For years Polk has explored the subject of violence. From intimate personal aggression to pervasive institutional belligerence, his work often creaks with emotional uneasiness deepened through a sensual seductiveness of ink on paper. In 2007, Polk underscored this reciprocity: “At present and for the past several years, I am pursuing a notion – a notion that beauty and violence can be interwoven non-representationally and in such ways that alter how we see the world and our existence within it.“
The “field studies” for Polk’s series of prints, Life After Death, began with a trip in 2008 to the Still Picture Division of the National Archives in College Park, Maryland. Over a period of ten days Polk scanned (using a Canoscan LIDE 16f scanner) selections from over 14 million photographs in the public domain. For 8-10 hours a day he digitally recorded images that related to topics such as political protest, presidential inaugurations, and (most especially) the United States military.
During Polk’s scanning he encountered an image of U.S. soldiers walking past dead villagers in Viet Nam. The stark brutality initially alienated him. However, while working on this project he repeatedly encountered images of dead people. Apprehensively he embraced this situation and scanned each image of death, of the dead, that faced him. He feared his attentions might exploit the glib impact that pictures of violent death can arouse.
Months later in Tucson, Arizona (the artist’s home), Polk began to invest attention in a modest dimension of life to supplement in tandem the corpses he photographed at the National Archives. He wrote stories about one or another of the deceased, creating fictions that apportioned a fragment of history to an image of a person in a lifeless photograph. A conjunction between a photographer’s shutter and Polk’s words echoed a love, a job, a profession, a family. He visually pushed his fictions onto the paper’s surface. The battered, folded, partially askew texts built, as he observes, “the fundamentals of mark-making, texturing, movement and obscurity”, that have always interested him.
The rich history of printmaking, and of art in general, nurses on violence, disaster, war, death, torture, rape, starvation,
and documents our necessary and endless indulgence in these activities. Polk‘s work he notes, like so many of his predecessors, “encapsulates difficult issues within the context of dramatically used color, shape, form, and mark-making.” All such art works are fiction and reality.
(All quotes are from either the artist’s web site or from personal communications with the artist.)