Duck Soup (We’re Going to War!), 2008 Oil on linen 54 × 72 inches
Duck Soup (We’re Going to War!), 2008
Oil on linen 54 × 72 inches

This is a picture of the great Marx Brothers in their masterpiece anti-war comedy as their characters hysterically celebrate a decision to go to war while in the background generals and politicians gesticulate frantically in dance (a vision originally created as Hitler, Franco and Mussolini—who banned the film—were rising to power. This film is both hilarious and disturbing and apocalyptic, in a scene that emulates American’s false claims to the UN that began the war in Iraq. While painting this, I listened to the Marx Brothers incredible films and radio broadcasts, I also listened to music recorded at the time, etc, as I did Groucho Marx’s letters while I painted him, and so on, to get a real "feeling" of them while I worked. Humor is very close to fine art—it usually is about the juxtaposition of two or more things that normally don’t go together going together to create a fissure—in this case, a celebratory dance and declaration of war. In all art, it recognizes that there is a breach between signified and signifier—what we are looking at, and how we traditionally are taught to understand what we are looking at. For Eisenstein, his idea of the "filmic" is when you see a picture of a field, but hear a sound of a boot, and your mind needs to negotiate that juxtaposition. Or he would say that Van Gogh painted "red trees"—trees aren’t usually red, but this was the poetry of Van Gogh. The Marx Brothers at their best were artful—they would, in a carnivalesque manner, throwing everything you think you know up in the air so you had to look at it anew—of course we usually don’t break into dance when going into war, but there is a strange excitement that charges the air—something very much felt around the country after our decision to go into war after 9-11, strategically set up to make us feel this way.

In Roland Barthes’ great essay "The Third Meaning," he discusses his ideas via Eisenstein film stills, who created movies inspired by painting, but also Walt Disney, who he felt made moving paintings. After communism went wrong, and he wanted to continue making movies in the Stalinist regime, he quietly subverted his supposed propaganda films to get by the censors and the government who funded his projects, but wanted his audience to critically think or upset how they would normally see when watching. For Barthes, the first meaning is literally what you see—in this case—the Marx Brothers wildly gesticulating in front of Germanic looking soldiers and officials. The second meaning for Barthes is what the artist was consciously thinking about when creating the work, the "obvious" symbolism—that you can read in an image, and "horizontal" reading of the scenes happening in time. In this case, I’m pretty sure the Marx Brothers, although they claimed this WASN’T an anti-war vehicle, were making fun of governments and people getting worked up over nothing, and creating real chaos and terror in the process of the testosterone-fueled energy dynamic of warring parties and nations, and the irony of this being like a wild dance. The Third Meaning for Barthes is the "vertical reading"—what an audience may bring to a work of art, what they gleam from watching something that perhaps was not intended by the director or the artist, but something that is provoked by the form and content of the art—the ineffable "something" that gives a work a life of its own in the eyes and mind of the viewer who brings their own closure to a piece by critically thinking about, while perhaps also emotionally being stirred or feeling what is conjured inside of them—but moved in a manner of how they think about how they are being moved, and importantly, why and how it may then serve to make them think for themselves about their life and world.

When painting this work, and all my works while looking at photos, the "third meaning" is intrinsic to my process. I use the photographic image as a talisman to project my own thoughts and associations, meanings and feelings, hoping that in the abstract notions of the picture plane, my unconscious will break into a subconsciously derived abstraction that will then induce a life among the viewer. I’ve been incredibly influenced by Cézanne and the Modernists, but before this, the Old Masters, and in this case, in particular, El Greco. El Greco was originally inspired and came out of Byzantine icon painting, where painters really felt that they were channeling something real when painting images of saints and holy figures—that painting them was like a direct communication with that entity that would come alive and speak to them through their brush, and then for the person praying, meditating, or otherwise regarding the image. Unlike many of the Old Masters who were relegated to the margins by not making things look "real" or "good" (the very reason they are now the Old Masters is that they painted in excess to the commission and brought their own vision to the "reality" before them), El Greco made a great career for himself as the particular sect of Catholicism valued the PASSION that he brought to his subject matter. Although his figures and forms looked like they got lost in Photoshop and couldn’t find their way out, the result was that, within the sinewy figures where the negative and positive space converge, there are strange and wonderful tableaus, and synaesthetic energy created that makes one FEEL the emotions that he wanted you to feel, while you THINK about what the subject matter was about for yourself—in his case, mostly religious. While obviously not a religious image, while painting this I was definitely thinking about the almost sublime absurdity of going into war, our current ones or almost any in history. While of course it is important to protect our nation and people, and defeat evil whenever necessary, so much of the time it really is of course about money, power, and ego, and so many lives are lost and so much tragedy occurs in this horrible history. While transferring the black and white image into color, while negotiating all the folds and forms and strange abstractions that happened in the micromanaged space in this image, I thought deep thoughts not only about the generous and amazing smart comedy generated by the Marx Brothers (and Groucho in particular) but about my own ethnic Jewish history (or half Jewish—my father is Jewish, my mother Southern Baptist which technically doesn’t make me a Jew but my sister is reform and changed her name to Chaya Rivka and it is cultural identity I feel the closest to), and how Jewish comedy has come through time and tragedy, the craziness of the Bush years, and my own life as an artist, wanting to entertain but make people think, too. And much much more—as of course the world was coming into holocaust when this film was being made, and being in the show "Good Leaders, Endangered Species, Ships at Sea," our own country at this time was headed into its own great depression.

My paintings aren’t photorealistic but "felt," I suppose, and I hope my unconscious spills out into them to give them life. I love modernity for the emotions and feelings works of that time can project, but also for their hegemonic formal nuances of light, color, and so on, and how they really could be "windows into other worlds," the subconscious. But I also revere post-modernity for its politics and content, for producing art that had everything to do with the culture surrounding it and how it reflected larger truths beyond the picture plane. I hope to embrace both sensibilities in my paintings and drawings. They might not look exactly like received images that we are accustomed to seeing, perhaps simply because I’m gay and choose subject matter that many might take seriously (I also believe people like Judy Garland, Elvis, and James Dean made a significant impact on our way of life and culture). Sometimes people don’t know how to read my work, but I hope this is part of its strength, and that, ultimately, people might bring to the image and their relationship to the iconic subject matter their own ideas and will "get it," its seriousness, in addition to my embrace of beauty and/or truth beyond surface representations.