Robert Cantor
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Robert Cantor

Family Album

Family Album celebrates the peculiarities of nostalgia and memory while alluding to the way that time, technology, and consumer culture have shaped those memories and irrevocably altered the dreams and aspirations associated with them. The paintings start with black-and-white snapshots from my childhood, but then use figures from my extensive pencil sharpener collection to replace me and my brothers wherever we appear.

I had been collecting toy pencil sharpeners for years before ever thinking to use them as subjects for paintings. I now have over 800 of them. Influenced by the beauty of botanical illustration and the Index of American Design, I started by painting them as isolated subjects and then began putting them into stage-like settings. Treating the inexpensive toys with an exaggerated reverence made the paintings themselves become the precious objects worthy of that reverence.

While focusing on those paintings, I was also experimenting with a very different style based on snapshots, an idea which presented itself to me while I was scanning old family photo albums. I very much enjoy the dynamic rule-breaking compositions which get accidentally created when amateur photographers try to document an occasion while working with conditions and equipment that are much less than ideal. I also find it fascinating how these faded snapshots play such a significant role in defining our memories and perceptions of the past.

These early 1960s tourist spots and suburbia captured in the snapshots seem a natural setting for my odd artifacts of modern consumer culture. What we usually see in our family albums are holidays, baby pictures, birthday parties, and trips to amazing destinations like the Upside-down House and Storybookland. The conflicts and turbulences of the past rarely show up. The presence of toy figures pushes this sentimental viewpoint to an extreme which makes it impossible to ignore the artificial nature of these nostalgic memories.

Painting the figures much larger than life gives them a powerful presence as they brazenly invade my childhood. Great care is taken to find the figure whose expression and body language best captures the attitude and personality of the child being represented. Through these paintings, the toy figures can now gaze back at the real world, boldly confronting the viewer with the absurdity of their own existence.

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