This piece was written in 2011 to articulate my research and work while I was at SVA.
My project, De bekende wereld (The Known World), is an exploration of contemporary life in America and its daunting contradictions. We benefit substantially from mass production, and in fact, often define ourselves by owning consumer goods, yet we feel lost in the impersonal system that produces them. We idealize the natural American landscape, but we are unwilling to limit the processes that encroach on it. Our lifestyle relies on the exploitation of natural resources that often destroys or endangers the untouched natural spaces that we crave. We love America but are deeply divided about the positive and negative effects our way of life has on the world. We love New York City for its diversity of both cultures and individuals, and for the depth and breadth of the opportunities it provides, yet it is also defined by dreadful excesses and inequities. We have grown so accustomed to these contradictions that we now routinely overlook them. Rather than attempt to resolve these questions, my project seeks to explore, bit by bit, those processes, spaces, and objects that create these contradictions. My images ask viewers to ‘look again’ at the overlooked, and to reconsider their impressions of the modern world.
Mass production permits wide access to a vast array of products, many of which are cheap throwaways, and yet I believe even mundane objects have emotional resonance and metaphorical significance. Despite their low value, we manage to extract authentic experiences and meaning out of these inauthentic objects. Meaning is not only contained in the end product; other factors–like fabrication and marketing–determine in subtle but powerful ways how we think about objects, spaces, and even ourselves. De bekende wereld ‘looks again’ at the details of modern life, to see what they say to us and what they say about us.
The project also ‘looks again’ at historical master painting and uses its genres and styles as a lens to take a fresh look at these details. The project consists of pictures from several different classic genres: portrait, still life, domestic scene (I am using “domestic scenes” here as a shorthand for scenes that take place in the home or that depict scenes of labor), and landscape. These genres have long been a part of Western art. They provide a flexible framework for depicting aspects of life and are as compelling and accessible for today’s viewer as they have been for almost four centuries. Portraits depict the subjects’ visages and perhaps something of their character and status; still lifes and domestic scenes look at the objects, events, and spaces of our daily life; and finally, landscapes depict our physical environment.
Each photograph in De bekende wereld is meant to stand alone, and yet each image represents only a small piece of contemporary life. Taken as a group, the images form a more complete picture. (That is not to say, however, that the project should be viewed as a series, which would imply a specific narrative.) In one sense my varied approach echoes our fractured contemporary framework. The work’s variety should be both challenging and revealing, allowing the viewer to synthesize an overall understanding from the different images. In another sense it echoes museum European-painting galleries, whose collections vary in genre and media, yet when viewed together these collections convey a strong sense of the interests and beliefs of various ages.
These pictures should not be merely skimmed. The ‘point’ of the pictures is often subtle and their titles are meant to prompt the viewer to re-engage with the photograph–they should be ‘looked at again.’ The viewer’s process acts as a microcosm of my project: at first recognizing familiar genres but overlooking the details, then ‘looking again’ to discover the varied meanings and connections that emerge with a fresh viewing. In the same way we engage with and weigh a range of sources to form a personal view of current events, my diverse set of pictures asks the audience to construct a meaningful and nuanced understanding of the situations I present.
I see the photographic (and digital) image as the contemporary equivalent to master painting. The elements we today find so compelling in photography were present, for example, in great Dutch master painting: visual beauty, emotional directness, use of light effects, naturalism, and interest in the ‘everyday.’ Were Rembrandt and Vermeer alive today, I suspect they would have been photographers, exploiting cutting-edge technologies to create compelling and challenging images about their world. In keeping with these themes, I use the language of master painting to explore contemporary society and production. While I am particularly interested in seventeenth-century Dutch paintings, my pictures reflect a variety of influences. This decision is not merely aesthetic. More often than not, we think of the postmodern world as disconnected from what came before; my references to painting act as a structure to reframe contemporary life in a historical context. What is more, we typically see photographs as fleeting and paintings as timeless. By using the visual language of classic paintings, I attempt to bring to my photographs a sense of timelessness that incorporates our 21st century context into a larger continuum.
Consider the group of objects that refer literally and emblematically to New York in Big Apple Still Life: some spare change, an apple, a Metrocard, a bagel and its aluminum wrapping. On one level this scene might represent someone’s breakfast–the individual elements completely interchangeable with another the day before, or after. But for those who live in the city, this assortment can take on a more symbolic meaning. Viewed differently, these stereotypically ‘New York objects’ might also make a viewer think of the city and the experience of living here.
Another example from Big Apple Still Life: the tabletop is made of particleboard covered with a white formica skin. Veneered particleboard so commonly provides a cheap alternative to wood that we barely notice the substitution. Like the tabletop, the modern world is composed of veneers–cheap, well-engineered façades that mask our constructed objects and spaces. These veneers are understandably only at the fringe of our consciousness, but if the “medium is the message” then our built environment also impresses itself onto our thoughts and actions.
This notion of construction and deconstruction runs throughout the images in the project. At first glance Woman in the Kitchen depicts a classic domestic scene of a woman preparing a meal, as viewed through an open window. However we see not the exterior wall of a house but the interior of the wall, revealing the drywall, studs, cabling, and electrical boxes that facilitate the domestic activity that occurs within the kitchen itself.1 While the kitchen might be seamless and polished, this image hints at the significant labor that goes into its realization. The Day Laborers (Segundo & Rafael) directly considers the act of constructing those spaces that we take so much for granted.2 Since we can hire immigrants to do the work for us cheaply, we no longer do this labor ourselves. Despite America’s history of immigration, we prefer to either ignore these men and women, or, at our worst, treat them as criminals. In reality, we depend deeply on people like these to facilitate our lifestyle.
Jeff Wall has explored some similar concepts in his work, particularly in pictures like Morning Cleaning, Mies van der Rohe Foundation, Barcelona. Morning Cleaning picture shows a man washing windows in the famous van der Rohe Pavilion in Barcelona, depicting the labor necessary to maintain the pristine forms of this High Modernist structure. Wall is renowned for applying an acute awareness of art history to scenes that are suggestive of narrative. He led the shift towards meticulously-constructed photographic imagery and away from the ‘decisive moment’ mode of image-making. Like Wall, my aim in The Day Laborers is to focus on the workers themselves and to acknowledge the essential role they play in fabricating the objects we use and the spaces we inhabit.
Gesture Study steps inside a factory to explore directly the manufacturing process. Although the decline of American manufacturing has been well documented, it still exists, even if only as a shadow of a bygone economy. Consider Gesture Study in relation to Made in China: the color palettes link the two pictures visually, but perhaps the cheap knockoffs portrayed in Made in China–objects we consume ravenously–are at least partially responsible for the decline in American production.3
Like products rolling off the assembly line, the ‘natural’ has been crafted and packaged to suit our needs. Beate Gütschow’s LS series is a particularly interesting project on the construction of natural space. Gütschow separately photographs and recombines many elements to create idyllic, often classically Dutch-looking, landscapes that have little basis in the real world. Her work argues that what we accept as ‘natural’ is in fact highly constructed. Dieter Huber (particularly in his Klone series) and Edward Burtynsky (spectacularly in Oil and Manufactured Landscapes) have explored how we modify and exploit the natural world to suit our needs. Importantly, Burtynsky recognizes both the contradictions inherent in his subject matter, addressing both the awesome destruction of the landscape and the necessity of the processes he documents.
Winter Landscape shows how we mimic the natural to hide unsightly but necessary structures. Shot in the midst of a snowstorm, an enormous pine tree rises over a deciduous grove, the pine’s saturated greens and browns standing in stark contrast to the leafless and gray branches of the grove. Upon closer inspection, the ‘pine’ is in fact a cell tower disguised as a tree to make it easier on the eye and to better blend with its surroundings.4 Whether this disguise effectively hides the tree or makes it less of an eyesore is questionable. What is not questionable is that our ability to be continuously connected depends on towers like these. In one sense the ‘tree’ is nothing more than an ugly necessity, in another it is a monument to our way of life. Contrast this cell tower with the windmill in Jacob van Ruisdael’s Windmill at Wij-bij-Duurstede, a machine that drove the Dutch domestic economy. Unlike the cell tower, ‘hidden’ among a grove of trees, there is nothing shameful about Ruisdael’s windmill. It dominates the picture, its tower and sails silhouetted heroically against a dramatic sky; three women gaze at it admiringly and, perhaps, celebrate the effect it has on their lives.
Art reflects the interests and values of the era in which it was made. As a twenty-first century American I cannot deal primarily with the past–I must deal with my own context. So why revisit historical painting? By reconsidering painting I can engage issues that transcend just this moment and contextualize questions raised by modernity in a broader historical framework.
As a senior in college, I participated in an intensive study of Dutch and Netherlandish painting that profoundly affected both my artistic practice and my understanding of contemporary American culture. I am still struck by close parallels between Dutch art and culture and that of contemporary America: golden-age Amsterdam was the center of a significant and growing global trade. Unlike Catholic Europe, the merchant class held most of society’s wealth and influence, so art was created not for the church, but for private patrons who commissioned portraits, still lifes, domestic scenes, and landscapes–art that depicted different aspects of their lives and their known world.
We are in many ways the successful heirs to Dutch culture as it existed four hundred years ago. America is, of course, deeply bound up in global trade. Art itself is dominated by private markets, with New York, a town founded by the Dutch, at the center of today’s art world. But we are not merely part of a global society, our known world has become industrial, digital, and instantaneous. Our global, industrialized, and ‘wired’ world affects not just everyday objects themselves, but the way we view ourselves and our time.
In Looking at the Overlooked, Norman Bryson observes how the flowers in a 1618 painting by Ambrosius Bosschaert were sourced from across Europe, and bloomed in all different seasons. Bryson concludes that, by bringing together flowers from different seasons and geographic origins into one picture, Dutch flower paintings like Bosschaert’s conjured a collapse of time and space: a fairly significant achievement for a bouquet. This concept is surely remarkable within Dutch art history, but today we have taken it much further: any florist can assemble a bouquet with all of those flowers at any time. This is precisely how the bouquet in After van der Ast was made. This picture specifically engages Bryson’s observations by recreating a bouquet by Balthasar van der Ast, Bosschaert’s son-in-law. Where der Ast spent several months sketching individual blossoms to provide the source-material for a painting, I am able to bring together and photograph a variety of flowers, irrespective of when or where they naturally bloom. I also source images of the creatures–sand lizard, spider, bee, and butterfly–from the internet, and then insert them digitally into the picture. Globalization allows us to collapse time and space via a bouquet; digitalization allows us to do it on our home computers.
The Dutch typically viewed their prized flowers in gardens and kept flower paintings at home as something of a stand-in for the real thing. Again, a bouquet provides us with a surprising insight: the copy produces an experience similarly real and powerful as the original. Today the effect is heightened: copy is original, fake is real–just look at photography. In Simulacra and Simulation Jean Baudrillard writes about the imitation’s transformation into the real. Walter Benjamin famously articulated the loss of the original object’s “aura” due to the introduction of its reproduction. But Benjamin goes beyond art itself to explore “the adjustment of reality to the masses and of the masses to reality” (Benjamin 45). American products and culture are full of such contradictions and dichotomies. Some objects and experiences are simultaneously natural and synthetic, original and copy, organic and inorganic. Baudrillard and Benjamin tell us that we have adjusted to a new reality where the original and reproduction have merged, but while it may be more difficult to find authentic experiences and products today, I believe authenticity still exists. Even the cheapest, mass-produced object can conjure an authentic emotional response.
Take the trophy in Still Life with Trophy and Duck Sauce. It is a cheap relic from childhood, an object with little monetary value, yet it has the potential to represent an important emotional experience and serves as a reminder of earlier achievements. Trophies like this conjure strong feelings for many who grew up receiving similar trinkets. The picture is both a depiction of mundane objects, and an exploration of their potential emotional content. Like Dutch paintings that “operate[d] as concrete, observable things while at the same time doing something totally different, namely expressing an idea, a moral, an intention, a joke, or a situation,” Trophy encourages viewers to engage the pictures literally and symbolically (de Jongh 16).5
The portraits in my project represent the American consumers whose lives are connected to objects like those in the still lifes. Mr. Seltzer explores how we construct and communicate our identity by surrounding ourselves with objects that are carefully selected, even though they may be mass produced. The flower-print pillows contrast with the large basketball in the foreground, his tie and vest do not quite match his sneakers or exposed leg. The references to New York ground the picture in his place, and the computer and cables ground it in his time. The object on display in Portrait of Rahima Wachuku, a smart phone, is a heavily marketed status symbol in today’s society that also functions as an important way for us to maintain personal relationships and to quickly acquire and manage information from the larger world. As the defining product of our time, its presence in Rahima speaks not only to her personal connection to her phone, but also to society’s broader devotion to those devices.
Self-portraits can also express symbolic ideas. They can convey artistic identity, aspirations, and create connections to past artists. My Self Portrait as Rembrandt van Rijn is modeled on Rembrandt’s c. 1665 Self Portrait with Two Circles, which shows the artist with the tools of his trade—Rembrandt’s palette and brushes corresponding with the touch-sensitive tablet I use in my work. By including my ‘palette’ I tie my hand to the images, and seek to create a link with perhaps the greatest painter who ever lived. In a broader sense, Rembrandt’s palette represented the prevailing technology of his time, while the tablet I hold is indicative of how images are made today. Though my final prints do not reveal their production processes, my images are often highly crafted after the initial shoot. Powerful digital tools like the tablet allow me to construct photographic images like a painter, carefully arranging my compositions from several images. The majority of the pictures in the project are either the result of several ‘takes’—choosing the best parts from each–or the combination of multiple separately-photographed elements into a final image. For example, the circles in this self-portrait were drawn digitally into the picture.
This difference between the final image, which is clearly a composite of several elements, and original shot is exposed in The Art of Photography. It is loosely based on Vermeer’s Art of Painting and could be easily titled The Artifice of Photography. The Art of Photography and the Self Portrait are explorations of, and ways to expose viewers to, the process behind the glossy and seamless finished photograph. Aside from depicting a studio scene, my presence in multiple parts of the image keys the viewer onto its artificiality. Other pictures explore the production of objects and space, but The Art of Photography and Self Portrait explore the ways images are fabricated.
While Self Portrait and The Art of Photography are intended as stand-alone images, they significantly deepen each other’s meaning without creating a specific narrative. Christopher Williams’s ongoing Dix-Huit Leçons Sur La Société Industrielle provides a useful comparison: his pictures are meant to function individually and as a group, but are not intended to be serial. Rather, relationships develop between several pictures when viewed simultaneously, especially when seen in person. As one walks through Williams’s installations, changing one’s view of the space, relationships between the images move in and out of focus.
Williams’s installations significantly affect the audience’s understanding of the images. My pictures are sized, framed, and arranged to subtly mimic the ways we typically encounter master paintings so that viewers subliminally identify the photographs with those references, whether they are aware of the specific referent or not. Like Williams, the arrangement of my photographs helps viewers draw together the ideas in the individual images and synthesize a fuller understanding for themselves.
We tend to be wary of contemporary imagery. To be sure, this distrust stems in part from digital imagery’s malleability, but it is also due to an ill-defined (but nonetheless unmistakable) shift in our outlook. Even at the height of its golden age, the Netherlands remained a small, seafaring country, albeit one with great wealth and influence. The pace of life in the seventeenth century was still primarily determined by natural forces: the wind, the tides, the climate. In contrast, over the last century, we have not only become removed from these natural rhythms, we have experienced, and benefitted greatly from, an ever-accelerating rate of change, where technology, ideas, and economies become outdated within a matter of months–if not days or minutes. Images have proliferated to the point of saturation. (Just think, it was unusual to see even a single image of oneself a hundred years ago, and we can now look at hundreds with the swipe of a finger.) We are met with a continuous onslaught of voices simultaneously shouting contradictory information. Furthermore, (or, perhaps, consequently) it is difficult to trust individual sources. To keep up, we can’t put too much stock or time into any one source–we skim and move on.
Let’s set that strategy aside for a moment, and instead explore in-depth the elements that constitute our modern world. I want my photographs to function on several levels. On first glance the formal content emerges, effecting a subliminal connection to classic genres and historical references. Upon closer examination differences between the historical sources and modern elements emerge, and ultimately the conceptual content of the work comes into focus. The pictures are meant to be visually compelling explorations of the realities of modern life in America and how those realities relate to history. The project’s variety of genre, subject matter, and physical size is meant to echo the varied imagery and circumstances that define our lives today. Master painting, in particular that of the Dutch masters, represents an important cultural touchstone and one that I have used as my lens, not to look back, but to ‘look again’ at American culture today.
Notes & Sources Below6
- Gregory Crewdson, of course, deconstructed (and laboriously constructed) domestic space as a technique to explore surreal states in projects such as Twilight. Produced on the scale of cinema, Crewdson’s pictures evoke a filmic psychological space and narrative. His recent project, Sanctuary, clarifies his interest in the cinematic over the ‘real.’
- The Day Laborers provides an excellent example of our continued connection to historical master painting. Although I had no particular reference in mind when making the picture, it nonetheless bears a resemblance in composition and subject matter to well-known paintings by nineteenth-century painters Gustave Courbet (The Stone Breakers) and Gustave Caillebotte (The Floor Scrapers). This speaks to the continued influence painters like these have on our visions of different scenes.
- Although Gesture Study is less directly associated with master painting, it does highlight the type of gesture in the woman’s work that is typically associated with Italian or French painting. In this situation, the gesture is unremarkable and repeated hundreds of times daily.
- Working in the typological format associated with his alma mater, the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf, German photographer Robert Voit has thoroughly explored the phenomenon of cell towers disguised as trees in his New Trees project.
- A note on iconography in Golden-Age Dutch painting: the premise behind an iconological (or emblematic) reading of seventeenth-century Dutch painting is that many paintings exist on at least two levels. The first is the literal interpretation of a scene, or ‘reality:’ the quack doctor (see Gerrit Dou, The Quack, 1652) hawking his wares to those gathered on the street. Possibly more important is the second level. This is the moral, erotic, or religious level (to name a few possible areas); it is this level in which the deeper meanings behind the actions of the quack and those assembled around him are revealed. As Eddy de Jongh wrote, “Anyone taking the average genre scene at face value runs the risk of missing its original meaning” (22). So an iconological study of seventeenth-century Dutch painting constantly digs for the deeper meaning within the works. “The underlying premise throughout is that many seventeenth-century Dutch paintings have something to say that transcends their purely visual offering” (10) But this isn’t at all unusual for a scholarly investigation. What makes an iconological reading of particularly interesting is how it takes as its premise the idea that the artists imbued their works with meanings that lie dormant underneath the finely-polished surface, that they were often intentionally concealed there, and that the unearthing of the meaning was a somewhat pleasurable activity. Here’s an important point on paintings as well as my intentions with the images in my project: they serve as “a well-devised concealment [that] had[/has] to fit together in such a way that the viewer was[/is] able to decipher the disguised meaning with some not overly taxing mental gymnastics” (18).
- Alpers, Svetlana. The Art of Describing: Dutch Art in the Seventeenth Century. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1983.
- Barthes, Roland. “Rhetoric of the Image.” Classic Essays on Photography. Ed. Alan Trachtenberg. New Haven: Leete’s Island Books, 1980. 269–285.
- Baudrillard, Jean (Sheila Faria Glaser, translator). Simulacra and Simulation. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1994.
- Benjamin, Walter. “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” The Photography Reader, ed. Liz Wells. London: Routledge, 2003. 42–52.
- Bergstorm, Ingvar, ed. Masters of Middelburg. Amsterdam: Waterman Gallery, 1984.
- Brook, Timothy. Vermeer’s Hat: The Seventeenth Century and the Dawn of the Global World. New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2008.
- Bryson, Norman. Looking at the Overlooked: Four Essays on Still Life Painting. London: Reaktion, 1990.
- Burnett, Craig. Jeff Wall. London: Tate Gallery, 2005.
- Fuchs, R.H., Dutch Painting. London: Thames & Hudson, 1978.
- Godfrey, Mark. “Cameras, Corn, Christopher Williams, and the Cold War,” October 126 (Fall 2008): 115– 142.
- Gütschow, Beate. LS/S. New York: Aperture, 2007.
- Hochstrasser, Julie Berger. Still Life and Trade in the Dutch Golden Age. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007.
- Segal, Sam. Flowers and Nature: Netherlandish Flower Painting of Four Centuries. The Hague: SDU Publishers, 1990.
- Westermann, Mariët, A Worldly Art: The Dutch Republic 1585–1718. New York: Harry N . Abrams, 1996.
- Wheelock, Arthur K. From Botany to Bouquets: Flowers in Northern Art. Washington: National Gallery of Art, 1999.
- Wheelock, Arthur K. and Kees Kaldenbach. “Vermeer’s View of Delft and His Vision of Reality.” Artibus et Historae 6 (1982): 9–35. Also available here.