Group 4 : Postcards Assemblages with China Markers 1983

One of things that I experienced in working for John Chamberlain was the use of found object assemblage material.  To be accurate, Chamberlain almost always altered his found objects before incorporating them in his assemblage sculptures, but never-the-less his material starts from being found, as it comes from the formation of auto bodies. Working for John was an inundation in assembly line processing. In this aspect, he followed Henry Ford’s process. If John’s work has to be associated with the automotive, it should be for his assembly line of chance operations and not, because his crushed metal elements really have anything to do with car content.

My jobs included cutting things, especially chrome bumpers, bending body metal in a paper bailer and painting.  I also found and processed all the Tonka pieces. When I started working for him he said proudly, “I’m the only one that can make a mistake!” In other words the chance processes I would perform to create his assemblage pieces, where up to him to use or discard.  I was instructed to take cans of color and pour them on piles of  metal I had bent up in the bailer. When the paint had dried and the parts were separated, the color that had dried on the respective pieces was very arbitrary. Once John threw a can of color backwards over his head to land on a pile of metal I had bent up.  That insured that I understood just how chance driven he wanted the process to be.

In the summer of 1983, we were living in my parent’s house on Siesta Key. One of my issues was how the natural places I grew up in, got developed by those who seemed to me, to have little understanding of the natural world that existed there before they came and changed it.  Now looking back, my feelings had to have been as much about the loss of childhood, the loss of innocence, as they were about the loss of nature.  In addition to the anger I felt at the change of the environment, my parents’ property became threatened by a unique kind of coastal erosion while we lived there. A natural pass that carried water from the bay to the Gulf became un-stabilized and began to migrate from where it had been for about 60 years towards our section of the beach. In just a month it threatened to take out our neighbor’s house and then ours. We went through a horrific battle with the authorities and the community before the issue was somewhat settled. It was a rite of passage for me, as I dealt with the authorities alone while my parents stayed in their summer pattern, living in Long Island. I bring the erosion event up to shed light on the work I did then, as some of the images were a direct reaction to it.

My expression of the anger I felt was to employ sarcasm. The vehicle for this came about from my reaction one day to a carousel stand of picture postcards that are ubiquitous in most of the tourist stores down there. The imagery on these postcards are clichés made as souvenirs for tourists to take or send home. There were photos of sunsets, alligators, and girls in skimpy bikinis, sea gulls, or “landmarks” like big new developments. There were images of old oak trees with Spanish moss, water skiing, alligators, pelicans, flamingos, aerial photos of the barrier islands known as “keys”, Manatees, orange groves, sand dollars, lovers walking on the beach and even the Skyway Bridge which during the previous year, had been hit by a tanker. That spectacle / tragedy was used by the tourist industry as a souvenir image. Images on postcards of the bridge missing the lane where 32 people lost their lives by driving off 150 feet into Tampa Bay were common during those years.  There for the tourists who in my angry view were trampling on my sacred ground, the picture postcards seemed the perfect foil for me to use to protest all that I was angry about. And John’s example, of using a found objects and then altering them, became the model for me in the years I worked on postcards.

One of the things I learned from John about assemblage is that you have to have lots of material so that your grouping choices are as various as possible. Postcards were cheap and I could buy them in mass quantities. At first I assembled them together in various tiling patterns.  Their diminutive size made it so that when seen from across a room one did not at first recognize the images. They looked like abstract patterns and in this and because of their scale, they related to my oil paintings from 1979 and the paper assemblages before that. Whether it condemns me or not, I’ll admit I had no awareness of the same kind of work being done by Gilbert and George. What the patterning did to the imagery was of great interest to me, as it automatically sent the images into a deconstructed space. By multiplying them, each element became detached from its context and joined the context of its “likes”.  To me this was strange form of surrealist space where the image’s context was misplaced. I felt this was a way to negate their use for tourists’ pleasure.

At some point because I was still doing some drawings with China Markers, I just started drawing on the post cards. I liked the contrast of the two surfaces, the slick glossy surface of the photos with the flat surface of the wax markers.  Having gotten used to altering John’s found material, my altering the postcards was an easy step and the repertoire I had developed using the markers, which included scrapping layers of wax down to the surfaces beneath was applied to overworking the photographic images on the cards.  As far as I know this was a few years before Gerhard Richter did a similar thing with his “over-painted photographs”. To draw or paint on a photograph is a form of critique made visually and directly, instead of through words which function at a remove from the object itself.  To alter the photographic image by making marks on it, one can emphasize being  “with” or “against”, the image. Drawn or painted over photography, is a form of commentary and artists have been doing it for probably as long as photography has been around.

Anyways, you’ll see in these works, images that deal with shifting shorelines and flooded developments, references to our erosion problem. The idea of putting bright colors over the shoreline images was partly influenced by Christo as he had just completed surrounding some islands in Biscane Bay with pink fabric which was very thought provoking both from an aesthetic as well as environmental point of view. In my way, I altered things too, through drawing. I flooded beach-front developments, swamped new bridges and causeways, erased the crowds sunning themselves on the beaches, drew giant spikes that dwarfed other new buildings, blackened blue waters, put fire and brimstone in blue skies – just generally raised hell among the many images of tourist memorabilia I had found.  This was my way of dealing with my feelings. Some works are “graffitied on” images, which deny the gratification of souvenir visions by being overwritten with the angst of expressionist gesture.   The use of my father’s language – abstract gesture – was also a step towards dealing with my background. Working for John had allowed me to go back to it and use it for my own purposes. I felt the work was in line with some of the neo-expressionist work being done in Europe and in New York by my peers. But there I was, like Robinson Carouso, working on a beach on the west coast of Florida.