words by: Norman Douglas
Back in the 1960's, Billy Kluver, a Bell Labs electronics engineer, founded Experiments in Art and Technology (E.A.T.) in 1956 with artist Robert Rauschenberg, creating general confusion regarding the meanings of the all-important terms, art and technology. What has been missing from most modern and post-modern discussions of technology is the role of art as a technology. We're familiar with the complaints of the Luddites and their inheritors, we know the fear and loathing so many people voice regarding cell phones, car alarms, video and TV, computers, SUVs, the whole range of everyday objects that in fact are nothing more than extensions of the body. What we experience is not an aversion to these objects, but an aversion to ourselves in tandem with what are effectively prosthetic devices. Paul Paddock addresses the kind of psycho-bionic dysfunction we humans experience in the technological era in his newest series of watercolors, from the Wiggle Kids to the Superhighway Series.
Surrounded by technology, humans grew horrified not only at the death toll of war, but of everyday mishaps: car accidents, chainsaw massacres or maulings, electric carving knives, the radio or toaster in the bathwater. The potential for nature to run amok is the corollary of this technological dependency, a phobia born of nature's distance from daily life. Hitchcock's The Birds is a classic example. Paul Paddock draws on these influences, his markers parody and plagiarize the figures in everything from cut-out coloring books to user manuals. With the deft application of watercolors to these works, Paddock's images take aim at the photographic illustrations of nature periodicals as well as children's primers.
The Wiggle Kids inspire an immediate response in the viewer that is disturbingly linked to the physiology of the human sexual impulse, maybe a sensual revulsion. On close inspection (after the requisite doubletake) one's eyes won't turn away from the images without effort. The finger puppet in a skirt draws the gaze in the same way as a car wreck, like a television in a club blasting techno. One is reminded that the eyes are tactile. Georges Battaille deftly explored the association of eyes and genitalia, of looking and arousal in his seminal l'Histoire de l'oeil (The Story of the Eye) and its sequel, le Bleu du ciel (the Blue of Noon).
The Wiggle Kids reinforce that sense of the tactile eye through the depiction of enormous hands that manipulate the doll [the slang is significant]. These hands are presumably those of the artist who manipulates the image, the artist who is effectively a technologist, whose technological history precedes anything that could be hoped for by the propellerheads at Bell Labs and other cyber-come-latelies.
The artist has never needed to address technology because, properly seen, art is technology. The media employed serve as magical forms once did (and still do, in many places), as interlocutors alive with mankind since prehistoric time, since time without time, when the keeping of rhythm was technology's primary charge.
Like the rhythmic enforcer using a hand on the stretched skin of the drum, the Wiggle Kid girl's skirt is stretched. In another, a syringe either removes her substance [draws it out of her], or provides the ink to draw the image out, onto the paper. The kid is ambivalent, the terror is ours. Caught between the natural grace of life and the man-made coercion of technology its insatiable hunger for work we bear constant, helpless witness to the perverse tortures endured by our beloved innocents.
A conversation about chemotherapy segues into a conversation about overdoses. The protracted horrors of the former sentence rival the sudden death of the latter self-abasement, but the terror in both situations is technological invasiveness, the body made malleable by technologically premeditated alteration of the organic chemistry. That chemistry is not limited to the corporal plane. It goes beyond to the alchemical processes of nature, to our relationship to the creatures in nature, to our understanding of those creatures as innocent, to their representation in the illustrated texts of our innocent children as their natural counterparts.
The cuddliness of the furry creatures in Superhighway, the Lilliputian stature of the boys in Playground, undergo a Frankensteinian reinterpretation of that traditional Disneyfied innocence. A woman prodded and poked, investigated by "innocent," very little boys assumes a fetal posture, her mind beset by butterflies. Are the butterflies "there" as beautiful reminders of the love instinct, or are they fleeting indicators of the emptiness of unsubstantial intimacy made permanent? The nesting rodents in Nest congregate around a prostrate boy, his arm enormous, rigid, two vascular bulges apparent, a reminder of the toxic entry points of the junkie hero's (DeQuincey, Coleridge, Einstein, Pavlov, Burroughs) technologically altered state.
The latest additions to the series involve an enormous snake. In one image, its mouth holds a little girl's legs, her expression ambivalent, her body rigid, devoid of any signs of struggle. In another, the same (or a similar) snake waits, coiled up, as four children mount a set of as many wooden steps reminiscent of the entrance to a ride at the county fair. They stand as innocently as the famed Dick of school primers would stand while at the ice cream truck, heedless of Fate playing its predatory role. A recent graduate of SVA, Paddock's work comment on the revived interest in beauty with a subdued, but identifiable range of symbols, creating a deadpan statement full of conflicting responses. Ambivalence, loss, appropriation, abuse (of various kinds) and fear in all its guises ultimately no less than contemporary alienated humanity's primal fear of the self. If technologies are extensions of the body, Paddock's forays into commenting on these prostheses are also ours; extensions of the survival sickness and fragmented spirit that a life defined only by death and taxes can represent. These are simple images, to be sure. That is not to say that they are easy. Look, and try not to be touched. I dare you.
Copyright © Norman Douglas
New York City
November 4, 2002