Two Sisters Going Down the Falls of Conspiracies (2022) is a 6-by-9 feet acrylic painting on unstretched drop-cloth canvas.
During the Romantic period of the mid-1800s, the intent of Hudson Valley painters was to proclaim the grandeur of the American landscape. My composition has elements of Niagara Falls paintings by Frederic Church (1844) and Louis Remy Mignot (1866).
Now, in the early 21st century, the contemporary American landscape has gone well beyond the pastoral. It has become hyper-polarized and politicized. This includes embracing conspiracy theories, distrust of medical professionals and public authorities, and outright lies about the political opposition—all in the name of keeping power and the political narrative.
Per the Wikipedia list of people who have gone over Niagara Falls, there have been hundreds of accidental and intentional attempts since 1850. Of note, there are 16 recorded survivors, including a man who first went solo, and then later survived together with his girlfriend.
One attempt that has not yet historically occurred is by two sisters. This work imagines my two younger sisters at the precipice of the falls. For two years, they willingly and blindly believe a flood of conspiracies, many of them written in the waterfall. They post them on Facebook, email, and phone text, in spite of my continual debunking. They, like many, accept delusion in place of reality.
The Raft of the Medusa is a history painting made in 1818–19 by the French painter Théodore Géricault. Completed when the artist was 27, it is a large tableau on display at the Louvre, which depicts a raft made from the wreck of the wooden French naval vessel La Méduse. In June 1816, the Méduse departed from a French port bound for the coast of Senegal carrying 400 people, approximately 160 crew, and 240 passengers.
During its trajectory, the Méduse drifted 100 miles off course due to poor navigation. It collided with a rock formation and started to leak. Passengers, the captain, and the crew filled the six emergency boats. The remaining 146 men and one woman were set adrift onto a hastily built raft. For sustenance the crew had one bag of biscuits consumed the first day, two barrels of water soon lost overboard, and six casks of wine. The raft drifted aimlessly. The drifters endured starvation and dehydration and even practiced cannibalism. With no search effort in sight, the raft was adrift for 13 days and was rescued completely by chance by a British ship. In the end, 15 survivors were rescued.
The event became a scandal because of the incompetence of the French captain who had received his commission as a result of political appointment and who had not sailed in 20 years. This shipwreck was a public embarrassment for the new French monarchy, which had only returned to power one year after Napoleon’s defeat in 1815. The wreck became a larger metaphor for the ineptitude of the king.
As an artist, I am inspired by what I see, really see. To negate the gaslighting after the January 6th Insurrection, I took photos from the videos that scrolled across the TV screen and painted them realistically as seen. No room for gaslighting.
History has a way of repeating itself, and so, as I thought back on what happened on January 6th, my series America’s Guernica? emerged.
Guernica, the title of Picasso’s iconic 1937 anti-war painting, is also the name of the town in northern Spain and, like America’s Capitol, the seat of the Basque Parliament which was bombed by the Nazis in 1937 during the Spanish Revolution. 6 January 2021, the day rioters stormed our nation’s seat of government, will forever be remembered as a day of infamy, the attack on our precious and fragile democracy. Could this attack on America be a warning of things to come, just as the events in Guernica foretold future atrocities and dictatorships?
America’s Guernica? paintings are a fervent plea for peace and hope, a response to the visceral hate and racism. I feel the influence of artists Jacob Lawrence and Romare Bearden guiding me.
Painted in vermillion and embedded in each painting is the word “Shalom” written in Hebrew letters. “Peace,” an English word, is “Shalom” in Hebrew and “Salaam” in Arabic. I chose the color vermillion, the color of blood which gives life and bleeds life away, as a tribute to artist Dahlov Ipcar who said, “May I die before I run out of vermillion.”
The first painting in the series is a pixelated Rudy Giuliani, the image shown on my Delta screen as I landed in Tampa and began thinking of the series. Pixelated might well symbolize the status of our democracy today. But unlike Picasso’s stark black and white painting, these canvases are vividly painted with bright colors, symbolizing my hope for the future.
Whether we face Utopia or Dystopia in the future in some ways depends on whether we believe what we see.
Image at top: Peter Buotte, Sinking Raft, acrylic painting on unstretched drop-cloth canvas, 6 x 9 ft., 2022.