This piece is the third in an ongoing series of raven portraits with patterned backgrounds. The subtitle refers to the inspiration for the palette of this painting, namely the bright acid yellows and lime greens of the Palo Verde trees that bring the desert alive with color every spring. I have long been fascinated with pattern and repetition, both as it occurs naturally and in the context of the man-made. Just as all abstraction ultimately sinks its roots in a representation of nature, however distant and however dramatically stylized, so too do most man-made patterns take their original inspiration from the natural world. The familiar fleur-de-lis is actually a dramatically stylized lily or lotus flower, and even the most visually abstract fractal pattern is only a mathematical representation of the coils of a sea shell or the overlapping scales of a pine cone.
I pursued a series of paintings a few years ago called “Modern Camouflage” which featured very realistically painted owls emerging from highly stylized, heavily patterned, wallpaper-like backgrounds. These pieces were meant to comment not only on the displacement of wildlife from natural to un-natural habitats, but more pointedly on the conflict between illusionistic and flat art in the latter half of the nineteenth century until the advent of post-modernism (and perhaps continuing through present day). The juxtaposition of realistic and decorative techniques and the stark contrast between organic and inorganic patterns, with only the subtlest transition between the two, created a wonderful tension.
Gradually, this series lead me in a more whimsical direction, one that nods quite significantly to the American Pop Art movement. Arising out of the post-war prosperity of the 1950’s that made manufactured goods, once a luxury, mundane and commonplace, pop art was steeped in the everyday. From Andy Warhol’s soup cans to Wayne Thiebaud’s colorful deserts, these artists made us look humorously at our own excesses, and how much of the world around us we take for granted. Among my many obsessions as a painter has always been encouraging the viewer to really observe those things most people overlook, especially those animals which are so common as to become background noise. By taking an animal and reducing it to a silhouetted, stamp-like form, and repeating that shape to create a background pattern, the animal subject is pitted against a mass-produced image of itself. In most cases, the effect is humorous, evoking the animal’s ubiquity, life cycle, or reproductive capacity. In all cases, this systematization of a natural shape highlights the significance of the animal in human life and culture. The bunny becomes an emblem of spring, fertility, and rebirth, even evoking its symbolic association with the pagan Eostre and the Christian Easter. The chicken and egg represent the same story of fertility, but also their vital world-wide importance as a food product and case study for the modern phenomenon of mass production, the commodification of wildlife. Ravens are the omnipresent tricksters and scavengers, but transformed into a densely repetitive background pattern one can’t help but be reminded of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds. The palette too, in lively orange, torquoise, green, and prurple, suggests something not just Southwestern, but uniquely American. More importantly, the recontextualizing of an incredibly common wild neighbor, forces us to look at the bird in a new light.
Nature appears chaotic to us, but it is actually highly organized in its own way. It is our desire to control and conquer, arising from the innately human need for structure, that causes us to project our own artificial categories, our own systems of naming and organizing, onto the plants and animals around us. My patterns series seeks to explore this phenomenon in a fun and playful manner, re-contextualizing wildlife into a world of flat shapes, repeated imagery, brand logos, and ones and zeros, searching for old truths in a new world. As Gertrude Stein once wrote, “There is no such thing as repetition. Only insistence.”