My husband Andrew has a thing for cars, and as we were recently celebrating our 50th birthdays, he had a mid-life crisis and purchased a new Porsche Boxster Spyder as a surprise gift for us. One of the reasons we didn’t get divorced after this transaction is that the car is modeled after the same Porsche that James Dean loved and raced and died in, and I’m a huge James Dean fan, in fact creating a graphic novel about Dean to be published by Fantagraphics after doing art over my lifetime about him.
It’s a super cool car, and we love it too, and have already made full use of it by driving across country in the vehicle, stopping at the Grand Canyon, one of our most favorite places in the world. The Grand Canyon is itself sublime, but being able to go there with my husband (whom I’ve been together with for 25 years) and our little toy poodle Michelangelo was a sublime event, on our way to our new home in California where we recently moved to work, teach, and make art.
This image was one of the best from our trip, although it doesn’t show much of the Canyon, it shows a lot of our happiness of being alive and together with our pet, sharing this moment that we will never forget, transitioning into our future with happiness and well-being for all… This painting began the DESTINY section of the “My American Dream: Berlin Edition”, and it was also the beginning of the destiny of our journey for the rest of our lives.
I created a much smaller painting from this image last year in 2016– it was one of the favorite views and paintings of my dear friend Dan who recently passed away, who lived in El Paso and took me, at my request, to see that view. I had thought about doing a different version of the scene, from a photo I took on our cross country moving trip, but this image was so striking that I did a much larger version of it, different from that painting but in the same spirit, and in honor and for the spirit of Dan, to whom the show is dedicated…
When I first visited Dan in El Paso, we drove past this scene. It so struck me that I remembered it, and a couple years later in my next visit, I asked and planned for Dan to take me to the best spot to photograph the scene, which turned out to be in a parking lot next to the university there where I took the image… A patrol officer came about to ask what we were doing, as it is near the border volatile hotspot–also someone had made some beautiful stone tributes in the lot to border, like mini Easter Island rock formations. It was a loaded environment and day.
My last trip to this world was when Dan was helping me move by volunteering to drive a moving van of my belongings across country, and we ended up in El Paso, where I left him with his family and drove to CA– the last time I saw him before his accident. We happened to drive by the border after dinner, and I took another photo as we were driving, as I always wanted to make a larger painting of the same scene. But it was dark, and the resulting photo, although mysterious, just didn’t convey the light that illuminates all the different peoples in that part of the town of Ciudad Juarez–which was most important to me–to bring out the agency and people of our neighbors… I asked a number of people including Andrew about what would be the best photo to use to paint from–and I really had always wanted to bring up the image much bigger since I first painted the first picture. That painting was the most difficult (and challenging fun) to paint for a show in Berlin of the My American Dream body of work –there is so much detail, and also the subject matter was the most interesting, pre Trump, as I wanted to celebrate the people and the region, while also noting its potential peril.
For this painting, as with many in this current exhibition, it was about these things, but also different as in the age of Trump– truly this region is more conflicted, and as we know, the immigrant situation is much more dire. While creating the smaller painting I also painted in the moment that we first moved back to Andrew’s grandfathers cabin in the unincorporated neighborhood of Meadowbrook, near Lake Elsinore, which resembles, quite frankly, the unplanned growth of Ciudad Juarez, it was also about our joy moving back to this region, which is hopefully reflected in the colors and the mark making of the small painting.
This time around, I was thinking of the turgid politics of our moment and of my poor friend Dan, mourning his loss, and the potential losses our country is suffering through while painting–truly, these paintings helped me survive these last months! The result is a much more mournful image, while hopefully capturing some of the spirit of the region, it is also tinged with regret and also fraying and dissipating, as opposed to a more jaunty air of the smaller work. In the end of the painting, which like the small version took some time, I got caught up in the moment, and finished by running my finger up the light pole thinking of Dan hopefully ascending to a better place, and ran past the pole, creating a ghost-like visage of his personhood–truly I was thinking afterwards of the angels in the film Wings of Desire, positioned over Berlin as a good energy presence, and Dan here hopefully continues as an angel like visage in the scene.
I’ve created different paintings of the same image before–when Joe Bradley curated me into a show at Gavin Brown he wanted to have a Peanuts painting that I had created as an homage to Andrew’s dear friend who passed from HIV who had given us the coloring book it was based on (she loved Snoopy, too), so like this, some time later, I created a new work, thinking this time more about Charles Schulz and my relationship to his characters (and also Alicia) and it turned out different. Wade Guyton is a friend, and when the Kermit the Frog painting in the Biennial appeared in the NY Times and in the Whitney Biennial exhibition, he commissioned me to create a new one for his partner Tom, who loves Kermit and the painting, and this work turned out much differently, too. I exhibited all versions in the Marlborough incarnation of the My American Dream narrative, and the Peanuts paintings at MOCA Cleveland (we couldn’t afford to get the first Kermit painting from Boston), as I feel they show the growth of the narrative from beginning to end and how those characters, like myself, hopefully grow in time and come into their own. Here, as the paintings are already so inherently different in scale, there is a different mood and feeling—the small version I think is more like a beautiful song and the current image is more operatic– in the future, if I have the hopeful opportunity to exhibit the whole narrative again, I would also include both, as they, beyond the personal, depict for me the hopeful nature of the border before Trump (truly, people would cross back and forth from Juárez to El Paso–the title that Dan insisted on is El Paso del Norte–the old name for that town but also currently the bridge) and in painting this current work, now the politics have thwarted this, and have endangered the economies and the friendly relationships between the countries (and personally, it is the closest painting of Dan’s world).
I was thinking about Cézanne with his Mount Sainte-Victoire paintings art historically, as I love him and his methodology, and his paintings, especially of this scene which resembles, in the mountains in the backgrounds. Although the motifs of Cézanne’s paintings may repeat, hopefully each one is fundamentally different given his mood and the time of day and year and age he was painting it. We have all gone through so much since the current administration has taken office–and for me personally it has been intense (but gratefully getting settled, finally) this new work is reflective of this–I’m proud of it, but would rather be back in the world of the small painting, when life seemed simpler and more exuberant!
Sunset on the Sea is a continuation of a body of work from images taken from the beach in Santa Monica during a time during my (and my husband Andrew’s!) 48th birthday in May 2013. This was a special moment, as the My American Dream installation was still on display for its last weeks in the Stuart Comer curated section of the Whitney Biennial, and I had also been commissioned to create one of my largest paintings for the Michael Smith-designed lobby of the Casa Del Mar Hotel, a historic resort in Santa Monica. As part of the commission, the owners of the hotel had given me carte blanche for the idea of the painting, and wanting to do something that was specific to the area, they had put up Andrew and I at the hotel to get a sense of its environment. We were overwhelmed by the majesty and beauty of both the hotel and its incredible surroundings, and I took thousands of pictures of the area, primarily the beach, pier, and ocean at sunset, as it was truly inspirational and awe-inspiring. The painting for the hotel—installed with pride of place in the center of their lobby—shows the sunset and the pier, but this image could be a sea anywhere in the world, and hopefully not only captures the captivating light, but also my feelings towards confronting this sublime view of nature.
I have studied and taught Immanuel Kant’s notions of the sublime, and although he perhaps mentions that it is difficult for an artist to encapsulate the overwhelming feeling a being a small part of a much bigger world—in an ineffable rush of the sublime that can happen when viewing events and scenes in nature—I have always felt that this was a goal of any great artist. If one can perceive a work, and have it emulate the experience of objectifying oneself as being a small part of a much greater existence, then hopefully one can also relate to the interdependence of oneself and mind to the community, culture, and world, and perhaps even, once realizing this, also go about making the world a better place.
It took me several months to create this painting, beginning from the uber stage of laying out blocks of color, to the long, micro-managed stage of working with tiny brushes over minutia of details. Building on the synaesthetic processes of Rothko and others, I played music during all this time that related to how I felt about the image—from his favorite Mozart tragic opera, to jam music of the Grateful Dead, to jazz greats such as Miles Davis and John Coltrane, all of which had transcendent, lyrical, co-dependent properties of form and emotion transfused through modulations of musical composition. I also listened to music that brought about positive feelings towards the image and California—the Beach Boys, the Eagles, the Doors, Fleetwood Mac, and ultimately much contemporary music that embraces soundscapes and atmosphere, as I hope the image resonates now as much as it relates to art history, and the past, and can also be a jubilant emotional experience. At this important juncture of my mid-life and career, it allowed me to meditate upon the big thoughts of art and life, mortality and work, my and our place in nature in this time of strife, global-warming, and new millennia. Ultimately, I was struck with the ideas (for me, inspired by Tibetan Buddhism) of the literal and symbolic notions of interdependency—between the sun and the tide, of waves and water, and the sea and sky and earth—that also translated into the micromanaged interdependency of brushstrokes, and color creating the whole image. How it is not like the photo is what is "me" about it—and being a son of a psychoanalyst and loving Cézanne, I want to use aspects of nature to create a map for my unconscious to spill forth images and forms from my sublimated imagination, hopefully giving further life and energy, emotion, and ineffable feeling towards the majesty of this eternal scene of nature.
In 1999, Andrew and I were living in midtown, on 46th between 5th and 6th avenues in a real “no man’s land”, where only tourists resided at night, and during the day businessmen populated the area. Although there were holes in the ceiling (the contractors would say “why do you want to live here, it’s not Africa!”) our apartment was 1300 square feet for 1300 dollars, and we thought it was a real deal after living in a tiny bohemian apt. on Christopher street for years with the bathtub in the kitchen. But on the first day after moving in, we were moving furniture for the floor people, and something fell on our poodle puppy, killing her. We were shocked and devastated, to say the least, and when we came back from the vet., with blood on our clothes, these horrible men on the floor below us beckoned us into their apt. showing us strange velour wallpaper, asking us which kind we liked—it was red velveteen wallpaper, and the men were mobsters who were opening a real bordello underneath us. Andrew told them frankly that he was teaching at the John Jay School of Criminal Justice—when we asked them what they did, they exclaimed “uh, TRAVEL?!”. From then on, during the night, they would play demonic disco music, and haggard looking woman would come in, and Andrew fell into a deep depression, as did I, having a “mendacity” moment of the artworld. Although I was doing well for the time, I felt a Holden Caulfield-like romantic disattachment to the audience of fine art—was I doing all this work just to appeal to “white rich people” and so on, and when we had the opportunity to purchase Andrew’s grandfather’s cabin, in the middle of nowhere in Riverside California, I withdrew all my work from the galleries, thinking I was going to “retire” (like Rimbaud!) at age 30 from the artworld, and like my heroes Van Gogh and Cezanne, paint in the provinces for myself. After removing nine tons of garbage from our new place, in Perris California, surrounded by trailers of retirees and crystal meth labs, and living for a year teaching and painting, I realized that if the people at the WalMart knew what we were about we would probably be clubbed, and being in blight (this is near the epicenter of what became the center of the housing crises in California) wasn’t all of what it was cracked up to be. I came back with my tail between my legs to New York, and forged a place for Andrew and I to live again, and slowly began my prodigal son journey back into the artworld.
Now we love the cabin, which has become our “fortress of solitude” when we can escape there to get a breather from being in the center of everywhere living in New York. Hopefully we can have the best of both worlds! We have planted over 200 producing trees on a drip system, and although our place is quite modest, really a shack on a hill, we love it, and although the surrounding area is not much to speak of—there is a highway in place of the 2 lane road that was once there leading up to it, and all the big box stores nearby, it is still secluded enough and once you get used to it, can really be quite beautiful. I still have a romantic notion of living in the middle of nowhere—we are in an unincorporated area called Meadowbrook, between Lake Elisnore (named after Hamlet!) and Perris (home of all terrain vehicles, a large train museum, and parachuting and hot air balloons, along with an impoverished suburbia), and the poor man’s castles surrounding us, with plots of land with families of goats and people who have ostriches). The meth labs are still there, but the retirees are friendly, and nature overwhelms all. I hope that the content of my cabin pictures is just this—two gay men who are married trying to live their domestic life in a cabin on the margins, with the beauty of the landscape transcending the politics. I love Turner, and hope that the light of the painting emulates the symbolism of everything it can mean, including the spirit of nature. I also still love Van Gogh and Cezanne, and hope that the nature of the landscape is complex enough that while I’m in the meditation of painting, my unconscious can project onto the map of form, light, and distance, and in micromanaged moments, like the trees of Van Gogh and the rocks of Cezanne, dream worlds can emerge that bring an inner life the surreal joy we find in our escape there, a place that Andrew spent his whole life going to, and what I’m hoping in the future will be our blighted Giverny, where I can grow out my beard real long and paint like Monet the environment and world of our life together.
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Paul Cezanne, Mont Sainte-Victoire , 1895, Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia
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J.M.W. Turner, The Harbor of Dieppe, 182
Annie Oakley was the first American female superstar, and a real exemplary version of the American Dream. Born 1860 in a rural area of Ohio, she was given away by her mother after her father died at age 9 along with her sister to work at an orphanage as she couldn’t afford to keep her, and was “adopted” by an evil family that put her through an almost indentured slavery, before she escaped after two years, returning to the orphanage. She eventually went back to her original family, and to help pay for food and mortgage, mastered shooting small game cleanly to sell to restaurants and hotels, eventually earning a great reputation. When she was put up to a shooting competition with Frank Butler, a top shooter and vaudeville performer, she beat Frank, who quickly fell in love with her, and realizing that she was better than he, made her the head of their act. In 1884 she met Native-American leader Sitting Bull, who was so impressed with her and her abilities, that he “adopted” her as his daughter and they joined with him Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show in 1885, where she quickly became a headliner. Audiences couldn’t get enough of her, as she could shoot the tip of a cigarette held in her husband’s lips, hit the thin edge of a playing card from 30 paces and shoot distant targets while looking in a mirror and more. When the Wild West Show traveled Europe, Annie was a sensation, and got to meet Queen Victoria and shot a cigarette out of Kaiser Wilhelm II’s mouth. She eventually left (and came back) to the Wild West Show, but continued to perform, being a top earner for the Wild West she shared her money with her extended family and gave donations to orphan charities, and during WWI volunteered to organized a regiment of female sharpshooters, but after her petition was ignored, helped to raise money for the Red Cross with exhibition work at army camps.
She was slandered by Hearst’s publications, Oakley spent six years winning 54 of 55 libel lawsuits against his newspapers, which begat laws to prevent yellow journalism that still stand today. After a debilitating automobile accident that forced her to wear a steel brace on her right leg, she recovered to perform and set more records, and held classes for teaching women to shoot for free. After her death at age 66 in 126 from pernicious anemia in Ohio, her husband Frank was so grieved that he stopped eating and died 18 days later. After her death it was discovered she had given her entire fortune away to her extended family and to charity.
It was really amazing painting this portrait of this incredible woman. I always advocate, especially with my cartooning students, for “strong female protagonists”, and Annie was certainly that—way before Lady Gaga and Madonna she was internationally known as not only the best sharpshooter of her day (when shooting was a way of life for many), but as a kind, smart (and self-educated), and super strong woman, in a loving relationship with a husband who easily let her take the driving seat in their marriage and in their acclaimed act. When painting from photos, I feel it’s my job to make it “better” than the photo, and how it’s “not like the photo” is ultimately what is “me” about it. Merman version was really a fiction based very loosely on fact), and a lot of country music that are in the studio shots, with painted backgrounds, that I hope in my version blisses out into a Wizard of Oz like phantasia. When I’m painting, I always listen to music and audiobooks, etc., to help me get to know the person even more, and like a method actor, to get inside the character and relate to it to help it come “alive”. For Annie, I listened of course to her famous biography written by a her friend stage comedian Fred Stone, in addition to versions of the musical (even the Ethel Merman was really a fiction based very loosely on fact), and a lot of country music that she might have enjoyed if she had lived to hear it (Dolly Parton was especially good). I found the Carter Family, the famous foundation of much of country music (and folk) worked the best, as they recorded many traditional songs that existed in Annie’s time, much of it religious music (and Annie was pretty religious).
I hope I did justice to her bearing and her legacy—it was interesting to bring color to the sepia-toned image, and imagine, interpreting the painting behind her to be as “real” as possible, the other worlds that it could depict, both the forests her rural upbringing, but also a “cabin in the sky” where hopefully her spirit resides today!
When the Manet/ Velázquez show came to the Met, it was a revelation to me. Not only was it outstandingly sublime in its wondrous painting by both these masters, it also was instructive that you can make work that was painterly, transcendent, but also “about something” that had great content. The painting of the Infanta Margarita was especially astounding: it seemed she was breathing life! I felt he must have known (and loved) his subject matter so, that he simply painted his heart out while thinking about what his subjects meant to him, while perhaps talking with them or simply meditating on his thoughts, and he had such facility that the loose paint handling somehow strong together to imbue his characters with life, movement, the colors subtly arguing with one another in a manner to keep them constantly vacillating in the minds eye. I try to attempt to do this as much as possible, micro-managing to the macromanaged whole while listening to things that bring about my passion for the picture and thinking my thoughts to make it try to come to life.
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Infanta Margarita: Diego Rodriguez de Silva y Velázquez (1599-1660), 1654-5, oil on canvas, 70 x 59 cm (Musée du Louvre, Paris)
Billy the Kid was a rascal, not necessarily a good guy, but someone who helped to create the notion of an young anti-hero rebel that helped to forge characters like James Dean and icons of Rock n’ Roll. Famously good looking, but also a louch, he was sugar daddied into the West, and saught revenge against those who wronged his mentor. Getting more into trouble, he shot someone in defense who was trying to have his way with him, and in general, acted like a prototypical gay, wanna be good, gangsta of the West. This image is from one of the few darragotypes taken of him, almost to scale with the original, with the Kid looking dapper and the photographers assistant holding a reflective mirror to help illuminate the scene. I’ve always wanted to paint this picture, although Billy scares me a bit for being such a rogue, but in some ways he is like a Western Rimbaud, and like in the movies, in my picture I romantize all that be good from him.
This was one of the first paintings I did for the show. When I was creating the "Hamlet 1999" series, Dean became one of the iconographic references for the figure of Hamlet. I have painted and drawn pictures of him since college. Many people still don’t know this, but Dean was almost completely gay, and had many documented experiences and lovers, as well as being one of the greatest actors of all time, and an icon for rebellion America. I started long ago, before grad school, to paint pictures of porn stars, as they were "cheap and easy" models, already printed in a magazine, therefore, by painting them, I wasn’t objectifying them first hand—they had already been objectified by the original photographer… I was also coming out, and felt the non-subjugated world of "free to be you and me" lovers was a utopic fantasy to suture into. Growing older, I realized that my favorite artists and actors do a better job fulfilling the role of a model—in film stills, it captures a performance (or a genius’s aura) where the persona is concentrating on being the role they stand in for, or just being themselves as great artists. By painting them, I can have some of the best models in the world posing for me in scenes reality and from films that have allegorical resonance to me, and hopefully, by extension, to our times…
Hopefully, this image of Dean captures some of his rebel spirit, which hopefully is more than just about sexuality, and about the fighting against repression and subjugation…
Edna Ferber was an American novelist, short story writer, playwright, and great matriarch of the Algonquin Round Table. Importantly for this painting, she was the wrote the 1952 novel Giant, which was the basis for the great movie of the same title of 1958, directed by George Stevens, and starring Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson, Dennis Hopper, and James Dean, pictured here talking with the Grande Dame. Most of Ferber’s output starred Strong Female Protagonists speaking out for the marginalized and oppressed, and Giant was no exception, with Liz Taylor in one of her great roles, defending the Latino community of Hudson’s Ranch (one with whom their son played by Hopper marries), and holding off the advances of Dean’s character Jett Rink, a local handyman whom works for the patriarch Hudson plays, Jordan "Bick" Benedict. It strikes me that this great film, based on this amazing book, was so ahead of its time for feminisms and gender/identity politics (especially when you consider that both Hudson and Dean were gay in real life), and they were written by this sharp wit Ferber, who never married.
When they met on the set of Giant, Ferber mentioned that "James Dean was a genius, I don’t think there’s another actor in the world who could have portrayed Jett as well as he did. But like most geniuses, Dean suffered from success poisoning." When they met she supposedly said to Dean just this—"you remind me of myself, Jimmy, You’re a genius, but you suffer from success poisoning." Unfortunately, she was right—soon after his last day of shooting, Dead took off in his new Porsche to go to a race, and was driving fast when a truck, who didn’t see his small silver car racing in the California desert, broadsided him sending him hurtling to his death.
I loved my grandmother on my father’s side, Carolyn Mayerson, who was a bit of a dragon lady, who drank too much and chain smoked, and was a cantankerous mean lady when she wanted to be, which unfortunately was often. But she loved me, and loved art, too, and took my sister and I to museums, and encouraged us to draw new pictures for her and my grandpa which they would hang in their kitchen to eat their cereal by—her encouragement, and great knowledge of art, writing (she taught English at one time, too), and music was one of the reasons I became an artist, beyond my own parents loving encouragement and environment they created for me. Although she was edgy, I did respect her, and remember fondly our conversations, although she died when I was still young. It is partly this that I’m thinking about when I’m painting this picture, speaking through their avatars, although of course I love Dean, too, and this is about the friendship of these two great characters that strove to be heard and have great careers despite their normally marginalized status, and succeeded to great degrees to have massive impacts on the world.
When we made our pilgrimage to Fairmount, Indiana the highlight was to see the Marcus Winslow family farmhouse, Dean’s younger cousin, who was more like his little brother as he was raised by his aunt and uncle. Marcus still owns and lives in the house, and keeps it pristine and how it appeared in photos of Dean in front of it in the fifties for the pilgrims like us. It’s like seeing where our pop culture Jesus was born, a living Buddha whose ghost still feels present in this world of his home. In my mind it seems that the tree on the right is pointing to passerby’s the window, the one on the top right, which was Dean’s bedroom.
Julian was our German Shepherd who lived about 14 years, and Rosa his constant companion—a sort of wife—who also, while outlasting Julian, just recently died last year at about age 14. We loved these dogs so much; truly they were like our children. We got Julian when we were living in midtown at a dangerous, deserted loft above gangsters that were running a bordello that the cops were in on. He was for protection, but Andrew had also grown up with shepherds and loved them, and I always wanted one too. Julian never took to the city much, but loved being inside nesting with us like another roommate, and he and Rosa slept in our bed and shared most of our waking moments with us as family. He was smart and kind—never chewed through a toy, and the blissful time we lived in the California desert we raised chickens and ducks from chicks and ducklings, and Julian never harmed any of them—it was one of those pictures where the little chicks would jump and rest on his head. In fact, for a short couple of years we had adopted an aged cockatiel a friend’s friend found outside their window, and it would ride on the back of Julian shrieking "Julieeeen! Julieeeen!" and Julian kept his cool.
In the movie Rembrandt, with Charles Laugh ton—who really looked like Rembrandt—loses his beloved wife Saskia, when it is time for her funeral, he is painting a portrait of her, and his friend rushes in and exclaims "Rembrandt, why aren’t you at Saskia’s funeral!" and he shouts back "Go Away! I’m trying to paint her while I still remember her!" This painting is a momento mori—Julian had just passed away, and I was mourning his loss by painting him while I still remembered every aspect of him, petting him through each stroke of my paint and thinking deeply about our companionship (and my love for our apricot poodle, Rosa too, who adored him). This painting isn’t for sale, but when art world people come to my studio, many times way more than any canny postmodern "smart" art that I may have on my wall they turn to this and ask and love after it. I sometimes really do believe at the end of the day painting what you love, the old trope, is really true and important. Sometimes the image is really just a talisman to bring out what is best and most emotional in you, and as you are transcribing with your brush, something truly special comes out.