I imagine walking into a gallery and seeing painted portraits of people: ordinary people hung beside interesting-looking people hung beside a writer beside an entertainer beside a child. After a moment, one notices that many of the subjects are sitting on the same wine-colored futon and beneath their feet is the same geometrically-patterned rug. The portraits alone are interesting in execution and style but seen all together they seem to accomplish something, show something, prove something, about us. The gallery becomes a city or a society.
I was fascinated by this image when I read the idea into an art critic's description of Alice Neel's Spanish Harlem apartment--its painted citizens stacked up against her walls: Andy Warhol stacked between Neel's neighbors, friends, lovers, and child.
When I began painting, I was only interested in exploring composition and color and the idea that I could say something with an image and with symbols. In short, I was only interested in me; what I could do; my depth and my artistic self. But that has evolved (or distilled) into simple portraiture.
The portrait is an equalizer. I have painted the portrait of a grand transgendered entertainer and she looks quite ordinary while the portrait of my social-worker neighbor has the bearing of royalty. Neither results were purposeful.
The concept of peopling the ordinary alongside the extraordinary also brings to mind the work of Lucian Freud who can spend a year on the portrait of both a local waitress and a year on a portrait of the Queen of England.
Being half-Mexican, raised in a predominately Black neighborhood, and currently teaching high school English in Harlem, New York, an added imperative in peopling my project is the representation of people of color. Kerry James Marshall, in the beginnings of his pursuit of an artistic career, lamented that the art world announced the death of realism with the emergence of abstraction. Marshall’s reaction to abstraction and the end of representational painting regardless of the fact of “how marginal Black figure images are in the archive of art history” before Black artists began to be considered is represented in his hyper-black figurative work . To Marshall's point, our museums are filled with the representation of white skin, white history, white mythology and white people. In my project of collective (or collecting) people, I am looking to keep the population unbalanced favoring brown skin. I am not intending to make an overt statement, but rather, I feel the collection--the visual representation--will speak for itself.
Like much of the world today, representation has become a predominant concern in America; Black people have sought representation since the country's inception, transgendered and gay people seek the same, women seek a new level of representation, and the middle and lower classes have elected an unfit president in their desperation for it. The attention economy that engines social media is the every-man, woman, and child screaming for it.
My project of collected portraits is a collective of representation that I hope speaks more about people, about the people presented, than it does about me as an artist. I imagine the gallery walls would be a space for each subject to have their requisite level of representational space but also, seen together, would become a space to imagine something greater.
I am a native New Yorker. As with all native New Yorkers, my life is shaped by the chronic, close proximity of people. Masses of people. People walking the streets and packing the city's subways. We New Yorkers are, at the same time, the rudest people on the planet but also the most helpful, the most passionate, the most caring. I have taken an interest in these people and exploring them through portraits, each individually. Then, on canvas, stacking those people against the walls of my work space or hanging them close to each other in galleries. It is a universal idea that we are stronger together. And though the portraits I paint are distinct, individual pieces with a clear focus on the person before me, they are designed to be, somehow, somewhere, hung all together.