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Robert Cantor

Family Album

Family Album explores and celebrates the peculiarities of nostalgia and memory while wryly commenting on the way that time, technology, and consumer culture shaped those memories and irrevocably altered the dreams and aspirations associated with them.

The paintings start with family snapshots from my childhood but use figures from my extensive pencil sharpener collection to replace me and my brothers wherever we appear. These toy figures can now gaze back at the real world, boldly confronting the viewer with the absurdity of their own existence.

What we usually see in our family albums are holidays, birthday parties, visits from relatives, and trips to amazing destinations like the Upside-down house and Storybookland. The conflicts and turbulences of the past rarely show up. This makes the collection of snapshots a very Norman Rockwell-like depiction of the past.

The invasion of the toy figures in the snapshots pushes that view to an extreme which makes it impossible to ignore the artificial nature of these nostalgic memories. The toys come from around the same time, so that 1960s tourist spots and suburbia are a natural setting for these odd artifacts of modern consumer culture.

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 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 digitizing old family photo albums. Aesthetically, I very much like the dynamic rule-breaking compositions which get accidentally created when an amateur photographer is trying to document an occasion while working with conditions and equipment that are much less than ideal. Psychologically, I find it fascinating how these faded snapshots play such a significant role in defining our memories and perceptions of the past.

Painting the toy figures much larger than life in the snapshot settings gives them a powerful presence and a playful gravitas. Many viewers might recognize aspects of their own childhood in these images, and I invite everyone to look through the eyes of these toys to get a uniquely distorted perspective of the time and places being depicted.


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Copyright 2020 by Robert Cantor
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