Ephemerama #16

I’ve been working hard in the studio lately with these “Temple of Doom” drawings which are finally seeming worthy of my time. Part of the reason that I do so many multiples of work is exactly for the reason that it often takes me several iterations of an idea before I think its working, or rotating as I call it. “Temple of Doom 3” finally rotates, now the others will fall in line. But with 7 more to go I can see that they will probably occupy the remainder of the year to finish. This is another issue I’m having in my work, I create these series of 8 or in this case 10 works and then I get burned out on my idea, but being stubborn I labor on anyway. I have good ideas for the 7 last pieces of “Doom” and will begin another today, but I think for future series of work I might do 6 or dare I say it 4 works so I can move on to other ideas quickly.

Here is Behold, the Loathsome Temple of Doom #3

Anthony Smith Jr, Behold the Loathsome Temple of Doom 3, 40 x 43 inches, sharpie marker, 2015

I promised another segment of that artists talk I did at R.I.T. in this post. The talk I felt was not exactly what the department had in mind. At 27 pages and 72 slides it was far too long, however it did surmise my history and creative perspective well. This section of the talks speaks about 4 bodies of work that I’ve been working on since I moved my studio to Pennsylvania in 2012.

My Current Works.

The Pilot Set, The Deadly Papa Butum, The Vixen Virgin Mermaid of the Sargasso Sea, and Puppet Pal Friends.

Pilot, (or How do you stop a Flying Dreadnought), The Deadly Papa Butum, The Vixen Virgin Mermaid of the Sargasso Sea, and Puppet Pal Friends. These four recent bodies of work are in many ways a summation of my artistic approach and represent a developing trend of blending elements of my own hermetic universe with current event from the culture at large. I’d like to begin first with the Vixen Virgin Mermaid of the Sargasso Sea because this body of work came to me nearly fully developed in my mind two years ago and represents the beginning of an exceptionally active phase of my recent studio practice.

I initially conceived of this body of work while thinking about sex-shaming especially with women. There is an expectation by many for women to be both a Madonna and harlot and the hypocrisy of these expectations often fills me with rage over the unfairness of it all. And so I thought about my little mermaid collage images. This mermaid came to my in a pack of loteria cards I purchased in Reynosa, Mexico in 2008. A friend of mine who teaches at the University of Texas Pan-American took me to the town to give me a taste of life across the border, and not having a lot of money to spend on trinkets I settled on this deck of loteria cards as a souvenir. Now for those of you who don’t know, loteria is like Mexican bingo but instead of numbers, these beautifully drawn cartoon images are what’s called out. These drawings, soldiers, drunkards, strong men, stars, scorpions, Indians, mermaids and many other images have all made appearances in my paintings since I discovered them as collage elements, and the perfect narrative devices to advance a story. So I choose the mermaid, this strange object of sexual desire for men – you should see the mermaid tattoos out there  – in this simple didactic tale where she hazily emerges, presents her world, peacocks, then repents, peacocks again, then gets punished by her father Neptune, shows off one last time and finally fades in the distance.  I wanted the body of work to show the mermaid in defiance but also somewhat ambivalent regarding the vixen/virgin dichotomy since the truth of female sexual behavior probably lies somewhere in between the two extremes. I completed this body of work shortly after arriving in the Lehigh Valley in Pennsylvania and its the first major body of work I completed there, coming on the heels of my very real personal battles between being a saint and a slut.

Back two years ago when I was still thin and beautiful and went to the gym regularly I was in the showers at the gym and I became obsessed with the square shower tiles on the walls. I desperately wanted to make square paintings afterwards since squares are such a composition challenge for many artists. But what to put in the square, I needed a compelling subject since squares are such bulls-eyes, so I thought … there in the showers… gazing at these squares…, “vampire pope”. I literally mouthed those words, and so the Deadly Papa Butum was born. (What if every pope was in fact a vampire in disguise, what would all those portraits of popes look like if they truly revealed themselves? I set out to paint those portraits. Papa Butum is what I call a “strut painting”. Not being explicitly narrative, “Butum” instead is like a composition game where certain designs or motifs appear in one set of paintings, and then switch and change in the next piece. This can involve changing how the borders are treated in every other painting or how the vampire pope himself is painted. In odd paintings Papa Butum is a cut out stencil in even works he’s a college. Always there’s the same face with bat wing ears and fearsome bulgy eyes, surrounded by bats snakes and cats as familiars and accompanied by an angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other. Over the length of the set Papa Butum also became a color story for me as well with life-savor candy colors challenging me to work outside my comfort zone. My color palette tends towards blacks grays and reds. Butum aside from being an elaborate composition exercise, represents an irreverence in my work. Taking notions and ideas that are supposed to be sacrosanct and revered and adding a touch of humor and whimsy is my forte.

In the late 1990’s Cartoon Network, then still a Turner brand, began creating a series of innovative and truly funny kids’ cartoons. Cartoons with a mature subjects that adults could enjoy as well. Shows like “Cow and Chicken”, “Samurai Jack”, “Courage the Cowardly Dog”, “Power Puff Girls” and one of my favorites “Dexter’s Laboratory”. These cartoons for me represented a golden age in animation, truly making the channel destination viewing. Created by Genndy Tartakovsky, who responsible for most of Cartoon Networks amazing cartoons from this time period, “Dexter’s Laboratory” in particular was innovative for its ability to show a child’s imagination and ingenuity existing almost completely separately from adult influence or supervision, showing the fascinating creativity of a child’s mind. Within this cartoon there are several mini-cartoons, “Monkey” was one of my favorites, as was the “Justice Friends”. Within the “Justice Friends” mini cartoon was “Puppet Pal Friends”. Just about the most simple and elegant composition I think I’ve seen for telling a simple visual joke or story. A simple horizon line and two characters on sticks who bonk each other with foam mallets. One of my personal hero’s Austin Kleon said once if you see something good another artist is doing steal it and make it your own and so that what I did with this cartoon within a cartoon within a cartoon. “Puppet Pal Friends” is my go to drawing series for displaying internal discussions on race, class and sexuality because its formula is so simple. Colored paper  18 x 24 inches, a simple background sketch (loosely drawn and colorful), a series of horizontal lines representing the curtains wall, two crudely drawn abstracted “characters” dangling from a black stick, and finally barely legible text free-floating in the air that churns over some pretty turgid material as if its light fallen snow. Raw and gritty, this body of work again represents whimsy for me but also allows me to literally speak to an audience free of the restriction of needing to be balanced or fair minded, or needing to make something pretty.

In the skies over Ethiopia in spring of 1936, a young black man from Gulfport Mississippi flew Emperor Haile Selassie to one last defensive battle against Fascist Italy. With Ethiopia facing eminent defeat a disheartened John C. Robinson was then commanded by the emperor to return to the United States to try to put a human face to the Italian invasion that he as the leader of his people could not do before the League of Nations a year earlier. Only a decade earlier, John Robinson was denied admission to the Curtiss-Wright School of Aeronautics in Chicago, because he was black.

Some seventy years later Airman 1st Class Felisha Rexford, a sensor operator from the 46th Expeditionary Reconnaissance Squadron, co-piloted a MQ-1 Predator unmanned aerial vehicle mission flying over the skies of Iraq from a ground base at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada. She would tell the Air Force News Service that her deployment was an unforgettable experience. The Airmen’s mission duties included using the planes laser guidance system to pinpoint locations to drop hell-fire missiles down on enemy targets below. On this particular mission in July of 2005 Airman Rexford was excited to be working directly with officers, piloting the drones, as this is a rare opportunity for an airman. Rexford told the news service, “It’s an amazing feeling to know that we are giving support to the troops on the ground,” (Emery, Shaun. “Predator Operators See Whole Picture” AFPN, 29 July 2005). This service she’s providing to her comrades being delivery of unstoppable invisible death from above on both enemy and civilian from a base in the desert from 18000 miles away.

The story of these two pilots is the inspiration for a series of 8 large paintings exploring questions about the heroics of a largely forgotten African-American pilot and our largely anonymous drone “pilots” of today. This work I call Pilot (or how do you stop a Flying Dreadnought).

I became interested in this subject after completing another body of work a few years ago that dealt with hero-worship and the unreasonable expectations placed upon Barack Obama during the 2008 presidential campaign. That series, Who is Prester John, traveled to three cities across the country as part of a two person show called “Off the Barbarous Coast”, with my colleague Colin Matthes. During the time of that exhibit I often thought about how war affects a society that largely avoids the human effects of its foreign policy. I became concerned at that time that the new president would have to follow the anonymous and barely legal tactics of his predecessor in order to pacify the local population, including the shadowy use of torture and drone planes. Unfortunately the actions of the current administration have validated my concerns.

Pilot is a body of work still in process but so far the works of this series themselves displays all my tricks. They are super-dense initially, display high contrast color, involve multiple layers of collage and text, employ a loose non-lineal narrative and deals implicitly and explicitly with a dystopian subject matter. They’re large contain whimsy, and are overwhelmingly process driven… containing dozens of steps and rules that must be obeyed before the next step can take place.

John C. Robinson was from my readings of him an honorable man, Felisha Rexford is I believe an honorable woman – though with my liberal bias I feel that she is mostly are unaware of the hell she unleashes from flying dreadnoughts from above, although I hear even drone pilots can suffer from PTSD. In any case I believe sacred and eternal honor is at stake when we deploy our military forces and my Pilot series is a visual way I grapple with what we are sacrificing in the name of securing the homeland.

These four bodies of work not only display the sum of my capabilities, they point to new directions that my work can go to. Perhaps the most exciting change that’s happened to me over the course of the last four or so years is a sense of character development that’s occurred in my paintings. I have, especially with the Pilot series, begun creating paper dolls as collage materials. Additionally I have become enamored with acrylic gel medium and the wonderful illusory effects medium, especially gloss medium can have in painting….

That’s the end of section two. As I said before this talk is interspersed with dozens of images and so in reading the talk you might want to take a trip on over to www.anthonysmithjr.com to see the works I discuss here.

I’d like to leave you here with some images of the changing season. I was just up in the Poconos at a cabin with some friends and took these shots of the beautiful leaves and the lake we were near. Until next time!

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