Op verzoek van de auteur publiceren wij de oorspronkelijke Engelse tekst online die speciaal is vertaald in het Nederlands voor mister Motley #33 Over onze ouders.
My work doesn't have anything to do with childhood, it just seems like it does. Unless, in a sinister sub-conscious sort of way I have been turning to the iconography of childhood arts and crafts as a way to fill the void of my dearly departed. At age 12 my parents died in a helicopter accident. I kissed my mother on the cheek a few hours before she passed. I was raised by foster parents and later by the state of California. Memories of my teens are wholly unholy and largely forgettable. There are signs in my paintings that were first introduced to me in childhood, before this sadism of life. It is possible that by reengaging with childhood picture making I am chasing the pleasant memories of my family life and childhood. But I don't think so.
Hand turkey: an oddity, a fearsome looking thing, some sort of wholesome perversion of nature. Turning a turkey into a hand-bird, vice-versa, is another example of man's interest in the domination of Mother Nature. Children can be such cruel, apathetic creatures. Parents and teachers deserve worse denigration for this instruction. The world is a wicked place; everyone is shown how best to survive before "life kicks your ass". We humans make cartoons of things, caricatures and signs, in order to better understand them, in order to simplify and communicate. We have been doing this since we lived in caves, or earlier. By some kind of seemingly magical evolutionary psychological chance, the crafty chimera called the hand turkey became a wholesome concretized tradition of American culture.
Hand turkeys have been around for more than a century--emerging near the same time as the invention of Coca-Cola at the end of the 19th century. The good thing about this particular childhood icon is everyone recognizes it, even those who never saw it before. It is a combination of two universally recognized signs: an outline of a hand and caricatured parts of a turkey. Due to its universality, this sign can be used in a painting, for example, to denote something rather definitively. If you locate enough universal signs that possess easily recognizable meanings, you can form combinations, such as those that occur in hieroglyphs.
Due to their common use, universal signs are not aesthetic and therefore need not be innovative. Sol Lewitt proved this, for example, in his use of the cube. Pop artists such as Andy Warhol also showed related possibilities for artistic use of common signs; take for example his use of the photograph of an electric chair. Universal signs such as these are not dissimilar from the color blue. But unlike the color blue and the cube, the photo of an electric chair is not an essentially visual sign.
As an expressionist brush-stroke may be employed to express zeal or defiance of technical control, or as the non-color black might represent or evoke void, the signs of childhood arts and crafts can be used to make straightforward statements apart from their common meaning: hand turkeys can just signify. Common signs become receptive to aesthetic judgment once they are used for artistic purposes, or when they are used in combination with other signs in a way that is different from their typical function.
Using them successfully in art in any way whatsoever is a challenge. They are tremendously hideous things, appalling by impropriety--their inclusion in art is contemptible. Their being hideous might lead one to view them as possessing the quality of vulnerability or sentimentality, but really, because they are universal signs, though signs no one dares use, hand turkeys do not make the painting or the author vulnerable, nor give it the quality of exposing a private sentiment.
The hideousness rankles, in the act of pictorial problem solving that is supposed to lead to an ultimate valuation, which for some will never be, but instead always stuck in the process of comprehension. This breakdown in the process of problem solving, the essential act of art-making and art reading, is the result of an unlikely re-contextualization of something still familiar yet now unexpectedly strange too: an uncanny experience. Simultaneous familiarity and strangeness, two qualities that are usually immediately and intuitively sensed, is what you can find in a painting by Warhol. In place of the smooth process of pictorial problem solving to the goal of aesthetic valuation, is a linguistic delay caused by incongruous qualities...which are not incongruous at all in the grand scheme of things. Sol Lewitt's “open cubes” also deny the viewers of a conclusive valuation by giving you works that only allow problem solving (for this reason one might call them incomplete).
Familiarity coupled with strangeness is an apparent defiance to your sense of propriety and is therefore a contest outside of the picture plane between you and I, and even the painting itself. Am I to be ashamed or embarrassed for using a child's sign in my painting? Perhaps you are embarrassed. Supporting elements of the painting enable the possibility of this exception. The composition and the logic that necessitates the use the hand turkey, makes the sign appropriate and practical. Logic and childhood arts and crafts is another alien mixture of contrasts. While the hand turkey causes you to reference childhood memories, naivety and play, the logically systematic decision-making that you read in the work stretches you to compare and calculate phenomenological and linguistic parts of the painting.
Perhaps it is this contrasting of mental states and processes that defines the idea of a work of art having “shock value”. Shock, the emotional stupefaction of the viewer seems to be an essential identity in all new art; it is indicative of art and of innovation in other disciplines of thought. Stupefaction can also occur during the creation of the work, when the artist discovers a harmony yet cannot picture what he or she has made. Once one stage of shock is overcome the artist works toward complications and solutions in order to arrive at the next.
I wonder if the first hand turkey was the creation of a child or an adult--I'd guess it was the creation of an adult. Which in turn prompts the question: who is the child, or childlike (if we are to call the creation of a hand turkey a childlike act)? Is it he who instructs the child to make such a thing, or it is the child who follows directions? Or there are no adults because no one grows up, except for perhaps Jesus Christ, Abraham Lincoln and the executioner, persons who have cut themselves or found themselves shaped into tidy characters. Individuals with less parts, at least from a certain point of view, who have overcome or unfortunately lost the inherent overflow of sensor and linguistic stimulus and instead have necessarily embraced or unwillingly accepted all the material terrors in the fear of the vast complexity of life.
Imagine being tortured in a POW camp in Vietnam in 1969 and forced to re-articulate how to perceive anguish until after countless degrees of editing, after your anguish becomes just anguish, you find yourself accepting the hits and the frailty without fear. That's five minus two. Beyond the realm of keeping a brave face. The other side of crying yourself to sleep. Outside of this childish prison. There is another way. Perhaps this is adulthood.