Vol.3, Number 3, November 2007
[Download $ at Ingenta]
CARRIE MOYER IS A NEW YORK-BASED PAINTER AND A CO-FOUNDER OF THE RENOWNED PUBLIC ART PROJECT, DYKE ACTION MACHINE! HER PAINTINGS AND AGITPROP INTERVENTIONS HAVE BEEN WIDELY EXHIBITED BOTH NATIONALLY AND INTERNATIONALLY, INCLUDING SUCH VENUES AS PS1, THE PALM BEACH ICA, THE WEATHERSPOON, COOPER-HEWITT AND TANG MUSEUMS, SHEDHALLE (ZURICH), LE MAGASIN (GRENOBLE) AND THE PROJECT CENTRE (DUBLIN), AMONG OTHERS. MOYER CURRENTLY TEACHES PAINTING AT YALE AND RUTGERS UNIVERSITIES.
> UNITED SOCIETY OF BELIEVERS
Remember the Sixties? I do. Or, at least, I think I do. All that patchwork and long, straight hair. My first taste of “tofurkey.” There are palpable images of women offering me food as we warmed ourselves around a bonfire in Washington D.C. I was nine years old and, beyond the flaming oil drum, a column of shivering marchers from the 1969 Anti-War Demonstration trudged by. The next year my parents threw their two kids, dog and meager stash of possessions into the back of a utility van and fled Detroit for the Promised Land: Berkeley, California. I still have my copy of Mao’s “Little Red Book,” given to me at the local film co-op by some creepy, string y man who distributed them like candy to all the young girls.
As a painter, graphic designer and all-around purveyor of agitprop, I know full well that the best way to connect with a viewer is by using the familiar to arrive at the unknown. I am also aware that, despite a visual environment that continues to expand exponentially, the parameters of the “familiar” are actually quite small, as only a few items from this image explosion register widely enough to be repurposed. This subset becomes fodder for the infinite renditions posted on YouTube and Flickr by professional and amateur image-makers alike. So, while a steady stream of pictures certainly accelerates the viewer’s visual fluency, a Mobius strip of clichés drains any sense of pleasure or discovery from the act of reading an image, turning it instead into a humdrum game of cut and paste.
As an artist, the task for me then becomes one of using the generic to get at the specific, the personal or the unknown. For the past twenty years, my art practice has circulated between three distinct locations: agitprop, public art projects and painting. During that time I’ve supported my art by working as graphic designer for large advertising agencies. The visual strategies that operate in a commercial context have had an enormous impact not only on my public art projects that are usually seen outdoors, by large crowds of people, but also on the paintings that are seen in a gallery, often by only a few people at a time. In an urban environment, posters must be heard above the cacophony of the other messages around them and yet still be a part of the conversation. To cut through visual noise, the image and text must be precisely calibrated to both the location as well as the audience. Much contemporary painting, on the other hand, uses graphic design as a kind of foil to push at the parameters of the medium. For whether design refers to the expediency of mass production, Pop Art, or the utopian ideals of the Bauhaus, it can only be folded into the experience of the painting at hand as well as painting history.
I have sought, with varying degrees of success, to hybridize a deep engagement with 20th century art history and contemporary pop culture with my own desire to create social change. Like the many, many other artists who have been down this well-worn path, I’m always vacillating between skepticism and conviction. Is visual art even up to the task of transforming a fundamentally inequitable society? Doubtful. Then I remember how images have profoundly influenced and even changed me over the course of my life. This constant fluctuation between belief and disbelief has prompted my investigation into how different visual genres affect the reading of intention and aesthetics.
When I trained as a painter in New York City in the mid 1980s, the art world was suffering one of its periodic bouts with a particularly vapid form of Neo-Expressionism. “Bad Painting” was all the rage. Within this context, the critique of painting that emanated from feminism, postmodernism and identity art seemed completely appropriate. While making a picture offered me a tiny window of transcendence from time to time, I hadn’t yet figured out what painting was good for. I wanted my work to be urgent and socially conscious. Instead the images came out looking either too precious or too hokey. Painting talked of history and everything I wanted to say was about the moment I was living in, the NOW. I took a class with Polish conceptual artist, Krzysztof Wodiczko, and fell hard for the witty, fierce voices of artist collectives such as Gran Fury and the Guerilla Girls.
DYKE ACTION MACHINE!
My time as a graphic designer on Madison Avenue stood me in good stead when I came to queer activism a few years later. I became the de facto Minister of Propaganda for a variety of activist groups including the Lesbian Avengers, Queer Nation and the Irish Lesbian and Gay Organization. In 1991 Sue Schaffner, a commercial photographer, and I joined forces to found the lesbian public art collaboration, Dyke Action Machine! Inspired by Barbara Kruger, we appropriated the means of production and distribution from our corporate day jobs and used them for acts of graphic subversion. As counternarratives to the advertisements we were producing for hire, DAM! projects aimed to expose the absence of lesbian visual representation in mainstream culture and its constituent implication that one is not “visible” as an American unless one is a member of a niche market.
Between 1991-2004, DAM!’s public art campaigns dissected mainstream visual culture by inserting lesbian images into recognizably commercial contexts. Our projects culminated in an annual installation of 5,000 posters wheat pasted on the streets of New York City, right next to advertisements for “The Lion King” and Brittany Spears. Dyke Action Machine! was an early adopter of “culture-jamming” as we sought to reclaim public space from the encroachments of commercial sponsorship. Our work redirects the so-called “universal” address of advertising so that it speaks to the Citizen as well as the Consumer. The aesthetic properties of specific genres of communication (the bridal magazine, the public service announcement, the educational website, the radical poster and so on) were mined to touch upon the emotional and experiential truths of lesbian existence. The fact that there has been very little visual culture or even commodity produced specifically for lesbians has ensured that our posters have pride of place in personal collections around the world.
THE STREET MOVES (INSIDE THE WHITE CUBE)
Like the Red-Diaper babies of the 1940s, my own attachment to mid-century radical politics often manifests itself through the fuzzy lens of childhood. Sure, dedicating one’s life and art to lesbian rights and those of the similarly oppressed was the moral thing to do. But it was also the glamorous thing to do. Like the figure of the Artist, the Revolutionary – as embodied by stars such as Che, Huey Newton or Angela Davis – continues to loom large in the pantheon of romantic heroes (especially if that roster was formed during a hippie childhood). Similarly, the iconography of dissent – the clenched fist, the peace sign, the pot leaf – had been fully converted to decoration for every conceivable type of product. By turns seductive, offensive and ultimately just plain banal, the re-production of 60s countercultural imagery became a very rich archive to draw from.
By the late 90s, the US was getting more conservative by the day and there was an open-ended melancholy caused by the failed “promises” of the 60s. So how would one renew a passion for social engagement? How could it be re-enchanted? Using the sexy images of radicals or logos as visual bait seemed like as good a way as any other. I was also coming around to painting again. On the street, image and text must coalesce into a very fast read or else they fail. Sometimes a one-two punch is possible if the viewer is strolling by instead of sprinting. Painting, on the other hand, extends time by making a perceptual and visceral connection that exists outside of language. While the physical properties of gesture or materials become ironic and flatfooted when “captured” in a poster, in a painting those qualities provide a real-time tactile and optical experience, situating the artist’s intention in relation to other painters and art history. Applying the strategies of graphic design to painting, I wanted to make paintings that conflated the charismatic iconography of radical politics with an ecstatic materiality. Pours of bloody red paint could be treated with as much formal rigor and theatricality as the liberation graphics of the street. Once inside the paintings, the reproduced peace signs and clenched fists buried in pools of glitter seemed to somehow embody the tangled politics of visual pleasure and commodity. Conversely, is the shimmering narcotic of visual pleasure to blame for the failed revolution? The dialectical connection between fine art and popular culture is further heightened when the irrationality of painting is applied to the mechanical expediency of commercial image.
Carrie Moyer, “Our Own Desires Will Build the Revolution,” 2004. Acrylic, glitter on canvas. 84 x 72 inches.
A 21st CENTURY CALL TO AESTHETIC ARMS
As my paintings moved inexorably toward abstraction, a persistent sentiment began to reveal itself across my entire art practice, whether it was design and agitprop, public art or painting. The desire to believe in the inevitability of social progress becomes the obdurate idea against which various formal tactics are played out, depending on the visual genre. References to the big, unwieldy utopian visual systems of the twentieth century – Constructivism, the Bauhaus and later Modernism – made their way into the work. Having grown up inside a homemade, slapdash version 60s politics, I could have obviously gone either way as an adult: unrepentant optimist or jaundiced reactionary. It was true that tangible advances in civil rights had been fought for and actually won. And yet, the long onslaught of conservatism has been both tenacious and ferocious. Waking up to find that Ronald Reagan elected president was a shock to my twenty-year old system that I still haven’t gotten over. Whether art and design could make people’s lives better continues to be a relevant question for me.
In the past few years, the sign system of 20th century abstraction has made its way into the image bank that I draw from. The un-ironic gestures of the “pour” painter are reiterated in an attempt at emotional proximity to the viewer, embodying a purity of intent ascribed to both the wild-eyed radical and Modernist
notions of the spirituality of abstraction. Revisiting the political roots of 20th century abstraction – when painting and graphic design was emboldened to picture a radical New World Order – remnants of resistance graphics are embedded deep into the ground of each painting, rendering them practically invisible. This gesture sets aside overt references to the expected signs of political speech in an effort to incite a fundamental riot of emotion through the viscera of paint and re-imagines a location where the endpoints of parallel utopian systems meet. The works asserts the political relevance of abstraction by binding together two historical tropes: willfully de-aestheticized political broadsides aimed at undermining bourgeois taste and values and color-field abstraction, which emphasized the immediacy of painting as a medium of communication.
Carrie Moyer, “The Stone Age,” 2006. Acrylic, glitter on canvas. 60 x 84 inches.
THE STONE AGE
My recent paintings are inspired in part by the current critical reassessment of the Feminist Art Movement of the 1970s. It has been approximately 35 years since the watershed events such as “Womanhouse,” the 1972 collaborative project created at the Feminist Art Program at Cal Arts, and the unvieling of Judy Chicago’s monumental project, “The Dinner Party.” Recalling my own first eye-opening encounter with feminist art as a young artist, the paintings are full of forms that resonate with the strangeness and preliterate opacity of archaic sculpture. Invented avatars — reminiscent of the Venus of Willendorf, ceremonial instruments, human beings and animals — are evoked through the interplay of abstract shapes and a deepened sense of painterly call and response with puddles and flows of suggestive color. Wry investigations of New Age kitsch, Herstory and Judy Chicago’s “central core” or vaginal imagery are playfully tweaked in large paintings that place abstracted fertility symbols within flat, poster-like landscapes worthy of a 1960s Supergraphic.
While my desire to figure out “what painting is good for” will probably never be fully satisfied, my answers to that question have become much less didactic and more nuanced as I continue to make art. One thing is certain however: my interrogation of social progress and its importance to Modernism is served by a significantly expanded visual lexicon. By enacting the notion of a personal archive through the formal directives of contrasting visual genres, each kind of work and each work itself becomes a “container” for multiple sets and subsets of ideas. I have no interest in establishing a hierarchy with my collection of images, allowing the pours, drips and handprints to live right next to mass-marketed logos without draining either of their power or intention. Mind and body are addressed equally. The visceral evidence of mid 20th century abstract painting and a cheap t-shirt covered with peace signs speak to the same longing.