Originally written 2011. Revised 2017.
From Liquid City (1991-1999) to my work in Arena and Faithless Grottoes (2002-2009), I shifted my practice to a more explicit focus on themes of mortality, sex, and pain. In Revisitations I remained faithful to that direction but I did it differently. This work marked my first studies in weaving together elements from personal and family histories. In Revisitations, I began using my family archives as a foundational element, fusing it with my own collections of visual materials. It also marks the stage in which my practice began to more directly address the issue of memory and its experience.
When I write the words, the "fall of 2004," it feels like just that. In late September of that year, I watched the last stages of my father's death (which I describe elsewhere, and which became the basis for the later series I'd call Joseph). Almost to the day of my father's death, my mother—already suffering from acute dementia—suffered a serious accident that crippled her physically. Very shortly afterwards, I placed her in the geriatric institution where she'd remain for the six remaining years of her life.
In October, I began the process of selling my parents’ home. I had to empty that house—their home of 44 years—of, well, everything. My parents spent over four decades of their 58 years together as booksellers, dealing in new, used, and antiquarian books and pretty much anything else that found its way to paper. It's no exaggeration to say that their collection— items dating back decades and even centuries—was vast. And among these materials was an expansive and varied number of pictures—images from magazines, pamphlets, scrapbooks, postcards, books, and photographs. This visual archive chronicled not only the lives of two people whose time on earth spanned from the First World War to past the watershed of 9/11, but also the society that reshaped itself around them.
These materials were a revelation for me, if often a dark one. The pictures, many of which were historical—in particular relating to the two World Wars—were also acutely personal. One after another, I remembered seeing these images for the first time as a small child exploring alone through my parents’ informal libraries and collections. I remembered them as pictures that acted like solemn magnets, drawing me in at the same time that they repelled me with their horror and starkness, especially bewildering to a small child. They were also personal in that my parents’ collection was, I see now, a graphic reflection of their own existential disquiet—apprehensions that came from living through painful, even traumatic, historical events. And, as usually happens, such disquiet would be passed on, in unique configurations, to their only child who would weave it into the tapestry of his own life.
These archival materials are the literal and psychological substructure of Revisitations. To create this series of multi-imaged works, I deconstructed and reconstructed these found images, combining them with some of my own pictures. Revisitations became not only an intersection of the personal and the historical, but also a kind of expressionist mnemonic—a representation of that which defies conventional ordering: the world of tenebrous memory, including the primeval fears and impulses that so often, I realize now, circle death. Witnessing my father die and seeing, up close, the devastation of my mother’s body, mind, and memory—all that gave the project a febrile urgency. Of course, there's nothing unique about such witnessing—millions endure it, many more gracefully than I. But it's savage all the same.
To discuss one work as an example, the piece Three studies for a mouth (Explorations in statecraft, love, and the passing of woes), shows a trio of images, each showing a state in extremis. The first image uses a picture from a WWI anti-war pamphlet. It shows a wounded soldier, his mouth mutilated and crudely reconstructed such that it becomes, what, an infernal grin maybe, an expression that defies description more likely. (A similar picture is used in the piece When I dream, I dream of you, shown below.) In the second panel, I reworked a picture of a person bound with a ball gag, commonly used in sadomasochistic sex. The last image is my father, one hour after his death. Together, the triptych became, for me, an ode to violence, sex, and death. A personal Holy Trinity.
Formally uniting each image is the element of the human mouth. The most primal of organs, we use the mouth to survive by ingesting energy and air. We use it to fight and we use it to fuck. We tell bedtime stories with it, make song with it, and we expel our last breath through it.
Each image in Three studies for a mouth also represents a personal rite of passage. The first image was my initiation to graphic mass violence, when I discovered these war pictures as a child of perhaps four years old. The second represents the exploration of what is sexual and taboo, pornography also forming an important part of my parents' varied collections. The third comes from that personal sense of death—always existent as a construct but only exploding through the skin on special occasions—that I felt after the death of my father.
About the presentation: I installed each Revisitations image in its own wooden case, each one unique and made by hand. I wanted the imagery to be small and physically cloistered, permitting only one viewer at a time, and encouraging a more intimate engagement with the work. The presentation also reminded me of old daguerreotype cases— for me, these carried a sense of the past and, in this context, a feeling of elegy and loss. Finally, it was important that the wooden box be able to open and close—a reminder of an essential dimension of our most intimate and potent experiences: their secrecy and submersion.