Peter J Ketchum – Lost Souls

Words and images by Peter J Ketchum

My “Painted Pictures” are about loss. They are about lost souls. They are about a loss of innocence–nationally and individually. Most of all, they are about lost time–time past and time ended. They are about our own flow through time in the passage from here to there, and who will care?

The Painted Pictures are collaborations with unknown photographers and subjects. These subjects, made anonymous by time, lived in a time and place as impermanent and ethereal as yours and mine.

For the minor players spotlighted in the paintings, no one was left to lug around the visual evidence of a life lived. No one to say, “This is a picture of your Great Aunt Nettie as a young girl.” These Lost Souls were resurrected at flea markets and garage sales, which almost became the true final resting place.

To make the viewer reconsider these disposable individuals, they have been given vibrant settings that represent and, at the same time, mask reality–a seashore when none is nearby or pillars no stronger than the canvas they are painted on.

In making the pictures, a blowup of the original image is added to, deleted from, and painted on. The figures are then cut out and glued to the invented setting on the canvas.

The Painted Pictures are collaborations with unknown photographers and subjects. These subjects, made anonymous by time, lived in a time and place as impermanent and ethereal as yours and mine. Like all of us, these Lost Souls smiled bravely at the camera–CLICK!–and then were gone.

Most of my work is about personal and societal attitudes as reflected in the ephemera we generate: found photographs (pre-1950s), ads, menus, postcards, letters, diaries, book covers and matchbooks. Because many of the found visual bits and pieces were mass produced, the broad acceptance of and interest in the ideology inherent in them is underscored. Before “political correctness,” society happily perpetuated stereotypes. This is true of materials produced about women, Jews, people of color, Native Americans, fat people, gay people, Arabs, and other minorities–often in the name of humor.

Most of my work is about personal and societal attitudes as reflected in the ephemera we generate.

The idea that interests me most is the longevity of intolerance.

In little bits and pieces negative views were approved and bought at the cash register, sent worldwide through the mails, and displayed at home. These popular images shaped some of our current attitudes as a society: ideas about beauty, woman’s work, body image, social acceptability, cultural mythology, urban legends, masculinity, sex, measures of success and morality.

My work also explores our perpetuated cultural myths and lies: war as a given, for example. I am interested in our sports, religious, pop culture, military and political leaders and their misadventures with truth and morality. I am interested in moral standards as reflected in our icons and popular imagery.

I wonder if our societal soul is nothing more than a twitter tweet or an Ebay collectible. Will the coke bottle be the fossil index of modern culture, the tabloids our dead sea scrolls and tweets a historian’s primary source? 

Are the bits and pieces of pop culture true milestones in our trip from here to there, or barriers to a meaningful journey?

I hope not, but fear so.

I am interested in subjects ranging from the origin and perpetuation of stereotypes to the death of civility. My work looks at the impermanence of individuals and the long afterlife of their prejudices and foibles.

My work looks at the impermanence of individuals and the long afterlife of their prejudices and foibles.

Most of my work carries on immodestly in the tradition of Picasso, Braque. Duchamp, Arp, and–yes–Leonardo by using recombinant methods of APPROPRIATION in  mixed media works. 

The critic Ken Johnson defines appropriation as collage, quotation, citation, allusion, redemption; echoing, copying, mimicking, mirroring, tracing, replicating, parodying, plagiarizing, recontextualizing, transforming, deconstructing, plain old representing, and maybe a few other acts, including outright theft. That’s me. Thief.

From the Dadaist ready-made to today, the common and shameless hijacking of words and images has a lengthy history. Rauschenberg stole spaghetti can labels, Jasper Johns stole Betsy Ross’s flag, and Duchamp lifted a urinal for his own artistic use. Lichtenstein, Cornell, Oldenburg–appropriation thieves all. AND my hero Warhol stole a soupçon of images: Liz, Marilyn, Jackie, Mao, and Campbell’s soup. 

Inspired by all these art thieves some of  my  work is appropriated/stolen from postcards that were created, written on, and sent between 1880 and 1920 by Real People, B.C.–BEFORE COMPUTERS. Only the scale, typefaces, and what a now dead New York Times reviewer called “Ketchum’s garish colors” are uniquely my own. 

Postcards predated the electronic mania called twitter which is defined as “a short burst of inconsequential information,” and also as “chirps from birds.” So using a proscribed number of characters, twitterers communicate in short bursts, or tweets. And that is exactly what the penny postcards at the turn of the 20th century did. Only they did it in pencil, pen, and ink–not electronically. And the sender often added HANDWRITTEN! messages in pen or pencil. I have stolen these messages too and incorporated them at whim.

Some of the postcards were simply sent from one side of a small town to another. Some went around the globe. But all of them were short bursts of communication between friends, lovers, siblings, family members, and co-workers. The postcards sent messages of inquiry, trivial news, love, flirtation, double-entendres, and satire–often at the expense of spouses, in-laws, and people of different ethnic groups: why, for example, a stereotypical image of a black man for a New Years greeting? In these very real messages are reflected societal attitudes about gender, race, and social class. Many of these attitudes, sadly, have survived into our electronic age. It is this idea that interests me most. The longevity of intolerance.

The penny postcards were a vital means of staying connected in a busy world. One hundred years later we are still trying to stay connected to one another, and yet, because of modern means of communication, we are in many ways more disconnected. 

Some days we are so importantly busy we do not even hear the short chirps of the birds.

Mixed media work on canvas made with found b&w photos from the 1850’s-1950’s. Four modern color photos were also used and color enhanced with markers, paint pens and acrylics. Each was copied and hand-colored with acrylics, photo dyes, pens, paint pens, and/or markers. Photos were then enlarged, cut out, and glued to the stretched, painted canvas. The handmade KINSHIP nameplate is carved 1/2 inch painted pine. It is attached with velcro. The portraits move from women of the 1800’s at the bottom to modern women at the top. Most of the older women in the bottom rows were born into slavery. They were photographed in the 1930s as a WPA project. With one generation building a firm foundation for the next, KINSHIP pays homage to the kinship and strength of women of color. The flowers represent plants from Africa including cotton and forget-me-nots. The improbable clouds are a reminder of ones unseen by the chained captives in the hull of the American-bound ships. The surrounding names were all used on slave ships. All but one is a woman’s name. Many slave ships were named after the daughters and wives of the ship’s owner. The exception is JESUS, a 700 ton ship owned by Elizabeth I, and one of the early transports.

Peter J. Ketchum received a degree in fine arts from Colby College, did additional study at the School for Visual Arts in NYC, and studied filmmaking at NYU. He also studied privately with George Baer.

The Brooklyn-based artist’s work is in the permanent collections of the Smithsonian Institute, 
The Norfolk History Museum, Colby, and the (late great) Guggenheim Downtown. His work has been shown at The Brooklyn Museum, The Bushnell, The Springfield Museum of Fine Art, The Discovery Museum (2 person show), and the Connecticut Sports Museum.  Five works were included in “35 Artists of North America,” curated by Thomas Krens, the former head of the Guggenheim. The artist has shown in solo and group shows in Boston and NYC, including Exit Art, Lumina, MetroPictures, SOHO 20, HERE,the Williamsburg (Brooklyn) Art Center, ArtWell, Bachelier/Cardonsky and the Charter Oak Cultural Center, TNC Gallery/NYC, and Saatchi on Line. 

Ketchum founded and curated the exhibits at Gallery on Dean. He was also the curator  at  TNC Gallery  NY NY.

Artists To Watch publishes his greeting card series worldwide. See More of his work on his website, on Facebook, and on Instagram.

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