A commissioned mural consisting of four painted canvases on a prepared wall.
Four Short Subjects is a series of paintings (acrylic and silkscreen on canvas) from 1988. Each canvas addresses a single big idea (politics, language, history, psychology) while the mural as a whole comments on the very practice of slicing the world into manageable pieces -- perhaps a necessity of modern thought.
Four Short Subjects was commissioned by Walker Art Center, where it was on view for six months.
Here's what the didactic panel had to say:
Four Short Subjects: 1. One End of History, 2. Tabula Rasa, 3. The Empire's New Clothes, 4. Don't Mistake the Menu for the Meal
acrylic, silkscreeen on canvas
each panel 50 x 72"
Minneapolis artist James Ockuly's four-panel work, commissioned for this space by Walker Art Center, is concerned with various ways in which our experience of the world is mediated by received ideas and conceptual models. "We slice the world up, " Ockuly has said, "place information into categories of knowledge, tear experience apart, then try to fit it back together again." The panels represent four such categories of knowledge--history, psychology, politics, and language. In One End of History Ockuly proposes the experience of expatriate earthlings looking back at their history from outer space as a metaphor for a desired, and perhaps unattainable, objectivity. Tabula Rasa points to another possible locus of purely objective thought--that of the newborn child as yet unmarked by received ideas. In The Empire's new Clothes Ockuly suggests that ethical standards are only as high as those of the society that government represents. The abstract pattern included on this panel is composed of a repeated image of a walking businessman seen from above, conveying the element of camouflage contained in social organization. The final panel, Don't Mistake the Menu for the Meal, humorously points out the dangers of confusing a sign for its meaning. By resorting to three different kinds of signs--title, text, and image--to convey the meaning of each of the panels, Ockuly underscores the essentially arbitrary nature of language.