I wrote this text to accompany my current show (Oct 26th - Dec 6th) at Gallery 825 in Los Angeles. The show features a number of new paintings based on my old family photos.
Anamnesis, or the remembering of things from a supposed previous existence, is a visual reconstitution of memories one may or may not have had. The title’s definition suggests that certain memories can be made and derived from the lives and memories of others. Using old family photographs as subjects, I investigate the idea of anamnesis by reworking the images into paintings.There is a two-fold interpretation of working this way, the personal interpretation, that touches on memories and events directly related to individual and familial experiences and the interpretation of the collective memory experienced by those unrelated to any of these subjects that are nonetheless experienced as having been borne out of these very same experiences. These can be further interpreted and elaborated.
Anamnesis - Ash, charcoal and oil on burned panel, 32x32 inches
First, I draw on my own family history, interpreting and reinterpreting the past through these images. It is a task that is deeply personal but one that will ultimately result in incomplete results. Close family members appear in the photographs, but along with them appear strangers and strange places. In casual conversation with family members, I’m able to find out certain details, but not all of them. Some people and places will be forever shrouded in mystery or will have to fit into a form of reconstituted memory. By constant contact with the images I am playing not only the role of the private eye, but also the role of the interpreter and story-teller, drawing lines, relationships and conclusions from disparate sources of visual information. Vast amounts of time and space exists between the visual coordinates of each photograph, some taken in the 1960s others a dacade or two later, all in various and often unknown locations. It is not necessarily important to know precisely all the details of a particular image. Memory itself is highly selective. What matters is the way the image or event is re-interpreted.
Second, I draw on my personal and family experience with immigration and integration into a new and alien culture, to draw out possible collective experiences and how they could be interpreted by those unfamiliar with this highly personal subject matter. We all have families and many have experiences with immigration, either directly or indirectly. This highly personal subject matter can therefore become a universalizing agent for a much larger collective memory. These black and white images lack color in a similar way that the immigrant experience lacks immediate contact with their distant past. Memories of one's birth culture become increasingly less vivid, they become snapshots rather than full expressions. In some ways an immigrant may experience memory as a loss resulting in a sense of incompleteness. The function of memory is significant. Often the way that people of different cultures attempt to evade loss of collective or personal memory is to hold on to tradition and vestiges of their particular cultures and continue with then in their adoptive culture. Such practices can be ritualized, institutionalized, and personalized, they can be very private or very public. Some people abandon their former cultures entirely. Whatever the outward manifestation of such practices may be, what nonetheless remains, is a sense that a part of one’s experience of the past and of one's culture is irretrievably lost. But loss and nostalgia aren’t always experienced as negative emotions. Positive memories constitute nostalgic feelings as much as negative ones, though I understand that in my interpretation of Anamnesis, in the context of the show, tends toward the darker aspects of loss and incompleteness. However, even loss can be positive or have positive outcomes if one's experience of loss, the death of one's child for example, is transmuted into a generative outlook on life.
A possible third interpretation of the exhibition exists, one that is more contingent on the source material and can be summed up as follows. A new interpretative method of memory exists, one that is being actively developed as a result of the digitization of collective space and memory. Visual sources until very recently tended toward the tangible - printed photographs, books, VHS tapes, and so on. Whether within the institutional world of work or the intimate world of the family, tangible repositories of memory were kept. Many families kept photo albums and slides. Today the pervasiveness of digital media and the movement toward cloud technology made bulky items like photo albums and slide projectors obsolete, even relatively modern technology like CDs and DVDs are less and less common as people move away from holding onto objects to keep only the ephemera, made up of lines of code. This presents an interesting subject for investigation and intervention into this space. In the case of photographs, as in the case of many real objects, one is dealing with a different type of memory. Photographs are documentary objects and tend to provide historical accounts of events. They are themselves an object subject to historical interpretation. The photographs were developed in a particular place, on particular paper and so on. The paper will degrade with time and the photograph tends to show signs of use, such as creasing, abrasion, writing, etc as well as signs of accident or manipulation. At a time when photography wasn’t as prevalent or as available to individuals, especially amateurs, one had to rely on chance, proper framing and basic knowledge of photography to actually take photographs. That’s why lots of older family photos are often out of focus, framed in strange ways, and have color or lighting issues. This ‘amateurishness’ is also what makes them interesting and particularly human. Corrective software may increase the quality of photographic presentation but also erases the possibility of chance and lucky error.
Compared with modern digital photography the issues of memory are completely different. Because code and digital information does not degrade, the photographs also do not degrade. Memory becomes harder to distinguish in this world. There is no yellowing paper or musty smells. The main indicator of age of a digital photograph is its time stamp, provided the instrument on which the photo was taken was correct. Another, more subtle way, to think about age and memory of digital photography is the age and look of the subjects in the photographs. Since there is no difference in the quality of the photograph taken twenty years ago to today, another way I can tell time, is by how old I and my family or friends look in them. Of course there is the general increase in quality of digital images, which means that a photo taken with a digital camera twenty years ago will have a very low resolution compared to today's cameras, but what matters is the overall condition of the image. That image taken twenty years ago is the same, whether I view it on its original platform or a new one. The digital photograph still has an enemy in time however, though not in the same way that a real printed photograph does. And the digital photograph has a clear advantage, it can be copied endlessly, provided one keeps the original. What is lost however is something that cannot be placed into real terms. What is lost is a sense of continuity. If images are the same from one day to the next, how does this square with our personal experience in which we continue to age but our technological selves do not? How is personal memory affected when versions of it are publicly disseminated across various platforms? Are personal memories personal anymore? And what can be done or should be done about personal data and information, including photographs, that will continue to exist in perpetuity in the digital realm?
And lastly, the paintings are painted directly from photographs. Often the paintings are ‘edits’ of the actual photos, zoomed in, or sections of the originals. Sometimes people or objects are ‘cut out’ of the originals as well. The paintings are mostly black and white. This is my attempt to illustrate the incompleteness or loss mentioned above. The paintings are meticulous but often imprecise renderings of the original source material. This is a strategy on my part. I usually work with brushes that are larger than what’s needed for the task so that I prevent myself from ‘painting’ the subject too precisely. I have no need to render a perfect replica of the photograph since my point is to illustrate the change between the original material and the finished product. The painting process usually dictates which way the painting will go. Since I only use white paint in my process, I have to rely on picking out certain sections of the photo to paint first. With continuous addition of paint to the work it becomes more apparent where to add more and where to leave the painting alone. I begin by using torches to burn the wood panels and then add ash to the surface. I then use water-mixable white oil paint to paint directly into the ashen substrate. Proceeding with layers upon layers of increasingly viscous oil paint, the image seems to ‘emerge’ from the background as I pick out spots where the image will be brighter and leaving areas that will remain dark. The combination of ash and oil results in a mixture that is first very dark and is able to be manipulated even after drying. The end result is a painting that is entirely matte and still shows the surface of the wooden substrate ‘through’ the image. The quality of the paintings usually tends toward the darker side or darker feelings and emotions, even when the subject matter isn’t necessarily dark. The paintings seem to exude a sense of nostalgia and the past.
Thank you for reading!