America The Not-So-Beautiful: The Dark Art Of Doug Rickard
Doug Rickard greets me from the other side of my computer screen, which is fitting, since his most recent body of work deals with making connections through the Internet. For his first solo exhibition, N.A., at the Little Big Man Gallery in Los Angeles, Rickard looked to YouTube as a resource to extract a chorus of American voices. He created revelatory, yet fragmented “cultural music.” Rickard takes diverse and personal viewpoints to create bold, in-your-face work. The artist is not afraid to show lives that usually get swept under the rug, and he wants you to see the reality of America, this “almighty nation.” Rickard’s work is dark, moody, and a visual representation of America’s obscure, violent elements. We delved deep into what drives his constant need to create art drenched in social commentary, and the implications of everyone having a camera in their hands.
What does N.A. stand for?
It is short for National Anthem, because I basically envisioned YouTube as a chorus of voices emanating from American culture. N.A. was a bit more ambiguous, and could be taken as Not Applicable.
Your Instagram project, T.A. (These Americans), also follows the same abbreviation technique.
That came out this massive archive I built up — all Internet built. Everything from ‘70s porn posters, to every type of pinup, to white Americans holding guns, to close ups of corporate business men shaking hands — just a whole gamut. I’ll deal with appropriated images that I weave into a narrative structure. I also see it as a way to remix American culture, like a DJ or something.
Your subject matter for this work is economic disparity: you see these things from the outside, a world made up of other ethnicities and racial groups. You are a white man, and showing this world in a gallery to people that are similar to you. How does this interplay with the message you are trying to convey?
I grew up in a super religious home. My dad was a mega-church preacher, of a huge church on television, and all white people. There was this real worship of America and seeing it as a holy nation. “God bless America,” to me, was like “does that mean God curses Africans or God curses Mexico — what does that mean exactly?” I started to have a certain disdain.
In college I studied U.S. history and segregation, Jim Crow, the sixties, American slavery — I got really angry. This is one part of my motivation. My work is a sort of collision between one view of America, that sees it like a nation above all, and then looking back at how viciously America treated African-Americans specifically, and then other ethnicities. I intentionally wanted to load the imagery, make it very provocative. This is a part that America likes to ignore, unless something boils up like Ferguson.
A gallery setting is the only way to have a financial component and keep making work. That is one problematic area that has to do with the nature of art. But I’m not inclined to limit myself to not dealing with social or political issues. In this kind of Internet work, I can’t approach it as a documentary either, and I can’t necessarily talk about a community or give personal stories. It has to be kind of symbolic, because I am not a journalist looking to give a complete picture.
I tend to give a darker version. I think there are some really problematic areas in our country right now that stem from a lot of things like the dispersion of wealth being radically divided, and socioeconomic systems that make it difficult for people to come out of poverty.
You are showing another type of America that is pushed to the side.
It’s putting it in view, and forcefully. People can take away what they take away. I don’t know how much art can impact behavior, but it can definitely make an impression.
From archiving YouTube stuff, I found that there was a whole other dynamic from social media. It was pretty vicious, and I wanted to embed some of that into this work. People were taking their phones and putting these videos on YouTube, mocking people to get likes, comments, and hits.
If you pull “crack-head” up, you will get like 10,000 videos, and most of them are predatory. I wanted to embed this whole layer of viciousness that surrounds social media.
You see a lot of violent footage with people that are five feet away and taping it and then sharing it, without doing anything while they’re there. It’s a weird, passive way of interacting with it.
It is. Phones come out for anything now, and then there’s a motivation that is not really genuine: it’s to get attention for yourself. A lot of motivation for social media is a personal affirmation in some way, whether it’s looks or how we’re addicted to likes and comments. A lot of the time people pull phones out and there are ulterior motives for what’s happening.
There are good things, too. Police brutality is now being put under a microscope. In struggling communities, the police usually operate with impunity. It’s a historic pattern of abuse, and because of phones there’s a little bit of a turning of momentum.
The American Dream used to be being part of the upper-middle class. Now there’s more of a fame-focused mentality.
If you think about it, a lot of the power of social media is a microcosm of fame, or the reputation you build up in the virtual world. We are definitely celebrity obsessed. I think it’s probably amplified now more than ever.
From what I saw in your work there’s a lot of sex, violence and control: a lot of physical intimacy without emotional intimacy. Do you think these are some factors in the American culture?
America is pretty much a machine at putting out imagery that deals with sex and power and coolness. I am definitely playing with all of those feelings.
When I was growing up, my father lost his whole church because of an affair, and he was in the news all the time. I had my whole world collapse around me, so I may associate sexuality in some strange ways that would come across as being detached. This was at a real pivotal time for me personally; my father went from this heroic figure to someone that I loathed. Some of this stuff is linked to what my compulsions and obsessions are.
Part of it with the T.A. stuff is what I choose to archive. And the other part is the aesthetic. There’s a certain gorgeous look. There are a bunch of car wrecks and guns and hyper-sexualized women. All of these things are various forms of American culture; I link them with car crashes to say that America is one big train wreck. I love this imagery, but hate what it means.
There’s definitely this love-hate obsession with these emblems of our great nation. My family was obsessed with America growing up, obsessed. All of this imagery comes back from things I associate with this puritanical view of the country.
It acts as your therapy.
Yeah, I think so. I was an artist since I was a boy. All of this gives me fuel that makes me unrelenting as an artist. I know I will never let up.
All images by Doug Rickard.
Be sure to check out Doug Rickard’s show N.A. at LITTLE BIG MAN GALLERY, on view through October 31st.
And check out Doug’s website here