When I moved to Los Angeles, there was a tremendous amount of construction in progress. It seemed to be everywhere. On almost every block in my neighborhood there was a lot surrounded by scaffolding and covered in places with plastic drapery. It appeared as if a whole new wonderful world was under construction. But what would these places be like when they were finished? Disappointingly, when months later I drove past the completed construction sites, the end results always appeared mundane and boring.
This visual gap between what could have been and what it had become seemed to affect my work in both photography and painting. I had been interested in the different visual conventions associated with each medium. For example, viewers tend to interpret a photograph as a factual representation of physical reality, as opposed to a drawing which they perceive to be wholly made by the artist. Yet, it's clear that the photographer by his selection process separates the image from its factual context just as much as any draftsman. Taken out of its original context, the photograph hopefully sparks representational implications for its audience.
In my work, using these construction site photographs I had shot, I began to try on the idea of putting the photograph into a new context—an invented context. I would use the image as the starting point for a fantasy about what the larger site might have been but never became. As I finished each imaginative work, a viewer looking at the completed piece might experience some difficulty trying to decide what was originally the photograph and what was the added-on drawing. This ambiguity between the direct, camera image and the context created by the indirect, hand-eye representation was what intrigued me. Indeed, rather than see the photograph as a basis with which to begin a context, I began to see it in a larger sense as a found object, a basis with which to begin my fantasy. This more collagist approach seemed to spark a series of bolder, yet more whimsical images.
Drawing over and around my photographic prints with pencil to express my imagined outcomes was a challenge to my inventiveness. Some of these unique photographic prints emphasized the drapery more, and others the scaffolding. I found that many different scenes could be constructed from a given image, just as one word could generate many different sentences. Also, since I was doing this mixed media work, I started to wonder, what were the minimum number of marks required to convince a viewer that a wrinkle could become a folded sail, or a castle in the air, or a leaping dancer? The possibilities enticed me.
Reconstruction relies on our preconception of form, distilled from previous experiences. But what if the initial gestalt is a mis-reading, a leap to conclusions, an error? What if what we expect to be behind the construction drapery, or the boarded-up window, is mistaken? Do we then give our imaginations the permission to wander over the miscellaneous constructions to concoct a fabulous creature or structure? What if the hints are grouped to a construction that is alternate to what the builder intended? If what I speculate will appear from behind the construction drapery is drab and unexciting, what if it’s far less intriguing than what I had hoped it would be? Is the height of our interest at the moment of minimal and suggested knowledge when speculation is unleashed? In the reconstruction drawings, I could decide what part of the photograph I would emphasize, and by adding emphasis through drawing I could share with others my fantasy structures. I became the architect and builder of this revised scene. I asserted a new reality. This time it was my version that would be clear and inarguable. At times, the elaborate fantasies become so specific that it almost seemed like a hallucination, but in the end the finished drawing remains, depicting that experience. And certainly, my construction was always far more interesting than the actual building that had grown out of the work site I had photographed many months before.
This image below shows a “Before” and an “After” in one case. Here you can see drawing on, and all around, the image, dressing it up, so to speak, in a way that I preferred.
My exhibition of this work received a review that I have always appreciated for the way in which the critic, Chuck Nicholson, writing in Artweek, described what he saw.
“Rebecca Newman draws on her photographs, creating a kind of magical play between the ordinary reality of the photograph and the artificial fantasy of the drawing. She also achieves a delicate balance between control and freedom and order and dynamism in her distinctive compositions which are sometimes elegant, sometimes bold, sometimes both.
“Newman’s exhibition at Double Rocking G Gallery… use(s) as starting points the photographs of construction sites draped with protective tarps. An intriguing ambiguity develops between the drawn elements and the photographs. Considering the freedom and obviousness of Newman’s pencil strokes, it is surprising how easy it is to see them as part of the photographic image….
“The drawing creates the illusion that the photographed forms are bursting the confines of the framing edge—becoming expansive and dynamic. The square photographic format, however, remains visible and sets up an exciting dialog with the strong irregular patterns of the image as a whole. These abstract shapes though linked to reality through the photograph, take on an animated life of their own.
“The photographs depict isolated details, removed from the realm of the ordinary and given a strong graphic presence. The illusion of depth is subordinate to pattern, yet it adds to the work’s dynamic complexity. These fragments of reality are given a new, imaginary context on the paper which the drawing serves to reinforce. Newman makes us think of photographing as a process analogous to drawing—as an artificial notation that transforms the subject.”
I had begun this series of work while I had two very young boys on my hands. I printed images and drew on those images in a method that I developed over time, laying down the photo print in a small area of the paper and drawing on and around it. I continued this work even after our financial situation forced me to return to a day-job. (Although, a fortunately interesting day-job.) Now, that I see my grandchildren growing up, I have no idea how I could take care of two young sons, work full time in a demanding position running an interactive animation and game studio, and also turn out more artwork of my own, even with a collaborative husband helping. Yet, I did it all and managed the art exhibits I had, which included the usual time-intensive and costly work framing, hanging, and then carting everything to the gallery.