Popular Culture is Like a Shadow
Popular culture is the practices, beliefs and objects that are dominant in a society at a given point in
time. Popular culture is an imperfect representation of the society from which it comes. A shadow casts
an outline of an object, the silhouette an identifiable reference but not an exact representation. In the
same regard, popular culture offers a visible but imperfect sketch of the society that created it.
Images that are widely circulated within a culture are important because they give form to the views of
that culture. Often what is valued in a culture is what the culture fears it might lose. This can be seen in
science fiction’s depiction of dystopian futures, but it is something that has been around as long as
human culture. A good historical example of this is Peter Bruegel’s Seven Deadly Sins which gave
visual form to the northern European Renaissance’s religious anxieties.
My current work uses American popular culture as a visual language to explore and critique the
narratives, power roles and shifting identities of American culture dating back to Horatio Alger Jr.’s
formulation of the American dream.
I do this in a variety of ways, through different media and bodies of work.
I re-appropriate images taken from the covers of dime novels—the precursor to the comic book. I draw
from the series Work and Win (1898-1925) which is historical cheap serialized American fiction that
originated from writers like Horatio Alger Jr. In 2016, I received the Horatio Alger Fellowship for the
Study of American Popular Culture at the Rare Books and Special Collections at Northern Illinois
University in DeKalb Illinois. My research gave me a visual vocabulary specific to American popular
culture seen in popular fiction from the 19th and early 20th century, images that come directly out of the
time period where the narrative behind the American dream was being developed. What I have done in
the body of work using these historical images is to alter and re-appropriate them to speak to the
anxieties of today’s post American dream Trump Era America. Similar to the way in which the original
covers of the dime novels were created, I recreate them through print processes that use CMYK color
separation that I am painting into.
Another way I explore the theme of the American narrative is in the form of a comic book. In my book
Growing Up, I use a pop culture visual language that this time is taken from the music, toys, and
television shows of the 90’s. I call on the nostalgia of those who grew up in the 90’s, telling a fictional
story that explores the themes of growing up, race, intergenerational trauma, and economic class
structure. I wanted to create a story with a sense of familiarity that touches on the memories of a
With each new body of work, I am creating a conversation about the present by using a visual language
taken from American popular culture of the past. I am opening communication between different varied
narratives that have existed in America, from the days of Horatio Alger Jr, the MTV generation of the
90’s, to a post 9/11 America. This is to show how popular culture hints at what is to come and is
identifiable like a shadow being cast by a figure.