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Thursday, December 5, 2019

Columnists > Smallwood

Smallwood - November 22

Nov 21, 2019

By Jonathan Hyman - community correspondent

By: Contributed Photo by Michael Gold
Part whimsy, part art display, “Patriotic Hot Dog” a photograph by Woodridge native Michael Gold, appears in his current exhibition “American Flag Photographs” at the Gardiner Library in Gardiner through December 28th.
I came of age between the mid-1960's and late 1970's… the period between the turbulent civil rights and anti-Vietnam War epoch up through the self-actualizing “Me Generation” and Iranian hostage crisis. During this time, my generation grew up with the American flag as it evolved from a sacrosanct icon that, for the most part, was universally understood to represent the greatness of our nation and the patriotism associated with it, into an image and object that became not only contested, but inextricably part of American culture.
This was a time when, for good or for bad, our flag was demystified, removed from the flag pole, literally, and began to appear as a vibrant part of our visual and political culture. Though there were protestations from some quarters, the American flag began to appear in every corner of society, from clothing and automobiles to augmented flags incorporating peace signs or the globe to everyday objects like hats, stuffed animals, key chains, and basketballs. When I was growing up there were (and still are) flag burnings. Then, as now, the manner in which our flag is employed speaks to the sensibility and ideology of those who exhibit, display, construct, and yes, even desecrate it.

Fast-forward to the immediate aftermath of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. When people began hanging store-bought American flags and decorating both private and public property with memorial displays, artwork, and handmade American flags - from tiny to enormous - the American flag was seemingly everywhere, certainly at the center of the public response to a national catastrophe. As a photographer and writer interested in American popular culture, public expression, and folk art, it was clear to me that people were speaking out loud, in public on their cars, houses, barns, places of business, bodies, and anywhere else they could find the space to do it.
Americans who heretofore had little to no experience with art making used what was available to them in their popular culture. Most prominently, they employed their flag and the triad of color - red, white, and blue - to express their sorrow, patriotism, anger, and in some cases, wish for peace, unity, war, or revenge. People were using the flag in heartfelt, and idiosyncratic ways to afford themselves a voice. I began taking pictures.
Fast-forward to 2003. Two years into a more than ten-year documentary project in which I took more than twenty thousand pictures and conducted hundreds of oral histories surrounding the public response to the 9/11 attacks, I presented a framed photograph to my mother-in-law, in whose house already hung a number of my photographs and paintings.
This picture, one of my favorites, depicted a hand painted American flag on two doors that inventively incorporated two large rectangular pieces of glass clearly meant to represent the fallen World Trade Center towers. My mother-in-law was aware of my work and knew I was making the case in writing that the overwhelming public response to the attacks and the use of the American flag in uncountable forms, had given birth to a new form of Americana and memorial language. But she turned down the gift. Because she objected so strongly to those - including our president - whom she believed had used and manipulated the flag to advance their political agenda, she could not hang a flag in her house.
She saw the use of the flag as well as the use of red, white, and blue across the culture as a form of patriotic orthodoxy that both offended her and, she believed, stifled the necessary debate in the run-up to the Iraq War. My mother-in-law, and many who shared her sensibility, from professional politicians to lay people alike, felt that the Democratic Party had unwittingly conceded use of the flag to George W. Bush. Such is the emotional and political power of our iconic American flag.
I toured Europe as a U. S. State Department Cultural Envoy in 2008 presenting my 9/11 related photography project. During my first lecture a venerable professor at the University of Vienna interrupted me after seeing scores of different types of American flags made in response to the attacks. She asked, “What is it with you Americans and your flag? In Europe this would never happen.” (She was referring negatively to the use of the flag and the number and prominence of them post-9/11. The answer to her question has been the subject of scholars in academic fields ranging from History, American Studies, and Political Science to Sociology, Cultural Anthropology, and Material Culture.) While in Austria I began counting flags. The number of American flags, by far, outnumbered any other flag, including Austria's.
Fast-forward to now. In his current exhibit titled “American Flag Photographs”, Woodridge native, photographer Michael Gold (currently a resident of New Paltz) has staged an insightful and beautifully produced show at the Gardiner Library's exhibition space (133 Farmer's Turnpike in Gardiner). Gold, a well known commercial and portrait photographer, has a keen eye, a wicked sense of humor, and a profound interest in the sublime things that most people either don't care about, or do not notice on the side of the road. Because Gold is a master, all of the photographs are worthy of contemplation and admiration. However, the success and joy of this exhibit is the totality of its overall dialectic.
The exhibition's twenty-four framed photographs, snapped between Maine and the Florida Keys and points in between (including Sullivan County), provide an experience that is both thought provoking and whimsical given the tenor of today's culture. Gold's photographs illustrate displays and uses of the American flag - small and large - in ways that produce polar opposite responses. Certain images suggest the flag, though potentially trite, decorative, and banal, can also be used humorously. (See “Sinister Shark” with small American flag and “Patriotic Hot Dog”) and others evoke deep feelings of isolation and longing (see “Kick Boxer”). While Gold's artistry is undeniable, his exhibit poses a twist.
This wonderful collection asks the viewer to consider the exhibition's photographs in context and real time, as the public expression and artistry of those whose displays Gold has photographed. After all, how does one decide when, where, and how to display and/or construct an American flag? Two things are for sure: Michael Gold gets around a lot and he knows how to find flags and photograph them. See the exhibit through December, 28th.
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