New YorkMark Miller Gallery
October 8 – November 1, 2015
Human beings have been recording their existence and experiences at least since the creation of the cave paintings at Lascaux. Embellished through ritual and passed on through generations, myths and tales have formed beliefs and offered escape from the mundane. The vehicle of story enhances empathy and creates catharsis while giving the viewer the opportunity to suspend disbelief through the medium of visual narrative.
Eighteen artists, chosen by curators Tun Myaing and Marshall Jones, tell their stories of origin, answering three questions displayed in tandem with their work: Why did you create this work of art? Why did you choose this profession? And, if you could own any work of art, what would it be? Diverse answers—Shana Levenson’s self-analytical correlation of Masked, a realistically painted portrayal of herself as the caped crusader; quotidian necessities of emotional camouflage and Christina Graf’s likening of her paper sculpture Nest to her pet tarantula’s molted shell—offer insight into the artists’ inspirations and intentions. Each artist’s work is linked to a larger commentary on popular culture. Themes of war, climate change, and marriage equality can be seen next to unworldly creatures and references to comic-book and television icons.
By combining the forces of fine art, illustration, sculpture, and comics, Myaing and Jones have brought the worlds of highbrow and lowbrow art into dialogue with each other. Not the first of such conversations, this theme has been explored from Dada through Pop and was explicitly theorized in MoMA’s groundbreaking exhibit High and Low: Modern Art and Popular Culture (1990) and reiterated through the pioneering spirit of Robert Williams, founder of Juxtapoz magazine. It is a discussion worth having. With its progressive commoditization, art has shed some of its loftier ideals. It is no longer necessary to be an artist to be among the cognoscenti. With this breakdown of barriers comes the opportunity for the visual in all media to unite under common themes.
Peter Drake’s Parade presents an image of suburbia in flames, giving visual context to the phrase, “let slip the dogs of war,” from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, as a bugle-bearing soldier marches past with a pack of hounds. The grainy texture of the paint is a perfect metaphor for the granular image of a vintage snapshot, but the scene in fact illustrates a fictional scenario made up from observation of real iron figurines, which are on display next to the actual painting in the gallery. In the same vein, John Paul Leon’s Black Death In America, published in Vertigo Quarterly (2014), gives an insider’s view of comic-book panel layout, from rough pencil sketches to fully realized ink drawings. The images portray the story of Henry Lincoln Johnson, a soldier from Harlem who served in World War I. Johnson was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross and the Croix de Guerre, but was denied the Purple Heart and suffered injuries for which he never received disability. Shunning protocol, Johnson stood up against the abuse and discrimination of black soldiers in the military, he was posthumously awarded the Purple Heart (1996) and the Medal of Honor (2015).
In a landmark ruling in June 2015, the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage nationwide. Though John Jacobsmeyer could not have foreseen this event in 2005 when he painted Bele and Lochi Tie the Knot and Save the Universe,it is nonetheless a timely reminder of this momentous occasion. In the Star Trek episode “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield” the two characters are representatives of racial hatred, making this imagery doubly potent. Working from the same visual culture, Michael Grimaldi’s Dusk on Tatooine, created for Lucasfilms Ltd.’s compendium Star Wars: Visions (2010), presents the dark silhouette of anthropomorphic robots in scrap metal storage lit only by a distant band of warm and cool light supplied by the binary suns on Tatooine. He has set up a psychological tension between R2D2 and an unidentified robot that is truly uncanny given the stillness and inanimate quality of his subjects.
Tackling issues of environment, Caitlin Hackett’s spookily rendered ballpoint pen illustration, Ghosts From The Flood Plain (2014), gives rise to thoughts of global warming and man’s current rate of effect on planet Earth. With watercolor and colored pencil, Hackett has painted the sky a sickly orange that is reflected in poisoned waters. A factory in the distance pumps out smoke, while in the foreground a biologically altered albino deer hovers in the air, observed by a tethered hummingbird resting on a withered branch. It is the embodiment of the kind of dystopian future set forth in such novels as Margaret Atwood’s The Year of the Flood and John Brunner’s The Sheep Look Up and a reminder of environmental disasters on the scale of the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill.
Stories define us and give credibility to ideas, no matter how incredulous. They reassure and challenge us. From complex metaphorical images to simple observational studies they are both a product of our attempt to gain understanding while simultaneously being an agent that drives and influences our perceptions. The works assembled in Tell Them Stories: Origins represent a microcosm of experiences and points of view that emphasize the powerful effectiveness of the visual as a tool for contemporary discourse.