I went to Yosemite for the first time with my family for last Christmas (2016) along with my husband Andrew, and was struck by its sublime natural beauty, and for all that it is famous. Thinking about the threatened ecology under the current administration, I created my Yosemite in Winter series, inspired by how in Japanese screens Winter can symbolize death, or an end of a cycle—and hope that Yosemite and our other National Parks and wilderness won’t fall into a certain everlasting death with Global Warming. I felt a great responsibility to carry forth the ideology and aesthetics of Ansel Adams and more—artists who create images of our parks in order to do their part of bringing their majesty to the masses—in a way that is more proactive and productive than the Hudson River School—and of course its thanks to John Muir and his colleagues who helped make these great American places into National Parks in the first place.
This is from a stereoscopic card for viewing with a Stereoscope, a 19-century tradition to create 3D like illusion starting from a pair of 2D images, a stereogram. When looking through the novelty apparatus of a viewer, the pair of photos taken at a slightly different view and perspective combines in the brain to have depth. I wonder with these images if they were taken at slightly different times, as it seems that Roosevelt and Muir were in the midst of deep conversation on the top of Overhanging Rock at the top of Glacier Point, and indeed the images were taken on a famous camping trip where conservationist and environmentalist John Muir camped in a hollow there with Roosevelt to awake to five inches of snow, which delighted the President. Roosevelt had sent a letter to Muir to meet him in Yosemite (“”I want to drop politics absolutely for four days and just be out in the open with you.”). During their time together, Muir spoke of the degradation of the environment, and the endangerment of development, and asked for another layer of protection as a national park to improve management. Muir convinced both Roosevelt and California Governor George Pardee, on that excursion, to recede the state grant and make the Valley and the Mariposa Grove part of Yosemite National Park. This joining together of the 1864 state grant lands with the 1890 national park lands occurred during Roosevelt’s presidency in 1906.
I always think that for even the most strident of conservatives, that they would want the National Parks to survive for their grandchildren and their grandchildren to enjoy, which can initiate the conversation about protecting the entire environment for the future of the earth and humanity. I wish, in these caustic times where the EPA has become so dearly threatened, that people can come to some sanity about how sacred these places and our environment are. Although Roosevelt is a much different kind of Republican than those in our time, it will take visionaries (and artists!) like Muir to help convince the unawaken.
Muir was influenced by the American transcendentalist movement lead by Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Muir showed him his hundreds of pencil sketches of peaks and valleys. Emerson thought of Muir as a “new kind of Thoreau” and when they visited the sequoia at Mariposa Grove, Muir said to Emerson “you are yourself a sequoia. Stop and get acquainted with your big brethren”. I like to paint nature as its alive, inspired by this movement and the early American modernists, and to cull from the photos the spirit of the place. I feel that if you are painting from photos post-Richter, that to penetrate the picture plane, using the photo as a talisman for the energy one sees in it (like in the early days of painters using photos for reference, or Cézanne projecting his unconscious onto the views he painted plein air of Mount Sainte-Victoire) can be pertinent once again. Like in this color image (with color bars, from the Library of Congress!) of a black and white stereograph that simulates 3d reality, my job as a painter is to channel this energy and image to make it alive once again, to remind our current times about the vitality and primary importance of our America and National Parks, just after the centennial of their inaugurations.
Yosemite Sunset is part of the Yosemite in Winter suite I painted in the beginning of the year, just after my families’ trip to Yosemite for Christmas with my husband. We went there for vacation, but also as a photographic odyssey, loving the National Parks, and thinking about the threat of our current administration’s antagonism towards the EPA, the Parks, and our environment in general. I took this image with my wide angle camera, just at sunset on Christmas Eve, and it really looked this sublime–strange, and beautiful but also a little scary. I hope we aren’t in apocalyptic times, but I worry with all the recent fires in Northern California, and the current threats against the environment seem the worst since the days of John Muir convincing Roosevelt that Yosemite and other natural American Eden’s should be protected as National Parks. I love Ansel Adams and the tradition, going back to the Hudson River School time, of creating romantic images of our great nation–to lovingly (and politically) convincing folks of the wonder and importance of the natural beauty of our world. I also love the works of early American modernists, such as Charles Burchfield, Georgia O’Keefe, and Marsden Hartley and more, who depicted the landscape from their own inner eye in addition to what they perceived from the natural environment. Perhaps influenced by the Emersonian Transcendentalist movement, in their images, nature truly becomes alive and animated as their vision becomes visionary–as their conscious mind becomes influenced by nature influencing their unconscious mind. In the days post Richter, I believe the painters job is to penetrate the image of the photo, and I like to paint the technological enhancement from the camera lenses (such as pixels in this case made large in the close up and printing process) as if the distortions are “real”, picking up visual threads that also couldn’t be perceived from the natural eye, as in plein air paintings of the impressionists and Cézanne. What I do get from Cézanne, in particular, is how he was able to graft onto reality the surreality of his unconscious mind—I feel as if he used the landscape as talismans for memory, and as he was painting what he saw, his unconscious was also spilling through the paint, creating abstract subliminal memories impacted into the picture plane, with the colors, shapes, and forms of his perception guiding his unconscious brush to bring these aspects into a plastic reality. I hope with this image, my fears and nightmares of an apocalyptic world come through as much as the representational reality of Yosemite Falls at Sunset. I’m inspired by Japanese screens that sometimes depict the seasons as different points of life, with Sunset being the end, but also hope that art can serve as an edifying warning–in addition to a transcendent scene to contemplate.
I love everything Elvis. Despite the politics, which I have understanding and sympathy for–I look beyond but acknowledge the colonialist tactics of rock and roll–and pollyannishly perhaps look towards a more positive outlook. Sam Phillips at his famous Sun Records, was obsessed, especially originally, recording the music by primarily African American artists to bring to the world to overcome stereotypes and segregation. And with Elvis, he continued to cross lines of class if not race, helping to bring a hybrid of rhythm and blues music and hillbillymusic to help create rockabilly and rock n’ roll. For me, it is a site that is a birthplace for where culture changed for the better, brought up by the bootstrap of Phillips, who with a prayer and shoestring, created the studio that helped to inspire the world.
My childhood best friend Dan Knapp volunteered to drive the large moving van of my husband’s and I’s belongings from Chelsea in NYC to Southern California in August 2016, and Memphis was one of our big stops. An artist, who studied photography at the Rochester Institute of Technology and who got his MFA from Art Center in Pasadena, he and I decided, in the tradition of great artist friends, to make the trip a photographic journey across America. Dan tragically died in an automobile accident last spring, just months after our trip, and this is one of the first paintings I created from the body of work that was to become the My American Dream: Mystery Train exhibition at Marlborough Chelsea. Elvis meant nothing to Dan, nor Sun Studios, however he generously allowed me to ingratiate myself with the aura of this place—I had been to Graceland, but never Sun Studios, and couldn’t wait to go there. We arrived at “magic hour”, just as the sun was beginning to set, and although the place was closed, took a lot of pictures. It is Dan in the green shirt and shorts (and Crocs, his favorite shoes) taking his own picture as I took mine of this historic building. The front used to be a diner, but now is a gift store/small museum (which I visited the next day), to the left is the reconstructed Sun Records, just the same as it ever was, with a historical marker in front. While painting this picture, in my “method actor” way of doing things, I immersed myself in all of the Sun recordings that I got on boxed sets, from the very early blues music of local black musicians to the last country swing songs of the 60’s and seventies. It really struck me that Phillips was a bit like Harry Smith (who curated the local music of the Americas from his own 78s for what become the famous Smithsonian Folkways recordings), as much of this music would be lost to time if Phillips hadn’t recorded it (and the spirited Dewey Phillips, also the purveyor of Rock n’ Roll, playing color-blind music on his infamous radio show). Of course, some of this same music was rerecorded by Elvis and others, and with the success of this, Sam Phillips began (sadly, mostly) concentrating on his white musicians (which is bad as much as its good), the most famous including Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison, and more (he also recorded female artists such as Barbara Pittman and the Miller Sisters, and black artists such as Howlin’ Wolf, Roscoe Gordon, Rufis Thomas and Little Milton).
Beyond this, however, I was thinking of my dear friend Dan, who was an amazing and generous human being, and if there is a heaven, I feel he would definitely get in. Quite unconsciously, as I finished painting this, I realized that the negative space behind his figure almost feels like angel wings, and that in my subconscious, the Sun Records studios were like a brick and mortar heaven, with Dan knocking on heaven’s door, as it were… The images of famous Sun alumni are like angelic ghosts, and I hope that Dan’s spirit is in a celestial world that is akin (if not even much better!) than the nostalgic glimpse of Sun Records, as it still exists in Memphis, reminding us all what can be done to make the world a better place with a hope and a prayer.
Graceland is a magical place for Elvis fans like me, and in a previous trip there, I took many photographs of the home–thinking of course of William Eggleston’s famous Graceland portfolio, but much more than this–my very real and sincere lifelong fascination and devotion to all things Elvis. Despite the colonialist politics of how he was able to appropriate music already recorded by black musicians and make it “his own” and how this helped to develop–and maybe take more credit than is due from the African American roots of rhythm and blues–rock n’ roll. Elvis also came from the wrong side of the tracks, the son of a poor “white trash” family that grew up alongside his black friends, and who got much of his inspiration by participating in black culture—he was, for example, a welcome presence to the African-American gospel singing churches and blues environments of his youth. A religious person, I think of him like a Michelangelo, who aspired for the heavens but also gave into his red-blooded male persona and id, but who helped to create music that inspired the world. I also realize Elvis is a sort of ridiculous figure (and grew up thinking of him as a “fat joke” rather than the great musician I grew to love), and think of him also as analogous to a 50’s kind of patriarchy, well meaning but crucially flawed.
In my visit to Graceland before this trip, it was around Christmas time, and as Elvis loved Christmas, the whole place, including the lawn, was adorned with lights and Xmas magic, with many of the same decorations and props that were put out when the King was alive. I was mad at myself for not taking a picture at the time—truly the neighborhood isn’t what it used to be—and I was freaked out by going to the nearby gas station and feeling threatened by the downbeat nature of the neighborhood—there was no place to safely park nearby to take pictures! When I went back with my childhood best friend Dan, he didn’t like Elvis, and so I took an Uber car to the place, and my driver was patient (she had never been there, either!) while I quickly took many photos. Sans Christmas decorations, it was still magical, despite the port-o-potty and the metal parking gates surrounding the famous, “pearly” gates that have an abstracted, almost alien-like, portrait of Elvis with his guitar.
When I paint from my photos, I like to paint everything as if its “real”—the lens flare in this case, from the streetlight by the gates, almost felt like a spiritual (Elvis?!) presence. My friend Dan noticed that my lens for my Sony A7 camera didn’t take full advantage of the image the sensors were catching, and configured the camera so it would—creating the round image surrounding the scene, which in this case feels to me like a giant lens of an eye, or hovering orbs accentuated by the flare of the light.
Sadly, Dan passed away last spring from an auto accident, and although this is an homage to Elvis, it’s also an homage to Dan (and the America I hope we aren’t losing in the current administration!). When painting the lens flare, I was also thinking of Turner, the light of God, and “how many angels can dance on a head of a pin”. Like a method actor, I immerse myself in the world of the subject matter in which I paint, and I listened to most of the whole oeuvre of Elvis when painting this, ending on the gospels, and truly like pearly gates, thinking of Dan who would be in heaven if this place existed. For now, Graceland is like a heaven on earth, at least to me and Elvis followers, who despite the ridiculous, still believe in the power of music to help to change the world and make it a better place.
Sun Studios (created and lead by the legendary Sam Phillips) is the magical place where Elvis was first discovered and recorded what many believe to be his most sublime music, along with Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins (and where the four of them recorded their “Million Dollar Quartet” session of gospels and traditional music), along with blues and R & B artists such as B.B. King, Howlin’ Wolf, Junior Parker and more, and with Ike Turner on keyboards, the “first Rock and Roll single” “Rocket 88” by Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats.
Phillips began as a DJ, but wanted to bring the music he was hearing in Memphis and the South—mostly black music—to a broader public. Much like Harry Smith, who recorded the American vernacular music that otherwise wouldn’t be heard (that gave way to his Smithsonian Folkways recordings) Phillips was successful in bringing the best of the Memphis sound into the studio to record, and his friend, the rockus DJ Dewey Phillips would broadcast on his famous show music of both black and white musicians to an avid group of listeners, hungry for the subversive sounds of what became Rock n’ Roll.
On a hope and a shoestring, along with his assistant and long-time friend Marion Keisker, Phillips opened his Memphis Recording Service studio in January 1950 at 706 Union Avenue. It was here, in the hand-made, humble studio of acoustic tiles that Elvis first recorded and was discovered, along with so many other greats such as Roy Orbison and rockabilly and country music stars like Charlie Feathers, Ray Harris, Warren Smith and Charlie Rich. Despite the colonialist politics of white performers appropriating the music created by African Americans, mixing this with hillbilly music to help create rock n’ roll (if the black musicians didn’t already do this in the first place!), for me, the studio is a sacred spot, a Bethlehem of culture where the world changed with the work created in this small room.
Sam Phillips had a knack to bring out the best in his performers (which I relate to as a teacher of art) by making them feel comfortable and pushing them to work from their instincts and emotions, in addition to their musical acumen to bring out something more than just notes and words on paper. When hearing the gospel music recorded there, a true spiritual quality comes through that reveals the spirit in all the Sun records–the “special echo” of the room in more ways than one (that echo RCA tried, somewhat unsuccessfully, to achieve in their Elvis recordings, post-Sun records). This all permeates through much of the early music, which takes one back into a nostalgic reverie for bygone times come alive.
In painting from photos, especially my own, I try to cull from the picture what moves me about it, much like a method actor or even Elvis would try to draw from music and scripts they were adopting to their own artful ways. I love Modernism and the post-impressionist worlds, and like those great painters, I’m striving to draw from the imagery the essence of the place, to bring about a certain abstraction while listening to music (here, the entire Sun catalog!) and audio books (like those of the bios of Sam Phillips and Elvis!) while thinking my own thoughts meditating upon the image. How it is not like the photo is what is “me” about it, and how the literal abstraction that happens I hope to bring about the spirits both inside of me and what I can perceive from the image come manifest and inhabit the image to give it life. In this series, painted after the death of my best friend—but also in the reign of the Trump era. I’m hoping for heroes, ones that could, allegorically, sing into the lone (Elvis’?!) mike, to help make the world a better place just as like with the heroes depicted in the portraits that adorn the room. I bring up my paintings via the classic grid, and how my work jumps off the grid to me feels like how rock n roll and jump off its syncopated beat, to create its own special rhythm. Like how the control booth creates its own painting within a painting (I love early American Modernism that riffs off reality too, to create abstractions) in this picture, I hope that my unconscious creates its own abstraction within the conscious control of my brush and representation, to merge together to create something new, a spirit for our times, looking at the past to inspire something to help us in our futures.
At the little museum at Sun Studios, of course there is an Elvis section, as Sam Phillips, founder of Sun (along with his friend Marion Keisker, who famously mentioned Elvis to Sam) discovered him, and helped to change culture forever. These are the “rosebuds”‘ of Elvis’ childhood, including a signed high school yearbook, childhood photos, records, and memorabilia, and significant to me, a Captain Marvel Jr. comic. I love and teach comics, have created graphic novels (currently working on one on James Dean!) and teach how suturing into icons and avatars when reading comics (or watching cartoons or regarding fine art!) can be a transcendent, fundamental moment. Captain Marvel Jr. was reported to be Elvis’ favorite, and in a primary way, help shape his identity and existence. Along with Tony Curtis (pictured above on the record player), Elvis died his hair black to look like the character, along with a spit curl in front. Significantly, the Captain Marvel lightening bolt is exactly the same as Elvis’ “Taking Care of Business (TCB)” band. One can even argue his later look, with the jumpsuit and the cape, inspired consciously or unconsciously for his love of superheroes and Captain Marvel (Shazam!). Moreover, Elvis is the epitome of the American Dream, in that he pulled himself up by his own bootstraps, gave music (and movies) to the world, and if you like Elvis, to make the world a better place (and to provide for his family). At the same time, Elvis can be a bit of a ridiculous character, too, a patriarch that meant well but had flaws. I love Elvis for his ability to breathe life into songs he didn’t originate—as an artist that sometimes works, inspired by the Pictures Generation, from appropriation, how he was able to suture his being and emotion in pre-existing pop structures is moving to me. I do think his early Sun recordings are transcendent, but also his later work too, 1968 “comeback special” and beyond. But here is the records from his early years, born on the wrong side of the tracks, “white trash” but able, largely through his relationship to African American culture (he would go to the gospel church with his friends, and was welcome in the community), despite the colonialist politics, help to invent something new, along with all the black musicians and artists and the hillbilly crew at Sun. The guitar with the Hawaiian scene is emblematic of not just Blue Hawaii, but also his faith in music to take listeners to other worlds. I listened to his entire catalog while painting this, and hope some of his influence shines in the picture.
This is one of the most famous photographs of either Nixon or Elvis, and one of the most requested from the National Archives. There was a movie made of the event recently, and I hesitated to paint this image, but ultimately had to, as it was so emblematic of Elvis, and the Nixon era, which is such a reminder for now (Trump almost has the showmanship of Elvis, married to the Nixon legacy of political corruption). Installed next to the Elvis’ Childhood painting in this exhibition (of his favorite things that helped to form his American Dream), I feel this is an ironic tribute to what he became, both good and bad.
The story is that on December, 21, 1970, Elvis met Nixon in the Oval office, reportedly to obtain a federal narcotics badge so he could–as Priscilla Presley would write in Elvis and Me—”legally enter any country both wearing guns and carrying any drugs he wished”. There is something subversive about Elvis wearing a cape greeting Tricky Dick, but something also really American about the scenario, both achieving their goals, but also thwarted patriarchs beholden to power. I love late Elvis especially… Growing up, Elvis just seemed like a fat joke, but later in life, after seeing his comeback special, I realized that this man–despite the politics of how he was influenced–was inspired by, and hopefully participated, rather than colonize, rhythm and blues, and helped to change culture by his Rock n’ Roll. Elvis was a man who grew up “white trash” on the wrong side of the tracks, but came up through his faith and faith in music, and a culture largely influenced by the African American world he participated in to help create the genre that would influence the future.
I believe in artists working together with culture, and in this exhibition is a picture of John Muir with Theodore Roosevelt, and Trump with the Pope (with a renaissance resurrection painting in the backgroung by Perugino). In Palm Springs, near where I currently reside, is the Annenberg Estate–Sunnylands. The Annebergs, publishers of TV Guide, would invite politicians of all stripes to their estate, where they would reach across the aisles to discuss issues that involved humanity and the globe. Among the beautiful buildings and gardens was a world-class collection of paintings (many of which are now the Cézannes, Van Gogh’s, and Gauguin’s that I love to visit at the Met) Visiting there I realized that truly painting and art brings humanity to the people–its influence helps to engender warmth and critical thinking to communities, and in doing so, creates a “bedside manner” for a culture to understand itself in order for it become a better place. As ridiculous as Elvis and this picture might be, it is extending, however surreal, a dialog that includes Velázquez and is King, Michelangelo and his Pope, and more!
My childhood best friend Dan loved power and industry, factories and machines. He offered to help my husband and I move from NYC to Southern California last August, 2016, and volunteered to drive a large moving van with me and all of our stuff included across the country (my husband was waiting on the other side in CA). Part of the deal was that this was going to be a photographic journey, and he was to help guide our route. Tragically, Dan died in an auto accident last spring, months later after he drove he and I, quite carefully and diligently across the country, and this show is dedicated in his loving memory. He was an artist, a photographer that graduated from the Rochester Institute of Technology and later, we went to Southern California together to get our MFA’s, his from Art Center in Pasadena, mine at University of Southern California, Irvine. Our trip was an artist’s journey together, and like Gauguin and Van Gogh, we were going to take pictures together of the same scenes to create art, very consciously and we spoke about me making paintings for this show from our journey. Dan realized that my Sony A7 camera that had a wide angle lens that was taking advantage of the full sensor capabilities of the unit, and configured the settings to have the entire aperture of the lens revealed in the final image, hence the framing device of the circle, which reminds me of fade out screens in silent movies, perfect for these images of glimpses of American in homage to Dan but also the USA that hopefully we aren’t losing in our current era.
Three Mile Island was one of the first stops on our journey, and as you can see in the painting, it was a strange, bathetic, but also weirdly beautiful place (like Skull Island, in the King Kong movies?!). Foliage has grown up around the structures, but seem tweaked and surreal, like as in a science fiction movie of another world. One of the towers I believe is still functioning, but is due to close soon (or maybe not, given our current administration). I love Monet, but also Gursky and the Bechers, and wanted to achieve the bucolic abstractions of Monet (and Cézanne, who I always feel was able to project his unconscious unto the picture plane he was consciously rendering), but with a gravitas of the politics of post modernity, realizing the allegory of man’s hubris in this hyperbolic ode to power gone wrong. I also love American Modernism, and was consciously thinking of the Precisionists (Demuth’s My Egypt!) when creating this—those tight lipped homosexuals loved American Industry, and regaled it almost to abstraction in their sumptuous, important images, but whilst at the same time negating the workers, the proletariats that seldom appear in their paintings (although the sailor scenes of Demuth’s watercolors are homoerotically fantastic!). These workers were still much exploited, starting to form unions, but are left out of the homage to American Industry and Power. I wanted, in this picture (especially with the wires helping to abstract the image) to hearken to them, the Hudson River School, and the rest who romanticized to a political degree America–as I love them and the USA, too, but also realize, especially in our time, the egress into the damaging conflicts of “absolute power corrupts absolutely”.
I also believe in the power of the icon, as Scott McCloud, coming from Spiegelman, discusses in his book Understanding Comics. I chose an image that very much to me looks like an anthropomorphized landscape, as in the days they did this during the time of Bruegel, where landscapes could take the animated forms of people and faces. But the displacement here, the transferal, is nuclear power as a substitute for nuclear war, its ugly head rising again in the time of Trump and his threats, and the threat, of North Korea and the rest. Painting this picture it was very much on the news, and beyond the tracks of my dear friend Dan going to the land of the departed, the nightmare of nuclear war has become a clear and present danger.
The primary influence, beyond my dear friend Dan who recently passed away and brought me here, is the Elsie Driggs’ painting of Pittsburgh from 1927, that was displayed in the inaugural reopening of the Whitney Museum when it moved downtown in 2014 (and a painting that currently is on display at the Whitney during the same time as this exhibition!). Driggs is an artist, although I love American Modernism and the Precisionists, I didn’t know about until this time (as the misogyny of art history has prevailed until the recent amendments of great curators and critical thinkers and artists and intuitions that are helping to bring history back up to speed with the artists that time hopefully won’t forget!). Driggs, in her painting (unlike her male peers) not only idolizes the factory of the industrial revolution and the heyday of American industry and power, but brings her own wonton, melancholic and eulogizing memories to the picture that also is of her youth growing up in Pittsburgh.
When we went to Bethlehem Steel as part of our photographic odyssey across America, Dan knew well the factory (and perhaps its photographic legacy in the work of Walker Evans), and once there we learned together more about the place that produced the steel that helped to build the Golden Gate Bridge, the Empire State Building (which I’ve painted many times), and much of the war material of America’s history. Visiting the cemetery nearby (an ode to Walker Evans?), we met a groundskeeper who once worked at the factory, who regaled us with the stories of the fat cats that ran the place into the ground with their greed. Once the thriving heart pump of the community, Bethlehem Steel exploited their workers in dangerous jobs, but gave them employment and the means to raise generations of families. Now, beyond the religious allegorical metaphor begotten by its name, the factory is a sad lament to times gone by, with lights strung up its side and a nearby mall, with movies and empty restaurants. We were too late to go on a tour, but we did take many pictures, and I tried to capture this silhouette thinking of Driggs but how also how the factory was itself a graveyard of man’s (and America’s, in our current era) hubris. Dan had configured my camera to take full advantage of the lens, that didn’t quite capture all the sensors in the unit, usually creating a circle like image, but here, with the plastic hood over that lens, creates a batman-like silhouette, that I thought enhanced the picture’s solemnity.
American Talc is a factory in the middle of the desert outside my best friend Dan’s beloved hometown of El Paso, Texas. Dan brought us there in our photographic journey across country, when he volunteered to drive me and my entire husband’s and I’s belongings to a new life in Southern California. To my delight, he insisted we see this factory. The surrealism of the place, with its white powder under a billowing sky reminded me of Turner, the Hudson River School meeting the Precisionists, and also Gursky and the Bechers (and Ed Ruscha!). I love America and its power, but am also worried about our times and–in our hubris–how we are threatening our fate by the undermining of our commitment to greatness by greed and corruption. The ironic allegory here is that talc powder recently has been discovered to potentially cause cancer, a big concern amongst those who might use baby powder and the like (however this factory mentions on its website its primary use of their product goes towards tiles and other parts of construction and industry). This factory could stand for the romantic notions of capitalism and industry in America, but also the potential end game of “absolute power corrupts absolutely”, and what is happening to the environment, our bodies, and the country in our rage for ultimate power—the mendacity of evil. The Precisionists, whom I love, regaled their brushes to create images of the pristine forms of the factory, representing American industry and know-how and the can-do spirit, but failed to document the workers that were being exploited in the process. If they had panned out more, they would have seen those proletariats, beginning to unionize and take efforts for their own empowerment, and if you could pan out over time, one might see the vision of that whole apparatus, the system of capital, to come to our current state of deregulation, and not only further exploitation of workers but of our planet, but to the degrading ends of Global Warming threatening the fate of all that lives on the planet, along with bad politics and further threats of nuclear disaster and war.
After taking many photos around the factory, we were taking off, but looking behind us, I made Dan stop the van, as the cargo trains made the whole apparatus look like a Noah’s Arc, a Fitzcarraldo-like boat (or Close Encounters ship!) stuck in the middle of the desert. Nature conquers all, and I love looking at clouds for forms and faces, the heavenly sky reminding us of the sublime power of time, and an environment that hopefully overcomes and overwhelms man’s exploitation of the environment and our world.
Since I was in college, I have been creating figurative abstract paintings that I call Iconscapes. I feel, in some science fiction scenario, if we were to project our dreams onto screens, that they would appear as murky cartoons of our subconscious, our memories relying of glimpses of our imagination gleaming onto essentialized faces and forms that we then project identity and meaning. Scott McCloud, in his great (inspired by classes he took with the even greater Art Spiegelman) book Understanding Comics discusses the “power of the icon”: the ability for simplified faces, like the “smiley face”, to be relatable, due to its essentialized facets. I think the iconic face is also relatable due to images of our subconscious also being an iconic language of emotive, anthropomorphized and symbol-like forms. Pollock and the other abstract expressionists deeply explored the worlds of Jung, Freud, and psychoanalysis and a presymbolic order. I’m a son of a psychoanalyst, and have a penchant for dreams and the thoughts, ideas, and emotion that are buried in our instincts and our unconscious. When Pollock was creating his famous drip paintings, he was creating the psychosexual forms and faces revealed in his later black and white paintings, but layering over and over them to achieve an abstraction. I feel part of the power of those pictures is our unconscious mind is always looking for these forms (as human being animals instinctively enabling us to reproduce and to protect ourselves and loved ones) and as the brain seeks the forms the image undulates—pushes and pulls—creating a cosmic, sublime reaction, much like when we strive to look for the universe through the starry nights.
With these Iconscapes I want to realize those forms, in a more colorful, plastic space than, say, Gorky, without fully illustrating what I start to find, á la Dali. I am also impressed by my surroundings, and the iconscapes included in this exhibition were influenced in a sublime horrible way by the current news and politics happening on MSNBC, CNN, NPR and more in the background. This particular image was created during the notorious “fire and fury” threats by the current administration in the saber–rattling with North Korea, sending chills up my spine (and the world’s) about the current danger of our situation. Rather than create a figurative painting that would be analogous to my fears, I chose to create this, and the other iconscapes in the show–this iconscape in particular emulating, quite unconsciously, the souls that would hopefully rise to a heaven in the woebegone horrific nightmare of nuclear destruction.
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!
I love Goya, and his Charles IV of Spain and His Family is one of my favorite masterpieces. Goya earned his “old master” stripes by painting people and things as he really saw them, exceeding his commissions by bringing out the truth in people, while at the same time making them look good. Modeled after Velázquez’s Las Meninas (which is perhaps less subversive, as that painter really liked his king?) Goya places himself in his picture, which is really about, to our eyes, looking at the hubris and pomposity of a misbegotten royal family, painting them as he really sees them, and asking his audience to “judge for yourself”. The image of the Trumps and the Pope is a well-known “MIME” from the time of last year of this ironic visit, of the some of the baddest people on earth meeting one of the best, but in most of those cartoon-ized images (where they are made to look like the Addams family and worse) the satire is obvious, and (important to me), the Renaissance painting by Pietro Perugino’s 1499 painting Christ on the Sarcophagus is usually cropped out—for me the ultimate allegorical talisman of what hopefully our current situation won’t develop horribly into—a biblical apocalypse. It would be so easy to satirize these figures, I wanted to play it straight—paint from the photo with a tight grid (that I leave here to show also the poetic unraveling) thinking my thoughts while overhearing the news, to see what would be brought forth not just from my consciousness, but also my unconscious mind as it transmuted the image. The result I hope speaks some truth. Surrealistically, it appeared to me after painting the image that the Christ is like a puppeteer, controlling the marionette-like strings (which were the folds of the old oil painting behind them) to his Trump puppet. It was a revelation to me that after painting it, thinking if there is a god, perhaps they are presenting Trump as a vehicle to gather all people of all persuasions and types—cross party politics, ethnicities and religions—to triumph the power of good to conquer evil, hopefully the positive push-back of our egregious times that will save all of us and our world from destruction.
In the previous painting of this exhibition Resurrection (The Trumps Meet The Pope), the Renaissance painting by Pietro Perugino’s 1499 painting Christ on the Sarcophagus is in the background, and behind the Resurrected Christ in that work, is a surreal vertical symbolic eye that appears not just in that painting, but works by Fra Angelica and more, that for me become even perhaps more accurate depictions of what God could be. In my Iconscapes, which I have been creating since college, I am trying to cull from my unconscious the various faces and forms that might appear there, but without illustrating them, animating them into abstract, biomorphic imagery that might be more true to depictions of memories and feelings that anything that would be clearly defined as representational. I created this work during the tumult of last summer, when the egregiousness of the current administration was rising to fuller form, the heinous threats and violence to our democracy, its people and environment becoming more looming, real, and ominous. Almost as if the world of the Resurrection was imploding to an apocalyptic fantasia, I felt the need to paint once again more loosely, the cathartic urge to will my feelings and emotions into being, to expunge them like a tapeworm out of my existence to bring to life elsewhere on canvas.
During the Charlottesville events of the Alt Right and the Neo Nazi’s, I made this work for lack of any alternate means of rightly expressing myself—the idea of making figurative work that could be allegorical or even a representation of the events seemed shrill to me, or not enough, and I went back into my Iconscapes, where I’m trying to cull the figures and forms from my unconscious, automatically painting and deciding what colors and what moves to make based on my instincts. I’ve been making these works since college, loving Pollock, the AbEx artists, and being a son of a psychoanalyst I have a belief and our dreams and the unconscious having power in and transcendent of our lives. Painted on wood, which for me always brings about in itself human, or life agency, as wood of course comes from trees that of course were alive. Also, much of painting predating the Renaissance is on panel, many of those Western works were religious icons, like painting a face on the shroud of Turin, making sacred images on elements of nature makes sense to me, like painting closer to God.
The egregious nature of the events of Charlottesville is frightening, all those who had their hoods on and hid in the corners of society came out, the bathetic banality of their Abercrombie and Fitch khakis and Bed Bath and Beyond Tiki Torches chanting Nazi slogans made the mendacity of evil all the more menacing—the guy with lawnmower in his garage down the street from you could stand for everything you hate, and could hate you if you were a Jew, a POC, people from the LGBTQ community, or a woman. As disgusting and horrific the weekend was, there was something to be gleamed from the pushback, those rising against the Nazis, those who began pulling down and discriminating against the lynching posts disguised as monuments, and the peaceful–and truly spiritual–rising of good over evil. As I was painting this, the culminating event happened in the murder of Heather D. Heyer, as the Dodge charged through a crowd of people and pulled back.
Art is necessarily therapy, but I think all artists, at least the good ones, are working through something—if not emotional, intellectual, conceptual, or otherwise—while they are making work. Especially when you are rendering—painting or drawing—this can be a form of analytical meditation, where the image you are creating is a talisman for how you are thinking and feeling, helping to focus your meditation, with each stroke of your pen or brush-like a Harry Potter pensieve—drawing out thoughts and putting them down on your surface, so you can understand, estimate, and move forward. Sometimes the finishing the painting for me is like the end of a long dream, and like, if a dream is about in part working out issues of your waking life in your subconscious to come to epiphanies, I can finish with a feeling of resolution both in the painting and for what the ideas were that were conjured and focused upon while painting. Sometimes, after coming out of a right-brain like scenario while working, you realize that while rendering, you mind and body were working instinctively, and the work that has been created seems almost foreign to you, but satisfying. Your instinct is smart, it just works faster than you consciousness can allow, and (like when you are dancing the worst thing you can do is look at your feet rather than move to the music) when painting, all the history of painting and your practice comes into focus while rendering–the good news is that you have hopefully the facility, the memory, the ideas that support being able to (like when a method actor is having a pure moment or when skiing on a great day) “let go” and have your instinctive hand brush and movement drive the machinations of painting production.
On bad days, like those of Charlottesville, where life isn’t a dream but a nightmare, the very conscious production of a painting like this offers some reprieve, but also hopefully the transmutation of the horror into something else. I love Dante and his Divine Comedy, the best book of which for me is his Paradiso, with the ecstatic writings about the angels, the seraphim, and the light of what the heavens might look like if there is a god. I would like to think, if it exists on some plane, that Heather D. Heyer would be in heaven if there is one–and if there are angels, that they would be praying for us and all those who rise against evil, having empathy and compassion for all and we all together moving the world to a better place.
My best friend Dan Knapp, who recently died in an automobile accident, and to whom this show is dedicated to, loved trains, and even more than this, seeing wind turbine blades being carried on trains! When we drove across country as he helped me move all my belongings in a large moving van, he was steering but saw this image and urged me to “quick, take a picture!”. This image was the result. This was the last painting I created for the show, every painting of which helped me mourn the loss of my friend, most especially this work, which was pure pleasure to paint. I love Turner, and his classic “Rain, Steam and Speed–Great Western Railway” painting from 1844, his perhaps optimistic, with a hare running along the side of the image, perhaps to bring up nature competing winningly with man and technology–or perhaps, if its chasing the hair, the threat of nature being overwhelmed by humankind’s hubris. I would like to think that this work helps to end the show on an optimistic note, with the promise of natural energy winning over coal and worse, with the feeling of progress, despite our current troubles, where good overwhelms all…. I also feel that, post painting, the blades feel like iconic bones, and there is something funereal about the proceedings, the blades being like the coffin of my friend, but hopefully like the end of a New Orleans Jazz funeral, the feeling of nature in the work being like “When the Saint Go Marching In” playing in the blades of grass and sky.