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As if this blog, I have done 4 of what I am calling “Homeric portraits”. My plan is to make 10-12. All gay men, Hispanic, and Black, from different times in my life. 

I know the stories of these me (some of these stories I am a part of—I’ve lived through—some of them I survived through). 

The portraits themselves seem to go quickly: they are pretty much three shades of orange with white and black. I have thoroughly researched Greek pottery and so have an abundance of symbology to choose from (satyrs for sex, winged-warriors for death, sirens for madness).

What I’m finding is the the most important element—to me—was what, when I conceived of the idea, the least important: that is the text that curves around the figures. 

I am finding that I am jotting down something to write around the figure and then I discover that what I have written is too personal: I have written something that that person has done specifically to me; such personal accounts are not doing what I want for a Homeric portrait which is telling the tale of the person because I want these portraits to be about stories like the stories that are depicted on Greek urns and plates. 

So I am finding myself waking up in the middle of the night and going to my phone (where I’ve typed out the intended text for each portrait I have planned) and rewriting, rewording, rephrasing what I had planned in order to be sure I am telling the story of the subject and not the feelings or experiences I had with them (though sometimes those feelings cannot be avoided). 

The project is play. I feel playful doing them. They have a playful aspect because of the cartoonish look of the Greek images. But they are also cathartic for me personally. The portrait of Kent is of a friend who died of AIDS and harbored ill-feelings for us,his group of friends, for not getting sick too. The portrait of Tito is of someone who used to physically and mentally abuse me. These are not easy. After both portraits I had trouble sleeping. 

Homeric Portraits

A couple of weeks ago my studio advisor, David, visited me at my studio. I could tell from his opening of the conversation that he was not interested in looking at anything he had seen online: none of the portraits I have posted on my website. So I showed David the pen and ink drawings that I had taped up to a wall in an adjacent room. I didn’t know yet what I was doing or where I was going with this menagerie of pen and ink portraits, I admitted to him, just that I had been inspired by a book (a comic-like-narrative) that I had picked up at Printed Matter several weeks ago. 

We flipped through the book together (titled Some Monsters Loom Large by ) and David  asked me what I liked about it. “The narrative”, I said. “I like that it’s telling a story; but also that the story is not clear because there are no words—only images—weird images”.

David took a closer look at the wall where I had hung my pen and ink pieces and explained that they were too flat, that they needed texture, differing line weights, and hinted that I was giving myself a break by dabbling in these pen and ink sketches. “I want to see you experiment”, he advised me, “I want to see you create worlds”. We discussed the idea of collage: taking these people on my walls and putting them in other spaces that would contextualize them in a different way. 

David then pointed out the objects in my room; “use the things you love”, he said. He was specifically talking about the Greek and Indian artifacts in my studio. 

I have loved Greek mythology from when I was a child and have been to Greece three times (with a fourth trip slated for this summer). I have always been particularly attracted to Greek pottery where, in dishes, bowls, and urns you can find a story (a narrative) based on Greek myth or Greek history. 

I began to think about ways I could use this 
in my work. 

And so I conceptualized taking portraits of people I know and knew (photographs from my myriad albums) and creating “Greek urn portraits” of those people by superimposing their images into Greek-urn imagery. The idea is to choose an image that really tells the story of that person, match the person’s portrait (painted in shades of Greek-urn-orange) to elements of Greek-urn-imagery (a pair of satyrs, a few warriors, a trio of harpes, the lion skin worn by Hercules) that best suits who they are or who they were, and also provide a bit of text (as most Greek pottery had text on them to identify the characters painted on them) that tells the person’s story as I knew it. A part of their story. The part that has always stayed with me and the part that I believe we can all learn from/ identify with. 

Another layer of this project is an exercise in my ongoing concern about representation; my images are exclusively of black and Latino people. Elevating their images by placing them amongst gods, warriors, and demons—telling their stories in a visually Homeric fashion—I hope echoes the black-figuration-re-contextualizing work of Kehinde Wiley and other Black artists toying with white art history. 

My plan is (ambitious) to make about 15-17 of these Homeric portraits and that each will speak to (as Greek mythology does) an aspect of existence we all share (but not in a hard-handed way): death, love, madness, sex, and so on. 

The material will be acrylic on untreated wood panel (as David advised me to experiment with other materials). The sizes will vary with the smallest being 24X36 and the largest 30X40. So far I have two that I am working in simultaneously and a third I will be starting on Monday.

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MCP503 Draft Paper

Peter Lopez

Transart Institue of Creative Research

Jean Marie Casbarian

22 February, 2019

 

The Responsibility of Working with the Black Body

 

“I wanted to be a man, and nothing but a man” –Frantz Fanon

 

At this year’s Grammy Awards, it was announced that Jennifer Lopez was scheduled to perform a medley of Motown hits in celebration of the historical Black record company’s 65th anniversary. Both before her performance and after, JLo emphasized that this music (Motown music) (black American music?) was what her mother loved. Motown music, she assured us all, was “passed down” to her and her siblings by her Motown-loving-mama. 

Though she bookended her performance (which included a quick duet with Smokey Robinson, a brief piano interlude with Ne-Yo, a stripping down to a Vegas-worthy body suit, and a vigorous shaking of her money-maker) with assurances that this tribute was a reflection of her childhood connection to Motown, backstage she must have been made aware of the reaction to her number on social media platforms; “You can’t tell people what to love”, Lopez breathlessly announced, trying to keep up with social-media reactionaries. “You can’t tell people what they can and can’t do”. 

The situation struck me as somewhat analogous to my practice of portrait painting. Particularly, my purposeful penchant for working (almost exclusively) with portraits of Black people. 

When I began portrait work in 2009, like most artists, I harried friends, family, and co-workers to sit for me. A large proportion of the people who make up my social network happen to be either Black or Hispanic. Somewhere along the way of my studies, painting people of color (particularly African-Americans, Afro-Hispanics and Afro-Caribbean people) became less incidental and more political because of my discovery of the philosophy of Kerry James Marshall. Now, before Marshall, I had run across myriad articles, blogs, and interviews by artists, critics, and curators proclaiming the death of figuration. Marshall challenged this proclamation by highlighting the fact that galleries and museums are filled with centuries of white figuration. Marshall asked: how can one herald the death of figuration until there are just as many brown-skinned portraits in our art spaces as there are white-skinned portraits? And so, Marshall’s work, thematically, seeks to correct this inequality through the proliferation of hyper-Black figuration in his work. Marshall’s philosophy read as a rallying cry to me. He was right. And my body of work—with all the brown-skinned people I paint—could contribute, I believed, to Marshall’s sense of the need for equal representation in art spaces. As a result, I began exclusively painting portraits of Black and brown people.

But do I, a non-Black, non-brown artist have the right to take up the call for equal representation posed by a Black artist? Am I crossing the line as “ally” when I use the Black body for personal gain and personal expression even when it is under the banner of social justice? Does any white artist, in a time where Black oppression (votes), Black segregation (schools), Black socio-economic inequality (home ownership) still exist, have the right to use Black images and Black culture for an audience that is usually predominately white?

Finally, I wonder if the Black body in art automatically changes in terms of context when produced by non-Black artists?

For some, the questions above are easily dismissed as making a mountain out of a molehill; After all, I am only painting portraits of Black and brown people. It’s harmless. But I submit the following scenario to consider: My portraits are hanging in a small gallery (largely consisting of Black men and Black women—some half-nude—some completely nude). The attending audience this afternoon is made up of patrons both white and Black. They stroll past the painting of the reclining Black male body on the couch, nude except for a pair of small, grey shorts. Someone takes a picture of the nude and pregnant portrait of a Black woman sitting on a floor. A remark is made about the flowers that decorate the young Black man’s chest in his portrait as he reclines on a brown bed spread and looks seductively at the viewer. A Black patron asks someone near him, “who is the artist?” and his gaze is directed to a corner of the gallery. There, standing in front of the portrait of a Black woman in dreadlocks sitting upright on a wine-colored couch, thick bracelets decorating her ankles, stands the artist: a tall man with dark hair and a white beard. He looks white, He is definitely not Black. “He sure likes to paint Black people”, the man says to himself before approaching the artist. The Black patron, waiting a moment to talk to the artist, does not recognize the artist per se. He doesn’t know him. But being a Black man in America, he recognizes the artist by phenotype. Unlike the Black patron and the artist’s preferred subjects, the artist’s skin is pinkish, with blue running through the veins in his hands. The artist’s head is covered in waves of straight hair that is easily managed. The artist’s nose is straight and his lips are pink. The artist can pass in and out of places unmolested. The artist can drive across the country undisturbed. The artist is welcomed into rooms of all types with smiles. With age, the artist has collected many rights that go unchallenged (including the right to paint whomever he chooses). So, the patron must know—and asks—“why do you like to paint so many Black people?”

As the artist, I could simply answer that Black people are the people who I am always around. I could inform the Black patron of my credentials by citing that I grew up in Lefrak City and currently teach in Harlem. I could explain to the Black patron that anyone concerned with my being a white man painting Black people should not worry because that is not what is really happening here: I’m half-Mexican. I could reveal to the Black patron that I love working with brown skin and the palette that brown-skinned people allow me to use. Finally, becoming increasingly uncomfortable with the question and the dubious look on the Black patron’s face accompanying each answer, I would submit that I am fighting for equal representation in art spaces for people like him. I could end with, “listen, I just love painting Black people. And you can’t tell people what to love. You can’t tell people what they can and can’t do”.

Yet in 1991, Glen Ligon seemingly did just that. Ligon displayed an installation titled, Notes in the Margins of the Black Book, at the Guggenheim. The piece included pages from Robert Mapplethorpe’s, Black Book, (where the photographer mostly displayed the male Black form through a lens of homo-eroticism) alongside quotes from a variety of people that were paired with each image as a type of reaction to the image (and Mapplethorpe’s project as a whole). Through his selection of quotes, Ligon (a Black male artist) was not attempting to tell Mapplethorpe what to love or what Mapplethorpe can and cannot do. Ligon’s mission was to alert Mapplethorpe that, to a Black man, these images were problematic. How so? The problem with the problem is that it cannot be explained in simple terms such as “racism” or “othering” or “objectifying” because such terms are often taboo in the bohemian, free-expression world of art and artists; they are censoring.

I imagine that Ligon, in curating these quotes, had to carefully vet each one to be sure that the quote did not oversimplify the problem he found with Mapplethorpe’s Black Book. Probably the quote that best exemplifies the problem Mapplethorpe’s work created was a quote Ligon chose by James Baldwin:  “Color is not a human or personal reality; it is a political reality.”

While the concept of color-as-political-reality transcends what appears in an art space, it is important, for the sake of this exploration, to hold the idea under that lens when it comes to art spaces and the art world at large. The Guggenheim’s mission statement claims that its foundation engages “both local and global audiences”. On its website, the Whitney proclaims itself to be the “preeminent institution devoted to the art of the United States”.  The problem that the Guggenheim, the Whitney, and any American art space runs into is that both its “local audience” and/or the work of the American artists it “devotes” itself to is inherently racist and operates within a racist society.

Though oftentimes not very convincingly, the art world has pillared itself as a space that rises above the muck and mire of racism, genderism, sexism and most other –isms. But the art world lives in the real world. And the American art world lives in America. And one cannot be divorced from the other. “Once and for all”, Frantz Fanon wrote in Black Skin, White Masks, “we [must] affirm that a society is racist or not”. He goes on to affirm that for one to say that a society is “only partly racist”, only racist in “some geographical locales”, or that racism only exists in “certain subgroups” in a society is “characteristic of people incapable of thinking properly”(66). In short, when dealing with the political reality of color in the United States of America—in any sphere within this country—“there is no place called innocence” (Yancy 233). What is being presented here is an idea that must be fully considered before moving forward: If the United States of America is a racist country (specifically white people against the existence and/or freedoms of Black people), then all citizens of the United States of America are racist (specifically all white Americans in some form or another and to varying degrees).

This declaration, of course, calls for immediate protest (specifically from white people): “But I’m not racist!” “My family didn’t own slaves!” “My cousin is Black!” “I’m married to Black woman!” In his book on white fragility, Robin Diangelo fleshes out these knee jerk reactions when white people are confronted with the racism that they have been acclimated into (through family, living conditions, and media) by citing the fact that because white people so “seldom experience racial discomfort in a society [they] dominate, [they] have [no] racial stamina”(2) to clearly think this through to its logical conclusion: If we grow up in a segregated society where 93 percent of the people who “decide which TV shows we see are white”; 85 percent of the people who “decide which news is covered are white”; 82 percent of our “teachers are white”, then we must live in a society whose information is being directed by white people (including how whites translate the non-white) (31). To put a finer point on things without beating a dead horse, I’ll use a Fanon line and embed within it an analogy that I hope clarifies the above as it may read as a hyperbolic statement; Fanon writes that “it is utopian to try to differentiate one kind of inhuman behavior [a white man displaying Black bodies on an auction block for a predominately white audience’s viewing pleasure and possible procurement in Mississippi in 1826] from another kind of inhuman behavior [a white man displaying Black bodies in an art space for a predominately white audience’s viewing pleasure and possible procurement in New York City in 2019]” (67). Further, I would argue that any attempt to distinguish my work with Black bodies from the work of Mapplethorpe or the work of the slave auctioneer is an example of white privilege.

It is worth a moment to briefly pause here and address my affiliation with whiteness and possible/probable designation to some as a white artist. Ethnically I am half-Mexican and half-German. My last name is Lopez. Phenotypically, depending on the room, I am white, some type of Latino, Greek, or Middle Eastern. Like most mixed race people who know its cooler to be mixed than to be white, I have always leaned heavily on my last name (despite not speaking Spanish fluently or knowing that side of my family). And on questionnaires, I always bubble in “Latino/Hispanic”. This, however, does not allow me to escape my phenotypic privilege.

On the site, hyperallergic, Ron Wong created a tongue-in-cheek syllabus for “making work about race as a white artist in America”. His syllabus’ research project for “week three” requires students to explore the question: “when did you discover you were white?” Wong challenges the white artist who wants to make work about race to first understand their whiteness, locate the “defining experience” of when you came to understand that you are white and all the privileges that you inherited with that designation, and then “figure out how to speak to this defining experience in your work”. 
I found out that I was white (could be perceived as white, had a foot in whiteness) when one of my models (Gilles, the man from Guadalupe with the long dreds) during a conversation about white teachers in predominantly Black schools, said to me, “Peter, you know you’re white, right?” I discovered I was white when Jasmine, my girlfriend and often-reluctant-model and I were walking through Harlem and a young black man walking perpendicular to us stopped and let us pass and Jasmine said to me, “you know he just white-maned you, right?” I realized I was white when I was speaking to Dionne, while painting her portrait, about my open and often vitriolic disagreements with my principal (whom she knew to be Black) and Dionne suggested that I was so verbally open to expressing my disagreement with my superior in such a forceful manner because he was a Black man and not another white man. In short, I discovered I was white when three Black figures in my life felt they needed to tell me that I was white. The need came, I believe, from their perception of the danger that my unrecognized whiteness presented to my character: “non-raced white bodies”, Yancy notes, “are able to ‘soar free’ of the messy world of racism” (45). Diangelo identifies this danger as what ails the white progressive who, “thinking he is not racist or is less racist, or ‘already gets it’” puts all their “energy into making sure that others see [them] as having arrived”(5). The above mentioned Black figures in my life saw me soaring (saw me believing I had arrived) and decided they needed to guide me down. They understood that and recognized that my penchant for tackling the question of race (in conversation about society, education, social justice, or the art world) was a usurpation of those themes because in my very determinate remarks—“museums and galleries are racist spaces because they lack Black figuration”—I was taking it upon myself, with my phenotypically white existence and experience in this country, to define what is and isn’t racist. Is this not the very apex of white privilege?

It is.

And it is this apex of white privilege/white power—“defining what is and is not a racist act” (Yancy 50)—that Aruna D’Souza discusses as practiced in the art world in her book, Whitewalling: Art, Race & Protest in 3 Acts. In the book, D’Souza cites three separate incidents where art institutions not only overlooked blatantly racist acts by white artists in their use of Black culture, but defended the white artist’s decisions under the banner of artistic freedom. Specifically, DŚouzaś book exposes and explains three instances where the white-controlled world of art spaces have transgressed against the collective racial sensitivity of the Black community regarding the use of Black tragedy (with Dana Shutzś Open Casket), the use of the N-word (for a drawing exhibit by white artist, Donald Newman, titled The Nigger Drawings), and the erasure of the Black voice in an exhibit titled, Harlem On My Mind which did not feature the work of any Black artists. The book’s intention is to expose, not only the art world as primarily a space for white artists and the white art world with an occasional bone thrown at marginalized communities, but the shocking depth of insensitivity on the part of curators, art critics, and museum officials when white artists use Black culture, Black references, Black history for the benefit of shock or self-promotion.

In D’Souza’s discussion of the reaction stirred by the Whitney’s showing of Dana Schutz’s Open Casket in its 2017 Biennial, the author writes: “The question of when, and on what terms, a person is justified in taking up the cultural forms and historical legacies of races to which they themselves are not a part is always fraught, but especially so in the art world where cultural ‘borrowings’ are the cornerstone of the European avant-garde tradition we’ve been taught to admire” (37). Where is the line, for the non-Black artist, between making art that concerns the Black subject or Black culture, and cultural appropriation? If the purpose for Mapplethorpe in his Black Book was to call attention to the beauty of the male Black form, the question becomes: is it his place, as a white man, to prostheltize over and profit from the beauty of the Black body? If Dana Shutz’s goal with making Open Casket was to promote the tragedy of Emmitt Till’s murder through the lens of a fellow-mother, as she claimed, the question becomes (became): is it her place, as a white woman, to shift the lens of the image away from the lens of white-racist violence? The question for me becomes, if my goal is to aid in the proliferation of Black figuration on the walls of galleries and museums, as Marshall suggests is needed, is it my place to take up that cause? (Or was the unsaid continuation of Marshall’s philosophy that more Black fifuration needs space on gallery walls made by Black artists?)

One may attempt to begin an investigation into this by asking me, what is it that you do with the Black body in your work? The initial answer is innocent enough: portraiture—a capturing of a likeness and sometimes a mood, sometimes a moment, sometimes a relationship between myself and the sitter. Yet the science and philosophy around looking at a human subject suggests that looking is never truly innocent.

In The Hidden Dimension, anthropologist, Edward T Hall, cites artist, Maurice Grosser’s observation that the portrait differs from other types of painting because of the “psychological nearness” between sitter and artist. That distance, according to Grosser is usually between four to eight feet. “Nearer than three feet, within touching distance”, Grosser reports, “the soul is far too much in evidence for any sort of disinterested observation [emphasis author’s]” (78). At portrait distance, Grosser suggests, there is something else occurring in the mind of the artist than a mere capturing of a likeness, mood, or relationship. We can adopt ideas from James Elkins, The Object Stares Back, to flesh out what Grosser may be suggesting is behind this interested observation: “Looking is not merely taking in light, color, shapes, textures, and it is not simply a way of navigating the world. Looking is like hunting. Looking is like loving. Looking is an act of violence and denigration. Looking immediately activates desire, possession, violence, displeasure, pain, force, ambition, power, obligation, gratitude, longing” (28).

When the above discussion of looking is overlaid atop the context of the white portrait artist looking at the Black body, the idea of just looking (just making a portrait) itself becomes problematic. This problem is explained more fully by Yancy who explains that the Black body (historically as on the auction block and contemporarily as in an elevator) is under continuous and tremendous “existential duress” when prey to the white gaze. Under the white gaze, Yancy explains, the Black body is both hyper-violent and hyper-sexual. Yancy provides a number of points throughout Black Bodies, White Gazes that it may be more purposeful to the cause of this exploration to record them as a series of questions posed to the non-Black artist working with the Black body:

When looking at and working with the Black body:

1. Is the non-Black artist “confiscating” (taking or seizing someone else’s possession with authority) the Black body from the Black subject? (Yancy 2)

2. Is the non-Black artist “[re]constituting” and “[re]configuring” the Black body? (Yancy 3)

3. Is the non-Black artist “flattening” the Black body by “eviscerating” the Black body of “individuality”? (Yancy 4)

4. Is the non-Black artist “reducing” the Black body to a state of “non-being” by displaying that Black body to a predominately white audience which practices this reduction of the Black body “systematically” on a regular basis outside the gallery walls? (Yancy 7)

These questions are too complex to go through here and even if I wanted to complete the exercise there is no guarantee that my answers can be honest and pure and not distilled through the sieve of my desire to be the very best ally I can be; the same way that I could not trust my own assessment of my whiteness (within the sphere of the Black/white world) and had to rely, at least fractionally, upon Black people to locate me, so to, I believe must the above questions about my work as a non-Black artist be at least fractionally answered by the Black reviewer.

For along with the danger of working with the Black body because of the white-eye-filter that the Black body has to go through without the intentional consultation of a Black audience (detractors may see this as an asking-for-permission) in 21st century America, there is also the danger of erasure.

In an article in the New York Times, writer Paul Sehgal defines erasure as “the practice of collective indifference that renders certain people and groups invisible”. I am tempted to go even further and suggest that any non-Black artist who takes up a Black artist’s call to inject more Black and brown figures into galleries and museums is in danger of erasing Black artists: of taking up space, if you will, in the realm of Black figuration that should rightfully belong to the myriad Black artists that are working now.

Looking at social-media reaction to JLo’s Motown tribute, I spotted one woman’s reaction as stating that what JLo was engaged in was erasure; the tribute could have and should have been performed by the myriad Black artists working today. The woman suggested that what JLo was doing was normalizing the displacement or replacement of a Black performer for an obviously Black tribute to an entity that was a large part of Black music history. Her suggestion had me imagining that in five more years we may see a Motown tribute by Taylor Swift (with less of an outcry), and then Justin Timberlake (with even less of an uproar), and then Miley Cyrus (with little to no mention) because these Motown tributes have become uniformly non-Black. I can even imagine that the producers of these tributes manufacture a reason for these non-Black performances as a way for white performers to recognize Black excellence. Horrifying.

 The point is that in 21st century America (where we see the poison of racism as getting more potent by the decade) we can no longer sit on our hands while people do what they “love” without questioning the potential harm of that love simply because they believe that that is their right. Had Mapplethorpe addressed the potential problem of his Black Book before Ligon did, his work would have taken on a different meaning and, I argue, taken on some sense of responsibility. Had Dana Schutz accompanied her Open Casket with an essay investigating the problem of a white woman (who was the instrument of death for young Mr. Till) painting that painting, she could have started a very rich and very much needed conversation about race, appropriation, responsibility, and art. Neither artist seemed to “love” the idea of discussing race as they did in using it.

In the 1970’s, Alice Neel, a white artist residing in Spanish Harlem painted her friends, family, and neighbors—some of whom were Black and brown people. And, in spite of the message of this entire essay, Neel’s work was largely unproblematic. In a write-up about Neel for The New Yorker, Hilton Als explains why: Neel, according to Als, “didn’t hide from the erotics of looking”. “You can tell”, he continues, “when she was turned on by her East Harlem subjects—by their physicality, mind, and interiority”. But, he argues, there was something about Neel’s work that spoke to a “collaboration, a pouring of energy from both sides—the sitter’s and the artist’s”. Neel’s handling of people of color shows us the “humanness embedded in subjects that people might classify as ‘different’” largely because “she did not treat colored people as an ideological cause but as a point of interest in the life she was leading there, in East Harlem” (Als 6).

I plan to continue to paint Black and brown people but I also plan to drop the philosophy I attempted to adopt from Mr. Kerry James Marshall. I can only hope (but cannot insist) that when people view the full oeuvre of my work and note to themselves, “he sure likes to paint Black people”, that they will see in my work what Hilton saw in Neel’s—an “inclusive humanity”.  And if they do not, if the work still feels problematic, I can, at least, report that that is understood, that I have attempted to investigate this, and that I hear it and that I take responsibility.

 

Alice Neel: Scientist at David Zwirner Gallery

Back in Berlin, we were exposed to so many different types of art and modes of making (performance, installation, assemblage) that I felt my ability to connect with painting shifting—getting lost—fading. I did not realize this was happening at the time; that in some strange way I was being pseudo-brainwashed. I needed a relief from the apostles of multi-media, multi-modal art so, one afternoon, I traveled to a museum there in Berlin that housed works by Picasso (who had always been one of my favorites).

When I arrived and began inspecting the works, I very quickly felt it—the thrill was gone. I was not moved in the least by these pictures. I left the museum feeling empty. It was not just Picasso who was (what I felt) “"taken” from me, but the other figurative painters who were shown in that museum. I remember clearly thinking, “please don’t have taken Neel and Freud from me”.

Seven months later, there is a Neel exhibit at the David Zwirner gallery in Manhattan. And I am glad to report that the work was, to me, more thrilling than I could have imagined.

I had seen a couple of Neel’s before in person (at the Washington DC portrait gallery) but that was among a crush of people (there to see the Obama portraits) and with a friend at my side. Conditions are different when you go alone to a small gallery and can see and sit with the work in relative quiet.

The Neel pictures at the Zwirner were all nudes but even so, they still captured the Zeitgeist in which they were created (through the sitters’ hairstyles, sometimes their makeup, and mostly through their essence—something I cannot articulate). They are all clearly people living in 1970’s America (there is almost a scent to them, I feel). Alice Neel was not just painting people, I have always felt, but recording time: encapsulating a moment.

I inspected the works so closely, that I folded my hands behind my back to keep the guards at ease. There is a restlessness in the work of Neel; it’s fast and furious. The outlining of the figure is thick and bold in black or light blue (and the light blue outline works—like a scientist, I wonder if she has discovered that our eyes, in certain lights, outline figures we see in light blue). There are swatches paint: thick, thin, small clumps, and the fibers of the canvas here and there pushing through.

I have seen many figurative artists using blue on the body, on the skin, but Neel also uses green and it works as beautifully as blues to bring out the tone of peach skin (there were none of Alice Neel’s portrait of people of color there).

Her work, I noticed in my studying of these Zwirner pieces, are composites of style: It is caricature mixed with photo-realism. A subject’s nose or eyes will be clearly drawn, sketched in its most primitive and flat form but then the subject’s lips are rendered fully including their shape, color, the highlights of white where the lips catch the light.

This, I noticed, was Neel’s magic. Her style. I wondered again if this is how we all see people: is this science? Do we, in our encounters with people and our instinct to register their faces, create a mixture of caricature and photo real recall? Did Neel record what we all do when we look? How we all create a rough, quick caricature of people in our minds so we can recall how they look when they are gone? I think so. I think that is her appeal to the viewer: the science of her work.

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Pulling it All Together

I started off  with a project plan of simply painting portraits as a way of expanding a sort of collection of people: building a community on canvas. I thought of Alice Neel’s work and all the different types of people that came together in her studio: rich, poor, black, white, gay, straight, celebrities and neighbors.


However, looking at my collection of people, it appeared to me that they all seemed to reflect more about me, the painter, then the sitter (in terms of style, brushstroke, expression, and posture). In this way, rather than working on a collection of people, It seemed that I was working towards a collection that reflected a collective gaze on me—the painter: I was painting pictures of people’s experience being looked at by me.


As a result, I began to experiment with “true portraits” through a “red herring project” whereby I would paint the person’s portrait but have a video tape recording them. In this way, I could capture candid moments (moments between their posing/ moments where they break the pose in reaction to the conversation we are having) and paint those moments and real facial expressions as portraits. 


Though I received feedback that one could never truly capture a “true” portrait (because we are always performing, always masked), I was still interested in how portraits reveal truth. This led, however, to a tangent: I had to look at my collection of people and put my own truths under the microscope: among my oeuvre of portraits, it is noticeable that most if my sitters are black and brown people; we live in a country where black and brown people have had to historically wear masks, code switch, whistle Vivaldi. And here I was, a phenotypically white man who does not have to experience this type of performance for either survival or advancement and I was actively trying to crack the masks of people who have worn them as a matter of being and living in America. So,I had to explore the fairness of this and measure the justice behind my desire to use black and brown people as the vast majority of my subjects (in an attempt to repair the lack of representation of black bodies in figurative art). 


Conclusively, I have found that the best way to achieve equality is not to put black and brown folk under a microscope or into a spotlight alone, but to place portraits of black and brown people amongst all types of people in order to help normalize the idea that people are people and any attempt of an outsider to emphasize a difference is going to serve just that: an emphasis of a difference. In a way I am proposing an art project of integration in order to demystify our physical differences . But can this humanizing be done through only portraits alone or do I have to add another layer? Portraits alone emphasize physical differences: if I am seeking to create a collective of real people, and getting as close to their truths as possible,  (beyond their physical appearance) I need to somehow marry their images to their stories.


Inspired by a trip to Printed Matter, My project proposal is a collection of portraits and stories in book form, abandoning the fleshed out oil portraits for pen and ink drawings of the subjects and attaching to each image of each person a narrative that comes from my interactions with that person: most likely from admissions they themselves revealed during the dialogue in our conversations (whether it was during a portrait sitting or just hanging out). I will curate both image and story so that it most closely reveals both an idiosyncrasy of that person’s lived life but also some universal experience, idea, or emotion that we can all, in some way, connect with. 


Mid Year Confusion

I’m not quite sure at this point where all of this is going. I came in to Transart strictly as a portrait painter. In Berlin I discovered that in many art circles, portrait painting is not pillared as something valuable in contemporary art. I attempted to spark other modes of making in my brain but nothing came that seemed did not seem convoluted so I continued to paint embarking on a project about truth in portraiture (a true portrait). When presenting this project at the New York residency, the project seemed to have lost its legs for me, but I became more interested in the concept of race in portraits. Meanwhile, at the New York residency, there was one leg of the course where the class went to “"Printed Matter”—an art book store. I picked up and was entranced by a book titled, Some Monster Loomed Large, which was this apocalyptic tale with very very few words starring an every-man/wolf-man done in pen and ink. In my studio, I have done a few more paintings but have mostly been practicing with pen and ink on paper in preparation for (a book?) (but of what?) (and what would this pen and ink book have to do with mt research on race in portraiture?) I feel like I can find a connecting thread somehow but I don’t want it to be convoluted or forced. I am happy to have evolved from my customary work (inviting people over and painting their portraits). I am happy to be enthralled by another medium (pen and ink in book form). I am happy with how my research paper is coming together because it is confronting some very important issues in my work and in the art world at large. I just don’t know how all this will come together.

MCP503 Intro Paper

Write a half-page investigation each about 8-10 selected practitioners (historical through contemporary) that contextualize your own practice tracing ideas, methods, presentation

Some of the most interestingly curated shows I have seen tasked themselves at matching an artist and her work with items, photographs, memorabilia, and the work of other artists that have influenced them. Not only do such showings give insight into the process of the artist, but seeing the artist’s work alongside these influencers “works”—it makes a show rich and vital and interestingly encyclopedic; it’s a research paper in visual form.

If I had to self-curate a show around my portrait work that strictly dealt with artistic influencers, I would have to choose (because of how steeped I have been in canvas portrait work) portrait artists. The artists listed below are artists that are currently influencing not only my portrait work but the philosophy and the problematizing of my work that I am currently engaged in: particularly around my portraits of African Americans.

Lucian Freud—the portrait artist. Lucian Freud was an artist who seemed to specialize in the portrait. Not so much because he was premiere in this line of making but because of the exorbitant amount of time he spent on the portraits. A sitting with Lucian Freud could stretch out to a year. While I am not one to stretch a sitting past a day, I studied closely the work of Lucian and became fascinated (and seemed to adopt) his penchant for choosing his subjects—his ability to see (in select people) something (one) he wanted to capture. The choice seemed to stem from neither an aesthetic quality or a personality attribute within the chosen one, but something intrinsic to Freud’s sense of what (who) makes a good subject: a rail thin waitress, an overweight social worker, a man and his dog, a gentleman in a uniform that he has outgrown. I also grew weirdly fascinated with Freud’s studio and how elements of his studio became familiar throughout his work: the floral sofa, the brown leather chair, the brass bed, the mountain of painting rags—all appearing cross-sectionally from one portrait to the next. I feel, Lucian-like, that when I am walking in the streets, into rooms, that I am hunting for my next sitter—the person who has some quality I am looking for but cannot quite name: I can picture this person coming to my studio to sit, lay, or recline on the same wine-colored futon that many of my sitters have posed on before (sometimes I feel as though the people are just an excuse to paint that particular piece of furniture whose color I love).

Alice Neel—the collector. Alice Neel did something different with portraits than Lucian Freud. While Freud portraits struggle to capture the physical essence of his sitters (it is more than photo-realism—it’s a capturing of the nose, the ears, the torso, etc—in all of their idiosyncratic ways of being in front of him), Neel seemed to have a way of filtering physicality through a lens that veered on caricature while remaining (beautifully) high-art. How does one define this? The outline of the figure in a light blue, the seeming dismissive, abrupt depiction of hands, the different-sized eyes, the unfinished backgrounds, the infidelity to proportion. All of these Neel-esque characteristics, I have adopted but, more than style, I feel I have adopted Neel’s penchant for collecting people. I remember reading an essay about Neel’s studio and the writer described stacks of paintings coming out from the walls of Neel’s apartment alluding to the idea that the stacks, turned around, would reveal a collection of people: people from many walks of life from Andy Warhol to her Spanish Harlem neighbors, her son, her daughter, an Indian family, a Spanish family, a drag performer. The concept of this disparate society living together under one roof (under one brush) (whether purposeful or just a matter of an artist who painted people) was, to me a beautiful thing: an important thing. After ten years of painting portraits, I have a collection of people of my own stacked in a studio of my own. I think of Neel every time I walk among those stacks.

Kerry James Marshall—the disrupter. Another difference between Freud and Neel, aside from style, is subject or sitter. Freud’s sitters are noticeably a collection of white people. His pallet is one of soft yellows, pinks, light blue-greys. In contrast, Neel, having access to people of color because of her living in Spanish Harlem, painted Black and Hispanic people with such frequency that one can fairly say she contributed to artist, Kerry James Marshall’s cry against the proliferation of whiteness in portraiture and the idea that figuration is passé. To Marshall, the art world cannot (with any sense of conscience and social justice) announce that figuration in art is dead simply by the fact that brown people are not represented in figurative art anywhere near the capacity that whiteness is represented. In being moved to paint portraits, I began my journey by harassing friends, co-workers, lovers, and ex-students to sit for me. They were, overwhelmingly, people of color. It was circumstance. Yet, on my hunt to find sitters in crowds—strangers—I have, I believe, picked up Marshall’s lament (or rally, rather) for representation of brown skin in portraiture. If there is politics in my portraiture (and I am inclined to say there is), it is the politics of Kerry James Marshall.

Kehinde Wiley—the elevator. In his quest to proliferate Blackness, Marshall exaggerated the skin color of his figures to a stark black. But he also placed his figures in parks, suburbs, backyards, and beaches. In allying myself with Marshall, I have to, I feel, think deeply about the placement of the Black subject—the context—particularly because I am not Black. When I speak of my depictions of Black subjects as potentially problematic to non-Black people, by and large they do not quite understand what all the fuss is about. When I speak to Black people, when I read the philosophies of Fanon and Yancy, the very idea of a Black person-as-subject is immediately recognized as potentially problematic. While the work of Kehinde Wiley has not shaped my style or philosophy, I look to his work as a sort of guiding spirit. For Wiley has elevated the Black figure, in his portraits, to mythical, historical, god-like proportions without affecting them (in hair or costume) with whiteness. It is, to me, important that my subjects (particularly my subjects who ae people of color) are depicted with the dignity and regality that this country so often refuses to give.

Lynette Yiadom-Boakye—the un-apologist. In an age where art critics are on-again-off-again trumpeting the death of figuration, Yiadom-Boakye’s portraits of Africans and African Americans were displayed at this year’s Biennale in Berlin. In studying the work and her words, the artist does not seem weighed down with the racial politics of Wiley and Marshall. She just paints the people she paints. And those people happen to be brown. There is something refreshing to have portraits of Black people exist unattached (by the artist) to representational concerns. But it is a utopia that I cannot, at the moment, allow myself until I have gone through the fire of problematizing my own work.

Robert Mapplethorpe—the objectifier. The fact of the matter is that white gay culture is a hotbed for eroticizing men of color: particularly Black men. It is for this reason that Glenn Ligon called out Mapplethorpe’s work in Black Book with his exhibition, Notes on the Margin of the Black Book. I am a bisexual man who has painted three men of color on a regular basis either nude or partially nude. The men recline on my futon or lay out on my bed. They look at me fully in the face. I have painted three women of color on a regular basis as well under the same conditions. I want to say that with my subjects (regardless of their race), I am exploring different modes of portraiture: nudity that echoes the nudes in portrait history, clothes as costume. But the danger, I think, lays in the term, “regardless of race”. To deny my relative whiteness while I am actively choosing Black subjects to dress or undress is a mark of privilege. To deny any link in my work to Mapplethorpe’s is also privilege. To not explore whether or not what I am doing with Black subjects is objectification is also privilege. Mapplethorpe’s work with the Black body is aesthetically beautiful. But as a man who runs in gay circles, has lived in gay culture (like Ligon)—there is no denying that Mapplethorpe’s work is problematic. For me, it opens up the question of the use of the Black body in the work of the non-Black artist.


Dana Shutz—the transgressor. With her depiction of Emmett Till in her work, Open Casket, Shutz made headlines that very few artists would want to make; she was accused of appropriating Black tragedy for her own benefit and her protests that she was adopting the image in the name of motherhood was not enough to wash the taint from the work. To me, Shutz is a tale of caution and a reminder that the subjectivity of Blackness in the work of non-Black artists is (rightfully) a touchy matter that can ignite passions, spawn controversy, and spark conversations. The conversations, I believe, are necessary. I welcome them. But one must be ready to have those conversations with more than just good intentions that reveal ones ignorance and privilege. It is the reason my research paper tackles the matter of race in my work.

David Hockney—the recorder. I was not a fan of Hockney’s work and only began to study him when I happened upon a book about his work and life and I needed something to read on the bus ride back from Washington DC. Once his work (through the book) was contextualized, I became a fan and made a connection. Hockney’s work is very much auto-biographical. When one views his painting of a shirt thrown on a chair, the viewer may admire the composition; the viewer may note the influence of Van Gogh. But when one learns that the shirt that lays on the chair belonged to Hockney’s ex-lover whom Hockney was pining for at the time of the painting, the work takes on a new dimension both universal and personal. Even though I paint portraits, I have been accused of using portraiture as documentation of my own life. It is true. I keep an art journal that runs chronologically. Thumbing through the portraits (the people) one is an unwary witness to the ins and outs of friends and lovers in my life. No doubt, where they sit and how they are positioned, what is placed next to them, in front of them, behind them are all context to their role in my life or my feelings about them. In this way, my collection of people act as a journal of my life.

Annotated Bibliography (3-5 sentence description per book.) *

Write a concise annotation that summarizes the central theme and scope of the book or article. Include one or more sentences that (a) evaluate the authority or background of the author, (b) comment on the intended audience, (c) compare or contrast this work with another you have cited, or (d) explain how this work illuminates your bibliography topic.


D'Souza, Aruna. Whitewalling: Art, Race & Protest in 3 Acts. Badlands Unlimited, 2018.

DŚouzaś book exposes and explains three instances where the white-controlled world of art spaces have transgressed against the collective racial sensitivity of the Black community regarding the use of Black tragedy (with Dana Shutzś Open Coffin), the use of the N-word (for a drawing exhibit by white artist, Donald Newman, titled The Nigger Drawings), and the erasure of the Black voice in an exhibit titled, Harlem On My Mind which did not feature the work of any Black artists. The bookś intention is to expose, not only the art world as primarily a space for white artists and the white art world with an occasional bone thrown at marginalized communities, but the shocking depth of insensitivity on the part of curators, art critics, and museum officials when white artists use Black culture, Black references, Black history for the benefit of shock or self-promotion. The theme of the book aids my investigation of my own use of the Black body in portrait work. While I steer clear in my work of Black tragedy and Black curses, the absence of the Black voice in my portraiture should be addressed, particularly because I have been challenged or questioned by Black friends and colleagues about my use of the Black body.


Elkins, James. The Object Stares Back: On the Nature of Seeing. Houghton Mifflin Hartcourt, 1996.

Most pertinent to my research, Elkins proclaims that the mere act of looking at people is fraught with deeper significations. According to Elkins, looking is both hunting and loving but it is also an act of violence and denigration. It activates desire and possession. If this is so, my gaze as non-artist at the Black body cannot (by the nature of looking) be innocent and un-problematic


Fanon, Frantz. Black Skin, White Masks. Grove Press, 1952.

The thrust of this book is geared to an audience within communities of color. Fanon unpacks the psychological impact of colonialism on the minds of Black people around the world. Much of what is being said is for the ears and eyes of the Black community and,as such, much of what Fanon brings up I would not deign to comment about. But Fanon is useful to my research in that a portion of the book works to establish the black and white (if you will) of racism within any given community. This contextualizes my investigation into my work with Black figures as it establishes that I am working within a racist society and am not excused from that context because of any given sub-community or non-racist enclave I may believe I belong to.


Hall, Edward T. The Hidden Dimension. Anchor, 1990

Hallś book deals with the science of proxemics: how the distance between bodies affects the relationship between those bodies. In particular, this Hall discusses the proxemics involved in portrait painting. He speaks of the proximity of bodies (in the case of portrait painting) as the proximity of souls. When the soul is too near, according to Hall, it is difficult to be objective about the subject. At the distance necessary to make a portrait, objectivity is in play. This connects to my thesis because it proves, through the science of proxemics, that I am being objectifying the subject: a particularly problematic admission when dealing with Black bodies by an artist from outside the Black community.


Ligon, Glenn. Notes in the Margins of the Black Book. 1991-93.

Installed in the Guggenheim, Ligon framed pictures from Robert Mapplethorpeś Black Book and responded to the objectification of the Black body through small, framed pieces of text from various sources which dealt with this specific type of objectification either directly or in a roundabout way. Ligonś exercise is an important performance of giving voice to the subject specifically and importantly when the subject is a historically marginalized group (both inside and outside of the museum space) and the author of the work is white. This installation is particularly relevant to my work in that it deals with not just eroticism but Black homo-erotisism which, within the gay community, is a potent force that drives race relations within the gay community.


Yancy, George. Black Bodies, White Gazes. Roman & Littlefield, 2008.

The theme of Yancyś book is an investigation of the Black body through the lens of whiteness--particularly in lieu of white bodies having been established as the ẗranscendant norm¨ and the stress imposed on Black bodies living under the constant warping of their Black bodies through the lens of the white spectator. More important to my paper is Yancy´s notes on the idea of the performance of white power through the white gaze and the privilege enacted by whites who promote themselves to pseudo-authorities on what is and what is not racist. This portion of Yancyś exposition is useful in understanding that a reluctance to engage in this conversation on my part can be considered an enactment of privilege.

Outline

-Establish that you live in a racist society (Fanon 66) (Yancy 233)

-Establish how Mapplethorpe’s work with the black body is problematic (Ligon)

-Differences and similarities between your work with the Black body and Mapplethorpe’s

-Establish that, though there are vast differences, to suggest those differences give me a pass to work with the Black body unquestioned is “utopian” (Fanon)

-Pull in Dana Shutz and the reaction to her work

-Establish your own outsider status (within the Black community) and your whiteness by using hyperallergic’s “A Syllabus for Making Work About Race as a White Artist: When Did You Discover You Were White?”

-Establish the dangers of my whiteness and the privilege (Yancy)

-Discuss the science of looking and all that it signifies including Glissant’s idea of “opacity”.

-Discuss what you are doing with the Black body through ideas of Yancy and Fanon and Berlant

-Discuss the concept of erasure and come to a conclusion on your thesis question

Research question or specific inquiry 

In a country where racial disunity is still the norm, what are the boundaries of the non-Black artist working with Black bodies or working through Black culture and Black concerns? What are the boundaries of the white ally in the art world?

Introduction

At this year’s Grammy Awards, it was announced that Jennifer Lopez was scheduled to perform a medley of Motown hits in celebration of the historical Black record company’s 65th anniversary. Both before her performance and after, JLo emphasized that this music (Motown music) (black American music?) was what her mother loved. Motown music, she assured us all, was “passed down” to her and her siblings by her Motown-loving-mama. 

Though she bookended her performance (which included a quick duet with Smokey Robinson, a brief piano interlude with Ne-Yo, a stripping down to a Vegas-worthy body suit, and a vigorous shaking of her money-maker) with these assurances that this tribute was a reflection of her childhood connection to Motown, backstage she must have been made aware of the reaction to her number on social media platforms; “You can’t tell people what to love”, Lopez breathlessly announced. “You can’t tell people what they can and can’t do”. 

The situation struck me as somewhat analogous to my practice of portrait painting. Particularly, my purposeful penchant for painting portraits of Black people. 

When I began portrait work in 2009, like most artists, I harried friends, family, and co-workers to sit for me. A large proportion of the people who make up my social network happen to be either black or Hispanic. Somewhere along the way of my studies painting people of color (particularly African-Americans, Afro-Hispanics, Afro-Caribbean) became less incidental and more political.

 I came across the philosophy of Kerry James Marshall. Naturally, before Marshall I had run across myriad articles, blogs, and interviews by artists, critics, and curators proclaiming the death of figuration. Marshall challenged this notion by highlighting the fact that galleries and museums are filled with centuries of white figuration. How can one herald he death of figuration until there are just as many brown-skinned portrait works as there is white-skinned. And so, Marshall’s work, thematically, seeks to correct this through his proliferation of Black figuration. Marshall’s philosophy read as a rallying cry to me. He was right. And my body of work—with all the brown-skinned people I paint—could contribute to Marshall’s sense of equality.

But do I, a non-Black, non-brown artist have the right to take up the call for equal representation of a Black man? Am I crossing the line as “ally” when I use the Black body for personal gain and personal expression even when it is under the banner of social justice?

 

Jeannie Sol

Though I am in the midst of a research paper about figurative painting and race and while I am also thinking of putting the paints away for a while and working with pen, ink, and brush, I am still keeping steady sitting appointments. My latest sitting (done this past Tuesday) is a local entertainer named Jeannie Sol who, I learned Tuesday, is also a santera. When she came to sit for me, we talked as usual but our conversation was peppered with Jeannie needing to discuss my partner Chris (who she never met, but we were using his apartment for the sitting). The spirit who walks with Jeannie had a lot to say about Chris; '“He’s a good boy”, was a frequent refrain.

Currently, I am tasked through my MFA program at Transart to transcend the limitations I have put on myself: those limits being—portrait painting. But it felt good to go back. The conversation, the nerves, the quick decision making, the clean beginning and the messy end.

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Ink and Brush

During the Winter Residency for Transart (held here in New York City) we visited Printed Matter, an art-book store on the West Side. We were free to peruse the shelves for a few minutes where I came across a book titled Some Monsters Loom Large by Mark Thomas Gibson. I couldńt tear myself from this volume and so had to purchase it.

The book is a graphic (comic-book-esque, pen and ink) depicted story of a wolf-man that includes commentary on colonialism, the idea of Manifest Destiny, and the biblical concept of the Rapture.

Currently, I am in the middle of pulling together my research paper that deals with race and figuration. In between thinking about and composing this paper, I am still painting portraits (I have a sitting on Tuesday which will probably be discussed in my next blog). But between researching and outlining the paper and continuing my portrait work, I have begun working with ink and brush on paper: small compositions mostly culled from images pulled out of my photo albums. I am also very attracted to the idea of creating something in book form.

I am not sure yet what direction I want to take with this medium (ink and brush portraits? portraits in ink and brush that tell a story in book form? A book of random images?) As the paper comes to a close, I will think more carefully about direction and purpose.

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Unnamed Whiteness

According to George Yancy in his book, Black Bodies, White Gazes, when we ¨allow whiteness the power to go unnamed¨ we ¨reinforce its status as given¨ and ¨natural¨. ¨Non-raced white bodies are able to ´soar free´ of the messy world of racism¨(45). My plan for my initial research paper is to closely explore my work with Black figuration as someone outside the Black community keeping the above line of thought in mind. I have only started the preliminary research for this paper but, in the meantime, I am still painting Black bodies. Below is a painting I have recently done of my partner, capturing a moment when he was rifling through the refrigerator.

In the front of my mind, the image is a quasi-comical captured moment of domesticity with my partner. Any bum-shot is going to hint at comedy, especially when paired with brightly-colored socks. On a more personal level, I meant to capture the awkwardness of his position because his refrigerator is always packed and impossible to navigate and the area just to the side of the fridge is a cornucopia of plastic bags, mops, brooms, buckets and cleaning products.

Yet, I cannot ¨soar free¨ above the fact that by painting the bent over rear end of a Black person is loaded with and unwittingly connected to the historical objectification of the Black body. The socks that I find comedic and interesting can very well be seen as clowning the figure and there are further connotations to be given to the idea of a Black figure in a kitchen near cleaning products.

I am aware that anyone reading the second paragraph of this post may either believe I am over-analyzing this piece while others may think I have not even scratched the surface of how this image can be considered racist. Either way, I can only produce the work and be open to the conversation and the controversy it may provoke (even if it is a conversation and a controversy happening only in my own mind).

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Lynette Yiadom Boakye at the Jack Shainman Gallery

My first impression on seeing Yiadom Boakye’s work at the Shainman gallery was that (because of the figuration, the brushstrokes, and the subject matter) that my work looks a lot like hers. I think when someone who makes comes across the work of someone who makes art that is so similar, it is both shocking (in an uh-oh way) but pleasant (in a kin-ship, I-knew-I-was-doing-SOMEthing-right way).

Like discovering you have a sister at 47, it’s fun to see yourself projected in another person, but it makes you question exactly who you are in the face of this close (and successful…and established) relative.

So it was a bit of sibling rivalry that was happening as I walked through the gallery.

The first thing, for me, that is most striking about Yiadom Boakye’s work is it’s scale. The bigger pieces are 70 X 78. The scale, for me, seems to make the work. It’s almost as if—if one wants to push back against the attack on figurative work—one must go big, bigger. One must be in the audience’s face with figures in terms of scale. Be brave with it.

The second thing about her work (at least the work displayed in the exhibition) was how similar it was (in terms of subject matter, poses, and costuming) reminiscent (or rather a response) to the work of Toulouse Lautrec who painted performers in costume. Here, in Boakye’s canvases are five men in dancer’s tights, two young men in black cat suits with frilly/furry collars).

The third quality I took notice of was the quickness in terms of execution of each piece. Boakye claims that her paintings never take more than one day and one sees this at close inspection: the brush strokes are quick, there is minimal worry over blending or even over-thinking of color, and the un-primed canvas comes through (beautifully) in many small patches in and around the figure.

Beyond these observations, in a time where racial segregation, oppression, and sanctioned murder by law enforcement still exists in this country, I have to wonder at what we are supposed to feel (if anything?):

Proud at the equality of representation the gallery has provided?

Proud of ourselves for taking in the work of a Black figurative artist?

Introspective when surrounded by Black figuration in a white-dominated institution (country/world)?

Should the past, present, reality of the day inform our experience with the work? Or should we read these figures in an Afro-futuristic way? Work beyond race.

I think it is too Utopian to say that the above questions are making too much of the work or straining the work with racial tensions just because they are figures of Black people. I wonder what the artist would say about these questions.

Work by Lynette Yiadom Boakye

Work by Lynette Yiadom Boakye

Work by Peter Erik Lopez

Work by Peter Erik Lopez

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Weekly Blog: Power, Consideration, Boundaries and Othering

Portraits are usually done with the subject facing forward and gazing at the artist while tolerating the gaze of the artist and all that the artist’s gaze carries. There is, inherent in this sitting-sitter situation, an imbalanced power dynamic that tips towards the artist.

Usually, it is the artist who is in control of the physical space: where and how the sitter is sitting and for how long.

Usually it is the artist who is in control of the product: the color, composition, size, and degree of realism and representation.

This imbalance of power is expected and accepted to a degree. That degree can shift with the age of the sitter, the gender difference between sitter and artist, what is being asked of the sitter, along with a variety of other factors.

Because of the type of work I am engaged in, I am interested in one specific factor in this sitter/artist power dynamic and that is race.

As a native New Yorker who was raised in a Black community and who has taught at the high school level for the past eight years in a Harlem public school, I have, in my practice of figurative painting, been sensitive (and guided) by Kerry James Marshall’s stance regarding the art world’s chronic announcement of the death of figurative work; the idea that the death of figurative work is presumptive considering the lack of Black figures and Black faces that inhabit museum and gallery walls. My portrait work has largely included men and women of color in alignment with Marshall’s sentiment.

But, as a man who is not of African-American decent, is it my place to “serve” Marshall’s cry?

In 2016, Dana Schultz, a white artist exhibited the painting, “Open Casket”—a depiction of the infamous picture of Emmett Till, a 1955 victim of lynching. The exhibition resulted in an outcry at the idea of a white woman using the image of a young Black man who had been violently murdered by white racists. One could deduce that the overall sentiment of the protesters was against a white person co-opting or appropriating an image that is so steeped in the Black experience that the image “belongs” to the Black community and that it was improper for a person outside of the community to manipulate it, use it, and exhibit it. Schultz’ reply to the backlash was that she painted “Open Casket” not taking into account race, but taking the image and the incident from the point of view of a mother who lost a son.

Currently at the Drawing Center, the main room is exhibiting works by Nigerian artist, Toyin Ojih Odutola. Much of Odutola’s portraits of people of color are about consideration. The subjects (all Black/brown people) are looking away from the gaze of the artist as though they do not care that they are being looked at and maybe even do not wish to be looked at. To portrait artists, it calls into question the feelings of our subjects, but to me, a portrait artist who works predominately with Black people-as-subjects, it drags into that question the idea of race and the concept of othering.

I am a half-Mexican, half-German man.

In many circles, I can pass as white.

Do I have the right, despite intentions and politics, to co-opt, use, and exhibit Black images? Does anyone have that right outside of the Black community and the Black experience?

If I continue to do so, what considerations do I need to take into account about my Black subjects, Black history, the Black community, and the place and sentiments of Black artists when working with primarily Black subjects?

To say that this line of inquiry is over-thinking the work, I believe, is insensitive while obsessing about this line of inquiry could be damaging to the work. I am thinking about exploring this idea and the questions above for my research paper: The idea of the non-Black gaze on the Black body in art.

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Reading Diary: The Body I Call Home (Estevez Raful)

LINDA: Why not? Why not burn out? And worse, health-wise? We performance artists deal with and "court" danger, self-mutilation, stress, ritual, storytelling, etc.

NICOLÁS: I am trying to close my eyes and see how humbleness and art can come together. There is so much emphasis on competition and might in the arts, at least in the art market, which is certainly a pyramid. Only a handful are meant to make it to the top. Can art and humbleness coexist?

The above exchange is haunting to me.

I am not a performance artist, but a painter. Still. The lines above apply. As do all the sentiments of mini-godhood.

  1. People are summoned to my studio to have their portraits painted. Some strangers. Some friends, lovers, ex-lovers, co-workers. They do it for free. They are thrilled. “Honored” is a word that they use often.

  2. As they sit, we talk. I collect from them, stories: usually about love and sex; some stories are about childhood traumas; some are about future goals. When I tell them to, they stop talking. They look to me for direction for the full 4 hours they are instructed to be still. “Can I move”. “Wait, one minute…OK you can move now”.

  3. When they leave, they are starry-eyed because they have shared (in those four hours) so much—too much—with me. They have bared their soul. They think we are friends now. Some attempt to make plans to see me again—”hey, do you like going to the beach?”

    The ego-factor is strong and there has to be, in my practice, some form of exercising humility. Some care taken for the stories I have been told; I document them in a journal.

    The lines quoted from the interview speak about burning out and that is also a factor in my practice, especially currently. I am painting all the time now. Sometimes working on two portraits at once. If there is no sitting scheduled, I’ll paint pictures I have lined up on my iphone taken in the streets or in coffee shops—of a blaring, pink Harlem sunrise, or a small dog sitting between his masters legs in a Xmas doggie coat. The difference in my “burning out” however is not necessarily dealing with the social issues Linda lists but, rather, with having no-direction or having to not necessarily “deal with” anything at all. I m arguing that directionless-ness can be just as frenetic and frantic as the dealing with of heady issues.

    And perhaps it is the competition aspect of art making mentioned above that feeds into the frantic making I am engaged in. Perhaps, I am wondering, as I write this, it is not the story of the sitters I am trying to relate through paintings and portraits, but the performance of my own story: rushing, rushing, rushing to my end and leaving behind a trail of canvases and journals of stories: like a testament.

Reading Diary: One Speaking Mouth (Lubitz and Hall)

“The Passion of the Pedagogical” by Jan Vermeort

As a high school English teacher, I can fully connect with the ideas in Vermeort’s article. Interestingly enough, I just had my students engage in a “challenge” that speaks to the ideas in the article.

To get students to read a book nowadays is damn near impossible. So I had my students engage in a “willpower challenge”. We first studied willpower (what it is, where in the brain it lays, how it benefits us, and what type of lifestyle supports it). Then, as the authority figure, I related to my seniors all the benefits of reading. I gave them their—formally assessed—reading levels (all below grade level—some critically so). I promised them that if they started reading today just 20 minutes a day, that they would be fine when college started. I also promised them that if they did not, they would most assuredly not be fine in their first college year. The willpower challenge challenged my seniors to read 10 pages a day for 8 days. If they failed (and they did—all of them) they were to record the failure and the circumstances of the failure. These 8 recordings were to culminate in a paper about willpower, teenagers, and reading.

Like the article states, it was something of a seance and, by the experiment’s end, we did in fact bring forth a specter.

In Kelly McGonigal’s book, The Willpower Instinct, the author claims that we have two selves: a rational self (that tells us to do what we should be doing) and a tempted self (which gets us away from that). My students discovered (without my aid) that their rational selves and tempted selves were in alignment: “Why should we start reading for 20 minutes a day now”, they queried, “we’re seniors. We’re graduating high school in 5 months and we got this far without reading much at all”.

It was not an ideal conclusion, but it was rational. In that moment the “mirage of my authority” as the you-must-read-to-be-successful-in-life-monger was “vanished” and the seniors are now on their merry way to writing papers about their idea of the rational self (a self that has rationalized not-reading) and are researching why teens like them cannot connect with a NEW self they created (the specter at our feast) and called: the “informed” self (reading will benefit you).

Ironically, this type of pedagogical passion—the discovery of a new idea in the moment—is both revered by education experts but hobbled by administrators demands for detailed lesson plans that include “expected student responses”.

Transitioning

At present, I don't know what direction I want to go in nor do I know if I want to go in any other direction than where I was previously headed which was the exploration of portraiture for portraiture's sake. I love to paint portraits. I have read that we are only ever truly in our own heads when we are exercising or having sex but I contend that making art is another situation in which we can zone out the world and be completely in our own moment.  When I am painting a portrait I love this feeling coupled with the company of the sitter and the challenge of making something that may or may not look like them—something not completely in my control. I love the start of a portrait sitting (the nerves, the smells, the setting up) and I love the end of it (the days of studying it as it dries, the cataloging of it in a journal, the final stacking of the canvas against the wall stacked with canvases). 

Transart Institute and the pursuance of a Masters in Fine Arts dictates to me that I must stretch my practice. Put down the brush. "Make a video", I'm told, is the ongoing Transart joke. 

I made a video. I hated it. 

I created a project proposal that aimed at investigating the confessional aspect of the portrait sitting. In short, the proposal suggested I focus less on the portrait and more on looking at the insistent and unmitigated yap, yap, yap of the sitter and use the videotaped experience (rather than the painted product) as art. It feels contrived. Forced. Inorganic. 

So I ran away from the stretchy-dictates and picked up a book on David Hockney. He is after all (according to Art News) the world's "priciest living artist". I was attracted to Hockney because I was well aware of his portrait work: double portraits in LA homes of friends, family, and colleagues. 

I thought delving into Hockney's life and work and artistic philosophies would pillar my own insistence that portraiture, in and of itself, is fine to pursue alone without having to walk backwards in a park in Berlin, pile up furniture in a studio, or make a video narrated in a sultry, self-important voice. 

I was wrong. 

In David Hockney, written by art historian, Marco Livingston, Livingston reveals that Hockney's life, work, and philosophies actually reflect the dictates of Transart Institute. 

In short, Hockney was an experimentalist who enjoyed hopping from one medium to the next and who reveled in failure as a pathway towards growth (Livingston 88). Hockney has, according to Livingston, "continued to this day to experiment with different styles and techniques in the full knowledge that many of the results will be unsatisfactory". Failure is a risk, Livingston continues, which Hockney is "prepared to accept if he is to extend his range"(105). Hockney used oil paint. He used watercolor. He used photographs. He used Xerox three color copiers and he used fax machines. He was a realist and then he was a cubist and then he was an impressionist and sometimes he was all three at once. "Style” according to the artist, “is something you can use, and you can be like a magpie, just taking what you want" (27).

Hockney was a mimic with  early works clearly inspired (practically aped) by Francis Bacon, later works clearly inspired by Van Gogh and Matisse, and Picasso-esque works peppered his entire catalogue.

I had never heard of Hockney before Transart (he was suggested to me as an artist to look at upon my acceptance into the program). At the time of my acceptance, I looked half-heartedly at his portrait work and nothing else. Now, seeing the full scope of his work, I am inspired to be like Dave. 

What does that mean?

I don't know.

So far, I momentarily dropped the brush and picked up a quill pen. With India ink on paper, I have drawn my fiancé, Chris, lying in bed much as Hockney drew his partner, Peter, in bed. With this outright direct mimicry I am attempting to work with Hockney's fascination of the line in this period of his 1960's line drawings where the "line itself becomes more beautiful as well as more economical in transmitting information"(Livingston 84).

I picked the brush back up recently to do a double portrait of myself and Chris. In this double portrait, my intention is to ape Hockney's use of flat, thin paint creating dimensions with a more limited pallet (I have noticed that one way he achieves an old-photograph-flatness with his paintings is to abstain from using white in his highlights). Additionally, by applying the paint thinly and smoothly the "image [becomes] more important than the paint" (Livingston). Both the line drawing and the double portrait are worked from photographs (much as Hockney did and much as I did not—always preferring a live sitting). Lastly, like Hockney, I am beginning to amalgamate the image by using different photographs. In the double portrait photograph, the pillow is not present (it is added from a separate photo) and the back wood panel wall is extended (two open closet doors are revealed in the photo).

In short, as far as portraits go, along with aping, use of color, a thinner application of paint, the use of multiple photograph sources and the occasional line-drawing to practice economy, Hockney is also directing me to where Transart wants me to go: experimentation, discomfort, and failure.

Beyond this I am thinking of the camera not so much as a different mode of creation but as a vehicle to further explore ways of seeing that will inform my painting in the way the Livingston tells of how Polaroids informed Hockney's use of color (71). Livingston claims that Hockney came to the conclusion that "the artist should fear nothing, that he should not worry even about imitating other artists or about producing work which seems old fashioned, for if he deals honestly with his own experience the work by definition will be of his own time" (224). 

            For now, it is serendipitous that I discovered that Hockney’s latest work was done with video. While I am planning to practice another couple of portraits using a Hockney palette and style, I have scheduled two sittings in December: both of which I will videotape and see if I can pick up the theme of confession, interaction, or use the video as another form of seeing that, in some way, informs the portrait.  

 

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What's Love Got To Do With It?

The following transcript is from a video recorded of the artist discussing the portrait painted of his partner over a weekend. The artist sits in a corner of his studio by a window sill. Dressed in a grey suit and white shirt. On the window sill sits a small teddy bear dressed in a blue and white outfit that the artist purchased in Berlin last summer.

 I met him at a drag show. It was a Thursday night. At a place called “Feinstein’s at 54”. In Midtown. The performer was named Flotilla De Barge (who happens to be Chris’ uncle). The romance began that night and it was pretty much a fairy tale romance. Everything you hear and see but you pretty much don’t believe really happened. We looked at each other across the room and just started staring each other in the eyes. I had a glass of wine. He had tequila. We looked at each other. Looked at the show. Looked at each other. Pretended to look at the show. And all of a sudden, this gentleman raised his glass to me and in return I raised my glass to him. The artist picks a glass up from the floor and raises it.

We spoke that night and, um, began dating.

Regular dates. Regular dates like you see in the movies. Dinners. Movies. Um… (long pause). We didn’t sleep together. For quite a while. We just…we just dated. And, like a fairy tale story, when we did finally, uh, become intimate for the first time, it was on the 4th of July…fireworks baby. The artist tilts his head to the side and raises an eyebrow as he says this and not for the first time we see that there is a touch of cockiness in him.

And we were inseparable ever since. And I knew right away, um, that this was the person who I wanted to spend the rest of my life with. I’ll drink to that. The artist takes a swig of his drink.

I heard two friends of mine tell me the tale of their engagement. These two friends were married for twelve years already. And they told me that they were engaged six months after they met. Well, not being one to be outdone (head tilts again) I asked Chris to marry me five months after we met. So now we are engaged. Artist holds up hand to show ring. It’s a nice ring.

Of course we…oh…okay…I’ll drink to that. In an attempt at humor, the artist clinks his glass with a glass set by the teddy bear in the blue and white outfit. This was obviously set-up for the interview. He continues…of course, now that I have a partner, this is going to be the object of much of my artwork and my portraiture because even though a lot of my portraiture is geared toward people and exploring people, it’s also very biographical and, since this is the person in my life, this is the person who I will be painting intermittently and studying for a life time. So that’s how this portrait came about.

I think when people think about me painting portraits of people, and particularly people I am intimate with, I think they think it’s like the scene from “Titanic”: very kind of romantic and, um, and beautiful and, um, lustful. Artist begins unbuttoning his jacket. Um. It’s not. Long pause. At all. Artist is now shifting in his seat and removing the jacket revealing a tight-fitting grey vest and white shirt.

So I knew I had to do this blog. I knew I had to get a piece of work done. And I hadn’t been working. So I asked Chris, I said, Chris, listen, I want to paint your portrait, I’ve got to paint your portrait this weekend, it’s gotta be this weekend. Because him and I…we will spend weekends going to the movies, shows, in bed (loaded pause), going to this place for dinner or that place for dinner. Um. So I knew the kind of mode we got into—if I didn’t put my foot down—that portrait was not gonna happen and I wouldn’t have a new piece of work for this blog. So I put my foot down and I said, “Chris!” artist throws jacket down to the floor. This is a performance. “I have to paint you this weekend”! and he said, “of course”.

So we set it up and I set up a time schedule. I said we are going to do it for these hours on Saturday and these hours on Sunday. Everything was fine. However. Friday night we went to a concert. In Brooklyn. King’s Theater (beautiful theater by the way. If you’ve not been to King’s Theater, you’ve gotta go see King’s Theater. It is gorgeous inside). So we’re sitting in the concert. And we’re making small talk as usual. We’re…we’re very much talkers. We’re always talking to each other. Artist forms two puppet hands talking to each other and then sniffles. And, um, he says something and I’m not going to tell you what he said.

Because that would be petty and it’s really none of your business.

But he says something that—and you’ve all felt this before—it may not be a big thing, that thing that someone says, but it triggers something inside of you (long pause) that brings out the worst in you. So we’re at this concert and Chris is sitting next to me and he says this thing (arms open wide as if to present “this thing”). And I am triggered. And then the show comes on a second after I’m triggered. Artist stops to refill his glass and we notice that he is filling his wine glass with a bottle of Arizona Green Tea. He is not taking this seriously. Or is he not taking his own story seriously? Is the story true?

So I’m watching the concert. Fuming. Trying to calm myself down. Because I want to have a nice weekend and I gotta paint Chris. Artist pauses to “refill” the teddy bear’s glass.

So, the concert ends and I’m trying to recover…you’re welcome (this is said to the bear). And I’m trying to regain my composure. I’m working my way towards it. I’m working my way towards it. I’m working my way towards it.

There’s a line. There’s a line in Paradise Lost by John Milton and the line pretty much it’s it’s it’s, it’s, ah, it’s, ah, talking about Lucifer. Artist reaches for the book which is conveniently at hand. Talking about Lucifer and how…and how he can’t get out of himself and how he can’t get out of, uh (artist buries face in his free hand) and how he feels…stupid…for trying to, uh, overthrow God. And he even misses God. He misses God…(Milton’s a genius). But he can’t get out of his feelings. Artist begins to read from the poem:

“Upon himself horror and doubt distract his troubled thoughts and from the bottom stir the Hell within him/ for within him Hell he brings/ and around about him nor from Hell one step can fly nor from change of place”

Artist throws book on floor.

You know what that means?

Long pause

That’s when you’re so furious that you can’t get out of it. When you take this step (artist points to his right) that’s Hell. When you take a step over here (artist points to the left of him) that’s Hell. When you take a step back. That’s Hell. The Hell is within you. The Hell is around you. And you’re carrying it with you and, ladies and gentlemen, I was carrying Hell with meeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee at that concert.

But I had to get over it. Because I had to paint this portrait.

So. I’m working on it, working on it, working on it. The next morning I try to talk to him a little about what triggered me and trying to get artist begins rambling in non-sense words with his tongue out as though exorcising a demon.

Fine. Good. Time for the portrait. Artist claps his hands. So. I’m painting the portrait and I’m seeing that, uh, Chris is (long pause)…He adores me. He loves me. Oooooo…does this man love me. It is very difficult for him to ignore me when I’m in his presence. And what I mean by that is, he was laying on the couch (as you see in the portrait) and he was watching “Empire”. Um, um, some episodes that he DVR’ed. And he’s watching “Empire” and, and, and I feel like I have to watch it with him; it’s over here (artist indicates his left side) and he’s over there (artist indicates a space in front of him) and the canvas is over there (artist indicates a space to his right) and, uh, he’s he’s he’s constantly needing my feedback and my conversation which is a beautiful thing but I can’t really kind of focus (artist starts juggling invisible balls) on the portrait.

Usually I’m used to people talking to me and having a conversation with me but it seemed like the conversation he was trying to have was geared toward what was happening on the screen (artist indicates his left side). So I had to pay attention to him, pay attention to the TV show, and pay attention to what I was doing.

Now, I managed it. I managed it, right? Boom, boom, boom, boom. I’m doing it. Then all of a sudden, Chris takes his T-shirt (artist grabs a white T-shirt close at hand. Obviously things have been strategically placed about him for illustrative purposes) and he starts laying there like this:

Artist holds the white T-shirt to his nose. Tilts his head down. And looks up with puppy-dog eyes.

Now, Chris has asthma, Ok? And I use oil paint. So, what I was getting from him was that the medium that I use (artist begins unbuttoning his vest) has a very, very, very strong smell and it was getting to him. And of course (artist peels off vest) I reacted—inside—irrationally. And when I saw him do this artist repeats T-shirt move that piece of me inside of me just screamed, “PLEASE…GIVE ME A BREAK. YOU KNOW I NEED TO DO THIS. YOU KNOW THAT THIS IS MY WORK”

As the artist says all of the above he moves from peeling off his vest to snatching a katana off the bed, unsheathing it, and pointing it at the camera. And then the artist softens and allows the katana to float in his hand softly.

But you can’t do that. You can’t be like that. The man is sick. He has asthma! You can’t blame him for that. C’mon. And I didn’t. Artist sheathes sword and places it across his crossed-legged lap. I just said, “you know what, Chris? I think that I have to, um…stop working”. And I said it very calmly. And I started moving the pieces out of the room. Throwing out the medium so that he didn’t have to smell it anymore. Because I’m a good person. Long pause as artist smiles maniacally and shifts in seat and slowly whispers to himself, “I am. I am”.

So I moved stuff out of the room and I was fine with it and everything was good. I kind of wanted him to say “no, baby. Let’s keep going. I’m fine”. But that’s me being selfish.

So. It’s time to do it in the, uh, the following day. On Sunday we reconvened and we pick up the portrait, um, where we left off. And he is, um, laying on the couch after, after a little coercing (head tilt). So everything’s going great. I’m working: boom boom boom. I love the way it’s coming out. I love the palette I’m using. And then, um, sorry…artist takes a sip of iced tea…and then he starts coughing.

Now of course the irrational part of me that needs this painting done is going ape shit. But the rational part who loves my fiancé (artist holds up ring) says, “Peter, get this stuff out of the room”. And so I did. So I got the canvas and the medium and the pallet and the brushes  and everything, I got it out of the room, I put it in the next room and I waited for a few minutes to see if that was enough. Artist has noticed that his shirt is sticking out of the sides and begins tucking it in. Sorry, this is bothering me. I’m a little vain. Artist turns to the bear and tells it to shut up.

And he stopped coughing. To wit…as he watched some movie…”SAW?”…not the first one…I don’t know, I don’t watch them. As he watched “SAW”, I would paint (indicates his left side with the katana) run back to the scene of him in the other room (indicates his right side with the katana) try to remember the pillow in my mind and what it looked like, run back and paint that pillow or, like, the line of that pillow. Go back and try to remember what the desk looked like (katana to the left) go back, paint the desk (katana to the right) check it (katana to the left) check it (katana to the right). And I did that for the rest of the painting. The floor. The couch. Most of the pillows. The mirror.

Um…so it was very difficult.

And again, I think a part of me, the very selfish part wanted Chris to protest. I wanted him to…to…to be willing to die for my art. But that’s not nice. And that’s not fair. And that’s not love.

Long pause

The painting was finished. Artist puts the katana down, behind him. And it looks great. I loved it.

I was afraid that, years from now when I look back at that painting, (head tilt), I am going to think of all the negative things that happened that weekend; how I was triggered at the concert; um, how I couldn’t get myself out of it; how I felt like I wasn’t being supported with my work.

But its three days since the painting and I have to say the thing that I’m going to remember when I look at that painting is, I think, part of the key to love. And that is that, when you decide that you are going to commit to someone and make someone your life partner, there is no longer a “you”. It is not about your goals, what’s important to you, what you need to get done. It’s about the well-being of the relationship and the well-being of your partner.

And everything else is second to those two things.

And so what I want to remember is, I want to remember having to stop. I want to remember having to run back and forth in order to finish the painting so that my partner was well and comfortable (head tilt). I want to remember his sacrifice and I want to remember my sacrifice. And I want to remember that I did it gladly. Artist looks back at the katana. OK, not gladly…at the time: not gladly at the time. But in retrospect, I did it gladly.

And I learned a lesson.

My art is my art. My goals are my goals. And the question that I have to ask when I’m pursuing art and pursuing my career in art is, “hey, hey, hey, hey”, artist holds up finger to camera, “What’s love got to do with it?”

Because you’re in love. And that comes first.

Artist turns to bear: You like that? I thought that was good. I think we can stop now.

 

 

 

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Project Proposal: Edited Truths and Confessional Spaces

                                                Title: Edited Truths and Confessional Spaces

            We live in an age of manufactured truths—false news, alternative facts, and meticulously manipulated online presences that range from photo filters to catfish. Yet certain types of encounters still seem to have the power to pull out truths that we thought hidden (or thought we wanted hidden). Examples of these types of encounters are the courtroom (by circuitous questioning) the interview (by empathetic or aggressive discussion) and the casual conversation—sometimes with a confidante, but also sometimes with a stranger (the very presence of whom, for some reason, permits us to be confessional). I have, through my work as a portrait painter, often been that confidante.

 

My work has been primarily live portrait painting and the studio has acted, for many of my sitters, as a space to reveal themselves, break away from their manicured public self-image, and to explore, in private, a more unedited version of themselves. My proposed project is the exploration of the open and vulnerable confessional space versus the privately edited truth. I plan to do this through different mediums including painting, photography, performance, and video.

The driving question for this exploration will be looking into the conditions that open us up to truth in an age of invention and image-curation. In my practice of live portrait painting, I simply noted that the sittings seemed to illicit confessional responses in my sitters: I learned about dark pasts, sexual escapades, heart aches, perceived weaknesses and perceived strengths. The portrait themselves, I had hoped, carried the weight of these confessional anecdotes (though I did record sessions through a diary entry for each sitter). Yet the only surviving relic of my sitters' confessional state was the portrait alone. The surviving relic, this finished portrait, was always disarming to the sitter when they finally looked at it. I have often wondered: Had they not realized how vulnerable they looked as they confessed themselves to me over the past four hours? Is this the first time they are seeing their unedited, confessional face?

 

 

In 2018, art seems to be more about the performative aspects of making. Additionally, we are living in a digital age. And so I am looking to both marry image-capture (both digitally and through my painting practice) with performance and, in some cases, use only performance to capture moments of unedited truth. In other cases, I am thinking of amalgamating all three aspects: performance, painting, and digital media. Through all of this, I have become interested in the psychology of the confession and think that that is a good starting point in terms of research. One article that I have already scanned claims to discuss the "cognitive, perceptual, and motivational changes" that occur after confession (is this “change” what I am capturing in the portraits? This moment? And is that why the sitter cannot seem to recognize themselves in my work?) There is also fertile ground in the religious aspects of the confession to explore. Lastly, there is the idea of editing or forced editing (if I begin to videotape sittings that carry confessions, how much will my subjects allow me to "show"? What are the limits between an organic confession and a public display of that confession?). Alongside this is the idea of morality; how much will I allow my subjects to dictate and control and edit my art (even though I am making art of their confession)?

Immediately, when I think about the idea of confession, I think about Marina Abramovic whose 2010 performance piece, The Artist is Present, had her sitting in front of over one thousand museum visitors and staring into their eyes. Promotions for this performance show some visitors crying, others smiling; they had clearly gained some sort of silent contact and communication with Abramovic and sometimes, I am contending, that contact/communication was, in an unspoken way, confessional. In that light, I am interested in my own qualities as confessional receiver: do my sitters (participants/visitors) confess so much to me out of sheer boredom? I do not think so. They are, like Abromovic’s visitors, in front of “the artist” and all the characteristics of artists seem to imply to them (sensitivity, bacchanalian sexual abandon, bohemian morality—someone in touch with muses and blessed with gifts). The perception of me is false. But that false perception is what allows or invites the visitors, I think, to open.

Alice Neel, in her painted portraits, did not depict her subjects in any way idyllic: hooked noses become beaks; slightly sagging breasts become satchels of flesh. Neel’s portraits are unedited truths. But did her sittings have the same confessional quality I experienced? It does not appear so. There is no book dedicated to a single sitting written by any of her sitters (that I am aware of) like the ones that exist for Freud and Giacommeti. Still, Neel admits that she not only strove to paint the physical aspects of her sitter but also capture a person’s inner soul. “I become the person for a couple of hours”, Neel reports in an article titled, “Alice Neel and the Human Comedy”. “I don’t belong anywhere”, she continues, “so when they leave I have no self. I don’t know who or what I am”. In pulling at the souls of people, I wonder through Neel’s work, do we, the receivers of information (or silent tears or laughter) give up a piece of ourselves?

As a first project, I would include something already completed in the vein of the exploration of edited truths and the confessional. Three weeks ago, I painted a Transart classmate at her home. I spoke to her about the idea of recording the sessions and she volunteered to be recorded. As usual, the session (only an hour long) prompted her to discuss her love life, her sex life, her insecurities, and her desires. When the session was done and she looked at the finish portrait piece, she thought she looked old. I asked her to send me the video and she did, but was already requesting that certain things she said be edited. I think the video, in itself, is interesting in that it captures the moment(s) of portrait-confession. I think what would also take this further is a video capturing the subject and I editing the footage and debating on the editing. This may delve into the psychological aspects of why we want certain things hidden. Meanwhile, the viewer can only surmise (through the edited version) the content under debate through our videotaped discussion. (This was done in September)

A second project that I am conceptualizing is one that explores self-confession. I would like to turn all of the above observations, feelings, and questions onto myself before exploring them outwards again with others. I am envisioning a canvas, a mirror, and a recording device set up to capture me painting a self-portrait. During the process, I will verbally relate a very candid version of my life (unprepared) from childhood to adulthood (as much as fits into about three to four hours of non-stop painting). Afterwards, I will edit the footage for anything that I would not want a viewer to hear. The finished product should result in a film (and a filmed portrait process) with many small (or large) gaps of unknown length and content. At the end of the session, the final self-portrait will be wiped away leaving only the edited truths captured on video as the existing artwork. (This would be completed in October)

A third project steps away from the canvas and into performance. In Transart, we have a classmate who performs through dance. I am envisioning an un-choreographed performance with this classmate wherein we explore editing each other’s movements around each other. Can we do this with reasoning? Can we verbalize the reasoning? Was shame involved? What—on our bodies—is still private? What, in our interactions, must be edited for the sake of others? How much truth lies behind those edits?

 

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Response to Crit Group

The crit group response to my exploration of/ experimentation with color was both helpful and reflective of my own projections about what I want to further explore next: the relationship between viewer and sitter.

More specifically, I want to explore the idea of truth within that relationship/encounter.

Expanding on Rudy's comment that my previous portraits had a "brutal honesty" in regards to how the sitter was portrayed, I agree that my work feels like a response to Rudy's next idea that "the world is full of false appearances". This is true now more than ever.

I can recall many moments after a portrait sitting was finished and the sitter rose to take a look. Very often the subject looked disappointed --many seemed like they could not get away from the portrait fast enough: "I look old", "I look big", "no one is going to believe that's me", "you see me darker-skinned than I really am" are a few of the responses.

Rudy's comment of "false appearances" throws these reactions into a modern day context for me vis-a-vis selfies and the manipulation and curation of our own images: Rudy has me thinking that my sitters were not necessarily reacting so much to the work, but to the work in relation to how they may have been manipulating their own images (and thusly warping their own self-images). In short, they were reacting to a truth: a truth on canvas.

This makes me think not only about the truths that are revealed in the finished portrait but about my relationship with the sitter and the various truths that emerge in conversation while they sit.

In connection with this, Sheila asks, "how will you bring the interaction between the viewer and sitter forward?" My initial idea was to simply record the sittings but my advisor has asked me to take a step further and, switching roles, have my subjects paint me.

This switching of roles prompts some questions for me: does the power of looking for or sifting for truth(s) shift? Will the painters (formerly the sitters) still be revelatory and vulnerable as they paint or will I, now the subject, become the one who is opened up and who must now face the portrait and all the truths it reveals about me?

As far as the shift in palette goes (which was the main point of the submission) I welcome the reaction from Sheila that the grey portraits invite her to "connect more to the subjects". Furthering that line of thought was Sarah's comment that the grey palette may be giving me "license for more visible intimacy". But then Sarah wonders if it is the grey palette that is affecting the look and  mood of these second portraits or if, simply, the "relationship" is "showing through" as these subjects have sat for me before (does a new truth emerge with the frequency of sittings/encounters?)

Either way I want to continue experimenting with color and exploring the relationship between artist and subject and the concept of encounter/truth so here is my next step:

I will have people who were former subjects paint me. They may need some instruction (to what extent? How will this differ from person to person?) How will the conversation run? Will they relax enough to stop talking about the process and engage with me in deeper conversation (as usually happens when I am behind the canvas?) or will the entire sitting be a nervous conversation about process and results? (A conversation that I usually have privately, in my own head, while painting and conversing with the sitter). And what truths will, on either or both sides, be revealed in this switching of roles?

Another idea that  I am toying with is instructing the painter to choose a palette with which to paint my portrait. In the way I tinged my colors with grey in the new portraits, perhaps I will have my painters chose a palette through which they want to capture me (will they choose red? Blue? Green? Black? Why? What effect will it have? What truth will be revealed through that choice? And will any of their choices affect my own work?)


Crit Group Submission

Cognizance of Color

Leaving the Transart Berlin residency was for me, like many others, like being taken into a vast forest, blindfolded, and left alone (not so much how to figure out how to get back—but to find a new way out of the woods).

“Keep doing what you are doing: repeat, repeat, repeat”, one advisor advised.

“Think about your choices and your process: emphasize time and performance” advised another.

“Your portraits are beautiful”, someone said, “but in two years, I do not want to see that”.

“That” referred to the body of work I showed at presentation in Berlin: portraits of people sitting patiently on my futon or a friend’s leather couch in bright colors. So my first step was to work through color; my palette needed to change. A classmate told me that my colors looked “straight out of the tube” and advised me to mix in greys with the colors on my palette.

When I returned home, I got straight to work. I read Josef Albers’ Interaction with Color and began experimenting.

According to Albers, when using a dark palette, the figure looks further away from the viewer. A light palette has the opposite effect. Before Transart Institute, I had painted my friend, author Toby Tompkins in a brown leather jacket. The portrait carried my usual trait of bright reds and yellows in the face and even the brown of the jacket pops. When I returned from Transart, I asked Toby to sit again and this time I used only dark colors mixed with grey. The difference is notable, I think.

Whereas the first portrait in the leather jacket is almost “pretty”, the grey-infused Toby portrait almost seems to have more “life” for its lack of vividness. Is this, then—the second portrait—closer to how we see people? Was I exaggerating the colors I was seeing in Toby’s previous portrait? If so, why? What was I attempting with the vivid colors? (style?).

Another question I have is, by pushing the colors back (by mixing them with grey), what effect am I achieving? I do like (almost prefer) the newer, grey-infused Toby portrait, but I am not quite certain why I feel it is better than the previous one with the bright colors.

Along with Toby, I also painted another friend, Bronx blogger and activist, Ed Garcia Conde. This time I used a light palette (to achieve Albers’ distance effect—not sure that worked) but also mixing greys into the colors. Below is another comparison. The first is the previous Ed portrait with vivid palette. The second uses bright colors but dulled with grey.

      

With both the Toby Tompkins new, grey-infused portrait and the Ed Garcia Conde new, grey-infused portrait, there seems to me to also be a shift in style that I cannot say I am cognitively aware of how or why it is happening; it’s almost as if the shift in palette has changed some other sensibilities, sense of aesthetics, sense of likeness, sense of translation of what I am seeing.

The final experiment is the portrait of Flavia that immediately follows this entry. For Flavia’s portrait, I first painted the entire canvas grey and worked over the grey. It was a struggle to manipulate the colors and “form her face” the way I would usually do with all the grey being mixed in. The result is, once again muted, But again, I see a shift in style that I cannot quite peg; as if the grey is forcing a different sense of sensibilities and sight in me.

 

 

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“Flavia” oil on canvas

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“Toby” in original bright palette

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“Toby” in grey-infused palette

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“Ed” in original bright palette

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“Ed” in grey-infused paletter

New Project Plan

Lynette Yiadom-Boakye is a figurative portrait artist working in 2018. In a self-titled lithograph book of her work, the artist and other contributors explain why the above consignment—figurative portrait artist working in 2018—can feel problematic. According to cultural critic, Donatien Grau, once Duchamp started producing readymades, the end of figurative painting was nigh. “Many artists who used painting as their medium”, Grau writes, “had a choice between either remaining in the realm of painting and accepting the fact that painting had become conservative or to enter the never-ending parade of painting toward the death of painting” (29). “It is a rather heavy burden”, he continues, “for a contemporary artist to carry: being a painter, being a figurative painter, being seemingly a portraitist” (31). The essay goes on to explain how Ms. Yiadom-Boakye subverts this idea of painting-as-outdated by her use of “restraint” in both subject matter (mostly brown-skinned subjects) and technique (broad strokes and the completion of a painting within a workday).

In the first iteration of my Project Plan, I wanted only to paint people, many people, with a focus on representation and volume. The idea was to populate a gallery space with portraits of all types of people from neighbors to D-list celebrity drag queens and performance artists, lovers and strangers, friends and paid sitters. My hope was that the viewer would look at these portraits and wonder who these people are and also wonder at the interaction between sitter and artist by pondering the look in their eyes as they watched me and I painted them.

Working through the 2018 Berlin summer residency, with much of the focus around installation, assemblage, and performance art (with subtle hints within the curricula that painting was obsolete) made me realize that what Donatien Grau was saying was relevant to me and my work. Even with the concept of the project plan (an interest in race-representation and the sitting/sitter dynamic) I now feel that this is not enough to subvert the idea that the work I do simply saves me a spot in the pointless march toward the death of painting. 

Still, figurative portraiture is what I do. I don’t want to lose that.

During the Berlin residency, I was given a list of artists to study. One was Yiadom-Boakye (whose work was featured in the Berlin Biennale—so much for the death of painting). Another was Deanna Lawson whose photograph-portraiture always includes the subjects’ environment. Lawson’s work appears to be taken in the home of the sitter and what struck me was that we were getting a lot more information about the sitter via what they were surrounded by (objects, colors, furniture, detritus).

I liked this.

Using more of the environment that surrounded my subjects was a good first step, I felt. But I also wanted to expand the experience of the portrait, the interest in sitter/artist relationship into something that went beyond the portrait itself and became more meta, that is to say, more about the experience of sitting, opening up, being looked at (from both ends) and the conversation that flows from being together in this simple but strained relationship of sitter and artist. In Berlin, often for lack of on-hand materials, many of my fellow student-artists used their camera phones, video recorders, and audio recorders to create a piece and this has inspired me to experiment with these features within (without?) my portrait making: to video tape the process of the sitting turning the finished portrait into an artifact of an experience rather than a piece in and of itself.

An amalgamation of these new inspirations (Lawson’s use of environment and Berlin-residency students’ use of recording technology) brings me to the second stage of my project plan.

The subject matter will remain: people. But in this next set of portraits, I will include significantly more of the subject’s environment in order to give the viewer more information as well as create movement for the eye within the work. Whereas previous portraits have been mostly done in my own home with the sitter traveling to my studio, these portraits will make me the visitor into their homes for a more intimate (invasive?) experience for sitter and viewer. The composition will reflect this shift by reducing the size of the subject on the canvas in order to incorporate as much of the background environment (or information) as the sitting calls for.

Additionally, instead of having the viewer ponder about the dynamic between sitter and artist, I will record the sessions and (technology permitting) add an experiential component to the sittings by providing the viewer with audio and visual clips of the dialogue between us that captures something poignant, or even banal—something telling—during the course of the sitting. It could be a diatribe, a dialogue, a single sentence, depending on the subject and the experience.

Returning to the opening, perhaps what I am attempting to do through this second iteration of my project plan is to go the opposite way of Yiadom-Boakye’s internal restraint and explode the idea of portraiture outward out of the canvas and into exploring the idea of looking, talking, being present with another person in a way that many of us no longer experience in the 21st century because of technology and social media outlets. The combination of a person surrounded by her things, her artifacts, and listening to her expound, relate, react, explain, question more clearly hits the original target of my desire for the viewer to want to know the people who are featured before them. It is more information in order to pique interest further or, in some cases, what stands before them may be enough information, leaving the viewer to exit the gallery having almost-actually met (not seen and wondered about) many different people