Love Triumphant (James Dean in a Tree) Oil on linen 68 × 45 inches
Love Triumphant (James Dean in a Tree)
Oil on linen 68 × 45 inches

I had a show in Brussels during the time of my 40th birthday, and as a result, Andrew and I (he is my same age) had a “40th Birthday Blowout” and stayed in Amsterdam and Paris, in addition to Brussels.  At the Van Gogh Museum at the time, there was a Rembrandt/Caravaggio show, and it was like one of those Sundays Titans of Rock concerts, because all our favorites were under one roof!  “Love Triumphant” is inspired by one of the great Caravaggio paintings that was exhibited there, in addition to the notion, looking at these great Old Masters, that they would always micro-manage to the macro-managed whole, much like Van Gogh but tighter, where the unconscious would still spill into the picture plane much like the looser Van Gogh’s would—and in a sublime way. The surfaces of all these masters are so activated by their wicker-like weave of painterly like strokes that it would make the scene come alive—much like when you are a child, and when you are outside, everything is alive as you are taking things in for the first time without having the language of understanding that helps to subdue the consciousness into not seeing how things and yourself exist in the air and in the world.  When I first saw the Caravaggio painting in Germany when I was first out of college, it was funny as their were blue-haired old ladies lovingly admiring what I saw was an extremely subversive painting—this naughtily cherub-like angel was exposing his rectum in the first (and perhaps the only) painting I’ve every seen that had a male figure show this body part!

The source image for this painting was from a notorious photo that circulated in gay publications in the ‘70’s that was reputably of James Dean in a tree, showing all.  James Dean was gay, or at least “Hollywood Bisexual”, and its been well documented how he was sugar-daddied into Hollywood, and had many gay intimate relationships, and was very free and open with his attitude and body—there is little reason NOT to believe this is James Dean!  He also changed culture in that he was the first to give a voice to a youth generation, post-Judy and Mickey “putting on a show”, and inspired Elvis to be Elvis and John Lennon to be John Lennon.   He wanted to be on the Mount Olympus of culture, to be on top with Michelangelo and Picasso in terms of how they thought anew and made art that made a world think differently, and the three films he made before he died at the age of 24, did just that, leaving a legacy that still endures and inspires to this day.  I feel that if there is a heaven, he is there, and I hope in the installation that is inspired by Michelangelo’s Last Judgment, here he is like a Seraphim angel, close to God, with the trees and branches and leaves acting like wings, looking down upon us from his heavenly point of view (after crashing in the car painting and being resurrected in the Gusher painting below him).  In the first Biennial I ever saw in 1987 there were outrageously queer paintings by McDermott and McGough, and I was so inspired by these as a still coming-out-of-the-closet gay youth, and I felt so vindicated and “saved” by these works, and coveted secretly the images in the catalog, secreting it away from my parents to look at the images in the privacy of my room, feeling a sense of community and worth through the images.  I hope that by having this painting in the show, I can also inspire young people today to not feel shame for their bodies, and also feel the exalted love for self and agency that I feel James Dean is expressing in this picture, one of the highlights of how his personality helped to shape the world and make it a better place today.

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Another inspiration for this work is the portrait of John Perreault, by the great Alice Neel.  He was a curator, looking for paintings for a figurative painting show he was organizing, and Neel convinced him to pose for him “in flagrante” for her.  Although she didn’t get curated into his show, the amazing portrait gets the last laugh for Neel, who makes one of the most vulnerable, tender and raw paintings of a man I have seen.

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Alice Neel, John Perreault, 1972, collection of the Whitney Museum.