My American Dream (Marlborough)
Mona Moi (from the Kermitage Collection), 2015 Oil on linen 36 × 24 inches
Mona Moi (from the Kermitage Collection), 2015
Oil on linen 36 × 24 inches

Mona Moi is an image of the Muppet Miss Piggy as the Mona Lisa, 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, and had always wanted to create this image of Miss Piggy next, but got sidetracked (I was worried about it being an appropriation, perhaps "too easy," and also my friend Dana Schutz had just painted her version of the Mona Lisa after I had this idea, so I thought it might be better to wait). 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 for my forthcoming large cosmology version of My American Dream, to be exhibited at Marlborough Chelsea in Manhattan in the fall of 2015.

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 Miss Piggy as the Mona Lisa, 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 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.

I also grew up influenced by the Picture Generation, and ideas building on Duchamp and notions of the readymade and appropriation. Of course, one of the most famous, and seminal Duchamp works is his 1919 work, the infamous L.H.O.O.Q, Mona Lisa with moustache.

To me, this is one of the "Plymouth Rock’s" of appropriation (although Eugene Bataille did his version of her smoking a pipe in 1883)—the simple maneuver of bastardizing a postcard by adding a moustache and a slur (in French, pronouncing the letters sound like "Elle a chaud au cul"—"She is hot in the ass"), do much to turn around Rock’s" of appropriation (although Eugene Bataille did his version of her smoking a pipe in 1883)—the simple maneuver of bastardizing a postcard by adding a moustache and a slur (in French, pronouncing the letters sound like "Elle a chaud au cul"—"She is hot in the ass"), do much to turn around the original da Vinci image, and make it his own, whilst also updating the painting for his (and our!) time. He of course is defying her gender, which subsequently has been rumored to be a self portrait perhaps of da Vinci (who said "every painter paints himself ") and undermining the hierarchy of painting in general, reflecting how it has been then and now reproduced for the masses in ad infinitum—and of course, like any of his readymades, it becomes a (not unique, as he made many copies himself of the work) artwork of his authorship, once his own "spin" has been put on the image. Many artist subsequently havealso played with the Mona Lisa (and of course it has also been brought to the masses in all numbers of ways via reproduction, and is a major example of how art changes via reproduction in Walter Benjamin’s canonical text "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction." However, one of the other influential examples for me is Warhol’s use of the Mona Lisa, in several different works he created in his lifetime. Like many of his icons, he silk-screened her multiple times on the same canvas, in different paintings in different eras of his life. However, although the original da Vinci "essence" in my mind still comes through, of course these works also remark about her reproducibility, and how she, like many works of art, have been broadcast in different vehicles in modern times, and so on, more than what the inner nature, or "aura" or quasi-spiritual qualities might be held in the original masterpiece.

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. After almost a century after Duchamp created his version (and over a century in the case of Bataille), perhaps what can’t be reproduced can have some credo, and emotions—feeling, synaesthetics, what can’t be put into language—can also be pertinent and carry much weight (and hopefully not too much baggage)! 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."

With Mona Moi, like a method actor, or indeed like Frank Oz who originally performed the character, I tried to "get inside" her spirit, to drive the form and the content to have a life of its own by relating her and the image to my own life, and my own cultural references. I listened to music from the time when I first watched and became enthralled by her, to try to channel those feelings into the painting. I also listened to music of great divas of pop culture—from Barbra Streisand to Beyoncé—to try to channel their energy and messages into the work. And not quite like a drag-queen, I ruminated on everything that had been going on inmy life 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 her. 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. So, unlike the pre-Photoshop backdrop in the photo, which seemed like an inexpensive blow-up of the background placed behind the doll, I referred back to the original da Vinci, and really enjoyed going through the nooks and crannies of the uncanny world of medieval Florence, or the world of dream-like imagination that inspired the fantastic cosmology behind her. 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, that feels alive, ineffable, mysterious, and beyond hopefully the cultural and political references, a painting that will hopefully transcend my hand, mind, and time and speak in her own mysterious way to all.