Up close, however, something else emerges from the enticingly cool patterns. In each painting, an armed military figure is either propped up on a building or standing on the street. Because the figures are striped, like the background, it takes a minute for them to register.
Since about 1994, Diaz has been taking photographs of the G.I. Joes he played with as a kid and superimposing them onto architectural photographs so that the action figures look life-size. For his recent paintings, now on display at the Paragraph, Diaz wanted something more subtle. So he used computer programs to create the same kind of collage and fill in the outlines with color. He would mess around with color schemes until he came up with something he liked, then transfer the image to a canvas and painstakingly color it using a good old-fashioned paintbrush.
To Diaz, this process is a lot like graffiti. "Graffiti is pretty much a code for someone's name," he explains. "In these paintings, there's also a code. The fact that the figure is composed of stripes is optically an off-putting phenomenon, and it has to be deciphered."
That's not the only thing that makes Diaz's paintings similar to graffiti. Like the stealthiest kid in cargo pants carrying a can of spray paint in the night, Diaz seems to take hold of the urban landscape and use it for his own purposes, filling images of the city's facades with color until they speak his language.
"Your surroundings speak to you in so many ways," he says. "You drive by the Gap, and you see a bunch of brightly colored striped shirts hollering at you, 'Come buy me!' -- that's deliberate. Not that I make a habit of going out and buying striped shirts, but the message sticks with you."
Although the armed figures might seem out of sync with the happy cascades of color, Diaz wasn't trying to make a political statement when he began. He was just playing with his old toys. That doesn't mean he hasn't thought about the connection between his work and the world's political situation. "I'm not trying to exploit or reference current events, but it definitely was interesting to be working on these and have things happen where our big guns and our big planes were going to go blow something up. It's interesting how much this is turning into toy warfare."
In the midst of all those Gaplike stripes, however, the G.I. Joes look harmless. "It's interesting to see how different these action figures become after years of sitting in a box. They get much smaller and much more ridiculous," he says, laughing.
"In reality, they're just little pieces of plastic. The outline is all you're getting. The rest is just a graphic context."