While writing an article for an upcoming issue of the magazine Free Inquiry, I ran across some statements I wrote years ago for an exhibition at the Center for Inquiry. I’m posting them here because they still hold true for a great deal of my art, including the work I’m currently doing. They also might help explain why I get myself into so many lively Facebook debates:
Can you separate the art from the artist? Friend and former Hallwalls curator Kathy Howe posed this question as we talked one summer afternoon more than twenty years ago (now more than 30). Does an artist’s work always reflect his or her personal interests and personality? I said I thought mine might. Kathy looked at me incredulously and responded, “Yours absolutely does.” I had never considered this before, but I’ve never forgotten it since.
I was probably born a skeptic; genetically wired to question. As a child I distrusted things other kids routinely accepted. Shaving makes whiskers grow faster? I doubted it. I disagreed with my Catholic classmates who thought looking at a picture of nude women was a sin. If so, I was doomed. I scoffed when a neighborhood kid told me a friend of hers knew a nurse that went mad and ate a human arm that someone suspended above her door to scare her. My innate bullshit detector recognized urban folklore even before it had a name. I distrusted Von Daniken’s ancient astronauts; stage hypnosis was laughable, and I just figured kids were pushing the Ouija board. God presented another problem. I remember questioning Father Knauber during religious instruction about inconsistencies in church dogma. When he visited our classroom on a mission to recruit choir boys, mine was the only hand that didn’t go up.
I’ve always had an interest in science—a quality instilled in me by my father—and thanks to my high school biology teacher Mr. Izard, I gained an appreciation for the scientific method. Despite this, I sometimes lacked the tools and information to critically examine extraordinary claims. Uri Geller had me briefly believing in psychic powers in the early seventies when astronaut Edgar Mitchell endorsed his claims. Growing up at the dawn of the space age, astronauts were, to me, indisputable champions of science. But working as a professional magician instilled in me a keen awareness of the susceptibility of humans to trickery and self-deception. Eventually I discovered the various publications of the Center for Inquiry, which provided rational answers to my lingering paranormal ponderings. By my late twenties secular humanism was the tag I used to describe my world view.
Layers of Separation
A thread running through much of my work is the notion that we are often removed from our experiences by at least one layer of separation. For instance, I have often listed among my favorite artworks paintings that I have never seen. What I have seen are pictures—actually printed copies of first generation photographs. Two-hundred years ago, the only option for seeing the art of the world would have been to travel great distances. Today, third and fourth generation images are a click away via the internet, and we accept this altered reality as tantamount to an original experience.
My interest in these layers of separation manifests itself in various ways in my work. Archeological references reflect the process of digging through strata, sorting reality form perception. My series entitled “Paintings of Pictures of People with Paintings” addresses this separation directly using snap shot aesthetics as a source for paintings that emphasize the distortion that occurs between source and encounter. Rene Magritte’s famous painting titled, “The Treason of Images” containing the French phrase “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” (this is not a pipe) makes numerous appearances throughout my work. The idea that an image of a thing is not really the thing resonates with my proclivity for skepticism.
The concept of the male gaze—where women are historically depicted in art from a male perspective—has been thoroughly documented in art and feminist writing. The tattoo series was in part an attempt to avoid the objectification of the female figure, focusing instead on the humanity of the subject. I collaborated with women who chose to forthrightly control their own appearance—the iconization of their bodies—thereby confronting traditional ideals of feminine beauty. Placing the figures in the context of portrait and historical painting throws into relief the arbitrary nature of beauty.
When I began the series it was rare to see woman with tattoos or multiple piercings. Most tattooing of this sort was covered by clothing in everyday situations. The act of self-alteration and selective disclosure are forms of empowerment and affirmations of personal control.
Quantum mechanics has shown that things can physically change depending on how they are viewed. Light is both wave and particle. Art is often just as perplexing. Cultural meanings shift with differing perspectives. Humans generate ambiguity through subjective perception of both imagery and language. The title, “Modern, French, Primitive” is comprised of three words having multiple meanings and connotations, as do the images and motifs in the painting. I leave it up to viewers to decide how the words apply to the images. The content changes as does ones perspective.