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“Family Time”, by David Lyle, oil on panel, 30” x 34”, 2011. © 2012 David Lyle.

David Lyle: “Family Time”, oil on panel, 30” x 34”, 2011. © 2012 David Lyle.

David Lyle was born in Okinawa, Japan, in 1971. He currently lives and works in downtown Manhattan. From his official bio page:

David Lyle acts as both curator and painter, sifting through a vast array of lost snapshots from the 1950s, 60s, and 70s found at thrift stores, garage sales, e-bay auctions, and flea markets. His oil on panel paintings mimick their found photo authenticity and achieving a sense of nostalgia and memory.
Not only are Lyle’s images compelling in themselves, but in selecting themes from a dense amount of images, Lyle extracts a purely American moment in our psyches. It is this blend of curator and painter that is so interesting in David’s work, allowing him to create a formidable sense of familiarity with his subjects.

Although I really enjoy Lyle’s paintings, I’m not so sure about that “formidable sense of familiarity”. On the contrary, it seems to me his paintings create a chilling sense of uncomfortably strangeness or, more precisely, of uncanniness. On one hand, they appeal to our longing for nostalgic feelings: the desire to experiment with a past era about which we have romantic views (and so some of us collect vintage polaroid pictures, design from the art deco period, original movie posters, old vinyl disks, sneakers from the 70s, etc.). On the other end, David Lyle’s paintings often include an element that explicitly disturb this naive phantasm. Instead of inviting us to a peaceful contemplation, their composition induce a brutal, sometime humorous dissonance. In “Words of Wisdom” (2011) a typical suburb housewife from the 50’s looks at a G-string printed with Nike’s slogan “Just Do It”. In “If You See Something, Say Something” (2011) a bus passenger is calmly sitting with a bomb in his hand while people around him keep reading their newspaper. In “The Honey Hole” (2012) Winnie-the-Pooh is happily peeking at a half-naked pin-up while she undresses herself.
Consider the painting depicted above. “Family Time” represents a moment in the life of a family at the end of the 50’s or during the 60’s (between the second half of the 40’s and the very beginning of the 60’s the number of households equipped with a television set in the Unites-States skyrocketed, increasing from less than 0.5% to 90%1). Representation of joyful family members gathered together in front of the television screen is an iconographic archetype of this era (see the image below from this source).

A family gathered in front of a television set, photo by Evert F. Baumgardner, ca. 1958
A family gathered in front of a television set, photo by Evert F. Baumgardner, ca. 1958. Public domain. Retrieved from “Images of American Political History” at http://bill.ballpaul.net/

Such representation conveys an idyllic sense of perfection and purity. The “Golden Fifties” are often associated with this idea of a new (edenic) beginning. As Douglas T. Miller and Marion Nowak explains in The fifties: the way we really were:

Looking back on that period, people today see it as a time of fun and innocence, a soda-pop world with youth as its only participants. (Garden City, N.Y. : Doubleday, 1977, p. 5)

However, that’s not exactly what’s depicted in the painting. Something is rotten in the art of David Lyle. Within the TV sets, an anachronous sequence from The Simpsons shows a sociopathic Homer comically but violently strangling his son Bart2. The animated sitcom is less known for its innocence than for his highly cynical signature. It could be argued that this “dissonance” is making the phantasmic regime of the idyllic representation more apparent. The perfection we’re attributing to this era tells us more about our actual desire and longing than it tells us about the past. Consequently, by highlighting the contrast between what we believe we want and what we actually have, the painting invites us for a moment to consider the present time in a new perspective. Instead of vaguely recording the existence of The Simpsons in the horizon of our daily life, it may be possible, for instance, to see it as something quite strange and worrying. Miller and Novak shared a similar view in their book:

What does all this nostalgia means? Periods of intense longing for an earlier era indicate that people are discontented with the present. Excessive, sentimental nostalgia generally occurs during times of perceived crisis. (p. 5)

A press release for David Lyle’s upcoming exhibition Misbehaving at Lyons Wier Gallery (April 5 – 28, 2012) conveys a another description of his work:

In Misbehaving, we see how Lyle’s methodology combined with his acerbic wit creates an altered reality rife with cynicism and bursting with mischief. Lyle is impeccably faithful to the vintage photographs that inspire his work – until a point in which he instills a cultural reference so familiar, yet iconoclastic, as to leave the viewer wincing, laughing, or really thinking — often it is all three. (PDF)

More about David Lyle online:

I first found about David Lyle’s paintings via This Isn’t Happiness.

• • •

1. See Television History – The First 75 Years: Facts and Statistics. Also “Motion Picture Statistics (1930-1954)” by Anna Barcelos. ↩︎︎

2. In an indirectly related matter, see recently in The New Inquiry “Why We Love Sociopaths” by Adam Kotsko, April 4, 2012. This article is excerpted from Kotsko’s book Why We Love Sociopaths: A Guide to Late Capitalist Television (O Books, 2012). Preview it on Google Books. ↩︎︎

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