Irony is such a loaded word. If irony means that "the surface meaning and the underlying meaning of what is said are not the same," I hope that my work is NOT ironic, but, rather, that the images are about everything they seem to be and also work as metaphors for larger allegorical truths.
When I create my work I use a similar process as a method actor, trying to project my own life, thoughts, and feelings onto the image. As I paint the abstract notions of positive and negative forms, dark and light values, etc, I listen to music, audiobooks, etc, that relate to the work’s subject matter, and otherwise do my research, but ultimately I think about what the work means in my own personal ideological and emotional world to hopefully bring life (and perhaps my unconscious thoughts and feelings) into the frame of the representational aspects of the image. The subject matter is pertinent, but it’s what I bring to subject matter that is important, and then, like a comic stain-glassed window or prose poem, how that image coincides with other images in the installation gives the work its ultimate meaning.
For example, this painting came from a body of work Good Leaders, Endangered Species, Ships at Sea, which was exhibited just before and during the presidential election when Obama first won. I really felt that we needed "good leaders," as we were all like "endangered species" in a world that was like a "ship at sea." I painted Obama because I truly admire him and his ideology–I chose an image of him in front of the Capitol (infamously built by slaves) with his armed crossed and a confident smile as he represented (at the time) one of the few African American senators in American history. I listened to his autobiographies on audio while painting and learned all I could about the man to hopefully bring out his inner personality in the portrait and my feelings about him.
You think that the artworld is mostly "super lefty liberal" but its not always… Your show always begins with the invitation, and I chose to put this image for the poster we sent out to people. I was shocked that people a few people called into the gallery to say "take me off your mailing list—FOREVER" as they were McCain supporters! But I was very proud and happy to have this painting up before and after he was first elected, and elated how many found it to be a warm, powerful image that they "needed to see"—I worked super hard on this painting to give it all I had—for me, he was the first president since the Jimmy Carter of my youth that I could really believe in, and in the last months of his second term, I’m still a believer, and think that, despite all, he is a President that changed the world, and a model of what it takes to be a Great Leader.
From appropriating imagery to paint from, inspired by Post Modernism and the Pictures Generation, to appropriating film stills (inspired in part by Roland Barthes’ great text “the Third Meaning”), to appropriating from historical photos, I realized that the more I was able to get to the source of the image, to draw from it the emotive and atmospheric weight of the image, the more “real” the image was, the more rich incredible things I was able to perceive, feel, and paint from the image.
Although I’m not religious, per se, I’m a pretty spiritual person, and if there is one religion that makes sense to me, it would be Buddhism. A lot of my fellow Semiotics friends from Brown have become Buddhists! If part of Semiotics was about the power of language, how “language is the software that programs the hard drive of your brain and consciousness to perceive the world”, Buddhism is the ancient ideology of this—everything exists in the word that you see, but perhaps not in the way that you perceive it. I remember in a Semiotics class at Brown, I asked my professor Michael Silverman in a moment of nihilistic defeat, “if everything adds up to zero, what’s the point of it?” and Michael retorted “Well, it’s pretty interesting to talk about!”. Buddhism for me gives a deep spiritual component to all this…
I’ve seen the Dalai Lama speak on a number of occasions, and while he always starts out “cute” and “sounding like Yoda”, very quickly he gets very deep and complex into philosophy, and it’s almost impossible to keep writing notes and you have to give in and just listen very thoughtfully and carefully. By the third day of this teaching, few people had come back, and the feeling was very woozy and transcendent: it felt as if we were all on a giant spaceship taking off into another dimension, especially at this point where the Dalai Lama was deep into chanting prayer. If you believe Tibetan Buddhism, he is the reincarnation of the Chenrezig Buddha in the thangka painting behind him, and in fact, the whole scene started resembling the painting, with the video screens on either side of him like the small Buddha’s on clouds on either side, and the architecture of the hall like a giant mandala, and the lens flares (I like to paint all the aspects of the photo as if they were real!) like floating mandalas throughout the scene. I really wanted to capture the transcendent, ecstatic experience of being there, which was truly transformative, and listened to audio books of the Dalai Lama while painting this, along with many cd’s of Tibetan Buddhist prayers.
A Buddhist would say that a chair isn’t necessarily a chair, it’s “pieces of wood bolted together, etc., and if you stand on it, it’s a ladder!” and I use this analogy when teaching students about drawing and painting things “as they really are” to objectify what you are perceiving in a manner beyond language—when you are delineating negative space to perceive positive space you are literally reading “between the lines” and thinking “outside the box” of perceived ways of looking at things and learned language, which can really obstruct how you create visions of “reality”. When painting this, the interdependence of the elements really came across to me, in the micromanaging of positive and negative shapes, forms, color, etc. and it was a lengthy, but amazing experience that I hope gives the work a life of its own and emulates the experience. Fun fact, Richard Gere is the gentleman with the white hair and dark suit to the right of His Holiness, and at one point, the Tibetan institute contacted me about using the image, but never followed through! I hope that Hi Holiness might have seen this image (or the other images I have created of him and of the Karmapa!) and would have approved!
Edward Hopper and his wife used to go to the movies every day, and he was inspired for his work to create images that were like film stills, in addition to embracing the architecture of classic New York buildings and interiors, that have also inspired me so much.
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Edward Hopper, New York Movie, 1939, collection of the Museum of Modern Art, NY
I was living in SoHo during the time of 9-11, and that morning heard the planes flying overhead as I was preparing to go to work to teach drawing at New York University. Very soon my partner and I saw the news on the television that a plane had hit one of the towers, and we left the apartment to see the hole in the building, with the people inside quite visible from the intersection nearby our apartment at the intersection of West Broadway and Prince. In shock, I proceeded to go to my class (I was to teach my freshman "composition via the gag cartoon"), where my students were awaiting, also stupefied as to what was happening in the city and country at that moment. I told them that I certainly didn’t feel it right to look at cartoons at that moment, and although I don’t necessarily feel "art is therapy," but perhaps we should go out to Washington Square Park and draw what it was that was happening at that moment. We went to the park, by that time the second plane had hit the other tower, and just as my students began to draw, the first tower collapsed. Adults in the park cried and shouted out in pain, and my students and myself comforted whom we could, and I dismissed class, telling the students to please call their parents and let them know they were okay.
My own father was in town, whom we spent the rest of this time with, and who also collected the newspapers, telling me "I should paint images of this one day." I told him "no, that this was in bad taste" and found other means and images to express my feelings and ideas towards the horrific events of this time in the proceeding years. However, I continued to have nightmares, one in particular that I saw the falling bodies of the victims of the towers, whom (being a John Lennon fan) I called out to saying "all you need is love!" One morning, after a particularly acute nightmare in 2007, I felt the desire to dig out one of the newspapers my father had given me to save, and began to paint this few series of paintings. I felt it would be cathartic to finally paint directly (and not, as previously, by means of allegory) imagery from the morning of 9-11, in order to "save" the people of this tragedy by remembering their images and the events by painting them.
This was one of the most difficult paintings I have ever created. To make myself calm and to allow myself to keep working, I listened to audio cd’s of lectures and writings of the Dalai Lama and also Tibetan chants, along with soothing (and symbolic—as in Mahler’s Ninth Symphony, etc.) classical music that (like I do with all my works) created a synaesthetic audio environment for me to create in. This painting took a very long time (for me) to paint, as I wanted to micromanage as much as possible to make the best painting I could to record what had happened and also my sensory memory and feelings of the moment as a witness to it all. It was a "beautiful" clear day that morning, and I was (as were many) fully aware of the irony of such a horribly catastrophic event juxtaposed to a clear and light blue sky of a September morning. I tried my best to record the colors as they appeared in the source image, in addition to being mindful of my thoughts and memories of that day as I was painting, hoping that the emotions I felt would come through the translation of my rendering. I am also influenced by much of art history, and impressionism and the works of Monet were something of particular relevance to the time of this painting, and in the back of my mind (although I wanted to avoid consciously contrived relevance) thought of Monet’s smoke in his train and the Gare Saint-Lazare paintings. I am also a son of a psychoanalyst, and believe in the ideas of the subconscious "leaking through" in painterly works, and hope that in the micromanaging of what I perceived in looking and remembering the image as I was painting it, that the ineffable and unconsciously symbolic ideas and emotions might also present themselves somehow in how I was painting the image, to make it have a life of its own. Ultimately, I hope to have done justice to the people that were directly affected by the tragedy, and our nation and world that were forever changed in my painting of this historical event.
After painting this work (and the other triptych now in the Corcoran Gallery) I was gratified in the sense that I no longer had the nightmares of that morning and its victims. However, I was nervous to exhibit the painting for fear of how people might react. I first showed the work in a solo exhibition in Cleveland entitled "Friends and Family" (along with other important real and fictive people and events—such as Anne Frank—in a painting acquired by the Cleveland Museum, Matthew Shepard, JFK, the planet Earth, etc.). Instead of being offended, people were moved by the painting and received (at least those who discussed the image with me) basically what I had hoped they might—that it was an homage to those who died in the towers, and the day that changed history for all of us. I then exhibited the work in a group show at John Connelly Presents that was thematically curated around ideas of melancholy in America post-9-11, with similar responses. I finally wanted to exhibit the work in the context I had grown to desire the most, along with the 9-11 triptych that had more close-up views of those who died in the towers that day. This was in the exhibition "Good Leaders, Endangered Species, Ships at Sea" at Derek Eller Gallery in New York, the second part of an exhibition begun in Los Angeles at Lightbox Gallery, where I hoped that viewers would realize through the juxtaposition of imagery that "we need good leaders, as they are like endangered species, in a world that was a ship at sea." Along with images of Barack Obama, Louise Bourgeois, endangered animals, and references to religious icons of now (like the Dalai Lama) and art history (as in appropriations of the Duccio painting at the Met of the Madonna and Child, and El Greco’s Opening of the Fifth Seal) I was able to show this work isolated with the other 9-11 paintings to represent allegorically "ships at sea" but mostly directly reference this event for what it represents for all of us.
It was my hope that a museums in Washington D.C. and New York City would finally acquire these works, as I didn’t want them to go to personal collections and that they would be safely in museums in the cities that were directly affected by the tragedies of that morning. I am very honored that the Whitney Museum of American Art would want to have this painting in their permanent collection. This is a most moving to me, and I hope it helps others remember this day and everything that it conveys symbolically and emotionally, and I truly hope it honors those who were lost and affected by one of the most tragically important mornings in our nation’s history.
I felt it would be cathartic to finally paint directly (and not, as previously, by means of allegory) imagery from the morning of 9-11, in order to "save" the people of this tragedy by remembering their images and the events by painting them. I found this image at the NY Picture collection, a part of the Mid Manhattan Library. The original photo was taken by an amateur photographer Seth McAllister, and as he wrote me after seeing the work at the Whitney (I didn’t know originally who had taken the image), it appeared on the cover of the Washington Post and appeared elsewhere and is still available from AFP (Agence France Presse). Fortunately, Mr. McCallister was happy to see it rendered "in such a beautiful way," despite its troubling subject matter.
This is from a scene in one of the David Attenborough nature series, of Humpback whales in the southern oceans of the Antarctic, who "fish" there for krill, a shrimp-like crustacean that exists in abundance, and the many birds all the other wildlife that this incredible event attracts. So many of the whales somehow know to go to this area, and work together to form net-like rings of bubbles that gather the krill in the center in which they come up the middle of to feast. I had wanted to do a painting of a real utopia, but was thinking of creating a painting of Bal’I Ha’I, from the film music South Pacific, of a mysterious island of paradise, and realized that real utopias do exist on Earth. Whales are such mysterious creatures that we still don’t know much about (although I’m a firm believer that they are sentient creatures that have a high degree of sophistication and would communicate with us more if they could), and scenes like this for me reach the sublime of nature, that we don’t know so much about this world and all of whom we share it with, and we are such narcissistic creatures we forget we are small part of the cosmology of living things in our world and our universe. I placed this work in a heavenly realm on the Last Judgment wall as I feel it truly is a heaven—perhaps we become reincarnated as whales or dolphins when we pass—maybe those who are doomed are the krill! But in all seriousness, heaven is on earth, beauty is everywhere on our planet, and I hope that we can survive as a species cultivating life on our planet instead of destroying it, getting smart about how to be our Earth’s caretaker for all those who benefit from it, most of all ourselves and future generations who rely on what we do now for their future—for us and all of our mother earth’s inhabitants. I hope like my other works this breaks into an abstraction, specifically allegorical for this one as we are like the fish in the sea—there are many of us and we need to cohabite with one another, respecting each other and our differences, and be together in our lives on our globe in order fur us to survive positively into the future. I do believe that art can change things for the better, and in my old age I would rather paint utopias than dystopias, as I want to live in the place I’m rendering to be in that meditation of my moments, in order to create works that will hopefully inspire others in their ponderings while looking at it—I think if we can all agree we need whales to be alive and roam free in our waters, along with other animals endangered or not to be alive on our planet, then that starts the even bigger conversation how we can do this all together in a karmic spirit of community and cooperation, commiseration of empathy and compassion for all.
I have always loved Louise Bourgeois and her work. My second job after college was working the front desk at Robert Miller Gallery, in the late 80’s, when they were uptown on 57th street in the Fuller Building, Cheim and Read were the directors, and they represented Louise. She would come in with her assistant Jerry Gorovoy, and I would have conversations with them, especially during a time when she was in a Who’s Who directory, which she took very seriously, and I sat down with her (and talked with her on the phone) about the exacting detail of her pages of career. I was always impressed with her being a great “long distance runner”: I always tell students that to be a great artist, you always have to best the best thing you have ever done, and keep doing this until you get really old and then you can ice cream and die like Louise Bourgeois”! Of course, Louise kept making incredible work all of her life, always challenging herself and what she could do (I’m not sure she ever settled for ice cream!) until she passed away. Most importantly, for me, she is a great Post Post-modern master, as she made work that was always “about something” (and far more complex than of her famous nightmare of her father eating her, like Saturn eating his young, and/or based on her father’s affair with their maid, which is often what her work is essentialized into being about). I believe she began each work with a motivational cue, thinking about her family and so on, but then allowed it to be a meditation about this and so many other things. Coming from surrealism and the great age of psychoanalysis, Freud and Jung, she also had a penchant for the unconscious, and at the same time had incredible formal skills, so the results of her sculptures and images were potent, both in how you could look at them for a long time, but also how you could think about them for a long time, too. Psychoanalysts would say it was about the father, or psychoanalysis, feminists would say it was about feminism, and so on, and while I don’t think Louise ever intended her work to be about any or all of this specifically, their “noodles would stick on the cabinet” as they would all be right—the work is so rich that it, like all great work, means so many different things to different people and the interpretations hold up as the art itself is so complex and open-ended, but directed in form, content, and attitudinal gesture.
I used to bring my NYU students at the end of their senior year (usually on Easter Sunday!) to Louise’s salons, as a sort of baptism into the artworld. I felt that if you were in Paris during the latter years of Giacometti, you would visit him with plaster in his hair in his bohemian abode, and Louise’s world was like that for our time. She was a conduit between modernism and post-modernism, a bridge between the old New York School and now. She lived in a Chelsea Townhouse on 20th Street, and you could just call her up on the phone and ask her if you could come—she might make you sing her a song (!?) or something, but ultimately would say “come at 3 on Sunday” and hang up. And sometimes I would also just come on my own. Her place was old and somewhat disheveled, with yellowing reviews and posters on the bulletin board behind her, with the paint and plaster peeling, but you could tell she was well taken care of—there was never a spec of dust anywhere. These afternoons were “exquisitely boring” in that they could last for hours—they would finally kick us out at about 7:00 in the evening, and people would become woozy drinking the aperitifs and warm alcohol and soda people would bring (in addition to chocolate, which Louise loved), and one by one you would come up to her little table and present your work to her. She always had an “Ed McMahon” to her “Johnny Carson”—sometimes it would be famous curators like Robert Storr, sometimes one of her sons, sometimes someone you never heard of, and the “salon” itself was populated by sometimes famous artists, sometimes janitors, sometimes curators and critics wanting to visit with her (she would make them come on Sundays occasionally if they wanted to consort with her). She sometimes made people cry—although I don’t think she was intentionally ever really “mean”, but could be dismissive if she didn’t “get” the work. But often she would engage—this was her way I think of continuing to teach, in addition to having contact with the outside creative world, and if she would exclaim “very good!” it would send you to the moon for a week! I loved having her approval, and would always be pensive and apprehensive in a good, excited way in bringing my work to her (and it was also my way of sharing my work with my students, whom I never discussed my work with usually). She wanted the others to interact, although we seldom did, in the spirit of a “real salon”, as we were all hanging on her words and reactions. She was old, but her pilot light was still very much on—you could tell with the twinkle in her eye and her quick wit to respond to things—she really was engaged, although she would barely get to the table, navigating with her hands the counter, etc., to it (I don’t think she wanted people to see her use her walker), and sometimes, like in this picture, her housecoat could be stained and she didn’t always look great, but her bohemian self (I remember seeing her and Jerry at J and R once, in their long black coats, looking like they came from the 19 century in a 21 century technological world). But I don’t think she cared much—money, etc., didn’t mean much when she finally came into her own (although fame and respect did, I suppose!), and hopefully we don’t have to wait until the 70’s to finally get the recognition we deserve, but sometimes this helps?! In Louise’s case, I think when she did finally achieve status and wealth, the money didn’t mean much to her, and she just kept challenging herself to make great artworks, which I love too for their psychological meditation and dimension—I think she made work because it was the modus operandi of her life—she was a monk for art and this was her world and way of expressing herself and living, inseparable from her being in her day to day life. I realized in painting this, a picture from my own photo that I asked her if I could take to paint a portrait from, that the world of her desk is really a cosmology of her work. From the Hugo Ball poster she designed (which serendipitously was also at the Whitney Biennial, reproduced almost exactly in the same place, if there was a laser beam from its placement to the Semiotexte wall where they put it in the wallpaper design of their installation), to the balls, mirrors, etc., that were reproduced hugely in her sculptures, to the red ink on the table, left over I suppose from her insomnia drawings. Also, when painting this, I realized her hands on the table resembled her famous marble sculptures with hands on rough surfaces, and her twisted housecoat resembles after the fact of painting it, in my mind, her hanging sculptural effigies.
After I painted the picture, I sent images of it to her studio, and they mentioned that she saw it and approved, to my great relief. I first exhibited the work in a show at Derek Eller entitled “Good Leaders, Endangered Species, Ships at Sea” as I felt she was a great leader and model for what a great artist should be, and a later incarnation of the exhibit (called Good Leaders, Endangered Species) that was installed at Broadway Windows, on 8th and Broadway as a part of NYU to the public. She died during the time of this exhibit, and I hope this ultimately was a respectful homage to this great lady and artist, who in the painting seems to be pointing to the beyond of the door, perhaps symbolizing the afterlife, where she is now immortal through her great works and legacy that will hopefully endure through the ages. I’m sure, too, that anyone who attended the salons will never forget their experience, being in the realm of this Post Post Modern Master.
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Louise Bourgeois, Welcoming Hands, Paris
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Louise Bourgeois, Tate Museum installation
Alice Neel is one of my favorite painters of all time, and I have always cherished the portrait she did of Warhol, post shooting, that exposed a real tenderness and vulnerability of t his great cool genius. I was thinking very specifically of this work when I was painting my picture of Louise—I think great portraits bring out the inner personality of the person they are portraying, and hope I was able to do this when painting Bourgeois, in the emulation of how Neel painted Warhol.
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Alice Neel, Andy Warhol, 1970. Collection of the Whitney Museum.
This is a picture of the great Marx Brothers in their masterpiece anti-war comedy as their characters hysterically celebrate a decision to go to war while in the background generals and politicians gesticulate frantically in dance (a vision originally created as Hitler, Franco and Mussolini—who banned the film—were rising to power. This film is both hilarious and disturbing and apocalyptic, in a scene that emulates American’s false claims to the UN that began the war in Iraq. While painting this, I listened to the Marx Brothers incredible films and radio broadcasts, I also listened to music recorded at the time, etc, as I did Groucho Marx’s letters while I painted him, and so on, to get a real "feeling" of them while I worked. Humor is very close to fine art—it usually is about the juxtaposition of two or more things that normally don’t go together going together to create a fissure—in this case, a celebratory dance and declaration of war. In all art, it recognizes that there is a breach between signified and signifier—what we are looking at, and how we traditionally are taught to understand what we are looking at. For Eisenstein, his idea of the "filmic" is when you see a picture of a field, but hear a sound of a boot, and your mind needs to negotiate that juxtaposition. Or he would say that Van Gogh painted "red trees"—trees aren’t usually red, but this was the poetry of Van Gogh. The Marx Brothers at their best were artful—they would, in a carnivalesque manner, throwing everything you think you know up in the air so you had to look at it anew—of course we usually don’t break into dance when going into war, but there is a strange excitement that charges the air—something very much felt around the country after our decision to go into war after 9-11, strategically set up to make us feel this way.
In Roland Barthes’ great essay "The Third Meaning," he discusses his ideas via Eisenstein film stills, who created movies inspired by painting, but also Walt Disney, who he felt made moving paintings. After communism went wrong, and he wanted to continue making movies in the Stalinist regime, he quietly subverted his supposed propaganda films to get by the censors and the government who funded his projects, but wanted his audience to critically think or upset how they would normally see when watching. For Barthes, the first meaning is literally what you see—in this case—the Marx Brothers wildly gesticulating in front of Germanic looking soldiers and officials. The second meaning for Barthes is what the artist was consciously thinking about when creating the work, the "obvious" symbolism—that you can read in an image, and "horizontal" reading of the scenes happening in time. In this case, I’m pretty sure the Marx Brothers, although they claimed this WASN’T an anti-war vehicle, were making fun of governments and people getting worked up over nothing, and creating real chaos and terror in the process of the testosterone-fueled energy dynamic of warring parties and nations, and the irony of this being like a wild dance. The Third Meaning for Barthes is the "vertical reading"—what an audience may bring to a work of art, what they gleam from watching something that perhaps was not intended by the director or the artist, but something that is provoked by the form and content of the art—the ineffable "something" that gives a work a life of its own in the eyes and mind of the viewer who brings their own closure to a piece by critically thinking about, while perhaps also emotionally being stirred or feeling what is conjured inside of them—but moved in a manner of how they think about how they are being moved, and importantly, why and how it may then serve to make them think for themselves about their life and world.
When painting this work, and all my works while looking at photos, the "third meaning" is intrinsic to my process. I use the photographic image as a talisman to project my own thoughts and associations, meanings and feelings, hoping that in the abstract notions of the picture plane, my unconscious will break into a subconsciously derived abstraction that will then induce a life among the viewer. I’ve been incredibly influenced by Cézanne and the Modernists, but before this, the Old Masters, and in this case, in particular, El Greco. El Greco was originally inspired and came out of Byzantine icon painting, where painters really felt that they were channeling something real when painting images of saints and holy figures—that painting them was like a direct communication with that entity that would come alive and speak to them through their brush, and then for the person praying, meditating, or otherwise regarding the image. Unlike many of the Old Masters who were relegated to the margins by not making things look "real" or "good" (the very reason they are now the Old Masters is that they painted in excess to the commission and brought their own vision to the "reality" before them), El Greco made a great career for himself as the particular sect of Catholicism valued the PASSION that he brought to his subject matter. Although his figures and forms looked like they got lost in Photoshop and couldn’t find their way out, the result was that, within the sinewy figures where the negative and positive space converge, there are strange and wonderful tableaus, and synaesthetic energy created that makes one FEEL the emotions that he wanted you to feel, while you THINK about what the subject matter was about for yourself—in his case, mostly religious. While obviously not a religious image, while painting this I was definitely thinking about the almost sublime absurdity of going into war, our current ones or almost any in history. While of course it is important to protect our nation and people, and defeat evil whenever necessary, so much of the time it really is of course about money, power, and ego, and so many lives are lost and so much tragedy occurs in this horrible history. While transferring the black and white image into color, while negotiating all the folds and forms and strange abstractions that happened in the micromanaged space in this image, I thought deep thoughts not only about the generous and amazing smart comedy generated by the Marx Brothers (and Groucho in particular) but about my own ethnic Jewish history (or half Jewish—my father is Jewish, my mother Southern Baptist which technically doesn’t make me a Jew but my sister is reform and changed her name to Chaya Rivka and it is cultural identity I feel the closest to), and how Jewish comedy has come through time and tragedy, the craziness of the Bush years, and my own life as an artist, wanting to entertain but make people think, too. And much much more—as of course the world was coming into holocaust when this film was being made, and being in the show "Good Leaders, Endangered Species, Ships at Sea," our own country at this time was headed into its own great depression.
My paintings aren’t photorealistic but "felt," I suppose, and I hope my unconscious spills out into them to give them life. I love modernity for the emotions and feelings works of that time can project, but also for their hegemonic formal nuances of light, color, and so on, and how they really could be "windows into other worlds," the subconscious. But I also revere post-modernity for its politics and content, for producing art that had everything to do with the culture surrounding it and how it reflected larger truths beyond the picture plane. I hope to embrace both sensibilities in my paintings and drawings. They might not look exactly like received images that we are accustomed to seeing, perhaps simply because I’m gay and choose subject matter that many might take seriously (I also believe people like Judy Garland, Elvis, and James Dean made a significant impact on our way of life and culture). Sometimes people don’t know how to read my work, but I hope this is part of its strength, and that, ultimately, people might bring to the image and their relationship to the iconic subject matter their own ideas and will "get it," its seriousness, in addition to my embrace of beauty and/or truth beyond surface representations.
I’ve done many pictures of Anne (one that has been at the Cleveland Museum of Art on continuous exhibition for years now), but this is one of my favorites. Although she wasn’t American, I hope that she and her story fits into this show as her work had more influence in America that it did in Europe when it first came out, and beyond relating the horrors of the Holocaust, she also was able to relay what it was to be a strong female protagonist to a nation of baby boomers, serving as a model of not just of Holocaust and Redemption, but also becoming a Judy Blume-like writer of a young woman who didn’t want to be "merely domestic" like her own mother. What’s also uncanny to remember is that she would still be alive if she hadn’t been murdered by the Nazis, and it could be quite possible she would have immigrated to America, where she would be about the same age as my father. I love this picture that I painted from a black and white photo, and like when I’ve painted other works of her, I listened to the entire unabridged Anne Frank diary, which I always find new relevance with, and profoundly am always moved by her strength, eloquence, but also maturity as she grows quickly from a young girl to an articulate, empathic and compassionate young woman. One thing that always strikes me when reading is that she says that she wants to be a writer who is able to relate the cause and plight of the Jews in exile to the world, and its performative, as while she is thinking this she is actually doing this, as her writing is one of the most important documents of our time about World War II. Pertinent to this image is the watch on her wrist, which reminds me of the short time she had, and unconsciously, as I finished the work, I realized the molding behind her reminds me of the train tracks to Auschwitz where she would be transported and perish, and also unconsciously, it seems that underneath the desk is a shape that reminds me of her heart, which was so strong, and her spirit, which is still alive today through her work. This originally was for a show entitled "Good Leaders, Endangered Species, Ships at Sea pt. II" which acted as a sort of "chapter" or "book" for the meta-narrative of My American Dream, the idea being that we needed more Good Leaders, as they were like an Endangered Species, in a world that was like a Ship at Sea, exhibited during the election that was won, wonderfully, by Obama. What better example of this subject than Anne Frank, who was such a great leader in a perilous time. I do think art can change the world and make it a better place, and Anne Frank and her work is an example of this and model for us all.
This is obviously an appropriation, or "copy" of the incredible Duccio painting at the Met—one of the great masterpieces of the world, that is our "Mona Lisa." Amazing things sometimes come in small packages—and this fantastic painting has really moved me every time I see it—there are so many secrets in it that give it its lifelike verve, that I feel that if Ben Stiller were to be a guard in a movie about the Met, this would be a painting that would be talking to him, or hovering in the air with giant gleams of light melting Nazi’s if it were to encounter Indiana Jones!
In all seriousness, this is a whopper of a work that I tried to surmount for my Good Leaders, Endangered Species, Ships at Sea Pt. 2 show, at the climatic end that I wanted to end like it does here, in my meta-narrative where they are placed, near where they would be on Michelangelo’s wall of the Last Judgment. This painting, which took forever to "complete" is done exactly to scale to the original work, including the frame, which in real life has the holes in it due to the burning candles that would be in front of the painting for worshipers who prayed to the original. I couldn’t, of course "beat" the original—Picasso said if you copy the Old Masters, how its "not like" the Old Master you are copying is what is "you" about it, and perhaps its not in anyway being an exact replica is what is me about this one. There is a whole world in the folds just in the cloth the Christ child is holding and Mary’s head, that peering into it, and many of the other folds and wrinkles was a bedazzling sight and befuddling to try to render even with the teeny-tiniest of brushes. Of course one of the reasons this painting is so famous is that it helped to usher us from the iconic age of Medieval Times to the Renaissance, due to the "real" warmth and emotion the Christ child is showing Mary (and visa-versa). I fear that my work might have some life, but I’m not sure it is of the mother/child variety, perhaps more inspired by the slightly miniature adult feel of the baby in the Duccio—much better than most pre-Renaissance works, but Christ was a wizened entity and the supernatural spiritual aspects I think are the ones that I ended up emphasizing, as the painting itself seemed to be otherworldly. She is pointing at the precipice—another part Duccio invention was perspective, and she is pointing to letters that are rendered in the front of this—I’ve asked scholars their meaning, but no one yet has been able to tell me for certain, another strange mystery to this blazen alchemized work of incredible transcendence that I could only hope to learn from.
One of the things I love about Michelangelo is his embracement for both the sacred and the profane, which I think is happening here in one of his earliest known works attributed to Michelangelo, as it closes resembles his attributed wooden crucifix that resides at the Santa Maria del Santo Spirito in Florence. I have done a few renderings of the other, trying to learn from the Master and also all the could be imparted by painting after this famous sculpture, and in this case also with the conceit that I could bring color to a black and white image of this fairly monochromatic sculpture, made out of Polychrome wood. After his mentor and patron Lorenzo de Medici died, Michelangelo was a guest at the Santa Maria convent when he was just seventeen, and could make anatomical studies of the corpses coming from their hospital, which inspired it seems both sculptures, as they are startling real, and anatomically correct, being "naked." Of course in our day we would say that Michelangelo was gay, as he had well-known relationships with other men, and as much as he may be creating a sacred image here, he also was in admiration of the nude male body, although obviously made with great care and taste and in accordance to the story of Christ and how he was bare in the original story. I thought in the image as if the background was fire or holy light, to which he hovers above with holy Stigmata in this painting which I also hope I could, following in the footsteps of the Master, help to breath new life.
I’m a huge El Greco fan, as are many modernists and great artists in time. I love how his work breaks into abstraction, allowing his subconscious to leak through, and how, in the way that his figures look like they got lost in Photoshop and couldn’t find their way out, bring out the passion of what it was that he was thinking about, making him popular in the time he was creating works, as he was hired by the particular sect of Catholicism that wanted to transmute his passion for Christ to their world. El Greco comes from the Byzantine tradition of icon painting, where they truly felt they were channeling the entities they were painting, which was able to communicate through the paintings to the faithful. This particular painting was created for a hospital—from Revelations, it’s the section where those who died in Christ’s name arise again to heaven at the end of the world when a hole is ripped through another dimension. It was to give the residents of the hospital hope, and the main figure I believe was touching the hand of God, a section that had been cropped off in time in the original, but I feel I found here by following the strokes in the original. This was a painting that inspired many great artists—famously it was owned during Picasso by one of his collector friends and kept behind a curtain, and Picasso would go to study it. His Demoiselles D’Avignon is directly inspired by it—the figures in that work are not only emulate Iberian and African masks and styles, but by the figures in the center of this painting, originally patterned after wax figurines in El Greco’s studio. Jackson Pollack had also been directly inspired by it, copying at the Met how the undulating folds created an all-over type pattern.
Many secrets are in El Greco’s work, I think by a man who really so believed in the subject matter of what he was creating that unconsciously, in all the folds and undulations, his subconscious simultaneously transplanted figures, faces, and forms while his conscious mind rendered what it critically wanted—something I try to do in my own work. I have copied many of his masterpieces, but always wanted to climb the mountain of this one. To do it, I listened to the entire old and new testaments (unabridged) on audiobook while I worked, which was a pretty trippy experience. I learned much, and was surprised, never reading the entire Bible before, how much of it I already knew, through the storytelling of culture and all the inferences of it in many aspects of our world and how it has helped (or hurt!) to shape it. James Earl Jones, the voice of Darth Vader was the narrator for the New Testament, but the scariest thing was Revelations itself, which gave me VIVID memorable nightmares (which I suppose was its intention). There is quite a history with this painting in general, and it was amazing to explore it, finding so much hidden faces and ideas literally hiding in the folds for all the world to see and discover. This painting is located on this wall at part of my reconstruction of a Last Judgment, inspired by Michelangelo, and is placed in the same section as his "Resurrection of the Dead" at the Sistine Chapel.