiar nature of the rememberer as spectator of their own memory. I found this a particularly intriguing and successful metaphor for the process of recollection. As well, these works depict the subjects journeying up many layers of horizons or worlds with ladders or stairs leading up or down, often with people carrying suitcases. To him this represents the journeying in search of identity, and the luggage in which we contain our memories. This luggage necessarily compartmentalises our memories into different categories of experiences, where we store them for retrieval when we need them. He states, "I have been dealing with the idea of migration for a very long time and it is still fascinating to me because eventually you have to find out where you are from and where you are going" (Were, 2004, p. 49). He continues to explain his imagery: "They [the climbing figures] are all trying to go from one level to another and hopefully at the top there is some kind of sanctuary. None of them climbs down" (ibid, p. 49). He claims that his paintings "talk about the loss and dislocation that every migrant experiences" (ibid, p.49).
John Pule is responding to the inner pull to discovery within himself, to anchor his identity within his origins and adopted country. His journey took him to physical locations where he has experienced and documented the sense of place inherent in the memories. I have been unable to accomplish this because of the extreme distances involved, as well as the sheer number of addresses we lived at around the continental United States. I did visit an old childhood address once when I was a young adult, still living in the U.S. I accidentally came across it while looking for a shopping centre in Sunnyvale, California (we lived on the same street in three different houses during the 1960s.). However, I was very disappointed to discover that the houses had been replaced with newer ones or shops, and my local school had been removed and replaced with houses. I did find the faded school crossing markings on the road where it had been, and could find the remnants of a path along which we used to bike to and from school. In any case, I have had to rely on the photographs rather than actual visits to childhood locations. I feared that even if I did travel to many of the places I have lived, the locations would be unrecognisable. So, although John Pule and I have explored similar psychological territory, our methods of accessing it have differed.
"The lure of the local is not always about home as an expressive place, as place of origin and return. Sometimes it is about the illusion of home, as a memory."
Lucy Lippard's book The Lure of The Local (1997), cited above, deals with the issue of "senses of place in a multicentred society". While reading this book I found that I could not identify with her experiences of a regular childhood vacation home that had been in her family for generations, because my father chose to migrate to the west coast away from our ancestral homelands of New England. I have memories of early childhood visits to an ice cream parlour in a big red barn in the countryside in Massachusetts, that we always went to in my Uncle's convertible, where we bought enormous banana splits that we could never finish, and others memories like this. They are more fragments of a sense of place that will always be fleeting and impermanent, though I do cling to these as they are as close as I can get to a traditional location in our family history. Lucy Lippard calls Kennebec, Maine "the bedrock place in her life", and her "soul's home", and "an anchor for her driftings" (ibid., p.4). I can see that John Pule's experience as an artist supports her theories about identity and this particular kind of a sense of place.
My notions of home and place have evolved over my years as an adult, because of my transient lifestyle, and are embedded within this transience. I am only now, after 13 years of living in the Central North Island of New Zealand, beginning to develop this feeling of deep familiarity with a place in a significant and meaningful way, even though we have had many different addresses during this time.
I have found Lucy Lippard's book critical to my research on identity and notions of home and family, particularly her concept of multicentredness and her perspective on hybridity. As an adult she was more of a drifter and states that "as a nomad with a serially monogamous passion for place, I often wonder if this inconsistency constitutes hopeless fragmentation or hopeful integration" (Lippard, 1997, p.6). This comment parallels my own experience as a nomadic military child, but also in my love of landscape and external surroundings. No matter where I am, I see the beauty in the micro and macrocosm of my new place. Lippard continues to comment on the place and local as:
...entwined with personal memory, known or unknown histories, marks made in the land that provoke and evoke. Place is latitudinal and longitudinal within the map of a person's life. It is temporal and spatial, personal and political. A layered location replete with human histories and memories, place has width as well as depth. It is about connections, what surrounds it, what formed it, what happened there, what will happen there (Lippard, 1997, p.7).
I believe that this sense of place is not dependent on how long one has lived there, but on one's ability to open oneself to a connection with a sense of meaning about the place one finds oneself in. I believe that my ability to find intimacy with my surroundings has been facilitated by the mobility of my family life, because my visions were dynamic; altered and refreshed regularly. I also believe that this ability is facilitated by artistic imagination and sensitivities. In this way the landscape becomes a kind of "activity"- "a way of seeing the world and imagining our relationship to nature" (Wilson, cited in Lippard, 1997, p.8), with the added overlay of bearing "the records of hybrid culture, hybrid histories that must be woven into a new mainstream", and become our "backgrounds" (Lippard, 1997, p.8). Exploring this aspect of place and location has added to my investigation of my family history with a (pre-Vietnam) mobile home or "moburbia" (ibid., p.27). Lippard has invented this very apt term to describe the condition of my highly mobile upbringing, which was, as I have already stated, very common in the 1960's in America.
Lucy Lippard comments from the artist's perspective: they are people who "read, think, and see from angles not often found by scholars" (1997, p.6). Indeed artists enjoy a privileged position in society as both spectator and participant. Artists can indulge in identity politics, examining their origins and contemporary contexts thereby commenting on the intersection of our perceptions and the perceptions of those around us. Some of these relationships involve an examination of the "politics of nature", because "if space is where culture is lived, then place is the result of their union" (ibid., p.10). This is relevant to my studio processes in that the roaming home I experienced as a child led more to a questioning of "what is home?", rather than "where is home?". Home was a shared, dynamic group (family) experience of new and shifting environments and the memories of those experiences. Home was not defined as a metal box with three axles and two propane tanks strapped to the front; it was the relationships that occurred within it, as it moved through the landscapes of the American continent. In my artworks, I depict the mobile home and automobiles we used to interface with our environments, as well as the people who created the memories.
I have determined that my work has been facilitated by investigating the historical contexts of art practice during my childhood years. The art made by Lichtenstein and Warhol made an impression on me through popular culture, and this has, in retrospect has deepened through my research. I have also gleaned insight through the writings of Lucy Lippard and Robert Lifton, that have added to my understanding of the psychological implications of my historical milieu. It has also been beneficial to refer to a hybid New Zealander, John Pule, dislocated from his homeland, and interpreting his experiences through his artworks. This analysis has provided me with a grounded contextualization of my theory and studio practice.
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