Fellowships 2023

Twenty years ago, as I was installing my first sabbatical exhibition in the Rosenthal Gallery, the 9/11 attacks stunned us all. A week after the atrocity, my show opened. It consisted of a series of tongue-in-cheek variations on The Great Seal of Idaho. Although I was happy with the work, it already seemed, in the light of events, to belong to the past. For the next two or three years, I continued to pursue the theme of the Seal, but in the face of the inexorable escalation of hostilities, my heart was no longer in it, and I moved on to more pointedly satirical imagery.

In the year leading up to the twentieth anniversary of 9/11, I found myself thinking a lot about the work on my 2001 exhibition, and I began to feel that there might be a way for me to revisit the theme. Seals, crests, badges, insignia, and flags are all designed under the assumption that it is possible to emblematize a complex and diverse society, using imagery that can be agreed upon to represent fundamental truths about it. Thus, the Great Seal of Idaho has the sturdy miner who represents hard work, individual initiative, and the wealth of the land, while the woman in the white dress holds, rather confusingly, both a lance topped by a liberty cap and a set of scales. Does she represent freedom and justice? Or freedom from justice? Even at its inception, the meaning of the Seal seems to have been unstable, and of course no emblem made in 1891 can hope to represent accurately what Idaho has become, although freedom from justice does resonate.

I knew I could not resume my earlier theme by starting where I had ended, so I thought I would keep the basic layout featuring a circular frame and dominant figures, but I would work far more abstractly, reducing the largest figures to flat, hard-edged ciphers, a far cry from the fleshy female nudes and burly men of the 2001 works. I also changed my substrate from Masonite to Tyvek, a synthetic paper. Although Tyvek is quite durable, it looks as ephemeral as butcher paper, and I like that. I enjoy its texture and the way it resembles aged skin when you use certain media on it. Sometimes the textures are also evocative of dry vegetation in a landscape, as in Nothing to See Here—Dark II. Seals, especially those representing western states, often have backgrounds showing idealized landscapes, and my works are an ironic riposte to such sunny visions.

The schematized figures inhabit an ambiguous space and their relationship to one another often seems adversarial. Smaller more naturalistic figures go about sundry activities in the interstices formed by the dominant shapes, and in most of the works in this series there are the striped barriers that prompted the series title, Nothing to See Here. In terms of a conventional emblem, my pieces fail. They lack consensus and their components work at cross purposes, and yet to me they seem to encapsulate a certain truth about our entropic times.

Smaller mixed-media pieces, like Triptych (Amazonomache), are an offshoot of the Tyvek works. When I apply acrylic paint to the Tyvek works, I blot it with pieces of drawing paper to enrich the textures. The random stains on the blotting sheets are often interesting and so I work into them, using charcoal, acrylic paint, oil stick, and collage. Some of the collaged elements are cut out from printed photos of earlier works, including those from the show I had twenty years ago. I like it when art generates art and gives a new life to older art.