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.
Andrew and I is based on our respective Mom’s favorite childhood pictures of my husband and myself, taken about age 4. We’ve been together for 23 years now, and born just 4 days apart from one another, so romantically we seemed destined to be with one another, and its always struck me how these images easily go together, with Andrew standing on a "stairway to heaven" looking in my direction, with me on a "flying carpet." Although Andrew is Latino/Native American and is a brunette, as a child he was a towhead, although uncannily, we still wear similar clothes. Andrew had jackets just like this one now (although not the shorts!), and we both have t-neck white sweaters, and I still love wearing boots (I grew up in Colorado, hence the boots in my picture). Andrew’s photo was hand-colored, mine was black and white, and it was interesting to interpret the colors in the images while painting – it was interesting that the backgrounds happened to turn out blue and pink. While working, as I always do, I try to get into the "heads" of my portraits, listening to music that is meaningful to my subject matter, listening to audiobooks and so on. It was fun to listen to the late 60’s/early 70’s music of our youth (including Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin for Andrew, the American Graffiti soundtrack, Cat Stevens, the Who and Steve Martin comedy albums for me, amongst many many others). For children’s portraits, I think that Goya is one of the best. I’ve always loved his portrait of the boy in red with the magpie and cats (Manuel Osorio Manrique de Zuniga), and strived to create something here that was just as uncanny and alive, with more than just merely a pleasant picture of whimsical youth and more of a portrait that is impacted with ineffable feelings of our life experience that hopefully gives the work itself a life of its own.
Sitting Bull (1931-90) was a Hunkpapa Lakota holy man and tribal chief during the years of resistance to US government policies, famous also for helping his people defeat Custer and his cavalry during the Battle of Little Bighorn in 1876, as he saw of vision of Custer and his soldiers dying before the battle, giving his people the motivation for one of their greatest victories (and unfortunately the motivation for the government to retaliate in full, leading to the defeat at Standing Rock and eventually Sitting Bull’s death). Unlike many of the Native American leaders in his time, Sitting Bull refused to compromise his people’s land and agency in the bogus treaties and agreements that the US government tried to have tribes sign to compromise their land for western expansion and manifest destiny. Although born in Dakota territory, Sitting Bull’s people weren’t involved in the Dakota War of 1862, where several bands of eastern Dakota people killed an estimated 300 to 800 settlers and soldiers in south-central Minnesota in response to poor treatment by the government. But in 1863/64 while they were still fighting the Civil War, the United States army retaliated against bands that had not been involved anyway, involving Sitting Bull, who, along with many others, defended his people. In a time of many tribes with different idiosyncratic tendencies and rivalries, Sitting Bull was elected to lead, some say as the “Supreme Chief of the whole Sioux Nation”, however this has also been refuted as the Lakota society was highly decentralized, still, Sitting Bull was seen by many as a great leader. In the Great Sioux War of 1876, leading to the Battle of the Little Bighorn, Sitting Bull’s band of Hunkpapa continued to battle migrating parties following Custer’s instigation of the Black Hills Gold Rush (Custer had announced that there was gold in government-issued Sioux sacred territory, encouraging and motivating expansion there), successfully compromising the movement. During the period of 1868-76, Sitting Bull developed into the most important of Native American chiefs, refusing to become dependent on government support and having his people living on government enforced reservations, and was joined by many others who didn’t want to fall under subjugation. Sitting Bull welcomed all tribes and people to join with him peacefully, nourishing them and providing support, and his camp continually expanded into a community of over 10,000 people. When Custer’s 7th Cavalry attacked the Cheyenne and Lakota tribes at their camp on the Little Big Horn River (known as the Greasy Grass River to the Lakota) on June 25, 1876, they didn’t realize how large the camp was. More than 2,000 Native American warriors had left their reservations to follow Sitting Bull, and being inspired by his vision where he saw the soldiers being killed upon entering the camp, they fought back, lead by Crazy Horse, and annihilated them.
Sitting Bull and his peoples victory didn’t last long, as Custer was a national hero, and the news of his death inspired the government to bring thousands of more soldiers to the area, forcing many of the Native Americans to surrender, and ultimately leading Sitting Bull and his people to retreat to Canada. Although he made friends with Canadian/British leaders there, they couldn’t sustain themselves for lack of food and resources, and after 4 years, starving and exhausted, eventually gave into surrender to the United States in 1881, with Sitting Bull having his young son Crow Foot his rifle to the commanding officer at Fort Buford, and told them that he wished to regard the soldiers and the white race as friends but he wanted to know who would teach his son the new ways of the world. Prisoners of war, Sitting Bull and his band of now 186 people were kept at different Forts, separated from the rest of the other Hunkpapa. But in 1885, Sitting Bull was allowed to leave the reservation to participate with Buffalo Bill Cody’s Buffalo Bill’s Wild West. He had met Annie Oakley, who so impressed him he adopted her as his daughter, and she returned his respect and treasured him as a friend, and he earned $50 a week riding around the area once a show, either cursing the audience under his breath, or by other accounts, giving speeches abut his desire for education for the young, and reconciling relations between the Sioux and Whites. In just four months, before he was forced to return to Standing Rock Agency by the government, he became, along with Annie, the most popular attraction of the show, where people considered him a romanticized warrior and celebrity, and although Sitting Bull earned quite a bit of money charging for his autograph and pictures, he have his money away to the homeless. Back at Standing Rock, a new movement called the “Ghost Dance” had been growing, based on the belief that spirits would one day arise and give back the Native peoples their land, and although Sitting Bull himself didn’t believe in this, allowed his people to chant and dance for hours in ritual practice, as he felt it gave them hope. This created fear amongst the soldiers, however, and they accused Sitting Bull in leading and encouraging the movement, and wanted to forcefully arrest him. Sitting Bull peacefully refused the arrest, but panic ensued as the Sioux in the village were enraged, and ultimately a Sioux police officer ended up shooting Sitting Bull in the head killing him, completing the prophecy Sitting Bull had of being killed by his own people.
I, like so many Americans, grew up knowing of Sitting Bull, but not enough about his life story and plight of Native Americans in detail at this time, as my early education barely scratched this surface of our horrible history of the mass genocide of Native American peoples in the colonization of this country. It was incredible to learn more about him and paint this picture, listening to the excellent book “The Last Stand: Custer, Sittling Bull, and the Battle of the Little Bighorn” by Nathaniel Philbrick (who I’m proud to say saw this painting and enjoyed it!), in addition to traditional Lakota music and songs, in addition to recordings of Pow-wow’s and other Native American music. I really wanted to by homage to this great hero, who we don’t see enough of in museums or galleries (or of course, by extension, any Native American presence, beyond Frederic Remington paintings and statues and questionable representation in Hudson River School Paintings (although I have been inspired by the pro (for his time) Native-American works of George Catlin). Our country recognizes its horrible history of slavery and mistreatment of many peoples of color, Native Americans’ included, but this aspect of American History in the “ethnic cleansing” of Native Americans doesn’t see enough representation in our cultural media. I truly wanted to pay homage to this great man, and also recognize what he represents in taking one of the great last stands for the rights of his people. I was really moved in painting this picture—like that of Annie Oakley, he stands in front of a painted backdrop, which seems, like the special effects of films like the Wizard of Oz, to spill out into surreal, unconsciously realized worlds, I thought of all the people that he tried to save, and the sacred lands he tried to keep for his people, and the joy of his life, his compassion, understanding, and leadership, in addition to his bittersweet demise—his memory certainly lives on, in addition to the values he kept to life, the country, and its people, of all races, creeds, colors, and class.
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
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.