Although when I initially conceived of “My American Dream” to not have images that referenced things outside of our country, Stuart Comer felt strongly otherwise, especially in regard to this painting, which he felt was essential and was right. The painting, of a wall in the Anne Frank House that remains basically as it was when Anne first wheat-pasted the images on it to give her hope, is a “key” or “legend” to the map of images in the installation itself. Like her (but in MUCH less of a tragic way of course!) I grew up with posters salon-style hung in my room, mixing high and low, to give me hope, and continue to this day to live in environments of salon-style hangings of my own and friend’s work, among many other images, that feng shui my world. This is a micro-managed world of the install itself, with high/low imagery mixed together, that I have truly painted in all these years to give myself hope, and as a young American when I first saw the wall on a trip after just graduating college, I had deep empathy for not only Anne but her writing and art (as did much of America, who read before Judy Blume her story, not just of the holocaust, but of her coming of age as a young independent woman and writer).
From a letter in 2009 to Daniel Belasco, then curator at the Jewish Museum in NY, for an article in book published in 2012 as “Suturing In: Anne Frank as Conceptual Model for Visual Art,” in Anne Frank Unbound: Media/Imagination/Memory, Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, Jeffrey Shandler, eds., Indiana University Press.
When I first went to the Anne Frank house in the late 80’s after college, I was deeply moved by the experience, and in particular, was struck by the way that she had pasted, salon-style, images that gave her optimism, contemplation, and hope in her room. I found an affinity in how she was able to juxtapose art reproductions with pop iconography, and, by being on the same plane and surface, make powerful historical images equatable (and more personable) by bringing them next to charming illustrations and photos from her everyday world. Certainly there is a melancholy associated with any photo of an almost-lost moment, and in the patina of time as the yellowing clippings became almost the same color as the mustard-palate wallpaper behind it, the collective peeling look brought out the synaesthetic emotions of the whole environment.
Several years ago when I went back to the Anne Frank house, I was struck again by her room—when she first pasted the photos on the wall she declared it to be (I’m paraphrasing here?) like a "huge drawing" and it really does work this way… I also realized that I had spent a large part of my career making shows of open-ended narratives, by juxtaposing "high" and "low" images together in installations of paintings and drawings that have a distant cousin in that room. The room, like the house, is a character in itself, and I was inspired to paint an image of the space photographed as it may have been furnished in her time, as it really resembled—and importantly, could stand in as an allegory for her experience—Van Gogh’s room, another Amsterdam hero.
When I paint my imagery based on appropriated sources and/or historical imagery, I research my topic seriously, as to fully understand what it is I’m creating an image of, and in the hope that not only will it have intellectual value in terms of its content, but that it might also resonate emotionally and transcend received notions and ideas to ultimately create an ineffable, sublime affect. Much like a method actor who would suture his own life into his character in order to both better understand his subject and to breathe life and real emotion into his performance, I try my best to understand the person I’m portraying as I’m painting a portrait, or world of a person or a culture, as to help animate it and make it become alive. Many of my thoughts regarding this are inspired by Scott McCloud’s great book Understanding Comics, when he discusses the power of an icon—that it is relatable to a large audience, and that, at least in the case of an essentialized iconic form like a cartoon, that "we" become "it" when we view the image. Much like the Chinese monks who would enter into a state of "maw" when they made a screen or scroll—wanting themselves as artists, in addition to the viewer, to "enter nature", they would meditate while rendering and "become" the simplified figure in a complex background, using it as an avatar into that world, I sometimes use real-life icons to not only create allegories based on what people might know about that figure and how it operates within the context I created for it, but also, by my handling of the paint and formal nuance, for them to "feel" what the character might be feeling. While painting anything associated with Anne Frank, for example, I listen to the audio tapes of her diary, music that was recorded around the same time that they hypothetically could have been listening to, and read research and view films about her and this period when I take breaks from my painting. When I finished my first portrait of her (now at the Cleveland Museum!), it was at the end of a long process where I had listened several times to the entire audio of the diaries, and at the end of my painting the tape was at a biographic section describing her seeing her long-lost friend and her weeping, and I found myself crying looking at my painting and feeling for her. Since then, I keep being drawn back to her as a figure (my last two shows in NY featured images of her, and my recent show in Amsterdam had over 10 drawings of her—one constituted over 40 tiny drawn portraits based on her photobooth pictures—-which I’m planning to turn into an animation soon), and hope that I learn more each time and the work has become even more nuanced.
With these two images, I’m hoping it might be interesting for the viewer to see what images perhaps inspired Anne Frank’s mind and optimism to make her incredible work, in addition, like in Rauchenberg’s famous "Rebus" painting, to make their own associations as to how to ultimately "read" the juxtapositions of images (McCloud calls this process "closure"—when the viewer creates the ultimate content when viewing just a part of something—for him, a sequence of panels depicting a larger scene). While doing so, I also hope that it posits the viewer in Anne Frank’s POV, where they find themselves "suturing" into the role of Anne, as they look at the reproductions painted exactly to scale of her wall—basically they are looking at a tromp l’oeil of the original surface. Like in the story "the Yellow Wallpaper", though, by allowing myself to meditate upon my own reflections and associations while painting these pieces, I hope something else slips through, and that my unconscious thoughts and emotions also become embedded into the work, making it animated and ultimately elusive of having specific fixed content and representation, while it moves into more emotional and psychological terrain that would ultimately help to encapsulate, or attempt to breach, the intensity and depth of what Anne Frank and so many others went through. My work concerning Anne Frank is in honor of her, and all the other peoples who suffered, in the hope to keep their experience alive to teach us now what must never be forgotten…
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Jasper Johns, Racing Thoughts, 1983, Whitney collection.
Jasper Johns is, I believe, the greatest American painter alive, and I am in tremendous admiration of his invention, talent, and skill. However, as much as I enjoy how he references art history, and builds upon the legacy of Duchamp, and becomes more autobiographical in his focus in his later years, the repressed emotive agency of his work is for me the frustrating aspects of the work. I interpret the compressed, sublimated emotion, which of course might be my own misprojection, as mysterious as some of the ambiguity of his work, as tight-lipped as some older repressed homosexuals, or having the flattened out emotion that I’ve experienced sometimes in the work of Warhol and students (although many of them can be geniuses, like Warhol, who have ASD). When viewing the great “Gray” show at the Met, I remember talking to a psychoanalyst, who was taking a break on a bench outside the exhibition in the gift shop, where I was trying to make a phone call. She asked me if she “had to like it”, in her frustration trying to have empathy for the work, and although I did, of course I told her that art was subjective, and if she couldn’t find a way in, perhaps it just wasn’t appealing for her and that was fine. And although I picked up some inkling of emotion, if this is to be something of value, in John’s “No” painting and others, it was cathartic to then visit, as an antidote, the works across the hall in the 19c European rooms, and regale to the colorful enchantment of Van Gogh, Manet, Monet, Gaugin, Picasso, and others…
Racing Thoughts, part of the Whitney Collection, has so many of the same nuances as the Anne Frank wall, with high images mixed with low, pattern and decoration, etc., symbols of death and mortality as well as life, Morandi with the bottles and more. The painting is a key or legend for the painter, in that it has so many autobiographical elements in his citing of Castelli, his legendary dealer, next to a postcard of the Mona Lisa (who of course Duchamp put a moustache on famously), and invocations of his artistic past and bodies of work. But the emotion is so sublimated, purposively so, as I believe it to pose questions about appropriation, the “ready-made”, pattern as decorative texture, and not illusion, etc. But now, post-Duchamp, post-Johns, does it have to be so? Can’t you have your cake and eat it, too? I want to make work that is windows onto other worlds, onto feeling, and to use the images not only to remark and point to things and cultural aspects beyond the picture plane, but also to project my own thoughts and feelings into a transcendent world of space and emotion.
Beyond the short story by American writer Charlotte Perkins Gilman, written in 1892, that is considered as a feminist work in that the journal entries written by the narrator, who has been confined by her physician husband to a room with yellow wallpaper to “recuperate” from her “temporary nervous depression—a slight hysterical tendency” a misogynist diagnosis at the time, as she slips into psychosis as the wallpaper she is obsessed with becomes almost alive. As I was listening to the diaries, the wallpaper here almost became alive, too, as it revealed, in its peeling patina, the feelings I was experiencing, having empathy for poor Anne as she struggled to remain optimistic in a claustrophobic world that was crumbling around her.