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David Rathman’s paintings pair atmospheric landscapes with carefully selected phrases, playing with the relationship between text and image. This week, he created a painting for you to caption.

1. Add text, preferably handwritten, to Rathman's painting
2. Print out the image below and write on it, or create your writing separately, scan it and add it to the image digitally
3. Document your text and image combination and share it with us using #theartassignment
4. Fame and glory (your work might be in a future episode)

Save the painting for the caption here:

Find out more about The Art Assignment and how to submit your response:

SARAH: This episode of "The Art Assignment" is brought to you by Squarespace.

Today we're in Minneapolis, and we're meeting up with David Rathman, who makes paintings in watercolor and ink that with minimal information tell stories of remarkable depth. He depicts a wide range of subject matter, including old cars, basketball hoops, boxing, rock and roll, and the American West, all set in atmospheric landscapes. Rathman juxtaposes these images with carefully selected bits of text and phrases drawn from movies, books, and song lyrics. The resulting works reveal the beauty and resonance in everyday landscapes, but also pose questions about these images.

What was the iconography of American masculinity in the last half of the 20th century, and what do these images mean today? We're going to be talking with David about the relationship between text and image, how that process works for him and how you might become involved in it.

David: Hello. I'm David Rathman, and this is your art assignment.


One of my aspirations when I was young was to be a cartoonist. I wanted to draw for "Mad Magazine," actually. I was one of these kids that always wanted to be an artist, and I think I knew I would be an artist. So there's that kind of a thing, the incorporation of writing in cartoons as well.

Then when I was in college I got a job editorial doing editorial cartoons for the University of Minnesota. I was going to the College of Art and Design at the time. But that-- actually, when I think about it, that was the first time I actually literally would use my handwriting in a drawing, a single panel drawing. And these were things that weren't necessarily haha cartoon. It was an editorial thing.

Then in my own work, it was when I started with the cowboy series in about 2000 or something, and I was working with very simple silhouettes that I would extract from Western movies, draw them very simply and quickly on brown ink on paper, and then I started to use the writing there. A lot of that was Westerns, music, country music song lyrics, and dialogue from the movies. So that's when it really took off and kind of became a really important part of my practice.

One thing I've been really happy about is people, even though the writing, in conjunction with the drawing, seems very specific, and it's very finished when I release the piece, it's interesting to me that people still have their own-- there's an openness to it. They make it their own. So I hear interesting things from people about their interpretation of the pairing of the text, sometimes really surprising. It wasn't what I intended at all. So I have always been excited like that. People have-- there's a way in for them.

Your assignment is to write into this painting I'm going to execute today. Interested in your physical handwriting directly onto a facsimile of this piece, which you can then document and send back for the project.

John: All right, Sarah, so how do I actually write on the image?

Sara: There's a couple of ways you can do it. We linked to an image below that you can print out, write on, take a picture of, and submit, or you can write separately and then add it in digitally.

John: So Sarah, this immediately reminded me of the "New Yorker's" cartoon caption contest.

Sarah: Yes, an artist Cory Arcangel's Tumblr bot that reproduced every "New Yorker" cartoon with the caption, "What a misunderstanding."

John: Yeah, I also thought about Snapchat, actually, because usually on Snapchat, the image isn't that good. Often, the text isn't that good, but together, magic. Or as I prefer to think of it, Snagic. I'm sorry.

Sarah: But Rathman's particular way of working reminds me of something slightly more poetic and mysterious than Snapchat like Victor Hugo's lesser known pen and ink drawings, which sometimes included text. But it's amazing to me how just a little bit of text can completely transform your read of an image.

John: Yeah, I mean, I guess like the text can either agree with the image, or it can complicate it.

Sarah: You can think about Barbara Kruger's work and how she takes an image and appropriates it and adds in just a bit of text that can completely change its meaning. And let's look at some other examples.

John: I think I'm going to call it Snapgic, actually.

Sarah: Boo.

You could think about Rene Magritte's famous painting of a pipe. Helpfully titled "The Treachery of Images," it reveals the conundrum behind all representational art. You paint a picture of a pipe, but it's not a pipe, silly. It's only an image of a pipe. You can also consider Francisco De Goya's print series, "The Disasters of War" begun in 1810. He paired violent images of war with titles that made clear his indictment of Napoleon's occupation of Spain. Plate 26 shows a group of men and women about to be shot by unseen executioners accompanied by the title, "No Se Puede Mirar." Many years later in 1968, John Baldessari took a translation of that title and had a sign painter add the words beneath a much different image of a copy of art for a magazine. He went on in the mid '90s to make an entire series of Goya paintings like, "This Is Bad," after the title of Goya's plate 46, which showed the murder of a monk by French soldiers.

Baldessari's play on Goya demonstrates the remarkable malleability of both images and language to be twisted in service of many aims. How will you make the most of the rich, boundless tension between word and image?

David: Today I'm going to work on a drawing of a pair of old army boots. There's something going on there that I can read and enjoy on several levels. There's humor. There's sadness. There's a lot of ways to interpret it. It's going to be fun to paint, and it's the kind of thing I would choose to do, because it's so open and inviting for the text end of it.

I think there's things about people's handwriting that you're not aware of, how people interpret it. It's kind of like maybe how does your voice sound to somebody, unless you hear a recording of it, you know. And then here I think about like, you don't often see people's handwriting anymore. How often do you get a letter or something? You know what I mean? And when you do, and I don't know about you, but I think about like when I actually see somebody's handwriting, I think about that person in a little different way. It's like it's a different voice. It's a different way to see them.

The content of the writing, the choice of the line is going to be very important, whichever way that goes. There's such a range where that could go, but then the quality, the distinction of that person's actual handwriting is just another layer of quality to the thing. I think that it can function on a number of levels, the writing incorporated with the drawing. It can function as a legend, as a declaration. It can function as-- I think, frequently, it functions as inner dialogue, possibly me.

Somebody at a presentation I gave, a woman asked me a great question. She said, are you talking to us? Is the drawing talking to us, or are you talking to the drawing? And I thought all of that above. I really am, because I had not been able to find the words for that, but that really is the process. The way that I work at it too, it's just an image. I would encourage people-- you can stay with it as a subject matter, or it can be a lifting off point, something that you take off entirely from. You could read it as a metaphor. You could read it as something you want to react against negatively, positively. You can deal with a suggestive quality of the shoes, the boots, the composition, whatever kind of atmosphere I might get going on. A lot of ways to go.

Sarah: This episode of "The Art Assignment" is brought you by Squarespace.

John: Squarespace base is an easy way to create a website, blog, or online store for you and your ideas.

Sarah: Squarespace features a user-friendly interface, custom templates, and 24/7 customer support. Try Squarespace at for a special offer.

John: Squarespace-- build it beautiful.

David: There's something about watercolor and ink to me, even a finished piece can say, you can keep looking back at it, but it stays alive. There's something about every time you look at it. It can be-- maybe that's just me.