The Influence

Dana Schutz’s work showed Amber Boardman how invented characters in paintings can take on lives of their own. By Maddee Clark.

Amber Boardman

Dana Schutz’s The Breeders (2002).
Dana Schutz’s The Breeders (2002).
Credit: Courtesy Zach Feuer Gallery

Amber Boardman is an American-born, Sydney-based artist who combines her backgrounds in painting and animation to create narrative works that draw from the visual language of cartoons. Her work often examines crowds, the internet and how it changes social norms and influences behaviour.

For The Influence, she has chosen to discuss Dana Schutz’s painting The Breeders (2002).

Talk to me about this work.

Dana Schutz created this body of work called Frank from Observation. The entire exhibition has a narrative concept that she is the last painter on Earth and her subject, Frank, is the last man on Earth. She’s created a world where there’s only two people who exist, the subject and a painter. Throughout the show, she recycles him into different things. Some of the things she’s recycling him into are detritus, such as a record-player on the beach.

In The Breeders she has taken Frank and turned him into whole new characters: the lead singers of the band The Breeders, Kim and Kelley Deal.

Dana Schutz has always been someone who I felt has an original voice in painting. I feel as though she’s just herself. This work made me realise you can create characters and you can remake and remake them. It appeals to me as a painter with a background in animation because there’s a through line between the paintings. I don’t want to just make one painting at a time. I want to make a whole show at once, and have each painting be one sentence in a paragraph.

Did you begin in animation?

I got into animation both as an art medium and as a skill I could use to pay the bills while I built my career. I did my undergrad in painting while I was in Atlanta, and that’s where Cartoon Network is located, and I started working for [the network’s evening programming block] Adult Swim. One of the main shows I worked on was called Squidbillies, which is about hillbilly squids – a really messed-up show. They have these green, squishy, formless tentacles that you’re constantly redrawing into different shapes. So cartoon was always running parallel to my painting and they influenced each other.

I once made a series of works called Where Are They Now, taking characters from shows like SpongeBob [SquarePants], Rugrats, The Simpsons, who we might have grown up with. I like imagining that they’re real and even if the show you’re watching gets cancelled, that they’re out there living their lives in obscurity.

Your painting Marge Simpson at the Big Bang – that was phenomenal!

She’s the mother of all things! She’s there at the beginning of time predicting what will happen. She’s an opposite one in my Where Are They Now series because the other ones are washed up, but rather than the future I wanted to think about her past.

I’m interested in this act of character creation.

It’s a huge influence over my work. In my PhD research I was thinking about the ways people create characters of themselves online and how paint can speak to that. Whatever you can imagine, you can paint, similar to the ways you can re-create yourself with plastic surgery, hair dye and make-up. I think of those as forms of paint as well.

I created a character that is made of paint but she wants to be an Instagram influencer. Her name is Jade. She’s a middle-aged lady who is constantly looking online to what beauty is or should be and as trends change she’s constantly remaking herself with those techniques.

My exhibition was in three parts – about 30 paintings that spiralled around the gallery in an order. I called it a social media feed in paint because I was thinking of it as someone’s content you might scroll through. Part one shows the different ways Jade is remaking herself. In part two she’s out at the bar with her friends and she gets drunk on turpentine cocktails. Turpentine thins paint, so she dissolves and she realises that she’s a character made of paint. She becomes self-aware.

Then she uses that self-awareness to become her own plastic surgeon. She enters the “45 and Older Awards” beauty pageant, which she of course wins. Then she realises that she can make her own character, which a lot of people are doing with their children on Instagram. She creates Blob, who is a blob of paint, then she posts his whole life from birth to awkward teenage years to death, and she does this for the purpose of becoming a bigger influencer and to sell products. Then in part three she creates Jade’s handpainted sweaters – which are really these abstract paintings that have a little collar at the top to make them look like sweaters – and she sells them.

The whole sequence ends with you in a tiny room, almost a storeroom. The final sweater painting is the singularity sweater – and the idea of the technological singularity is the moment artificial intelligence becomes self-aware. It’s also called the intelligence explosion. So it’s like this explosion in a sweater. We’re talking about the height of technological self-awareness but it’s made of oil on canvas, this very “old” medium.

I didn’t want to just have the painting. I wanted to also have the social media feed; that was important, too. But I also didn’t want to just make a painting and then post a JPEG. I felt like that wasn’t enough, so I made an animation for each painting in the series. On her account, which is @jadefad, all the paintings were posted as animation.

I’m interested in the cyclical and layered nature of this narrative, considering Dana’s continuous recycling of Frank.

I relate to it through how you can create characters who live on and do their own things even without you being there. This idea is not new – I was reading about how when Charles Dickens was writing, people would try to collect his characters in images or ideas; they were so vivid that people wanted to own them. I’m interested in the ways people can get attached to a fictional entity and in how you can create an identity. In some ways, it’s easier now more than ever to present yourself anew.

And painting – it can operate on several levels. The most direct one is abstraction, where you’re dealing with colour, line, repetition, shape, whatever. If you represent something, you have another level of meaning. Then another level is like if the painting has a title, like a meme, then you have a narrative component that can allude to something beyond the painting, in culture. That gives it thicker layers of meaning.

Sometimes artists are good at abstraction, but not at telling stories: there’s a push to hide meaning.

Narrative goes in and out of being passé in painting but I really don’t care. That’s what I use the titles for: I think the titles are a great way to add elements of meaning. The titles in the Jade series are all captions of her posts. I just want to say as much as I can possibly say, I don’t want to feel limited. I want my paintings to be as generous as possible – for them to give as much as I’m able to give.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 31, 2021 as "Amber Boardman".

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