Art: Head Trip: The 80s
Baltimore was my home in the late ‘70s. Its particular brand of urban blight was my inspiration. The crumbling walls of abandoned industrial buildings, the empty storefronts with shattered windows, the half-lit neon signs on funky dive bars and crusty old strip joints provided the perfect backdrop for an aspiring young photographer. I did my best to keep up with the local talent. By my account, they were tENTATIVELY, a cONVENIENCE; Cindy Heidel; Susan Lowe; Stan Edmister; Doug Retzler; Tom Diventi; William Moriarty; Bonnie Bonnell; Laurie Stepp; Jayne De Sesa; David Franks; Michael Gentile; John and Richard Ellsberry and their still-reigning queens John Waters and Joyce Scott.
It was during this decade that conceptual and feminist tendencies in the art world started to expand my consciousness. I took trips to NYC and saw art by Vito Acconci, Hannah Wilke, Martha Rosler, Lucas Samaras, Pat Oleszko and William Wegman. The conceptual framework underlying their work was brilliantly mixed with deadpan humor, simplicity, intelligence and subversive ideas. I was inspired.
There was no art market to compete for in Baltimore. It was a cheap place to live, and we artists had a lot of time on our hands. With Baltimore as our back lot we documented every event with tape recorders, still cameras, 16mm film and video. I began to stage my own images, using my friends as models. My friend, Bonnie Bonnell, who reinvented her look on a regular basis, was a natural in front of the camera. tENTATIVELY, a cONVENIENCE came to photo shoots with his own bag of props.
Our social life was engrossed in art, and art was the focus of our mutual entertainment. My peers at the Maryland Institute and UMBC were creating performance-based pieces that mixed conceptual ideas, film noir, Dada and punk. I had the pleasure of witnessing and documenting the 24-hour Sleep Deprivation party, the guerrilla theater group Baltimore Oblivion Marching Band (B.O.M.B.), the pseudo Science Fair held at John Hopkins, the band Da Moronics performances, the making of Michael Gentile’s film 78 RPM, Cindy Heidel’s Dating Game parody, the interactive audio piece TESTES-3 headed by mad scientist tENTATIVELY, a cONVENIENCE and others pieces too numerous to mention here. At this time my peers were involved with the underground trend of spray-painting stenciled images and words in public places. I eventually incorporated these stenciling techniques into my studio photography, creating spray-painted backdrops for my models who were placed in increasingly elaborate environments, using studio lights and then directing the action within that composed space.
1984 approached. Nuclear paranoia hovered just overhead. Big money and cocaine were paraded as the new gods to worship, and TV shows like Dallas celebrated wealth and power at any cost. In the art world, Neo-Expressionistic painting, body sculpture, installations, graffiti, New Wave and Hip-Hop music were all gaining momentum. Influences collided. Bold colors, bad haircuts and over-padded jackets screamed for attention on stage, in film, on canvas and in everyday life. It was during this time that I moved. Just as supply-side Reaganomics were about to cut off funding to graduate schools, I enrolled at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and relocated to “The City of Big Shoulders.”
My fellow students at SAIC willingly posed for photographs and helped me map out the scenarios in my head. Influenced by German Expressionism and the Chicago Imagists, these images were even more stylized and colorful, and there was an oblique narrative to them. I projected 35mm slides onto my model’s face and body to create layered images. I worked silently to create images that spoke for me. I visualized my struggles with physical and mental illness (Voices in My Head, Corset and Wasted), thoughts on feminism (Suburbs, Double Bunny, and Phallic Living Room), and memories of rape and other experiences, which scarred my psyche (Missionary Position and Afraid). Art also gave me an opportunity to comment socially on issues such as racism, patriarchy and the threat of nuclear war.
To this day I remain consumed with many of the same themes and techniques that characterized my early work. But now, more often than capturing my compositions with the camera, I tactically collage or digitally montage them, creating compositions that focus on psychology, social commentary and humorous disruptions of original and found imagery.
- Paula Gillen 2016