This is a quote from one of my most favorite paintings of all time, Michelangelo’s Last Judgment wall in the Sistine Chapel. This is done exactly to scale, and placed here on the wall about compositionally it would be in Michelangelo’s famous work. I originally painted him for my Kings and Queens show, where I wanted to create great models and scenes for people to follow, in an elegiac narrative that permeates this installation as one of its "chapters." In this show for me it was if all the peoples existed in circulation of this Christ, like Seraphim angels in Dante’s Paradise. The amazing thing about the Michelangelo original is that he is beautiful, but powerful and strong as Christ should be, but sensitive and rich with live feeling. The wonderful thing about copying the Masters is learning from their strokes and intuition, and having done many renditions after Michelangelo I’ve learned much. I love that he was about the sacred and profane almost simultaneously, as this image, which is both spiritual and sexy, and it was great to get up close and personal and see just how wonderfully painted it was—but also how thin but serrated the plaster was on the fresco, and trying to dive into how Michelangelo was able to paint in emulation of how he chiseled. It was also great to get eye to eye with the center of this master in more ways than one, and learn from all.
This early picture of River Phoenix has always been a favorite of mine, and in thinking of one my major inspirations for the cosmology—Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel, I thought he would be a perfect "angel" to have installed high up on a wall that involves so much tragedy, that hopefully he could be a good energy talisman to ease some of the pain and tension of the wall.
River Phoenix was a great actor and human being, a starry-eyed optimist who really wanted to make good in the world, but was brought down by drugs and perhaps some disillusionment, which was so sad for a person so young and talented. I had followed his career since the early days, seeing Stand By Me when I was not too much older than the kids in that film, and felt like he was sort of a fellow traveler as I really related to his sincerity, warmth, and integrity in every role he played. When My Own Private Idaho came out, it really blew my mind, as another icon of my scope was Keanu Reeves, and the two of them together in this Shakespearean, homoerotic, beautiful post-modern film by Gus Van Sant was such a invigorating film in more ways than one, that after seeing it I rushed back to my graduate studio and created my first works in those first weeks at UC Irvine. He continued to be a star in my "star system," becoming Pinocchio at times in Pinocchio the Big Fag and here he was Horatio, Hamlet ("played" by Keanu), in Hamlet 1999. In this work he seems to be an angel in heaven, illuminated by a gossamer, golden light, together again with Keanu and looking at us over this scene, a non-denominational angel of our time, whose legacy lives on in the amazing films he created in his all-too-short brilliant career.
This originally was from Kings & Queens, where I wanted to present images of people and scenes that truly had a positive impact, that showed, during those turbulent times, what good models could be for a world, in a slightly elegiac mood as if they could be the Seraphim Angels in heaven. Of course King Kong wasn’t necessarily "all good" but as an anti-hero of sorts, he was an amazing creature that you had empathy for, largely due to his animator, the amazing Willis O’Brien, one the first stop-motion animators that helped to invent the method by way special effects were done in movies, then and still today. A burly man and ex would-be wrestler, I really feel that he was able to make his "sculptures"—his dolls and puppets that sometimes he himself would create—by empathizing himself with those puppets, infusing in him, as any great artists of emotional and narrative depth, with his thoughts and feelings, memories and allegorical relationship to all of his magical characters. He himself looked a bit like Kong, and I feel probably never "got the girl," and he used his wrestling know-how to create the famous battle between Kong and the dinosaurs, more importantly, his character was able to emote his feelings towards Fay Wray, and make you care about the monster, his compassion for her, but not the angry humanity that ripped him from this world to enslave him and exhibit him—take his agency and have it reified into Capital, which has its obvious allegorical power to mean so many things. With that slippery slope in mind, here I’m equating via the title to the masterpiece by Duccio at the Frick, one of my favorite paintings of all time, that is suggested by this scene, where Christ is casting out Satan, rejecting him and his offer of "all the kingdoms of the world" if Christ will worship him, as he stands in a symbolically miniaturized Siena. Although I didn’t set out to reinvent this incredible work by way of the pulpy Kong, as I was transmuting the black and white image from one of the scenes that most haunted me as a youth, a similar palate occurred, and I couldn’t help thinking that the Pterodactyl was an evil character who was out to get Fay Wray (or specifically in this image the doll O’Brien created to depict her character!). The world of Kong and Skull Island was inspired by Gustave Doré, who was most known for his illustrations for Dante’s Divine Comedy, and it seems to me that they are elevated above an Inferno—hopefully Kong could also be like Virgil guiding the Ann Darrow character to more civilized haunts, protecting her from evil and casting out those who might harm her. Or she could be like an angel who is in admiration of this messiah-like character who protects those who trust in him from eternal harm. It was a fun painting to do—ultimately, painting can be all about alchemy, and I hope that I was able to bring this world (and the liminal spaces in the rocks and wings) to life in a similar manner as O’Brien was able, in his own micromanaging of making slow, specific, and controlled gestures, his animations to an audience that would be forever moved by his moving images.
I love Elvis, and despite the politics, feel he really helped to change culture. Of course he got a lot of his ideas, verve, dancing, and more from growing up in the South and attending gospel performances at African American churches, and also from being inspired by black performers like Little Richard and more. But he also mixed this with hillbilly and country music, and many different influences (and he hopefully also payed homage to all of these influences then and in later life rather than merely being a colonialist!) and is a complex figure, but also tried his best to be a good person (who gave back generously) of course was one of the major figures to give birth to Rock n’ Roll, changing the world in so doing. Buddhists believe in the idea of the Manjusri, or teaching Buddha, and feel (I believe!) that Buddhas can also be non-religious, who as extra special people can be teachers that make the world a better place. Art is about teaching, and I think the greatest of artists help to teach a culture to understand and express itself better. Elvis certainly did this, and in his incredible music (inspired by James Dean!) helped to give youth a voice and a means of expression in a particularly American way that spread throughout the cultural universe.
At the birth of his fame, in 1956, no one had seen anything quite like Elvis—in this painting, derived from a black and white photo from one of his first public concerts, the manager in the back with his hand on his mouth is looking quite pensive, as the audience in the high school gymnasium was going WILD and no one had ever seen a performer generate such an incredible display of excited, transformative exaltation before, and quite frankly, it scared him and so many others. Elvis was religious, however, and I think he might really have felt that he was destined to bring his message and voice to the people, and in painting this, realized that the lights in the background were almost like the “Father and Holy Spirit” and Elvis almost like the “son”, with his mike stand forming a cross with the neck of his guitar. I also love Warhol, but feel that Warhol might have been on the spectrum of ASD—like people who have Aspergers (and I have had many students on the spectrum!) they can be geniuses, and certainly Warhol was a genius, but aren’t necessarily “touchy feely” people, and have different ways of portraying emotion. When Warhol painted his Elvis pictures, they were dynamic and great, and like Elvis wanting to be like Dean on the silver screen, painted on silver, made him an iconic avatar, like the religious icons of the past, but in a more emotionally muted tone than when Fra Angelico made his iconic pictures of saints with gilding behind them. Loving Rembrandt, and the emotions that you synaesthetically feel when looking at his paintings, I think that if you can have the cultural relativity of Warhol, mixed in with the painterly emotions of Rembrandt, maybe you can have something new. Whereas Warhol flattened in his silk-screens great cultural heroes (in the same manner that in a post-modern paradigm Capitalism can reify agency, or “flatten out, like flour in pizza dough, who we are as people and spirits in the Capitalist machine”) and made them into non-human icons, I want to be able to bring out the REAL people and the REAL emotions that these geniuses generated in their cultural revolutions, to pay homage to them in historical paintings that also exalt the spirit of who they were as cultural creators. I’m hoping that in this seminal moment captured on film, that I can bring about the energy that was happening in this recorded moment of a time that changed history.
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Andy Warhol, Elvis 1 and Elvis 2, offset lithograph, 1976.
During the W. Bush era, instead of creating "Bush is Bad" type art, I wanted to create optimistic images to posit positive views for the future and what I believed in. I always loved Frank Capra, who was really an auteur in the Studio System days, where all of his movies seemed to be driven with a spirit to make the world a better place, and where it was usually the underdog who won and saved the day. Of course I’m also a huge Jimmy Stewart fan, and had painted him before in Vertigo for his heroic ability to stand tall and to be confident and driven, while at the same time to be a consummate everyman, someone who feels intrinsically American without, despite his gender and ethnicity, patriarchal and representative of phallocentric power. He had empathy and compassion and heart of gold, which seemed to come through with every role he played.
For my show Kings & Queens I wanted to create images of people and scenes that represented allegorically were I felt we were at—in some ways it was like a Last Judgment with all the characters being like Seraphim angels in heaven, and felt elegiac in the darker days of the Bush years, post 9-11 and headstrong into the wars. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington was always a favorite film of mine growing up, and I would break down with tears of happiness at the vindication of this Boy Scout honest man who had become quickly a senator who wants also to expose the graft and the political machine that threatened not only the land he wanted to get funding for to build a boy’s camp, but allegorically to bring truth and integrity to an America seemed gone astray. I painted this work of course thinking of our time, and how we needed someone like a Mr. Smith, here of course looking towards Lincoln at the Memorial with hopeful, but pensive anticipation.
Part of the challenge here was to paint a black and white image into color, and to make it look alive and not just like a film still. Having recently traveled to Europe where we saw many Old Master paintings—especially an inspirational Caravaggio/Rembrandt show at the Van Gogh Museum (like one of those Sunday rock concerts with the titans of Rock all jamming together!), it was illuminating to see how they would "micro-manage to the macro-managed whole" thinking their thoughts about the figurative allegorical narrative they were painting, and in the negative space, the abstracted notions of their unconscious would spill into their conscious renderings giving them a life of their own that transcended the ages. I had been making paintings that had taken their time, as a son of a psychoanalyst, I wanted my subconscious to spill through and break into abstraction figurative elements, and as soon as it seemed to have a life, or when the muse would leave me, I would leave it alone, sometimes in fragmented forms with canvas spilling through, a la Cézanne and the Impressionists. I realized, looking into the negative space of those Old Masters, that strange eyes, faces, unconscious reflections of the inner mind of the artist would be projected into the inner space of the painting—kind of like the negative space arrow in the Fed Ex logo makes you subliminally think that the Fed Ex brand is faster, perhaps this inner life of the painting was the thing that drove the ineffable emotions of Rembrandt, Caravaggio, and Velasquez—where, like Van Gogh, where I see his unconscious projection of his visage in his cypress trees and so on, we see the dreams of the masters unconsciously coming through their projections of life. Specific to this image, we also got good quality luggage when we went on this whirlwind trip for our 40th birthdays—and I realized that perhaps they were worth what we paid because when you looked at all the detail, the luggage itself, while not being art, was certainly incredibly well made—and shouldn’t painting or any kind of art be well crafted too, in addition to being alive to transcend the ages—or maybe that it was exactly the voodoo-doll like nature of making something that has a life of its own. When you obsess about what you obsess about, like weaving over and over a human hair in a voodoo doll, thinking about your image and transmuting your thoughts and feelings with every stroke of your brush, perhaps you get something that goes beyond your intentions and time to create a feeling of the sublime. Micro managing to the Macro managed whole equates what the sublime does when you are in nature—where every little leaf in every tree and every grass in a meadow is alive all together and you are overwhelmed with that sensation when you are a small child without the "filters" to not think about how everything is alive—perhaps if a painter actively paints a surface, figuring out the golden-ration arguments for every part of every inch of all the surface, it then reignites that feeling in the viewer, touching those buttons of those sensations when one is young and the world overwhelms.
With this work, what became uncanny to me is that—hopefully this doesn’t sound racist, but after Obama won, I looked back at this work, which was painted in ’06 way before I became cognoscente of Obama, and it seems like it looks a bit like Obama in whiteface?! And/or at least the shadow on the column could be an effigy of someone coming to Washington in the future who could be like the icon Mr. Smith. When Obama first won, serendipitously that very morning after the election I was in Washington DC as I had been asked to be a visiting artist at American University there. I had some time off, and I actually found myself, with my bags in hand and in a jubilant but weary state, walking with my bags (I was on my way back to the train station) down the Mall, and stopped and had my picture taken standing in just this position looking at the Lincoln Memorial, so happy and relieved that this Senator of Integrity had come to Washington and elected President to hopefully cleanse the government of its egregiousness and bring honesty and truth back to our great system and Nation.
Originally created for a show entitled “Kings and Queens”, I painted this image in homage to a woman who, despite her humble origins, changed the world by in 1955, in Montgomery, Alabama, refusing to obey the bus driver’s order that she give up her seat in the colored section of the bus to a white passenger after the white section was filled. Although she wasn’t the only person during this time to resist segregation, NAACP organizers thought she was the best candidate for seeing through a court challenge after her subsequent arrest for civil disobedience. As an international icon of resistance to racial segregation, she worked with Dr. King, who was a new minister in the area, to gain international support for the civil rights movement. For me growing up learning about the movement and civil rights, Rosa Parks was a very warm and compassionate “motherly” figure that helped me and so many others understand, even by just images of her and her smile, the incredible need for all people to treat each other with respect and equality. While I also loved Martin Luther King, he was more at a regal, patriarchal, and “great leader” remove—while of course I respected and admired him, Rosa Parks for me was a direct and immediate persona to cathect to as a child would a mother or female figure, and help me to emotionally understand what had happened and how far we still needed (and need) to progress for equality. Through different stages of my life, from traveling through Montgomery and visiting the sites of the movement in college, to now (after painting many images towards this subject matter), I continue to learn (while painting this and similar subjects, I listen to audio books about the civil rights movement and more) and understand the complexities and struggles of this time that continue to permeate to this day. In the installation of “My American Dream” these two figure help to forge the countries ideology of where my husband and I can be married and happily live and be accepted as a couple, and where hopefully we all can be free to be who we are and live the lives that we want to without fear of subjugation and hate. I love Rosa Parks and Dr. Martin Luther King and their legacy, and hope this painting does some justice as an homage to them, my feelings and sentiments towards who they were, and acts as a historical painting to remind all of their importance in addition to their humanness.
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Peter Paul Rubens, Four Studies of A Head, first half of the 17th Century, Royal Museums of Fine Arts, Belgium
In the museum in Brussels, they have this knockout little painting study of Rubens painting studies of a Moor, whom he also painted later as a portrait, which was really an edifying surprise to see there, or a person of color (who is not in a servile position) in any Western museum. I love the dignified approach to his subject, who seems like a real person that you could know, painted with a warmth and style that supercedes his larger commissioned and cooler work. I don’t want to make the same mistakes of most of art history, that deny the agency of people of color, and want to paint the people that inspired me and my world equally, disregard less of gender, race, creed, or color. I hope to bring a warmth but also respect to all my subjects.
This is a picture from the scene in the film The Wizard of Oz after Dorothy, the Scarecrow, and the Tin Man find the Cowardly lion and accept him into part of their group to find the Wizard. This was a painting from my exhibition "Kings & Queens," and was part of a larger, non-linear narrative invoking the Last Judgment. In the show, I was trying to depict positive models of Kings and Queens in a time when so many people are abusing their power in negative, monarchal, ways. The Wizard of Oz is one of the most viewed and beloved films of all time, and has truly affected the world consciousness. This was a "miracle film," it should have never survived being made (it had many troubles before and during production, including having three directors, etc.), but had a "life of its own" and seemingly willed itself into being. It was successful upon release in 1939, but really gained its notoriety from being broadcast every year from the ’50’s onwards. Generations of people have been raised now by this movie, in that they are absorbed as young people while watching this narrative, and it affects their ideology, in addition to becoming part of their dreams and nightmares. Many believe the movie is an allegory for Capitalism, and while this is probably true, I like to think about it more benignly as being about finding yourself, your inner strength, standing up for what is right, and coming into your own.
I have created many images of Judy Garland, at first in my questioning about how many older gay men love her, while many younger gay men are terrified of her. Like many reporters, I became a member of the cult I was investigating, and now love Judy Garland. She was one of the greatest entertainers of the Twentieth Century, and like Elvis, brought real emotion and life into her songs and into her acting. She was a strong-willed woman, and I believe part of her appeal is that she always fought for her agency in a patriarchal culture that strove to take it away in their exploitation of her as a talent and as a woman. But Judy always fought back, and succeeded in having many comebacks in her career. The weekend she died tragically, finally succumbing to the pressures around her, the Stonewall bar in NYC was raided by the Police. The gay men there, beset by grief from the death of their idol, decided to rage against this oppressive force in the Stonewall Rebellion that gave birth to the LGBT civil rights movement.
In this scene in the film, Judy later told a story how Victor Fleming, the director of the sequence, was yelling at the men, hammy vaudeville actors, to allow for her to have room in the scene. I think there is that pressure here, as she fights, like she did in real life, for her rightful place. These male characters all have a different idea of masculinity than the more aggressive, John Wayne-like character of the time. While the Cowardly Lion is commonly seen to be "gay," the Tin Man and the Scarecrow also have "something missing," which gives them an alternate, or more sensitive male gender identity, which also might be appealing to a progressive audience. Despite the hassles that Judy Garland put up with as a teenager during the time she made the film, from her family, and from MGM (a studio that made her eat only chicken broth because they told her she was "fat"; Louis B. Mayer called her "ugly," she was kept on "pep pills" or the speed she became addicted to later in life by the studio to keep her in overproduction, etc.), she carries the movie, and is truly its star and its driving force. The song "Over the Rainbow," became a performative symbol of her life, and despite her tragedy of never quite getting there, her talents gave the world wonderful entertainment, and helped politically, to change world culture.
I think of this as a "history painting," and ultimately want to paint through the iconography image to bring out the real moment of these actors on a soundstage creating a movie that will change the world. I at first listened to Chopin music, for its harmonious mathematical logic, because of the many colors that fit together so well in the photo of a perfect movie. I then would play the film over and over in the background while I was painting, along with the many DVD extras. Most of all, I listened to the 4½ hours of outtakes and recordings of the music of the film as I painted, and would wake up in the morning with the songs running through my head. I wanted to fully immerse myself into the world of the Wizard of Oz as I painted it, allowing my conscious and subconscious to "leak through" in the forms and colors to give the work an internal energy and life of its own.
I had a show in Brussels during the time of my 40th birthday, and as a result, Andrew and I (he is my same age) had a “40th Birthday Blowout” and stayed in Amsterdam and Paris, in addition to Brussels. At the Van Gogh Museum at the time, there was a Rembrandt/Caravaggio show, and it was like one of those Sundays Titans of Rock concerts, because all our favorites were under one roof! “Love Triumphant” is inspired by one of the great Caravaggio paintings that was exhibited there, in addition to the notion, looking at these great Old Masters, that they would always micro-manage to the macro-managed whole, much like Van Gogh but tighter, where the unconscious would still spill into the picture plane much like the looser Van Gogh’s would—and in a sublime way. The surfaces of all these masters are so activated by their wicker-like weave of painterly like strokes that it would make the scene come alive—much like when you are a child, and when you are outside, everything is alive as you are taking things in for the first time without having the language of understanding that helps to subdue the consciousness into not seeing how things and yourself exist in the air and in the world. When I first saw the Caravaggio painting in Germany when I was first out of college, it was funny as their were blue-haired old ladies lovingly admiring what I saw was an extremely subversive painting—this naughtily cherub-like angel was exposing his rectum in the first (and perhaps the only) painting I’ve every seen that had a male figure show this body part!
The source image for this painting was from a notorious photo that circulated in gay publications in the ‘70’s that was reputably of James Dean in a tree, showing all. James Dean was gay, or at least “Hollywood Bisexual”, and its been well documented how he was sugar-daddied into Hollywood, and had many gay intimate relationships, and was very free and open with his attitude and body—there is little reason NOT to believe this is James Dean! He also changed culture in that he was the first to give a voice to a youth generation, post-Judy and Mickey “putting on a show”, and inspired Elvis to be Elvis and John Lennon to be John Lennon. He wanted to be on the Mount Olympus of culture, to be on top with Michelangelo and Picasso in terms of how they thought anew and made art that made a world think differently, and the three films he made before he died at the age of 24, did just that, leaving a legacy that still endures and inspires to this day. I feel that if there is a heaven, he is there, and I hope in the installation that is inspired by Michelangelo’s Last Judgment, here he is like a Seraphim angel, close to God, with the trees and branches and leaves acting like wings, looking down upon us from his heavenly point of view (after crashing in the car painting and being resurrected in the Gusher painting below him). In the first Biennial I ever saw in 1987 there were outrageously queer paintings by McDermott and McGough, and I was so inspired by these as a still coming-out-of-the-closet gay youth, and I felt so vindicated and “saved” by these works, and coveted secretly the images in the catalog, secreting it away from my parents to look at the images in the privacy of my room, feeling a sense of community and worth through the images. I hope that by having this painting in the show, I can also inspire young people today to not feel shame for their bodies, and also feel the exalted love for self and agency that I feel James Dean is expressing in this picture, one of the highlights of how his personality helped to shape the world and make it a better place today.
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Another inspiration for this work is the portrait of John Perreault, by the great Alice Neel. He was a curator, looking for paintings for a figurative painting show he was organizing, and Neel convinced him to pose for him “in flagrante” for her. Although she didn’t get curated into his show, the amazing portrait gets the last laugh for Neel, who makes one of the most vulnerable, tender and raw paintings of a man I have seen.
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Alice Neel, John Perreault, 1972, collection of the Whitney Museum.
When Andrew and I had our 40th birthday blowout on the occasion of a show I had in Brussels, we traveled to Amsterdam, where there was a Rembrandt/Caravaggio show at Van Gogh museum, which has had an everlasting effect on me. I realized that these masters, like Cézanne, must have set up allegorical scenes that had great meaning for them, and the in micro-managed moments, their unconscious would spill through, allowing for unconsciously realized moments of dream worlds and imagery to emerge, giving surreal life to their paintings. I wanted to micromanage even more because of this, and also to choose deeper mythological themes to ponder while painting. In this show was the famous "The Abduction of Ganymede" painting from 1635, the image of Zeus, in the form of an eagle, taking a baby (who is peeing in fear!) to Mount Olympus to be a water bearer. Like the "Love Triumphant (James Dean in a Tree)" painting in the cosmology installation (an appropriation of an idea of and image from Caravaggio), I chose a photo that emulated the scene, in this case a film still from the Thomas Edison special effect fantasy movie "Rescued from the Eagles Nest" (1907), where a animatronics taxidermy eagle is carrying a real life baby "aloft," the baby’s feet flaying as the eagle bats his wings. I love the Roland Barthes’ essay "The Third Meaning," where he discusses looking at Eisenstein film stills for their first meaning (the description of what you see), the second meaning (the symbolic meaning intended by the artist), and finally, the third meaning (the "vertical" reading—something that has to do with the emotion, the signifier without a specific signified, all the things you may bring to an image that the artist might not have intended, but which tends to give the work a transcendent "life of its’ own for the viewer"). This is so important for me in painting mostly from photos, many of which are from films.
In the great 1936 film "Rembrandt," starring Charles Laughton (who very much resembles Rembrandt), directed by Alexander Korda, there is a great scene of "Rembrandt" painting a picture (after he has exiled himself to "Rembrandt land," post-Nightwatch, after painting people too much how they "really were") where he is painting a picture of a homeless man (the only models he could afford to pose for him) dressed as King Solomon. I’m paraphrasing here, but he homeless guy says "why are you painting me, I’m just a homeless person," and Rembrandt responds "no you are dressed as King Solomon and it means this and this to me, "the vanity of vanities all is just vanities" and so on, and by the end of it, the homeless guy is crying, Tobias, posing with a lute nearby is also moved, and Rembrandt has a tear in his eye. I realized in watching this, that Rembrandt was like a method actor, that he chose allegorical scenes that meant something to him, and while he was negotiating the abstract notions of positive and negative space, form, light, and color, he was thinking about his thoughts of what it meant to him, and somehow in doing so, the real feelings of his real life came spilling into the picture, giving it life. When looking at Rembrandt, who the people may be isn’t as important as the emotions, and I feel that in a Post Post Modern scenario, you can make work that is about something, that its allegorical content can relate to the world, but also, what is so important is that the third meanings, the emotions, the things you can’t put into words can also be described. If oil painting was invented at first in part because it could make tangible and "real" objects and people within the plastic space of the picture plane, couldn’t this also happen with dreams and emotions and subconsciously derived surrealities?
Like the method actor James Dean, who wanted to be on the Mount Olympus of great artists along with Michelangelo and Picasso, I hope to make important art that matters, to be a water bearer too for the gods on Mount Olympus, and it’s a long Sisyphean battle of pushing the boulder up the mountain to do so, but hopefully one day the eagle will born me aloft to greater heights! This was a painting originally in a show called "Kings and Queens" but here hopefully not just represents Zeus, Rembrandt, and art history, but also the idea that hopes and aspirations are the things that keep us going, and also what helped to forge the great country that we can all hope to achieve our "American Dream."