My work explores the role that painting may still play in opening up a discursive space around narrative, history, material culture, globalization and environment, reproduction, art and commodity, and various historical forms of representation - “high art”, political, or vernacular. The paintings draw together diverse references, from illustrators like JJ Grandville (much admired by Walter Benjamin), historical illustration in the Walter Benjamin Children’s Book Collection and other archives, early advertisements based on fairy tale, archival and contemporary photographs - investigating and re-staging narratives of transformation, commodification, and desire.
Earlier, the work considered the illustrated book as a metaphor for early experience, both historical and developmental - appearing as ruin, stage, diptych, birds’ wings, stereoscope or as a kind of structure for wondering about the past, the present, and how we know. Early fairy tale illustrations were explored in terms of modernism and development, reproduction and consumption, and re-staged in global contexts where 18th century conditions of production are only now giving way to industrial farming’s “magic” GMO seeds.
16th century Puss in Boots was a clever cat who reversed the fortunes of a poor miller’s son through a kind of re-representation - the transformative quality of scarce goods reflecting historical contexts in which what one wore or was prohibited from wearing, by rite, custom, sumptuary law or scarcity, bound one to a hierarchical order. The power of objects as vehicles of transformation was gathered in large part from their scarcity - something we as socially mobile consumers of images and things can only dimly imagine. A fine pair of boots acts as hinge pivoting back and forwards - from a past where real change in status was impossible, to a present where it is routinely achieved through commodities, and its magical “aura” diminished.
Medieval cat became 19th century salesman, and transformation through singular objects a vehicle for selling cheaper ones and the smaller changes in status that accompanied them. Puss flogged shoe polish, matches, rubber boots, household cleaners and dozens of other products. But is this tale of consumption/transformation sustainable?
The transformations inherent fairy tale persists in the far away land of contemporary art. Now detached from traditional narratives, it is defined by its own evolving condition, manifest in a ’meta’ narrative or incantation, that also finds form in illustrated books. (How these narratives increase the value of artworks may be one of the last echoes of fairy tale figures like clever cats). From urinal to merde d’artista, the transformation of straw into gold, of the reviled into something of great value, is accomplished most dramatically in the world of contemporary art. This occurs in part, through what is for many people both its invisible “story”, and a kind of manufactured scarcity which echoes the real scarcity of both pre-modern Europe and contemporary developing countries.
Benjamin felt Grandville’s illustrations should be “compared with the phenomenology of Hegel”. “Across the notes, fragments, essays, and outlines of the Arcades Project” says Robert Simon, “Grandville plays a signal role... degeneration implicit in the transformation of the artisanal object into the mass-produced article is constantly manifest to modern man in the loss of his own self-possession with respect to things.”
Grandville describes a transitional moment between fairy tale and modernity. Instead of creatures in traditional “animal helper” roles (negotiating magical transformations from peasant to prince), they are decked out in the full array of more mobile social classes (capitalist turkeys, worker starlings, owl merchants, flaneur finches) simultaneously evoking the fairy tale quality of a recently forgotten past, when the full range of class “representations” were still visible before industrial workers had moved off shore.
Recent paintings re-imagine and reconstruct human/animal figures and their interactions (some borrowed from illustration, others constructed composites) in ambiguous industrial paint spaces surrounded by dissolving decorative borders to reimagine a contemporary moment (in North America at least), where the 19th century seem increasingly reflected - an age of Occupy protests, financial collapse, globalization, environmental threat. Anthropomorphized animals, used in Grandville’s day to avoid censorship, take on added significance when their own existence may be compromised through the industrialists’ poses they assume (and when states like North Carolina move to ban scientific mention of climate change).
The work continues an ongoing reflection on the now through an eclectic historical lens, constructing loose, staged narratives that evoke aspects of early illustration, genre painting, mechanical or hand copied reproduction, decorative book elements, early fairy tale advertisements, and archival and contemporary photos - to question, lament, and wonder about past and future.