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Boyd, Daniel - 2014.50

Daniel Boyd

Untitled 2014
oil, charcoal and archival glue on canvas
213.5 x 168 cm
Purchased 2015

Daniel Boyd, the first Indigenous recipient of the prestigious Bulgari Art Award, for his Untitled 2014, is an eminent Australian painter, recognised for work that challenges colonial perspectives of history and image-making. Often working with archival and iconic images, he explores how time and collective memory distort perceptions of an image’s meaning. Boyd approaches his subject with subtlety, provoking reconsiderations of memory, the past and how historical narratives are interpreted.

Untitled is from Boyd’s 2014 series of history paintings that explore subjects and scenes with cultural, political and art-historical relevance. This painting reproduces in oil and charcoal on canvas an iconic image from Andy Warhol’s Interview magazine. The original photograph, shot by Robert Mapplethorpe in 1984, portrays the multi-talented Jamaican-American Grace Jones in tribalesque body paint and costume by Keith Haring. She stands on one foot, arms spread wide, palms open to the viewer in a pose evocative of an African dancer.

Ironically, in Mapplethorpe’s original image, it is the white twisting lines made by pop artist Haring that render Jones’s skin ‘tribal’. These white marks are very similar to Haring’s New York City subway wall drawings, which  use the same line drawing style but are considered decidedly ‘urban’ in the context of the city subway. By rendering Jones’s body a painted surface, Mapplethorpe’s image draws on how the racialised subject is seen and de/valued, transmuting the meaning of Haring’s painted marks. This fixation with surface recalls what decolonial theorist Frantz Fanon labels the ‘racial epidermal schema’, or the embodiment of racial oppression. Fanon shows how race persists as a category of perception, which is key to the racialisation of non-white bodies.[1]

Boyd replaces the high-gloss of the magazine image with undulating white dots of paint against charcoal. Through this process the image is reconfigured to challenge the preoccupation with surfaces present in the original photograph, drawing attention to the aesthetic assumptions embedded in the reading of racialised bodies through art history and in popular media more generally. Boyd redoubles the fundamental inaccessibility of the photograph by distorting the image. The painting creates an ebbing effect that disrupts the distinction between surface and content, invoking the inaccessibility of the past that is further obscured by superficial representations of subjects and history.

Boyd’s dots create a pixel effect, which reference the mechanics of photographic reproduction and the well-known painting techniques of contemporary Aboriginal artists, such as practitioners from the Western Desert art movement. Untitled engages with the content of the image and, importantly, the politics of image production. This painting conflates two seemingly distinct modes of image production. Represented in painted dots, elements of the original photograph are lost, as the incomplete image becomes an artefact of memory and loss, which brings into question the inevitable incompleteness of an image once it enters circulation.

The painted surface of Untitled is a further abstraction of Jones’s body, implicating the viewer in the slippage that occurs between subject and signifier in the original. By drawing viewers’ attention to the production of the image instead of its surface, Untitled enunciates the colonising desire embedded in constructing images of the ‘primitive’. With this painting and others in the Untitled series, Boyd does not seek to simply uncover subjects and events that are obscured by dominant historical narratives, rather he presents a mode of viewing history that renders the colonial perspective an absent presence in the construction of the image.

Tristen Harwood is an Indigenous writer and cultural critic living in Naarm (Melbourne).

[1] Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks,trans. by Charles Lam Markmann, Grove Press, New York, 1967, p.112.