Statement on My Work
Our contemporary lives are lived inside a constant flow of bright flashy ever changing imagery. It’s always there, an ever constant presence, shinning at us from our digital devices, from movie screens, from the billboards lining our highways, and the advertisements at bus stops, airports, in magazines, in our news feeds and our video games. It’s the background of our daily lives that we take for granted while hardly noticing or questioning, yet in its pervasiveness it seeps into us, becoming us, defining us.
From this visual flow I pull the images and concepts of my work. Choosing imagery that is so pervasive we no longer fully see it, Santa Claus, smiley faces, men in suits, women in bathing suits. I also look at the images we are guided away from seeing – pictures of war dead or remains of suicide bombers for example. I look at the longings these pictures reflect, longings that can pull us towards narcissistic fanaticism and self obsessive fantasies. Those longings that can grow into religious martyrdom or warped ideals of physical perfection. The suicide bomber and the beauty queen are, after all, both searching for the glory and recognition they have learned to recognize in the images that surround them, even as their separate paths and the end results are polar opposites.
In one series, After Pictures before Me, I explore the history of the female subject in the western painting cannon reflecting on these works from the vantage point of a contemporary female painter who has known more than her share of sexual transgression and misogynistic peers. In another series, my work with Miss America pageants, I paint or photograph the contestants competing for the Miss America crown. New contestants come every year, from every state, year after year, a repetitive sameness that drills these images into us again and again. I attempt to show how each becomes just another changeable part in our bigger societal playbook, always changing and still always the same.
In another group of works done in the early aughts I reflect on the 60s astronaut all suited up and standing on the moon. He became to his generation that heroic white knight, in his white outer-space armor, who could do only good. I thought of him in my studio the day the generation (my generation) who grew up on the scientific and nationalistic heroism of the Apollo moon landings, began to rain bombs down on Baghdad in March 2003. Were they lost in their vision of that heroic white knight? And as the invasion dragged on I painted the war dead, the images our military tried so hard to keep out of the public eye. One could argue that as the military began to pursue yet more wars the only lesson they had learned from that earlier endless war in Vietnam was the power of images and their influence on public opinion. If there are no images of the war in our image driven culture can there really be a war or is it just something our military is doing over there somewhere?
My work is seeking to expose the under-layers of this parade of consumerist imagery that controls and manipulates our understanding of ourselves I am especially interested in how power or its lack are conveyed in pictures and how this reinforces our social hierarchy, even when we might think we are in opposition to that hierarchy. If I see women predominantly in bathing suits and small tight dresses or painted in the fullness and nakedness of sexual availability then do I learn to see myself only through how I am able to convey that same sexualized availability? And what is that telling me/us about where women belong in our social order. We see the importance of imagines when the spot light gets turned on them and we are forced to look, as, for example, with confederate statuary and the controversy in current attempts to remove it. Yet we tend to miss the messaging when the spotlight isn’t shined directly on an image allowing it to remain just another element of our ever present visual field. It’s here where the light is perhaps not quite bright enough that I try to go with my work.
I trained as a painter and it remains my primary medium but I use whatever makes sense and is available for any particular project or individual work. In the Miss America series, for example, I painted in oil and in watercolor, but also used photography, video, and collage. An iPhone is an amazing art tool. So is a fat felt marker or a photocopy or risograph machine. What matters is what is trying to be said and what works to make that as clear and compelling as possible in a way that attracts someone to the work without compromising its integrity. My goal is to give the viewer something they want to look at while also asking them to question a little of their own assumptions of how they define and understand themselves inside this culture we all find ourselves in.
About the Artist
Pam Butler is a multi-disiplinary artist based in Brooklyn, New York. Her studio is in Ridgewood, Queens, New York. She received her Masters of Fine Arts from School of Visual Arts in 1990. Her instagram is @pambutlerart.