My work most often concerns itself with animal and machine relations: the steer and the plow, the soldier and the gun, sexuality and politics. Invoking the history of these relationships is one means by which we generate meaning about the present, and the stories we tell ourselves about the past shape our self-image, narrating the manner in which we currently meet challenges, define threats, and work together.
It is attractive for some to presume history is neutral ground, from which assertions of fact can be made, forming the basis upon which people accept and promulgate its inertia. This is the status-quo, whose history bespeaks conviction, but can belie truth and challenge progress. Its self-generated mythology is the seductive retreat of nostalgia--a selective myopia that preys on fear and ego--and the volume of its proponents betrays a set of ideas with something to hide.
Therefore propaganda--overt and covert--comprises much of my research focus. Posters, political speeches, and government documents contain language and reference artifacts that have since forged the power dynamics of our modern world. My work refers self-consciously to these, and to the conflation of the individual and the institutional that is the hallmark of such efficient persuasion. It points critically to both the violent and the bucolic--the guns and wars and tractors and engines of industry, and the language of national pride grafted to principles of duty, sacrifice, and honor--that have long been and remain its allies and infrastructure.
I also admit to an emotional fascination with these objects and issues. The fact that they constitute some of humanity’s worst moments and destructive inventions implies a certain schizophrenia, but has the benefit of inducing uncomfortable critical thinking around the consequences of telling oversimplified stories in place of facing difficult and uncomfortable realities. I see my work as an opportunity to confront my personal history on these same grounds, along with that of my family and race and nation.That is why, although political might be an apparent label for my work, it is by no means a comprehensive one. Moreso than pointing to left or right, right or wrong, my deepest concern lies in locating vulnerability buried somewhere at the root of a fear-whipped need for too much control and too much security. Trying to emulate the beauty I see in the hand-drawn imperfection of a World War 1 propaganda poster, for example, is one way I can use my art practice to trace visual clues that guide me on my search to find cracks in the substantial rhetorical armor of today's sociopolitical and cultural climate.
Also embedded in the vernacular history of print is the propagandistic function of words and images in presumably apolitical, workaday situations. Some of my work looks to printed ephemera--from chromo-lithographs and broadsides to ornamental map cartouches and jar labels--that used graphic multiples to promote anything from services of convenience, to ownership of products or lordship over territories. They reinforced a certain national character, helping viewers and consumers identify with some sort of idealized proposal: “This is special;” “This is yours;” “This is just/right/moral.”
Because this history persists, revisiting the forms and words of the past can either be a wasteful exercise in nostalgia, or can jog us into a fresh look at old ideas that are hardly inert artifacts of our most recent collective past; that of residual colonies of white Anglo-Saxon patriarchy. Though the political undercurrent is easy to lose amongst ornamental flourishes of color and language, this selfsame game of hide-and-seek is a contemporary issue that we face in increasingly complex degrees; and it continues to belie the responsibilities that come with privilege and power.
Ericka Walker, 2014
Vol 21 No 2