Part of me wanted to start painting these Judy Garland paintings because it was one of those things where a lot of older gay men love Judy when a lot of younger gay men, or younger people in general, are terrified of her or don’t know who she is or something… When a reporter does a story about a cult and then becomes a member I sort of became a member in just finding what it was about Judy Garland that used to appeal to everybody. By painting her it was terrifying…
She had such a sorted life… She was such an empowered person, and really incredibly talented… You see any movie of her, she completely just glows right off the screen, and she’s fantastic. You know, she would make comeback after comeback after comeback…
Everything is allegorical. I am using these people as vehicles to talk about different ideas that I have. The was the theme of the show I initially painted this work was for a show called "Heroes," and for me Judy Garland is a hero…
Post-Modernism, I think if I could put it into a nutshell, it’s about agency being reified into Capital … It’s like agency, our spirit, our soul, our position as individuals reified—like flour into pizza dough, being folded into Capital… I feel we live in a Corporate Commodity Culture now where a lot of our ideas are decided and contained by committee. Somebody like Judy Garland or Elvis, who is almost like the brother of Judy Garland, in a way, were these people had incredible talent, were incredibly skilled…
I’m talking about the past in order to hopefully forge a place for the future…I always think that (I teach a lot and I love it ) and I feel it’s the job of an artist in a way to be a teacher, and I feel like these were people who were these living entities that were true geniuses that were able to be within the popular culture, and that, you know, there was a reason for them being there…
Joseph Campbell’s idea of an artist was that artist was supposed to tell stories for a culture to understand itself in order to progress… I feel that these people were like that, they were artists who were really trying to do something, but to do it within a popular vein, in order to reach the most amount of people. To move them, to have them experience something, to maybe have them think about their life a little better, to think about the world in which we live. And yet, the tragedy… So much about being a hero is about the giving over of oneself, in a way… I don’t think you have to suffer to be a good artist, I don’t think that, but…
(excerpted from a interview with Ross Bleckner in 2006 for show catalog)
Scott McCloud, in his incredible book Understanding Comics talked about the power of the icon, and closure. Closure is about putting two different elements together to create content… The power of the icon is that it is an essentialized form that people can relate to—a picture with a thousand words. When I’m painting a famous person, I’m hoping I’m able to make a great portrait of scene that has the productive baggage of what they can mean metaphorically as icons—while not like a "smiley face" icon that people can suture into and become, they are figures that have a common point of reference. In thinking about how they relate to the person and scene, and then the theme or narrative I am employing the subject matter for, I hope the viewer creates the closure of what this might mean, how it all fits together, in their own mind to create dynamic meaning and feeling that they will remember in this artful moment.
For Elvis, it was amazing for me to see his famous comeback special, where for the first time I realized this was a real human being that, despite the politics, really helped to change culture. When you look at his early appearances on television, you see an incredible young man who had this impassioned energy to help create rock n’ roll, and to take all he learned from African American culture—this is the colonizing politics, unfortunately—and marry it with the hillbilly music he also loved, to help come up with something new—building of the great work from the black performers he revered (again, part of the politics). But if you like Elvis, you like to think he acknowledged that history and influence, and continued, as "white trash from across the tracks" to commiserate with the outsider, beyond a patriarchal phallocentric power structure, helping to promote what his idol, the gay man James Dean, began, to give a voice to a youth culture and to change attitudes and the world.
When I do Elvis, I play Elvis all the time, or watch Elvis movies. It would drive Andrew my boyfriend crazy a little bit because there would be Elvis on all the time in the house, and then when I would take breaks I’d be watching Elvis. I’m trying to get underneath what it’s about. And then also, I’m consciously thinking about Warhol and people like that. I feel like painting Elvis is a weird, you know… Warhol did Elvis too, and in some ways, I feel like Warhol really loved the figures that he was painting.
If Warhol is constantly repeating Elvis over and over again, it’s not who Elvis was as a talent, what happens is the risk of that redundancy that we lose who they are as people or we forget their history. Elvis is a fat joke now. I don’t think for Warhol it was about Elvis as a person, or "Elvis the Incredible Talent We Loved," it was about our reception of Warhol, and also what you’re saying too, to make it more humble by reducing it. What I think for me is important, is to bring back who they were as people, and like any portraitist, try to essentialize what it was about them that made them so great. (From an interview with Ross Bleckner, 2005)
When I made this painting, which was from a photo of Elvis as a young man as its source image, I listened to all of Elvis’s extensive oeuvre, from his early Sun Sessions recordings to his last 70’s Las Vegas concert appearances. What was uncanny to me is in the end, he resembles an older Elvis in a young man’s profile—but his lambchops appear and he looks like he is weary and wary of the world, but still a great king.
We had a great friend of ours pass away in the fall. Our friend Alicia. She was Andrew’s, my boyfriend, best friend growing up. And she got sick and died at age 38. And she went to the hospital, and they were like, "not only do you have pneumonia, but you have full-blown AIDS," and she died within a week. And so it was this horrible tragedy, and it totally upset us. Isn’t that horrible? But she lived in Orange County, they just don’t’ have the information out there. People with AIDS are treated a little bit like lepers. And it’s horrible. She didn’t have good models. We tried to help her. She was always a high-strung character. And she was pretty wild. In Orange County there are a people are sort of in a somnolescent sleep and it’s sad. It’s not about critical thinking. I think that’s why art is important, hopefully it induces people to think for themselves.
One way that I really understood portraiture was the movie Rembrandt, with Charles Laughton as Rembrandt. It was this great black and white movie, from I think 1936, or something like that, and it has all these guys with moustaches out to here, and they’re walking across these snowy-white landscapes with windmills, a beautiful movie. But after Rembrandt is exiled out to Rembrandt land, because he was painting people too realistically, or he did the Night Watch, which challenges composition and so on, there’s this great scene in the movie where he hires a bum to paint him because he couldn’t afford real models. And the bum is dressed as Kind Sol, or King Solomon in this scene, and he turns to Rembrandt, or Charles Laughton dressed as Rembrandt, and he says "why are you painting me, I’m just a bum!" And Charles Laughton says, "you’re not a bum, you’re dressed as King Sol, and this is what it means to me…" And then he goes on this whole teary-eyed soliloquy of "Vanity of vanities, everything is vanity, " all this stuff, that he says. And I realized, "Oh my gosh! Really good portraiture, or figurative painting, is like method acting in a way… That he set up an allegorical situation that means something to him that he thinks about it while he’s painting it. And even though we don’t really understand who those characters are or those people who he painted—we don’t know who they are—we still care about the figures in the work, and the synaesthetic feeling that the real Rembrandt is bringing to the portrait in his painting. You feel it. You feel the emotion. You feel the care. You feel the pathos. Maybe the ineffable thing that you can’t put into words.
If I stand in front of Rembrandt or a Vermeer or an El Greco or a Velázquez, I don’t really care about who the people are in the paintings… When you find out more, it informs your ideas about the pictures, but ultimately its really about you having an experience in front of this thing and it moves you, maybe, hopefully, in a way you can’t put into words. And maybe, if you’re really lucky, it gives you an epiphany about life., or yourself, or your being within the world. I don’t’ know for my work, but this is something to aspire for…
Post-modernism is important as a movement because it made you step away from the work of art seeing how it operated in a larger system… It was all about looking as a language, and the received way of looking at things as constructed by ideology… You can’t control the way a viewer will receive a work…That the key is that you are always stepping back from the work of art, you’re stepping back from how we see things so you can see something that’s new! To hopefully, make changes, or to make progress, or to keep the discourse going, or to essentialize what is happening…
Modernism for me in a nutshell is that "It’s not the subject matter that’s important its what you bring to the subject matter that’s important." When Van Gogh paints the flowers, its not the flowers is about how he paints the flowers… For Cézanne, obviously, it’s not about the landscape, it’s about what he perceives, or maps onto that landscape. For me, Post-modernism is stepping back from a work of art and seeing how it operates in a larger system. There’s not one truth, there’s a multiplicity of truths, and there are no hierarchy’s, everything is subjective…
I think you can have your cake and it, too… I think a lot of post-modernism broke down the aesthetic nature of things. Or took away beauty. They want to take all the seductive agents, especially with painting away so you can get to the "core," as a philosophical, and political action. I want to make work that relates to the world outside of itself, but also have an inner emotion and ineffable "life of its own."
When I do Elvis, I play Elvis all the time, or watch Elvis movies. When I painted this work, I was thinking of him, how he moved, how he helped to change music, but I was also thinking about our friend Alicia, and trying to paint through those emotions for release from our anguish. Picasso said a painter paints to unload themselves—when they go to the forest of Fontainebleau and get filled with a green feeling then go back and spill out the green into their canvas. I was listening and trying to channel Elvis, but also spill out what I felt about Alicia, and all the emotions surrounding her death, to achieve a sort of catharsis. I was projecting onto the icon of Elvis, sort of suturing into him, while at the same time using him as a vehicle for these very personal emotions, to help me through this period, but also to make a work that was relevant not only to me but for the world.
(excerpted from an interview with Ross Bleckner for show catalog, 2006)
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.
Gregory Peck has always been a hero of mine, and I created this work for a show called Heroes, that was in Brussels around the time of my 40th birthday, where I wanted to assemble the heroes of primarily American culture to show the world at large what was great about these people gathered together to serve as models. I grew up with Peck on TV in the many heroic roles he played, obviously and especially that of Atticus Finch in To Kill A Mockingbird. Even though, with the recent release of the Harper Lee "sequel" reveals the character to be perhaps less than stellar, the Atticus of the film that Peck inhabited was the bastion of integrity in his small town of Maycomb Alabama, defending a black man in a very racist 1930’s, and to treat people fairly, turn the other cheek, and to stand for what you believe. Certainly watching this film when it was repeated on television growing up had a huge affect on me, and seeing Peck in roles like in the Yearling and more gave me models, beyond those of my own great father and family and community, what it was like to be a "gentleman" and a positive idea of masculinity in the world. I was particularly attracted, to, to this particular image, as it seems that Peck is wearing a flannel shirt, in an environment that synaesthetically reminded me of the Colorado I grew up in—you could almost smell the fresh clean mountain air that was crisp enough to make you wear the humble and warm flannel shirt. I’m a big believer in Joseph Campbell, who, to paraphrase, mentioned that "an artist’s job is to tell stories for a culture to understand itself in order for that culture to progress" and Peck chose roles throughout his career, beyond Atticus, in particular because he thought they were proper role models in great material—of course he played some "baddies" too for range, but he is a consummate performer and man—outspoken against the blacklisting that happened in Hollywood during the McCarthy era, against the Vietnam war, and used his power of integrity to back the Democratic and liberal issues of his and our time fearlessly. He was a great artist because of all this, perhaps putting his work in his life and his life in his work made his acting even better and our world better as much as an artist can be of some influence. And he was always handsome!
I’m a huge Fassbinder fan, and at the end of one of his stories, everybody always dies or comes to a horrible end. But then hopefully from the ruin of that, you can learn about, just like any ruin, the culture in which that ruin began and try not to do the same thing. I’m consciously thinking about Warhol and feel like Warhol really loved the figures that he was painting. I think Warhol’s story was that he was this poor pockmarked kid from Pittsburgh who loved Marilyn Monroe and wanted to be like Marilyn Monroe… and by the painting of her, maybe he became like that.
When he did Jackie, he would repeat them endlessly, and I felt like he participated in not what he was critiquing, but maybe embellishing…
Walter Benjamin, in Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction mentions when actors are constantly under the camera’s gaze they lose something of their agency as they’re put into these films… It becomes more about the director than they as people. And by constantly replicating Jackie, Warhol, over and over again, he is sort of doing what capital did to these people already. If Warhol is taking Jackie out of her context of her real funeral, and just making it a chic image—you know, of course I love him and I think he’s great—but I think at the same time its not about who Jackie was as a person…
What happens is the risk of that redundancy that we lose who they are as people or we forget their history. What I think for me is important, is to bring back who they were as people, and like any portraitist, try to essentialize what it was about them that made them so great. When I made this image, I was trying to get back to the real feelings that the Kennedy’s had for this real event that changed history and the real funeral where they, the nation, and the world was mourning the loss of this great leader who meant so much for the world, and his wife who carried the strength and resolve and positive ideology that she continued to bring to the all the important, great work she did in her life.
(excerpted from an interview with Ross Bleckner in 2006 for show catalog)
This is an image appropriated from a cover of an old boxed set of JFK speeches on vinyl that I found somewhere. I love the heroic trope of the image that somehow supercedes being clichéd or banal by the power of the image, of John F. Kennedy and the Stars and Stripes of Old Glory. I was born just post JFK, in 1966, and so was always naively nostalgic about him and his era, but somehow felt that truly the nation had been "better" or that, growing up as a young child in the sixties and seventies, on the tail end of the Boomers, that the hippies—my babysitters, teachers, and cultural influencers were right about the country going wrong after his assignation. Certainly my parents are also liberal, although a little too old to have been hippies, they were part of a smart cocktail generation that had beatniks, jazz, and poetry on the sidelines with their own wave of being anti-authoritarian and suspect of egregious uses of power. While painting this work, I listened to many audiobooks of John F. Kennedy, and of course had learned and thought about him before in my mature life, and knew and know he was a flawed figure, however I’m still bowled over by his handsome regard for integrity, his spirit and intelligence, and before Obama—and my knowing of Obama—a great president who mostly told the truth and tried his best to steer the country in great directions (despite also nearly bringing us to the brink of catastrophe, he also pulled us out of it).
The great thing about pictorial icons is that they are truly pictures that say a thousand words, but instead of merely wanting to embrace the iconographic flag in the Duchamp-like maneuver of Jasper Johns, who appropriated the pre-existing design of the flag, and painstakingly recreated it in the slow process of encaustic in different ways (which of course has its own political relevance), I think, post-Johns, it’s my job to penetrate the picture plane and while acknowledging that the painting itself is an object, do something at the same time "old school" with the power of oil paint to create plastic space, and paint through the image. I love Warhol, but in his "flattening" of the iconic figures, made them into the symbols that the culture, at the speeded up time of Corporate Commodity Culture getting its footing, made them into merely iconic symbols, without individual agency, in the same manner the culture and media was doing to the same people he was transmuting into flat, repeated images. I wanted, even with this ghost-like visage, to get to the real JFK, a Hamlet’s Ghost, coming back from the dead to deliver his message of his history.
Jimi Hendrix is a god-like icon of music—someone who was able to reach infinity with his song writing and playing. A band like Led Zeppelin is fantastic, but there is a ceiling to the metaphors and even Jimmy Page’s incredible guitar work. Hendrix is transcendence—the poetry of his lyricism, his sci-fi mystical vision, and his uncanny, ineffable music takes rock and roll, jazz, and rhythmic stylings into another dimension. He also is exemplary of the "American Dream," working his way up the ladder (as an ex army man!) through the Chitlin’ Circuit, working with greats like Little Richard, but never being satisfied, and not allowing others to put him in a box or subjugate his vision. When he fully emerged in England, he blew everyone away with his incredible playing and songwriting—all the white Brits that were emulating and appropriating American Blues and Rock n’ Roll couldn’t believe the genius they saw before them, in a short time, Hendrix took over the world. I love that he comes out of love—that he really wanted to create a church with his music—to have people FEEL what it is that he was playing and singing about, in a deep way that they would be forever moved—and they were. Like any great music, I can listen to Hendrix again and again, and get something new out of it—and I he really crosses and exceeds genres—typically he is known for Rock n’ Roll and the Sixties, but I think he is much more than that—his genius knows no bounds. I hope that my work and painting in particular can emulate what he is striving for—and in particular, how his music and lyrics fuse together in form and content to become something that is transcendent beyond language. Painting this I listened exclusively to his entire oeuvre, read about him, and really tried to get within the music and its message. I’m hoping that, like in his music, my work is able to break into abstraction, and hope that in his vest and his body it not only synaesthetically captures the mood and feeling of the music, but also slips into unconscious other worlds. The image is from an old Rock n’ Roll book that our friend Alicia gave us specifically so I could paint this image before she shockingly died from complications due to AIDS (none of us, including her, knew she had it!), so this painting was also an homage to a dear friend—my husband Andrew’s best friend, and like at the end of a New Orleans jazz funeral, I hope this painting brought a jubilant epiphany and coda, looking towards a spiritual future, after the end of her amazing life.
Captain Marvel, otherwise known as Shazam, is a superhero originally created in 1939 by the artist C.C. Beck and the writer Bill Parker, and this image was from his first appearance in Whiz Comics #2, published by Fawcett Comics in 1940. I first knew Shazam from the live action Saturday Morning serial from my ’70’s youth, and really enjoyed watching Billy Batson say the magic word "Shazam" that made him grow into a full blown immortal superhero man Captain Marvel—"in a never ending mission to right wrongs, to develop understanding, and to seek justice for all!" Part of the power of comics is the ability for a reader to identify and relate, to "suture into" the characters they are reading, just like alter egos in comics who put on a mask and become their better selves, or in Billy’s case, say a powerful word and become a man of power. Art is language, and language is power, and while painting, not that I believe in wish fulfillment completely, I like to sometimes create optimistic images to meditate upon so perhaps, as I’m solving the abstract puzzle pieces of form, light, color, and so on, perhaps simultaneously, if I’m thinking about my thoughts, I can also solve the problems of my day. For a cartoonist, or any artist, when you are drawing well, sometimes your "right brain turns on" and you lose a sense of your critical consciousness, your "left brain" and it is like a dream-like state where your unconscious can be given full reign. If dreams are in part about your mind solving problems of your day so you wake up with epiphanies, perhaps making art in this manner can do the same thing. Also, when you are drawing well, and your character is smiling, you might find you are smiling too, "masking" into the character as you draw, and alchemizing them, making them "come alive" as they are your two-dimensional puppet that you are animating by suturing in.
I love Roy Lichtenstein and Warhol, and other masters of Pop Art that made Duchampian maneuvers with their appropriations, especially when they appropriated comics and brought them into the realm of fine art. But with these masters, it was more about a critical, very conscious take on the forms they were looking at, and in some cases, aesthetically "improving"—when you see panels by the original comic artist that Lichtenstein was appropriating, you can see that its not a strict translation—he would change contour lines, Ben-day dots, sometimes the colors and backgrounds. But these geniuses weren’t "suturing in"—it wasn’t about for them "becoming the characters" as much as it was about using these images as tropes to critically talk about "high" vs. "low" culture, for the symbolism and metaphors—and yes, the narrative syntax that could still have metaphoric and allegorical reliability to fine art viewers. And in Warhol’s case, perhaps he really did want to become a Superman, an Elvis, a Jackie—but it wasn’t about him "masking into" the character with warmth and emotion, living through their avatar to make them come alive.
I’m friends, I’m proud to say, and have shown with the contemporary master Peter Saul, and love of course Philip Guston, who both (Peter I believe emerged slightly before Guston!), along with the Hairy Who and more used cartoon iconography in a more traditional manner—speaking through the iconic avatar and narrative scene they are rendering with not just allegorical intent, but actually "warming" the characters by perhaps "becoming them" for the moments they are painting and drawing, in a similar way as traditional cartoonists, but using their intelligence and great abilities to paint to create transcendent, moving images that are relatable via their aesthetic, resonate as to their allegorical outcome, and feel "alive" due to their great ability to manipulate paint and their meditations while painting.
With my "cartoon paintings" I’m striving to do both a "Modernist" and "Post Modernist" strategy—to make culturally relatable imagery self consciously, but also to be able to have a transformative experience in the act of painting while also working unselfconsciously—being in the "moment," being mindful, and allowing my instincts to riff upon the subject matter and what it conjures within me to make work that hopefully has a life of its own.
With C.C. Beck, he had a beautiful, deceptively simple manner of drawing that I find gorgeous, but also terrific in its ability to allow one to "suture in" as it is incredibly iconic. This, married to how it was printed on this original newsprint sheet (I found a page of this in the Picture Collection at the New York Public Library) that had become patinaed in time, and the colors were already slightly off-register. It’s intriguing to me to totally observe the paper and the printing when I’m painting, as it can be a key to making the work ultimately more optical and three dimensional, in a manner the traditional Pop artists might not—they were concerned about surface, and sometimes, sure, had texture and abstraction incorporated into a "push pull" image, but it wasn’t about optically puncturing into the picture plane. With my comic works, I want the letters to appear three dimensional, in a manner of the old 70’s animated logos of shows such as Shazam, but also use the off-register colors as key elements to make even the contour lines three dimensional, cutting through space. Picasso loved cartoons, and of course, much of his work took the same cartoon tactics as he lived through his avatars while painting. If I could take the same strategy when I’m working with appropriated imagery, bending it optically through the plastic vehicle of oil paint, perhaps my subconscious can emerge within the frame of the design of the original image. Like Picasso, who has silhouette of himself consciously and unconsciously appearing in imagery, I think the Billy’s hair here seems to form a slight silhouetted profile, of perhaps C.C. Beck but also maybe myself. The locks of hair appear almost like fingers, and as I was painting the optical black by many times over going into it with purple, red, and blue tones, I start to see dream like imagery in the optical space of that world, and the liminal like space of the cloud like form of his word balloon in whites and purples above. Hopefully the image itself could act as a talisman to project thoughts onto, breaking form into abstraction. While young Billy here might not be a Mount St. Victoire, he acts similarly as a character that I can relate to, become, remind me of my own youth and aspirations as my unconscious mind melds with my conscious mind in my own transformative act yearning for transcendence.
Painted originally for the Heroes series, the beginning of the My American Dream meta-narrative, this painting represents Errol Flynn, who was a great actor who happened to be bisexual but powerful and one of the greats who started United Artists, as the character Robin Hood, one of the best characters in adventure story fiction. I realized at this point in my career that although I had been painting people in a sort of "star system" where I would "employ" them to act out in characters in stories of my own device, that while painting important people in history, there was enough story in them, and historical resonance to give them symbolic weight and allegorical power, and that they also had enough visual verve to send me into great meditations while painting. This image had both the real-life hero that was Flynn, and the cultural hero of Robin Hood, so it was really "one stop shopping" while painting—I could think of this man who changed Hollywood with his winning charisma, one that was partially derived from his "queerdom," and also the "queer" notions of how Robin Hood was able to stand strong outside the capitalist, phallocentric order—how as a rebel and a rogue he was able to contradict a poisoned authority and bring justice to all the people in his land with style and panache. I love Cézanne rocks and foliage, that for me spill into unconscious worlds that were projected by his subconscious onto the map of what his conscious mind was painting, and hope that here the wild other worlds of Nature also steep into an unconscious, optimistic dream world of all this painting can stand for—not just for children in the UK, but generations of Americans and all parts of the world this great character—and actor who defined Robin Hood and is still the definitive performance.
As a son of a psychoanalyst, I do believe we have turn over the rocks and see all the writhing worms in order to get over them—hence my love for Fassbinder. I think of "Post post-modern" as just a time differentiation, as it’s 2015, long after whenever "post-modernism" was an "ism." But personally I also think it can be the "have your cake and eat it too, plan" where you can make work that is "smart," self-knowing, in how it can be contextualized and relevant in a larger cultural and historical atmosphere (if this was what Post Modernism was about) but also have room for the ineffable, beauty, emotions, feelings, etc., and formally complex within the hegemony of the picture plane, or mise-en-scene in cinematic terms. Fassbinder and Pasolini really inspired me in college for doing all these things (although maybe they were working in Post Modern times, technically? Ugh, what does it matter…).
I was drawing, as they say, since I could hold a pencil, and I was always the "cartoon guy" on campus, since grade school the primary person creating illustrations and comics for school publications through Brown University, where I went as an undergrad, and did the daily comic strip. I was a Studio Art and also Semiotics major at Brown, where I first began to paint and also involve myself in theater, performing in plays and writing and directing them, all the while studying the ideas and language philosophy surrounding French theory and semiotics. I also love visionary fiction, poetry, and film (at the time classes on Fassbinder and Pasolini were incredibly impactful, as they addressed theory/philosophy, psychoanalysis, Marx/Freud, in emotional narrative context), which I put into my work as an artist, playwright, and cartoonist. When I got out of Brown, I came to NYC to be a "New Yorker Cartoonist," thinking that would pay my way to write and to paint, not knowing at the time that it took years, just like as a fine artist, to break into the magazine. While I was dropping off ten cartoons a week, I had jobs at an art magazine as an editorial assistant, and later, at a major blue chip gallery uptown. Before, having grown up in Colorado and not having access to great fine art galleries or museums, I didn’t realize you can "do this" as a career (I still think an "art career" is oxymoronic—that being in artists is about thinking like one and hopefully creating things, and if you can exhibit or sell work this is just icing on the cake), but that art, like a cartoon, was about bringing up ideas aesthetically. I realized that creating fine art wasn’t just about making people laugh, but deeper thoughts perhaps, and while I knew I didn’t have it in me to be a theoretician, and having created images longer than writing plays, I thought I would go to grad school to pursue the high goal of becoming whatever it might be to be a "fine artist."
Saving my pennies from my earnings in New York, I went to live with my best friend and his girlfriend in Colorado, where he was living at his mother’s home (who at the time was divorced and not living there). Serendipitously for the Biennial, his girlfriend was Lisa Anne Auerbach, my Biennial roommate! We all were making work to apply for grad school in Southern California, where the best schools were, and where Mike Kelley and friends were shaking things up in the early 90’s. Having seen his work of the stuffed animals on the blankets at Metro Pictures had a huge effect on me—I realized that what he was doing was different than many of the post-Duchamp practices at the time. He was finding the ready-mades of the plushies and the blankets, like Duchamp, and putting them in a gallery and calling it "art," but more than this, like Fassbinder in some ways, there were narratives with the "characters" and how they were placed in their arrangements, and there was also emotion in the patina frays of the animals, and a certain empathic nostalgia generated by relating to these iconic forms. I thought it was a breakthrough, or at least for me, I had an epiphany of a Post Post Modernism, where you could "have your cake and eat it too" and make work, like Duchamp, that related to the world outside the art object, that was "about something" that could be political and/or about the viewer "waking up" to their perceptions of things, ideologies, and different perspectives. But, like Modernism, you could also simultaneously make work that was about the ineffable, about feeling and emotion, the hegemony of the formal aspects of a piece, that could be a meditation that transcended language, perhaps even evoking the Kantian sublime.
After painting though works involving people like Keanu Reeves "portraying Hamlet" I realized more and more that it was significant that I was doing these portraits, which ultimately were about bringing about the inner personality of the person I was portraying as much as what they stood for. Maybe Keanu Reeves was a bad actor! And wouldn’t it be more significant to paint someone who really had an effect on culture, someone like James Dean, who was one of the first people to give a voice to a youth generation, inspiring Elvis to be Elvis, and John Lennon to be John Lennon, giving birth to Rock and Roll? I love Warhol, but think he might have had Aspergers, as although he was obviously a genius, like people who have ASD, wasn’t emotional, and would "flatten out" his icons in silkscreens, building on Duchamp in paintings that eschewed the painterly notions of mood, texture, and expression. Could you bring emotions and a painterly touch like Rembrandt to a culturally relevant icon like Dean? Would this be something "new"?
In this work, I wanted to marry these two (or three, if you count the actor Brad Davis, one of the first Hollywood actors to die of AIDS related causes) great artists, who were meeting on the set of a film that had a huge impact on my life Querelle, based on the incredible writer Jean Genet’s seminal book. I remember first seeing the coming attraction of Querelle at the Denver downtown art movie house The Ogden, and it excitedly me greatly—it was obviously "gay" but in a masculine, aesthetically super charged and intensely sexual way. I never had the guts to see it in person in this closeted time in my repressed Colorado suburban environment, but like punk rock, it gave me a clue to a broader world that existed in culture and art beyond my own gated community. When I finally saw it in the Kaja Silverman-taught class at Brown, it sent me to the moon, and I watched it repeatedly after this, significantly when I was playing a hustler in a school play, and was trying to "get into the character" inspired by the film and Brad Davis’ performance. Even for Fassbinder officianos it’s the Fassbinder film that uncool to like, and I could never quite understand why. Like David Lynch’s Dune (another cult classic!) it is its own complete atmospheric world, like a Gene Kelley musical, hermetic onto itself, with dance-like moves all sexually choreographed and staged, and a strange rhythm in its voice and pacing. I love suturing into its world, and more that Tom of Finland and the like, taught me, inspired by Genet, that you can be "masculine" and gay, unlike most of the feminitized flamboyance of gays depicted in popular culture until this time. And of course, Fassbinder and Warhol are "old queens" but powerful artists with integrity in their own right. If you could marry the cultural relativity of Warhol, with the intellect and psychological and political ideology and use of melodrama and narrative (and avant garde sensibilities of both) you could really have something—influenced by these two giants, I try.