Figurative 2021-2022

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“The unconscious merging of climate crisis, gun violence, me too and abortion rights”
Oil/panel
34” x 48”
2022
 
America is literally and figuratively a hot mess right now.  Here is a short list of some of the more challenging ingredients of that mess.  There is a persistent Covid pandemic, racial reckoning at all levels, entrenched racism, a me too movement, a trans revolution and its itinerant backlash, post Covid challenges like supply chain issues, runaway inflation, a disappearing work force, intense political divisiveness, rampant mental health issues, gun violence and confusion about how to react, a lingering opioid addiction crisis and climate change which has brought record breaking heat, drought and unusually strong storms and wild fires.   
 
How does one make sense of all of this?   I don’t know.  But I do know that making art is a good place to start.  
 
Here is a painting that just came out, unimpeded by much thinking or preparation on my part.  In fact, it was painted in one sitting over the course of an evening.  Fortunately I had the good sense to leave it alone. Clearly I have the skills to “fix” the anatomy and make a more smooth and familiar surrealistic blending of female flesh and guns.   And the message, surely something more coherent and purposeful could have been arrived at.   
 
And maybe I will do all of that in subsequent paintings.   But this one is an honest statement of where we are now.  And that is its strength.  I would argue that is also the way forward and out of this mess as a culture as well.  And there is the silver lining.  
 
America is a hot mess and it is a mess that is out there for all to see.  This stands in stark contrast to China today which is on the surface is in a strict orderly period doing its utmost to repress anything and everything that would upset this order.  Keeping Covid deaths to near zero. Impressive!  
 
And so the pressure builds like a volcano….a pristine picture of nature’s beautiful side, while underneath something immense and powerfully destructive builds.   
 
As unpleasant as this gigantic mess is, it’s a process that somehow is moving forward.   I prefer that to an ever increasing effort to suppress everything and anything that would upset the precious order.   I think of our mess as a series of convulsions that threaten order and stability but nevertheless leaves us better adapted to the changing world and closer to a more equitable world for all people no matter their race, gender, sexuality, economic status, political affiliation, health or age.  
 
My anguish in these messy times is unmistakably mitigated by my various privileges: male privilege, white privileged, college educated privilege, and probably I can’t see because I am…well….privileged.   That said, and taken all of that into account, I still think these convulsions are needed and present the opportunity for real and positive growth.  I just hope my privileged peers and I don’t squander this opportunity and render everyone’s suffering a waste.  
 

“War Torn”

Oil/panel
24” x 24”
2022
 
In February of 2022 Russian invaded Ukraine.  Despite having seen many wars and armed conflicts from the comfort of my home over the course of my lifetime, I have never seen until now a war that appeared so clearly based on false pretenses and with such visually available brutality to civilians.  I have, in fact, saved many graphic images to my computer hard drive in hopes of creating an epic portrait of the atrocities of war.   
 
In the meantime, I have created various sketches based on my responses to the war unfolding even as I write this.   This painting was created from a piece of a much larger painting I created and then destroyed many years ago.  I kept this fragment  because I felt it had some purpose in the future.  Many times, over the years, I would get the painting out and put it on my painting wall.  I would stare at it for a few days and ultimately decide to put it back on the shelf untouched.   
 
This time, however, I was immediately struck by the impression of the body parts being disjointed and scattered the way I had heard was happening to women and children in Ukraine when missles struck them in their homes or in their attempts to flee.   Unlike actual photos of body parts and corpses which always appear flat and cold this painting seems vibrant and energetic with even a touch of classical decorum.   I don’t think this is more or less effective than the realistic piece I intend to create.  But it’s important somehow to have this strange message of vibrancy and salvage in the lexicon of responses to this war.  
 
Perhaps it suggests the ripping apart of art itself and culture as much as the dismemberment of bodies and the innocent.  And maybe it suggests that even in that there is a possibility of beauty and rebirth.    That is a lot of heavy baggage to pile on a little piece of Masonite with some paint smeared on it.  But maybe that’s how it starts.  
“Glory to Ukraine”
Oil/panel
6’ x4’
2022
 
When I sat down to write about this painting I realized it was only half finished.  I don’t mean there is anything left to do on this panel.  Instead, what I mean is that there is going to be a second panel, equal in size and shape to this one.   But before I describe what and why I will paint a second panel, let me share some of my thoughts about this one.  
 
I am writing this piece in the summer of 2022.  Russia invaded Ukraine in late February earlier this year.   And after some initial hope that Ukraine might unbelievably be able to throw off the much mightier Russian military, it now appears that while Ukraine may still in fact prevail, it is going to be a long hard, painful, costly and deadly war.   
 
When the war first broke out I was painting a nude that was no more complex than a celebration of the beauty of the human form and an effort to push my technique forward in the way I do with virtually every painting. However, I couldn’t stop thinking about what could I do to support the cause.   
 
Very quickly myself and many of my peers saw the war in a way that I believe the leadership of Ukraine wanted us to see this….as a struggle for Ukraine to at last commit itself unequivocally and at great cost to European values and culture.   And what could be a more quintessential Western “story” than the underdog who represents the voice of freedom against a mighty foe that represents authoritarian dominance.   It is the subject of Michelangelo’s David, one of the West’s most celebrated works of art,  to just for its quality but for the way it places the individual heroically composed within itself in the face of overwhelming odds.  
 
And so, of course I thought of Delacroix’s famous painting done to celebrate a similar cause unfolding in France 150 years earlier as the French struggled to form a republic against the forces of Napoleonic thought.  “Victory Leading the People”.   Here we see a bare breasted woman leading the charge against near certain death holding the flag of the French Republic against a bloody wind.   
 
All things Ukraine suddenly became known to any American who wasn’t living under a rock.  The blue and yellow of their flag and the importance of the sunflower as their national flower but also as an important export crop perhaps like the way we might see champagne as the symbol of France or oil from Saudi Arabia.      Well, it didn’t take long for me to rework the arms of the figure.  I even asked one of my staff to hold a flag so I could see how the fabric wrapped around her hands.  And for anyone who knows me and my oeuvre they know I love sunflowers.   In fact, not only is it my favorite flower, it is more like a “spirit flower” to me the way some people say they have a “spirit animal.”   
 
The piece came together quickly.  I tried a few things that didn’t work but quickly revised them to my greater satisfaction.  Hung the piece on the wall and have felt a mixture of pride and deflation ever since.  Yes….it’s well painted and certainly well intentioned.  Who could argue with any of that.   And indeed, many have expressed how moving the piece is and how thoughtful of me to create and display it in my spa.  
 
And yet, I could not escape the fact that it wasn’t finished.   I just didn’t know what was missing until now……the other half.  
 
Unlike France’s democratic movement, Ukraine is literally attempting to turn its attention away from its modern history of influence from and domination by Soviet culture and authoritarian rule.  It literally wants to turn around and look the other way.   And Russia has revealed its hand by invading Ukraine, making it clear that at least its top leadership wants to return to its imagined glory days of Soviet dominance.  Almost like an aging fighter who wants to make one last gasp for championship as old age and sinking relevance threaten to overwhelm a beleaguered ego that never came to terms with a fundamental law of the universe….change.   Not to mention another feared inevitability notoriously avoided by those who love power over awareness….decay.   
 
And so I will create a second panel in the style of so called “Soviet realism.”   I may even include Putin himself as he would like to be seen, bare chested and stalwart….fist clenched and seen slightly from below as if to suggest his exalted bearing, rising above the din of us mere mortals gladly surrendering our individuality for the might of the State…through him of course.
 
Two paintings.   Side by side.   Each vying for our attention.  Each representing in subject and method the values and sensibilities of its country’s choices.  That is the state of things.  And the choice for the viewer will be their’s to make.  Which one do you like better?   And is there something of worth to have them both?  Together.  Are they greater than the sum of their parts?   Do they stand alone?   Will any of this matter 20 years from now?
 
My challenge is to paint this second painting with as much care and sincerity as I painted the first.  As a business owner and father of 2 children I can certainly relate to the power of authority and its efficiency, especially in times of crisis.   And so, I will visit this side at least while I complete this second part.   Fortunately, my children and staff will be there, thriving in all their glorious messy creativity and free wheeling spirits, shining a light for me to return to when the work is complete.  Yes, I like the power and efficiency that comes with authority.   But like the Ukrainians, I wouldn’t trade it for the glorious mess that is freedom.  
 
Glory to Ukraine smacks a little too nationalistic to some of my learned peers.  And I see where they are coming from.  But not being a speaker of the Ukrainian  language I can not know the implications and nuances of this slogan.  Nevertheless, I have my own interpretation based on what I see and read.   It means glory to us and our destiny to self actualize, to be free from tyranny….a people willing to fight and die for our individual rights but that now we have come together under this flag to galvanize our strength and to work together.   It’s implied that while they are fighting under this Blue and Yellow banner, unlike their Russian advisories, when they prevail  they will have the freedom  the right to not give a shit about a flag.   They will be able to focus less on being “a people” and much more on bing simply people. 
“Ken Symington”
Oil /panel
20” x 20”
2022
 
This is a small oil painting I did of and for my friend and mentor Ken Symington’s 90th birthday.   Ken initially came into my life in the late 1990’s as an art collector. He purchased a large painting of mine done about that same time.  Not long after that I was flying down to his home in Sierra Madre on the outskirts of LA to put together art shows and a multi disciplinary art event we called The Invisible Theater.  
 
The Invisible Theater became quite a “thing” and ran for 10 years.  It is also where I developed my ideas for the Little Red Studio which I started in 2002.    That eventually became the Little Red Bistro and those things morphed into the Little Red Day Spa.  Throughout all of that Ken remained an important source of inspiration, guidance and friendship for me.  
 
This portrait was done from some informal photos I took with my phone when I was visiting earlier this year.  I wanted to paint it from life but my ability to be in LA with Ken is limited.  In the process I explored the peculiar process of discerning where the personality of an individual lies.  Is it the shape of their head, the sheen of their skin, the minutia of minor muscular quirks that shape one’s expression.   What is it that makes a painting look like someone and and more fundamentally, what is it that makes someone look like someone?    
 
Some things are obvious of course.  But I wanted to go beyond it simply “looking like”  Ken. I wanted the painting to be Ken as much as Ken is Ken.   Another way of putting this is that especially as Ken approaches the end of his life, I was keenly aware that this painting was really more for his partner, Bruce, who is 27 years younger….and Ken’s circle of friends and loved ones.   Ken, even now while he is alive, is a construct in each of our minds.  Ken exists in as much as each of us holds him in our mind.   And so, I wanted the painting to trigger that combination of millions of something’s that precipitate a construct in each of our minds that is Ken.  
 
Perhaps This sounds complicated.   But when that painting was unveiled at his birthday party the 40 or so guests that gathered for the occasion gasped and then fell silent for a poignant few seconds.   Of course that was a proud moment for me.  But even better was later that night.   All the guests had gone home.  Ken had gone to sleep and Bruce and I finished cleaning up.  When we sat down we could see the portrait of Ken across the room still on the presentation easel.  Bruce and I looked at each other and then at the painting and then back again.  We didn’t say anything about the painting.  We both knew that it worked.   Ken was with us.   He was sleeping in the bedroom.  He was sitting on the easel and more importantly he was very present in the minds of Bruce and I.  With Ken securely there in our minds, we laughed and talked about the party.  
“Valtesse”
Oil/panel
8’ x 4’
2022
 
Valtesse is a performance group that hosted a spectacular show in my exhibition space for Halloween in 2021.   It may become an annual event.  They are a physical performance troupe that puts on a highly polished variety show themed around BDSM and burlesque with a Halloween twist.  Their acts include aerialists, contortionists, dancers and other amazing feats.  And the whole thing is driven by the genius of their founder, producer and director, Fiona.  
 
While their show is really a series of eye popping wonders, there is a through line and even a bit of a plot.  The whole show culminates with the impresario and devious grand master( played by Fiona of course ) making a spectacular appearance in arguably the most showy over the top costume in a presentation already a night of show stoppers one after another.  
 
Her costume and character reminded me of the protagonist in a Russian novel I had just read called the “Master and Margarita.”   It’s a modern classic set in Soviet Russia where one the main characters is the devil who often appears in a black and white checked suit.   I imagined it to be just like the one Fiona appears in during her grand finale.  
 
She simply had to be painted.  Life size.  With  Rubensian flourish. 
 
After the show had run it’s course and the dust settled.  I asked Fiona if she would pose for some photos so that I could develop the painting. She enthusiastically agreed.  We met for barely a half hour.  I knew exactly what I wanted.  She put on her makeup and costume.  I played with the lighting for a few minutes, snapped some photos and off she went.  
 
Then painting started of quickly and easily.  It had momentum.  An invisible cocoon formed around me in my studio the way it does when things are going well.  This inner sanctum can be seen by the sensitive viewer by the way the detritus of work forms an ever thickening oval with the work in progress at the narrow end and discarded tubes of paint, photographs, empty potato chip bags, coffee cups and other such truck arranging themselves as I drop them and brush them aside while I work.  This “cocooning” is one of my favorite aspects of painting this way….singular, driven and manic. At one point you are “up.”   Filled with excitement as the vision unfolds.  The next you are down.  Frustrated with having lost the scent or bogged down in necessary but tedious detail.  Other kinds of painting don’t go this way.  They are more relaxed, breezier and more like a stroll with the muse.  These works are more like a wrestling match and if I am lucky…sometimes a dance.   
 
This piece stalled after the figure was well underway.   Even her face, arguably one of the most critical aspects of the piece was well established and looking good.  But something was missing.    The figure did not have a fraction of the power that the character had in the show.  Then it struck me…she needed feathers…and wings.  Big ones that would suggest that she might actually be able to fly but more practically would fill the “empty space” of the background with something more compelling than plain black curtains.  
 
Then the thing really cracked open.  I saw her as a metaphoric being not just a study inblack and white but between Sky and Earth, good and evil, birth and death and all the energy generated and regaled by the friction between the two.  
 
My daughter loaned me her American girl doll.  And a skull was easily found on the Internet.  
 
One could say this is my own version of an Indian goddess Kali who both gives and takes life.   She is often seen dancing while giving birth with a ring of human skulls jangling around her neck.  It’s no accident that the snake coils around her leg like the cadicus  that Hermes is given by the gods to deliver to mankind, a symbol to guide man’s development of the healing arts and an understanding of one of the basic principles of the universe..the intertwining and inseparability of good and evil, light and dark, life and death.  And the way to hold those forces in balance is a dance.  
 
Of course it’s entertaining.   But is also meant to trigger some questions and maybe even some speculations and pontification.  At the very least, like the show that inspired it, it’s meant to be eye popping and fun.  
 
Visual artists do get moments like Rock Stars.   There are no screaming mobs of adoring fans, no gorgeous women lining up to sit on their laps, no mosh pits and body diving.  But we do have moments….like the day Fiona came to see the painting when it was complete….and ostensibly give her blessing for all the liberties I took with her initial character:   The gigantic wings, the snake, the headless doll under foot, the skull and so on.  
 
She stood speechless with her hands on her face for what seemed an eternity.  She turned to give me a hug but for another poignant moment could not turn away from the painting.  
 
After she left I got out a broom and dust pan and cleaned up the mess in my studio.  
“My Red Studio”
Oil/panel
34” x 48”
2022
 
There is a famous painting by Matisse called “The Red Studio.”   It’s on people’s mind these days because it’s the feature piece in a blockbuster summer show at the Metropolitan Museum and as such is appearing in newspaper ads, online postings and even NPR radio ads.   It’s a seminal work by Matisse and I understand and appreciate its significance in the development of modern art.  And, I know it intimately because I was commissioned to do a faithful copy of it for a French restaurant in Seattle many years ago.  And, not so insignificantly, I like it.  
 
It would be easy to look at my painting and declare that it’s retardaire and everything Matisse and his painting sought to leave behind in art.    But I don’t think so.   Like Matisse’s painting the figure and the background are in a balancing act of representation and pure energy.  The energy comes from the pervasive red and the energized brush strokes.   I don’t know how much Matisse understood theoretical physics or Eastern mysticism, but my own intuition about how things are has been informed by these two streams of thought.   Everything is energy and simultaneously…nothing.  And yet, there are also things, at least in the reality of perception.  We know that “solid” is relative and in fact most things are energy clusters of varying degrees of certainty or probabilities.  The woman is there, but only at one level of understanding. At another level she is a cluster of energy nearly indistinct from the space and world around her.  I could have made the woman or the fabric around her more succinctly fabric or flesh, but I decided to stick to my sense of things, emboldened as they were by the strength of Matiss’s vision    
 
So, here is my red studio., pulsing and vibrating with at least some of what Matisse must have also seen, life as an erotic insistence…pushing itself into awareness, making it clear that especially in a studio, the pulsing hum of the universe is always asking us to acknowledge that there could just as well be nothing, but that simultaneously there is  everything. And what a riotous joyous thing that is to behold.
“Portrait from Life: Jenni”
Oil/panel
24” x 24”
2021
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
“Portrait from Life: Peter”
Oil/panel
24” x 24”
2021
 
Sometimes I am lucky enough to have a friend sit for me to do a portrait of them.   Sometimes my goal is to make a likeness of them that reveals something inward about who they are….their soul….as opposed to just their meat and bones.   And sometimes I use their presence to work on something with my craft or concept of how to make art.  And sometimes it’s just a pleasant way to be together.   
 
In the case of Jenni…..it turned out to be a pleasant likeness of her.   But it also became the inspiration for a second piece with heavy political and social commentary.   You can see that painting in the subsection of this website, Figurative 2022.   
 
And then there is the portrait of Peter.   Bless his heart.   Peter has been a model for me for almost 20 years.   Over that time he has let me use our time together to experiment with so many different approaches to making art.   Sometimes these involved asking him to do challenging things like let me pour thick black paint over his head while holding a giant dildo over his should standing on a block of ice.   Or in this case, let me stretch and distort his face beyond recognition.  All for a great cause you see.    I am making art!   And with a little luck, some of it might be worth looking at in the future.  
 
At the very least, with a few exceptions, I think it is safe to say Peter has enjoyed being part of my process in some of the most challenging experiments in my artistic growth and as a person.   He is a true friend and I appreciate his contributions to my art  and life very much.  
 
“Autumn”  2nd version
Oil/panel
6 x 4’
2021
 
Why do a second version of a painting almost exactly the same as the first, or what might be described as a faithful copy?   There are lots of reasons.  But this time, among others, it saved me $8,000.   
 
Many years ago I painted a series of 4 paintings.   One for each season.   I had hoped I would sell them to a spa or a hotel that would rotate them throughout the year.  Well, I capitulated  and sold one to an individual.   “Autumn”.  At the time $8,000 was worth even more than it would to me now.  
 
Years went by and eventually I opened my own spa.  And throughout the year I hung one of the seasonal paintings in a choice spot designed for them.  Except, I could not display one in Autumn.  So I reached out to the owner of that painting and she graciously agreed to sell it to me for the same price she paid for it.  As I was preparing the funds to procure it, I crashed my friends truck and the repairs cost over $9,000.  His insurance didn’t pay for it.  And neither would mine.  It only covered damage to the other driver’s truck.    
 
So I bought a panel to match the original Autumn painting in size.  Dug out my old photographs and best quality reproduction of my painting and got busy.   
 
It was fun, image a bit like the kind of enjoyment a composer must feel when playing a concert of one of his popular compositions.  No, it’s not a singularly creative act like writing a new composition or painting a bran new painting with a totally new concept.   But it is enjoyable and arguably still an artistic act.  In fact, the differences between the two paintings are many and reveal interesting things about my differing ideas about painting and the seasons.   To see them,  one needs to look closely. And that is its own reward. But even if you don’t, I am confident in saying that this piece is at least as enjoyable as the first version if not more so.  And in any case, I had a lot of fun painting it.  And I am not in a position to claim that the $8,000 that hung in the balance wasn’t also significant to me.  
“Woman” 
Oil/panel
6 x4’
2021
 
This is the most recent in a series of paintings all the same size and all inspired by the same woman and all from a series of modeling sessions she did for me over 25 years ago.  
 
I’m interested in the human form obviously.  And I’m interested in finding ways to revitalize sculptural painting of the human form that is authentic and powerful.  But these pieces are also about my fascination with memory.   
 
I could work with a new model.   I could easily create new sketches and photos to work from.   But they would not have the component of having been sitting around my studio and the recesses of my mind for 25 years like these have.  What that does to the painting is hard for me to say.  But I think as a person it is my answer to the increasing pressure artists feel to be not only forward looking or what we used to call the Avant garde, but also quintessentially of the moment.  The space for artists to exist has gotten so slim it almost hard to breath.  One can not be retardaire.  And at the same time, one can’t be too far ahead.  
 
Twenty five years ago the internet was still a novelty.  Social media didn’t exist.  And the meta verse, NFT’s and bitcoin were the stuff of outlandish dystopian futuristic novels.  It’s not that I want to return to a world before these things existed. It’s that I want to do at least some work that draws its inspiration from my own direct experiences that being 25 years old still makes them almost ancient given the pace of change.  And memory, that constantly measures what was against what is becomes another element of the work.  
“Harlequin Do over”
Oil/panel
48” x 32”
2021
 
This is probably the third version of this painting.   Sometimes I revisit a subject because I am offered money to do so.  And while I am a principled person largely unwilling to something just for the money, I am not independently wealthy and neither are the people that depend on me ….most notably my kids.    Like many polemics, this is usually not a black and white issue.   There are things I would and have done for money that I would not have done otherwise and inversely there are things I have done for the love of it that I wish I was also paid for.  Most of time, it’s some combination of both.
 
But none of that is relevant with respect to this painting.  I did this “do over” because I feel I have still not gotten it “right.”    There is something I want to say about the power of individuality pushing through a mask and costume.   I’m also fascinated by this pop culture appropriation of an entertainment icon that dates back hundreds of years into medieval Europe.   The character of Harlequin and his band of tumblers where the precursors to the modern day circus.  Now, Harli Quin is a female character sprung from comic book lore of mid century and made world famous by Hollywood’s cinematic depictions of her n the Batman movies.  In fact, it’s also fascinating to me that most of my younger friends don’t even know anything about Harlequin or Comedia del’artes or any such truck.  And what’s so great about all of that, is that for the most part I don’t think it matters. 
 
The spirit of the thing lives on.  
 
And that is what bugs me about this painting and the other 2 previous versions.  It looks back to the Harli Quin comic character and beyond to Picasso’s famous Rose period paintings of these characters.  But it doesn’t look forward.  
 
Yes…it’s a nice painting.   And that is no small thing.  But it does not refresh the notion that the basis of this character: that his…or her joy is a celebration of having just escaped from hell.  
 
But what “hell” has my character escaped from?    For medieval villagers and farmers watching a band of lithe performers roll into town the entertainment surely must have been an escape from the drudgery and routine of village or farm life .  For Picasso’s performers and audience, they were all participants in the demimonde….the half world….the world outside the mediocrity of the bourgeoisie or what came to be known as the “middle class” after world war 2.  
 
I am really going out on a limb here, but I am guessing that my Harli Quin is straining to leap between the hell of strict definitions of gender.   He/she is neither male nor female…but both.  And as such is actually a plurality…a “they.”   And moreover this circus act of gender blending is like all good art, actually more real than reality.   We are, after all, living in a world that derives a lot of its strife from a tendency to double down and dig in.   People have retreated to polarities and hardened their positions. While liberals quibble over the niceties and nuances of white fragility, the rest are flaunting their full blown racism unabashed.   
 
Compromise is out.  Power grabs are in.  
I came of age in era where the trend was to drop out and tune in.   Now, my kids are coming of age where it’s more about tuning in and doubling down.  
 
Is it any surprise that so many would want to find an identity for themselves that is not a denigration of one or the other, but rather a blending of the two.  The acrobatics of the traditional Harlequin are now the flexibility and nimbleness required to simply “be” in an ever increasingly polarized world.   And like their forebears, this new generation of gender blending souls use the arts to achieve and define their new identity:  costuming, decoration, body adornment and tattoos.
 
But unlike the characters in Picasso’s demimonde, they are not performing on a sidewalk or the corner of a cafe.   They are “performing” by simply moving through the world.  Showing up for work.   Going shopping or sitting on the bus. All the while insisting on being referred to as “they.”   Every act is a performance, a way to express for others to behold, the joys of having escaped a hell of polarization and instead being able to choose in any given moment or day where and who one wants to be on a vast spectrum of possibilities.   
 
That is what my Harli Quin painting is supposed to express.  And this third painting, as nice as it may be, doesn’t even come close to expressing that.  Alas, there is work to be done.  
 
“Covid”
Oil /panel
50” x 40”
2021
 
The mask was a last minute thing.   And that changed everything.  
 
In October of 2021 I hosted a show in my exhibition area that was directed and produced by Valtesse, a very talented performance group featuring BDSM acts with a high society penache.  The founder and charismatic leader of this group is a woman named Fiona.  
 
This foundation of the painting is from an image that was taken by a photographer unknown to me as promotional material for their annual Halloween show.  I was given permission to do a painting from it.  Carte Blanche. 
 
I was struck by the disturbing juxtaposition of the anguish and rotten mouth with the sumptuous fabric and elegant make up and almost high fashion set up and lighting.  The fabric also suggested a nun’s habit or something high Catholic.   There was anguish and yet it looked deliberately and self consciously staged.   No one would mistake this woman in the photograph or in my painting as someone in genuine anguish.  It’s too coiffed.  The nails and make up too perfect.  
 
But then there is that mask.   That god damned mask that everyone was stuck with, even the model who posed for the shot and the actor who played the part, only able to take it off during the time she recites her lines.   
 
This little dash of blue paint representing a Covid mask turns out to be the most realistic piece of the painting and the little bitty thing that is or has been so annoying in our lives.    
 
Although the severity of the pandemic has greatly subsided as I write this, I still carry a mask in my pocket and put it on when I enter elevators, buses or whenever asked to do so.  It’s not so bad actually.  I also wear underwear even though it’s not really necessary.   
 
“A Portrait of Sean”
Oil/ canvas
60” x 60”
2021
 
Why?   Why devote so much precious time and energy to a portrait like this?  One obvious answer would be that it was commissioned by the subject or one of his admirers.   It wasn’t.  
In a sense, I, the artist was the commissioner.  I paid for the materials and the space and time to create it.   And being the commissioner, I had as much complete and ultimate authority as I could muster.  There were, of course, a multitude of voices inside my head demanding it be painted this way or that. Since I know the subject and his circle well, there were also voices demanding he be rendered accurately….true to life in expression, body likeness and just plain ole physical likeness.  It should, these voices stated, look like Sean.   
 
But beyond the obvious, how should it look like Sean.   How could it go beyond looking like Sean and in some palpable way….be Sean.   For Sean, the man himself, I argue, it doesn’t matter.  But for everyone else, Sean is in our heads. Therefore, what, in the painting could trigger the essence of Sean.   What could make him real in our minds the way Sean himself does….which I argue strongly is much more than simply “the way he looks.”  
 
To do that I needed to begin with remembering….a lot.   And for that, the camera on my phone was very helpful.  But having secured plenty of quotidian facts in my head and on my phone, it was then time to start forgetting.   
It is said that for a man to do anything he must forget many things.   I have always understood that to mean that in order not to become frozen with doubt about the appropriateness of something one must loosen the moral collar and get going.   Or, to avoid a kind of analysis paralysis of getting bogged down with endless considerations one must risk making mistakes by taking an action.  
 
All of that might be true.   But this painting, like all of my paintings really, but in a more rarified way, was about forgetting myself….my ambitions, my intentions, my reasons….and trust that once I was gone, Sean would emerge.   It seems almost magical when put that way…almost as though the Seaness of Sean would waft in on mystical fog lifted by the incantations of singing Tibetan bells or the chants of a devoted monk.   No, in fact it was rather ordinary, but no less beautiful and amazing to behold.  Little by little my efforts gave way to effortlessness and the particulars of the painting arranged themselves in a variety of surprising ways that I myself could not have invented by force of intellectual will.  No, I had to trust that somewhere out there…or in there….Sean exists and would make himself known through the particular arrangement of colors, brush strokes, realistic details and metaphoric suggestions ….but not on this canvas….in our imagination when we look at the painting.  It was an exercise  in forgetting myself and hold space for the arrival of Sean. It is….a tribute….a surrender and a resurrection.  
“Aika”
Oil/panel
48” x 32”
2021
 
Sometimes I choose to do a painting just to challenge my technical skills.  If the piece will look good in my spa or the home of a friend, well, so much the better.  
 
Years ago another artist painted directly onto the skin of this woman.  I photographer her with the idea of doing a painting based on it.    About 12 years later I finally got around to doing it.  And yes, it was challenging.  
 
The results are mostly satisfying.   If I were really disciplined I would have started over and done a second version.  My skills would have tightened a little more.  But alas, I had already devoted days of intense work to an image that for me is little more than eye candy.   Nothing wrong with a little candy.   But candy is not sustenance for the soul.  
 
So one version will have to do.  
“Ruth”
Oil/panel
4’ x 6’
2021
 
Sometimes a painting is just purely fun to paint.  This is the case here.   Ruth only modeled for me for this one piece.   But she was kind and patient and great conversation.  It was a breeze.    My vision for the piece was clear from the beginning and my ambitions for the piece where modest.  I just wanted a sumptuous painting that celebrated her beauty and the beauty of the fabric and casual setting.  
 
There are of course allusions to a grand tradition of reclining female nudes that I am aware of.  Some of the big names are Titian.  Giorgione, Rubens and Monet.   These pieces are often held up as seminal pieces in the unfolding of the Western Canon.  Moments when painting shifted and became something else for a time and making it easier for other artists to refresh their vision and work.    
 
I am aware of all that.   But didn’t really care when I did this piece.  I highly doubt it has anything fundamentally new to offer about how to construct a painting or a new vision of the cosmos.  But I do know I had a lot of fun painting it and almost as much enjoyment looking at it.  

“Jenni’s China Dream”
Oil/Panel
22 x 32″
2021

 

Jenni was a woman from Shang Hai that was referred to me because she wanted to model for an artist.  She had recently received a tattoo from a Chinese friend of mine who is a very talented artist and tattoo artist.  Jenni is a banker by profession, married to a Chinese man, has a 4 year old child and is a very talented craftsperson herself.   I was grateful to have her come to my studio and sit for this portrait and several other pieces before she found a new job and was too busy to be a model.  
 
Jenni’s willingness to sit nude for an artist was mind bending for me.  As an artist trained in the classic western tradition and who spent my formative years in pre modernized China, the idea that a young Chinese woman would understand the value and beauty of this work took me by surprise.  And, the fact that she was referred to me by another young Chinese woman who was doing tattoo art in America and whose father is a mid level Party boss in China was equally if not more mind blowing.  
 
Tattoo art was strictly forbidden until recently and the idea of it being cool and hip was unimaginable just 20 years ago.   That these two women found their way to my obscure art studio in a small city in America to do and get tattoos and pose nude for an artist was a testament to how fast cultures can shift.   
 
The implication is that this is all good.  And moreover, these are the very things that made Western intellectuals and China watchers like myself believe that with enough modernization, free trade and money China would tilt ever more increasingly towards values we cherish so deeply here.   Things like rule of law, suffrage, and the freedom to improve one’s lot through meritorious effort.   And, I would argue, the fact that these two women are here in my studio are proof that this line of thinking is…or was…at least partially true.  
 
However, things have begun to fray and tilt in a direction people like me find deeply unsettling.  On a local level, Jenni talked openly about how her husband’s wealth was confiscated by the ruling party of China, the CCP, because they were heavily involved in the movie industry in China’s “Hollywood” in Shanghai and the movies they produced or backed were deemed threatening to State stability.   Moreover, they had no legal recourse to challenge these moves.  And Eva, the tattoo artist talks about her reluctance to return to China because her work as an artist and tattoo artist would be flat out unaccepted by her family and culture and would be very upsetting to her father and even potentially dangerous to her father’s standing in the Party.  
 
For years, since about the Clinton era, liberal intellectuals in America echoed many Chinese people proclaiming the China Dream, an echo of the American Dream and the unveiled implication that China was on the rise and would even over take America economically and culturally.  
 
But stories like Jenni’s are just the tip of an increasing iceberg that is crashing into the titanic growth that has been China’s rapid rise and may in fact sink many dreams both large and small.   In an ironic twist, the wealthy class of China are doing everything they can to get their kids over seas to western societies even while their leadership is proclaiming ever louder the superiority of the Chinese system.  
 

This painting started out as a conventional portrait.  I wanted to depict some of Jenni’s natural beauty and sweetness.   However, while she sat for me, naturally she told me stories.  And the stories soon entered the painting in the form of an American flag that was then painted over by a Chinese flag.   That was in turn painted over by layers of hazy “pollution” and environmental degradation.  Eventually I slapped a black blob of paint over her mouth to suggest the violent muzzling of freedom of expression and then layers of glossy polyurethane as if to gloss over the whole thing which strangely both pulled it together as a composition and made it seem even a tad tawdry.  

 
Jenni’s China Dream may have turned into an American dream at some point.   She is here…after all.  And doing well.  Pursuing a career in banking. Raising a child.  Owning a home with her husband.  But it’s not that simple.  China haunts her.   She worries about her family and her husband’s family back in Shanghai.  She worries about who may be watching her here.  How far will the surveillance by Chinese agents go.  What hold will they have over her child etc.   
 
The thick cloud of polluted dreams and aspirations threatens to engulf her.  But I’m not worried.  Both Jenni and Eva are resilient women.  Creative, focused and concerned about more than just themselves.  They are, in my view, the very best of human values, values that run deeper than “East” or “West” and they are thriving despite these considerable challenges.   The China Dream and the American Dream are both challenged as never before, not just for legitimacy but for their very existence.  But women like this restore my hope.   Humanity will prevail over even the worst it can throw at itself.

“The Meat House”
Oil/Panel
22 x 16″
2021

I feel compelled to say something thoughtful about this piece.   It’s powerful and evocative to me.     But after thinking about it for some time I still can’t put my finger on it.  I think it’s not so much about what it is, but what it isn’t….yet.   This piece is like a talisman of what and how I might paint more in the future.   Let’s see what happens.