Frieze New York 2022
Arisfroggle Contemplating a Bust of a Twerp, 2022 56 1/2 × 56 1/2 inches
Arisfroggle Contemplating a Bust of a Twerp, 2022
56 1/2 × 56 1/2 inches

This painting is an appropriation of an appropriation—it is the painted rendition of a photo from Miss Piggy’s Treasury of Art Masterpieces from the Kermitage Collection, that was first a calendar, and then a book of Muppet parodies of famous artworks, edited by Henry Beard (from National Lampoon fame) and illustrated by John Barrett, published in 1984 by Holt, Rinehart and Winston. I grew up with the Muppets, and this calendar and book, and was a huge fan of all. I used to collect puppets and dolls of the Muppets (and all the albums, books, and artwork), could “do all the Muppet voices,” and they (and the world of Jim Henson!) were a huge influence on me in all my life, continuing today. The original Rembrandt painting Aristotle Contemplating a Bust of Homer from 1653 is also one of my most favorite paintings, at the Met in NYC, I would visit it often, and would docent in front of my students about it and all it entails. For me, this painting is a summation of much all I think about in my own work and for art in general and was so happy and grateful to create it at this time in my life, as I have been grateful to periodically visit Masterpieces from the Kermitage Collection and hope to eventually paint them all.

The secret to these works for me is to try my best to make them “masterpieces” as paintings from my own oeuvre, in a sincere attempt for form and content that hopefully may transcend any obvious irony or “joke”—to paint through the comedy to deeper issues. With this, as with the other works from this “collection,” I first photoshopped the figurative elements into the actual background of the real masterpiece—the group behind the parody was amazing at their costume designs, and painted backdrops and props, but I want to suture in the real work—and learn from the “masters” as much as I am contemplating the Muppet parody. The Rembrandt original is a profound work, created in the last stages of his career. In fact, as an in-person teaching tool, I would bring both fine art and comics students to the Met on field trips and the Rembrandt room where this was installed was a major stop. I taught fine art at NYU, Columbia, Yale, Brown, Brooklyn College, and Boston University, and was the “Cartooning Coordinator” and head comics teacher for 25 years at the School of Visual Arts. I still like to teach the “method acting” way of painting and artmaking, good for all these students, and would park them on the bench in front of this painting and had them contemplate both this work and the one nearby in the same gallery, the Man in a Turban, from 1632. I would ask them which work they thought that Rembrandt painted first, and they would always guess correctly. It’s instinctive, but also perhaps obvious, that Man in a Turban is a somewhat lesser work—it seems that Rembrandt was trying to impress for commissions his painterly genius—but by making sure he was painting “realistically” all the technical elements of the work—all the materiality of the garments, etc., has been brought up to look “real,” and it seems to be more about this, than the general synesthetic “feeling” of the work, or how all the parts combine for the whole of the entire image making an allegorical statement and the profound feeling of Aristotle Contemplating a Bust of Homer.

Aristotle was created after Rembrandt got into trouble for painting Night Watch and other works that exceeded their commissions, bringing his painterly zeal to nuance images that were as about his feelings towards the subject matter than perhaps the subjects themselves. After infamously becoming bankrupt, and contemplating his career and his world, perhaps Rembrandt might be suturing into the image, using it as a talisman for his feelings and ideas, as much as he might be painting to please a client with this commission. With the students, I would bring about James Dean, the great method actor, who would also suture into his roles as characters in previously written scripts, his own real life and experience to make his performances even more palatable and real. In the great 1955 classic Rebel Without a Cause, for instance, his character Jim Stark has a fight with the character’s father, played by the character actor Jim Backus (who played Mr. Magoo and Mr. Howell in Gilligan’s Island!). James Dean (who I love and am creating a graphic novel about, incorporating my many paintings of him) had real problems with his own real dad, and to get the most impact from Dean, the director Nicholas Ray created a set that replicated his real house Dean lived in with his real dad, so when he came onto his lines as an actor, in a fight with the Backus Dad character, he would gleam upon the fireplace, etc., of the fake living room, but this would be an emotive talisman for Dean to channel his real emotions about his father that he would translate to real feelings to infuse his performance with a palatable “realness” that would be so moving and translate so well on film.

I think that Rembrandt would do the same things in his work. Although we might not know who the characters are that he is portraying, if you like Rembrandt, what you might like is the emotive atmosphere of his works, that are uncanny and ineffable, but alive as ever and timeless, notwithstanding if you understand anything else in the image. For this work, Aristotle Contemplating a Bust of Homer, the Aristotle figure seems to be contemplating, in just looking at the work, but also from the many pundits (and my students when I ask!) about the meaning of life, mortality, and existence. Aristotle was a rich and successful philosopher and teacher—who was Alexander the Great’s mentor, and who in the painting, is wearing a medallion that his image upon it. Homer was of course the great philosopher and poet, but like Aesop, humble and poor, and perhaps in the original Aristotle is also contemplating his station in life—what is wealth to ideas of intellect and fighting the good fight in every way in teaching, and teaching through the allegory of storytelling, the many books in the background perhaps about the legacy of ideas.

In my version, coming from Rembrandt but also the Muppets, with the Lampoon-like satire of the title (which is the same as the Muppet original), Kermit might be in his role as the leader of the Muppets, contemplating the base humanness of Gonzo the Great, the hapless character that always strove for entertainment genius but usually faltered, albeit in genius comedic ways. Henson himself (and the whole Muppet troupe!) were their own genius. I like to paraphrase Joseph Campbell (George Lucas’s mentor!) when he believed “an artists’ job is to tell stories for a culture to understand itself, in order for the culture to progress,” and Henson and Co. did this, with all the zaniness of the Muppets and their skits, there was usually deeper meanings, and at their heart, empathy and compassion for all beings. Sesame Street was built upon the ideology of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the civil rights movement, and the Muppets as Sesame Street’s main entertainers, followed suit.

In my own life, I’m currently Chair of Painting, Drawing, and Printmaking at the Roski School of Art and Design, where I’m a full tenured professor of art, and transitioning, wonderfully, as chair to now focus on the Visual Narrative Art program I have helped create successfully there in addition to just teaching (and going on sabbatical in the first time in thirty years of teaching!). I practice what I preach, and not only is painting—and comic creating—about method acting, bringing art to life, but also the entertainment industry for which comics and illustration now serves as its primary content—with the same creators often being the writers, storyboard artists, art directors, etc. as they do in their own time as narrative artists—like Henson and Co.! I used this image as a talisman for my own station in life. I am proud to be a successful exhibiting fine artist, who loves comics and narrative art, which I incorporate in every facet in my own professional career and am honored to have served as chair for these three years. I feel in my role I’ve been a bit like Kermit in the Muppet Show, helping to organize artists, and to focus on bringing up great form with great content—that champions critical thinking, conceptual ideas, DEI and LGBTQ+ representations, and helping students help themselves to find their voices—and give them the tools—to express themselves in 2D realms (in addition to Narrative Art!).

The medallion has a Muppet character named “Beauregard” on it (my mother’s name that she originally wanted to call me!), but resembles my best friend, Dan Knapp, who passed away tragically five years ago today as I write this. I’m not a medium, but sometimes I do feel like I’m channeling when I’m painting, especially when they are characters that existed in the real world, and felt his “presence,” subconsciously derived or not, when I was painting this, hoping he might enjoy being there with me thinking his positive thoughts, as he did when he lived and visited me painting in my studio. I’m so happy to be married to my husband, Andrew Madrid, after thirty-plus years of being together, and Kermit’s ring symbolizes this, and as he is grappling with his golden chains, think of all the opportunity I’ve been so grateful to achieve in my life and career—as I’m transitioning to sabbatical, and also a new modest “dream home”—a rancho in the California desert with my beloved and all of our critters (chickens, dogs, cats, and a parrot named Picasso). In fact, while painting this, Picasso (my parrot, not the painter!) was with me as I painted alone in our apartment in Laguna Beach—Andrew had moved out to look after the house being rehabbed, and my African Gray parrot wonderfully kept me company—kind of like Gonzo to Kermit, where I also lovingly give her scratches and pets on her head and neck that she loves as she talks to me endlessly in her sentient speech.

While painting this image I thought of all of this, from a large photo glossy print, where the chiaroscuro of the original Rembrandt shone in the glare on the paper, where sometimes unconsciously eyes (my own?) appear, and other worlds—I’m a son of a psychoanalyst, and always feel that whether I’m working on my abstract Iconscapes or my figurative paintings, that in micromanaged moments, as form breaks apart, my unconscious takes over, like in dreams or in Cézanne’s mountains. Here, there is a lot of dream stuff happening in the chiaroscuro, and in the folds and chains of Kermit’s dress. I was painting this while the poor people of Ukraine were getting attacked by Russia, and hundreds were in shelter in a steel factory that was getting pummeled by Russia. If in a non-ironic, somehow even with the Muppets sincere way this could be about humanity in general, I felt that some of the fragmentation of the chains almost felt like remote viewing of the people in the steel factory that was haunting me while painting. Man’s inhumanity to man sadly prevails even in our contemporary era, and ultimately the Rembrandt—and wisely, the Muppet version, seems to be about the humanity of humankind, and our failings despite our intellect, mortality vs. immortality and so on the horrifically sublime suffering of the world. Muppets being puppets, they are also avatars of humanity, and even their puppeteers, who “act” by being fully engaged in the full performance of the characters (that, like Rembrandt’s, exist way beyond their makers, for the Pygmalion-like life infused into them by their creator).

I feel in the same way, I’m channeling this image for all that it could bring me—and as I solve the puzzle in my mind about what it could be about, I also solve the puzzle of the composition. There isn’t any way I can approach Rembrandt, one of the greatest painters of any age, but I can do the best I can to learn from him—and Master of Art like Jim Henson and the Muppets (and the faculty and students I work with on a daily basis!), to try to bring life to my work that endures, painting not like Rembrandt exactly, but like a Keith Mayerson (and I signed the bust on the base, just as Rembrandt signed his!).