Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Unconscious Reality of Seeing: Freeways as Graffiti

Figure 1. Melissa Chandon, Off Ramps in Black and White, 2010
Figure 2. Cy Twombly, Free Wheeler, 1955, house paint, pencil, crayon, and pastel on canvas

My attraction to roadside vernacular began at the age of ten when I became completely and quite consciously smitten with a white Porsche and a shinny aluminum airstream. I was struck by their beauty, their clean modern design and knew instantly that I liked both of them and someday wanted one of each for myself. That summer we were house-sitting for friends on their farm while they traveled across Europe by car and a camper. The idea of exploring Europe this way was so seductive to me it sounded as wonderful as traveling on the Orient Express or going to the South Pole on the Endurance. I guess the adventurer in me was coming out. I’m not completely sure why a child of ten would feel this way. This attraction or curiosity has continued throughout my life and is an issue that I address in the studio. I find it an interesting phenomenon that we can fall for a “car”. What is that, what does the car represent? In Hollywood we have immortalized car culture in many films; Bullet, Vanishing Point and American Graffiti, and all of the family vacation movies with Chevy Chase, just to name a few. I find it interesting how car sizes have swung like a pendulum with a direct correlation to what is happening in the world – the explosion of Hummers post 911. When you look at the history of the automobile and globalization it is very interesting that the car continues to change drastically in size, design, horsepower and so-on and with such extremes. The auto industry has played a significant role in the evolution of the U.S. not only from the stand point of America’s shift from being a leading industrial manufacturing country, to gas companies lobbying for more cars and less mass transit, to the building of more roads and urban sprawl. I wrestle with all of this as we face serious issues with our environment due to global warming. I feel a responsibility to paint this car culture enigma, to document the many cars that are adored so that we might be more able to move towards other methods of transportation that are more environmentally friendly.

My fascination with car culture and roadside vernacular has taken me in two separate yet connected directions; the abstract realism work that I show in the galleries and another body of abstract paintings based on the landscape. I am currently captivated by freeways, on ramps and off ramps, their design, pattern and lines of abstraction. They seem rich and vibrant allowing room for discussion both in my mind and on the canvas. The freeway is interesting from two perspectives, the abstract qualities that the roads have in and of themselves along with the idea of public and private spaces. When one thinks about public spaces it is easy to think about city parks, national parks, camp grounds and the like as having a significant presence and availability for each individual to use and enjoy. The freeway is of interest to me as it is public space but one that we don’t consider public or even see as a place. When one thinks about the huge amount of land that is consumed by our public highway system it is rather daunting, combined with the hours that we spend, most often alone, navigating mostly through heavy traffic with a kind of blurred vision of both seeing and not seeing the surrounding environment. A few months ago I had an interesting revelation while driving to the airport late at night to catch a red eye. While we drove along the lights from the businesses that lined the freeway were a blaze almost like a Christmas tree, red, blue, green, and bright yellow, and sitting on the dash was the GPS unit which was guiding us towards the airport. Both looked so similar - bright lights set against black - and I thought that in the future driving will probably be a totally different experience. Perhaps we’ll be able to personalize our experience and see only what we wish to see, perhaps it will be more like the way I feel while traveling on an airplane. It’s hard to say.

I have been using Google Images along with my own quickly shot digital photographs taken from the car for my point of departure with the new series of abstract paintings. I feel that using these images is a perfect starting place for the work and has given me room to think about how I might translate the information onto the canvas. I find the act of painting one of editing down to the essentials so for me the digital image provides the structure. Roland Barthes discusses in Camera Lucidia, Reflections on Photography, “The photograph by its very nature is believable”(1) where as a painting by its nature is an abstraction or an interpretation. I am more interested in the abstraction of these large architectural structures than in painting them to look exactly like the photo. I also find that taking the pictures while driving has a random unpredictable quality that appeals to me. It feels more like the way we actually experience them, much like a blur in our peripheral vision.

There are a few artists whose work has inspired me, Jackson Pollock, Cy Twombly, Helen Frankenthaler, Robert Smithson and Richard Deibenkorn. Pollock and Twombly, while working with abstraction and during the same period of time, worked philosophically from very different places. Pollock’s action paintings left a trace of his physical process of painting while, “Twombly used Abstract Expressionism as a weapon against the autographic mark and not the strategy of transforming the spontaneous stroke into a “devise” but of recording the mark itself as a form of graffiti, which is to say, the anonymous trace of a kind of criminal violation of the unspoiled surface”.(2) Free Wheeler painted in 1955 gives a good example of this form of graffiti marks on his canvas.

Robert Smithson, specifically with his earth-work the Spiral Jetty, offered a new perspective to sculpture and the gallery when he questioned the traditions of the art being presented within the confines of a formal gallery. During a visit to the Harwood Museum in Taos, New Mexico a few years ago I was able to closely examine Richard Deibenkorn’s New Mexico aerial perspective landscapes paintings. I found them complex and interesting as they not only hold the canvas together but upon close examination reveal many hidden nuances. Helen Frankenthaler, Mountains and Sea, is interesting with the bold gestural movements, use of negative space and the application of the paint as a stain rather than a heavily applied texture of paint.

My goal with the new works about the freeways, overpasses, and on ramps is to really see them as a place, collectively owned architectural structures that are pervasive. They can be thought of as a form of scaring or graffiti consciously placed within our environment. It seems very odd to me that during the Obama stimulus package there has been so much money put into road expansion and repaving rather than the money going towards more high speed trains that would in the long run be much better for “our” environment. TED(3), a small nonprofit, which began in 1984 and is devoted to ideas worth spreading has an annual conference which brings together people from three worlds: technology, entertainment, design. In the documentary, The Future We Will Create: Inside the World of TED , Al Gore gave a concluding talk and suggested that if we were able to think collectively about “our environment” a real shift towards a more environmentally sound future is possible. I feel this is possible and hopefully will come to fruition. We just need to open our eyes and really see.

1. Roland Barthes, Camera Lucidia Reflections on Photography, Hill and Wang, 1981
2. Foster, Hal, Krauss, Rosalind, Bois, Yve-Alain. Art Since 1900, Modernism, Antimodernism, Postmodernism, Volume 2, 1945 to the Present. Thames & Hudson, 2007. Page 372
3. The Future We Will Create: Inside the World of TED, 2007, Director: Daphne Zuniga, Steven Latham