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.
-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?
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?