I am an avid news radio listener. Like many of my artist contemporaries, I labor in solitude, and the radio provides, along with information and entertainment, a connection to the outside world. Radio diminishes my isolation yet never demands my full attention, allowing me, the listener, to drift in and out as I work in my studio. When a piece is finished, I experience a type of sense memory, where passages from a painting evoke an echo or flashback of a broadcast.
Throughout my first decade of living and working as an artist in Brooklyn, New York, I kept a radio on in my studio. My political sound track included the Iran-Contra hearings and the denial of Robert Bork’s appointment as a justice to the United States Supreme Court. A few years later, I tuned in to the confirmation of Clarence Thomas to that same court, despite the testimony of Anita Hill, and to Senator Jesse Helms’s crusade against the National Endowment for the Arts, inflamed by followers of American Family Association leader Donald Wildmon. These events were concurrent with the social upheavals engendered by the widely viewed videotaped beating of Rodney King by Los Angeles Police Department officers and the real-time television broadcast of the O. J. Simpson trial. Topped by the seemingly endless investigation of the Clinton administration by independent counsel Kenneth Starr, the era became notable for sexual scandals on both sides of the aisle. These events, government shutdowns, and polarization of political parties were all presented on the round-the-clock news media cycle as infotainment and spectacle.
In the early 1990s, I entered graduate school to pursue a master’s degree in fine arts. As an incoming student, my subject matter reflected both personal and feminist imagery, along with broader social commentary. During graduate school, I became drawn to revisionist feminist art history and texts such as Old Mistresses (Parker and Pollock 2013), which led to a series of painting appropriations from the art-historical canon. Concurrently, my listening habits switched almost exclusively from music to call-in talk radio. Initially, I tuned in to some of the most pernicious talk speech in the country for the shock value. I found the sexism, bigotry, and anger so outrageous and the callers’ views so contrary to my own that I would rail aloud, alone in my studio.
Returning to New York in the mid-1990s, I began listening to the more moderate and sedate tones of public radio. I met other women artists who were also grappling with painting as a medium, the burden of its legacy, and its association with white male genius. Many of them had already abandoned painting for performance, video, sculpture, and craft media, but I still wanted to use painting as a means to address constructions of femininity without directly referencing the female body. I spent nearly a decade trying to find a vehicle for this expression, working through a range of subject matter that mined the repertoire of the well-bred nineteenth-century educated lady—flowers, patterning, and lace—and examined the phenomenon of the feminization of subjects, activities, and occupations.
In the early 2000s, the confluence of tumultuous world events and personal changes led me to the use of the decorative arts as a template for narrative discourse on political, social, and economic issues. Both within the art world and in society at large, there seemed to me to be a growing political schism that reflected cultural disparities, including class and taste. This was reflected in the broader sphere by the real-estate bubble and the rise of megamansions and embodied in the spectacle of cable shows and magazines featuring “house porn.” In the art world, it was expressed through the juxtapositions of high and low culture, the use of kitsch, and the wide employment of cynicism and satire, often mislabeled as “irony.”
My response to these phenomena was mostly negative and visceral. In my work, I was struggling to find a way to engage the problem, as I saw it, without didacticism. I realized that although I could not offer solutions, I could provide entry points to preexisting dialogues through visual means. As I continued to absorb information from the radio, I developed a working knowledge of specific scenarios, as well as the broader issues, and I began to use that information as a starting point for further in-depth research.
This new approach to my work closely coincided with the launch of Air America Radio in 2004, which brought the kind of overheated energy to left-wing talk radio that had been a staple of the right. With hosts such as Al Franken, Randi Rhodes, and Rachel Maddow, Air America’s shows, much like Comedy Central’s The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, used audio clips from other political radio and television talk to damn the speakers with their own words. Callers with opposing viewpoints were often met by combative hosts who belittled, talked over, and muted them—a bit of revenge for the left that sometimes felt as unpleasant to me as it had when I heard it coming from the other side. The radio network’s run was brief, only lasting six years before shutting down in 2010, but the stories they dug into were usually only minimally covered by mainstream media, and the humor, belligerence, and depth with which Air America investigated them had a significant impact on the content of my work.
As part of my developing strategy, I chose the decorative arts as vernacular and vehicle. And while modernism generally dismisses the decorative arts as too fussy and visually attractive to hold any real gravitas, it was in the realm of decorative archetypes that I found an abundance of imagery to deploy in my visual narratives. These elements derive from art-historical sources and refer to typically feminine and domestic spheres, easily recognizable to both art-savvy and non-art audiences alike. The dinnerware, filigrees, grotesques, and arabesques speak to a former era of grandeur and are instantly understood as shorthand for wealth. And as with many of the markers of luxury and wealth, they have filtered down to the masses as mass-produced objects, marketed to those for whom such wealth is merely an aspiration.
This method worked for me, and I have continued to develop it. For the past twelve years I’ve been utilizing two- and three-dimensional media to produce installations that incorporate faux paneling, molding, and furniture, while addressing subjects such as global warming, banking, foreign relations, and militarism, as well as consumerism, gentrification, displacement, and economic crises.
For my source material, I look to artists and artisans from the baroque and rococo periods, through the Victorian and Gilded Ages, locating correlations in the extremes of wealth and poverty, empire-building, and cultural appropriation between these periods and our present day. I deliberately employ humble materials such as paper, foam board, and papier-mâché. Borrowing from flow blue and Spode,1 for example, I have created faux dinner services to reflect on overdevelopment and gentrification in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn, where I live. I’ve used the hand-painted wallpaper patterns of Réveillon2 and related arabesque designs as templates to diagram those involved in the Valerie Plame spying case (Lyre, Lyre, 2008), the relationships of our Middle East foes and allies (The Enemy of My Enemy, 2008), and a host of sex scandals and the 2008 banking crises (The Low Road and Moral Hazard, 2009, respectively). I have used the iconography of the Green Man (see Basford 1978) and grotesques to research the corporate relationships behind the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill (Green Men, 2010–11). I’ve also been influenced by the period rooms at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in the making of Creeping Ornamentalism (2012), which addressed the impacts of climate science denial. Most recently, I’ve repurposed the format of the English Print Room for an installation that considers the results of global warming and the devastation that took place after Hurricane Sandy (Zone B, 2015).
Throughout the art-making process, the radio is a starting point, a means to an end, and an accompaniment. The resulting installations of paintings and painted paper collages are a framework to direct the viewers’ engagement with the ideas and issues at hand. And it is my hope that they will consider the fragility of the materials as a metaphor for the social, political, and economic structures in which we are all entangled.
Flow blue is a style of white earthenware that originated among the Staffordshire potters of England’s Regency era, in the 1820s. The term is derived from the blue glaze that “flowed” during the firing process. See Snyder 2015. Spode is a pottery company based in Stoke-on-Trent, which was founded by Josiah Spode (1733–97) in 1770. Josiah Spode earned renown for perfecting under-glaze blue transfer printing in 1783–84, a development that led to the launch in 1816 of Spode’s Blue Italian range, which has remained in production ever since. Wikipedia, s.v. “Spode,” last modified July 26, 2015, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spode.
Jean-Baptiste Réveillon (b. Paris, 1725–d. Paris, 1811) was a French wallpaper manufacturer.