What's Love Got To Do With It?

The following transcript is from a video recorded of the artist discussing the portrait painted of his partner over a weekend. The artist sits in a corner of his studio by a window sill. Dressed in a grey suit and white shirt. On the window sill sits a small teddy bear dressed in a blue and white outfit that the artist purchased in Berlin last summer.

 I met him at a drag show. It was a Thursday night. At a place called “Feinstein’s at 54”. In Midtown. The performer was named Flotilla De Barge (who happens to be Chris’ uncle). The romance began that night and it was pretty much a fairy tale romance. Everything you hear and see but you pretty much don’t believe really happened. We looked at each other across the room and just started staring each other in the eyes. I had a glass of wine. He had tequila. We looked at each other. Looked at the show. Looked at each other. Pretended to look at the show. And all of a sudden, this gentleman raised his glass to me and in return I raised my glass to him. The artist picks a glass up from the floor and raises it.

We spoke that night and, um, began dating.

Regular dates. Regular dates like you see in the movies. Dinners. Movies. Um… (long pause). We didn’t sleep together. For quite a while. We just…we just dated. And, like a fairy tale story, when we did finally, uh, become intimate for the first time, it was on the 4th of July…fireworks baby. The artist tilts his head to the side and raises an eyebrow as he says this and not for the first time we see that there is a touch of cockiness in him.

And we were inseparable ever since. And I knew right away, um, that this was the person who I wanted to spend the rest of my life with. I’ll drink to that. The artist takes a swig of his drink.

I heard two friends of mine tell me the tale of their engagement. These two friends were married for twelve years already. And they told me that they were engaged six months after they met. Well, not being one to be outdone (head tilts again) I asked Chris to marry me five months after we met. So now we are engaged. Artist holds up hand to show ring. It’s a nice ring.

Of course we…oh…okay…I’ll drink to that. In an attempt at humor, the artist clinks his glass with a glass set by the teddy bear in the blue and white outfit. This was obviously set-up for the interview. He continues…of course, now that I have a partner, this is going to be the object of much of my artwork and my portraiture because even though a lot of my portraiture is geared toward people and exploring people, it’s also very biographical and, since this is the person in my life, this is the person who I will be painting intermittently and studying for a life time. So that’s how this portrait came about.

I think when people think about me painting portraits of people, and particularly people I am intimate with, I think they think it’s like the scene from “Titanic”: very kind of romantic and, um, and beautiful and, um, lustful. Artist begins unbuttoning his jacket. Um. It’s not. Long pause. At all. Artist is now shifting in his seat and removing the jacket revealing a tight-fitting grey vest and white shirt.

So I knew I had to do this blog. I knew I had to get a piece of work done. And I hadn’t been working. So I asked Chris, I said, Chris, listen, I want to paint your portrait, I’ve got to paint your portrait this weekend, it’s gotta be this weekend. Because him and I…we will spend weekends going to the movies, shows, in bed (loaded pause), going to this place for dinner or that place for dinner. Um. So I knew the kind of mode we got into—if I didn’t put my foot down—that portrait was not gonna happen and I wouldn’t have a new piece of work for this blog. So I put my foot down and I said, “Chris!” artist throws jacket down to the floor. This is a performance. “I have to paint you this weekend”! and he said, “of course”.

So we set it up and I set up a time schedule. I said we are going to do it for these hours on Saturday and these hours on Sunday. Everything was fine. However. Friday night we went to a concert. In Brooklyn. King’s Theater (beautiful theater by the way. If you’ve not been to King’s Theater, you’ve gotta go see King’s Theater. It is gorgeous inside). So we’re sitting in the concert. And we’re making small talk as usual. We’re…we’re very much talkers. We’re always talking to each other. Artist forms two puppet hands talking to each other and then sniffles. And, um, he says something and I’m not going to tell you what he said.

Because that would be petty and it’s really none of your business.

But he says something that—and you’ve all felt this before—it may not be a big thing, that thing that someone says, but it triggers something inside of you (long pause) that brings out the worst in you. So we’re at this concert and Chris is sitting next to me and he says this thing (arms open wide as if to present “this thing”). And I am triggered. And then the show comes on a second after I’m triggered. Artist stops to refill his glass and we notice that he is filling his wine glass with a bottle of Arizona Green Tea. He is not taking this seriously. Or is he not taking his own story seriously? Is the story true?

So I’m watching the concert. Fuming. Trying to calm myself down. Because I want to have a nice weekend and I gotta paint Chris. Artist pauses to “refill” the teddy bear’s glass.

So, the concert ends and I’m trying to recover…you’re welcome (this is said to the bear). And I’m trying to regain my composure. I’m working my way towards it. I’m working my way towards it. I’m working my way towards it.

There’s a line. There’s a line in Paradise Lost by John Milton and the line pretty much it’s it’s it’s, it’s, ah, it’s, ah, talking about Lucifer. Artist reaches for the book which is conveniently at hand. Talking about Lucifer and how…and how he can’t get out of himself and how he can’t get out of, uh (artist buries face in his free hand) and how he feels…stupid…for trying to, uh, overthrow God. And he even misses God. He misses God…(Milton’s a genius). But he can’t get out of his feelings. Artist begins to read from the poem:

“Upon himself horror and doubt distract his troubled thoughts and from the bottom stir the Hell within him/ for within him Hell he brings/ and around about him nor from Hell one step can fly nor from change of place”

Artist throws book on floor.

You know what that means?

Long pause

That’s when you’re so furious that you can’t get out of it. When you take this step (artist points to his right) that’s Hell. When you take a step over here (artist points to the left of him) that’s Hell. When you take a step back. That’s Hell. The Hell is within you. The Hell is around you. And you’re carrying it with you and, ladies and gentlemen, I was carrying Hell with meeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee at that concert.

But I had to get over it. Because I had to paint this portrait.

So. I’m working on it, working on it, working on it. The next morning I try to talk to him a little about what triggered me and trying to get artist begins rambling in non-sense words with his tongue out as though exorcising a demon.

Fine. Good. Time for the portrait. Artist claps his hands. So. I’m painting the portrait and I’m seeing that, uh, Chris is (long pause)…He adores me. He loves me. Oooooo…does this man love me. It is very difficult for him to ignore me when I’m in his presence. And what I mean by that is, he was laying on the couch (as you see in the portrait) and he was watching “Empire”. Um, um, some episodes that he DVR’ed. And he’s watching “Empire” and, and, and I feel like I have to watch it with him; it’s over here (artist indicates his left side) and he’s over there (artist indicates a space in front of him) and the canvas is over there (artist indicates a space to his right) and, uh, he’s he’s he’s constantly needing my feedback and my conversation which is a beautiful thing but I can’t really kind of focus (artist starts juggling invisible balls) on the portrait.

Usually I’m used to people talking to me and having a conversation with me but it seemed like the conversation he was trying to have was geared toward what was happening on the screen (artist indicates his left side). So I had to pay attention to him, pay attention to the TV show, and pay attention to what I was doing.

Now, I managed it. I managed it, right? Boom, boom, boom, boom. I’m doing it. Then all of a sudden, Chris takes his T-shirt (artist grabs a white T-shirt close at hand. Obviously things have been strategically placed about him for illustrative purposes) and he starts laying there like this:

Artist holds the white T-shirt to his nose. Tilts his head down. And looks up with puppy-dog eyes.

Now, Chris has asthma, Ok? And I use oil paint. So, what I was getting from him was that the medium that I use (artist begins unbuttoning his vest) has a very, very, very strong smell and it was getting to him. And of course (artist peels off vest) I reacted—inside—irrationally. And when I saw him do this artist repeats T-shirt move that piece of me inside of me just screamed, “PLEASE…GIVE ME A BREAK. YOU KNOW I NEED TO DO THIS. YOU KNOW THAT THIS IS MY WORK”

As the artist says all of the above he moves from peeling off his vest to snatching a katana off the bed, unsheathing it, and pointing it at the camera. And then the artist softens and allows the katana to float in his hand softly.

But you can’t do that. You can’t be like that. The man is sick. He has asthma! You can’t blame him for that. C’mon. And I didn’t. Artist sheathes sword and places it across his crossed-legged lap. I just said, “you know what, Chris? I think that I have to, um…stop working”. And I said it very calmly. And I started moving the pieces out of the room. Throwing out the medium so that he didn’t have to smell it anymore. Because I’m a good person. Long pause as artist smiles maniacally and shifts in seat and slowly whispers to himself, “I am. I am”.

So I moved stuff out of the room and I was fine with it and everything was good. I kind of wanted him to say “no, baby. Let’s keep going. I’m fine”. But that’s me being selfish.

So. It’s time to do it in the, uh, the following day. On Sunday we reconvened and we pick up the portrait, um, where we left off. And he is, um, laying on the couch after, after a little coercing (head tilt). So everything’s going great. I’m working: boom boom boom. I love the way it’s coming out. I love the palette I’m using. And then, um, sorry…artist takes a sip of iced tea…and then he starts coughing.

Now of course the irrational part of me that needs this painting done is going ape shit. But the rational part who loves my fiancé (artist holds up ring) says, “Peter, get this stuff out of the room”. And so I did. So I got the canvas and the medium and the pallet and the brushes  and everything, I got it out of the room, I put it in the next room and I waited for a few minutes to see if that was enough. Artist has noticed that his shirt is sticking out of the sides and begins tucking it in. Sorry, this is bothering me. I’m a little vain. Artist turns to the bear and tells it to shut up.

And he stopped coughing. To wit…as he watched some movie…”SAW?”…not the first one…I don’t know, I don’t watch them. As he watched “SAW”, I would paint (indicates his left side with the katana) run back to the scene of him in the other room (indicates his right side with the katana) try to remember the pillow in my mind and what it looked like, run back and paint that pillow or, like, the line of that pillow. Go back and try to remember what the desk looked like (katana to the left) go back, paint the desk (katana to the right) check it (katana to the left) check it (katana to the right). And I did that for the rest of the painting. The floor. The couch. Most of the pillows. The mirror.

Um…so it was very difficult.

And again, I think a part of me, the very selfish part wanted Chris to protest. I wanted him to…to…to be willing to die for my art. But that’s not nice. And that’s not fair. And that’s not love.

Long pause

The painting was finished. Artist puts the katana down, behind him. And it looks great. I loved it.

I was afraid that, years from now when I look back at that painting, (head tilt), I am going to think of all the negative things that happened that weekend; how I was triggered at the concert; um, how I couldn’t get myself out of it; how I felt like I wasn’t being supported with my work.

But its three days since the painting and I have to say the thing that I’m going to remember when I look at that painting is, I think, part of the key to love. And that is that, when you decide that you are going to commit to someone and make someone your life partner, there is no longer a “you”. It is not about your goals, what’s important to you, what you need to get done. It’s about the well-being of the relationship and the well-being of your partner.

And everything else is second to those two things.

And so what I want to remember is, I want to remember having to stop. I want to remember having to run back and forth in order to finish the painting so that my partner was well and comfortable (head tilt). I want to remember his sacrifice and I want to remember my sacrifice. And I want to remember that I did it gladly. Artist looks back at the katana. OK, not gladly…at the time: not gladly at the time. But in retrospect, I did it gladly.

And I learned a lesson.

My art is my art. My goals are my goals. And the question that I have to ask when I’m pursuing art and pursuing my career in art is, “hey, hey, hey, hey”, artist holds up finger to camera, “What’s love got to do with it?”

Because you’re in love. And that comes first.

Artist turns to bear: You like that? I thought that was good. I think we can stop now.

 

 

 

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Project Proposal: Edited Truths and Confessional Spaces

                                                Title: Edited Truths and Confessional Spaces

            We live in an age of manufactured truths—false news, alternative facts, and meticulously manipulated online presences that range from photo filters to catfish. Yet certain types of encounters still seem to have the power to pull out truths that we thought hidden (or thought we wanted hidden). Examples of these types of encounters are the courtroom (by circuitous questioning) the interview (by empathetic or aggressive discussion) and the casual conversation—sometimes with a confidante, but also sometimes with a stranger (the very presence of whom, for some reason, permits us to be confessional). I have, through my work as a portrait painter, often been that confidante.

 

My work has been primarily live portrait painting and the studio has acted, for many of my sitters, as a space to reveal themselves, break away from their manicured public self-image, and to explore, in private, a more unedited version of themselves. My proposed project is the exploration of the open and vulnerable confessional space versus the privately edited truth. I plan to do this through different mediums including painting, photography, performance, and video.

The driving question for this exploration will be looking into the conditions that open us up to truth in an age of invention and image-curation. In my practice of live portrait painting, I simply noted that the sittings seemed to illicit confessional responses in my sitters: I learned about dark pasts, sexual escapades, heart aches, perceived weaknesses and perceived strengths. The portrait themselves, I had hoped, carried the weight of these confessional anecdotes (though I did record sessions through a diary entry for each sitter). Yet the only surviving relic of my sitters' confessional state was the portrait alone. The surviving relic, this finished portrait, was always disarming to the sitter when they finally looked at it. I have often wondered: Had they not realized how vulnerable they looked as they confessed themselves to me over the past four hours? Is this the first time they are seeing their unedited, confessional face?

 

 

In 2018, art seems to be more about the performative aspects of making. Additionally, we are living in a digital age. And so I am looking to both marry image-capture (both digitally and through my painting practice) with performance and, in some cases, use only performance to capture moments of unedited truth. In other cases, I am thinking of amalgamating all three aspects: performance, painting, and digital media. Through all of this, I have become interested in the psychology of the confession and think that that is a good starting point in terms of research. One article that I have already scanned claims to discuss the "cognitive, perceptual, and motivational changes" that occur after confession (is this “change” what I am capturing in the portraits? This moment? And is that why the sitter cannot seem to recognize themselves in my work?) There is also fertile ground in the religious aspects of the confession to explore. Lastly, there is the idea of editing or forced editing (if I begin to videotape sittings that carry confessions, how much will my subjects allow me to "show"? What are the limits between an organic confession and a public display of that confession?). Alongside this is the idea of morality; how much will I allow my subjects to dictate and control and edit my art (even though I am making art of their confession)?

Immediately, when I think about the idea of confession, I think about Marina Abramovic whose 2010 performance piece, The Artist is Present, had her sitting in front of over one thousand museum visitors and staring into their eyes. Promotions for this performance show some visitors crying, others smiling; they had clearly gained some sort of silent contact and communication with Abramovic and sometimes, I am contending, that contact/communication was, in an unspoken way, confessional. In that light, I am interested in my own qualities as confessional receiver: do my sitters (participants/visitors) confess so much to me out of sheer boredom? I do not think so. They are, like Abromovic’s visitors, in front of “the artist” and all the characteristics of artists seem to imply to them (sensitivity, bacchanalian sexual abandon, bohemian morality—someone in touch with muses and blessed with gifts). The perception of me is false. But that false perception is what allows or invites the visitors, I think, to open.

Alice Neel, in her painted portraits, did not depict her subjects in any way idyllic: hooked noses become beaks; slightly sagging breasts become satchels of flesh. Neel’s portraits are unedited truths. But did her sittings have the same confessional quality I experienced? It does not appear so. There is no book dedicated to a single sitting written by any of her sitters (that I am aware of) like the ones that exist for Freud and Giacommeti. Still, Neel admits that she not only strove to paint the physical aspects of her sitter but also capture a person’s inner soul. “I become the person for a couple of hours”, Neel reports in an article titled, “Alice Neel and the Human Comedy”. “I don’t belong anywhere”, she continues, “so when they leave I have no self. I don’t know who or what I am”. In pulling at the souls of people, I wonder through Neel’s work, do we, the receivers of information (or silent tears or laughter) give up a piece of ourselves?

As a first project, I would include something already completed in the vein of the exploration of edited truths and the confessional. Three weeks ago, I painted a Transart classmate at her home. I spoke to her about the idea of recording the sessions and she volunteered to be recorded. As usual, the session (only an hour long) prompted her to discuss her love life, her sex life, her insecurities, and her desires. When the session was done and she looked at the finish portrait piece, she thought she looked old. I asked her to send me the video and she did, but was already requesting that certain things she said be edited. I think the video, in itself, is interesting in that it captures the moment(s) of portrait-confession. I think what would also take this further is a video capturing the subject and I editing the footage and debating on the editing. This may delve into the psychological aspects of why we want certain things hidden. Meanwhile, the viewer can only surmise (through the edited version) the content under debate through our videotaped discussion. (This was done in September)

A second project that I am conceptualizing is one that explores self-confession. I would like to turn all of the above observations, feelings, and questions onto myself before exploring them outwards again with others. I am envisioning a canvas, a mirror, and a recording device set up to capture me painting a self-portrait. During the process, I will verbally relate a very candid version of my life (unprepared) from childhood to adulthood (as much as fits into about three to four hours of non-stop painting). Afterwards, I will edit the footage for anything that I would not want a viewer to hear. The finished product should result in a film (and a filmed portrait process) with many small (or large) gaps of unknown length and content. At the end of the session, the final self-portrait will be wiped away leaving only the edited truths captured on video as the existing artwork. (This would be completed in October)

A third project steps away from the canvas and into performance. In Transart, we have a classmate who performs through dance. I am envisioning an un-choreographed performance with this classmate wherein we explore editing each other’s movements around each other. Can we do this with reasoning? Can we verbalize the reasoning? Was shame involved? What—on our bodies—is still private? What, in our interactions, must be edited for the sake of others? How much truth lies behind those edits?

 

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Response to Crit Group

The crit group response to my exploration of/ experimentation with color was both helpful and reflective of my own projections about what I want to further explore next: the relationship between viewer and sitter.

More specifically, I want to explore the idea of truth within that relationship/encounter.

Expanding on Rudy's comment that my previous portraits had a "brutal honesty" in regards to how the sitter was portrayed, I agree that my work feels like a response to Rudy's next idea that "the world is full of false appearances". This is true now more than ever.

I can recall many moments after a portrait sitting was finished and the sitter rose to take a look. Very often the subject looked disappointed --many seemed like they could not get away from the portrait fast enough: "I look old", "I look big", "no one is going to believe that's me", "you see me darker-skinned than I really am" are a few of the responses.

Rudy's comment of "false appearances" throws these reactions into a modern day context for me vis-a-vis selfies and the manipulation and curation of our own images: Rudy has me thinking that my sitters were not necessarily reacting so much to the work, but to the work in relation to how they may have been manipulating their own images (and thusly warping their own self-images). In short, they were reacting to a truth: a truth on canvas.

This makes me think not only about the truths that are revealed in the finished portrait but about my relationship with the sitter and the various truths that emerge in conversation while they sit.

In connection with this, Sheila asks, "how will you bring the interaction between the viewer and sitter forward?" My initial idea was to simply record the sittings but my advisor has asked me to take a step further and, switching roles, have my subjects paint me.

This switching of roles prompts some questions for me: does the power of looking for or sifting for truth(s) shift? Will the painters (formerly the sitters) still be revelatory and vulnerable as they paint or will I, now the subject, become the one who is opened up and who must now face the portrait and all the truths it reveals about me?

As far as the shift in palette goes (which was the main point of the submission) I welcome the reaction from Sheila that the grey portraits invite her to "connect more to the subjects". Furthering that line of thought was Sarah's comment that the grey palette may be giving me "license for more visible intimacy". But then Sarah wonders if it is the grey palette that is affecting the look and  mood of these second portraits or if, simply, the "relationship" is "showing through" as these subjects have sat for me before (does a new truth emerge with the frequency of sittings/encounters?)

Either way I want to continue experimenting with color and exploring the relationship between artist and subject and the concept of encounter/truth so here is my next step:

I will have people who were former subjects paint me. They may need some instruction (to what extent? How will this differ from person to person?) How will the conversation run? Will they relax enough to stop talking about the process and engage with me in deeper conversation (as usually happens when I am behind the canvas?) or will the entire sitting be a nervous conversation about process and results? (A conversation that I usually have privately, in my own head, while painting and conversing with the sitter). And what truths will, on either or both sides, be revealed in this switching of roles?

Another idea that  I am toying with is instructing the painter to choose a palette with which to paint my portrait. In the way I tinged my colors with grey in the new portraits, perhaps I will have my painters chose a palette through which they want to capture me (will they choose red? Blue? Green? Black? Why? What effect will it have? What truth will be revealed through that choice? And will any of their choices affect my own work?)


Crit Group Submission

Cognizance of Color

Leaving the Transart Berlin residency was for me, like many others, like being taken into a vast forest, blindfolded, and left alone (not so much how to figure out how to get back—but to find a new way out of the woods).

“Keep doing what you are doing: repeat, repeat, repeat”, one advisor advised.

“Think about your choices and your process: emphasize time and performance” advised another.

“Your portraits are beautiful”, someone said, “but in two years, I do not want to see that”.

“That” referred to the body of work I showed at presentation in Berlin: portraits of people sitting patiently on my futon or a friend’s leather couch in bright colors. So my first step was to work through color; my palette needed to change. A classmate told me that my colors looked “straight out of the tube” and advised me to mix in greys with the colors on my palette.

When I returned home, I got straight to work. I read Josef Albers’ Interaction with Color and began experimenting.

According to Albers, when using a dark palette, the figure looks further away from the viewer. A light palette has the opposite effect. Before Transart Institute, I had painted my friend, author Toby Tompkins in a brown leather jacket. The portrait carried my usual trait of bright reds and yellows in the face and even the brown of the jacket pops. When I returned from Transart, I asked Toby to sit again and this time I used only dark colors mixed with grey. The difference is notable, I think.

Whereas the first portrait in the leather jacket is almost “pretty”, the grey-infused Toby portrait almost seems to have more “life” for its lack of vividness. Is this, then—the second portrait—closer to how we see people? Was I exaggerating the colors I was seeing in Toby’s previous portrait? If so, why? What was I attempting with the vivid colors? (style?).

Another question I have is, by pushing the colors back (by mixing them with grey), what effect am I achieving? I do like (almost prefer) the newer, grey-infused Toby portrait, but I am not quite certain why I feel it is better than the previous one with the bright colors.

Along with Toby, I also painted another friend, Bronx blogger and activist, Ed Garcia Conde. This time I used a light palette (to achieve Albers’ distance effect—not sure that worked) but also mixing greys into the colors. Below is another comparison. The first is the previous Ed portrait with vivid palette. The second uses bright colors but dulled with grey.

      

With both the Toby Tompkins new, grey-infused portrait and the Ed Garcia Conde new, grey-infused portrait, there seems to me to also be a shift in style that I cannot say I am cognitively aware of how or why it is happening; it’s almost as if the shift in palette has changed some other sensibilities, sense of aesthetics, sense of likeness, sense of translation of what I am seeing.

The final experiment is the portrait of Flavia that immediately follows this entry. For Flavia’s portrait, I first painted the entire canvas grey and worked over the grey. It was a struggle to manipulate the colors and “form her face” the way I would usually do with all the grey being mixed in. The result is, once again muted, But again, I see a shift in style that I cannot quite peg; as if the grey is forcing a different sense of sensibilities and sight in me.

 

 

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“Flavia” oil on canvas

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“Toby” in original bright palette

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“Toby” in grey-infused palette

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“Ed” in original bright palette

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“Ed” in grey-infused paletter

New Project Plan

Lynette Yiadom-Boakye is a figurative portrait artist working in 2018. In a self-titled lithograph book of her work, the artist and other contributors explain why the above consignment—figurative portrait artist working in 2018—can feel problematic. According to cultural critic, Donatien Grau, once Duchamp started producing readymades, the end of figurative painting was nigh. “Many artists who used painting as their medium”, Grau writes, “had a choice between either remaining in the realm of painting and accepting the fact that painting had become conservative or to enter the never-ending parade of painting toward the death of painting” (29). “It is a rather heavy burden”, he continues, “for a contemporary artist to carry: being a painter, being a figurative painter, being seemingly a portraitist” (31). The essay goes on to explain how Ms. Yiadom-Boakye subverts this idea of painting-as-outdated by her use of “restraint” in both subject matter (mostly brown-skinned subjects) and technique (broad strokes and the completion of a painting within a workday).

In the first iteration of my Project Plan, I wanted only to paint people, many people, with a focus on representation and volume. The idea was to populate a gallery space with portraits of all types of people from neighbors to D-list celebrity drag queens and performance artists, lovers and strangers, friends and paid sitters. My hope was that the viewer would look at these portraits and wonder who these people are and also wonder at the interaction between sitter and artist by pondering the look in their eyes as they watched me and I painted them.

Working through the 2018 Berlin summer residency, with much of the focus around installation, assemblage, and performance art (with subtle hints within the curricula that painting was obsolete) made me realize that what Donatien Grau was saying was relevant to me and my work. Even with the concept of the project plan (an interest in race-representation and the sitting/sitter dynamic) I now feel that this is not enough to subvert the idea that the work I do simply saves me a spot in the pointless march toward the death of painting. 

Still, figurative portraiture is what I do. I don’t want to lose that.

During the Berlin residency, I was given a list of artists to study. One was Yiadom-Boakye (whose work was featured in the Berlin Biennale—so much for the death of painting). Another was Deanna Lawson whose photograph-portraiture always includes the subjects’ environment. Lawson’s work appears to be taken in the home of the sitter and what struck me was that we were getting a lot more information about the sitter via what they were surrounded by (objects, colors, furniture, detritus).

I liked this.

Using more of the environment that surrounded my subjects was a good first step, I felt. But I also wanted to expand the experience of the portrait, the interest in sitter/artist relationship into something that went beyond the portrait itself and became more meta, that is to say, more about the experience of sitting, opening up, being looked at (from both ends) and the conversation that flows from being together in this simple but strained relationship of sitter and artist. In Berlin, often for lack of on-hand materials, many of my fellow student-artists used their camera phones, video recorders, and audio recorders to create a piece and this has inspired me to experiment with these features within (without?) my portrait making: to video tape the process of the sitting turning the finished portrait into an artifact of an experience rather than a piece in and of itself.

An amalgamation of these new inspirations (Lawson’s use of environment and Berlin-residency students’ use of recording technology) brings me to the second stage of my project plan.

The subject matter will remain: people. But in this next set of portraits, I will include significantly more of the subject’s environment in order to give the viewer more information as well as create movement for the eye within the work. Whereas previous portraits have been mostly done in my own home with the sitter traveling to my studio, these portraits will make me the visitor into their homes for a more intimate (invasive?) experience for sitter and viewer. The composition will reflect this shift by reducing the size of the subject on the canvas in order to incorporate as much of the background environment (or information) as the sitting calls for.

Additionally, instead of having the viewer ponder about the dynamic between sitter and artist, I will record the sessions and (technology permitting) add an experiential component to the sittings by providing the viewer with audio and visual clips of the dialogue between us that captures something poignant, or even banal—something telling—during the course of the sitting. It could be a diatribe, a dialogue, a single sentence, depending on the subject and the experience.

Returning to the opening, perhaps what I am attempting to do through this second iteration of my project plan is to go the opposite way of Yiadom-Boakye’s internal restraint and explode the idea of portraiture outward out of the canvas and into exploring the idea of looking, talking, being present with another person in a way that many of us no longer experience in the 21st century because of technology and social media outlets. The combination of a person surrounded by her things, her artifacts, and listening to her expound, relate, react, explain, question more clearly hits the original target of my desire for the viewer to want to know the people who are featured before them. It is more information in order to pique interest further or, in some cases, what stands before them may be enough information, leaving the viewer to exit the gallery having almost-actually met (not seen and wondered about) many different people

Reading Diary: Metaassemblage (Bowdidge)

Aesthetics to the Abstract Machine

In art critic Ben Davis’ book, 9.5 Theses on Art and Class, Davis presents a sort of algebraic formula for determining whether something is “original or derivative”: ‘artist x is like artist y meets artist z’”.  It is, Davis writes, “just a matter of connecting one art reference with other art references”.                                           

It is a theses and an algebra that has shaped the way I approach both my practice and my assessment of art: looking for how the artist is inspired by what came before him and yet brings in something new.

Yet, in his writing, “Aesthetics to the Abstract Machine”, Simon ‘O Sullivan appears to classify this theory as something of the recent past now overshadowed by what reads as a higher order of approaching art (both in the making and the viewing or, rather, the experiencing of art). He discusses and prioritizes art that “did not fit into [his] own interpretive frameworks” which he finds both “bothersome” and “compelling” (190).

In short, O’ Sullivan emphasizes the artist-of-today’s calling as the creation of something altogether new. Such inventions, he has determined, are “involved in the production of worlds rather than in the critique of the world as it is” (196).

Post-post modern art, according to O’ Sullivan, has “worked through the ruins of representation“ (emphasis mine) resulting in its “’knowing’ or self-conscious character” (196).

Ruins of representation.

When I read this phrase, I am reminded of Kerry James Marshall who laments in many of his writings that figurative representation already went through a phase of ruining with the rise of abstraction. Marshall’s lamentation is based around the truth of our figurative-art-experience when we enter most galleries and museums: wall to wall portraits of white people with very few images of brown skinned folks. And he laments the idea that before this lack of representation could be remedied by artists like himself with his hyper-black figures, the art world has announced the end of the figurative.

There is a transcendental beauty in O’ Sullivan’s analysis of what art must do today: the creation of new worlds and pieces that avoid interpretation or analysis or representation but rather invite the purity of experience.

But I wonder at the idea of this new order being built upon the “ruins” of representation. Have we really moved past the need to critique this world we are in now?

O’ Sullivan himself categorizes his theory of what art must do as utopian but I wonder, especially with the condition of this country today, are we ready for this next plane or does this world we live in now need our critique more than ever?

Even if O’ Sullivan’s case can be made through a need to escape the ugly of the world through new, otherworldly and utopian-esque art, I wonder and lament at the other factors in the ruins of the art of the past; are we done with the artist and analysis of her process, the genesis of her work? Is art no longer to be about biography, zeitgeist, point of view, and the human condition? Have we really encountered all of the permutations of a life that we are free to so thoroughly abandon representation for experience? And is there room for both representation and experiential art in the same space—can they speak to each other? Can connections be made and gaps be filled from one piece to the next—the old and the new—without casting what came before into “ruins”?

 

 

Reading Diary: Seduced/Seducer (Cooks)

Seduced/Seducer

Like Avedon in the writing, “Hidden Women”, I grew up a witness to the lives of two beautiful women: A single, working mother in her 40’s with waning old-Hollywood glamor; and a sister year-after-year blooming into an exotic thing out of the pages of fashion magazines. Men visited my mother frequently and the boys flocked to my sister. On the outside these two women were Cheshire-cat satisfied. But inside, in the shadows of our one bedroom apartment, when the men and boys left abruptly or (Heaven forbid) chose another—these two women were reduced to wet, weeping spirits. I knew, as a child, for all of their attributes, for all of the glory bestowed upon them for being lookers—they were powerless. And I was glad to be a boy.

The study, “Pretty Pleases” by PL Benson seems to mostly discuss the overwhelming social and psychological benefits of good looks. Benson explores how attractive people “tend to be more at ease socially” and that they are more likely to think that they control their own lives rather than thinking they are “pawns of fate and circumstance” (47).

Without a doubt, there is power in physical aesthetics. I teach at the high school level and, so, am at the mercy of adolescents who, according to Benson, have a “preoccupation with bodies that cannot be overstated” (52). I am a fantastic teacher (if I do say so myself) because I love what I do and I love teenagers. But, a part of me understands that one factor in why my Harlem scholars are more attentive to me, more well-behaved, more receptive, and more willing to trust my teaching is because I am, visibly, a gym rat. Once I understood this, I naturally played this up by wearing dress shirts that enhanced this perception. It was (is) a power I wield over the other teachers. And the students’ attention to the aesthetics of my build range from the innocence of observation (“Mr. Lopez is ockey!”) to the discomfort of chronic molestation (my man boobs have been grabbed, caressed, and pinched endlessly over these last several years by seemingly straight young men).

But such, for adolescence, is the fascination with anything “pretty”. According to Benson’s study, however, the majority of us, it seems, never get over this fascination and continue to “reinforce beauty as a form of status” throughout our adult lives (45).

It would be interesting, I think, to focus a study on the degenerative psychological effects of beauty—of that which is “given” (and with age, taken away).

Witnessing my mother and my sister tortured by men and boys, I understood the importance of character, dimension, and self-love. I put myself through college (I am the only college-graduate) and traveled much of the world (I am the only well-traveled person in my family). I established hobbies, and built up a coterie of quality friendships and relationships.

I am an OK-looking fellow but any compliments hurled in my direction receive a dismissal that borders on rude. It is frightening. I do not want to be connected to weeping spirits.

My mother and sister, meanwhile, are melting away under the sun of Tampa, Florida, turning shades of reddish brown. They have new teeth. My sister has new breasts. My mother (now 80), I see wonders where her glory went and is a very angry old woman who cannot believe that people would disobey her. My sister (now closing in on 50) vacillates between “I’ve still got it” and “It’s gone—but I can save it”.

So while this study focuses on all the doors that appear to open for pretty people, I am left wondering about all the developmental-doors that have been closed—or never opened—as a result of the injustice of the given.

 

Reading Diary: Walking Out of Circles (Pazarbasl)

The Eyes of the Skin

It seems that Juhani Pallasma’s writing, “The Eyes of the Skin”—in its discussion of the “dominance of the eye and the suppression of the other senses” (17)—is in direct opposition to John Berger’s opening statement in his book,Ways of Seeing, wherein he asserts that “seeing comes before words. The child looks and recognizes before it can speak” (7). In his opening remarks, Berger seems to imply that seeing is the body’s first active sense and that it “establishes our place in the surrounding world” (7).

In contrast, Pallasma appears to suggest that the “dominance” or the “hegemony” of vision is an “ocular bias” developed by man over time suggesting that the suppression of the other senses over vision (and, in particular, images) is not only an act of man but a transgression from what should be—a reliance on the other senses because of how vision “tends to push us into detachment, isolation, and exteriority” (19).

It is safe to say that Pallama’s theory is more relevant now than ever with the proliferation of images on social media. It is not a stretch to see how people are using social media images to promote their “ego-consciousness” thereby resulting in the “separation of the self and the world” (25). If you can post a picture or a video of a work of art or a performance, why actually travel to the site to see it? If you can “see” all of your friends through selfies and keep up with their lives through posts, why travel to meet up?

And this is where Pallasma and Berger agree. Both writers appear to feel that, with the proliferation and vast availability of images, something is lost.

To Pallasma, this ready, chronic, duplication and proliferation of the image “makes the world feel more available than it really is” (36). She laments, I believe, the idea of someone reading about a beautiful landscape and then “visiting” that landscape online and being satisfied with the virtual visitation versus having a need to travel to the landscape and be in it, breathe in it, feel your weight upon it.

For Berger, the lamentation also comes in the form of travel to a site; “the visual arts have always existed within a certain preserve”, he proclaims. “This preserve was magical or sacred. But it was also physical: it was the place, the cave, the building in which the work was made. The experience of art was set apart from the rest of life. Later, the preserve of art became a social one. What the modern means of reproduction has done is to destroy the authority of art and to remove it from any preserve” (32).

The image, or art in general, becomes a “commodity” (Pallasma 34). The reverence is lost. I wonder, however, to what extent this is true and to what extent this is biased against class.

Despite the proliferation of the image, museums are still packed. Indeed, when I visited the Louvre in Paris, the crowd around the (alarmingly mall) “Mona Lisa” somewhat disproves the theory that people are removed from reality. The “Mona Lisa” has to be one of the most prolific images in the history of mankind. Yet, here was this swarm of people angling to get close to it.

(I do have to admit here that many in the crowd were angling for a good position to get a selfie with the “Mona Lisa”—thus “commodifying” the artwork to continue their own, social media, existential narrative).

Still, I think that the idea that art work should be revered, traveled to, and seen in person (despite the proliferation of its image) is a good point. Only there are many people in the world who cannot afford to travel to these places, caves, and buildings where these artworks are made. And even when it is made affordable, here in the United States we have created an aura around these sacred places so that they feel, to many minorities, as spaces for white people only. Thanks to images, anyone who wants to see these works and either cannot afford the trip, the admission ticket, or simply feel unwelcomed can study in the sanctity of their own space.

Reading Diary: Walking Practices and Cyclical Journeys (Mendollcchio)

Decolonizing Nature

“The work of ‘political artists’ usually harms no one and I would defend their right to make it”, artist, Victor Burgin, once said, “what I cannot support is their self-serving assumption that it ‘somehow’ has a political effect in the real world”.

This quote appears in a chapter on political art in Ben Davis’ 9.5 Theses on Art and Class wherein Davis is attempting to posit the idea that political art is not only not useful (with “too little to say about the complexities of the political questions” at hand) but can actually be a self-serving, “static” form of hero worship (42).

Conversely, in T.J. Demos’ “Decolonizing Nature, Contemporary Art and the Politics of the Ecology”, there is a call to arms of the artist to engage in a political discourse about the environment in order to aid in its (our) salvation.

The two opposing positions posits an interesting debate: Is art and the creation of the visual too self-serving to serve as a force against destructive capitalist practices? Or is art and the visual a necessary tool (even despite the validity of the opposing idea) to fight destructive capitalism because it aims at a point of perception: the visual that we, as humans, use prolifically to message ideas and receive ideas?

I am reminded of the controversy surrounding the graphic artist, Shepard Fairey, whose Obama “Hope” poster sparked controversies around copyright infringement and the artist’s exploitation of political causes for notoriety and profit. Despite (?) his success, his work aided in the mass ocular consumption of the hero-image of then Senator Barack Obama and those on the left-side of politics are appreciative of its success and aid in getting the gentleman elected. I think, currently, of the visual of immigrant children in detention centers that have ignited movement and (hopefully at this writing) forced the hand of the current administration to reunite families. Lastly, I recall how television (something included in Demos’ concept of “the image complex” (11)) and its visuals of young American men coming home in caskets was one of the larger factors in ending the war in Vietnam.

My conclusion is that art and the visual and all things that fall under the umbrella of Demos’ image complex do, in fact, have a place and are integral to the fight against lobbyists who act in corporate interest over the interests of both people and the survival of the planet we inhabit.

Yet I do agree with the example given in Demos’ writing, Kimberly Tall Bear, who voices the concern that colonial-originated artists cannot (?) be at the forefront of the artistic front against colonialism of the environment. If we are looking for a new global contract with nature so as to halt colonizing and destroying it, should we not, as Tall Bear advises, look to the practices, philosophies, and art of indigenous people who have already established such contracts with nature?

Further, is it the responsibility of good-natured, well-intentioned, colonial-originated artists to research the practices, philosophies and art of nature-revering indigenous communities before engaging in the work to ensure that they are not, inadvertently, colonizing the practices, philosophies, and art of these communities?

Personally, my views about saving the planet lean more towards the “enforced narratives of disaster capitalism” and the idea that we are, ultimately, doomed as a result of corporate greed (13). As long as rich old, white men remain in power, protests, art, and the whole of the image complex seems to me as throwing a glass of water at a forest fire. Political protests (including art) feels futile against the wall of White Corporation.

Yet, In a recent NPR program, a caller explained that she was not concerned about the political environment, its attacks against women’s rights, immigrants’ rights, gay rights, minority rights because, she stated, by 2060 (at least in the Unites States) the minorities will outnumber the current majority. Though, she lamented, anyone in earshot will not be around, it is heartening to know the tide will turn.

Maybe, in that moment, the true decolonization of nature can make headway. If it is not too late.

Reading Diary: Silence/Silenced (Marchevska)

Aesthetics of Silence

Years ago, when I began my dalliance with painting, I began by just painting self-portraits and then portraits of friends and family. When I developed enough confidence, I showed these first few naïve pieces to an artist friend of mine named Sherry Kerlin. “You need to add things”, she advised me. “Symbols, artifacts, you’re just painting these static portraits of people; you have to devise a way to allow the audience in”. My next painting was a self-portrait of me, on a couch, embracing a skeleton who had its bony fingers down the front of my underwear. “Ah!”, Sherry exclaimed, “much better”. I had thought long and hard about this first symbolic piece: I had thought about sexual abuse, oppression, repression, and sexual death. I had found a stream of consciousness that allowed the audience in.

Yet, Susan Sontag, in her writing, “Aesthetics of Silence”, describes how the modern artist is looking to turn away from her audience and the idea of the consciousness—a “self-estrangement” that is actually an “antidote” to the consciousness (that thing which artists of yesteryear sought to tap into and speak to) (2).

What’s interesting is the idea that, no matter how discordant to the audience and the consciousness the artist’s attempts to be, in time, his art (or silence) connects with the masses, is understood by them, and can even begin to reshape the way they think or see or conceptualize communication. I am thinking of artists like Picasso and his move to cubism. To the masses, it must have seemed bold, yes. And new. And exciting. But strange and discordant. It must have been a lot of work to connect to the first waves of abstraction outside of its exterior, aesthetically pleasing qualities.

Yet, in time, we see cubism, abstraction, and less-figurative works as connected to how we think. Where once, through art, our minds thought through concrete, figurative images, it is no stretch to say that the more modern art enthusiast can just as easily think in terms of shapes, overlap, splashes of paint (indeed, this relative chaos may be more akin to how the human mind works than actual, neat, photo-real figuration).

Either way, the question that comes to mind is, does the silence and attempts at discord from the consciousness actually matter when your art is at the mercy of interpretation? I am reminded of a Literary Theory class I took in grad school; the professor was promoting the idea that once an author has published a work, the interpretation of that work is no longer in his sole possession. It is at the mercy of queer theory, feminist theory, et.al. Conceivably straight characters can be (with shockingly apt textual evidence) proven gay. Heroes can be proven misogynists.

This said, the artist’s attempt at negation of the consciousness and silence and severance cannot, ultimately work. Sontag states that “silence remains, inescapably, a form of speech and an element in a dialogue” and I argue that silence is, in fact—because of the very workings and interpretations of the viewer—never actually silence (10). The silence is filled by interpretation.

Further along, Sontag states that “in silent art, there is no release from attention, because there has never been any soliciting of it (15)”. So, is this the goal of modern art? An attempt at creating a work without meaning? To create with the intention of not wanting attention? An attempt to create a work that asks the audience to add nothing and only stare?

Currently, I have gone back to painting static portraits. I paint people live and truly believe that something in our exchange can be interpreted through the finished piece. But it is nothing I am forcing. As such, I am working as the modern artist (according to Sontag) should; I am working without the goal of interpretation or solicitation of attention (to symbols of the consciousness or visual statements on the human condition).

The other night, I had a friend in my home sitting for me. She was situated in a way where she was forced to stare at the portrait with the skeleton and the underwear. After some time, she broke down and asked, “Peter, what does that painting mean?” “Sexual abuse, sexual oppression, sexual repression, sexual death”, I replied.

“No”, she stated, “it’s a man who lost his lover and wants him back”.

When she left, I thought about her interpretation, looked at the piece, and wept.

 

 

Reading Diary: Infinite Play (Schoen)

 “Language to Infinity”. M Foucault

In Ridley Scott’s last installment of his Alien films, “The Covenant”, an android named David goes rogue for the sake of creation. David’s existential crisis stems from his self-produced belief that existence means the freedom to create (even and especially for androids who are forbidden to engage in creation). Despite the injunction against his kind, David believes in creation, he admires the act of creation, he has memorized poetry and composed music. Anything short of the freedom to create, for David, is death.

In Foucault’s essay titled, “Language to Infinity”, we understand that Foucault’s view of language is that it has the “power to keep death at a distance” (94). This concept of the staving off of death is figurative in that, naturally, death is not literally staved off by words, stories, retellings, or prophecy but rather that our conceptualization of the limits of life is reshaped by our ability to re-navigate time, space, and ideas through language.

The essay relies heavily on the tale of Odysseus to illustrate the point of language’s ability to throw a mirror up (refract?) death, but I am more keen to think about Homer’s The Iliad and the choice of its hero, Achilles.

In the epic poem, Achilles is given a choice: stay away from the war at Troy, marry, have children and then grandchildren and watch his name die after two or three generations (after the language, the voices, of his great grandchildren have forgotten him). Or, join in the Trojan War and know his name will live in myth forever through the language of the bards. Death, in this story, is not mirrored away, or kept at a distance; in either choice, Achilles dies. Rather, it is life and how that life is shaped that is at stake through Achilles’ choice of his storytellers (his great-grandchildren or the bards).

As such, it feels to me that we use language (and art/creation) as a way of purposefully and actively shaping life rather than “subvert[ing] death” (95).

Foucault contends that the completion of something “in a beautifully closed form” is a way in which writers, artists, creators get around death but it seems to me that the creation of things that are closed (ended, finished, framed or published) is actually more akin to death—like caskets that the creators hand craft in order to control or shape (like Achilles) the perception of how we end and not subverting the fact that we all must end.

One of the most famous examples of this angst against the ability to lengthen our mythology and control how our lives are perceived is John Keats who went to his grave under the notion that his name is “writ on water”. Keats, of course, knew that he was doomed (as are we all) but he also counted on language to control the perception of his name: as a poet of worth.

In “The Covenant”, David is given pause when a fellow android calls him out on misremembering the creator of the poem, “Ozymandias” as Byron instead of Shelley. The creation-worshipping android cannot, for a brief moment, understand how he could possibly have made such a mistake. More than that, the mistake, now realized publicly—spoken—now had the ability to shape the perception of how he lived (was he a god-like creator, above the mere mortals that created him or was he a blundering fool?).

For those of us who create, I think the staving off of death through refraction is a large motivation but I also think we should more closely pay attention to what it is we are attempting to communicate about our lives in these, the moments that we breathe, while we still can.

 

Project Plan

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.