I have long been enamored by Rene Magritte’s painting “La Trahison des Images” (the treason of images) in which the artist painted a picture of a pipe and labeled it “Cici n’est pas une pipe,” or, this is not a pipe. Magritte was saying that images are inherently different from reality. A painting of a pipe – though we might call it a pipe – cannot be smoked; it’s intrinsically different from the real thing. The idea that we are routinely misled by images holds great interest for me.
I always considered the National Geographic Society and its namesake magazine to be a reliable source of objective information, but when I came across a stash of National Geographic magazines from the 1920s through the late 1940s, this belief was challenged. Take for instance the image of a young black boy holding a quarter-watermelon, his smiling face peering out from one of a stack of large pipes on a construction site. Today such a picture would be viewed as a racist stereotype, but in its day this apparently staged photo was evidently perceived as cute, innocent, and believable, without negative connotations.
Archeologists evoke images of past by examining the remains of ancient civilizations, but don’t they inevitably filter their views through the perceptions of their own culture and time? In the 1980s artists were routinely “appropriating” images from earlier sources. This is a kind of archeology in which artists mine the past for material, filtering it through their own perceptions.
I painted this series on unstretched canvas laid out on the floor. There was a practical and conceptual reason for this. Practically, the work was easy to transport, and in fact I succeeded in getting a solo exhibition of the work in the alternative gallery White Columns by carrying the work on a flight to NYC in a gym bag. But aside from practical considerations, I liked the idea that in the process of making these works, I was in direct contact with the canvas, walking on it, letting the paint stain it like dye, even as my socks and feet took on various new colors. I viewed the canvases as if they were animal hides, or archeological fragments of a larger puzzle.
I made use of images from a variety of sources, including those in National Geographic. Images were layered like artifacts in different strata of an archeological dig. Pieced together like archeological fragments as I attempted to sort our own culture today. Much of the imagery referenced archeology and other sciences, often playing on established stereotypes. I was knowingly creating tomorrow’s artifacts that would serve as reflections of today’s society.