01-Write a concise description of your studio project
Like most first year Transart students, after summer residency, I was lost in the woods of just what the hell I was going to do next. The Berlin residency put the work I was doing into perspective but did not offer a clear path into anything else because it led into everywhere else: performance, assemblage, exploration of materials.
I paint portraits. I love painting portraits.
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.
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 to the Winter Residency here in New York.
It was here that I met David Antonio Cruz who was to be my new (and first) studio adviser.
After 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.
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 who had a tragic element to their stories—at least the stories of them 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:
A victim of tragic hyper-sexualization was paired with satyrs.
A victim of tragic hubris was paired with Zues in the guise of a swan
A victim of tragic illness was paired with the lion skin worn by Hercules
A victim of tragic madness was paired with sirens floating above 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?
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 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.
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 borders.
03-What directions does your project suggest for further research?
Looking forward, I am wanting to stretch my wings a bit more in terms of materials and presentation but I do want to remain with the theme of telling the stories of people of color through portraiture. With my initial portraits, my red-herring portraits, and my Homeric portraits, I held complete control of the product and, therefore the story of the subject. For my second year project, I am looking to give up an aspect of that control by allowing my subjects to help tell their own story.
David’s suggestion—that truth is unattainable, that humans are too invested in performance to ever really capture what is true about them—alongside our society-wide addiction to manufacturing our truths, suggests to me a topic worthy of investigation (or play).
On April 27th of this year, I heard a news report of an obituary writer who was writing his own obituary as a way to control the information that is given about him at his passing. This got me to thinking about the link between death and art, portraiture and memorializing, memorializing and storytelling, storytelling and truth, making art and creating one’s legacy. I am currently conceptualizing a project where my subjects write their own obituaries and I, in turn, create a visual representation of them that reflects the ideas of their writing and that follows one of the many forms of visually memorializing the dead. Sticking to the concerns of my research paper, I will focus on working with people of color. My subjects will be bloggers, writers, transgender performers, a man who work for the city of New York, a singer, and a hair stylist. In this way, I will have a cross section of many different types of people. All the subjects will be over 40 years old so that there is significant material for them to draw upon in their writing. As of this writing, I am unsure as to the parameters I will place (if any) on my collaborators.
Interestingly enough, in conducting further research about Greek pottery, I found that many of these urns were recovered from the graves of dead Grecians presumably as a cherished possession.