Ladies and gentlemen, this man has a penis!

  

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!”

Ladies and gentlemen

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.

After Henner

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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.

 

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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A New Figure

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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.