“Lulu at 18”
6’ x 4’
Pam sat naked for me 23 years ago. Her husband sat nearby, fully clothed. Not because he was afraid to reveal his naked body to me. No, he was busy managing the space heater, blow dryer and bathrobe to keep Pam warm in my freezing studio while I spent more than a decent amount of time running up and down a tall ladder trying to get the lighting just right and scrambling around on the floor trying to get the fabric arranged with a balance of quaffe and non chalance.
Eventually I got the shot. Developed the film and then let it percolate for nearly 2 and a half decades.
In November, I went back East to pay an overdue visit to my Father in Pennsylvania. He is 92 at the time of this writing and gloriously in good health. In fact, in such good health I found him taking stock of what amount of time he reasonably had left and what could he do with his newest chapter in life and a fresh set of limitations, to a degree that was downright startlingly. I realized I was, as I near my 62nd birthday, doing that same thing with a tad too much urgency. The urgency was laid to shame by my Father’s advanced years and superior free spirit.
On the way home I flew out of DC. Of course I stopped by the National Gallery for a few days and spent most of it in front of one painting: a self portrait by Rembrandt. Even though he did many self portraits, I always think of it as “the self portrait” because of how quiet and mesmerizing it is. The rest of the time, I stood in front of the Ingre portrait of “Madame Moitessier”.
Around the time I did the photos of Pam I was painting at a very high level of realism. My work was confident. Rugged. Real, in the way that clods of dirt on your boots indicate at least the presumption of “real” work.
But I wanted my painting to be tender and vulnerable. Pam is not a woman I am seeking to seduce or possess even with my vision. In fact, I don’t remember her last name and with 23 years since the photo shoot, I would not have any idea about how to find her even if I wanted to. All I have of her, is the carefully crafted little arty photo I took. One respectable photo out of 2 rolls of film.
In fact, I built up her flesh lick by lick of my tiny brushes in the hopes of making a painting of vulnerability that only coincidentally was a young naked woman. I recognize the risk that even if I achieved by aim, others with less elevated sensibilities might get stuck simply objectifying her. And unlike a real woman who could, at least theoretically, move away from such objectification, this Pam was stuck here, immobile and captured in the frame. Frozen by even the best of intentions.
But is that so different from life. How often have I moved from aesthetic arrest to lust and then back again while gazing at my lover. And in the intimate setting of the embrace of a lover, would anything less than that be ideal?
But a painting, for all to see, in a public setting….is that a setting for such a dialog? Can elevation through the flesh and the voyeur’s gaze happen like that? And if so, could I remain so pure in my intent to bring to completion such a work?
I can’t answer that any more than I can declare my own naked body capable of inspiring that kind of gaze.
But I can die trying.
And if I have a decent set of my Dad’s genes and frisky disposition, I may have 30 plus years to get it right.
“The Cock, the Wing and the Glove”
Every Monday night I host “Art Night.” It’s a free-for-all open house for artists to come and do their thing. Paint, sculpt and draw. But they also costume and pose, hold court and perform. There are also musicians singing and playing jazz. Some people set up singing bowls and gongs in another space and trip out with people lying on the floor. There is an aerialist who is generous with her energy and time. And writers working on something quietly with laptop or notepads. It’s free and I also provide snacks and some beverages. I only ask that people drink with moderation, don’t do any drugs…not even pot….and no sex.
There are usually 10-20 people here every Monday night. It’s fun and even though I am the host, I manage to paint some decent work.
This piece was created entirely at Art Night over the course of 3 weeks. The subject is a new friend that has re-awakened my interest in spirit work that has been such an important part of my personal and professional life since first learning about Rudolf Steiner in my undergraduate days.
Jule’s passion and knowledge and commitment to spirit through his life and art are infectious. This piece was initiated in a conversation about the Egyptian Fertility god Min and the complex poly relationship with the god of war, Reshep and the goddess of nature, beauty and sexual pleasure, Qedesh. Jules has the ability to translate these ancient stories of deities into terms that make sense to present day culture and individuals’ journey in life. At Art Night Jules is usually “holding court” delighting all of us with his knowledge but more importantly with his insights about the relevancy of these stories to our own individual stories.
And some nights he does all of this in costumes inspired by how his personal journey is informed by these connections to spirit. And that is how this painting came to be. The corset, mask and thigh highs were the costume. The emblematic penis was the conversation and the wing was pure intuition and inspiration.
I painted this piece over the course of 3 Monday Art Nights. During those same weeks I did the painting of “Pam”. The 2 paintings came about in almost polar opposite approaches to making art. “Pam” was from a carefully prepared photo shoot 25 years ago. This piece was done from life and a small Instagram photo that I didn’t take and was heavily altered for affect by Jules. “Pam” took over 100 hours to paint and is quiet, serene and looks back to classical tradition. This piece was completed in less than 6 hours and vibrates with restless energy. It certainly fits in the European tradition but doesn’t deliberately look back to those traditions.
Earlier in my life I may have felt compelled to declare one painting and it’s approach to art more valid or “important” than the other. Gloriously, I don’t give a damn about any of that now. And in fact, I think these pieces are enhanced by being next to each other…stretching me to embrace an ever wider universe of possibility as an artist and as a viewer.
Thank you Pam, who I haven’t seen since the day I did the shoot almost 25 years ago. And thank you Jules who I have the pleasure and the privilege of having in my studio almost every Monday.
“Elephant On Ice”
8’ x 5.5’
The creative process is a perennial source of fascination for nearly everyone. Those that are not involved intentionally in some kind of creative work are just as much if not more fascinated as artists and “creative types.” The reason, I suppose, is that it is almost by necessity, a mystery. If you look directly at it, it doesn’t exist. And yet, I wonder if it has as much to do with the importance of forgetting.
As a culture we are so focused on memory. Our computers are considered more powerful if they have more memory. We are obsessed with memory related diseases such as Alzheimer’s and even speculate that time is a construct built on memory. All very interesting. But what if creativity also had something to do with forgetting? And yet, to forget you must first know something.
We have all seen photos of polar bears standing on a piece of ice. Usually the photos are used to illustrate an article about global warming and climate change. I don’t think Polar bears are in danger of extinction at this moment, but they are definitely suffering as a result of climate change.
Elephants too are at risk due to climate change, habitat reduction and an insatiable desire for trophies.
One day I was having a Thai beer in Thailand. The label on the bottle features a stylized elephant. Elephants are highly revered in Thailand and appear in pop culture imagery as well. So it wasn’t weird that I was thinking about elephants in Thailand.
But why did I think of a painting that would feature an elephant on a piece of ice in the arctic? It’s a simple reversal of the obvious: a painting of a polar bear on ice. Did I momentarily forget about polar bears? I’m not sure, but my next idea is more of a calculation: a beluga whale on a dried out river bead in a desert. It’s still an “idea.” But less creative than the elephant. Now the “forgetting” is colored with “calculating.” And so it goes until I have done a dozen or so of these and I forget why I am doing them. There is no creativity left and I am just a machine churning out clever paintings of animals in unlikely habitats. Heck, I bet if I were to persist, I could even make a career of churning out these paintings.
And then, if I’m lucky, that sacred act of forgetting will conspire with the great mysteries and produce something completely new.
The elephant is a symbol of hope. His cousins did go extinct on a block of ice. Ten thousand years ago woolly mammoths roomed the northern parts of the planet until it warmed up enough so that the habitat suited to them disappeared and so did they. Something new was created, the elephant.
I would like to save elephants as much as the most awakened of the woke. And doing everything we can to save them is no doubt the right thing to do. It is where we should put out efforts. Preserving something is the realm of effort.
But I wonder if what will really save the elephants is born of a creative breakthrough: a mixture of some unknowable mysteries with a dash of plain ole forgetting.
“Coyote and his Muse”
8’ x 5.5’
It is a common place to say that things don’t always turn out as we intended. But I think what we often mean to say is that things don’t impact us the way we thought they would. I thought doing this painting would be a huge relief. In the way that setting down a heavy burden after carrying it for a long time would be a relief when one finally got the opportunity to set it down. Strangely, now that it’s done, I feel an uncomfortable agitated emptiness.
I am no stranger to carrying unrealized ambitions for so long the weight of the scheming and planning becomes so baked into who I am that I feel like an amputation has been performed when the sought after goal is at long last attained. That’s not it. And I know about that peculiar depression women feel after giving birth. Obviously I have never experienced that but I have experienced a temporary unmitigated depression after completing an arduous goal. Not it.
Instead, I feel like it’s coming from something else more personal and less about the scale of the project. Frankly, it was pretty easy. Oh yes, there were a few days where I was a bit overwhelmed with the size of the painting and the need to have the anatomy and body language just so. Moreover, paintings inspired by such great photographs present their own challenge; that the painting be more compelling than the photo. But I overcame all of that pretty easily and at some point visitors to my studio became more interested in the painting than the photos. In fact the photos laying around became more of an, “oh yeah” moment when they saw them on my painting bench but then quickly turned their gaze back to the painting. A clear sign that the painting was doing more for them than the photo.
This painting started when I took the photos 18 years ago. At that time I was a man in my mid forties. I was recently divorced and surrounding myself with a whole troupe of characters; artists, poets, aerialists, dancers, musicians, actors and hangers on of all shapes, ages and sizes. I was the eye of this hurricane of energy in more ways than one. And it drew in people towards my center with increasing voracity. The pics for this painting were taken when this storm was just beginning to gather it’s force.
I rode that storm hard for the next 8 years. And then, like all big storms….it blew itself out. I moved on. I built a business and now pay my bills with money instead of good will and charisma. And more to the point…I am now a few months away from being in my mid 60’s.
Doing this painting drove home to me that I too must do the work that Coyote so beautifully exemplifies in this painting. His muse is no longer an object of his desire, she is the embodiment of it. His poetry is driven by his ability to surrender to that spirit not by his ability to possess it nor even by his ability to heroically sublimate his desire for it.
Coyote has become the buffoon and the sage: The old Pryapis who lusts for the young woman beyond the reach of his years and with whom he would not be able to perform even if she were to let him and yet who wisely surrenders to desire itself as a vehicle for loosening his poetic tongue. Eric, the horny old man, becomes Coyote the poet. His surrendering to desire becomes his power to speak the truth that lingers just out of reach for the rest of us still entangled in the veil of youth.
The painting was easy. But it set in train the work that my friend so beautifully laid bare for me to see. The hard part will be for me to let go of “drive” as a way that I have seen myself and felt made me special. I have been known as the guy who gets shit done. And I rather liked that. Now, doing this painting and in the process bringing my friends’ and this particular dynamic to light, I am faced with having to become “the guy who surrenders.” Eric…..and his muse, Alexis, are here to remind me that there is more to this whole surrendering thing than just surrendering. Perhaps, if I am brave enough to truly surrender as Eric did I will be “the one who surrenders and sees great things that we can not.”
I am a painter after all. Not a poet.
The great painting is done. And I suppose I do feel some relief. But frankly, it’s made me painfully aware that my real work has just begun.
24” x 24”
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.
20” x 20”
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.
“Portrait from Life: Jenni”
24” x 24”
“Portrait from Life: Peter”
24” x 24”
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.
“Jenni’s China Dream”
22 x 32″
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.
“The Meat House”
22 x 16″