This is the first painting I created in graduate school, at the University of California, Irvine, in the early ‘90’s. Based on a drawing I had created the summer before coming to school, while I was living in a basement in Brooklyn, it is of Ty Cashe, a barely-known porn star, who was in one of the first gay porn magazines I have ever bought (and seen!) in college. Narcissistically, I thought it looked a bit like me from when I was younger, and we were about the same age, so he was like an avatar that existed in a non-subjugated world where it was perfectly okay to be gay and to act out on your desires. Engraved in the wax of the surface of the painting, however, I used a nail and a stencil to painstakingly write “Suddenly it occurred to me this is my life to me to me” over and over again.
At the time, being a Semiotics major at Brown, I was deeply invested in the idea of language being like the software that operates the notions (and ideologies) of how we perceive the world in the hard drive of our brains. Homosexuality didn’t exist before the late 1800’s when a Belgium scientist “discovered” that word—of course there have been same sex relationships since the beginning of human kind and nature, but not since we had that word would we have the specific subjugations that come about using the power and ideas generated from the specificity of language mapping over the reality of how things exist within the world.
Many of my Semiotics friends became Buddhists, in that Buddhism is the ancient philosophy that, much like Semiotics, shows that we and the world exists, but perhaps not in the manner that we perceive it, and I remember asking one of my Semiotics professors at Brown, in a nihilistic moment, that if “it all adds up to zero” what was the point, and he retorted that “well, it’s interesting to talk about”! Most great art I believe exposes the play between signifier and signified in the semiotic sign, and hear I was really trying to express how beings like the boy in the image exist within the world, but suddenly, when they find out their Lacanian place within the Symbolic Order, all sorts of ideological ideas can come upon them.
I had always been attracted to other males, but felt “different” than the gay people I saw portrayed in television (such as John Ritter in Three’s Company, although he was supposed to be a straight character performing as a gay one!), and didn’t want to be the “fag” that was beat up on the playground. In the original incarnation that this work appeared, it was alongside other portraits of three other pornstars/hustlers, against the different elements (fire, water, earth), with texts from a play I had written (I come from a playwriting/theater/comics background) and a video, in a show entitled “Not”. I was interested in how many teens that commit suicide did (and perhaps sill do) so when they find out they are lesbian or gay—when they find out they are this word that has so many negative connotations that seem so different from how they originally identified (and felt) about themselves. Thankfully, our world has much progressed since even the early ‘90’s, with cultural and political revolutions, the ability of people to survive with HIV, and with shows like Glee and more, super positive LGBT characters live in our entertainment culture that have inspired a younger generation—and the world in general—to have a much more positive respect for people of all persuasions—but of course some of these issues naggingly persist. In the current incarnation of this painting in this installation of “My American Dream”, I hope that it has a much more positive feeling—that this is a boy, and iconic avatar personally for myself—looking into the future of his life with the knowing that it will all turn out wonderfully in the end, that he will be able to get married, be happy with his husband and with his family in an America that has grown and matured, thanks to history of cultural revolutions that have proceeded and persist, to make a world that people can live with empathy and compassion and respect for one another and the world. Like the boat next to him in the installation, which could be his toy boat but in that image one of the strongest, fastest ships in America that survived horrible storms, that despite the anguish he might be currently feeling, that he could ultimately, romantically survive into a 21 century America that is a better place.
Ty Cashe evidently DID survive the age of HIV related deaths, and is still around somewhere in the Bay Area, and it was incredibly moving and vindicating that, after 14 years, hopefully this painting still holds up, that my 47 year old self carried this picture I created when I was just 25 years old through the lobby of the Whitney Museum to hang on the wall the installation that wasn’t just a non-linear narrative entitled “My American Dream” but actually performing this—that when I painted the picture I hoped to be in the Whitney Biennial, and this was my dream come true.
I read the famous book by Robert Henri “The Art Spirit” when I was in college, and it always stuck with me as being true—the warmth and human emotion and trying to capture the “spirit” of the subject was a driving force for me, even when in Graduate School as a child of the Pictures Generation school of appropriation. If I could appropriate images, painting from photography (in this case, also not objectifying the subject in the way that I was taught Degas would—he was already objectified in the film and photos of porn), I could project my feelings of empathy and relate to the subject, and also hope that I could capture his spirit in doing so, that ultimately would give the work a “life of its own” beyond any intended meaning on my behalf.
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Robert Henri, Laughing Child, 1907, Whitney Museum