American Gothic, Past Imperfect

The gothic novel is a literary genre usually associated with the late eighteenth century in England and is firmly grounded in an historical past. However, this is not the case in American literature as there was no defining moment for the period. This might be expected as the unique circumstances to American history are explored. So much of the history of North America is defined by expansion and the establishment of the rule of law in an "untamed" wilderness. From the struggle for independence to the settling of the west, it seems as though Americans don't have time for history and at times are accused of having amnesia. In order to establish a country however, a native story must be written. The Enlightenment gave us a foundation of reason and our optimism created the unending myth of opportunity and abundance. However, in order to recognize any item with a degree of truth, there must be a "shadow" in order to perceive a "three dimensional reality".

The stories of darkness and mystery may not be grounded in a specific time in American history, but they seem to be born from a specific place,- the rural south. A fellow painter I met in Georgia (and native inhabitant) always reminds me when I visit Atlanta, that "Mississippi is the repository of the Nation's sins". Teresa Godou, in her essay, "Introduction to American Gothic" also states, "If the American Gothic is difficult to understand due to its seemingly antagonistic relationship to America's national identity, it is equally difficult to classify in generic terms. Just as gothic unsettles the idea of America, the modifier America destabilizes understandings of the gothic". The dark days of slavery and nineteenth century massacres don't and should not completely disappear from our memory or national history.

As a result, the exploration of darkness in the "land of plenty" moved us to a place of internal or lone introspection. (We didn't have a Middle Ages, so architecture had to help and give us a history too,- in the beginning.) Where Mary Shelley created the tortured monster, we found intrigue in the tortured spaces of the human soul whether it be in the gradual destruction of the family in Faulkner's, "Sound and the Fury", a brooding Gary Cooper playing the sheriff in "High Noon", or in Charles Ray's sexual-nightmare "mobius strip" sculpture, "OhCharlie".

If the American Gothic genre looks inward to fascination with the moods and melancholies of darkness as its response for what literary scholars claim is a "turn away from society", I wish to offer Lincoln as a counter example of a "real-life" 19th century "American" gothic. Consider his own life routed in southern agriculture (Kentucky, the slave state that remained in the Union). A man of many faces and conflicting moods, Lincoln is the most recognizable American example of a brooding individual turned inward coming in direct contact with the forces of moral depravity. His trial however, was not only with a focussed private ordeal, but an open conflagration and national struggle for self existence. Studying Alexander Gardner's photographic portraits of Lincoln's tenure, I am struck with what they hold back as well as what they reveal. The multiple inventories of his likeness become an historical narrative and an almost omniscient harbinger of things to come.

The last (cracked and scratched) Alexander Gardner photographic portrait of Lincoln one month before his death is a case in point. When photographing the President, the glass plate negative was accidentally damaged and the resulting image revealed a crack running through Lincoln's head. The "broken" picture became a poignant icon in knowing Lincoln. The "gothic" image in this case invites us into a crises of being,- looking at a mysterious three dimensional image and also continually being reminded by the scratches that we are viewing a flat surface. In some ways I feel, it is akin to the "realism" of Abstract Expressionistic painting,- continually reminding us of the recording of a moment and yet also denying us the "image". For me, the historical processes of photography holds these tensions as they age over time.

The scratches and distemper to the surfaces of my paintings are meant to have a dialog with these photographs. What is the relationship of photography to photo-realist painting? (These are the histories and conventions of representation that interest me.) I don't wish to decode a random image making process, I am more interested in the idea of what images might ask of us. Historical daguerreotypes, tintypes, and autochromes have become known to me as not only processes but as surfaces, documents, and vocabularies. I almost couldn't recognize the beautifully clean surfaces of the "contemporary" Chuck Close daguerreotypes.

The conjunction of painting styles onto my surfaces (at first, I painted separate diptychs) are part of a process that for me led to the exploration of painting being a discourse between my personal and our collective mythologies. Almost 140 years later, I retraced the path that Sherman's march took into Atlanta on a search for histories and memories embedded in the landscape as well as remnants of the same campaign. This time however, I was not limited by technology or recording devices because I chose to paint the locations, but by the sheer amount of time and distance that history put between me and the conflict. Memory is all that is left of that bloody conflict but the impacts of that event are embedded in our culture and consciousness. It is something like an old daguerreotype, a "gothic" picture and an object and a process growing and developing and even "curing" over time with all of its imperfections. The things that conservators agonize over is exactly what I embrace. I agree with Godou when she states, "...the gothic tells of the historical horrors that make identity possible yet must be repressed in order to sustain it" and apply her statement to images. I know we could airbrush the Lincoln photo today but we don't. The faded absence becomes a presence; incompleteness or brokenness brings us closer to the authentic.

Within this space (of unknowing or mysteriousness) the image is conceived and a story is retold in the layered patina. For me then, the landscape is forever changed. The broken tree branch at Chickamauga, the rotting shed in Resaca, the rusted curve sign in Chattanooga, and the Department of Transportation's road construction work outside of Allatoona, Georgia become a living reminder of the destruction of Civil War campaigns. (See George Barnards prints of 1866.) This is where memory takes on its power and its presence and its soul and the living surface is born. Someone was here before and walked (walks) through our lives changing things forever. A house in the neighborhood is torn down and a "McMansion" is put up, another "slasher" film comes out during Halloween; the gothic landscape disrupts the bucolic and somehow exposes and destroys something in us. The picture (event) all the same,- uncomfortably unifies and critiques and forces us into a participation and reconstruction of our (my) narratives and mythologies and our national (personal) collective identities. The "gothic" has a unifying social reference I believe, but it denies us the convenience of choosing a comfortable time and place to experience unexpected sudden occurrences and confluences of mysterious events.

1. Teresa A. Godou, Introduction to American Gothic, quoted in American Horrors, by Gregory Waller, ed.,
(University of Illinois Press, 1988), pg.265.

- Don Pollack