Reading Diary: Editing Spaces (Benjamin Busch and Lorenzo Sandoval)

Georges Perecs’ taxonomy of space in Species of Spaces got me thinking about the spaces I have occupied and/or the spaces I have witnessed.

In America we have separate spaces for Black people and for white people. It is not the era of Jim Crow. It doesn’t have to be. This is America.

The Ghetto

I grew up in one of the Black spaces of New York City called Lefrak City. I listened to R&B music and was present for the birth of hip hop. The faces that occupied the spaces around me were Black faces. There were Black matriarchs and Black men. There was Black people’s food: fried chicken and mac and cheese (these are not myths nor stereotypes—they are cuisine that came up North from the South during the Great Migration—which—in itself—was a change of spaces—but I digress). The people in this space, my childhood space, who were in charge, who called the shots, were Black people. I occupied an internal space of Black power and control within a larger space of white dominance. It was like an illusion whose idyllic nature I did not realize until I was older and learned what the space of America truly was.

The Attic

In 1984, Jesse Jackson ran for President of the United States. I knew the history of Black Americans. In Lefrak City I had a front seat to and was given lessons on the continued oppression of Black people. I imagined, at 13 years old, that if Jesse Jackson won, myself and my family would occupy a small space in some Black family’s home (like Anne Frank in the attack) once Jesse Jackson had the power to obliterate the white oppressor and bring justice to his people. We had many Black friends so I knew we would be okay once the assault began; we would travel from apartment to apartment and live in closets, kept safe by the Black folk who we grew up with, who patted me on the head, fed me from their spoons, and whose children I played with in the streets.

The Girlfriend

In 2016, I met a Black woman who wanted to marry me and have my child. The space she occupied was a world apart even if we sat or lay side by side. White women were nurturing and friendly to me. They liked me. I made them laugh. White women were her sworn enemy and, at every turn, were planning her destruction. I, unwittingly, unknowingly, and insensitively occupied a space of privilege and she occupied a space two spaces below that privilege—being both Black and female. She threw things at me, very often, from below. She wanted my child hoping the baby would inherit my skin color and my hair texture; she wanted to ensure that her baby did not occupy her space but, rather, could readily slide into my space.

The Classroom

I work in a high school in Harlem New York (a space in NYC that is being invaded via gentrification). My classroom is big. It is decorated with rugs and a growing collection of framed pictures of former students. The walls record the history of the children (a portrait of Malcolm X, a framed newspaper front page of Obama’s victory). There are plants and there is artwork created by myself and students. The space is designed for the Black students I serve. I pick up the garbage in that space. I have seen other classrooms; balls of paper litter the floor, paper hangs ripped off the walls, stacks of student work lay abandoned in piles on the teacher’s desk. Some classrooms are bare—as though the rapture long ago pulled up all he goo students and all the good teachers. These spaces are not meant to teach Black children. These spaces are designed (garbage and papers or empty walls) to say, “YOU DON’T MATTER”.

The Chokehold

Last week in America, the Justice Department announced that it would not press charges on Officer Panteleo, the white cop who killed a Black man who was allegedly selling loose cigarettes. The first portion of the explanation as to why no charges were being held was a citing of the size of Mr. Eric Garner versus the size of Panteleo. Eric Garner occupied much much more space. He was a big Black man. A Black man in America is not allowed to occupy so much space: so much height and width—it is imposing to small white men. The Justice Department then transitioned into the hold; according to them, Panteleo only meant to subdue Garner by encircling the space around Garner’s neck. Garner’s size and the space around the two then colluded to turn a subduing gesture into a chokehold as the space between the cop’s forearm and Mr. Garner’s neck dramatically decreased as the two fell and collided with a store window behind them. Most importantly, the Justice Department cited that all eleven times Mr. Garner screamed, “I can’t breathe”, the space around him was clear—no officer was touching him at that point.

This is America.

Reading Diary: Magic Materiality (Susan Poetz)

While reading Dario Novellino’s “sensory view of how magic works”, I could not help but think about my own experience with teaching.

I teach high school English and I have always thought it was a sort of magic.

I am a successful teacher. I am “that” teacher: the one who all the students love for all the right reasons and the one who all the other teachers are not crazy about. I am also a blight on my principal because he (being the empirically-grounded man that he is) cannot bottle my efficacy at teaching.

And that is because my teaching practice is, in Novellino’s definition of the term—magic.

Firstly, Novellino cites Tambiah’s “primary concern” of magic as being “the transferring of a desirable property to a recipient lacking that property” (756). To be very specific, I am an English teacher and most people believe that High School English usually constitutes the transfer of two main properties: reading and writing. I believe that High School English constitutes the properties of thinking and writing (reading, in my own practice, is an ancillary skill used for attaining knowledge in order to further the more important skill of thinking).

So the highest level property I want to transfer is thinking. How do you teach people to think? To employ logic? To draw conclusions? To synthesize information and produce, from this synthesis, new thought? To my colleagues and my principal’s dismay, there is no graphic organizer for this level of skill; there is no outline. If students are tasked (as they are in my classes) to develop a unique strain of thought in their writing (I do not want to read 30 of the same essays), they most know how to think and in the public school system of New York City, I have found that no one has ever asked this of them before me.

My magic begins with talismans all around my classroom: Framed photographs of intellectuals who resemble the students I serve from President Obama to Malcolm X to Toni Morrison. There are objects I have collected around the world that are explained to the students: A statue of Ganesh, the elephant-headed god of Hinduism, is explained as the “remover of obstacles”. These things, as Novellino points out, are not mere decorations to make my classroom homey but they serve to change and to charge the environment, to “impregnate” the environment in order to “produce an effect” (760). They work, I believe on the subconscious of the students on many levels. Not just symbolic. If we want to explain this as simplistically as possible, the environment is one of physical caring—it is a thoughtful environment. In their other rooms, mass-produced Department of Education posters hang sideways off of walls full of old tape and chart paper is hung with instructions or rules scrawled by a teachers careless hand with a dried out marker. Or the rooms are barren with only balled up paper littering the floor. Part of my practice is also the maintenance of the room. Litter on the floor changes the physical environment and is scooped up, by me—the shaman—once it hits the floor.

More than the physical environment is the actual act of teaching which seems more attuned with Novellino’s ideas. Novellino attempts to dissolve the distinction between the “expressive and the technical”, between the “mystical and empirical” (762). Such is how I teach thinking and writing. Much to my principal’s dismay, the way I teach thinking and writing cannot be categorized neatly into rubric traits to be checked off on a chart or checklist. In short, I describe the magic (that unique thought I am asking for, the logic, the synthesis, the invention) I am looking for, I give examples of that magic by demonstrating my own trains of thought and arrivals at logical and unique conclusions, and then—in the same way the Batak believe that bees and rice get released from the “edge of the universe” (758), I insist to my students that their own unique and insightful theses and conclusions get released from somewhere in their minds and I challenge them to call it forth.

Even Novellino’s section on action and sound resonated. When I have my students write, I will usually sit and write with them. I have been known to call students’ attention to watch me, to watch my body and my face as I am writing because I want them to see the thinking process—to see me stopping and staring intently into space (into the edge of the universe) trying to find what I am looking for, to see my hands gesticulating as though I am pulling that thing from the air, or asking the universe a question. Soon, I see my students using this dance to also call forth ideas, answers, direction, and conclusions.

When I talk about how difficult my teaching job is, I have always described it as “trying to pull my own mind from my head and showing the students how it gets from a question to an insightful and unique answer. It is like trying to transfer the way my mind works to their own minds”. But it is more in line with Novellino’s idea of magic. I know that teaching thinking is possible because I know that that “edge of the universe” in my own mind, where my theses derive from, where they live awaiting to be called upon, is also a located in their undeveloped minds and I only have to call upon words and rituals to reach it. My methods have varying degrees of success. Very few students learn the magic for themselves. It is difficult to correct 11 years of miseducation. But many of them leave me at least aware that they have the ability to manipulate their consciousness and they are also aware that the answers lay somewhere inside of them and not simply on a page to be underlined and repeated or copied.

My methods are exactly the opposite of how most public school systems operate; they operate on the empirical alone and if you cannot disseminate your methods via a PowerPoint presentation and if you cannot record the levels of student success on a spreadsheet, you have not done anything. People usually attempt to separate my classroom, my methods of communication, my bearing, my humor, my neatness, my patience from my practice but I sand by Novellino’s ideas of the power of “impregnation” and “attunement “ through the use of words, actions, and objects to produce a desired effect.

Reading Diary: Becoming Animal (Michael Bowdidge)

In Gerald L. Bruns’ “Becoming-Animal”, the author describes this becoming as being formed of an “in betweeness” (714), as an ability to become “imperceptible”(712), to be “nomadic” and “restless”(704) and it is linked, in his writings to a loss of the face which “becomes a mask without any relation of representation” (711). My response to the reading threatens to be (at best) both off-the-mark and a simplification to the ideas presented. At worst, my thoughts threaten to sound self-hating and intolerant.

I had always known that I was gay as a child. I had clear desires for the fathers of childhood friends and male television and movie stars. But like many young gay men, I attempted—for a long time—the straight and narrow; I dated girls and then young ladies. I had intercourse with them and devised futures with them appropriate for a young man growing up in a NYC ghetto in the 1980’s. I carried and I wore the face that “allow[ed] me to pass into human society” (Bruns 712).

At 20 years of age, I met a man. His name was Giovanni (of course). We became fast friends and then, in his car one rainy night, we became more: I became something else.

In 1976, Anne Rice wrote a gothic novel titled, Interview with The Vampire. In the story, a vampire named Lestat seduces a man named Louis and transforms Lois into a vampire. The gay community received this novel as an allegory to the recruitment-nature of homosexuality: a gay man meets a man who (like me) has an underlying nature that he wants hidden or that he is not yet prepared to deal with; the gay man befriends the other, seduces him, and then releases that hidden nature thus further “peopling” the gay community.

Becoming-animal, according to Bruns, “involves a peopling”(705). It is about “contagion” (705).

When I met Giovanni, I was, i believed, very happy with my girlfriend of 5 years. We were going to marry and have children. She was warm and loving and exceedingly smart. The sex was great. I knew that I had other yearnings that “arrive[d] and pass[ed] at the edge, teeming, seething, swelling” and I had considered it a personal triumph having never given into “this nameless horror” (Bruns 705).

I want to be clear that the horror, the becoming-animalistic-nature of “becoming gay” was not just psychological which is why the article moved me to write this.

One night as Giovanni drove me through the city, we rode past The Monster Bar—a gay bar located just opposite New York City’s landmark Stonewall Inn. Giovanni pointed it out. Seeing the curiosity on my young face, he informed me that I was not ready for that: “They would eat you alive”, he warned.

A year later, venturing in, I met the “pack”, the “band”, the “population” (705) of men who had also become.

In the 80’s and the 90’s, these places (the bars and clubs) were still secretive and each man inside still lived a double-life of some sort—be it to his family, his friends, his wife, or his job. I learned that gay people were legion: not some random man sitting in his parked car alone in the night but a “swarm” (705).

And the swarm was peopled with these inbetween creatures: in between man and woman. The swarm sloughed off gender-duality through their movements and gestures, or the way they spoke and laughed, or the way they dressed (on this night, in this place) or the subjects they spoke about. It was truly—it had to be—a metamorphosis because they could not speak, act, and dress that way before the world. The affectation was to much. It was not real. The myth to me was that in these dark places, gay men could allow their true nature to show. But it seemed to me that the personas I saw and interacted with were just as unreal as the ones these men most-likely shared at work and at their family’s home during holidays.

According to Bruns, “the becoming-animal of the human being is real, even if the animal the human becomes is not” (706).

At 47, being a gay male feels dull and normal. The things I do now, I would do if I were with a woman: no difference in how I act, dress, or the things I pursue in life. Who I am is not calcified by what I have become and gay culture at large has a minimum affect on my existence. But what was “real”, what shook me, what shakes me always, was my becoming.

MCP504 Part B: Proposal

Recently through discussions with my advisers, I have become curious about juxtapositions: worlds colliding: worlds created from that collision. 

To conduct this collision effectively, you have to be intimate with both worlds.

But I think that too much intimacy: too much knowledge restricts the work or the world you’re trying to create. My aim is to juxtapose the art of comic book illustration with the art of gender-bending in drag and trans performance.

I know the genre of superhero comic art very well, particularly the work of Canadian comic artist, John Byrne, whose work on the X-men in the late 70’s fuels the movie franchises we see in theaters today.

I know drag performance as much or as little as anyone who is a part of queer culture. Well, maybe slightly more; I am very good friends with a trans-performer and am acquainted with several other drag performers in NYC.

These are two entertainment genres that have interested me and I wondered how they would work together.

I could easily conceive the visual: drag performer painted portraits overlay on top of comic book backgrounds—perhaps clumsily so—or maybe fully integrated and interacting with the comic book background.

But all of this to what purpose?

The easy answer was to lionize drag and trans performers: I would research comic book pages that I wanted to replicate (say a splash page featuring Wonder Woman punching out a villain), then ask the drag performer to strike a similar pose, record the pose, and render both the comic background and the comic hero on a large scale but replacing the hero figure (Wonder Woman) with the drag or trans performer.

But this seemed too easy and too uninteresting.

I wanted to say something with these portraits but at the same time, I did not want to say anything. I wanted to find the balance between the work having relevancy and sparking interest without the work being obvious and hit-you-over-the-head-progressive and preachy.

Without direction, I began to just peruse the internet for images: Splash pages by John Byrne (chosen because he was and is my favorite superhero comic artist of all time).

A splash page is the first page a reader opens up to in a comic book. It is the first image of an issue and it usually is used for exposition but also carries a high element of drama to pull the reader in. It is my belief that a comic book splash page offers the perfect stage for a project on drag and trans performers because it positions them into performance (the drama of the splash page) but offers room to subvert that drama through the text feature of the comic page.

My first objective in this project was to gather John Byrne splash pages that interested me aesthetically as well as dramatically (I tried not to “see” my drag subjects in them yet).

I found that I was drawn to splash pages where the hero was in some way bound: trapped under a building—struggling to hold it up, strapped to a machine for some experiment, floating unconscious: held in the air by an invisible force. These were the situations I found most interesting: perhaps because I wanted the work to explore the nature of drag and trans performers and people: I want maybe to test their strength (?). Maybe I thought it would be interesting to see these usually large personalities quiet and passive and up for inspection or struggling and under duress. Perhaps by putting them in a situation (either passive or active) that was not posed as on a stage I am trying to humanize them in a way. I’m not sure yet.

Once I got the images down, I had to think about text. Text was a must if I were to be true to the form of comic book art. But what would I replace with the copious squares and rectangles full of exposition that appear on a splash page? My first thought was replacing the exposition with something biographical about each subject but that seemed, right away, too passe.

After beating my brains to death, I decided the best course was to allow research to dictate the next move and (as the maxim of Transart suggests) allow myself to play.

So, I google searched articles on drag performance, articles on drag psychology, articles on trans versus drag and I perused whatever came up searching for anything that would match the images I found (heroes bound or under duress).

This is perhaps the most interesting part of the project: I am attempting to find articles that seek to bind or put drag and trans performers under duress but I am eliminating articles that are, somehow, too much. I am allowing in ignorant voices, but only when I believe one can find the humor and naivete in the ignorance. I am finding voices that challenge and inform or seek to inform but sound ridiculous in its attempts at authority.

I have to start thinking about material (I am thinking of large un-stretched canvas) and acrylic. I have to start arranging sittings of the drag performers I will use. I have to think about the text feature (free hand or stencils). I am anxious to begin. Below are the answers to any questions that may have escaped the above description.

Working Title of Project: Translations of Perception

Suggested Advisors: David Antonio Cruz and I have just begun to work together and it is fruitful so I would like to stay with him. Jean Marie, of course, is a treasure and I’d hate to lose her but it may be interesting to work with a trans-artist. I am wondering if Transart has one in residence, can find one, or would be interested in working with one of the trans-artists who I know or who I am acquainted with.

Description of Project Report: I feel this time around that I would like to attempt a project report over a thesis paper. It would include my process which I would synthesize with my own growing understanding of drag and trans lives through research that would coincide with my work. The work itself explores the ignorance of how we have diagnosed, how we perceive, even some clumsy ways of how we accept drag performers and trans people. I would balance that work with research on drag performance and trans lives and report on the contrasts or even any intersections between the ignorance and the researched realities.

Project Results: I have in mind a series of 10 pieces where I am juxtaposing portraits of drag or trans performers onto comic book splash pages. The first iteration may be actual illustrations of the compositions on the 11X17 bristol board comic artists traditionally worked with using non-reproducing blue pencil and finished with India ink. The final versions may be large un-stretched canvases done with acrylics.

Initial Bibliography:

Trans bodies, Trans selves. Edited by Laura Erickson-Schroth

God and the Transgender. Debate by Andrew T Walker

The Changing Room. Sex, Drag and Theater. by Laurence Senelick

Why Drag? by Magnus Hastings

Various opinion articles and blog entries on transgender people and drag performance.

Abstract of Written Element: Why are we so fascinated by drag and gender bending? I ask: are we fascinated with gender bending as a whole phenomenon (male to female/ female to male) or are we fascinated with men who dress, act, and some who actually become women?

It seems to be the latter. Male to female impersonation and transformation appears more prolific, more covered in media and entertainment, and more outrageous. 

Male to women drag or transformation is performance and therefore more fascinating. One might argue that female to male is also performance (one might argue all gender is performance) but male to female performance , for some reason, seems to lend itself to buffoonery. I have never seen a drag show that contained a line up of female to male trans or drag performers pretending to mimic old Hollywood stars or contemporary male divas. I have never seen female drag performers or trans men on a stage exaggerating the movements and the vocalizations of men in over-the-top caricatures of men’s costumes (suits?)(jeans and T-shirt’s?). Why aren’t  lesbian bars filled on Friday and Saturday nights with trans-men lip-syncing to Justin Bieber or Bruno Mars?

Could it be that women just do not have that entertainment instinct as strongly as men do? Or are they not brave enough to make a fool of themselves onstage? Have we oppressed women so much over the ages that they fear the awkwardness of transformation and self deprecation? Are women afraid to make fun of men and the way we move, speak, dress, coif because of the patriarchal structure that still attempts to control their reproductive rights?

Or are men—as subject matter— just...boring?

I submit that drag and trans performance is a result of men’s (both gay and straight) fascination with the complexity of what it is to be a woman. In addition, I submit that we watch drag and trans performance out of fascination of that fascination: We are watching men enact our own fascination with what it is to be a woman.

But fascination without education can lead to ignorance, clumsy attempts at being an ally, and, in some cases where that fascination is repressed—violence (or a violence of words, or a violence of diagnoses). This projects puts that ignorance and violence on display in order to provoke questions and promote conversation.

Timeline for Realization of Project: The initial Bristol board pieces will begin in June for the first two to three weeks. I am hoping to have 2-3 canvases done by the time I arrive to Berlin in August.


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Copy of MCP504 Part A: Synthesis

01-Write a concise description of your studio project

Like most first year Transart students, after summer residency I was lost in the woods in terms of just what the hell I was going to do next. The Berlin residency put my previous work into perspective but did not offer a clear path into anything else because that first year residency seemed to lead into everywhere else: performance, film, assemblage, an exploration of materials. The artists I was meeting during the summer residency in Berlin were philosophers. They were people who were interested in material, memory, silence, and juxtapositions.

I paint portraits. I love painting portraits.

But clearly, just painting portraits wasn’t going to cut it anymore. So, I decided I needed a philosophy behind my portraits: I chose the philosophy of truth—of capturing moments of truth in a portrait through the use of video. My process involved setting up the space for a traditional portrait of someone while videotaping the sitting. The idea was that, as I engaged in conversation while making the portrait, the video camera was capturing vulnerable moments in the conversation (a confession, a reaction, a revelation, a loaded silence) that more truly revealed the subject more than the working portrait would; What I was attempting to capture were MICROEXPRESSIONS (TRUTH or LEAKS) on film and translating those into “true” portraits: According to American psychologist, Paul Akman, “when single emotions occur and there is no reason for them to be modified or concealed, expressions typically last between 0.5 to 4 seconds and involve the entire face. We call these macroexpressions; they occur whenever we are alone or with family and close friends. Macroexpressions are relatively easy to see if one knows what to look for. Microexpressions, however, are expressions that go on and off the face in a fraction of a second, sometimes as fast as 1/30 of a second. They are so fast that if you blink you would miss them”. Ekman goes on to report that “microexpressions are likely signs of concealed emotions”. I practiced my method of trying to capture these microexpressions twice (reviewing the footage, looking and listening for that vulnerable, true moment, freezing the frame and then painting that image) and brought the results of those two experiments to the Winter Residency here in New York.

It was here that I met David Antonio Cruz who was to be my new studio adviser.

In response to my presentation on truth portraits, David suggested that truth can never truly be captured—that we are always performing when in front of other people and he even suggested that I was performing right there in that Brooklyn studio space with this presentation.

He was correct. I was floundering. I was looking for a philosophy not for philosophy’s sake but for anything that allowed me to simply keep doing what I wanted to do: paint portraits.

Soon after this presentation, David, visited my studio, looked around and gave me a list of directives:

Explore a different material

Think of space, think of tone, think of patterns

Continue working with what you like (bodies)

Experiment: think of collage: create worlds

Use the things in your studio, the items you have hanging up and displayed

In giving these directives, David used a word that had been repeated several times during the Berlin residency: play.

So I abandoned the quest for a philosophical backbone, looked around my studio, chose a different material and began to play.

I knew that David was right in telling me not to loose what I love which was portraits so that would remain the center of my work. But how, I wondered, could I engage with portraiture and create worlds?

One of the patterns that repeated itself in my studio was coming from items I brought home from my trips to Greece: replicas of urns, plates, and statues that told the stories of ancient gods and heroes in tones of black paint on orange clay all bordered in ornate bands across the edges.

Many of the stories depicted on these urns were tragedies: the eating of children, the defeat of an enemy, the fall of a hero, the judgment of a god. And so I began to choose subjects for portraits who had a tragic element to their stories—at least the stories of those subjects that I knew.

At first, I was choosing people from my past and present using only this criteria: a connection to tragedy.

I soon realized that my tragic subjects had something else in common: they were all gay men of color.

A philosophy began to emerge. But I ignored it. I committed myself to play in the creation of this world. I spent my days perusing the internet for images of ancient Greek pottery, collecting images of Greek borders, Greek deities, animals, avatars, and soldiers that would match the elements of the tragic stories of my chosen subjects:

One of my subjects (Kevin) was a victim of tragic hyper-sexualization and so was paired with satyrs.

Another subject (Jose) was a victim of tragic hubris and so was paired with Zues in the guise of a swan.

A victim of tragic illness (Chris) was paired with the lion skin worn by Hercules.

A victim of tragic madness (Tito) was paired with sirens floating around his head.

The result is a ten piece collection of what I call “Homeric portraits”: black and orange depictions of gay men of color juxtaposed with elements from Greek pottery and accented by ornate borders and concise text around the figures painted using acrylics on unprimed wood panels of different sizes with the final piece (a transgendered man) painted on an actual ceramic planter.

The stories told shape the tragic aspect of gay life and gay culture, specifically for gay men of color. But they also serve to elevate these men and their tragedies to the heights of epic poetry.

 

02-How did the research impact upon your project and your working practice?

My research paper attempted to answer two questions:

1.What is the impact on Black subjects when they are depicted by non-Black artists?

2.If there does seem to be a negative impact across the board of non-Black artists using the Black image (no matter how accidental, no matter how unintentional, no matter how good-intentioned and socially conscious), should non-Black artists use the Black figure in their work at all? Is America still too neck-deep in white-on-Black racism that boundaries must exist in how white people use or appropriate the Black figure for personal gain?

While I (unfortunately) was able to cite many instances in which white artists were charged with transgressing racial sensitivities and these transgressions were backed by institutions and curators, I found solace in the works and the criticism of the work of Alice Neel who, by living among her subjects in Spanish Harlem, and painting them as neighbors rather than subjects, served to humanize them rather than objectify them. I left my paper with a feeling of kinship far closer to Neel than to artists who I identified as transgressors like Mapplethorpe and Dana Schutz. I was able to move to my Homeric portraits and the tragedy behind my Black and brown subjects because I knew them or know them well enough to already know their tragedies. They are people in my life. Not subjects for my use.

Though my use of Black and Latinx subjects for the Homeric portraits was incidental rather than a direct result of my research—the fact that it was incidental pillars my conclusion about the use of Black and brown figures in art; my subjects came from my life, my surroundings, my friends, my lovers. The people I used, I was intimate with enough that I could cast them in my Greek-inspired portraits because I knew them well enough to know their intimate tragedies and character foibles. As such, while to the world at large, I am depicting people of color, I am, in actuality simply depicting the people in my life.

I did not, though, want to abandon “the mission”.

“The mission”, as stated in my paper, was to join Kerry James Marshall (and a host of other artists) who depict only people of color as a statement against the idea that figuration in art is dead (and comfortably laying in a cemetery populated by white people).

The Homeric portraits revealed tragedies in the lives of Black and Latinx gay men but they also elevated those tragedies to epic proportions by placing men of color alongside gods and heroes. So, as I give myself a Neel-esque pass to continue to “use” people of color in my work, I will keep in mind that another part of the Marshall plan (the Kehinde Wiley part) is depicting Black and Latinx subjects in states of elevation, veneration, and/or with a great deal of humanity.

As a side note, David is directing me towards fine-tuning my technique which, I believe, is in alignment with my ideas about elevation, veneration, and humanity; if I am looking to be sure that my subjects are received in a way that elevates or humanizes them, the work should look as though it took more time and thought (and work) than what it currently is showing: particularly the rendering of the figures and the precision of the Greek borders in the Homeric-portrait series.

03-What directions does your project suggest for further research?

I am and will probably be for a long time interested in people—in types. Part of my interest has always been with people of color because of my surroundings and because of the twisted history of my country. Another type that has interested me has been drag and transgender performers. In this I am not alone. Hollywood news online reporter The Deadline reports that last season’s viewership of RuPaul’s “DragRace” hit over 700,000 viewers. Caitlyn Jenner was overwhelmingly embraced after her transformation. And last year, trans actor, Laverne Cox made history as Cosmopolitan magazine’s first transgender cover girl. With this new-found celebrity and seeming acceptance, my interest moves from the stories of these performers (it is the performers I am looking into) and more towards our fascination and thoughts on gender-bending people. By gender-bending, transforming, performing these transformations, these drag and trans people are, themselves, creating worlds. More interesting is looking at how we (non-trans, non-drag folk) are receiving, questioning, diagnosing, narrating these worlds—trying desperately to make sense of it all past the entertainment value of it. I have written up a proposal for a project involving the idea of created worlds and our collective concept of what it means to be drag and trans that looks deeper, I think, into the outsider and his viewpoint and less into the subject of interest thus reversing my usual getting-to-know-my-subject way of working and moving into something akin to a playful yet poignant aggressive-objectification to see what I can shake out of this tree—something that will promote thought and conversation about this other sect of our society who fascinate and inspire me.

Kevin with Satyrs: He Ordered Love. He Was Brought to Sex.

Kevin with Satyrs: He Ordered Love. He Was Brought to Sex.

Jose as Leda: He Believed that God Especially Loved Him: He Also Believed that Obama Was Sending Him Emails.

Jose as Leda: He Believed that God Especially Loved Him: He Also Believed that Obama Was Sending Him Emails.

Lorenzo as Eronemos: He Put Out a Plate of Dry Cat Food at a Party and All The Boys Loved Him.

Lorenzo as Eronemos: He Put Out a Plate of Dry Cat Food at a Party and All The Boys Loved Him.

Kent with Warrior-Spirits: He Blamed Us All For Not Being Sick Too. It Was a Valid Complaint.

Kent with Warrior-Spirits: He Blamed Us All For Not Being Sick Too. It Was a Valid Complaint.

Andrew Impaled: Anger Made Him Believe Cutting Off His Hair Would Rid Him of Negative Energy Only to Find The Bad Energy Was In His Head Not On His Head.

Andrew Impaled: Anger Made Him Believe Cutting Off His Hair Would Rid Him of Negative Energy Only to Find The Bad Energy Was In His Head Not On His Head.

Tito With Sirens: He once Broke the Leg of a Puppy.

Tito With Sirens: He once Broke the Leg of a Puppy.

Giovanni With Penises: He Hated Things About Himself, He Was Dyslexic. He Was Adopted. He was Gay.

Giovanni With Penises: He Hated Things About Himself, He Was Dyslexic. He Was Adopted. He was Gay.

Carlos in Battle: He Knew That All He Had To Do Was Wear a Cap and Put His Hand on His Dick While Standing in the Corner and He Was Guaranteed Company. he Hated It.

Carlos in Battle: He Knew That All He Had To Do Was Wear a Cap and Put His Hand on His Dick While Standing in the Corner and He Was Guaranteed Company. he Hated It.

Chris in Hercules Lion Skin.

Chris in Hercules Lion Skin.

MCP503 Final 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.

      

Kerry James Marshall. “Portrait of a Curator”  Marshall. “Still Life with Wedding Portrait”              Marshall. “”Untitled”

 

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”.

  

                                   Peter Erik Lopez. “Chris”                                                                  Peter Erik Lopez. “Mishell”

 

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.

Glenn Ligon. “Notes in the Margins of the Black Book”

 

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 figuration needs space on gallery walls made by Black artists?)

Protestor standing in front of Dana Shutz’ “Open Casket”

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 and I plan to continue the important and timely discussion that drives the work of Mr. Kerry James Marshall. Maybe not so much as an “ideological cause” but as a punctuating idea as to why I paint my own neighbors, family members, students, and lovers who are also people of color. 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”; they will see, unlike Marshall who was painting an idea and often an idealization of the race to which he belonged, I am painting the people—people of color—who turn me on as they once turned on Alice Neel and not shy away or attempt to explain away my desire to paint brown skin. And if people do not accept this, 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.

“Ballet Dancer” by Alice Neel

Works Cited

Als, Hinton. “The Inclusive Humanity of Alice Neel’s Paintings”. The New Yorker. 4 Feb. 2017. https://www.newyorker.com/culture/culture-desk/the-inclusive-humanity-of-alice-neels-paintings.

Diangelo, Robin. White Fragility. Boston, Beacon Press, 2018.

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

Elkins, James. The Object Stares Back. New York, Simon & Schuster, 1996.
Fanon, Frantz. Black Skin, White Masks. New York, Grove Press, 1952.

The 2019 Grammy Awards. CBS. WBBM, Los Angeles. 10 Feb. 2019. Television.

Sehgal, Paul. “Fighting ‘Erasure’”. The New York Times. 2 Feb. 2016. https://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/07/magazine/the-painful-consequences-of-erasure.html

The Guggenheim Museums and Foundation. 2019, https://www.guggenheim.org/.

Whitney Museum of American Art. 2019, https://www.whitney.org/

Wong, Ron. “A Syllabus for Making Work about Race as a White Artist in America”. Hyperallergic. 6 April 2017. https://hyperallergic.com/369762/a-syllabus-for-making-work-about-race-as-a-white-artist-in-america/

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

 

 

 

Lucian Freud at Acquavella Gallery

Lucian Freud is showing at the Acquavella Gallery in swanky uptown Manhattan and I went to see the work. What struck me, seeing Lucien’s work up close was the scale (again I have got to think of scaling up) but also the texture and the reality of his pieces. 

We will start with texture; Freud’s paintings are  comprised, in many areas, of clumps of paint on the canvas. There are areas that are so densely built up of paint that the framers had to place the glass far enough away from the work so that these areas did not get chipped. One piece had an eye so built up it was more of a relief sculpture of an eye than a painting. 

Now—reality. 

I have seen Freud’s work in lithograph books. They look pristine. They look photo real but with a specific style or eye. You can see Freud’s style of drawing: the way he sees people: how he curves mouths: how he renders bone. But it’s all an illusion. 

Up close you see that what looks like the blending of many colors on the canvas to produce this near-photo-realism is actually not blended but areas of individual colors laid down side by side. Additionally, when seen in person, up close, in its full scale, we realize that Freud didn’t care much for exactness ole perspective. Floor boards go this way and then that way. Cherries float at the side of one model. The couch holding the sleeping “Big Sue” has one leg twisted oddly (impossibly oddly to not collapse the couch—with or without the lovely Susan). 

One aspect of the show—titled “Monumental”—which focuses on Lucian’s nudes—was that all the work save one were of whites people. This makes perfect sense given that Freud worked from London and used many friends, relatives, and acquaintances. But it becomes troubling when there is a woman of color exhibited and the title identifies this woman (the only Black woman I have ever seen in Freud’s oeuvre) as “solicitor”.  


IMG_1656.jpg

Picasso and His World

As I am working on my series of Homeric portraits, I am reading a book I found (that’s quite awful) titled, Picasso and His Women. The title suggests that the book is solely about  Picasso’s love affairs but I’m sure the title was just an attempt to draw readers in its year of publication (1969) because its really simply a pretty straight forward biography. 

Still, it’s a decent read and as I am going through it I am realizing there are things Picasso had as a growing artist that I either wish I did or I think is necessary in order to further my practice.

  1. Exposure: in the beginning Picasso could only practically give his drawings and paintings away to small dealers (which were pretty much dealt out of Knick knack shops) but when these pieces got into the hands of the right people—the Steins for example—Picasso was set. There was a culture in Paris at the time of collecting prints and drawings for their aesthetic value, however, that I don’t think exists today anywhere. The internet, it seems, is where most aspiring artists put up their work. I was told by someone in the business that any attempts these days to get ones art in a gallery is simply not worth the time because galleries are closing down around NYC at such a rate that they will only look at any art that is guaranteed to make a profit; it is in their economic interest to only give space to established artists. The internet, however, as a space to showcase and sell art, seems cold and I wish that we lived in a time that was still hot for art in such a way that it was sold out of small curiosity shops which were explored by art aficionados.

  2. Community: Picasso in his developmental stages was surrounded by other artists, poets, and writers. They critiqued each other and fed each other inspiration. And while I do have a rolodex of friends from many walks of life (transgendered performers, singers, writers) the internet, again, has created a different mode of socializing that breaks being friends down to likes and status updates (where years ago we used to all be in bars and clubs and each other’s homes). Also, we were younger then and I am developing this artist in me at a late stage. My artistic friends are settled and I myself am so busy with school, work and my partner that there seems little time to wax brilliant about art at a corner cafe with an of my artistic friends. 

    Going forward my plan is to continue inquiring about galleries and spaces to showcase my work; I think it’s important that I put it out there instead of leaving it all stacked against my studio walls. I am also going to continue staying in as close touch as possible with my artistic friends and attempt to arrange in-face coffees or gatherings when I can. Because if I ever did get a show somewhere, I’ll need support by way of these people who have inspired me over many years. 

Tragedy

Working with portraiture through the lens of Greek pottery, I am noticing a trend in the people whose portraits I am choosing to use and the portions of their stories (as I know them) I am choosing to accompany the portraits as text on the pieces; they (people and text) all have a sense of tragedy. All the figures are,in one way or another, tragic figures. 

This gave way to a stream of thought: is life at its most interesting when tragedy is involved? Are figures the most interesting when they are tragic figures? 

I think the easy answer is yes—just look at the movies we flock to see and the books on the bestsellers lists. Listen to the lyrics of the music we buy. 

Then is sadness and bitterness our most defining trait? As I am writing this, I’m recalling that in body-snatcher-type movies, the zombie-people are either exaggeratedly stoic or eerily happy. The real humans are full of intense emotions: worry, fatigue, anger, melancholy, anxiety. In any horror and a sci-fi film, we know that something is about to go terribly wrong if the main characters land in a community full of happy people. So, it appears that it is the more extreme, and negative emotions that not only make us interesting but make us human.

In 2006, I began to keep a journal. I wrote about my anxieties about my future in terms of employment, my lack of a love life (intermittently with any given, torrid affair I may have been having), and disagreements with friends. And I remember in the summer of 2010, things were very calm: I was teaching, my heart was neither broken or pining, my friends and I were somewhat removed from each other because of the demands of my new career. I remember recording in my journal: “nothing really to say again today: so is life only worth reflecting upon when there is no looming tragedy?”

Serendipitously, as I was looking online for images on Greek pottery for my current project, I came across Greek tragedy masks. I  had never known there was such a variety of designs: this may be something I may be interested in pursuing (in relation to portraiture) after this current project is finished. 

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Play

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. 

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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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