A friend of mine had posted a photo of her husband walking their dog in a snowy wood. I was quite taken with the image of the bare trees silhouetted against the snow but didn’t really give it a second thought until I saw Marina napping on the bed. s previously discussed, she never ceases to inspire me. It may be anachronistic but she is, and always has been, my muse. The sheet reminded me of snow and then the trees, the finished piece formed in my mind immediately. Putting the figure in the snow would just be silly and a bit too close to surrealism, a movement I was never particularly fond of, than I care to go. I am particularly fond of the dynamic between the figure and ground in this piece. I’d rather suggest dreams than illustrate them.
When I first met my wife in Oxford, we would spend entire afternoons wandering it’s streets. We must have trod every bit of earth in the entire town over the course of that month. Going back with her years later I was struck with a “this is where it all began” feeling and wanted something to keep that for me, a souvenir. The song Souvenir, by OMD, always reminded me of Marina over the years we were apart, despite the absolutely horrid video. This is kind of a visual companion for the tune I carried around in my head for decades.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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”.