I couldn’t remember or perhaps I never actually knew the title of a particular Goya painting I held in my memory, sloshing around in the gray matter, surfacing occasionally when something reminded me of its intensity and atmosphere. It just hung there – a survivor of the mass imagery apocalypse that defines contemporary daily life, sans title and date. There are likely hundreds, if not thousands, of similar images competing for my conscious attention, so it is always curious to me when one does break through and nudges me to reconsider its status in my mind’s visual library. And in this one particular case, Goya’s painting surfaced in such a way that I discovered a curious complexity in the way in which my memories, after being archived, were then retrieved. The connection seemed not about what I was thinking, saying or the latest image I had seen, but about how I was physically moving through space at that moment: as if somehow my physical stance activated something in my mind.
I had just started a residency at the MacDowell Colony, leaving my day job for seven weeks to focus on a photo-based animation project I had great ambitions for. But then there was a dislodgment. In walking around the studio indulging in this sense of freedom and just taking the time to unwind, I walked up to the main wall, turned around to face the rest of the studio, and found I’d imagined myself inside the body of the Spanish soldier being executed by the French in one of Goya’s paintings. I had unconsciously placed myself inside the painting – inside the body of the primary character and focus of the action. It happened so fast and with such great intensity that the painting was no longer about something I had once looked at but something that I was experiencing. I raised my hands over my head in complete surrender and thought – I have to make this. It was an aha moment – a moment of inspiration. But in that moment I was also imitating the Spaniard’s pose; the pose that I credit for triggering the memory while at the same time recognizing it as the result of that triggered memory. So it was never a single quintessential image that I found myself drawn to or inspired by, but instead it was the paradox that occurs at unpredictable moments such as this, bringing to mind the work long after my original encounter – often years. I’m not sure if this is my favorite work or one that necessarily moves me, but it affected me enough to come to mind without solicitation so it demands my attention – literally. I later learned that the title of Francisco Goya’s painting that I conjured up is The Third of May 1808 (painted in 1814).
Karen Ostrom is a Canadian-born Brooklyn-based artist working in photography, installation, video and most recently, animation. She is the recipient of MacDowell Colony Artist Fellowships, Canada Council for the Arts Grants, the Duke and Duchess of York Prize in Photography from the Canada Council, and a New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship.