Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, 2006 Oil on linen 72 × 60 inches
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, 2006
Oil on linen 72 × 60 inches

During the W. Bush era, instead of creating "Bush is Bad" type art, I wanted to create optimistic images to posit positive views for the future and what I believed in. I always loved Frank Capra, who was really an auteur in the Studio System days, where all of his movies seemed to be driven with a spirit to make the world a better place, and where it was usually the underdog who won and saved the day. Of course I’m also a huge Jimmy Stewart fan, and had painted him before in Vertigo for his heroic ability to stand tall and to be confident and driven, while at the same time to be a consummate everyman, someone who feels intrinsically American without, despite his gender and ethnicity, patriarchal and representative of phallocentric power. He had empathy and compassion and heart of gold, which seemed to come through with every role he played.

For my show Kings & Queens I wanted to create images of people and scenes that represented allegorically were I felt we were at—in some ways it was like a Last Judgment with all the characters being like Seraphim angels in heaven, and felt elegiac in the darker days of the Bush years, post 9-11 and headstrong into the wars. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington was always a favorite film of mine growing up, and I would break down with tears of happiness at the vindication of this Boy Scout honest man who had become quickly a senator who wants also to expose the graft and the political machine that threatened not only the land he wanted to get funding for to build a boy’s camp, but allegorically to bring truth and integrity to an America seemed gone astray. I painted this work of course thinking of our time, and how we needed someone like a Mr. Smith, here of course looking towards Lincoln at the Memorial with hopeful, but pensive anticipation.

Part of the challenge here was to paint a black and white image into color, and to make it look alive and not just like a film still. Having recently traveled to Europe where we saw many Old Master paintings—especially an inspirational Caravaggio/Rembrandt show at the Van Gogh Museum (like one of those Sunday rock concerts with the titans of Rock all jamming together!), it was illuminating to see how they would "micro-manage to the macro-managed whole" thinking their thoughts about the figurative allegorical narrative they were painting, and in the negative space, the abstracted notions of their unconscious would spill into their conscious renderings giving them a life of their own that transcended the ages. I had been making paintings that had taken their time, as a son of a psychoanalyst, I wanted my subconscious to spill through and break into abstraction figurative elements, and as soon as it seemed to have a life, or when the muse would leave me, I would leave it alone, sometimes in fragmented forms with canvas spilling through, a la Cézanne and the Impressionists. I realized, looking into the negative space of those Old Masters, that strange eyes, faces, unconscious reflections of the inner mind of the artist would be projected into the inner space of the painting—kind of like the negative space arrow in the Fed Ex logo makes you subliminally think that the Fed Ex brand is faster, perhaps this inner life of the painting was the thing that drove the ineffable emotions of Rembrandt, Caravaggio, and Velasquez—where, like Van Gogh, where I see his unconscious projection of his visage in his cypress trees and so on, we see the dreams of the masters unconsciously coming through their projections of life. Specific to this image, we also got good quality luggage when we went on this whirlwind trip for our 40th birthdays—and I realized that perhaps they were worth what we paid because when you looked at all the detail, the luggage itself, while not being art, was certainly incredibly well made—and shouldn’t painting or any kind of art be well crafted too, in addition to being alive to transcend the ages—or maybe that it was exactly the voodoo-doll like nature of making something that has a life of its own. When you obsess about what you obsess about, like weaving over and over a human hair in a voodoo doll, thinking about your image and transmuting your thoughts and feelings with every stroke of your brush, perhaps you get something that goes beyond your intentions and time to create a feeling of the sublime. Micro managing to the Macro managed whole equates what the sublime does when you are in nature—where every little leaf in every tree and every grass in a meadow is alive all together and you are overwhelmed with that sensation when you are a small child without the "filters" to not think about how everything is alive—perhaps if a painter actively paints a surface, figuring out the golden-ration arguments for every part of every inch of all the surface, it then reignites that feeling in the viewer, touching those buttons of those sensations when one is young and the world overwhelms.

With this work, what became uncanny to me is that—hopefully this doesn’t sound racist, but after Obama won, I looked back at this work, which was painted in ’06 way before I became cognoscente of Obama, and it seems like it looks a bit like Obama in whiteface?! And/or at least the shadow on the column could be an effigy of someone coming to Washington in the future who could be like the icon Mr. Smith. When Obama first won, serendipitously that very morning after the election I was in Washington DC as I had been asked to be a visiting artist at American University there. I had some time off, and I actually found myself, with my bags in hand and in a jubilant but weary state, walking with my bags (I was on my way back to the train station) down the Mall, and stopped and had my picture taken standing in just this position looking at the Lincoln Memorial, so happy and relieved that this Senator of Integrity had come to Washington and elected President to hopefully cleanse the government of its egregiousness and bring honesty and truth back to our great system and Nation.