I always wanted to paint Obama and his family, but now onstage the evening he was reelected, as photographed for the New York Times for its front page that next day. For a show I had on the eve of his first election, I had painted a picture of him in front of the capital, and used it for my poster invite (some conservatives called Derek to take them off his mailing list—forever!), and was so happy he won. For this show—My American Dream—this is the only "appropriated" image in the exhibition, but its so amazing that we now live in the future, and the best president of my life is actually a reality—I used to ask students, when teaching notions of ideology, what the American Dream was—bringing up "can anyone grow up to be president" which of course back in the day didn’t seem true, but now it does… (2012)
As a son of a psychoanalyst, I have a penchant for the unconscious, and have tried, since college, to realize iconic images from my subconscious into a more Renaissance plastic space than Gorky, without "Illustrating" dream worlds like Dali. At my thesis show at Brown I hung these "iconscapes" next to figurative works, and again most prominently at my NYC debut show at Jay Gorney in 1997, and again at Derek Eller in 2003-04 for my Hamlet 1999 exhibition. With a show in 2011 (with the good people!) at Knoedler of my 90’s Iconscapes, I was inspired once again to pick up my brush and try again to tap my inner mind to bring it into an outer world.
I had been wanting to paint the Statue of Liberty for some time, I first photographed her to paint last spring when I was on the Staten Island Ferry with students, but the day before Labor Day my husband and I took a boat ride from the Chelsea Piers at twilight, which seemed more meaningful to be with him just before the beginning of the school year and teaching. The challenge was to make a non-cheesy painting of this iconic subject, try to turn around what we already know and make it fresh. There was a storm brewing that evening that never came about, but she seemed to be floating in the sea of clouds, like the country at the time of intense political debates, as we continue to struggle beyond the recession and strife. I wanted to think about what the immigrants would see in her when they first arrived, and thinking about what liberty and freedom mean to me in today’s world. I try to live through my paintings, and I too thought of her a beacon of hope. When the photoshoped image of the storm surrounding Liberty came out at the time of Sandy I also thought my painting felt prescient, but was glad we were able to survive.
In micromanaged moments of the old masters, I have found that their imagery breaks apart into abstraction, and strange, subconscious realized eyes and anatomy appear in the negative space. With the modernists, the subject matter is sometimes not as important as what they projected into the subject matter. There are "Cézanne holes" in the middle his works where his head must have been located when he was painting where you can perceive his eyes and teeth and beard, same for Van Gogh who in his cypress tress lurk his unconsciously realized facial features. Picasso (consciously?) appears in his negative spaces, and Matisse form his Santa-like visage appears in figurative elements of his paintings. I want to strip away the map projected on the representational and get to the core.
We lived for a time at the turn of the century on 46 st. above a mob-owned bordello in an apartment where our poodle puppy had died tragically. I would escape to the roof and I would look north and paint the "GE Building," Rockefeller Center, and the surrounding environment of canyons of powerful buildings, allowing them to fall into abstraction in my bohemian despair. Now over a decade later and feeling much better I actually wanted to go to the "Top of the Rock," and look back, painting south towards the Empire State Building, which always gives me hope, as does the city at night, which as cheesy at it seems, still gives me a rush of romantic possibility. I wanted to feel that again in painting this picture that hopefully breaks into tiny Broadway Boogie-Woogies in the minutia of windows and trestles.
We made a pilgrimage to Indiana, to see where Dean primarily grew up before he went to New York and later to Hollywood, and felt the sky open up with God’s fingers of light pointing to the way. He has always been an inspiration to me, and many people don’t realize he was gay, or at the very least, Hollywood bisexual… He also wanted to be a great artist, one that was on Mount Olympus with Michelangelo, Picasso, and the rest, and he succeeded. In just three movies he made before he passed at age 24, he was the first to give a popular voice for youth culture, inspired Elvis to be Elvis and John Lennon to be Lennon, helping to begat Rock n’ Roll and Woodstock and changing culture in a great way forever…
I hope by hanging the Iconscapes next to the figurative works, they bring out what is abstract in the representational (in this case, the God—like faces in the sky over Fairmount sending their beams of light to James Dean’s Hometown, and what was happening in the snowy earth), and what is representational in the abstract. I have always felt that Marx and Duchamp took us on a necessary, politically speaking, track away from Cézanne, Picasso and Freud, but now, although things are far from perfect, there is room once again to explore notions of the unconscious. Since I was in college I have wanted to be able to channel my subconscious and make it "real". If oil paint was used at the beginning to make things appear more "real" in the plastic space of the picture plane, couldn’t oil paint also do this with our unconscious thoughts, dreams and feelings?
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.
Next to their family farmhouse, and next to my painting of the house, is the cemetery where Dean and his family are buried. He would escape from his window at night to visit the grave of his mother, who died when he was six. He said he would see and talk with her. I thought I felt his presence when I visited his grave, now buried next to his mothers’, and kissed his grave, too. Like a method actor I try to get into the head of the character I’m portraying while painting, doing all my research, and listening to what they listened to and thinking about what they thought about and my relationship to it, in the hopes that something "real" will come out. Dean loved and carried with him everywhere the book of the Little Prince, and as I listened to the audio book while painting, I realized the prince seemed like the angel to the left, the fox appeared in somehow in a shadow or sculpture on the right, and Dean, the ghost-like Prince spoke to me as I was like the Pilot painting the picture. If you look closely, you can see his face in the flower wrap on the right of the tombstone—all of which seemed to also appear in the photo.
I think when we dream we dream in iconic, simplified, ghost–like forms we later identify as “Grandpa,” and the like…
I have taught comics for many years, and think the power of the iconic cartoon is not only that it’s simplified so we can relate to it (like Scott McCloud states in the great “Understanding Comics”), but also this is the language of our inner mind and how we perceive ourselves and others in memories, thoughts, and dreams.
I always wanted to make an image of New York City from space, but in lieu of this, I went to the top of a building I painted many times, Empire State, and went to the top level, stood on a podium holding a column as high as I could, and holding my arm stretched took this picture in which I painted this. One of secrets of achieving the sublime in painting is micro-managing moments for the macro-managed whole, and I tried here to equate that overwhelming feeling of feeling a being a small part of something big, what it feels like to be a barnacle on the boat of one of he greatest cities in our great country as it floats into the future. Loving Manet, Modernism, and the Old Masters, I hope to imbue in my painterly interpretations a synaesthetic aura that transcends my source imagery, to bring about an experience upon him as he is painting and ultimately his viewers, thoughts, feelings, memories, and dream worlds that have an uncanny, sublime evocation. Part of the chapter shown in 2014 of My American Dream at Derek Eller, I wanted ultimately the image just the story of the artist, and his dreams, hopes , and aspirations, but of the American psyche at the beginning of the 21 century, staying afloat and in power despite its struggles, looking forward towards a paradise of equality, understanding, and love.
I’m hoping in that this work breaks down into little Broadway Boogie-woogies in the fractions of each moment, that each window can represent an idea of an individual in the giant world of the entire cosmology, each like the barnacle on the beast of the whale that could be New York City in our turbulent times.
On July 4th, 2012, we layed in bed and watched the fireworks outside our window, which has an American flag as a window dressing. It was scary, as it looked like a war, but profound thinking that war is was what helped to create the foundation of our country. Here it also seemed like a dragon or a UFO, both thrilling and ominous, much like Sandy, which unbeknownst to us was soon to arrive.
When Pollock was creating his drip works, he was dripping automatic psycho-sexual imagery and faces, but then layering over and over in his lattice work so the initial imagery would be obscured. I want to bring up that subconscious and have your mind vacillate like it does a Pollock when, by our instinctive nature, we see to find the faces in the painting. After painting longer and harder, and mostly painting representational works, obsessing with minutia with a tiny brush, I hope that I am now able to render the unconscious with better acuity and skill, bringing out dream worlds and surrealities from the inside of my mind into another dimension.
This is of a plaster statuette perched on the roof of an abandoned Eagles Lodge, next to Mings, Andrew’s favorite American "chop-suey" Chinese restaurant in Huntington Beach, CA. If he and his talons seem fierce, it’s perhaps because I painted him before and through Sandy and its aftermath, holding strong to the solace of the painting, as I created it by candlelight the night the hurricane hit, by windowlight in the day and days that followed. I hope this is like America today: although we have had our struggles recently, hopefully we are holding on, bracing ourselves for the future and remaining strong.
I love the painting The Jewish Bride by Rembrandt, one of my favorite paintings of all time in how he was able to capture the love and exaltation in a tender moment in oil paint, in a formal language that transcends any written word.
This is Andrew and I at our cabin home hideaway, in Lake Elsinore, Riverside CA. This is our fortress of solitude where we escape to when we can and where I want to retire and grow out my beard and paint like Monet in a bathetic Giverny. Perris with “e” is our mailing address, and trailers with crystal meth labs and retirees surround us, but we love it and get up every morning to watch the sun rise. This is my “Jewish Bride” is one of my favorite paintings by Rembrandt, but called “Husbands” as we married there the first Sunday we could in CA before the window came down. Luckily the country and the world is getting smarter and love prevails as we just celebrated our 21 anniversary together.
Of course, this is also from a “selfie” (that I first had published on Facebook when I joined!), and I hope that another contemporary context of the painting is that it is obviously a response of me wanting to penetrate to the photo to bring out the emotions and timeless feeling from it, as when we were married we pledged to love each other through eternity.
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Rembrandt, The Jewish Bride, 1665-69, Rijkesmuseum, Amsterdam
Finally, one of the last images in the installation (if you are looking left to right) there is this picture of my family, looking towards the painting of me and Andrew–my future for this 4 year old version of myself–and like Bedknobs and Broomsticks, the whole scene of the installation. Like in Pinocchio, who becomes a real boy after discovering his love for others and his family, I created this for my Dad on his 80th Birthday, to celebrate he and my mom’s love for me and my sister in this picture they gave us for Christmas a couple of years ago, in a photo taken by Deborah my cousin in the fall of 1970. She was living with us at the time, and our great grandmother, who loved TV, gave us a new color television as couldn’t stand our old black and white one. My father had made my sister a flat dollhouse that she didn’t use anymore, so he flipped it over and put a piece of carpet over it to make a TV stand for it, and directed Deborah to take this photo of us, “testing” our new TV for the first time. While painting, I listen to music to get my head into the picture that I’m creating, and for this I listened to much of my parent’s old record collection (on cd!), and realized that when I was painting to West Side Story and the Sound of Music, it worked the best, so I think we must have been watching one of these two movies! I love Gustav Klimnt, and how he used design elements partly inspired by East Asian miniatures to carry the synaesthetic, emotive life of the figures they embrace, and hope that the love that my family feels for one another, both then and now is captured by the bedspread. My mom is tickling my sister to get her to laugh, as I’m contemplating the tv as I do when I paint, and subconsciously think I painted my Dad emphasizing his pointing to his ring as truly this painting is about family, and the nostalgic moment we used to have as a country, where television was a gathering place for the family, a new hearth, where we all shared moments together. In the uber installation at the Whitney, I hope we are also watching the other paintings in the show, how other families (like Martin Luther King’s playing piano), scenes, and events help to forge the country where my husband and I can also be a family, and all of us happy and loving looking into the future of our lives.
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Gustav Klimt, Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer, 1907, Neue Galerie, NY