Michael James Oatman

Material Agency

For 35 years, I have been gathering material culture, ordering it via personal taxonomies, and re-casting new narratives from archives into meta-pictures and physical environments.

Imitation of Life (IOL) is a wall installation presenting historical imagery clipped from 100 years’ worth of printed magazines. Drawn from my personal archive of collage material, IOL features pictures primarily from LIFE Magazine. The imagery runs from color and B&W photojournalism to advertisements and infographics. In complete contrast to my usual collage sources (book reproductions of color, hand-painted illustrations), these photos and graphics were culled from 30 years of rejected clipping material.

The title, Imitation of Life, refers not only to the iconic LIFE magazine (50% of the sourced imagery), but also to important films bearing the same name; the 1934 version (directed by John Stahl) and the 1959 re-make by Douglas Sirk. One of my favorite films, it was introduced to me by fellow artist Dawn Clements (1958-2018) over 25 years ago. The Douglas Sirk version dealt both directly and poetically with issues of racism, class boundaries and misogyny. Some of the captions from the photos I clipped (say, from 1970) could describe events of the present day with no loss of accuracy.

This salvage project intersects two dying forms of media: the magazine and the CD. Instagram influenced the organization of the material, but the immersive scale of a cinema screen took it out of the hand/eye focus, creating a vast field of possible connections.



Educated at RISD, artist Michael James Oatman has taught in the School of Architecture at Rensselaer since 1999. Referring to his practice as “the poetic interpretation of documents,” his installations, drawings and collages have been exhibited internationally, He is the 2003 recipient of the Nancy Graves Award and is the first artist invited to work from Astronaut Neil Armstrong’s personal archive. Oatman’s installation, all utopias fell, has been on view at MASS MoCA since 2010.