This article was originally written for SpokeArt so that they could divvy it up among several blogs that were generous enough to report on the show!
This write up will be given to attendees at the gallery at the opening TONIGHT, but for the rest of you who aren’t in San Francisco, here’s a sneak! These prints will all be on sale on the SpokeArt website, Spoke-Art.com THIS FRIDAY afternoon. Keep your eyes on the site!
Last June, after the opening reception to the Quentin V. Coen show in San Fran, the founder of SpokeArt- Ken Harman, invited me to have a solo show at his gallery later that year. I was immediately flattered- and then the fear set in. If it’s just me, not only was I looking at months of work in secret- but the success or failure of the Gallery that month was up to my ability to create and be clever. I initially was going to do a very diverse show with a bunch of unconnected works, essentially throwing the visual parts of my brain up on the wall and hoping people liked what they saw. But after talking to Ken for a while, he seized on a couple of ideas I had and did what a good gallery owner should do- focus his artist. This is the show that came of that.
“Unreal Estate” is a collection of locations that many of us know and have been to on a weekly basis at times, but we can never actually visit. These places are in our memories- transmitted and entrenched there through a cathode-ray tube. Some of us have been going to these places for decades- some of these places were taken from us, way too soon.
I was asked to write about the pieces for use on various blogs and press. As much as I’d like the work to completely speak for itself, I do so enjoy commentary tracks, so here is mine.
It’s weird to think about a pop-art solo exhibition as an intensely personal show, but I’ll do my best to explain it here. Over the summer as I was preparing for this show, I did some research on “All In the Family” (a print I hope to get to in the future) and how the exterior shot of the house was a real place given the fictional address of 704 Hauser St, in Queens. Surprisingly- in the early 90’s, “All In the Family” creator Norman Lear had a show called “704 Hauser” featuring a new family living in the same house, occupying the same fictional location. Reading about that was an odd revelation to me. See- I always felt like “All in the Family” was like a televised echo of my maternal Grandparents in a way- an East coast blue collar family living in a row-home, a loveable but gruff father figure, a loving if slightly crazed mother- all dealing with a world that was changing rapidly around them. It’s not a perfect fit, but the themes were there- the show FELT like a visit to my Grandparents, if that makes sense. Last Summer I had driven by their old house in Delaware for the first time since my Grandfather’s funeral in 2001-ten years had passed, and it was a heady mix of emotions seeing the house still there, but now occupied by strangers. Also that summer I read the news that “The Simpsons” might be ending over a labor dispute, and found myself strangely affected by that probability. (I sided with the taIent, obviously.) I had been there in the late 80’s watching their proto-versions on The Tracy Ullman Show and when they finally got their own program, my family and I made our weekly pilgrimage to Springfield. The thought that the show might be leaving us, considering that I had spent more of my life watching Simpsons than NOT at this point, was a big deal. I thought of Springfield’s more famous locations- how all of us (in the western world, at least) know where to get a Squishy, grab a Flaming Moe, or remember when Jebediah Springfield lost his head. And I realized these completely fictional physical landmarks of television shows are a kind of cultural geography. A shared mental construct that we all participate in- and like actual buildings they will one day be torn down, their time-slots paved over, or we will maybe find new people living in those exact same addresses.
So this was the ooze of pop-culture and melancholy that I had kicking around in my head when I dove into this art show. Artistically, I wanted to move away from what my audience would normally expect from me- big bold colors and a comic-book line quality. I wanted to do these pieces in a more brushy, illustrative style, with more muted tones and colors that reflect a mood or time of day. My tried and true 4-color pop of past prints like ‘The King of Crabs’ was going to have to take a back seat while I try something newish. I wanted these to look more like my Ghostbusters “Ready to Believe You” or the American Werewolf in London “Stay off the Moors” prints did. It was a style I really like working in, but is definitely more time consuming than my normal deadlines allow. The lead in time I had for this show afforded me the luxury to experiment more with my style.
The first three prints I created for the show were all inspired by The Simpsons– I knew I had to kick them out of my head up front and move on, as The Simpsons could very easily dominate the entire exhibit if I let it. I purposefully set these three images at night or sunset to force the color scheme away from the pastel and neon palette of the show.
I remember my Dallas-suburb Middle School placing a ban on Simpsons t-shirts in the late 80’s, as the show was considered a bad influence, and Bart an animated public-enemy #1. Now, the show is an American monument- a purple and green and yellow Mt. Rushmore in time and celluloid. The Simpsons is probably one of our most enduring exports- it’d be hard to go to a country on the globe where the characters aren’t recognized. Even in 1992 my young mind knew how out of touch the then-campaigning George Bush Sr. was when he said that Americans “…needed to be closer to the Waltons than the Simpsons.” He lost that election to the more media savvy Bill Clinton- pop culture affecting Presidential politics. Mr. Plow predating Joe the Plumber.
Each of these prints feature a split fountain for the sky, which gives a nice depth of field and a more naturalistic look to the finished art. A split fountain is an ink blend that’s mixed on the actual screen used for printing, which can produce some beautiful results. Although the process almost guarantees that no two prints are alike. This is overlaid with a transparent black ink to provide clouds and a shadow layer over the other colors. Artistically, my starting point on these came from hours of browsing Chris Ware’s sketch books published by Fantagraphics. In some of the pages, he has these beautiful little black and white line drawings of buildings and cars and telephone lines, all communicated with a simplicity that is hard to communicate in words. With repeating patterns of hatching and parallel lines to denote shading, he’s able to evoke a mood of stillness and beauty. Obviously, my line art is a little more cluttered and brushy than Ware’s, and I’m working in color here, but it was the initial kernel of artistic inspiration for this series. Some artists might try to hide their inspirations, but I prefer to put mine right out there- it’s more honest and informative in my opinion.
This one is my favorite of the bunch- the blue to pink split fountain echoing the setting sun.
The problem with starting a series like this is that you might write up a list of all the pieces you want to do, but once you’ve got a few images into it, you’ve already thought of a whole list of brand new images you want to do first and the original ‘sacred cows’ you wanted to hit get bumped further and further down the cue. (All In the Family is a casualty of this process.) This two part print of America’s favorite street is one of the ones that popped up and refused to wait it’s turn.
Growing up in the suburbs, my first exposure to what a ‘real’ city was like was Sesame Street. And when I say ‘real’ city, I mean apartment buildings, corner bodegas, and a positive multiculturalism that wasn’t reflected in my suburban surroundings. When I finally did visit NYC for the first time in early 2001, I was half expecting to see a two-headed spelling monster pop his head around a corner or encounter a frog reporter. I remember calling my brother and excitedly telling him I saw kids playing in the spray from a fire hydrant JUST LIKE ON TV! I did see some people living in garbage heaps, but that wasn’t nearly as fun as it should be. To this day, the original theme song of Sesame Street gets me misty-eyed. This particular street corner is a cultural icon in an of itself. It’s where everyone I grew up with learned to read, to count, and more importantly to share and be kind. This plywood set populated by people, foam or otherwise is IMPORTANT. It presented a racially diverse cast in a way that had never been seen in children’s programming at the time. When it debuted, a Mississippi state commission voted to ban the program because of it. Sesame Street, like All in the Family was an agent for social change. It’s easy to forget in the intervening years, but while Archie Bunker might have been an avatar for the white, lower to middle class audience it targeted, having him bump into a 1970’s modern woman like Bea Arthur’s Maude or Sammy Davis Jr.’s black/ jewish reality was slowly educating the audience that ‘hey, these people- they’re just people too.’ And the fact that the Grouchketeers had kids from all backgrounds was a very specific and groundbreaking choice. Progressiveness through Puppetry.
The fun thing for me in doing these prints is all the research that it involves. I ‘had to’ watch a lot of Sesame Street, followed by a viewing of Follow That Bird (seriously a fun, great movie). I wanted to depict the street and ‘Arbor’ (as the area in the middle is known) as I remembered it from the late 70’s through the mid-80’s. Thumbing through countless photos and video clips brought back memories I didn’t know were still there. Now if I could just get my two year old to watch anything but Yo Gabba Gabba, I’d gladly forge new memories of this fictional and eternal corner that he’ll carry through to his children.
“Rusty Shackelford” 16×20 edition of 100.
King of the Hill is an odd duck of a show. Set in a mythical suburban Texas town, a mix of a very real Richardson and Garland (both towns adjacent to Plano, where I grew up), it rings with an authenticity any Texas-raised child would recognize. The thing that’s odd to me is that the show was aired anywhere else in the nation, much less the world. No matter how extreme the characters are on screen, I know someone who could have been the archetype they were based on. I WISH I could say I never met a gun-nut conspiracy theorist like Dale Gribble, but I knew that guy, mirrored sunglasses and all. I’ll never forget my friend’s parents pulling out the night vision goggles one evening to see what the cops were doing up the block, a loaded handgun on the coffee table. The provincial and Protestant Peggy Hill was no parody, but an accurate representation of just about every teacher I had growing up in Texas. If there’s a character in television history that is most representative of my life- it’s Bobby Hill. A short, fat, awkward outsider, obsessed with fruit pies in a football dominated culture. (I still literally could not tell you the rules of pigskin to this day.) Now, my parents were East-coast transplants and my family life wasn’t anything like Bobby’s, but I’ve been to that house and seen that family repeated dozens of times, I tell you what.
I remember driving past the local propane dealer time and time again, never really understanding what the hell those places were for. We were charcoal briquette people. (Hank would be ashamed.)
I purposefully went for a dusty, gritty look for this print- trying to echo the sometimes frightening weather of central Texas. I spent more than a few hours under a mattress in my parent’s hallway, waiting for the tornado to come and kill us all, only to get the all clear signal from the local siren. (Seriously- I can’t believe I live in a world where that is real- one day you’re just watching Mr. Peppermint on TV, and the next- wind is coming to kill you.)
Next up, I went a little bit more contemporary with the Bluth Banana stand. This show wormed it’s way into me post-cancellation, I’m embarrassed to say. But I’d guess that’s the case with the vast majority of AD’s fans today. As I was working on this print, the news broke that Arrested Development was in fact coming BACK to television, albeit through the subscription service Netflix, and later into theaters in a long-rumored film. This is fantastic news- and what I believe is a first for network TV- the internet spoke as a collective and WILLED this show back into production. This isn’t the case of some stiff in a suit saying “You know what was popular? 90210. Let’s do that again, even though no-one ever asked for it.” The only reason Dallas is back on the air is because people recognize it as a BRAND, not as a show anyone was dying for more of. But this is something…else. We weren’t done with the Bluths, and we demanded a family reunion. And we’re getting it. Now, who wants to start a Kickstarter to get Firefly back? The internet has spoken.
Normally for a variant, you go for a simple color swap with your screens, or add an effect layer, like glow in the dark, or print on a different surface like wood or metal. But with this one, I completely redrew the Banana stand and produced a whole new set of separations to get the “fire” version produced. Twice the work, but totally worth the effort for a subject I love. I could have gone with the model home, but I thought the stand proved itself more iconic for the insanity of this series.
I don’t think there’s been a show as socially changing as Seinfeld, at least not for my generation. It had a cultural ubiquity that hasn’t been found since. The diversification of media and the multiplication of viewing options that cable afforded after Seinfeld took it’s bow pretty much guaranteed that. I believe it was truly the last great hurrah of the network comedy, much to their disappointment. I’m reminded of a quote from Alec Baldwin’s Jack character from 30Rock, where that show’s version of NBC’s business strategy was to “make it 1997 again through science or magic.” That ship has long sailed, though. If there was any justice in the world, Curb Your Enthusiasm would be just as popular as Seinfeld ever was, but America just doesn’t tune in as a collective group like that anymore. Seinfeld‘s crowning achievement, I think, was to bring neurotic, New York Jewish comedy to middle America- something that not even the great Woody Allen was able to do. It was a sit-com that injected stand-up culture into the living room in a way that Carson and Letterman couldn’t. Seinfeld was a comedy about the small things- waiting in line, ordering soup, licking an envelope- the narrative stuff that stand-up is made of. I would say the brilliant Louis C.K.’s Louie is Seinfeld’s direct descendant, with it’s seemingly free-form episode structure and stand-up framing device. While Seinfeld’s main competitor in the show’s early years was the overly sentimental and catch-phrase heavy Tim Allen vehicle, Home Improvement– in a few seasons Seinfeld would become a dominant cultural force and Home Improvement merely a footnote. Seinfeld made meanness funny, and all other shows seem tame in comparison. The ‘cool’ kids watched Seinfeld. The normal kids watched banal crap like Full House and Perfect Strangers. (I have to admit to watching both shows in my youth.) My group of friends was glued to Seinfeld every week, and it was all we talked about over lunch in the school cafeteria the following day. I don’t know how many inane conversations I had to endure of people trying to force a group of friends into the roles of the principals on the show. Consensus always made me come out as George- but at least no-one in my group was trying to figure out who was Chandler and who was Monica. I would have murdered everyone involved in that discussion. Even the language of the show entered common usage like a virus- if I say “Master of my Domain” you know what I’m talking about, regardless of whether you’ve see that episode or not. I could go on endlessly about the show, but this is an article about an art show about television. So-
For a show based almost completely around interior locales, there is one stand-out exterior shot in Seinfeld– the restaurant. Unlike the other prints in this series, the restaurant is an actual location you can visit and touch- reality and fiction intertwined. While the diner is called ‘Monks’ in the show, it is in fact Tom’s Diner (of the Susanne Vega song) on 2880 Broadway in New York. Fun fact I learned while researching this print is that the exterior of the actual diner in no way matches up with the set that was built in LA.
“Whatever Happened to Gary Cooper” 18×24 Signed and numbered edition of 100. Wood edition of 10.
The Sopranos is the precursor to all the great, serialized programming we have today. It was a watershed moment in television- anything that came after The Sopranos was going to be compared to it. Being of partial Italian descent, as a child I always took a secret pride in the ‘rep’ Italians got in the media. Films like The Godfather and Goodfellas gave the young me a racial identity that was PROBABLY very undeserved. (Especially considering how incredibly mixed my European background is… I mean, ‘Doyle’ isn’t exactly Sicilian). But growing up in a suburban wasteland like Plano, Texas, you have to grab on to whatever you can to feel like you stand out in some way special. What I find most impressive about The Sopranos is that it’s a show about mobsters who are very much influenced by the movies and fiction of being a mobster. It’s pop culture eating itself. Unlike say, The Godfather- the characters in Sopranos have SEEN the Godfather, and it’s informed who they are. This is also partially their downfall- when it comes to the day to day work of ‘mobstering’, most these guys are very bad at it. The character of Christopher Moltisanti clumsily dishes out quotes from mob movies in the early episodes- showing that he not only missed the point of those films (honor, family), he couldn’t even be bothered to get the trappings correct. The title of this piece, “Whatever Happened to Gary Cooper” is a quote from Tony’s therapy session in the first episode, showing that even he has bought into the illusion of machismo shown in the media of his youth. I was wavering back and forth between drawing this image or the ‘Bing’ club, but in the end, that completely hilarious Pig sculpture and the oh-so-Jersey satellite dish.
“Unreal Estate” opens up on Feb 2nd at the SpokeArt gallery on 816 Sutter St in San Francisco. Prints unsold at the opening will be available online afterwards. The original line art for every piece, along with larger images of each one can be seen in our FLICKR FEED HERE.
Thank you for reading this admittedly rambling run-down of the show.