untitled 17.5″ x 25.5″, oil on panel, 2001-12

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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.

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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.

 

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“The Pink Princess” 5.5″ x 7.5″ open, gouache casien wood, 2013

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         A pretty portrait of a child is often only of interest to it’s family.  I have tried to paint my daughter before but have never been fully satisfied with the results, technically or aesthetically.  This is a painting of my daughter, Molly.  I wanted something that was specifically her:  capturing some part of her personality without being cloying or saccharine.  This is the first image of her I’ve done that really reads for me.  A gorgeous bundle of sweetness, imagination and imperiousness all rolled into a pink Disney dress on an Ikea throne.

           It’s very hard for me to paint small children for one simple reason: they are out of proportion!  I was schooled in proportion and anatomy before I could read.  My mother is an artist and my earliest teacher.  She taught me all the golden rules of anatomy for adults, not children.  Kids are a whole different ballgame: their heads are to big, their faces are distorted… maddening, most of my attempts wind up looking like distorted adults.

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             I was once commissioned to paint two identical portraits of a toddler for a divorced couple living on either side of the Atlantic.  I painted them simultaneously, side by side, measuring with calipers as I went along.  They were identical in every regard but, for some reason which I couldn’t resolve, one captured the essence of the child while the other seemed lifeless.  When I presented them to the father (who’d ordered them) he immediately pointed to the lively one and said “That one’s mine.”  The other was shipped off to the UK.  I hope the mother liked it, it only suffered when compared to it’s twin.

          Molly thinks this painting looks mean.  I had to promise her, and my wife, that I would paint a “pretty” picture of her in exchange for being allowed to finish this one.

Her Salty Lips

A late night in 2000, driving a long, quiet stretch of the Garden State Parkway, I was hit by one of those elusive, visceral memories I babbled on about in my last post.  A top forty station was the only thing I could get with any reliability and, since I needed noise to keep me awake, I had no choice but to mourn the death of western civilization at the hands of boy bands, autotuned popettes and suburban rappers.  Then, in the depths of my despair, a song came on that slapped me in the face.  It was an upbeat tune, pure pop and vaguely reminiscent of Nat King Cole’s “Lazy Days of Summer”, a favorite of mine.  The singer had the typically bland, squeaky pop voice and it wasn’t a particularly brilliant song but there was one line that almost made me hit the brakes: “When I kiss your salty lips”.  I was instantly transported back to the summer of ’77.

 

I am 15 years old, working at a summer camp in upstate New York.  It’s evening in the empty playground with a girl whose name I can no longer remember.   The last sliver of light is silhouetting the trees and providing enough glow to make everything beautiful.  She’s my age, probably a waitress.   We’ve been talking, moving nervously closer to each other in an excruciating dance of expectation.  Fleeting, accidental contact, our heads tilting in a super slow motion collision.  I’m going to kiss her! It’s not my first kiss, but it will be my first “French” kiss.  Our mouths meet and the first thing I think is “Her lips taste salty, weird.” 

 

I had to make a piece about that, not necessarily a literal rendering but something that afforded me the same reverie as that insipid song.  I painted “Her Salty Lips” (2000, 24” x 48”, OC) for the exhibition that I was getting ready for.  It was one of the first to sell and I was surprised at the opening how many people understood what it meant from the title.

 

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The image still gnawed at me afterward so I got to work on an icon for myself.  It was one of the most strangely sensual pieces I’d ever come up with and resonated with me much the same as Munch’s “The Voice/Summer Night”, possibly the most erotic painting of all time.  If I could steal one picture in the world, this would be it.

 

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My second effort “Her Salty Lips” (2001, 6” x 14”, mixed media) allowed me to explore the subject more closely, building, recapturing the turning sky, the grass under our bare feet.  It’s one of the few pieces I’ve never allowed myself to part with and to make sure it always stayed around I gave it to my wife who still makes me swoon like that fifteen year old boy.

 

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And here we are

By the fall of 1981, I’d decided that I couldn’t stand my school: Pratt-Phoenix School of Design, or my major: illustration.  I hated being a monkey who executed other people’s ideas and, being told that I should be an art director, realized that I also hated having monkeys executing MY ideas.  I despised the egocentric graphic design aesthetic and the anal retentive mentality of mistaking skill for talent.  In other words, I was a cranky bastard.  I quit my school four credits short of graduating, applied to the School of Visual Arts as a fine arts major and decided to take a semester off slumming around the UK.

            I had no clue what it was I wanted to do as an artist, or what my voice was.  I loved making things: furniture, sculpture, paintings, models, etc.   The only common thread that ran through them was that they were things that fascinated me at any given moment.  Maybe a trip would broaden me.

            The only plans I had made were to get a rail pass and a list of museums and artwork I wanted to see.  After a week or so in London I headed to Oxford for a day or two to see some Pre Raphaelites at the Ashmolean.  There was a Burne-Jones I particularly wanted to see.  No sooner did I arrive than I ran into an old grammar school classmate who was attending Oxford on a rugby scholarship. Rugby? From Brooklyn? How do you even do that?  Well, he insisted that I come with him to this great pub, the Turf.  I didn’t need to be asked twice to go drinking.

            Lukewarm stout you can eat with a fork, yum! Coming back from the bar with some drinks and there she is, sitting on my bench, the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen in my life.  Before you cite me for objectifying women by calling her “thing”, understand that she wasn’t just the most gorgeous girl I’d ever seen, she was prettier than sunrise, puppies or a unicorn flying over a damned rainbow!  I am transfixed.

            “Am I sitting in your seat?” she asked me, breaking me out of my stupor.  “No, no, no…”

            I was madly in love with this girl before I’d even exhaled so I sat next to her and instantly started babbling.  How to chat up the love of your life when you are a bundle if nerves?  Simple, start an argument with her friend, that’ll impress her!  So I did, until I had enough nerve to start speaking to her directly, and when we finally started speaking, we continued for the next twenty-four hours.  Marina seemed to genuinely like me but rebuffed my advances and I was too much the earnest young man to push my luck.  Ultimately, I was hanging in the pseudo-friend zone, which was doubly painful as she never left my side (except for school and sleep) or let go of my hand. I spent the rest of my trip in Oxford, largely wasting my Britrail pass.  In the days before interwebs, facebooks and skype, a long distance relationship was pretty difficult and when it was time for me to leave, we left it as a self-contained moment in time.

            Now to my point, finally.  When I got back to Brooklyn I had two photographs of Marina and weeks worth of memories I desperately wanted to retain.  I painted a number of pictures of her based on those photos but none of them captured what I wanted.  Then I decided to make a miniature gouache of her to carry around in my pocket but how to protect it?  Little doors would do the trick, now I had two additional surfaces to paint on.  Once I’d finished it, it struck me like a punch in the face: THIS IS HOW I THINK!  Suddenly, everything made sense and I knew what I wanted from art and what was important to me.

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            SVA in the early eighties: neo-expressionism by the foot, structuralism,  Donald Judd whining about content and there I am, hunched over a tiny piece of board painting my little autobiographical pictures as my friends are standing on folding chairs, working on massive canvases that are going to tell the world exactly what is wrong with it.  I developed a reputation as a hapless romantic in my tweed suits, carrying my supplies in a violin case.  Pretentious? Moi?  But of course!

            Two years later, my friend and I are back in the UK on holiday.  Marina had become my unwitting muse and the center of my ever-expanding iconographic vocabulary.  Even after I’d moved to other subjects, she still appeared: the brick wall, pink sweater and more obtuse references that are my business alone.   Since we were there, of course I had to visit Marina.  It was also a chance to prove that this all-consuming girl of my dreams actually existed.  I was finally going to see her again, staying at her family’s house for the night.  Though I’d finally been able to start dating again after about a year, no one had ever broken through like her.

            She was a horror!  She seemed annoyed that I’d even come and only took the night off from work because her mother insisted she be a polite hostess.  I think my friend took some degree of pleasure in this as he had been listening to my stories of her for the last two years.  Bored with our awkward chatter in the study, he soon fell asleep.  No sooner does he pass out than she reverts to the warm, sweet girl I’d lost my heart to and again we were talking til the sun came up.  I gave her a small triptych I’d made of her as a thank you gift and off we went to Stonehenge.

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            Great, I thought I’d gotten her out of my system but she’d unknowingly wound herself back around my gut.  Right, nice guys do, in fact, finish last so goodbye tweed, hello leather jackets.  I saw Marina one more time the following year as she had come to study at the Fashion Institute of Technology.  She phoned me out of the blue and I ran to meet her for lunch!   Wait a minute!  This girl has clog danced on my heart for the last three years, enough!  Time to move on, so while I did meet her, she got to see me in the full flower of my assholiness.  I was cool, collected and indifferent and by the end of the afternoon she was probably sorry she’s rung me.  I later found out that she had finally decided to give me my shot but in my smugness I’d completely blown it. Over the following years, lots of other stuff happened and my Marina imagery morphed from pure, romantic love to a sense of loss.  I missed missing her.

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            Years later, by 2003 I had reached a point where I was utterly joyless, hated my life… and my artwork.   I’d become so detached from what was important to me, how did I get here?  I used to love my work, I was passionate and everything was important, where did I go wrong?  I decided to retrace my steps and try a sort of mnemonic exercise.  I tried to create a variant on what I’d considered my first real piece of art: the triptych of Marina I’d done all those years ago.

            A gallery I was showing with in Rhode Island (sadly, no more) put it on their website.  Right about that time, Marina was looking at the old portrait I’d given her with her daughter.  They wondered what had ever become of me and decided to google me.   The first thing that slowly fills the screen (dial up) is a NEW painting of a seventeen-year-old Marina!  She emails the gallery, they put us in touch and here we go again.

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            Now we are middle aged, both married, settled into our lives, I can finally speak freely and tell her of the powerful influence she’s had on my life and the artist, and man, I became as a result, after all, the past is in the past.

            We become pen pals, I write her tales of all the horrid things I’d done and what a jerk I’d been over the years.  She tells me all about her life and I hang on every word.  I’m focused on my work again, in my art at least, I’m happy again.

            After a few years of this, we were best friends and I was just happy to have her as part of my life.  A day without a note from her was absolute misery but if you asked me if I was in love with her I could honestly answer of course not, we’re just friends, she’s got a perfect life.  But I hadn’t seen her in over twenty years.  She decided to fly over for a visit.

            Seeing her at the airport after all these years I was hit with the same intensity of emotion as in that dark pub in Oxford. Uh Oh… THAT’S what this is…. While I probably overshare my own story, it’s not my business or interest to tell other’s tales.  Suffice it to say, this time it was mutual.  We agreed we wanted to marry before we’d ever even had our proper first kiss, and here we are.

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