Seeing as how I decided to intentionally give this self portrait (the first in a long, long time) the blunt and enigmatic title “In Cars”, I also intend to mainly focus this write up on why I gave it this title. It was selected from a few other, far more obscure titles that I played with and I think it is a good halfway point between “SELF PORTRAIT NO.1” and, well, something really cringeworthy and pretentious.
The title refers to a line in the Gary Numan song “Cars”, which is based on an experience he had of being attacked in his car by a group of people ahead of him that he presumably had a road rage fueled exchange with. He was able to lock his doors and drive up on the curb to get away, and the experience left him musing about how being in a car can strongly affect the way people think and act, cars representing “Your own little personal empire with four wheels on it.” I’d been thinking about this a lot when I read his explanation and was excited to find out that this is what inspired the song.
Cars are interesting because you’re not completely anonymous – people can see you and you are essentially among others as you would be when walking through a crowd except you are encased in your own personalized, metal box. However, most people who walk down the street don’t scream at the person in front of them to hurry up when they’re walking too slow or for cutting them off by mistake, nor are they ready and willing to get into physical confrontations over it. Once you are in a car, you are deluded by a feeling of being safe from repercussions because, after all, you can just “lock all your doors” as Numan sings, drive away after flipping someone off and never have to deal with the consequences. Even the slightest bit of anonymity can bring out the worst in people (when I say “people”, I include myself), and it is many times shocking to see what brutality can lie underneath the public veneer – people often become racist, sexist and sadistic when there is no punishment.
Cars are one of the milder examples of the things that help us to insulate ourselves from and dehumanize others. If you take a quick look at the comments sections on websites like YouTube, you will see things much worse than road rage. Take for example a recent Cheerios ad that featured a biracial married couple – immediately after this was uploaded the comments section was flooded with racial slurs and boycotts of the cereal because of this “disgusting ad”. You can look up virtually any video and find the comments quickly devolving into people ripping each other apart over racial issues, politics, religion and eventually pointing out each other’s grammatical mistakes in their arguments to prove their superiority (most of these arguments having absolutely nothing to do with the video). I often wonder what the writers of these comments act like in public, and how I might never guess they were the same people. I also wonder what life would be like if the lawlessness of the internet were to expand to public life, and how much the fear of punishment influences our daily interactions.
To put a positive spin on all this (and then I’ll get right back to the negative spin), I think a lot of the escalating animosity begins with pure and simple miscommunication. Messages can be easily misinterpreted when you’re in a car. You might be waving your hand at someone to say “I’m sorry”, but they might read it as “Hurry up!” or “What the hell are you doing?!” They react defensively because they feel they are being wrongly attacked, you react in kind to their reaction, etc. It’s like every episode of Three’s Company, except in the end people brutally beat each other in the streets instead of laugh about it freeze-framed behind rolling credits (maybe that wasn’t a particularly helpful metaphor). Most of us have also run into problems with text messages, emails and comments being completely misconstrued because we have to replace vocal tones with the right punctuation. Suddenly a genuinely ecstatic “Yeah, that would be great!” turns into an obnoxiously sarcastic “Yeah, that would be great!”, depending on what the reader is looking for. In addition to this, screens and cars dehumanize the other person: We are arguing with windshields and screen names using hand gestures and one-liners instead of trying to thoughtfully communicate with a fellow human being.
After deciding on a source photo for this portrait, I saw a connection to this idea of being in my own little box, isolated from people and looking down on them from the safety of my invisible castle (in this case the bathroom… not relevant). The lighting on my face came from a window, but it also reminded me of someone sitting behind the safety of their computer or television screen – both of which give people a feeling of detachment and invincibility when criticizing the people they watch on these screens. The Matisse print on the wall that’s cut off on the right side of the painting turned the silhouette of a dancing woman into a tendril-like object that I saw as symbolizing psychological tension. I tend to obsess over the negative aspects of human behavior and sometimes depress myself over it, and this portrait speaks to that – looking down on others yet despairing and feeling guilty over the fact that I’m doing it.
Titles can be a fun and interesting device for suggesting deeper meanings within paintings, but I have always had a hard time coming up with them, or better yet choosing one. Maybe it’s because an untitled painting is something that (regardless of what symbolism or meaning you put into it) is completely open to interpretation by the viewer, but once you title it you are now taking responsibility for it in a way. Of course the viewer will still take what they will from it with or without the title, but with a title, a powerful suggestion is made. You’re taking an idea or a group of ideas that inspired the piece and may hold a lot of weight and complexity in your mind and whittling them down to a mere word or couple of words which, when juxtaposed with the painting, will attempt to alter the viewers perception of it. It’s not an easy task, and the most difficult part for me is choosing something that is fittingly representative of your concept (if there is one) but also doesn’t overwhelm the painting and disenchant it by being so cryptic that it comes off as more comically elitist than interesting.
It’s also a challenge to decide whether or not to add a title at all – do I necessarily want to affect the viewers interpretation of this or is it something that can work on its own? When I was younger I was very focused on the lyrics bands put into songs. I’d be in awe of how the vocals in a particular song sounded and reinterpret them (if they were unintelligible – Nirvana was good for that and Kurt Cobain was unsurprisingly a proponent of pushing lyrics to the side in favor of the music) into something I thought was cool or clever. Then I’d get my hands on the lyrics and frequently be disappointed because I couldn’t relate to what the lyrics actually were – I had made the song my own and filled in the blanks, but the lyrics in the song were many times just filler and, at worst, embarrassingly bad and chock full of half-baked symbolism so personal to the artist that it really didn’t mean anything to me. I’ve also never been a fan of most poetry, which may be of note here.
Why then, you may ask, am I writing a post explaining the intended meaning behind one of MY paintings? Well, because I love writing about myself, and I find that love to be far more important than preserving the purity of my art for you. And also because, aside from the many times I was disappointed when an artist spelled out their art for me, there were plenty of times when their explanation actually enhanced my experience. The lyrics became a necessary part of a song that I wasn’t particularly moved by before I knew what it was about (Gary Numan’s explanation of “Cars” for example). The title of a painting helped me understand the symbolism behind the images and to feel like I was more in tune with the intentions of the artist that I might have overlooked otherwise.
Categorized in: Thoughts
This post was written by mryczek