Mackenzie Ring, 21 Quint Ave Bathtub, oil on canvas, 2018
The opening shots of Jim Jarmusch’s 1989 film Mystery Train accurately — and succulently — summarize the endless expanse of the kudzu covered miasma that engulfs the majority of the scenic landscape of the Southeast. This imagery goes beyond simply capturing the mood at the heart of the South. There is no greater metaphor for entropy than the sight of kudzu encroaching on decaying highway infrastructure. The city of Atlanta’s flag even includes a mythological symbol of the repetitive cycle of life, death, and rebirth: the phoenix. Of course in this context, the cycle is in reference to the fact that the city was burned to the ground during the American Civil War. The Southeast is full of ghosts, memories and concurrent traumas that run through it like fault lines. Do I have any claim to this? I grew up in the South but I am not Southern. My parents are Canadian, so I don’t consider myself American. But maybe that’s just something that I tell myself since being American always felt unattractive to me growing up. I want to connect with my Métis identity, but am unsure if there’s space for me there since I am so far removed from that part of myself. My uncle, my cousin and I are the only living members of my family who even look remotely indigenous — which is itself a colonial construct as there are people with more recent indigenous ancestry who appear to be even more white-passing than I do, and vice versa. I might not find my history. I might not even really have one beyond being a public-school kid from a suburb full of strip malls; from a place rapidly becoming more and more devoid of any locality or personality, as our local identity is slowly consumed by global kudzu.
Full disclosure, I have never experienced a violent crime firsthand. If anything, I only have secondhand stories told to me by my dad of when his cousin committed a double murder for the Hell’s Angels over a cocaine debt. My dad’s inability to reconcile his childhood companion from these acts of violence does not affect me personally, other than it is an oft-cited family story of “what can go wrong despite everyone’s best efforts.” But then, most people who write or produce narratives about crime have experienced it only from an ontological standpoint. And maybe that is precisely why there is such a disconnect between content and form in true crime. That is farcical and interesting to me. My mother, her three sisters, my grandmother, and myself would all gather together and froth at each upcoming Dateline episode. We would settle around the T.V. and watch, enraptured, as various male members of the family passed through and questioned our interest in such graphic violence and traumatic narration. Absorbing every bit of media sourced from the Casey Anthony trial and ascribing guilt or innocence to her every gesture became a sport to us. Based on the framing of the interview of a man whose wife had died suspiciously, we would immediately exclaim whether we thought he was “definitely guilty,” or if this was an intentional narrative red herring in the episode in order to pull a late in the game twist that it was actually a secret boyfriend not mentioned until halfway through the episode. Why do we actively absorb this other than due to the normal human urge to rubberneck when we witness a tragedy? Is it because we think that if we watch it and understand it we will somehow be able to internalize something and therefore better avoid danger in our own lives? Is it an expression of our abject privilege that we are sheltered from violence like this daily? I don’t have the answers, but the narrative stream from police scanner to tabloid (in my opinion, one untrustworthy narrator to the next) is interesting, along the nonsensical way that we portray these events. In the true crime model, the attempt to narrate the nonlinear and to understand the unfathomable only creates flatness. Flatness of meaning, flatness of details, and flatness of form. We can only understand people in true crime narratives through media labels such as the jealous husband, or the antisocial loner. We lose depth, and we don’t really know the complex motivations of these people. In most cases, the perpetrators themselves probably don’t know either. People have both the ability to lie, and the ability to tell the truth. There are false convictions and mishandled cases. We view the victim/perpetrator dichotomy as an absolute. The fracturing and flattening of narrative depth that occurs in many true crime programs is expressed in my work through planes of combined images and symbols of “objective truth”: physical forensic evidence such as hair samples, fiber samples, and fingerprints. The entire crux of the T.V. show Forensic Files is to marvel at the absolutes of new technological advances in forensic science. However, science can be bent and morphed through many different self-serving lenses in the court of law. What is and is not permissible — as well as what constitutes fact and theory — shifts slowly in law, and necessary technology is often available too late and may be inaccessible to those who would actually benefit from its invocation in the justice system. Each of my paintings is comprised of a multitude of images of locations, invocations of the figure, references to violence, and a degree of cartoonish ridiculousness. While creating this body of work, I was thinking a lot about the cultural climate that inspired various new American myths. The death of John Walsh’s son shifted the conversation towards the unknown predator. Similarly, there were unjust associations between the Central Park Five and the phrase “super predator.” In my combined and collaged landscapes, a white cartoonish figure reminiscent of Mr. Bill (or other bumbling cartoon protagonists) walks and stumbles through the scenes, the potential perpetrator of crimes and acts. These silhouettes stand in for a super predator outside of a suburban elementary school, or a lone male cruising the strip for a victim. They also function as a visaul representation of how we represent and discuss the perpetrators of violent crimes in the media as a blank slate onto which we project our common and personal fears. We talk about crime collectively, and in a variety of ways including humor — the “Florida Man” is a widely understood joke. We see them as flat, comical figures committing ridiculous crimes, but who are they as individuals? What does this flattening of intent serve other than to satisfy our own ego? Part of me thinks that any painting I make is an attempt to bushwhack my way to the center of how the media I consume affects my understanding of justice, truth, and an identity that is always in flux. The media-based images in my paintings are sourced from episodes of Forensic Files. I combine and confuse my source images to try to find a more objective truth about the ways that America discusses crime and justice. If my current paintings are a search for objective truth through the lens of the form of the true crime narratives that I grew up with, that leads me to believe that an objective truth may not exist. The model of truth based on Forensic Files and Dateline calls for a condensing of real life events into a neat, linear package that simplifies the layers and complexities of obfuscation and recounting events in a courtroom. Episodes of these shows typically end with a clear resolution that reaffirms our faith in the criminal justice system. I am ultimately interested in recycling and repurposing images that signal narrative tropes, to examine American mythologies about perpetrators and true crime narratives. In the never-ending cycle of media informing reality, and vice versa, I want my work at its core to feel like the shit that the ouroboros-esque structure of the true crime world expels at the end of the day.
I often think about how my bones would be classified from a forensic anthropological standpoint. How would my skeletal structure be interpreted and reconstructed? Would it align with how I perceive myself or how others perceive me? How would these arbitrary measurements encapsulate my struggles with identity and ownership? Would my facial reconstruction reaffirm my whiteness, or other people’s various assumptions about my racial identity? These dated specifications and means of defining somebody’s identity are inherently problematic. This search for an objective reality at the junction of scientific truth and our own personal lived truths is my current interest — and its lack of achievability tempts me to explore these questions.