In the fall of 1985, when I read that Yankees outfielder Dave Winfield was going to sign autographs at a Long Island Hilton, I decided I would execute the most exactingly perfect Ticonderoga No 2-on-paper portrait of him that had ever been produced. I had the paper and the pencils, but was forced to buy packs of baseball cards to find an image of him. I went through a month’s-worth of allowance before I finally found the card in a Topps wax pack. Over the next four nights I completed what I still consider my masterpiece. And if you doubt its quality, I’ll have you know Mr. Winfield himself told me it was “astounding” when he signed it on a Saturday morning in November 1985. That cultural treasure has hung in my father’s office for more than 20 years.
Last Tuesday, I was wondering what a mature Bot Fly looked like. I Googled it, and in 15 seconds I knew. And what blood fluke, hook worms and intestinal amoebas looked like. All collateral infections from my search, these organisms now freeload in my visual memory like actual parasites might in my gut.
Twenty-seven years ago I couldn’t locate a picture of a celebrity for the better part of a week and today I can pull up twenty thousand of an obscure protozoan or a flesh eating fly in a few seconds.
When I sketched Dave Winfield at my family’s kitchen table two-and-a-half decades ago, the tide of cultural criticism about the information age had already crested: Jean Baudrillard’s “Hyper-Realism of Simulation,” Hal Foster’s “Subversive Signs” and “Learning from Las Vegas,” were all in the ether. And the work of the artists of the “Pictures Generation”—Sherrie Levine, Cindy Sherman, Sarah Charlesworth, Richard Prince, et al.—were all established and hanging in Eugene and Barbara Schwartz’s living room.
After reading about worms that would enjoy living in my digestive tract, I revisited a little of Fredric Jameson’s “Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism”. It was the bit about Van Gogh’s peasant boots versus Warhol’s diamond dust shoes. It’s amazing how prescient he and the others were about imagery, media and accelerated culture. It seems as if they felt the Internet waiting to split civilization at the seams. But, in much the same way the overdetermined, everything-will-be-made-of-aluminum pulp science fiction of the 1950’s, the look-and-feel of those “Pictures” artists, and the accompanying media theories, expired before the more substantial part of the message was absorbed.
Now, as hyper-reality prevails in earnest, and all the futuristic amenities predicted in the Jetsons, save for household robots, arrive, we seem to have normalized and adapted to the vertigo of image overload.
Finding an photo of Dave Winfield was half the battle for an artist in 1985. Now the finding is meaningless and the editing is primary. Some consider this condition visual emancipation, but in time most will see it as visual paralysis, a massive amoebic whole leaching the power of helpless individual pictures.
Without trying I can name artists who make images whose content is sourced from diseased organs to supernovae to shopping carts to movie star pets to NASCAR crashes. I saw a collage recently that featured images of emus, James Taylor, Hubble telescopes, Sesame Street characters and gyrating porn stars, and still it hit me softer than the shimmering highlights on the evening gown of one of Sargent’s ladies. I can yawn in front a Ryan Trecartin…which proves his point and his value as a cultural commentator. The frisson once evoked by the uncanny juxtapositions enacted by Kurt Schwitters or James Rosenquist have been neutralized by the white noise tidal wave of the internet and the spigot that is the search engine.
This condition makes Richard Prince’s cowboys and Sherrie Levine’s Edward Westons look extra profound to me in 2012, and forces me to consider if society is capable of putting good commentary to use, or if even at its best, well-aimed cultural criticism will be processed as good taste. It also makes me look at my Dave Winfield and wonder if my children will ever know what it’s like to thumb through a pack of baseball cards one by one, reading each image, recording every graphic detail with butterflies in their stomach. My guess is that the orgiastic charge that coursed through me when his card appeared in that pack had something to do with the mystery of limitation and the magic of scarcity.
Someone once said with knowledge goes magic, and with magic goes knowledge. I think I know a place where where that scarcity and limits still exist. To be continued…