I’m a spiritual person, but perhaps not a religious one, as I believe in the transcendent and ineffable, and that we don’t know everything we think we know (although of course I believe in Darwin and Science and the non-subjugation of peoples and our planet due to the dogma of ideological beliefs that can be ruinous to the spirit of the world). But bits and parts of religion and belief systems are appealing to me, along with the Joseph Campbell idea that there are similarities or myths that are ubiquitous throughout the world that become a spiritual-like necessity. To paraphrase, his idea of an artist is that "it is an artist’s job to tell stories for a culture to understand itself in order for the culture to progress," and hopefully religion does this at its best, and of course this is also what I try to do in my art and teaching. Tibetan Buddhism makes a lot of sense to me—like the semiotics I studied as an undergraduate student at Brown University, Buddhism is a much more ancient ideology that everything exists in the world—but perhaps not in the same manner as we perceive it in though or language.
His Holiness the 17th Gyalwang Karmapa, is the leading inheritor of Tibetan Buddhism—after His Holiness the 14th Dali Lama dies, he will carry the torch and help to spread the word and spirit of Buddhism. China has a "fake Karmapa" that they try to trick people into believing in their oppressive regime but this painting is of the "real" Karmapa, , Ogyen Trinley Dorje, who they had to sneak out of China to safety in India in a trunk of a car. The Dalai Lama helps to find and recognize his reincarnation, but now with China being what it is, there won’t be anyone to officially acknowledge his reincarnation when he passes, and no one to find the next Karmapa after this one dies, making the 17th Karmapa perhaps the last of this kind of reincarnated Tibetan spiritual leaders.
When they felt it was safe enough for the Karmapa to travel stateside, my friend Lisa Kirk (who introduced me to Tibetan Buddhism and to the existence of the Karmapa) gave me this image when we were going to teachings together on 2nd ave above the McDonald’s in the East Village. She had simply made a color Xerox on my behalf, and I had it up in the little one-room apartment I was subleasing from a friend as I was trying to forge a place for Andrew and I to come back to NYC after exiling ourselves from the city and art world. This image gave me hope, and even after it became water damaged—became even more transcendent, and continued to be an iconic photo that I literally looked up to in every way. I made this image thinking of all this when I painted it, and the painting has stayed with me for over a decade, watching over me and my studio and bringing good energy, as I hope it does here on the wall next to 9-11 (a painting I created while listening to Buddhist chants, the Karmapa’s music, and Dalai Lama tapes), John Lennon, Bobby Kennedy, Anne Frank and more peoples who are remembered for their sacrifice (and empathy and compassion).
This earlier work was originally from the Hamlet 1999 series, but I thought it prudent to put it here, in my invocation of the Last Judgment, to be both representative of the Damned, but also of resurrection, as the mask of the face is leading towards the Opening of the Fifth Seal and resurrection. Of course this is Yul Brynner’s android character, with his face off and the working parts revealed at the end. In Hamlet 1999 he was employed as a Claudius type character—a malevolent patriarch, with the man—or machine, in the technocratic sci-fi version I created, behind the malevolent technocratic corporate commodity culture. Here, I thought of him as one of the damned, like one of the heads floating in a pool of blood in Dante’s inferno, or in a more uplifting idea, the spirit of someone rising above the negative patriarchal machine, hopefully in a moment of ascension. What for me I love about this painting ultimately is that in thinking of my thoughts (and in this case, my nightmares) in the act of painting, in the micromanaged moments where my left brain has difficulty ascertaining the elements in the blurry photo of this special affects moment, it necessitates the flights of fancy that occur within the head itself. Da Vinci always says you "paint yourself" however I truly think we sometimes paint our brain—and/or the thoughts, dreams, and visions within your cognitive mind. I always, in my Iconscapes, want to describe them, using instinct, but stop short of illustrating what I might see in instinctive moves—sometimes when painting representationally, you have enough visual clues for your mind to map upon the colors, forms, and space you see—here it really seems like a dream world of forms and figures and space within that section of the painting, doing gosh knows what, the more I stare into it, the more figures I see. I hope the corporeal frame of representation sets up the imaginary theater of the dream space inside of the mind, where the real action occurs, perhaps here a spirit of this being as it prepares to hopefully ascend to higher territory in every way.
Superman is a painting appropriated from the very first comic strip that Siegel & Shuster created, from Jerry Siegel’s writing and Joe Shuster’s art. I grew up loving Superman, and like many iconic avatars that children suture into, he helped to form a non-religious model of what it takes to be a good person, and was inspired by the comics to create my narratives today. Superman of course is an assimilation story, and Siegel & Shuster, like most of the early American comic creators, were Jewish, and Superman was a vehicle for them not just to entertain the masses, but also to allegorically speak about their own plight to be great Americans. I painted this during the Bush/Kerry debates, and unconsciously felt afterwards that he resembles a bit Kerry, who I was for during this time to help to save America. I feel that post-Warhol, instead of just appropriating comics in a Duchampian mode, it is my job to bring emotion to the image for what it projects from me, and how, as like a method-actor, I try to step into the shoes of the characters I’m portraying, can help to bring them to life. Superman feels pensive to me, like I felt about New York, post 9-11, during this time, and I hope that the repeated lines of the arms and hands indicates movement and feeling. Bringing color naturally to the appropriated image of a patinaed newspaper image, Superman also feels to me a bringing an old world, black and white world to help save the more colorful 21-century. Also unconsciously, as I painted, the letters in his name seem to emphasize the letters S PERM AN and I like this, as it perhaps satirizes gently the perhaps aware of the Patriarchal undertones of the image (along with the phallic building behind him), while still hopefully carrying the warm feelings I have for this great character that still as important today as when he was first created.
[INLINE IMAGE: superman.jpg]
Warhol, Superman, 1961, from the collection of Gunter Sachs
Like Blueboy, this painting was created in my NYU studio, when I had returned to NYC to forge a place for my husband and I to live again. It was a lonely time, and using magazine images to cull feelings and subject matter this work emerged, lost in listening to Radiohead, which felt right at that moment. This work has lived on my walls for years, reminding me of that moment, yearning for a better future and hoping through determination and hard work that both my art and career could fruitfully continue with a belief in self and the romantic longing for better days.
This little Dean reflects my interest in this great actor who came to a tragic end after his short career that helped to change the world, but it also is a reflection and homage to Warhol, who was able to project certain melancholia through his Blue Jackie’s. Although he was pointedly one of the least emotional of artists, just by making his work a particular hue it sometimes did create a low buzz of feeling, and these works of his, created just after JFK’s assignation, perhaps have an emotion that one might have felt just looking at the image reproduced in the newspaper. Dean was also the star of the silver screen, and although his three movies were in color, he first emerged in the golden era of television as a disaffected youth in teleplays written by greats like Rod Serling and Clifford Odets. And of course he appeared black and white in the many movie magazines, and had a canny sense of publicity luring photographers to take the many photos of him in his few years in the spotlight, of which this was an appropriation from. Its wonderful to be able to paint such an emotive actor, who was really channeling things in his Monty inspired Method, and it stirs up emotions in me reflecting upon his image, the mood of my mind mostly driving this image that remains a favorite despite the brevity of its execution, like his short life cut short but leaving such an impression.
Spiderman is an awesome character, and I teach comics as the Cartooning Coordinator at one of the best programs in the world for comics at the School of Visual Arts in New York City. Part of the power of the icon, according to Scott McCloud in his terrific book Understanding Comics is that if a character is essentialized and reduced to its most simple elements, i.e. a "smiley face" with two dots for eyes and a line for a mouth, its relatable to most people, for three reasons. We see faces in everything—as a survival skill for human being animals we need to recognize faces—a cop once told me if you are feeling thwarted walking down a deserted alley with a stranger look at them in the face and they won’t mug you! Try this on a subway sometime—you might get a date, or you might be clubbed! Some people don’t see faces in things, as their brains aren’t wired that way—Chuck Close supposedly doesn’t remember faces, so he’s made a career out of obsessively painting huge pictures of them…. The second phenomena is that you know what other people look like, but we have a very fuzzy notion of what we ourselves look like—I remember what I looked like when I brushed my teeth this morning, but as I’m writing this, I might as well be a brain in a jar. The third phenomena—perhaps the most intriguing one—is that we tend to anthropomorphized unliving things—the wine bottle opener becomes a fun dancing man when we play with them as kids! McCloud has the example of when someone hits your car, you don’t say "someone hit my car" you say "someone hit ME!"—you become part of the car—road rage! When you play an RPG game, you don’t say "someone killed my avatar" you say "someone killed ME." So when you see the "have a nice day dude" you first recognize it’s a face, secondly since you know what other people look like but not what yourself looks like it could be YOU, and because we anthropomorphize inanimate objects, it could be you and you BECOME the smiley face and have a nice day! Or buy Kool Aid! Or buy anything commercials that use cartoons to appeal to the relatability of a consumer as you "become" that character consuming that product. A lot of pharmaceutical commercials use cartoons and the power of the icon to sell their very expensive and complex products, and McCloud is taught in advertising, graphic design, fine art classes in addition to the few comics classes there are because he simply teaches the power of aesthetics to sway people (and also to make them think with the power of "Closure" that I write about elsewhere). In any event, I always teach that Peter Parker, before he dons his mask as Spiderman, could be any geeky kid in your chemistry class but he isn’t YOU, but once he puts on his mask—the simple red thing with giant white alien eyes he could be YOU. If you are a kid reading your Spiderman comic and your parents are fighting in the other room, you might not be able to control what’s going on with them, but when you read Spiderman, you "mask" into that character, becoming them, and as he is able to fight for good over evil, you do to and have power.
Teaching comics is very relevant to what I do in fine art and painting for this and many reasons. After 9-11 I felt traumatized not being able to have power over that situation (in addition to other things that were happening in my life), but painting Spiderman, in this film still from the second Sam Raimi/Tobey Maguire movie with Alfred Molina playing Doctor Octopus, I was able to suture into that character and feel the struggle as he tries to wrangle away from the evil Doc Ock’s tentacled arms. When Chinese monks painted, they would become the simplified pilgrims and iconic figures in their screens and scrolls to transcend into those characters to "feel" the nature rendered around them, and for their viewers to become the icons to have a similar meditation of transcendence into nature. It is the very purpose of Thangka paintings to meditate upon them, "becoming" the icons in their spiritual cosmological world, to "become" a Buddha by suturing in feeling and understanding that world. I feel with my work, and in this one in particular, that I "became" not only the character in the painting, but also painted myself into the picture. Da Vinci said we always paint ourselves, and I feel we don’t just do this by painting portraits that resemble us, but also our inner minds. Something the painter can bring to the table in our contemporary age is our memories, emotions, and inner life—as we render things consciously with our brush, our unconscious is also driving our hand, and in the slippery moments of the negative space, our subconscious thoughts and feelings are simultaneously being projected into the work as we think about what it means to us—the subject matter becomes a map for our feelings and thoughts—the inner mind of the artist. I love how this painting hopefully breaks up into unconscious worlds, where I see figures and dreams in micromanaged moments that subliminally gives the works their unconscious life, and where you can hopefully also see subconsciously derived imagery emerge that may be a clue to what dreams could look like.
This painting of Keanu stayed with me for years, as a sort of golden protector and talisman of good energy, and I felt it appropriate to put next to his deceased friend River Phoenix as a sort of angel on a wall that involved so much tragedy. As I have written elsewhere, Keanu has always been a "scope" for me, and an avatar of sorts that I have "employed" in my "star system" to stand in for so many characters. Here he was one of the Hamlets in my series Hamlet 1999, the predecessor to My American Dream but such an important work that I wanted to bring him in to be with River in a sort of heaven that the "angels" of this wall could coincide with the more religious pictures to give a sense of balance and good energy. Despite rumors to the contrary, I have always thought of Keanu as a "good actor" and someone who has maintained a career in the now decades that he has been working with some of the great directors of our time, and has created now iconic films such as the Matrix that have had such an influence. Important to me is that he represents a different kind of masculinity not seen in films much before, especially when he first began appearing in the eighties, but even now. He is not a John Wayne, shoot-em-up sort of patriarch. Up until the Matrix, he was mostly submissive, not the seducer but the one seduced, not the instigator of action, but the one who caught the bomb that Dennis Hopper, and stopping the bus and saving the people. He is a Gen X model of masculinity, one who can get the job done and take care of things, but also not afraid to touch on his more "feminine" side—something that I think threatens a lot of people, especially straight men, who are confused by this super strong person who doesn’t quite fit into the traditional "dad" role of patriarchal codes. He is also of part Hawaiian heritage, and not exactly white, and has a general post-slacker, post-modern knowing ease in his stiffness, and works hard with integrity in projects he believes in and is able to elevate the material with his talent and smart passion. He has always been someone that, at the least in their persona, is great to have around in a painting, and I’m hoping here, coping with his own abjection by culture—not to the degree of Frankenstein—but surviving past his friend River Phoenix, that he earns his place as an angel on this wall.
The source image of this was from a special effects book, which had this image, from the making of the 1997 movie Buddy, with creature effects by Jim Henson’s Creature Shop. When I essentialize ideas towards Post-Modernity, a major aspect seems to me to be “agency being reified into capital”, (I think of this like the human spirit, soul, ideas of independence being folded into, like flour into pizza dough, the “Capitalist Machine”). Who are we as individuals may be influenced by ideology, in this case the ideology of phallocentric patriarchy, and so on. I remember asking my Semiotics teacher, in learning about language being like the software operating the hardware of our minds and consciousness, “if it all adds up to nothing, what is the point?” in a moment of nihilistic despair. He replied “well, sometimes that is interesting to talk about”, which made sense to me. Many of my Semiotics friends became Buddhist, and out of all the religions, I have had my hands hover over the flame of Tibetan Buddhism the most. In that ancient religion, it realizes that everything exists, but doesn’t exist in the same manner we think it might (or have the language for), and I believe this gives a spiritual component to ideas of ideology and language forming thought—it doesn’t take what is beyond that away, and if we can achieve a critical distance to objectify oneself as a being within the world, we can think look at it and us in a different way (and hopefully in the realization of this come together recognizing we are all part of a larger system in a world that we need to take care of in order to survive). Sometimes the epiphany of this achieves a momentary sublime, which I hope to someday affect with my work.
In any event, for me the gorilla is an iconic avatar for humanity in general, here controlled by the machine (of Capital?), but underneath this layer, this is a subjective human being, who hopefully has elements and a consciousness that be transcendent of subjugation.
As much as I consciously meditating upon these thoughts when painting the picture, being a son of a psychoanalyst and a painterly painter who loves modernity, I want to allow for my unconscious to also drive the picture, and hope that when, especially in micromanaging, abstract elements also come into the picture plane. Here in the brain area, the small machinations of the mask became minute, and I hope that my unconscious is able here and in other parts of this (and all) my work, break into unconscious iconic abstraction, where my inner thoughts and memory take form in volumetric plastic space—when I look into these areas I see other worlds and planes. When Cezanne painted, I think he was using the landscape he was perceiving to help map his inner thoughts with form and color, I hope I can do this here and also when looking at other images, reinterpreting through both my conscious and unconscious driving my hand and brush, to create optical surrealities within realities that are more reflections of the inner mind, like dreams, come to life, that transcend language.
[INLINE IMAGE: buddy_clip_image002.png]
Willem DeKooning, Door To the River, 1960, Whitney Collection.
I do believe that paintings can be “windows onto other worlds”—if oil paint was created and first used to depict things more concrete and actualized in the plastic space of the picture plane, couldn’t it also do this for thoughts, feelings, the unconscious? Deep in the meditation of painting, when the hand is consciously creating marks that render “what you want”, it also is recording the “unconscious hand”, triggered by your thoughts, provoked by the subconscious, it simultaneously is translating your inner thoughts and iconic subconscious gestures. I think this is what gives life to painterly paintings and modernism in general, and if you can suture this gesture with a post-modern relationship to your imagery that relates to the world outside of the picture plane, than hopefully you can have something new (or old, if you consider most of the great paintings of the past incorporate meaningful allegorical scenes along with transcendent painterly moves to create images that give you much to think about and feel while you are contemplating their subject matter and experiencing their aura).
I grew up in Colorado, and my access to art was really through comics, and of course I loved Spiderman. I have taught comics at the School of Visual Arts since the early ’90’s (after publishing an acclaimed graphic novel Horror Hospital Unplugged, along with the writer Dennis Cooper), and I am the "Cartooning Coordinator" at SVA. In some ways, I see myself as an "avant-garde cartoonist" as many of my exhibitions are a series of juxtaposed images in a deliberate sequence that tell (albeit, and open-ended, nonlinear) stories. "Spiderman on the Roof" was originally in the Hamlet 1999 exhibition, in 2004, and there was like a Hamlet, trying to save the world as best as he could, specifically in juxtaposition to the King Kong painting next to it here (retaining a similar relationship from the Hamlet show). We lived in Soho at the time of 9/11, and saw the World Trade Center buildings with the holes in the side and the people inside, and witnessed (with my drawing students from NYU!) the collapse of both the buildings. It was all I can do to make this series of paintings near that time… I enjoyed the 2002 Sam Raimi/Tobey Maguire Spiderman film, and thought that this image of him would be perfect for "Rotoscoping" a Spiderman that was filled with real life and intrigue, fueled by my looking at the film still and thinking my thoughts about the last two years of New York, post 9/11, and wishing I could have done more to save the people in the towers, and the subsequent issues arising from the event—I was empowered, in that I had my health and acumen as an artist and a teacher, but of course the world events were hugely beyond any one person’s ability to make amends like a superhero.
The power of masked heroes, to paraphrase Scott McCloud’s famous "Understanding Comics" book, is the power of the icon. When Peter Parker is just Peter Parker he could be the kid next to you in the high school chemistry class—just another geeky kid. But when he dons his mask as Spiderman, he is red, with giant alien-eyes—he could be anyone. My theory on Spiderman is perhaps as a child you are reading a Spiderman comic in your bedroom with a flashlight, and maybe your parents are fighting in the other room—you can’t do much about your parents, but as you relate to the character in the comic, when he has his mask on he could be you—and you suture into the avatar of Spiderman, and as he thwarts evil, so do you! When I’m painting this or many of my works, I find myself transcending into the character and scene that I’m depicting, much in the same way you do when playing a video game or reading (or creating!) a comic, and I think I did so here, becoming Spiderman as I’m painting him, being in that space of that world to try to make it a better place. Specifically placed here in this installation, I see him trying to help King Kong who has already fallen, and Spiderman’s frustration that he couldn’t do more to help..
Inspiration. I still want to make a painting of the first appearance of Spiderman on the cover of Amazing Fantasy 15, from 1962. Originally a character created by Steve Ditko and Stan Lee, the cover was actually penciled by Marvel giant Jack Kirby, and inked by Ditko, as many mainstream superhero comics were and still are group efforts. Ditko was inspiring to Mike Kelley for his eccentric characters and drawing—he still lives, but is a libertarian recluse, self-publishing ranting comics about society, and in his earlier, slightly more sane days, he was able to propel life into his characters by channeling all of his conscious and unconscious ideas into his work, grounded by Stan Lee and his business and creative canny sensibilities. Kirby was also an amazing artist, able to create formal nuance, that if you turn his pages sideways to abstract them, and squint your eyes, they sometimes can create Pollock paintings from his amazing use of darks and lights, and his "Kirby Krackle" of positive and negative space. These are images that are fused with feeling, not about Duchamp/Warhol/Lichtenstein maneuvers of high and low, but more in the Guston/Saul tradition of identifying and "becoming" as you render the iconic avatar. One of my longtime favorite paintings at the Frick is The Polish Rider, allegedly by Rembrandt (although this has been contested). I still think it must be by the master, as the emotions and the mystery is so great in this painting, and whether or not he painted it (or if he had help by his pupil) doesn’t matter to me, as the Romantic intensity is so pervasive in this work. I think its an ideal idealized hero, the youth on horseback, on an adventure through a murky landscape, him standing out from the golden hues of the gravy-like colors of the background, on some mission for truth and justice it seems, or acknowledging with "great power comes great responsibility," something I was trying to convey in the tentative leap to heroism of our contemporary hero.
We witnessed the 9-11 tragedy and the fall of the two towers—outside our Soho apartment I stood on Thompson and Prince street after hearing the plane fly overhead and seeing it on the news and saw the hole with the people in it clearly in the building, and then went on my way to work at NYU, where I was to teach my freshmen drawing class "composition via the gag cartoon." Everyone was in a tremendous state of shock, and I certainly didn’t feel like teaching gag cartoons, so mentioned that "art wasn’t therapy, but I don’t what else to do but to go to Washington Square Park and draw this in order to try to understand it." We got there, and as soon as the students began to open their books and sketch, the first tower fell. The adults in the park began to cry and scream—my kids were great got up to hug and console them—I told the students that "class was cancelled" and to go home and call their parents to let them know they were alright. I’ve written about more of this with the other 9-11 works I have created, but I continued to think of all the people who died in the towers that day, and all the people jumping and falling to their deaths, and was traumatized by nightmares. At the time, my father was in town and saved the newspapers and said I should paint the photos of them—which I did do years later after continuing to have the nightmares—but during this time I could only deal with it by painting through allegory. Vertigo, the classic Hitchcock movie has these intense scenes of everyman Jimmy Stuart hanging on for his life on the precipice of a building with a blissed-out background, and reminded me of what it must have been like for those people who were the victims of this horrible tragedy. I painted this thinking of them, of their anguish, wanting to have empathy and compassion for them, their feelings, and all they lost on the brink of their fall. This was a tough painting to do, but helped me through this torment that I was experiencing, where hopefully I could suture into the avatar of Stewart portraying his psychological event, and purge myself of my feelings by channeling through him and this scene. Of course the great thing about the actual movie is that Stewart survives, and it his heroic being that helps him survive, and his courageous ability to face his fears and win in the end. Ultimately all those people were heroes who were in the towers, not just the amazing police and firemen who raced at the expense of their own lives to save them, but also the people in the buildings, who jumped to their death rather than getting burned alive or worse. It’s the courage of humanity, our ability to survive at all costs, to do our most to be our best while at the same time hopefully helping others and the world that gives me hope, something that I wish this painting might embue—not just tragedy, but the courage and strength of a hero.
When 9-11 happened, I was living in Soho on Prince Street with my partner (now husband), and we heard the plane fly overhead and minutes later, saw it on the news and went outside to see, slack-jawed, the two buildings, with the holes in them and we could just make out the people inside. I went to NYU to teach my Drawings Fundamentals class in a state of shock, and my students were there waiting, also hapless and not knowing what to do. Normally, at the beginning of the semester I teach “Composition via the Gag Cartoon”, but was in no mood to do this on that day, and told the students that hopefully “we artists help to understand things by drawing them”, so we went to Washington Square Park with our sketchbooks to draw the towers, but just as we began, the towers began to fall. The adults watching in the park began to scream and cry in pain and terror, but my students were amazing, comforting those around them. I told them that class was obviously dismissed, and that they should go home and call their families to let them know it was all right.
I had nightmares about the events since that time, and although my father who was in town during the crises kept the newspapers for me to render from (which I did eventually, one is in the permanent collection at the Whitney, a triptych of the theme is at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington), at the time all I could do (and felt tasteful enough to render) was to speak through allegory, hence this work, a painting from the film still of the 1976 King Kong remake, produced by Dino De Laurentis. I have always felt that Kong represented the agency of humanity—who we are as natural human being animals within the world, and of course, through the power of iconic allegory, King Kong can mean so many different things in different eras through different points of view. But at this moment it really felt that we lost so much during this time, not only all the people who were tragically and monstrously killed in the events, but also who we were as people and a country since that moment, the sentiments of which inform the emotions of this work.
But also I grew up with Dynamite Magazine, a publication that young students subscribed to with the Scholastic Books Club as kids through school, and one of the first magazines that I got that I loved was with King Kong, celebrating the remake, with Laverne and Shirley in his arms. The article had a great effect on me, and this image is from the pages of that magazine—the colors distorted in the printing era/paper of that time. I also went to the premier of the movie when it opened in Tamarac Square (and was the official opening of this suburban Denver mall), and will never forget the excitement and thrill of seeing the film for the first time as a kid.
When I create works, I allow the image to infuse within me thoughts and emotions that I hope come out in the finished work. With this painting, the conflicting feelings of nostalgia along with regret hopefully manifest themselves, which could also be, allegorically speaking, the nostalgia for a more innocent time and for the people lost of an era, and the regret of a more contemporary circumstance of who we are as people and a nation being transformed into a less innocent time of the 21century.
[INLINE IMAGE kingkong_clip_image002.png]
Ben Shahn, The Passion of Sacco and Vanzetti, 1931, Whitney Collection.
Ben Shahn has long been an inspiration, as he not only painted figurative narrative works from photos, but that he was able to infuse such life and emotion in a painterly fashion that they transcend notions of “illustration” and work, like an American German expressionist, to create political allegories that draw you in and have you become involved in their subject matter. I also love that Shahn is a great American Jewish artist, and that you often see his works proudly displayed in this context, and he was exhibited in a time that anti-semitism still lurked in artworld circles. This is a famous work often exhibited at the Whitney, that was part of a series of images he created about an infamous trial of two Italian immigrants and committed anarchists that were persecuted by their radicalism and their ethnicity more than the ambiguous evidence, to death for the murder of a shoe factory guard, creating one of the most controversial trials of the twentieth century.
I like that Shahn created history paintings that were liberal and smart, and that he had deep empathy for his subject matter that permeates the paintings and makes them trancend the specifics of the event he was depicting, making them hopefully eternal (like Goya and Manet before him) for conveying issues we still face today in painterly ways.
This is one of the few paintings that snuck into this show from an earlier body of work, Hamlet 1999. In that series, John Lennon represented the Ghost of Hamlet, his father back from the dead seeking revenge for his death from Hamlet’s uncle, and also to act as a sort of "Obi Wan Kenobi" to help set his guiding principals of life. Of course this is from the cover of Lennon’s fantastic Imagine album, from a Polaroid taken by Andy Warhol, where the effect of taking his image through the window with the clouds has already the feeling of a mournful transcendence.
I was having many dreams of the people falling from the Towers of the World Trade Center after witnessing the horrific events of 9-11. Being a huge John Lennon fan, I would call out them in my sleep "All You Need is Love!" and finally, in homage to them and to remember the tragedy and my feelings about it, created the painting now owned by the Whitney Museum to the left of this image. I’m hoping by the placement here that it depicts a sensation of what I was feeling in those dreams, as if the smoke of the 9-11 painting becomes a cloud in this work, as Lennon too arises from the earlier painting below him, as a young man in Rubber Soul (and adjacent to the appropriation of Bobby Kennedy by Roy Lichtenstein).
I feel that if you could have the populist notions of Warhol, making work of people and images that relate to the outer world, but coupled with the feelings, and painterly emotion of a Rembrandt, perhaps you could have something new. Certainly this is what I’m thinking of here, when I created this image while playing his music, the soul of Lennon coming alive through his music, being felt by my brush.
This is an early painting really from the Hamlet 1999 series that preceded this one, but I couldn’t help putting it in as it always has put a smile on my face, and more than this, truly has been a protector of sorts for my world and me. I love Keanu Reeves, and have employed him in my star system since I began showing my art in graduate school. He is the consummate Gen X Masculine Dude, who is able to be a man without being a dick, who is a gentleman but can show his strength when it counts, could hypothetically be any sexuality, any ethnicity, but a post-slacker man who may or may not be a great actor, but has been around for so many years and has made so many countless iconic films with great directors that to some degree he has earned his star to be undeniable. In The Matrix, one of the great films of the 90’s, the Wachowiski siblings (who also have their degree of pulpy greatness) turned Baudrillard on its head and made him culturally relevant. In this great false consciousness narrative, we wake up to find that we have been just mere cogs in a post-capitalist regime, sedated by machines to do their bidding, human batteries who mere purpose is to service the corporate commodity rule of robots. Keanu awakens as Neo, brought on by Morpheus, to save the vestiges of humanity, and like a steam punk William Blake, to bring them to a New Jerusalem. Keanu in this role was perfect—his stiffness appropriate to the Keanu School of Acting—maybe in this case like a living Buddha who kicks ass when he has to. I also love and teach Japanese Anime and Manga, and since the decline of their Emperor in WWII, they have been at a loss of a Patriarch and what it means to be a Man, John-Wayne style, striving instead perhaps, at least in the best of anime and manga, to be bishonen, beautiful men who get in touch with their embedded gender codes of femininity, and visa-versa for the women, who strap on masculine codes with kick-ass allure. Its no wonder that Lana Wachowiski became trans, as the gender bending of even a hyper action film happens as easily as a telepath considering the reality of a spoon, which bends at their will. In any event, this is the great scene where Keanu as Neo is positioned exactly right in front of Art Deco-esque glory emanata, as he recognizes the bullets, rendered in my case like the surface of Monet’s lily pads in the foreground, considers whether or not the bullets or even the attack is even real, and in so doing, allowing the bullets in his mind to be arrested in motion and fall to the ground before he turns on his heels to fly across the world and help to save the world. I teach comics at SVA and the power of icons and allegory, can be edutaining in pulp narratives that are divorced from religion and extreme ideology, but still carry truths in their pulpy assertion of their own intrinsic mythos. The Matrix hit a deep note in me when it most mattered, and still is one of my favorite films, where I really gave it my all to create an icon painting of an iconic character—he might not be a real Buddha or Savior, but he is more real and palatable to most for our time, more relatable and savvy to what was happening at the end of the 20th Century and the beginning of the 21st.
One of the earliest works in this show, I originally created this for the Hamlet 1999 series, where Lincoln was Hamlet’s father’s Ghost, coming back to have Hamlet seek his revenge, and to also give him the advice of an old sage, like in a Joseph Campbell "Heroes’ Journey." Originally I created this when I first came back to New York after exiling myself from the Art World. We had moved to Andrew’s grandfather’s cabin in Riverside, California, and Lincoln’s cabin home reminds me exactly of our place when regarded from a certain view in its blighted neighborhood. I painted this when Andrew was still back in California, and NYU where I taught gave me a small studio in which to paint, and I would go there from my tiny one-room apartment to create work and hope and dream of finding a place for us once again. Lincoln was one of the greatest heroes of all time, rumored to be gay or at least have gay affairs, and when you look at the old photos of him he still seems to be alive and speaking through the ancient image. I was in a melancholic mood when I painted this, but in hopeful spirits, hoping that moving there (and moving myself out of the art world) hadn’t been a mistake, and hoping that Andrew and I could be back together, missing him as I was painting alone in Gotham wishing I could be back with him in our secluded cabin utopic home.
I used to have a nightmare of a giant skull man walking down stairs when I was a small child, and when I finally saw Phantom of the Opera as an adult, there is the famous color sequence where the Phantom, in his Red Death costume, comes down the stairs in the Masque of the Red Death costume for the Masquerade Ball scene, and I realized that this must have been something I had seen as a kid which entered into my subconscious. I’m a big believer when you are doing any kind of dream art to think about the dream why you are executing it as then sometimes it opens up "portholes" in your unconscious, and you start remembering other aspects of the dream which can be illuminating and also infuse your work with a synaesthetic other life. Also, when working with nightmare imagery, by making work about it you objectify it, you "own it." Being a son of a psychoanalyst, I believe it gives you a method in which to understand what it was that plagued you in the first place. I’m also a big fan of Goya, who in his figurative narrative work was able to create allegories that have stood the test of time, and also create atmospheres that you really can feel and are palatable, that get under your skin better than any horror movie as they use both form and content to reach an inner mythos that could be intrinsic in all of humanity, through the power of the plasticity of oil paint to make not only things, people, and scenes concretized and realized within the picture plane, but also thoughts and feelings (and of course in his prints and drawings his inky blacks and scratchy sketching also lends towards emotive melancholic tones). In fact, it was seeing his Black Paintings at the Prado when I was in high school that made me want to create fine art, and to even see a relationship between the "danse macabre" of his imagery and my own fascination with monsters and science fiction growing up.
In this earlier work of this show—this was really part of the Hamlet 1999 series—and in that context, I was thinking of the Phantom as representing George W. Bush as he was leading us into war, or in a more universal context, the Shakespearian Claudius, a dubious leader, and his followers all too happy to lead to a world of destruction. Picasso said a painter paints to unload themselves, and I did that here using the subject matter to think about my anxieties towards this scene as a youngster, and how real it still seemed to be in maturity, where darkness and death can lure around any corner, and in the negative space, and cracks and folds of conscious representation of my painterly brush. The sleep of reason produces monsters, and so it is when bringing up imagery when thinking about your thoughts, allowing your unconscious seep through your paint along with your conscious control. Here, he represents, in my evocation of Michelangelo’s Last Judgment, a devil, or THE devil, leading the damned to a dower inferno.
We lived for a long time in a tiny apartment on Prince between Sullivan and Thompson—the two of us, my German Shepherd Julian and our little poodle Rosa. I would take the dogs around the block, and would always stop at the church between those two blocks on Houston, and say a little prayer looking at their great Madonna statue. I’m not religious—my dad is Jewish and my mom is Southern Baptist, so I’m a religious mutt, but I am a spiritual person, and a little prayer can always help! In any event, this painting is to bring good energy to the wall, she was Gertrude in my Hamlet 1999 series, and here she really is the Virgin Mary. The wall has so much pathos that as much good energy and prayer I could give it starts out the narrative optimistically before we see them at the end. I painted this work, one of the first from my own photos that I created, in a moment where I really needed the joy it could provide—religious or not, icons this powerful are edifying to project to and with, and I hope her spirit can overlook all those on the wall and the show with the powerful love she symbolizes.
The second in this series is of the Study of Christ for the Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci, another of my heroes (although he didn’t have the same warmth of Michelangelo, he probably was the better painter, and of course, its always edifying to know two of the greatest artists in the history of the world were gay!). This was inspired and painted from an old, crinkled reproduction in a used book of Da Vinci I got from the Strand Book Store, and just the paper itself had a patinaed, relic quality that made the already sublime image more impactful. At this time I was painting literally in a closet—a tiny room in our tiny apartment with our clothes hanging in the same room with a single light bulb, and an artist lamp and my desk lamp (and next to my shepherd Julian’s dog bed!) hence the palate of these works, sometimes a little green, sometimes, in the case of this work, a little gold, bedazzled by the original, trying to learn from the Master, and gleaming every bit of spiritual jouissance from the image. Every painting I create is a prayer, these especially so.
Near this same time, I did this Jesus painting of Michelangelo’s crucifix, which is the one at the Santa Maria del Santo Spirito di Firenze, Florence. I love Michelangelo for his embracement of both the sacred and the profane, and in this early sculpture of his (one of the earliest on record—he was only 17 when he created it!) he truly captured an uncanny spirit. I have yet to see it in person, but the photos of it send me—there is something sensual about his body, but not erotic, simultaneously it also seems alive, or to be specific, both dead, as it is Jesus on the cross, but also alive with a spirit. I love to learn from the masters, following their lead, with Michelangelo, whom I have painted many appropriations from (including the Green Jesus painting on the last Last Judgment wall, which is a close up of this very same Christ, and the other crucifix on that wall is the other Crucifix statue attributed to Michelangelo from the same time), and his chisel marks give me guidance as to create form in paint. When painting from his painting (again, the Last Judgment Wall is a quote of the Last Judgment—in fact, this whole show and that wall is to invoke the Sistine Chapel!) I learn what it is to be a true artist, painting from devotion to my subject matter. This is a work I absolutely needed to paint when I did (I feel I’m projected unconsciously in the negative space surrounding him). I also learn, by following the Masters, to be creating works that transcend their subject matter: beyond any decorative motifs, I paint through my life and live through my paint.
This was based on an old black and white film still of Lawrence Olivier in his great film version of Hamlet. I love the text by Roland Barthes entitled the "Third Meaning" when he looks at "reading" film stills of Eisenstein movies, most notably Ivan the Terrible. The first meaning for Barthes is literally what is happening in the scene, how you would describe it, the second meaning is what it symbolically probably ("obviously") means for the director, the "third meaning," what for him he also calls the "vertical reading" is what the viewer brings to the still that perhaps wasn’t intended for the artist. This could be feelings, moods, synaesthetic memories, relationships between the image and the viewer’s own life. When I’m painting from film stills like these, or any photos, I am playing music or audiobooks that mean something to the content of the image, thinking about my thoughts, relating to the image the way a method actor relates to a character by projecting my own life onto the subject, and letting the person portrayed (if their is a person) be an avatar for myself. Picasso said if you paint copies of the Old Masters, how it’s not like the Old Masters is what is "you" about it. When painting this picture of Olivier (who was also gay, or at least "Hollywood bisexual," FYI, in addition to being one of the world’s great actors), I was thinking of my recent travails but also the character of Hamlet reacting to his world (our cabin home in Riverside is also in Lake Elsinore, named after Hamlet’s hamlet), and my reacting to the world of Bush and his new administration, and patriarchy in general. At this time in my career I would paint until the mood or muse would leave me and then leave the painting along—there is a lot of fervent unconscious rendering in the negative space that gives this painting its internal energy. Perhaps this was my melancholic mood of the period that resulted in the emotional tone this palate projects, hopefully ultimately a positive romantic feeling of what it is to be a critically thinking, hopefully romantically optimistic artist or character in our world then and today. I’m proud that my long-ago former TA at the Museum School Ridley Howard once appropriated this image, and inserted it into a painting he created of his artist wife Holly Coulis flipping an egg, cooking in the nude!
I grew up addicted to Warner Brothers cartoons, and was glued to my television most Saturday mornings watching the fun violent antics of Bugs and friends, and respected the visionary power of the animators and their ideas that went beyond mere jokes to sometimes otherworldly territory and allegorically revealing the lighter, but also the darker, aspects of life. I related to their anthropomorphized subjects, and Bugs Bunny in some ways was the first empowered "gay" character, who would easily and proudly slip into drag, hung out a lot with his male friends without ever having a girlfriend, and would only seek revenge when first trod upon. In any event, I also loved the end and beginning credits, with the spirals would roll out, and sometimes even Porky Pig would exclaim "Th…th….the th..th..the… THAT’S ALL FOLKS!." Originally the "ending" of my long narrative Hamlet 1999, I couldn’t help but also appropriate it for the "ending" of this narrative of My American Dream, or at the very least, the end of the "third act." To me, when I paint my "cartoon paintings" I try to physicalize the aesthetic aspects of the typeface and fonts, and to try to "get underneath" all the aspects of the cell painting and backgrounds, to try to bring something painterly and new to the appropriation, and unlike Warhol and Lichtenstein, who sometimes further "flattened the image" try to use the ability of oil paint to make the push and pull happen, and the plasticity of the oil paint to make the forms even more three dimensional. Here, I’m hoping that the negative space of the interior hole become whole, or spherical, three dimensional, like a planet, and the concentric rings like waves of a bomb going off—I see it as like a planet blowing up, hopefully not ours, but something like initialization, ironized by the cursive "That’s all Folks" font—its Revelations, with a Warner Brothers twist, like some crazy nightmare. I felt this and had nightmares like many of the kids of my generation growing up from the sixties, and in my despair in the height of the George W. years painted this image. I feel much better about our country and world over a decade later, but still there is the edge of the world coming to the brink of chaos, and I think apocalypse is a healthy fear to have so we do everything in our power not to come to the not so happy end…
I taught fine art at NYU for many years, and one of my best experiences was being able to chaperone a group of their best, dean’s list students on a trip through Andalusia, Spain, where we saw many delights in an area of Europe that still many tourists don’t travel. We were in Ronda, as one of our first stops, and I hadn’t ever really encountered the incredible religious wooden statues they have all around in churches and cathedrals throughout that area. There existed this statue at a church there that was so lifelike it really moved me—it was designed and carved I’m sure for this effect, as it really seemed to be watching and communicating something when you stared into its eyes. I had glanced at it in passing, but it stuck with me, the experience being really stirring that I had to go back to take a photo of it before our group left to go to another town. I ran to the church, which luckily was still open, and in my rush took this shaky shot, before running back to the bus where the students and teachers were waiting in the bus. When I got back to NYC I created this painting, one of the first created from my own photos, and it has always moved me, I see new things in it, in the backgrounds and foreground, and depending on where I am in life it means different things to me. In some ways its great that religious art sometimes doesn’t sell, and we have always had this painting by our side as a sort of protector and good energy device—it has also appeared in the background of other paintings, significantly in a portrait of my dog Julian (and my recently passed Rosa!) that I painted right after he died—hopefully he is being watched and cared for wherever he is, along now with his constant companion Rosa, and I love that this painting could be a talisman for that thought and more.
We lived for years in a small place on Prince between Sullivan and Thompson in Soho, and at the church between these blocks on Houston, they always put up a Nativity scene around the holidays, and I used to always stop and reflect upon it when I walked my shepherd Julian around the block, when I took this picture. The amazing things about icons and religious artwork are that they are able to fuse the relatability of an iconic image—one’s ability to "suture into" an essentialized image (like the smiley face that Scott McCloud discusses in his great Understanding Comics), with spirituality. In Buddhist thangka paintings, it is with the motivation for the devoted to transcend into the Buddha entity to become part of the cosmology you are meditating about in order to become more Buddha like in your existence. For Catholicism and Christianity, I feel that while you might not "become" the persona you are praying to, you can project such feeling its as if the icon becomes alive and responds to you—certainly in Byzantine times this was part of the point, but even now I wonder how people react to religious art when it is about something beyond aesthetics and its used performatively in prayer. This was a hard time in our lives when I created it, although we had much to be thankful for, and the beatific beauty of this scene sent me. Although I may not be religious, I feel polymorphously spiritual, and try to honor and respect all that I’m rendering, especially with religious iconography I feel I could always learn more, and you never know…. Joseph Campbell, whom I do believe in as a thinker and scholar, discussed how their were similar stories that are ubiquitous around the world, which has a spiritual component—why do peoples everywhere have a version of a messiah myth that correlates in so many ways? While painting this, I feel that the humble beauty of the statuary really reflected the message, and the strangeness of this sentient baby given birth to by a virgin, here as loving as can be for this strange holy being was warm and intense at the same time. The Christ statue was actually stolen later—I wonder if they coveted it as much as I, feeling compelled if not to capture it, to render it in paint, along with Mary. I placed this where it is on the Last Judgment "Finale" wall in this installation as it emulates where she is on Michelangelo’s wall—hopefully it contemporizes it where it came from, and remains significant to me especially as its one of the first "major" paintings I created from my own photo.