My American Dream: Heroes and Villain
American Gothique, 2018 Oil on linen 30 3/4 × 30 inches
American Gothique, 2018
Oil on linen 30 3/4 × 30 inches

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..