Allegories of Brand Loyalty
Since 1995, images of monkeys have figured prominently in my work. These paintings comment on the phenomenon of social identities as constructed by consumerism in the 21st century economy, with it’s proliferation of products and services that seek the loyalty if not the very sense of identity of their consumers through various “branding” strategies: logo, color, slogan, sound, naming, and association with “lifestyle”.
The images, including the fact of their being paintings, the painterly style, as well as the composition, color, and narrative, are meant to simultaneously evoke visual strategies from the history of European portraiture, Dutch still life, and contemporary advertising. They are all sets; variations on a theme that vary in color, pattern, accessories, emotional states, or the orientation of the monkey. This is a reiteration of the current marketing trend to present the consumer with a taxonomy of product, suited to the specific moods or minutely differing preferences of the brand-loyal consumer. For example, Dawn dishwashing liquid comes in five colors, each with a different title, fragrance, and attendant mythology, such as “Fresh Rain” or “Spring Blossoms”. Other brands that engage this same strategy are too numerous to name, including Lysol, Dial soap, Bounce fabric softener, and my own “branded” products.
Monkeys in the history of European paintings were always parodies of or stand-ins for human beings, as they are in my works. My reference to portrait-painting is meant to evoke all the social conventions that result in portrait-painting: social status, narcissism, and commodity fetishism. My reference to 17th century Dutch still life is intended to evoke the unintentionally ironic “vanitas” convention, where a status commodity (a painting) was meant to caution against faith in the importance of worldly goods. More obscurely, I want to refer to those aspects of Dutch burgher culture in the Golden Age that, as Simon Schama points out in his book, The Embarrassment of Riches, strangely mirrors our own recent history in its “anxiety of superabundance”, attitudes towards class, and the very definition of “freedom” being devolved from real politics to consumerist freedom of choice, which often involves an overwhelming array of choices with no major practical differences among them.
The use of monkeys in paintings is described by James Hall in his 1979 edition of Dictionary of Subjects and Symbols in Art. It is important to note that although Hall uses the word “ape”, many of the images I have seen of the paintings he describes show a simian with a tail, which is therefore a monkey rather than an ape.
“To Christians in the earlier Middle Ages the ape (or monkey) was a symbol of the Devil, by which was meant heresy and paganism rather than man’s sinfulness. In the Gothic era, an ape with an apple in its mouth came to signify the fall of Man…This image was used in the Renaissance in another sense as an attribute of Taste, one of the Five Senses. Man recognized a distorted, baser image of himself. It became associated with vice in general, and was used for the personification of Lust…From the Middle Ages, the ape was a symbol of
the arts of Painting and Sculpture. The artist’s skill was regarded as essentially imitative and
became linked with the animal known for its imitativeness. The idea was expressed in a popular saying, “Ars Simia Naturae”—“Art is the ape of Nature”, which was taken up particularly by 17th century Flemish painters. They depicted the artist as an ape in the act of painting a portrait, generally a female, usually human, or carving a figure in stone. This parody of man was extended to other human activities, and apes were represented sitting at the meal table, playing cards or musical instruments, drinking, dancing, skating and so on...The artist was satirizing man’s pretentiousness, follies and vanities.”
The number of monkey portraits I have done where the monkey holds an artist’s brush or pallette (as in the Allegories of Real Estate series, among others) has less to do with the lives and identities of actual artists than with the construction of the “artsy” identity of the consumer of certain urban style-oriented products; this mythological creature defines a neo-bohemian lifestyle that has been essential to the gentrification of urban neighborhoods, particularly those with “loft condo” potential. This commodity-styled hipster defines an unintentionally ironic identity: he or she is a contemporary flaneur whose sophisticated eye is not taken in by the machinations of advertising language and its sappy strategies of persuasion, yet he is undoubtedly a creature whose identity is still to be found in imitative consumerism and brand loyalty. After all, it has been a long time since “hip” really indicated anything genuinely subversive or marginal to the dominant culture. My allegories of brand loyalty are intended to suggest the literal embodiment of all the marketplace would have us desire.