Back when I was an earnest, young art student, I studied figure painting with John Foote. He was the spitting image of Peter O’Toole and a brilliantly eccentric portrait artist with a flair for the dramatic and passionate about his craft. We didn’t often have male figure models in class, except for the occasional portrait study sessions with craggy old men looking for easy beer money. One day, John brought in a young man, likely a dancer, to pose for us. We set to work for a three hour pose. After about an hour or so, John walked over to my easel, plucked my canvas up high and bellowed to the class, “Ladies and gentlemen, this man has a penis!”
It turned out that no one else had noticed the appendage. Mysterious shadows and Freudian Voids abounded. I guess no one wanted to appear to be fixated or even interested (the Eighties were a different era, even for hip, open minded art students). As a result, John demanded that everyone paint in the model’s penis immediately. The poor fellow suddenly found his bits to be the subject of intense scrutiny by a roomful of people. He did not look happy.
I very rarely paint male figures as my work tends to be autobiographical and my naked relationships have always been with women. But when I do, they always have a penis.
For a while I worked as an Art Consultant at a gallery in Soho. It amazed me how passively people interacted with the artwork they were looking at. Someone could spend thousands on a painting and only spend a few seconds actively engaged with it. Like it or not, many collectors, even educated ones, tend to buy art by the square foot and whether it matches the sofa. I’ve always tended to be at odds with this aesthetic. I’ve sat looking at a single image for ages, getting lost in the paint. Wall based work has always been problematic for me as the singular experience has always been so important to me and something hanging on a wall tends to be too passive for me, then again, I’ve never really thought of my work as art with a capital A. When you have to hold something in your hand and manipulate something in order to see it, the viewer experiences some of the same intimacy the artist has with the creative process. They become responsible for the artwork, a co-conspirator, forced to become involved on a deeper level, to look deeper and more thoughtfully.
The gallery I showed with at the time would continually ask me to do larger, wall based pieces because they are easier to sell and tend to fetch higher prices. I found that the lager works I made tended to be more detached, less autobiographical and subjective. I didn’t necessarily dislike doing this kind of work but it was made for an external audience whereas my Icons are made solely for myself. Once completed, they enter the zeitgeist but I make no conscious effort to communicate or explain anything (except now on this blog, ironically).
Quite often when I work, I paint or carve some element with no clear idea what I intend to do with it. In a way it’s like creating my own objets trouvé. An image may lie around for months or even years before I understand what I want to do with it. Digging through my studio I am sometimes pleasantly surprised by an old, problematic friend. Sometimes the answer never presents itself or informs other works without resulting in a completed work of it’s own. This piece is a prime example, the figure was painted about ten years ago and, while I liked it, I had no idea where to take it. Ultimately, it inspired a series of small icons in which I had a lot of fun playing with ideas about the relation of the figure to ground, something that still is an important aspect of my work. Each of the works below is about six inches tall.
For a long time the original panel with the figure was hanging over the bathroom door at the gallery. Last year I looked at it and suddenly the surrounding image presented itself and down it came, my found object.
As yet untitled. 2013, 34″ x 44″, OC. I’ve always enjoyed painting en grisaille, possibly because it adds to the totemic quality of the figures. I’m not really a naturalistic painter anyway. Afterwards, I glaze with light washes of local color and the result has the feel of a tinted photograph. I’m not sure if this is finished, half tempted to ratchet up the color since the figure is in an environment. We’ll see.
Twice a gallery has refused paintings from me and on both occasions the works happened to be personal favorites. First was a landscape titled “Over Here” (2001 O/C 30”x 48”). Was it offensive? Immature? Amateurish? No, it simply made the director of the gallery feel “cold”, as in chilly. I have always found it to be one of my strongest and most evocative landscapes, a respectful nod to George Innes and Albert Pinkham Ryder but it only evoked cardigans to the gallery so back it came. Maybe I should have brought it to them in summer… It did later find a home and never a peep about temperature from the collectors.
Since I tend to paint many figures and many landscapes, a gallery asked me to produce a show of figures IN landscapes. This was problematic for a few reasons, my work tends to avoid naturalism (to me at least), I’ve never been a big fan of genre paintings and if the figure is in the landscape there should be some plausible reason for it to be there. I turned to the Arcadian works of people like Poussin and Eakins for inspiration and out of twelve images produced four that I was relatively satisfied with. This was the one that I connected with most “Here We Are” (2003 O/C 28”x 32”).
“It’s too confrontational.” What?!? What the hell am I supposed to do, paint children at the beach? Since when is that a bad thing? God forbid the work questions the viewer with something other than do you think I’ll look good over your couch! I am a male painter, whether I like it or not, the male gaze is inherent in my work but at least I am aware of it and don’t apologize for it. I do, however, mess with it on occasion. The director was put of by the fact that the “confrontational” figure was clothed, and female. Really? That was the whole damned point, but out it went… Without this picture as a lynchpin, the rest of the show made little sense. The show did not do as well as anyone had hoped, tho the strongest paintings did later sell. Like an episode of Blossom, there were lessons for everyone. The gallery learned that collectors who buy figures aren’t necessarily interested in landscapes and even more so vice versa. I learned not to pander and set to work on the little icon that would change my life, “Her Again”.