After pouring over Pete Souza’s terrific new book of his photos with the Obama administration, I saw the great image of them at the Whitney. Remembering Whitney director Adam Weinberg’s moving story he told me of their visit to the museum to see the inaugural downtown exhibition America is Hard to See, and that they had a moment in front of the 9-11 painting, I emailed Souza, who referred me to the National Archives at the Obama Library, who found and sent me the image I brought up into this painting.
It was an amazing opportunity of exhibiting this work for the inaugural show, it will forever mean so much to me. Knowing too that the Obamas saw it (whom we miss so much) and could have an experience regarding the work and all that it symbolizes (along everyone else!) means the world to us. I thought it was a picture I had to do, as it was such a momentous moment for me in every way, and hoping it also works as an allegory for our current tumultuous times…
In painting this work I was thinking of the hopes and aspirations of myself, New York City, and America. My husband and I, for a short while, lived on 46th street, between 5th and 6th, in a “haunted’ apartment, where we unwittingly were above a mob-owned bordello. I would escape to the roof, and in my despair, would paint the view Rockefeller Center in plein air, looking towards NYC, like so many others, to achieve our dream. When I first took this picture, just a few years ago, we were in a much better place, and it was exciting to be on top of the Rock, looking at the incredible view, but also how, in the sunset, it seemed like the entire city was looking towards a brighter future. Now, as I live in southern California, teaching as a full tenured professor at USC, I feel that my goals back in those time have largely been reached, but personally, could climb even higher. More importantly, as a nation suffering under such strife in our current times, I painted this image with the news in the background, alternating with my favorite music of the Rolling Stone magazine top 500 album canon. The news for me speaks truth to power, and especially for the last two years, it has been THE check and balance for our government, and now with a new House with many woman, POC, LGBTQ and sensitive white men, there is a more hopeful future for us. The sunset also though could signify the waning power of our great city and nation, but also how it can still stand strong against all odds. Every window for me symbolizes a person or people, and how together, in this fantastic city of luminaries and bright lights, we can put our heads, talents, and energy together to continue to achieve what it is that this America has been built by the founding fathers for life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness. As the micromanaged world of the painting becomes almost abstract, I also think of Broadway Boogie Woogie, the Mondrian that rocks my world, for me the dynamism that encapsulates the pulse and energy that makes New York great. Rockefeller Center is one of my most favorite buildings, and the Top of the Rock–which also broadcasts some of my current favorite television and historically has brought amazing content to the world, it seems like one is standing on the antenna of American culture, beaming out culture to the world to make it a better place.
This painting is based on a photo I took while on a short cruse that my husband and I took just to get this image. Years ago, when I was teaching at NYU, I would take my students on a sketching journey on the Staten Island Ferry, and of course, seeing Liberty from there was such a highlight, although the boat would move to quickly to really render all that you would absorb in what would become a sublime experience. Here, with high definition from a digital image, one can capture so much more information that in maritime paintings of the past, Turner being my favorite. At this moment in our America, when the whole notion of liberty is something we are learning not to take for granted, and as our notion of immigration has so devolved, the statue has taken on even more gravitas in our time where we narrowly escaped fascism, and how our current president exploits immigration for his own evil demigod agenda. From afar, Liberty is something to be reached, and like how the immigrants that helped to build our nation would look upon her as a beacon of hope, I too look upon her as a symbol of freedom.
I like to paint pixels as if they are “real”, being a son of a psychoanalyst, and I hope something that makes an image like this contemporary, but also a painterly expression of the past. Like Cézanne ruminating on his thoughts and memories, and using landscape as a map to project his thoughts and feelings but also his unconscious which breaks his landscapes into subliminal abstractions, that I might try to do the same with my images. Here, the trees, the undulating water, but most especially the statue (and the face of the statue, for which I spent a week painting!) becomes otherworldy in the micromanagement of the noise from my high res photo albeit taken at a distance. As our America, especially before the recent edifying midterm election, seemed to be ripping apart, and as the Kavanaugh hearings for the Supreme Court were happening in the background of my studio as I painted, the notion of liberty, what America stands for, and the political demonization of immigration was roaring. In my photo and painting, Liberty just seemed more than sad, almost transformed, as the pixels become fractals like looking at the cosmos through the wrong end of the telescope or a microscopic world, like bacteria that threatens to tear the palpability of the impression of the statue as she fights to stay on– as we fight to retain the beauty and majesty of all our great country stands for now, and forever.
Inspired by the Whitney’s amazing Grant Wood show, this is an image I have been long wanting to paint, appropriated from the book Miss Piggy’s Treasury of Art Masterpieces from the Kermitage Collection, that was published in 1984. I grew up loving the Muppets, and as a child of that generation (Sesame Street premiered in 1969 when I was four, and the Muppet Show came into being—with Miss Piggy in 1976, when I was ten) I was the perfect age and was fully immersed in that world. I lived through these characters, at least when I was religiously watching the programs, and had all of them as puppets (along with many more) that I would play with often, trying to bring the same life into them as did their famous creators, and performing skits and puppet shows both for myself and with others that would inform how I would draw comics then and paint and create my fine art cosmologies now.
In 2007 I created a painting of Kermit the Frog, from an image of him magically (as you could see his full body, without any strings or hands) riding a bike—a film still from the first Muppet Movie. The Kermit painting wasn’t exhibited until the Whitney Biennial in the spring of 2014, in my installation entitled “My American Dream,” where it symbolized for me the very idea of what had occurred in the movie—where Kermit was bicycling to Hollywood from his swamp to “make it big,” and for me vicariously as he was an avatar I identified with and I have kept pressing on trying to be the best person and artist I could be in my work and my life. The image was picked up by the New York Times in their preview piece that they ran the week before the Biennial opened, and people seemed to really enjoy it, including an artist friend of mine, who commissioned me to create another for his partner for his partner’s birthday, as he is a huge fan of both Kermit and the painting. I had so much fun recreating the image, with even more detail and nuance than before (hopefully we grow as artists and painters, although hopefully each stage is good), that I felt compelled to finally create the companion piece, Mona Moi, a Miss Piggy Mona Lisa for the full cosmology version of My American Dream, that was at Marlborough Chelsea in Manhattan in the fall of 2015, also from the Kermitage!
Miss Piggy in particular holds great significance to me growing up and now. Frank Oz, the famous Muppeteer who was Jim Henson’s “right hand man” made her famous (in 1996 TV Guide ranked her number 23 on its 50 Greatest TV Stars of All Time list), and for him, the conceptual hook for her personality was a “Truck driver wanting to be a woman.” She is like a drag queen in some respects, who is convinced she is destined for stardom (although she doesn’t have any real significant talent besides her charisma), and nothing will stand in her way—she is very feminine but can also deliver a mean Karate Chop when feeling threatened, insulted, or thwarted, and is forever in love with Kermit, who is the object of both her affection and her intensity. She also is one of the most well-rounded, three dimensional, and “deep” characters of the Muppets, and although I didn’t realize it growing up as a gay kid in Colorado, a likely avatar for me to breath empathy through and as an icon in which I could identify with unconsciously as to what I would fight to become—a hopefully generally happy and successful artist and man who happens to be gay (and married to my husband, etc.). Although I don’t completely identify with the character today (I hope that I have true talent, and also am not quite as feminine or violent as she), I do identify with her tenacity and willingness to work hard to achieve dreams.
The wonderful thing about the Kermit on the bike image was that he really seemed, in this moment, to have a life of his own, beyond his creator. Kermit and Miss Piggy continue to enthrall children of all ages despite the fact that Henson has died, Frank Oz no longer continues to perform her, and the Muppets are owned by Disney, and so on. I do think that characters (and hopefully paintings!) can have a life of their own that evolve—like Frankenstein monsters, great characters live on the imagination of their fans, and as different people work with them, they also develop the characters who can morph and change as the eons progress (just think of ancient mythical characters, Punch and Judy, or characters from operas and Shakespearian plays, and Superman and other cartoon characters that grow with the ages).
I grew up with this image of Kermit and Miss Piggy as the characters in the Grant Wood masterpiece, and always loved it and it stuck with me. In the context of the book, which was a collaboration between the editor Harry Beard, the photographer John Barrett, their art directors and designers, that were building on the legacy of Jim Henson and Frank Oz, the Muppet designer Kermit Love, and so on, the image already was a collective group appropriating of course also the original da Vinci painting in the context of a book of Piggy as an avid collector in a dream like fantasy of famous masterpieces with she and the Muppets all in starring roles.
In contemporary times, I feel that what artists who paint in oil paint with brushes can bring to the table is this “essence,” as ineffable (and perhaps subjective!) as this notion might be. Post Warhol, post Richter, I think when painting from photos the job of the artist is to penetrate the photo, to bring out what they might feel about the work, in the same manner as the first painters to use photos as source materials might have done. I always think that if you could have the emotions and ineffability of Rembrandt in a painting, but also have a work relate to the culture that surrounds it like Warhol, perhaps you can have something that is “new.”
I was blown away by the Grant Wood show at the Whitney. I knew he was, although not out, “gay” in his desire and inner life, and felt an affinity for this, but also his work as an illustrator and “populist” (if this is not a bad term these days) artist that transcends the pejorative “regionalism” so appeals to me. But also, I was shocked that he should lose his best friend in an auto accident around the same age as did I—just months before I saw the show with his moving painting of this event. I felt that I wanted to really channel his spirit and pay homage to Wood, alongside the Muppets, and it was finally the time to paint this picture.
I love that, in their appropriation, they switched up the gender roles appropriately—it is now the male Kermit who is demur to the powerful female Piggy, who has been given her symbolic pitchfork to hold. In the Mona Moi painting, I decided to pay tribute to the original Da Vinci by trying to replicate his own background, but in this, as the palate and Muppet aesthetic so appealed to me and was already perfect for the characters, thought I should keep it the same.
With Mona Moi, like a method actor, or indeed like Frank Oz who originally performed the character, I tried to “get inside” the spirits of the two characters, to drive the form and the content to have a life of its own by relating them and the image to my own life, and my own cultural references. I ruminated on everything that had been going on in my life and in the political strife of the world, where we need a powerful matriarchy to help rescue us out of putrid Patriarchy, that related to painting, to use it as a meditation to express myself, but by way of the remove of iconic allegory. I’m hoping the result might be something that doesn’t read as ironic as Duchamp or Warhol, but a sincere attempt to bring emotions and feelings to a character as I “performed” painting them. I also think the trick for making an image like this is to ultimately make it a “Great Painting,” so the formal nuances and the ineffability succeed in resonating long after the initial ” joke” is perceived—more of a “hah hah OH” than a gag cartoon, and I hope I brought in my many hours and weeks of creating the work something substantial. And of course, I hope to make something that stands apart and is “better” than the initial image. Ultimately I wanted to create a work that was also iconic for what it is a feel I do in many of my paintings, make a work that, despite being derived from a photo, in this case an appropriation (or here, an appropriation of an appropriation of an original), that feels alive, ineffable, mysterious, and beyond hopefully the cultural and political references, turning a “joke picture” back into a painting that will hopefully transcend my hand, mind, and time and speak in their own mysterious ways to all. And hopefully, too, this work reflects a more current America than the one that helped to subjugate Wood, and that the Muppets, in their powerful allegorical whimsy, helped us to transcend..
I’m a huge Bowie fan, and when he died I was devastated, and mourned his loss by making a series of my favorite album covers from some of his best records and moments. Aladdin Sane is one his best “characters”, and for the show Heroes & Villain, I feel he created his own superhero with Aladdin Sane (and he was also for much of his adult life a great American and New Yorker!). The 1973 cover was from a famous photoshoot by Brian Duffy, who came up with the idea of the lightning bolt from a rice cooker logo that was in the studio kitchen, and it was makeup artist Pierre Laroche who made it manifest. My job in an era post-Warhol, and maybe even post-Richter, is to paint through the photo and make it come alive, and hope that I was able to do this with this image, painted to be the scale of a record cover. As I painted, I listened to the entire Bowie oeuvre in the hopes to really embellish his character and bring him to life, like a Frankenstein monster—it was amazing to me that you can see his pupils through the glare of the lights and his makeup, almost like a spirit channeled through the vehicle of his flesh. As a gay man, I really admire and want to bring to homage his opening up, via this and his other characters, music, and person gender and identity politics, for all “queer” people, despite one’s orientation, and the cover of Aladdin Sane does this for me as an image perhaps the most, as he truly is beyond (especially for that time) conventions of patriarchal order. The weird allure of the drip on his collarbone, wonderfully airbrushed and hopefully translated well here, seems like simultaneously a teardrop, “cumdrop”, or a strange amalgamation of both forming a would be gun/phallus like form, which further gives the character symbolic power, the yellow on his armpits also giving a musky stench to the proceedings. Like Bowie, I too am influenced by Burroughs, who wrote The Wild Boys and Naked Lunch and more, where his queer characters have super powerful agency that transcends the worlds that try to subjugate them, and Bowie, in his music and persona had the grace but also power and gravitas that has superseded the ages—his spirit and music will live on through eternity and continue to productively influence the world.
The personal is political, and I love my husband Andrew Madrid–who I’ve been together with for almost 30 years, since we met when I was a grad student at UC Irvine, where he was also a student. We love our animals, and now that we are in Southern California again, have dogs, parrots, chickens, turkeys, and geese that are all truly our pets. The fowl have names, and this goose is Goldie, who has been with us for a couple of years now, and, like the others, is fully domesticated and loving. This is from a photo from our porch in front of our beloved cabin in Riverside, which originally belonged to Andrew’s grandfather, and that we lived in first as a vacation home, and then as a primary residence until recently when we had to move to larger quarters. On the right is the back of our German Shepard Leonardo, and to his left is the ear of our Anatolian Shepard Georgia. Andrew finds true solace in these animals, and it’s not infrequent that he gives them hugs and kisses which they wonderfully reciprocate in their way. But Andrew is the man I’ve also chosen to live my life with, and who is the one I love and care for, who gives my life meaning and wonder, hope and ambition. We got married the first Sunday it was legal on this very porch, and although I’ve done many paintings of him, this is one of my favorites, as it really hopefully captures his spirit, and the place and animals that are the heart of our home, wherever that may manifest. I’m a great admirer of Manet, one of my favorite artists, and I believe the first to be “post post-modern” as he realized he could paint the aspects of his personal world and have it resonate to a larger context of politics, history, and the culture beyond the picture frame to help to progress ideology (the power of women and more!) of his time, but also do so in a warm, painterly manner that was beautiful and transcendent. By either painting from appropriation or my own life, I hope to do the same, and although this work is deeply personal to me, I hope it is about the agency of POC, LGBTQ people, and the harmony we all must embrace between humans, animals, and nature for us to all progress into a higher plane of existence and progressive world.
Harriet Tubman is one of my all-time heroes, from the time I was little and even more so now. She was called “Moses” in her time, as of course she lead her people to freedom, escaping from the slavery she was born into, and subsequently making at least 13 missions back to the perilous South to rescue approximately 70 enslaved people, family and friends through the Underground Railroad. She later was a cook and nurse, and then an armed scout and spy for the United States Army during the Civil War, and helped John Brown to recruit men for the raid on Harper’s Ferry, among many other acts of courage and daring to help others and to fight for freedom of all peoples. She was intensely spiritual, a devout Christian and, like Joan of Arc, had visions and vivid prophetic dreams and heard voices from God that helped to guide her and her actions in amazing and productive ways her whole life. She was able to survive beatings and severe injuries and violent subjugation with power, and gave to others incessantly at the cost of her own health and wealth. She was always poor, as she gave her money away to people who needed it most, and helped to free her parents and purchasing a home for them and care for them. She had to be admitted to a home for elderly African Americans in Auburn that she helped to establish in her name as she had been overcome with illness, where this picture was taken in 1911, before her death in 1913.
As I painted this, to get closer to my subject while trying to bring this famous black and white photo to life, I listened to African-American spirituals that she might have enjoyed, her contemporaneous biography by her friend and supporter Scenes of the Life of Harriet Tubman, and more, alternating this with the current news of racial strife and prejudice. It’s sadly amazing to me that we are still dealing with many of the same issues that Tubman fought and lived against her whole life–I guess so long ago–and the way Trump and his admiration gin up their base to bring out their racism and misogyny for their own political agenda is tragic. But for generations, Tubman has served as a model and an icon to speaking and acting in truth to power. How she lead her people out of slavery is just what we need to strive to do as a country to not only help our own, but also the demonized immigrants that Trump and his cronies so devilishly have used as scapegoats to drive the engine of their draconian political machine. I felt as if, at times, I was channeling her, in the very least how this maverick marvel and all she stood for still speaks for our times. In painting, I realized that behind her maybe cotton, but also, being a son of a psychoanalyst with a belief in how the subconscious can manifest itself in painting, that in the micromanaging of the exquisite abstraction of the background in this daguerreotype, that in thinking of all the souls she saved, perhaps the idea of their spirit is subconsciously embedded here, too. And the shawl and blanket, majestically making a humble throne out of her wheelchair, were probably also lovingly wove out of cotton, the material of which was cultivated by generations of her peoples. I hope this is a loving tribute to this Saint.
As a married gay man, Stonewall means everything to me and my husband and our lives. We lived during a prophetic time on Christopher Street, albeit in the 90’s, but still when you could capture the essence of the energy of the Stonewall riots in June 1968 just steps away from the Stonewall Inn (now, thanks to Obama, a National Monument!). Especially this image really helped me get through the recent Gay Pride Month in June, 2018 in Trump’s America, but also hopefully resonates to everyone about how a relatively small group of people (and their cohorts in the nation and the generations before them) spoke truth to power and helped to change the world!
Fred McDarrah was a great beatnik NYC photographer who worked at the Village Voice, which was at that time just down the Christopher Street block from the Stonewall Inn, and had witness the first night of the uprising, and went out into the street to take a canonical series of photos of the notorious rebels, many of whom were unknown then and now—the artist Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt is the young man on the right with the striped shirt, and I believe that one of the African American people in the back may be Marsha P. Johnson, who was instrumental in both the uprising and the trans and LGBTQ community. It was fun and inspiring to listen to all the Motown music this group loved, in addition to early “real” disco from the era just after this, when people of all color and backgrounds would dance and commune together. It was my job to try to make the photo come alive again, to turn what was first a news photo into a historical painting that tells the story, but hopefully too transcends into synaesthetic feeling both the rage, but also the joy that brought this loving community to the fray, tired of the subjugation of generations, inspired by the civil rights movements (and the death of Judy Garland the night before!), and unwilling to stand yet another violent and marginalizing moment of police and the mob-owned bar putting them into a paddy wagon for their courage to live as gay (and trans!) people out and not in the shadows. Their active resistance was one of the primary catalysts for the rebellion that had been building for decades that helped to bring about a culture in which my husband and I can be married and accepted, but for all LGBTQ people and “queerness” in general to be powerful, active agents of freedom.
I love the Old Masters, and although much of their work was by commission, how their paintings transcend the commission is what is “them” about it, and Titian was one of the best. This fresco is from 1524, and was commissioned by Doge Andrea Gritti, and is in the Palazzo Ducale in Venice. He had him paint it over a staircase leading to the doge’s apartment, as a symbolic icon protect him from assassination. He is a Christian martyr, who may or may not have really existed, indeed his story might have come from ancient Greek mythology. To serve God, he carried travelers across a tumultuous river, and at one point, a small child was on his shoulder who was incredibly heavy as the river grew raging around them. When crossed, Christopher exclaims to the infant, “You have put me in the greatest danger. I do not think the whole world could have been as heavy on my shoulders as you were.” The child replied: “You had on your shoulders not only the whole world but Him who made it. I am Christ your king, whom you are serving by this work.” The child then vanished. Thus he is the patron saint of travelers, and icons of him prevail not just in paintings, but in carried in some form by believers to give them safe passage. In the original, the huge saint insures the Child’s protection for Venice which appears in the background. In my version, I’ve replaced this with Washington D.C. on the left, and Yosemite Valley on the right. In our current times of great strife, I hope to bring new life to these characters, ancient “superheroes” of their kind (resplendent with their capes!) to hope to help give protection to America, and everything politically, socially, and in our beautiful nature to keep it at peace.
This is an appropriation from the first panel of the “full reveal” of Batman, from Detective Comics #27, May 1939, the original creation of Bob Kane and Bill Finger. I love Batman, and have long yearned to create this image, which I think creates such an impact—the silhouette of Batman and his demeanor hasn’t changed much in the many decades of this character’s life throughout many different artists, era’s, and films and shows, and I like that this image displays the roots of this great living icon. I love comics, and have drawn cartoons since I could hold a pencil—in addition to my near three decades exhibiting as a professional fine artist, I have also taught comics (in addition to fine art) at the historic comics program at the School of Visual Arts (where I was the “Comics Coordinator” and lead teacher for 26 years), and currently as a full, tenured professor at the University of Southern California (I’m proud also to be in contract for a new graphic novel about James Dean for Fantagraphics).
When creating my own work (and also in my teaching), I “suture into” the characters I am painting. Much like a method actor such as Dean, I try to relate the image to my own life, and to create environments that help to bring about life to the work, playing music that is meaningful to me or films, tv, or audiobooks in the background and thinking about the meditation of my thoughts. The wonderful thing about painting and drawing is that while you are consciously trying to bring about an image, your unconscious also spills out into the brush, and subconsciously realized imagery may appear within the framework of the forms—much like the mountain Mont Sainte-Victoire becomes abstracted into liminal surrealities by the brush of Cezanne. Especially in comics, where you know you are drawing well if you find yourself smiling while drawing a character who is smiling, we are able to “mask” into the characters we are portraying, like Bruce Wayne in his famous costume.
While painting this I listened to a lot of CNN, MSNBC, and the other “real news” of our turbulent times, but also a lot of glam rock, specifically David Bowie, who had such power (and amazing music) at the same time being a subversive reaction to patriarchal norms. It occurred to me that Batman also spoke “truth to power”, while also in an amazing, somehow graceful but still masculine leather outfit and tights! The wings of the Batman, first fashioned after Da Vinci’s drawings, look much like a bird or bats, but here almost seem skeletal fingers, and the reflections in his cape almost seem like the shape or forms of beings being saved and/or the fearful victims of Batman. I like to paint the reproductions of comic pages as I see them—the Ben day dots become things, the cross hatching becomes a sort of rain, the roof he originally stands on almost seems like gold. This is a cropped image from the original panel when Batman first reveals himself to horrible mobsters, and I’m hoping, in a good way, we can all appreciate his power—I finished this painting listening to Bowie’s song Heroes, something we need so much more of these days….
I’ve always loved Wonder Woman, and this is her first cover, along with her first feature story, from Sensation Comics #1, from January 1942. She was created by the infamous William Moulton Marston, a.k.a. Charles Moulton, and was inspired by the strength and fortitude of both his wife, Elizabeth Holloway Marston and their lifetime 3rd partner/lover Olive Byrne. Moulton was the creator of the lie detector test, and was a professor at American University and Tufts, and was a champion for woman’s rights. He was also a writer of essays of popular psychology, and was hired by Max Gaines to be educational consultant for National Periodicals and All American Publications, when he decided he would like to create a superhero–in an era when they all were muscle-bound he-men– to conquer not with violence, but with love. His wife suggested “fine, but make her a woman”, and Mouton, basing her on an amalgamation of his two life partners, to make a character “with all the strength of Superman plus all the allure of a good and beautiful woman”, and Wonder Woman was born.
I’ve taught comics all my career, for almost 30 years I was the lead comics teacher at the School of Visual Arts, the worlds best school for comics, and now am a full tenured professor at the University of Southern California, teaching both comics and fine art (which I’ve also taught my whole career). The machinations of how I understand all art comes from comics, and I feel that I’m a narrative installation artist who happens to work with paintings and drawings that “talk with one another” like comic panels on a wall. The theme of the show Heroes & Villain obviously allude to this, but also these comic paintings. I love the patina of old comics, and like to paint the off-register marks, the bleed of the ads through the cover and other “noise” as if it were “real” using them as painterly moments were my subconscious and synesthetic aspects of paint, touch and color can make these images come alive. Unlike Warhol, Lichtenstein, and other pop artists, who in a Duchampian way, would bring the “low” art as a readymade into “high” art culture, for me the characters, like a classical cartoonist, are the vehicle in which I could suture into as an avatar. When I’m rendering, I think symbolically what they represent, and like a Proustian madeleine–a meditative talisman–in the hope that the emotions and beauty, in addition to subconscious thoughts come out from my brush along with the image that I’m consciously forming.
In our current moment, I feel that really women are a big part of the solution. When painting this, the Trump world seemed manifest, and I love the image of Wonder Woman, in Washington D.C., battling the mobsters—much like Hillary tried with Trump, but also how now the House is being led by Nancy Pelosi and the other woman, people of color, LGBTQ and sensitive white male representatives, to help to rid our government of corruption, and keep our country safe for democracy. Wonder Woman, both the comics, 70’s tv show, and current incarnations (I’m proud that I’m friends and colleagues with Phil Jimenez, the current Wonder Woman cartoonist who I consulted when choosing this image), as she still provides a wonderful model for all genders about what it is not only to be a strong female protagonist, but also what it is to be a good human being, speaking truth to power!
Oil on linen Jane Fonda is an amazing actress, activist, feminist and person. I’ve been wanting to paint this image for a long time, and so glad to be able to do so at this moment, when women are taking over the House, and when the Warhol show is up at the Whitney, as this image also is an homage to Warhol, and his “silver Elvis” paintings (which were based on a publicity stills like this one). Cat Ballou is also an incredible 1965 film and character, where she goes rogue after her father is murdered by a land developer, and leads a gang of misfit male characters (who are also strong gay and Native American) to notorious glory. Jane Fonda of course was herself notorious at the time as “Hanoi Jane”, when she made the mistake of resting for a moment on a visit to Vietnam (she was against the war but also wanted to find out more) on an anti-aircraft gun, after a long day when she was exhausted and not paying attention, and was lead there by someone after a group celebration, when the cameras flashed and a two-minute mistake became a lifetime regret. At that time, conservatives villainized her, and a very different image from Cat Ballou went viral—that of her contemplating being hung by a noose!
I’m happy to reclaim another image from the film, as I love her and all the amazing things she represents to both myself and feminist and progressive movements my whole life, as well as being entertained by her incredible acting and roles of hers (and her families). I admire how she still is very much in the spotlight as a strong female protagonist of our world—both in her ongoing, fruitful acting career, and how in front and behind the scenes of many movements, including for the rights of women and people of color. As a celebrity, she emulates what currently is happening in our political and social life, that woman of all stripes and colors are the matriarchs that are leading the progress of our society and world. In this painting, it was fun to fervently paint, after Warhol, I feel my job is to honor the people behind the icons, to make them “come alive” in my painterly practice, and to bring out and illuminate what they mean to me and to hopefully our culture. Unlike the Elvis Flaming Star image that Warhol silkscreened, here she seemed both coy and full on energy, almost as she is drawing her guns in a duel. I wanted it to feel of the moment, like she is wittingly challenging her viewer, thinking of course of Manet’s woman, looking at the viewer looking at them, but also the strong women lovingly rendered by Sargent and Whistler. The grid shows in the back a bit, but also wanted to keep this as it seems she is in front of line-up, but superseding her territory coming out of subjugation and commanding her agency, jumping out of her supposed context and charging into the world to make it a better place.
This is an image now made famous over its ubiquitous repetition when the news (or at least my “real” news of MSNBC, CNN, and more) brings up the notorious Stormy Daniels case. It’s proof in the pudding that Trump had his adulterous affair with this porn star, whose real name is Stephanie Gregory. In 2018 she became involved in legal dispute with Donald Trump and his attorney Michael Cohen for the $130,000 in hush money to silence Daniels over the affair she says they had in 2006. Trump and his team say she is lying, although there is much proof to the contrary, including this notorious image, and the case may be a major component in finally taking this demigod down. The photo is from when she and Trump met each other after a golf tournament in Lake Tahoe, Nevada a year after Trump’s marriage to his third wife, Melania, who was four months pregnant with their son Baron. At the ill-fated day, after a lousy performance at the celebrity golf, Trump met Stormy at a gifting suite that was promoting Wicked, a porn production company that had made Stormy a star. Trump invited her for dinner, which turned out to be in his hotel room, where no food, at least, was to be served. When painting this picture, I wanted to paint it as “straight” as possible, following my gridded image, without making exaggeration or caricature, as it was as if Trump was a living cartoon evil clown without having to make any changes. I love Goya, who painted Charles IV and his family as a royal painter, making images of his king that they would admire and approve, but in our time, look like as if he is mocking them, as they too were ill-fated leaders who were incompetent and corrupt. As Goya’s genius is in part to reveal the inner soul of the people he paints in addition to trying to respect who they are in his commissions, I wanted to try to make a work, that in a different world, perhaps even Trump might approve. The My Space.com/Stormy Daniels watermark of the original image I wanted to keep intact, as to give Stormy the power of her agency, and indeed, subconsciously I painted her hair to resemble snakes, a modern Medusa, in a good way, turning her men erect—but to stone. He seems to be like the cat that ate the canary—I felt he was thinking about what he would have “for dinner” that night, his belly contorts out barely able to keep his pants—and belt on. I watched interviews with Stormy while painting this, and she mentions on one talk show that Trump’s penis was small, but with a big mushroom head, and I also realized that subconsciously, his pants button might be like Trump’s other head sticking out in anticipation of his prize. His shirt really was this yellow, but now reminds me of the urine in his alleged glee for watersports, the logo on his shirt resembling to me a fractured heart. Stormy on the other hand has power in the red of her eyes from the camera flash, and it’s amazing, as the image is always shown, but so pixelated and quickly, that when you really look she is doing something alluring with her tongue, and of course the Wicked motif behind them symbolizes more than merely a movie studio, the blissed out nature of the plants and more also resembling, in my mind, the horror of the hell in early renaissance and medieval paintings, where Trump probably will reside, if it really exists, for the rest of eternity.
I love America, and one of the most magnificent sites of all of the United States is the Grand Canyon, a place we cherish that reminds us not only of our place within the world and of the Earth’s history, but the fantastic possibilities of our great country in both times of strife and grandeur. The history of the Grand Canyon is vast, and our interactions as humans within it seem short compared to the largeness of its history, but after indigenous peoples populated the region, Western Europeans came to inhabit the place, both as explorers and discovers, but also as businessmen. I have a penchant for not only Cezanne, but the Hudson River School, and despite the egregious politics of Manifest Destiny, really enjoy how those painters depicted the landscapes of the United States, and also the Germans who came upon our shores, and more specifically related their foreign points of view to the Rockies and the West, romanticizing reality in their own way in paintings I grew up seeing at the Denver Art Museum.
This was from our recent trip for Andrew’s birthday to the El Tovar at the Grand Canyon, where we were upgraded to the Presidential Suite and I painted this in “plein air”. I have painted the Grand Canyon many times before, it is one of our most favorite places on earth. I had planned to create this in advance, however we couldn’t expect that the school shootings in the El Paso TX, which happened right before we got there, the flag at half-mast in memorial to the young students who were killed. A bittersweet subliminity was in the air as I painted for a marathon of three days on this work, hopefully capturing the beauty of America, but also an encapsulation of our recent times. I also was thinking of course of the environment, and how we must do all we can to preserve and nourish our planet for survival, especially in this time of uncertain futures. As I paint, I allow my unconscious to spill out along with my conscious brush, and like Cézanne, have moments that project into subconscious dream worlds mapped along with representational realities of what I see, inspired by the meditation of painting. Hopefully this picture has much to offer in representing the landscapes, the sunset of the Grand Canyon, but also a melancholic, surreal edge of how close we are to the precipice of losing our national treasures of rich, nourished land and landscape.
This is from my own photo from our television of Rome Shubert, an El Paso TX high school student and star pitcher who narrowly escaped death. In his interview on MSNBC, he has just explained how the shooters bullet went through the back of his head and through his neck–that if it was a millimeter in any direction he could have died or been paralyzed. This image is from just after he speaks, where he is taking in the magnitude of all of what happened and what it represents.
As a son of a psychoanalyst, I have a penchant for the unconscious, and the surreal worlds created in the throes of Modernism, as surrealism breaks into abstraction in automatic drawing and painting. The pixels and noise from the news camera, translated to my high definition TV, camera, and then printer creates distortions that I like to paint as if they are “real”, mapping my subconscious what my conscious can’t ascertain in the already abstracted image. Here, I like think his hair breaks into figurative abstract elements that become a mindscape of what this young man might have just gone through and experienced, a personal nightmare that has become one for all Americans.
Emma González young queer Latinix activist and is a survivor of the February 2018 Stoneman Douglas High School shootings, one of the co-founders for the Never Again MSD gun control advocacy group. She and her cohort survivors created the group out of the pathos those horrible shootings, which have become rampant in our NRA influenced terror of the widespread killings that have become manifest in today’s America. Speaking truth to power, she and her friends have been courageous models for the youth and all Americans to not accept subjugation and the profit over people ideology inherent in today’s administration, and now have devoted much for striving to achieve sane gun laws to “never again” have the tragedy of the murder of their fallen friends and evil of a capitalism and ideology that is seemingly out of control. Before, in another famous speech and actions, she coined the phrase “We Call B.S.!” and intensely confronted the leaders of the NRA. This image is from her now famous speech she gave at the March for Our Lives demonstration on March 24 2018 in Washington that they helped to organize that was attended my thousands. In her speech, she lovingly declared the names of her fallen17 friends, how they “never again” can enjoy the aspects of life she wittingly gives to these individuals. She then mysteriously falls silent, holding back tears as she definitely looks at the audience, who wonder what may be going on, but also giving all the loaded quiet moments to reflect upon the murdered young people she mentions, and all that she and the others are there to protest. Her cell phone alarm then goes off, and she mentions that since she has come onto the stage, in that 6 minutes and 20 seconds, that it was all it took for the killer to enter into the school and forever tragically end the lives of these teens, and forever change those who survived. It is up to all of us to help bring sanity to our nation, but it is especially heartening to see these incredible young people, many from diverse POC, LGBTQ backgrounds, all of them invigorated and smart, that represent what can come for now and our future, making change happen when many adults may feel disillusioned and hopeless. As a professor, my students give me hope, and these folks I feel confident will be the leaders, and inspire more future leaders, as the pendulum may swing from the far right to the far left, to make America a better place for all. I painted this on treated raw linen as I felt the rawness seemed right for the moment, her youth almost becoming like a more animated avatar in her likeness, as subconsciously I felt perhaps both her innocence and her experience coming together in her defiant optimism to bring the power of change to our world. In her close-up, she looks almost like Joan of Arc in the sublime Passion of Joan of Arc movie by Carl Dreyer, but I hope to bring a sense of realness and to document in a painting what already is, for her, one of the most moving and public political performances of our time.
This is from an image that ubiquitously is shown by the news, especially the “real news” I like to watch of CNN and MSNBC, usually when they bring up the ongoing Mueller investigation, hoping that he will be the hero that will save us from this devious administration before it brings America to ruin. I feel that the image almost takes on a religious tone, in that many would be almost praying for this man to deliver us from evil, like a Byzantine Icon painting, or—when as it is often juxtaposed to an image of Trump, resembles one my favorite Duccio paintings, which resides at the Met, The Temptation of Christ on the Mountain, where Jesus is casting out Satan. It was an edifying antidote to the news to paint this picture, I too am believing in this man and all he has to stand for. But in listening to news and my favorite rock music in the background, there is a certain pathos in his pained expression—albeit as the photo was most likely from before the Trump era–if my job is to make my paintings transcend the photos they are based upon, the wrinkles of his brow became further unconsciously wrinkled, and his ambivalent expression, both of power but also extreme worry and human frailty, also hopefully come through. He is just a man in the system, and although he is currently in charge of bringing his report to congress, he still could be fired, the report repressed, or some other ill fate could be brought to him and his purpose. Still, as he deeply investigates, I hope the world of his eyes bring about the deepness of his intellectual and emotional soul as he strives to bring about real truths and unpack the insidiousness of our current administration to save democracy and the America that we all love, despite our affiliations, religion, politics, beliefs, and individual differences. Freedom shall hopefully reign!
I have painted several pictures of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, and other civil rights leaders, and have always wanted to paint Malcolm X, and was so glad for the opportunity to finally create this. I’m proud that my cousin Wendy Wolf edited the Pulitzer Prize winning book Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention by Manning Marable, and this is her favorite image of him, and I’ve been yearning to paint it, and now seemed the time with the divisive politics of our current politics, which at bottom, seem to be driven by race. The photo this image was based upon was by the great Eve Arnold, and I felt my job was to bring it further to life, if possible, and to make it in color in a painterly manner inspired by my subject. I like to get into the world of those that I paint by listening to audio that pertains most to my subjects and my state of mind, and it was a perfect blend to not only listen to his biography, but actual speeches he gave, which were incredibly compelling, of course, in addition to alternating this with the current news, listening to MSNBC, CNN, NPR and more Real News. It was incredibly bittersweet how still persistent and contemporary his speeches and conversations are to our present day, so many decades after, when I had hoped that we had progressed so much when in the Obama era. Coming from being a semiotics major at Brown, I was so intrigued by Malcolm X’s redefining of culture via language, bringing about the agency of those he spoke to by deconstructing the subjugating language that created ideology that suppressed African Americans, much of the same language and thought that creeped back out of the shadows in the racist Trump era. Malcolm X, despite his extremely complicated politics, in the end, I think he came to a peace that approached Dr. King, but it was also his intense earlier politics that helped to mobilize those who felt that King’s inspiration from Gandhi and his own religion was too passive. Although I don’t agree with all of this, the intellectual vigor that Malcolm X, obviously a genius, brought to his own ideas, always challenging himself and his views, is inspirational. As a gay man, I also appreciate the news that Malcolm X had his own homoerotic history, but moreover, the train of his thought, how he spoke, and the power in what he proclaimed in his self-invention and it helped to motivate a world is sublime. This is the energy that for me at this moment is the antidote to the rampant normalization that this new regime is trying to manifest—making America “great” again by attempting the white supremacist notion of bringing back the 50’s and all the social horror of what that can mean and their evil idiotic attempt to keep America white, straight, and male-dominated. Listening and thinking about Malcolm X seems like a super smart, almost for me punk rock cry of resistance of deconstruction to create a new world that more reflects the agency of a new great America where the “minority” is the “majority”. Like the watch on his wrist, it’s about time, and the ideas and being and pertinence of Malcolm X is immortal.
LeBron James, represents the very epitome of what My American Dream stands for, indeed for most people’s interpretation of the American Dream. He is also still a historic hometown hero for Ohio and now LA as he is with the Lakers, giving me inspiration to paint this great man who achieved all and broke the curse for a community with his incredible heart, mind, skill, and talents.
Despite all odds, LeBron was able to have the vision and fortitude to achieve all, and with the support of his friends, family, coaches, school and community, to bring him and his world to new, visionary heights. I love images that capture historic moments, and have painted his famous “The Block,” where LeBron breaks the “Cleveland Curse” by his amazing play. In this image LeBron James “throws down a thunderous dunk” in Game 4 of the May 12, 2008 Game 4 NBA Playoff over the Celtics’ Kevin Garnett, considered one of his greatest plays ever. When painting this, I was again inspired by this man who is so generous and incredible, who plays and lives despite all odds to be one of the greatest athletes of all time, to bring victory not just to his teammates and state, but also to all Americans and people who struggle everywhere. He is also one of the most outspoken athletes and leaders of our day, opening a school in his hometown for the disadvantaged, and courageously speaking out against the Trump administration. I also am thinking of the great Goya paintings of matadors, where you see the crowd celebrating on the matador (and sometimes the bull) where his total concentration needs to be at the very public task at hand while sometimes you have a crowd jeering as much as cheering you on. In this image, you also have the flag, symbolizing America, LeBron’s tattoos, symbolizing his past, struggles, and ambitions, and a very quick moment in time that hopefully is captured forever.
Jim Acosta is currently the chief Whitehouse correspondent for CNN, which I watch and listen to, along with MSNBC, CNN, along with reading the New York Times and other sources of Real News. At this Trump rally, our president was ginning up his base by calling out the “fake news” media, egging them on to further demonize the individuals in their “press cages”, while ironically proceeding to descminate his own, very real, fake news. Acosta, especially after this rally, mentioned in interviews that while the base was invigorated in their heckling (FAKE NEWS! CNN SUCKS! SCUMBAGS! etc.) by Trump (who forges their response by energizing their anger at the media), that after, when they calm down, are also realizing that some of this is about the act of the moment, and actually want to take selfies with him, discuss what is happening in the news, and so on. Acosta, whose father is Cuban, grew up in a working class environment—his father worked as a clerk and cashier at Safeway stores and his mother as a bartender and waitress in the Washington area. But he has been made into a villain by Trump and his administration—more recently, he was called out by Trump at a White House press conference, after asking a pertinent question as a “rude, terrible person” and that he “shouldn’t be working for CNN”. They had an intern attempt to grab Acosta’s mike away, and banned him from the White House. CNN sued, and his press credentials were restored. Obviously one of the first paths to fascism is to control the press, one of the reasons it is part of our First Amendment. Although the play-acting part of the rallies is theater, the dark reality of how the Trumpian propaganda has attempted to wipe away notions of what is true and what is not is an Orwellian strategy to manipulate and brainwash the masses—and for a third of the nation, who doesn’t change the channel from Fox, Breitbart, and the rest, it’s working. I love the Bruegels, Bosch, Hogarth, and others who create these group scenes of their world’s groundlings of humanity, and recently again was enamored with Bruegel the Elders’ famous Netherlandish Proverbs painting in Berlin, which outlines in performative acts fables of the lows of the human comedy that still instructively resonate today, in addition to the great Goya bullfighting paintings and more, and was very much thinking of these when painting this. I also love the fighting scene paintings of Bellows, and the synesthetic abstraction of his figures. Some of these I left in a rawer cartoon form that brings about their sensation of anger, and feel that the gentleman in Acosta is a direct binary to this circus. Also the format of the painting is like a flag, with Acosta in the blue quadrant where the stars would be, the blissed out nature of the chiaroscuro in the arena hopefully ascending to other worlds, transcending in a way that Acosta must when he holds his breath, speaking truth to power, his actions achieving the higher purpose of really telling the truth to make the world of America a better place, along with his amazing colleagues in our cherished news media, who have been the check and balance that has gotten us through these last years in the hope to save democracy.
This is painting from a photo I took on my cell phone from recently when we still lived in Manhattan. This is from near the corner on 34th and 9th, and it’s the back of my husband Andrew Madrid’s head on the left, and to the right is where we would park our car in the lot to the right—we also used to go to the movie theater all the time on 34th St., and it could be from following him back one of those evenings. For the last few years of living here, I would obsessively post an image of the Empire State Building on social media, in a way giving a prayer of peace to my friends via this symbol, which for me represents all that is good in America, NYC, and the good-energy power of the grand optimism of the Empire State Building, one of the great masterpieces of architecture in our world, built with extreme stealth in a time of the great depression. But in some cases, when distorted, the symbolism, in its abstraction, of what a falling Empire threatens to be, like the perilous Carl Andre bricks in his sculpture Manifest Destiny in the Judd home in Soho. I’m also channeling a bit of the Americana impressionism of Childe Hassam here, but also the Kirschner street scenes of peoples that are the source of his expressionistic anxieties (and Munch and more!), with the silhouette of my husband as an avatar to place them into the scene. When we lived here on the constant hustle, we really worked hard to achieve our dreams of success, both personally, politically, and in terms of career, and largely achieved a certain plateau, as now I’m proud to be a full tenured professor at USC with also an art career, good health, and good family. But we are in troubled times as a nation, and alternatively optimistically listening to the best music that inspires my soul, I listened to much of the “real” news of MSNBC, CNN, NPR and more, hoping for a better tomorrow with America’s democracy seeming to threaten to unravel under our current would-be fascist rule. Holding on and fighting has been a theme in our lives, and in the life of the nation, and I hope that some of this is impacted, even beyond the symbolism in this work. I like to bring modernism and the painterly to my postmodern subjects, and hope that projecting my thoughts and subconscious through my brush, painting the pixels of a motion and noise-filled phone camera pic of Empire like Cézanne would project onto his Mont Sainte-Victoire, could amount to something more transcendent than the actual object itself. Bringing about what I could perceive in the foliage of trees and distortion, painting micromanaged distortion as if it were real, is able to gleam the unconscious symbolist imagery that could encapsulate the spiritual hope, but also anxiety, of our tremulous age.
This painting is from my Yosemite in Winter series, which concentrates on iconic aspects of this great park (from my own photographs from a recent Christmas trip to Yosemite with my family) and, by extension, nature in general, speaking through the narrative allegory presented by the seasons to bring symbolic meaning to the works in our perilous times. Like Thomas Cole’s famous narrative The Voyage of Life, the panorama of same-size horizontal landscapes that comprise Yosemite in Winter is a story of nature at its end, perhaps, if we continue the environmental, spiritual, cultural and political path of our present Nation. Symbolically, Winter in Japanese screens and more represent death, or an end of a cycle, and here bespeak for the life of the parks and their heritage, but along with this, a better regard for environmental concerns to protect our future of our Earth and its people, environment, flora and fauna, air and water. This particular image was the climax of the series, and on our trip, where we were astounded by the true sublime view that made us feel so wonderfully and ineffably small in the context of the beauty of our world and history.
I love James Ensor, the Brueghel’s and Bosch, but I also love Gorky and Dekooning and Pollock too. How to realize the aspects of your unconscious, and bring them to life without illustrating them like Dali is a slippery slope, and I think regarding nature, where forms are much more complex than anything we can imagine, and projecting your unconscious onto those forms, like Cézanne did when painting his Mont Sainte-Victoire can be an answer. I had fun with this painting, and ending this to Dylan’s Gates of Eden, thinking of the complicated times we live in, wanted it to be reflective of the surreal, seemingly apocalyptic sometimes days we live in as Americans. I would thing that even the most conservative people would want Yosemite and the other National parks around for their children and their children’s grandchildren, and to do this, we need to care for not only the parks, but the environment that helps to support the National Parks, to be for clean energy, water, and the environment. If we can agree on this, perhaps we can agree on other things, the protection of people, their civil rights, empathy and compassion for all people, animals, and our Earth, so we can continue to prosper as a nation, culture, and world.