This was one of the first paintings I did for the show. When I was creating the "Hamlet 1999" series, Dean became one of the iconographic references for the figure of Hamlet. I have painted and drawn pictures of him since college. Many people still don’t know this, but Dean was almost completely gay, and had many documented experiences and lovers, as well as being one of the greatest actors of all time, and an icon for rebellion America. I started long ago, before grad school, to paint pictures of porn stars, as they were "cheap and easy" models, already printed in a magazine, therefore, by painting them, I wasn’t objectifying them first hand—they had already been objectified by the original photographer… I was also coming out, and felt the non-subjugated world of "free to be you and me" lovers was a utopic fantasy to suture into. Growing older, I realized that my favorite artists and actors do a better job fulfilling the role of a model—in film stills, it captures a performance (or a genius’s aura) where the persona is concentrating on being the role they stand in for, or just being themselves as great artists. By painting them, I can have some of the best models in the world posing for me in scenes reality and from films that have allegorical resonance to me, and hopefully, by extension, to our times…
Hopefully, this image of Dean captures some of his rebel spirit, which hopefully is more than just about sexuality, and about the fighting against repression and subjugation…
This is a picture of Marvin Gaye, an appropriation from the cover of his famous "What’s Going On" record that changed Motown records and made music history as being one of the most politically charged soul albums of all time. The smoky, spiritual sounds of it send me and I was obsessively listening to it while painting the "Archer Prewitt (Montgomery Clift)" painting that was also featured in the show this originated in “Rebel Angels at the End of the World” at QED Gallery in Los Angeles in 2005, and felt compelled to render the cover of Gaye’s masterpiece immediately. This album seemed more relevant than ever in those dour times as we were getting more involved in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, and Gaye’s cynical, yet somehow ultimately hopeful view of humanity seems as necessary as ever. He is a transcendent figure, in a way a saint and a true rebel, one of our great artists, murdered by his own father. It is my hope to be able to make work, that like Gaye’s is able to address the culture outside of the work itself, to make work that is political and conscious of it’s place in contemporary times and also cultural history, but also to have the same work be beautifully formal, and ultimately transcendent beyond immediate context and times and meaning. Gaye began his amazing career as a Motown soul stylist, helping to forge the sound of that great studio, but as the politics of the time and the singer/songwriter movement grew to create songs of deeper meanings, Gaye fought for the right to make this and subsequent works of great meaning, and while Berry Gordy resisted this creative control, ultimately everyone realized the power of the work and it became one of the touchstone albums of all time. It’s always important to make work that is “about something”, but also, in a post Post Modern way, to make work that can also be instinctive, melodic, and ultimately sublime in transcendence beyond language. While painting this, I listened to Gaye obsessively, and tried to capture the spirit of all this while painting the cover of the album, like I used to listen to records as a kid while gazing at the cover, bringing me to another place within the music.
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Portrait of Juan Pareja, by Diego Velasquez, 1650, Metropolitan Museum.
One of my favorite portraits at the Met, and one of my favorite in the world, is this picture at the Met of Juan Pareja. In fact, the day I found out I was in the Whitney Biennial, I was on the steps of the Met when I received the email, after taking my SVA comics kids on the “kinda like comics” tour of the Met. where we look at narrative works and also seek out the people of color and respectful pictures of women throughout the museum, to give these students (many of whom aren’t regular museum goers) as sense of the history of narrative in art, and also to demystify and give access to art history, which can seem remote to them, for political reasons of class, race, and gender. I don’t want to make the same mistakes of art history, and want to people my exhibitions of all kinds of communities and histories that make up our world. The “Sister Wendy” story of this work was that Velasquez was already famous in Spain, but when he wanted commissions while visiting Italy, he had his assistant Juan Pareja hold this painting up and slowly lower it, to show how well he painted and how he was able to capture the proud dignity of the man who carried the work, who was himself an artist, who Velasquez freed from slavery, and whose work he encouraged to leave around the studio to introduce it to patrons and royalty, establishing Area as a renown artist in his own right and lifetime. I hope to bring proud agency to the people in my painted portraits, especially those like Gaye, who changed culture with his amazing work.
Darby Crash was the leader of the seminal Southern California punk band "The Germs," the band that was one of the primary leaders of the movement. Listening to the Germs now, they don’t seem dated, they seem even more artful, skilled Dada artists creating a sound that still rips and feels right-on target.
Darby was gay, and according to one of my friends who knew him well at the time, it was one of the reasons he committed suicide. He couldn’t stand the fact that the other punks might hate him because he loved ballet. He was a virtuosic poet, and his lyrics come close at times to being a 20th century Rimbaud, and as he shouted them, not always into the microphone, he created a sound that exactly replicated the fury of his content.
I found all these photos in a thrift store in Lake Elsinore, California from a portfolio of a Hungarian-born actor named Janos Prohaska, who worked as a costume actor in the 60’s and 70’s. He was "Dancing Bear" (although maybe not the official one) on the Captain Kangaroo show, in addition to being various apes, monkeys, aliens, mummies, and a sasquatch for movies and television. This is from one of these photos. As I’m thinking this show as being allegorical in some ways for the "Last Judgment" I was thinking of the Captain as Archangel Michael and the bear representing humanity trying to get into heaven. "Gold" on his book represents Mammon to me, as in "No man can serve two masters… Ye cannot serve God and mammon." Matthew 6:24. The Captain is hopefully letting him in, especially since the painting seems to be running out and dancing bear is shuffling his feet, hoping that the Captain will let him through before he looses his footing and spills out into nothingness.
I was also teaching precollege kids comics during the time I painted this, and listened to the entirety of the latest Harry Potter book on cd while actually creating the image, so I would feel that the fantasy world the kids engage in, and the hero-relevance of Captain Kangaroo, and how he helped to give generations of children their agency is also hopefully embedded in the piece… (2005)
This is another image culled from photos of the costume character actor Janos Prohaska who died in a plane crash. He more famously was the "cookie bear" on the Andy Williams show for a brief time in the early 70’s, where Andy who begin to croon his famous "Moon River," and just before, the "Cookie Bear" would shuffle onto the stage asking for a cookie, to which Andy would reply "You can’t have a cookie!" and the saddened bear would shuffle off. This was Janos as an alien, however, in a more positive role, and I feel he represents an alien angel telling Andy (representing Man) that all you need is "Love."
This work "blisses" out into otherworldly landscapes, hopefully appropriate to its theme. Since college I have made abstract paintings (that subconsciously perhaps begin to cohere as figurative scenes) side-by-side figurative works (that purposively fall apart into abstraction). With this show (Rebel Angels, 2005), and specifically in this painting, I feel that I have finally been able to conflate both abstraction and the figurative into works that have recognizable themes and subject matter for the viewer to "suture into," and upon contemplation, have them "open up" into other worldly (inner worldly?) situations that are transcendent and sublime. I want all my paintings to be "puzzle boxes" that first appear to be "normal" recognizable images, only to have their veil pulled off to reveal subconsciously derived "windows onto other worlds" the more the viewer "unlocks" the works by their persistent gaze. (2005)
Again, I’m a super-lefty liberal, and this I feel is a comment on our current administration, and by allegorical relation, patriarchy (symbolized by the house-and the "man" behind the curtain-the chimp) in general. This is from a scene almost taken completely out of the film, where a gang, dropping his "groceries," harasses a man and running away, observed by a drunken Dean in character. The actual film opens up with what happens next: during the title sequence Dean drops to his knees to get closer to the mechanical monkey, emulating the stupid way he bangs his cymbals, and "putting him to bed" by placing the toy chimp on his back and covering it with the paper to his right that had wrapped the lily’s to his left. This is a clean symbolic allegory for me: "Rebel Without a Cause" is W. and Iraq, and Dean is making fun of the chimp in front of a nightmarish White House and the bourgeois suburban culture it is a part of… Ultimately, this movie is so great (and Dean in it) because it has come to symbolize in the most iconic way the adolescent-like hopefulness of the power to rise above patriarchal oppression and ignorance. (2005)
From 2005 when I first painted this picture:
This is from an outtake from the filming of Giant, when Dean has had his makeup applied for the scene when he finally strikes (and becomes covered in) oil, both bringing on his financial success and his spiritual demise. I was listening to the liberal talk radio “Air America” through the painting of this and many of the other images in the show, and feel this is a commentary on Iraq, and subsequently, all other decisions by the Bush administration to prioritize oil and profit over humanity. This is “blood for oil” with a lusty relish, “God” is in his pocket (with his emblematic chain), as the “Good Old Boys” in the background look on…
In the slippery slope of allegory, however, I feel this has more than one meaning… Like most of the other images from the show in which I first exhibited this painting (Rebel Angels at the End of the World, QED Gallery, LA, 2005), this was derived from a black and white (and fuzzy!) image, and I part of the artistry of painting these images comes from projecting onto them not only emotionally and thematically, but also formally, creating color interpretations for values that I see, and hopefully creating synaesthetic worlds from those interpretations. I love painting, and quite frankly, really enjoyed painting this (as with all the works in that show!) and feel that my love for OIL (painting, that is!) is hopefully conveyed in this work (in addition to all the other layers on interpretation)…
Velazquez, Pope Innocent X, 1650 and Francis Bacon, Study After Pope Innocent X, 1953
Of course the Francis Bacon painting after the Velazquez portrait of Pope Innocent X is intense and great, and well-earned in its legend. But of course the original Velazquez is hard to beat, as it’s a master painting by the master! Bacon, as amazing as he is I feel tires after a while—he usually feng-shui’s the figure as if it got lost in a psychological photoshop, in a distilled, Matissian-color field background, with pathos, over and over again—not exactly formula—but seeing his retrospective, I wonder if it was almost like listening to Joy Division every day without a break—even the Smiths had more of a sense of humor and balance, and couldn’t a gay guy like Bacon get a break (although who am I to belittle a contemporary master like Bacon, and I do get a more Picasso-esque interiority and nuance of being in his work when I want)… But Velazquez, kind of like Lucian Freud, I think does a thing harder—instead of people screaming in boxes to have emotive effect, I think its in the layering of the skins of paint, the micro-managed moments, that have a wonderful range of intensity and personality in his sitters. Can you have your cake and eat it, too, exaggerating some of the moments, but also embed them in figurative representation closer to life?
Willem de Kooning, Woman, 1950
Another contemporary Master, de Kooning, recognized the power of talismans to riff off into a spasm of emotional abstraction—his epiphany was the weirdness of objectifying the orifice of the mouth, spurring on his imagination to create his powerful Woman series—not to get into the complicated politics of this, and loving his ability to slide from representational into the abstract, but could you bring the mouth back to the figure and also have it reside in plastic space that adheres to form and still have the intensity, and abstraction in micro-managed moments like the old masters?
From 2005 when I first painted this picture:
This is from an image from the original crash site, painted on the 50th anniversary of the James Dean’s death… I wasn’t thinking of this however when I was painting it, it was from a James Dean book (James Dean: American Icon, with the photos archived by David Loehr, owner of the James Dean Museum, that I have subsequently become friendly with) that is I felt compelled in the middle of the movie “Room With A View” that I was watching one summer day when I was at Brown to run out to the bookstore and get…
Obviously this relates to Andy Warhol disaster series… If painting is like punk rock, which is essentially about "killing your father" to do something new, Warhol is the father to kill in order for art to progress into the 21 century…. After all is said and done, I really believe that Warhol was a pock-marked gay poor kid from Pittsburgh who really wanted to BE Marilyn Monroe, and that his work was saturated with the pathos of the agency being reified into commodity culture, and his work is exemplary of a culture spinning out of control, and talked about it in a spiritual way… However, this isn’t how his work was considered in his time, and the "slip-shod" way of his "non-hand" silk-screening a painting surface was all about HIM killing the fathers of abstract-expressionism, and perhaps Picasso and all that came before…
But what if Warhol painted like Rembrandt? Or Van Gogh? Or Velasquez? With all of the ideology (modernist? or what came to be considered the ideology of modernism–i.e. its not the subject matter that was important, but what you bring to the subject matter that is important? The mind of the artist, the subconscious, the transcendent and perhaps SUBLIME affects of painting?)…
I think that post-modernism has opened up so many doors and windows considering the politics that surround art and the language in which we interpret it, that the time for painting being able to be PAINTING while at the same time smart and true to the culture in which it is brought out in is possible…
While painting this I was thinking how his car crash is emblematic of a culture that is currently embracing cars, oil, technology and so on in such a manner as to disregard where it is leading us…. James Dean is the humanistic sincerity of all of us caught up in a system that doesn’t care, that will ultimately serve to destroy the people that help to drive it… I love Van Gogh, but wasn’t thinking consciously of him or his work when I was doing this; it just came out that way… I love looking at the space in modernist (and premodern) paintings in the subconscious pockets of plastic space that appear in the negative space between things, think that the artist was able to have their inner mind (or eye, or spirituality) spill out into the works, giving it the alchemy of life. There are many wild pockets of activity in this painting, and I have spent hours gazing into it, interpreting it… I feel that James Dean is in the back car seat, and saw in the photo what I took to be Christ or an angel lifting him up… I’m not a religious person, but a spiritual one, and found that unlike many of the other posed photos I appropriate, this real life scene was saturated with Third Meanings that gave it such a life that it seemed like a recording of an otherworldly event… Whether or not this is true, certainly when painting it I felt driven and inspired as my subconscious took over, describing the death of one of Americas great iconographic actors that came to an untimely end, surrounded by the patriarchal-like figures of his mechanic (who miraculously?) was thrown to safety, and those who happened (?) to be at the scene to help to pick up the pieces…
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Andy Warhol, Silver Car Crash (Double Disaster), 1963
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Van Gogh, Harvest at la Crau With Montmajour in the Background 1888
I was thinking of ending the show with the Dorothy painting, a freeze-frame of confused pathos, like in the end of the "400 blows," but felt compelled to paint this painting, really portraying a version of what she might be looking at "the end of the world." I have also always wanted to paint this image as it was large black and white poster of this was tacked to my bedroom wall when I was a child, and I have always loved it.
I teach a section of my senior class at NYU on King Kong (the voodoo nature of stop-motion animation-so fake its real!), and we discuss the allegorical associations with the narrative, in addition to looking at the formal attributes of a "moving sculpture" that has been obsessively "rendered" in that it appears to be "breathing life." There are obviously colonial references throughout the film, and it is about race and slavery as much as anything else. I, however, have a real interest in the iconographic power of anthropomorphosized animals to portray humans, and feel for me that gorillas, monkeys, and humans in animal suits are representative of human beings, sentient animals that are trained and conditioned to act within ideological power structures.
I painted this during the entire Hurricane Katrina debacle, in despair of what was happening and how it represents capital at its worse: the disregard of people, our environment, and our world for the sake of profit and corporate greed. Kong is all of humanity, and perhaps nature itself, reacting in rage and pathos to what man has created and its subjugation by a belief system that threatens to annihilate itself and bring on "the end." (2005)