Regardless of age, background, or taste, all human beings are united in a common quest for meaning, which manifests in thinking abstractly through signs. We all create signs, think in signs, and interpret signs. A smell, object, act, word, or image can be a sign, but each has no intrinsic meaning until it is assigned one. Anything can be a sign, as long as it stands for something other than itself, and the study of meaningful sign and symbol usage is one of the central tenets of semiotics.
Like many artists before him, Ronald Weintraub’s work is strongly informed by the study of semiotics. In his studio, Weintraub employs paint and collage to build mixed media collections of signifiers and the signified ideas they represent. The artist’s work explores the complexities of symbolic language through abstraction and metaphor; however, the visual conundrums he arrives at pose more contradictions and questions for the viewer, rather than dictate a solution or outcome. Laden with a multitude of clashing cultural symbols, Weintraub’s mixed media collages pulse with the energy of the information age.
“My desire is for slow looking, for the viewer to participate and get involved with the work,” explains the artist. “I want to make the viewer think and puzzle. Ultimately, their conclusion is up to them, but my goal is to engage them.”
Unlike most emerging artists today, Weintraub began his art practice at the age of fifty-five, after a successful career in business where he was CEO of a successful family business and later founded Harmon Publishing Company. When he decided to pursue a studio practice fulltime, Weintraub applied the same intensity that yielded results from his business practice, studying at Parsons, the Art Students League, the National Academy School, and individually with painter Ross Neher. Subsequent solo exhibitions include Salander-O’Reilly Galleries, Ellen Liman Gallery, and a group show at the Katonah Art Museum.
Weintraub initially focused on representational drawing and painting, but found early on that he preferred the freedom and metaphor found within abstraction. Working in series, the artist explored a number of modernist painting styles, which resemble, alternately, Pointillism, Post-Impressionism, Colorfield, and Abstract Expressionism. Regardless of approach, all of Weintraub’s paintings employ color to emotive effect, contrasting warm and cool mark in patterned systems, which curb expressive effects into harmonious compositions.
As a Semiotician and consummate collector of images, it makes perfect sense that Weintraub has recently moved away from painterly abstraction into the realm of appropriation, pop culture, and collage. Although their technique and visual effect is quite different from previous painted series, the reliance on warm and cool color contrasts, pattern, layering, and accumulation is commensurate with the artist’s former practice, and evidence of past cycles of experience, thought process, and inspiration. It is the collection and assemblage of image based signs that allows the artist to effectively channel contrasting elements and directions all at once, similar to the layered thought process required to navigate the constant barrage of images from media and in popular culture.
Many of Weintraub’s recent compositions resemble patchwork quilts and feature layers of pattern, scraps of pop cultural images, and actual objects layered into the surface, creating a relief sculpture rather than the flat plane one would expect. In “Heroes,” the artist layers actual action figures over images of comic book heroes, packaging materials from the toys, and decorative paper. Rather than uniting these elements through color or one organizing visual principle, the artist arranges them to allow the characteristics of each hero to contradict and compete with the others in a dizzying array. Like the closet, or brain, of a pre-teen boy, “Heroes” presents a melee of veneration and power, where individuals are simultaneously lost and found. Despite a barrage of cheerful primary colors, there is a perplexing and sinister effect achieved through the presentation of so many conflicting, yet similar, elements. Although each superhero is a signifier, representing a specific identity or ability, the image as a whole comes to represent the collision of fantasy and reality and neutralizes the unique powers which each possess into a homogeneous crowd.
Further compounding the vision, Weintraub borders the collage with two deep red panels to form an asymmetrical triptych. The intense flat color contrasts with the dense activity in the central panel, and compresses the action into a finite segment. Viewed as a whole, “Heroes” addresses the disappointments of late childhood, a time when heroes were plausible and play was still encouraged, but the weight of adult knowledge has begun to set in that superpowers will wane in the face of a burgeoning understanding of commercialism, reality, fantasy, and irony.
“I am constantly thinking in different directions all at once,” explains the artist whose Water Mill, NY studio is a menagerie of images collected over twenty-five years. “My studio is filled with boxes full of old stuff. I don’t use found objects – I find the objects I need. Then, I put these things together, and everything is there for a reason.”
This accretive process, where a variety of elements are accessed at once, figures strongly in “America America.” In this collage and paint diptych, photos of actual cowboys and Native Americans form a patchwork grid with fictional images and movie still portraits, like a bulletin board gone awry, with a bold yellow painted panel to one side featuring two gray feathers and a star, graphic symbols of both sides of the conflict. Breaking the picture plane, a small Lone Ranger action figure floats next to his likeness on the board, and appears to be conversing with John Wayne, Hopalong Cassidy, and Ronald Regan, all dressed in cowboy garb. Despite a proliferation of images, the cowboys and Native Americans are strictly segregated to the right and left, with a vertical stripe of historical photos of American military leaders, including General Custer, creating a central divide.
There are approximately thirty-five small portraits in this collage, but it is important to note that each is cropped and neatly separated from its neighbor. The artist leaves clear margins of patterned paper in between each image, reminding the viewer that his vision is selective and based on personal visual biases, memories, and interpretations of history. The artist’s particular arrangement of image and pattern renders each person an island unto himself, despite inclusion with a number of would-be teammates or enemies. Like “Heroes,” this image blurs fact and fiction into a multifaceted vision of American history informed by childhood stories and movies, and both sides of the conflict are romanticized. “America America” presents a number of individuals, transformed by historical and fictional dress and visual context, into a complicated, layered narrative, which questions the easy stereotypes created in pop culture and addresses the revisionist nature of history dictated by the winners.
Continuing to present fact and fiction in an interchangeable narrative, “Les Animaux,” is a multifaceted patchwork of exotic creatures from all over the world, combining historical illustrations of animals with children’s plastic figures, fictional beasts, and popular animal logos. Like sifting through an outdated Encyclopedia Britannica, reading this image disassociates popular beliefs of these animals with any authentic or scientific human understanding of them. In the center of the collage, a grid of historical illustrations depicts the way citizens of Western culture learned about exotic animals from across the globe. At one point, the illustrative, quasi-scientific images were believed to represent factual information, but the collage questions their validity, and reminds the viewer of man’s complicated, convenient, and predatory relationship with such animals. Around the outer edges of the collage, forming a border designated by a patterned paper background, “branded” animals from advertising hover, like the Jaguar logo jaguar, the 20th Century Fox lion, The Firefox fox, the Bacardi bat, and the Playboy bunny.
In “Les Animaux,” Weintraub playfully explores the conflicted relationship between humans and animals, exploring each as a cultural signifier, an object of desire, and a child’s toy. This piece reveals that humans possess a limited knowledge at best of the reality of any of these animals, but that they resonate powerfully as in our collective cultural history and identity regardless. Further illustrating the idea of an animal as a brand, the artist places two additional painted panels around the first that contrast visually in every way possible: a neon orange and black painted tiger stripe design, the Warhol equivalent of animal beauty. Viewed as a triptych, the tiger design references fashion trends, human’s willingness to use and change an animal for commercial reasons, and the simple understanding we assign to non-human animals, despite scientific evidence to the contrary.
Over the twenty-five years that Weintraub has pursued a visual art practice, his materials have evolved but his core beliefs about art, semiotics, and culture remain the same. Whether he is painting in oil or composing three-dimensional collages of collected ephemera, Weintraub feels strongly that the artist’s role is to be an intentional provocateur and that the viewer should contribute significantly to the process of understanding his narratives.