I first investigated manifestations of the unconscious painted as abstract "landscapes"—works that I designated as Iconscapes. These abstract paintings that were exhibited in the 90’s, and have become a component embedded in my current figurative art (and I have gone back to creating some Iconscapes more recently, also included in this show). From my Knoedler Press Release, 2011.
My work emerged in the early 1990s with figurative narrative images rendered in highly crafted drawings and paintings of different styles to suit the content of larger allegories. Upon my move from Los Angeles to New York in 1995, I strove to find the emotive essence that fueled my earlier post-modern work by taking my cues from modernity, creating automatic drawings and instinctive gestural painting in the hope of harnessing the unconscious imagery emerging from micromanaged moments and from the negative space of paintings from the old masters to the New York School. As a son of psychoanalyst and a semiotics major from Brown University, I believe in the power of iconic, essentialized forms to signify complex ideas and feelings in the cognitive mind of the viewer, and that, like the discourse that informed the works of the modernists inspired by Picasso and the Surrealists, I strive to depict the inner consciousness within the plastic space of the picture plane. Being schooled within post-modernity, I also acknowledge the importance of works being able to relate to the world outside the canvas, and I play with the idea of suggestive source material, symbolic uses of color, the power of signs to bring about complex ideas of culture, and creating work that is conscious of how it performs within the context of art history and our time.
The first Iconscapes begin when I eschewed the nuance of appropriated style, for which I had first gained recognition, in favor of raw, intense, and textured abstractions. These gave rise to the vocabulary of the "circle" paintings whose tightly-wound bands of color create an oscillating effect that varies in mood and space from one to the next. I was also creating "expressionist" works inspired by source imagery, where I refer back into figurative paintings with gestures that hope to transcend the underlying subject matter to reveal emotive moments of synaesthetic form and color. This work lead to paintings that aspire to grasp symbolic forms of the unconscious in illusions of three dimensional space while I reacted to the politics and the mood of the end of the 20th century.
My stake in cartoons is that I believe that part of their power exists in our dreams, where we probably see iconic images of ghost-like smiley faces that we project onto (that’s grandpa!, etc). Our minds have simplified forms as memory devices that metonymically stir up language and experiential associations. I wanted, with my "iconscapes," to render these into life–with plastic space and volume, like a Gorky painted with the "reality" representation of the Renaissance–like a painted, three-dimensional dream. I would think of memories and dreams while I painted, hoping my hands would conjure them up, hoping, like when a kid tries to erase an etch-a-sketch board to see what made it work, to erase consciously realized representation to find the ghost that haunts it from behind.
We see faces in everything, I believe, as a survival skill as human being animals. Good compositions look like faces because of this, and Scott McCloud, in his great book Understanding Comics discusses how when we have very simplified forms, like a "happy face," we can "suture into" these forms, transcending into and becoming them.
In wanting to make my work vacillate, and have a life of its own, I had a great epiphany one evening walking to my studio after teaching this notion at the School of Visual Arts in my comics class. What if you made a painting that had a shape or form that was like a simplified face that you could relate to, that you could "suture into," but then also repeat that form in a vacillating manner with color and texture, widths and shapes—would it start to "move," and could you, given the design and palate of it, also imbue the work with synaesthetic feeling? When you map out a puppet form of a face before you begin to render sometimes in fine art and in comics, you create a vertical line where the nose and center of the mouth may be within an oval form, and a horizontal line where the eyes would be placed, forming a cross-like design, the perfect Golden Ratio. Realizing this a fundamental design element in a sketchbook for this painting, I realized that there was a holy spiritual notion in this, symbolically speaking—that there was a "cross within all of us." Not that I’m religious, but just spiritual enough to go with this notion, which had generated along with it a halo like affect, and hopefully optimistic palate that while the painting hopefully has a life of its own, and starts to undulate the more you look at it, suture into it, that it could fill the viewer with a bright sensation of spiritual uplift, a little sublime transcendence. This is a key painting for me, as it serves as the basis of much of my work sense this I painted it and now, as I hope my figurative works still break into abstraction in micro-managed moments, with pockets of atom-like undulations unconsciously created, like atoms, to make the painting come alive.
In 1999 we had given everything we knew up to move to Andrew’s grandfather’s broken down cabin Riverside California, in the middle of a desert that had long been the home of many poor man’s castles—nestled throughout the unincorporated neighborhood of Meadowbrook were eclectic small homes with little plots of land that had ostriches, goats, horses, crystal meth labs, ZZ Top characters that would give you looming looks. We had been doing well in New York City—sort of. I had my solo debut at Jay Gorney Modern Art, then a prominent gallery in Soho on street level when Soho was hot and Jay had a hot gallery. My teacher Lari Pittman and UCI confidant Cathy Opie showed there (she humbly worked the cage when I was in grad school before she soon became famous) and I showed newly devised, roughly-hewn figurative paintings next to "figurative abstract" paintings I deemed Iconscapes, as I am a son of psychoanalyst and have a long standing penchant for the unconscious, and wanted to project this onto my figurative works, having them break into abstraction, and my abstract works come together as unconsciously derived figures, like living dreams. This became a notorious show, hopefully ahead of its time, as collectors, who were engulfed with the Art and Fashion era of art—where most painting had to look like photos— and those who knew my work knew me for tightly and smartly rendered drawings and paintings that had appropriated styles to conjure post modern antecedents embedded into narratives. But artists, especially painters, loved it, totally "got" what I was doing—there were Marsden Hartley, Soutine, and Nicholas De Stael shows uptown, for some collectors, this didn’t translate downtown, where especially early in ones career, you can be judged more about how accurately you can portray something in your rendering to look "real," or like a photo, that how one can veer away from this and show you the good stuff of emotion, painterliness, and abstraction projected into figurative forms and outwardly content like most of the best of art history. In any event, I actually had done fairly well for myself, making a name however notorious, and had begun to show in some other honored galleries such as Luhring Augustine and Mary Boone. We had moved from our tiny squalor on Christopher Street to a 1300 square foot space for $1300 a month on 46th st, between 5th and 6th avenues—a no man’s land a night, and during the day, squalor with businessmen and tourists. It was a strange place—construction workers would ask us "why do you want to live here, this isn’t Africa" looking at holes in the ceiling, but we had a vision. However, the vision was thwarted—one of the first days we moved in, something fell on our poodle puppy when we were moving stuff for the floor people, and killed her. We came back from the vet with blood on our clothes, devastated, when two evil, dead looking men invited us into their apartment downstairs. Showing us this red, velveteen wallpaper they asked us which we liked best, and asked us "what we did for a living." They were clearly mobsters, but not the cool kind you see in movies—they looked like they would, and probably did, kill people, and they were opening a bordello underneath our apartment.
I’m pro-PC, pro-sex worker in theory, but these tired, haggard looking women would appear every night up our stairway, and there would be loud, demonic disco music playing all night. Andrew fell into a deep depression, and I was having a Holden Caulfield "mendacity" moment with the artworld—I didn’t want to make work that was merely about expressing myself to this seemingly very rarified audience, and wanted to be more like my heroes, the poet Arthur Rimbaud, Cézanne, Van Gogh, Gauguin, and the rest. So I pulled myself out of the artworld, taking all my work out of all the galleries, and with Andrew’s encouragement, we packed our bags and moved to California, where we had to wait a summer for the poor woman and their children to leave our new place—they hadn’t paid rent in months and Andrew’s mom, who sold us the cabin, which was her settlement in a divorce from Andrew’s delinquent dad. She was a truant landlord, and hadn’t been there in a very long time—this family had literally thrown garbage out their window and were living in over nine tons of it—old diapers, swing sets, cans and tires that Andrew and I cleaned out, planted trees, painted and repaired the home while I worked as a teacher at my UC Irvine, my old grad school. It truly became a beautiful place that we transformed, and the spirit of Andrew’s grandfather was felt, in addition to the spirit of the nature of the place, which we cultivated, and raised chickens and ducks from hatchlings, and got another German Shepherd, Rachel, to be a companion to our dog Julian, and we felt transported. I began painting "en plein air," like my Impressionist heroes—the content of the work I felt was that we were two gay men, living together in a rural nowhere California, forging our lives together and our future, while not quite "off grid," in the boonies of sorts. This painting was created in the apotheosis of this time, where, like Monet in a blighted Giverny, I was using the landscape to project my thoughts and feelings onto the place, really as a meditation for myself, something the Iconscapes painted in Gotham hadn’t achieved—with Nature as my backdrop, I was able to reach blissful other realms, where in this work I see unconsciously derived figures ascending into a heaven, with our dogs and chickens in the foreground. I love this painting and while I enjoy now living in NYC and visiting our even more beautiful cabin often, this work will always represent an ideal and a vision that I will continue always to strive for and hopefully someday reach.
After a year of living there we realized how truly romantic, but utopic, it was—if the people at Walmart knew what we were about theywould probably club us, and if I was wired to "do this," be a fine artist, I better get on with it and realize that wonderful beauty that can be the artworld and its people—and came back to New York with my tale between my legs, the prodigal son. Ultimately I’m glad we moved there to create a foundation for ourselves, it is our getaway and hopefully our future, and our heart and soul resides in this incredible place which hopefully is also in this painting.