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.