Catalog essay for the exhibition walkabout (talkabout) at William Turner Gallery, Santa Monica, May 7 through June 11, 2011.
DAVID PALMER: A FOREST OF SIGNS
With so many contemporary inheritors of Pop Art choosing to consign themselves uncritically to vernacular modalities, it comes as something of a shock to behold artwork that embraces the vernacular without becoming part of it. Maintaining the same contemplative near-distance that the original Pop artists did from the formal idioms and referential motifs of our everyday lives, David Palmer allows himself to muse upon the condition(s) of informational dissonance and overload that have only multiplied, exponentially, since Pop’s heyday and – perhaps defiantly – to compose visual coherencies out of those myriad idioms and motifs. Indeed, Palmer straddles not only the (dotted) line between the known and the invented, but the one between the visual and the conceptual – between what Duchamp called the “retinal” and what the artists (and theorists) he influenced call the “signal.” The pleasures are those of the spectacle, but the spectacle jazzes both eyeball and cerebrum.
In his latest series, “Walkabout,” Palmer makes his approach that much more graspable. He relies as his conceptual touchstone on a cipher readily recognizable to anyone who spends much time on urban streets. The stylized, faceless figuroid frozen into a position of determined forward motion – nominally male, but genderless by usage – bespeaks the presence of the pedestrian amidst automobile traffic, cautioning traffic to provide right of way or beckoning to actual humans waiting to cross the street. Palmer plants this cipher – a meme for us and for himself – in the center of each painting, satisfying the egoistic need of all viewers to orient the world around us. Thus implicitly privileging our gaze with one of contemporary civilization’s truly universal ideograms, Palmer weaves a cacophony of shapes around and through this central shape – not all of them silhouettes, but all of them refined into a simplicity adequate for blending them into a greater whole.
The shapes that envelope and penetrate the walking everyman come from the same parallel world of para-linguistic signifiers as the “man” itself. And in his non-“Walkabout” paintings (and in painting-like jigsaw assemblages the artist has fabricated out of linoleum) Palmer allows these forms their own turn as protagonists. Elephants, plants, the head of Abraham Lincoln, speech balloons from comic strips, decorative pinwheels and wavy lines and arabesques, all these images cluster and clamor, overlap and interweave into a visual approximation of the informational din that now enmeshes our daily lives, actually and virtually.
Palmer’s message may lie in what he says about contemporary life being info-fraught (and, by inference, substance-deficient). But his artistry lies in how he makes such info-intensiveness seem to make sense. Almost unable to help himself, Palmer – not so long ago a figure painter adept at conjuring a sunny, suburban sort of surrealism, a kind of Twilight-Zone Edward Hopper – needs to render his elements lucidly and compose them elegantly. Would that all the undigested knowledge and banal information that buzzes through Palmer’s pictures actually buzzed through our lives with such grace and articulation!
But we have become inured to the babble that engulfs us; the younger we are, in fact, the more we are able to surf our sea of signals – and the more dependent we are on that sea to bear us along. By clarifying that sea, by separating it, however temporarily and artificially, into its myriad components, Palmer re-focuses us on the sum of its parts and makes us that much more acutely aware of its ubiquitous presence and spectacular chaos. In making all that seem so attractive and exhilarating, of course, Palmer sends mixed messages; we cannot with any certainty read his work as condemnatory. But he is not simply exploiting our addiction, either; like Rosenquist, Lichtenstein, and others over the past half-century who have painted the visual racket of a consumer society, Palmer manifests not so much a love-hate relationship with the modern condition of image assault as an awe at its immensity and the thoroughness of its presence in our consciousness. If you can’t beat it, David Palmer muses, read it; after all, you’ve already joined it.
Catalog essay for American Dreams, a touring exhibition of paintings that appeared at The Holter Museum of Art (Helena, MT), Littman Gallery, Portland State University (Portland, OR), Grants Pass Museum of Art (Grants Pass, OR) and Museum of the Southwest (Midland, TX) over the course of the year 2001.
David Palmer: Exploring the Inexplicable
Surrealism has always seemed to me to be a peculiarly timebound, extremely European phenomenon. Watches melted off the edges of tables, little children were menaced by nightingales, and easelled paintings disappeared into window views of the same scene, all in the wake of a world war that had left Europe devastated, in the psychic grips of another, oncoming war, and very much in the thrall of its own "collective unconscious."
America, on the other hand, has never had a truly Surrealist movement along these devastated, continental lines. Perhaps it's because the modern American scene and experience are intrinsically surreal, without much need of adaptation from dreams or the subconscious to bring on a sense of wonder.
This is at least some of the import of David Palmer's paintings of the past decade or so. In them, the strangest things happen: a cringing boy handles an endless snake, a woman fends off something terrible with a raised metal rake, and Sisyphus himself -- in jeans and tee-shirt -- pushes his car up a hill.
Surreal? Yes and no. Palmer certainly doesn't find his work senseless. A woman digging a hole in the ground is "a literal childhood memory, digging caves and caverns. But at the same time you wonder, is the woman burying something, or is she digging it up? Is this a psychological metaphor for digging deeper into some part of herself, or is she trying to hide something?"
Palmer encourages such textual ambiguity in reading his work, that it may fulfill the ends of his painting: not the sur- or the un-real, but the extraordinary in the everyday, the supernal in the psychological. And what more candid way to present this than head-on? If Palmer's figurative style is more-than-slightly virtuosic, and his hues often a kind of mellowed-out Technicolor, still, a strong sense of the reportorial abides.
And, it has to for us to fully see that his on-canvas images -- culled from dreams, and from subjects that pop into his head, and from things he's read about, and from numerous photo setups -- are rife with their own reality. The attitude -- like that of a newspaper -- is almost fabulously factual. Women fly; boys and men dowse in the middle of lakes. And a little-girl Atlas holds up the world -- a yellow-and-white-striped beach ball!
"I love the absurdity of it all," Palmer says, "but of course it also says something about the way we live our lives." Perhaps the most personally -- and, thus, publicly -- revealing of all these works is a truly wicked series of self-portraits with a big, black raven who seems to have obstreperously stolen into the painting like some escapee from a road show of Hitchcock's "The Birds."
In the 20 by 30 inch Self-Portrait with Raven, the two subjects are -- bird on human's head, against a mustardy ground -- co-equal in their sense of portraiture. In Burdened, however, with a bright red background , the raven, on Palmer's shoulder, seems to be getting ornery. In Influence, the bird seems to have won out -- Palmer now has a black beak himself, and the bird's claws have sunk into his shoulder.
"Besides the actual animal, the bird can be an inner thing, the dark side of your personality, some kind of archetypal influence." No need, though, really, to explain. David Palmer's paintings are psychically self-explanatory. They are miracles of the mundane, paragons of the everyday, quicker than the eye, indeed, but never quicker than the mind's -- and the soul's -- inner sight.
New York City, 1999