Mythic Figures 1993-1995

“The Coat Check Girl”
80″ x 25″

I painted this when I wanted to be and was actually living like a bohemian modernist. I was living in my studio which was a crude corrugated steal warehouse with no windows and under a gigantic freeway. I was in my early 30’s and finally felt I was living the life I wanted.

Every Thursday night I went to a straight friendly gay dive bar. Thursday was 80’s disco night and drag night. It was as close as I was going to get to Studio 54 in Seattle. It was probably closer in feel to the early days of Montmartre in Paris. Lots of artists hung work there and hung out too. I met people who would change my life.

Part of being an authentic Bohemian, in my mind, was painting the characters that hung out or worked there. In this case I convinced this guy to let me haul an old door into the bar during off hours and paint her from life. I worked fast and in 2 sittings I got the job done.

A few years later I sold it to a straight couple with a nice house in Seattle. They paid me a little extra to deliver the piece to their home since it was the size of a standard door. After I set the piece in the living room we got to chatting about the art. Of course I told them about the Re-Bar and how the painting came to be. And of course I added that the coat check girl was actually a guy. For a moment the air was tense as they had clearly not figured this out on their own. Then the woman burst out laughing saying how she loved the piece even more now.

My only regret is that I sold it. The Re-Bar lived on another 25 years finally ending during the Covid pandemic. During its run it became a major node of Seattle’s vibrant underground culture of live music, drag and gay comedy. It was also a gathering place for many of Seattle’s most colorful Demi Monde. I was fortunate to be there and even more fortunate to have painted the coat check girl and several other prominent characters during its halcyon days in the mid 90’s.

If anybody knows the location of this painting please let me know. I would purchase it back.

48” x 40”

Tamaki was one of the great loves of my life. But this piece is more about my break up with Picasso than with Tamaki. Clearly this piece is a compelling assimilation of Picasso’s crossover work in the late 20’s and 30’s where he was revisiting cubism and combining it with his surrealist style. To be sure I am deploying my own imagery: the flared nostril worm portrait that is Tamaki, the crowd gathering to bear witness, the large eye head and the palette of cerulean blue, black and ochre. But it is still essentially constructed the way Picssso would have done in the early 1930’s.

Around this time I took a large monogram on Picasso and tore it to shreds. I tried burning it in a makeshift fire pit outside my studio but many of the shredded pages floated up in the heat and spread throughout the empty lot around my studio. For years these partially burned pages would reappear like seeds or bones of the guilty dead. But the ritual worked. This was the last derivative painting I did.
Almost overnight my work took a decisive turn and became unmistakably Hengst.

“Jodi Blowing Bubbles”
20″ x 14″

“Gary the Dealer”
24” x24”

Gary was my art dealer for a few years. And it has been my practice for many years to paint portraits of the people in my life from memory. Gary did have a noticeable stigmatism in one eye. But more importantly he had ADHD. He was always wondering from subject to subject at 100 miles an hour. And he was definitely an entertainer.

He was also a con man and offered me my first opportunity to see what that looked like and felt like as I eventually became the victim of his cons. Eventually he stole several of my paintings including this one. If anybody knows of the whereabouts of the painting I am including here please let me know. It is large. 8’ x 4’.

“Gary as Clown”
30” x 24”

I often end up doing portraits of my friends as clowns or Comedia del Arte performers. This is Gary. He was my art dealer from 1993-95 or so. He was not a professional art dealer, but he was fiercely devoted to me and my work. He actually functioned more like a professional assistant. He had worked as a campaign organizer for local politicians. He was gay, well connected and a lot of fun… when he wasn’t drunk. He saw my art as a tool to advance his social position and my studio as a locus for his various political activities. He was a glorious nut.

For these clown paintings my friends don’t formally sit for them. They simply appear in a painting one day and it is obvious to everyone around the studio who it is. The likeness is often striking as it is here. In most of these paintings they have an invented hat and collar and often look like they could have been performers in a Comedia del Arte performance group. They often have a realistic element to them. In this case, Gary’s flesh is painted in the same way I was painting my more realistic work at the time… with thick stiff white paint and a stiff dirty brush. The flesh is not so much painted as carved. 


By the time I painted this painting I had already discovered Lucien Freud’s work, but the speed and the attack were still very much my own. These are paintings of energy and of the moment rather than the meticulous accretion of observations that are the hallmark of Freud’s work. The hat and collar are pure invention. These pieces were done as fun breaks from the rigorous figure painting work I am usually doing.

“Self Portrait as Comedia Del Arte”
30” x 24” Approx.

I think this is what I will look like as an old man. When I paint these “clown” paintings I never know who they are going to be. They are not done from life. They are created from imagination. And usually I don’t have a person in mind when I create them.

Around the same time that I painted this, I did a realistic portrait with the aid of a mirror. In the painting I am wearing a red velvet Harlequin hat like the one in this painting. I suspect I did this as a more fanciful interpretation of the “real” one.

“Ramon and Horse”
48″ x 24″

In 1994 or 1993 I started working with a man named Lewis. He was a nudist and just wanted to hang around my studio being nude. I eventually made many paintings of him and his lover James as well as him alone and with other friends. Lewis was also a very sweet soul and a good writer.

One day he had a dream and in that dream he was gifted a story. When he woke up he wrote the story in one sitting while modeling for me. I loved his story and immediately did a suite of drawings to illustrate it. The story also caught my attention because I had just seen Picasso’s Boy with a Horse at a traveling exhibition at the Seattle Art Museum.

Eventually I did a painting which captures the moment of exultation in the story when Ramone and the horse bond. To me this was a powerful metaphor of a boy becoming a man through integration and acceptance of his deeper self or animal spirit guide.

I gave the painting to Lewis but years later he decided to move to Isreal to explore his Jewish heritage and was downsizing his possessions. And so he gifted the painting back to me. Unfortunately the only copy of the story I had was taped to the back of the painting and that too has gone missing.

So Lewis… if you ever see this website please contact me and send me a copy of the story so that I may enjoy it and add it to the website.

36″ x 24″

Around this time I was pulling together ideas from a variety of sources and was still under the sway of recent standards and expectations in the art world.

I had absorbed as big a bite of the entire arc of modernism as I could, including the abstract expressionists which brought me nearly up to date. I just couldn’t find any place for the pop or post modern irony that followed. And so I set myself with the challenge of being a modernist after abstract art.

But how?

Well, I wanted to bring subject matter back into the painting but not cubist and not surrealist and not expressionistic. I started stacking symbols that had meaning to me. The mythryc eye, the yoni, open circle Enzo and more. These stacks of multicultural symbols also suggested figures or portraits. Some of these experiments were much too cerebral and vapid. But occasionally something worked.

This piece is one of those loose ends I didn’t explore enough. Perhaps now, 30 years later, it’s not too late. So much for the linear idea of an artist’s “progress.” I’ve never accepted that concept anyway.

“Pressure Form Portrait”
30 x 24”

In the early 1990’s I was synthesizing several threads of interest in a way of painting the figure. Abstract expressionism, cubism, realism, and gestural qualities including flying white I absorbed in China.

At various times this process became too cerebral which to me means the degree of thinking cut me off from the mysterious way imagery bubbles up from nowhere in my mind. That flow is nearly constant and mostly incoherent. Hence the need for some rational thinking to make the endless fire house of images and ideas somewhat translatable into works of art.

Here is a piece where everything came together just right. The realism is balanced with the abstract elements. The patches of paint provide compelling energy in their interplay with the lines. The lines themselves have chi. And there is a refreshing spontaneity conveyed in many ways including the loose white unpainted patched of canvas.

And it’s a striking likeness of the woman who inspired it. I don’t remember her name. I only met her twice. A friend of a friend. What struck me about her was her prominent features probably enhanced with makeup, another form of art. In any case, I’m grateful to have had that brief encounter and this painting.

“Break Up”
Oil on panel and various mediums
Various sizes

Perhaps a better title for this piece would be “The Angry Cock.” Whatever it’s called, this piece makes me laugh every time I see it. That was not my intention when I painted it. I was mad and hurt and deeply conflicted. I had just dumped my girlfriend, Tamaki, one of the great loves of my life. The reasons for doing that were Shakespearean in their depth and complexity. And even though I’m the one who initiated it, I was devastated. She had done nothing wrong. It was my own feelings of inadequacy exacerbated by my poverty intertwined with her status as a foreign student who was unable to work due to her legal status and not wanting me to work because she was an art history student who had a deep respect for the artistic process. And that is only one layer to this.

The result was an outpouring of drawings, paintings and sculptures. This section of the website features a few of this little series.

I had recently acquired some old doors that still hadn’t had a hole drilled for the knob. This was painted on one of those doors and as such it is large. That gave me plenty of room to explore this idea of a cock man that is raging mad but flaccid and without arms…unable to do anything or affect any change in his condition. I also used blocks of color and a shifting approach to making marks to create energy and tension.

I wouldn’t say I painted a bunch of these because I liked them. It was more a matter of painting until the anguish exhausted itself. After countless drawings, 50 or so paintings and one sculpture I was ready to paint something else.

Looking back at myself through these works is painful and yet still funny. I was indeed an angry little prick. And given how much I loved Tamaki, I was also a pathetic flaccid powerless flop. It would take a few more years of intense creative work on my art and myself to become the rest of the man that this boneless raging flabbiness depicts. I can laugh now because I’m a completely different kind of prick. Probably just as bad in some way, but definitely not pathetic like this. If I’m lucky in another 30 years I’ll look at myself at this age and hopefully have another good laugh.

28 x 14″

The artist most associated with Surrealism is Salvatore Dali. However, Picasso was also very much a surrealist artist and is considered to be one of the artists most responsible for defining the movement. This piece is an homage to that body of his work. A key difference is that the overall affect of this painting is one of tenderness. He developed and used this visual language to express horror and existential loss and even hostility towards loved ones and outrage about the horrors of war.

Here, there are 2 worm-like creatures intertwined in a kind of embrace. Despite their less than insect like forms, they manage to express some of the depth and complexity of human connection. It is both weird and sweet. It is that contradiction that makes it surreal in a formal definition of the term as it’s used in art speak. But it’s also surreal in the more conventional sense of the word.

But is brushy and expressive. It is not the slick polished presentation of Dali’s work. But the level of finish is not what makes a piece “surreal” or not. Not does a high finish mean it has anything to say.


“Requiem for Aids”
10’ x 20’

Even as I write this short essay in the middle of a worldwide pandemic due to a virus, I have not forgotten the impact that AIDS had on my life. It was devastating to gay men, galvanizing for art culture and reshaped a generation of young people coming of age in the 80’s and early 90’s about sex and promiscuity. It was, without a doubt, the first return to a more careful and calculating notion about sex since the invention of “the pill” in the early 60’s.

I was of that generation. I graduated from college in 1983 and had I been gay I would very likely be dead. I was young and cute and very much looking to become an artist of consequence and that meant moving to the edges of society. But perhaps more insulating than my sexual orientation was the fact that for most of the 80’s I was living in remote parts of China. And by the time I returned and wound up living in Manhattan, there was a very developed understanding about what caused HIV/AIDS and how to prevent it. As it turns out, preventing the spread of HIV was theoretically pretty simple; just wear a condom. That proved to be as difficult for some of my peers as wearing a mask does now. Of course there were other ways to contract it such as sharing needles or having a blood transfusion from someone’s tainted blood. But for me, the risk was sex.

And what made HIV significantly different from the current viral outbreak is that contracting HIV was flat out certain death. And worse, a long slow painful death fraught with shame. The slow deterioration of the flesh was grim and the damage to one’s family, professional and social circle was potentially alienating at best and all out destructive at worst.

Well, the gay community got organized and got to work on many fronts. They quickly realized that as terrible as AIDS was, and as unfortunate as it was that anal sex was perhaps one of the most sure ways to spread the disease, gay men realized that the AIDS epidemic could actually help the larger public come to accept homosexuality. They leveraged the threat of shame and secrecy as being forces that would help spread the disease. And they capitalized on whatever compassion for the sick and wounded they could to win converts to accepting the essential humanity of homosexuals.

All of this became increasingly personal to me as more and more of my friends and associates died from AIDS. In May of 1993 one of colleagues at Seattle University died from AIDS. He was the same age as me.

Up until that point the only social issue that inspired me to create art was the famine that had been going on in Sub-Saharan Africa. My art is often motivated by broader philosophical and cultural trends, but not specific issues or singular events.

But for reasons I still don’t understand, I decided to do a large AIDS painting that I hoped could be used to call even more attention to this already inescapable part of everyday life in the early 1990’s.

So, I began drawing. I decided at some point to make the piece similar to Picasso’s famous anti war painting, “Guernica.” That painting was a large painting meant to be displayed in public to draw attention to the atrocities being wrought by Franco’s alliance with Hitler and specifically the firebombing of the Basque town of Guernica where thousands of civilians were  deliberately killed. I saw what was going on around me as a kind of war on a disease as well as a war on homosexuality and by extension, a war on culture and art.

I decided to make the piece long and thin like Picasso’s and to organize a lot of various particulars and “ideas” around an almost classical geometric design principle. And, I decided to restrict the palate of colors to just black, white, ochre and cerulean blue to keep the piece from becoming even more chaotic than it is.

In the middle is a kind of Pieta where a gay couple struggles to “let go” as one of the partner’s dies. On the left side there is a sailer who has burst in to mutilate a musician whose instrument is scattered in pieces. He also topples a classical statue in the process. This was inspired by an actual current event that happened in Denver that year. A navy man attacked and killed a fellow navy man accusing him of being a homosexual. They were members of the navy band. To me this also represented an attack on art and music and an upending of the principles of civility and restraint represented by the statue. On a personal note, I made the bust of the statue resemble my friend Gary who had just died from AIDS.   

On the right side there is a horse rider who is falling of his horse. This scene was inspired by the Medieval depictions of St. George slaying the dragon. That is a story of easy stereotypes where good is good and evil is evil. Here, though, nothing is certain. The hero has fallen off his stead and his weapon is broken. Here, the weapon is a test tube which was meant to represent science and its failure to save my friends. Eventually it did save some of my friends, but by that time AIDS was 10 years in and there were still no effective treatments and certainly no cure.

There are countless little symbols and historical and art historical references. I have just shared a few to get you started. This website is not the place for a complete analysis or description of this complex piece.

I will say that seeing the piece on a small scale is always disappointing to me. It looks jumbled and formless like a bowl of noodles to me. The overall organizing form of the piece is lost. It’s interesting to me that Picasso’s Guernica does not do this. I saw the original in New York City before it returned to Spain and subsequently I have seen it in reproductions many times. It looks good small. But I must say I was underwhelmed when I saw the original. It’s also interesting to me that Michelangelo’s Last Judgement on the front wall of the Sistine Chapel also does not work on a small scale. It too looks like a pile of rope or a bowl of fettuccini. However, when I visited the Sistine Chapel I was more moved by the wall than the more famous ceiling.

I can’t count the number of times I have unrolled the large Requiem painting with the thought that I would cut it into 3 paintings and possibly discard the middle section. And then, once it was up I could not bring myself to do it. And it is not for lack of fortitude to destroy my own work if I deem it not worthy. I often cannibalize my own work in order to paint over it, to both eliminate a substandard work but also for the convenience of a canvas all primed and ready to paint.

So, for now, it is safely rolled up and stashed in a corner of my studio.

It has been shown on several occasions and to some extent it did its intended job of raising awareness for AIDS. But not really. In the end, I think it was mostly experienced as a painting… moving or beautiful to varying degrees. And now, already, just 30 years later if it is ever exhibited I don’t think it will be experienced as an “AIDS” painting. It will simply be a painting. Maybe it is classism and unabashed allegiances and references to older works of art where the very things that made is less relevant and effective in its day but may keep it worth looking at in the future.   Hard to know. Someday I may unroll it on the floor. Get out my scissors, cut in several pieces and make some new paintings.

But for now, it is safely rolled up and stashed in a corner of my studio.


“Study for a Sculpture”
36” x 24”

My intention was to create a gigantic concrete slab in this shape and then paint it with bright colors.

20” x 8”

“Woman and Child on the Beach
24” x 24”

12” x 8”


I had to find my way back to the figure in the craziest ways. Here I am adding the Yantra geometries of my studies in the art and spiritual practices of East India along with the brush strokes and handling of paint from the abstract expressionists, the paint it and paint over it of Picasso and the conceptual landscapes of my studies in China. That’s all well and good and may even have made a good painting, but all I really wanted was to paint a man.


36″ x 24”
During this time I had already begun painting what would become known as my “figural realism” pieces. But I was still creating a lot of drawings and paintings that I came to refer to as my “mythic figure” paintings. Like this painting they were drawn from my imagination, not from life or photographs. Eventually I would stop making paintings like this but these kinds of figures continue to emerge in my sketches which I am constantly doing almost on a daily basis.  
The figures are often distorted in ways that reveal something about our inner truth. In some ways they are more like poetry than natural speech. Yes, it’s true, no one speaks that way. But the distortions and artistic liberties might reveal something more real than any amount of accrued details or natural speech can achieve. Sometimes these pieces just “work.” They come together just right and can be quite powerful or downright cute.  
Sometimes they just flop. Fortunately I have noticed my worst flops and painted over them. That process became a body of work in itself which I eventually began calling my “white out” pieces. There are quite a few of them so perhaps they will have their own section on this website one day.

“Rape of Europa”
48” x 48”

Around this time I found a big roll of paper in a dumpster. I later realized it was photographer back drop paper. The kind you pull down over a psychloramma to give that pure no edge or corner look that is so popular in modern photography and which was first introduced in the paintings of Edward Manet in the 1850’s.

The paper was a dream to draw on. Large. Soft. And free.

And so I did a series of large drawings exploring the new idiom I had recently evolved using a children’s book type of character but applied to “serious” themes and with an erotic twist.
Because the paper was free and large I experimented with leaving large sections blank. This also created an edge to the work I would not have discovered without all that free space to move around in.

“Grieving Couple”
Various materials including cardboard, panel and linoleum
Various sizes from 12” x 8” to 48” x 48”

The couple are grieving over the loss of their relationship symbolized by the burial of a child or the planting of a seed. The skull obviously represents death but this also suggests that there is more to the death than a child. And they don’t appear to be murderers. The skull is too big and hopefully it’s obviously symbolic. The pear in one of the pieces is also too large to be a real pear.

These are just 3 of many paintings and drawings I did on this set of ideas and compositions that were similar. In some of the compositions the figures are so entwined they form a single unit. In others, they form a kind of linear grid but are nevertheless still integrated into one thing like a web.

These pieces draw on so many influences including Picasso’ late 20’s cubism, Dega’s washer women pastels, early stage computer graphics, Matisse’s large cubist works from the 1910’s and the early pre-abstract work of the abstract expressionists. Somehow I needed to churn through all these influences to get to my own synthesis. You can see the impatience in these works. They are barely finished in any measure of the word. They just barely hang their ideas out to dry.

Like all good work though, whether my own or others’, when I see these I want to paint more. Maybe it’s their hurried barely finished nature that is their strongest aspect. Perhaps that is not what makes them the best aesthetically, but the most useful in that they open the imagination to keep flowing. Ironically the subject is death but the real affect they have on me is one of resurrection and rebirth.

Historical art references for “The Fixer”

“The Fixer”
60 x 36”

This painting was inspired by a poem by my friend Douglas Newton. At some point I will recover the poem and with his permission add it to this website. But it was also inspired by my urge to introduce the figure into my abstract paintings. And so, here I am, painting a figure so nearly abstract except for the lines that define him and the shovel and clod of dirt.

But this painting was also an attempt to reconcile two other concerns that were on my mind at that time and to some degree still are. On the one hand I wanted to feel connected to something grand like the arc of the whole history of art, the merging of East and West and the van garde of artistic development as an expression of democratic freedom. And on the other hand I wanted to be grounded in my authentic place of origin. In other wards I wanted to somehow find a way to think globally but be true to my place.

Two paintings were very much on my mind when I created this. Picasso’s “Boy Leading a Horse” and Grant Wood’s “American Gothic.”

Well, the struggle is noble but I think the painting is evidence that I hadn’t yet figured this out. To make matters worse I sold this piece shortly after I painted it and didn’t get a very good photograph of it. This is an over exposed washed out version of what it looked like. Still, even if the photograph was better, I think it still falls short of my goal.

Later works more successfully integrated these concerns but not long after that I felt free to let the figures become much more singularly present. My concerns for integrating them into an essentially abstract no space dropped away and my figurative work exploded.

“Harvest Abundance”
36” x 60”

Thirty years ago, as of this writing, I had the good fortune of having a mentor and benefactor in the person of my Uncle. Earl was the younger brother of my mother. Since my childhood Earl always took an interest in me perhaps because of the strange tremor I developed after a near death experience at the age of 11 or perhaps because I was just a strange child.

Earl was Dr. Zimmerman. He was not only a neurologist specializing in Alzheimer’s disease, he was also a research doctor committed to science and medicine far and above money and conspicuous success.

To me Earl was the epitome of a dying breed of true scientists who understood that science is creative as well as ordered and that scientific discovery comes to a scientist the way ideas for paintings come to artists … as a gift … and therefore should be shared in a community … a scientific community. Not hoarded and sold for profit. Back in the day, after all, Universities were known as centers for the Arts and Sciences. Not job training centers.

In short, Earl was the living embodiment of a grand tradition of the charismatic and wise genius who not only knew a lot, but held in his very bearing, wisdom that was superior to knowledge and understood the value and importance of creativity. There is a painting in the Philadelphia Museum of Art by Thomas Eakins of a doctor performing a surgery in a medical school surgical theater. Although it was painted in 1875, the doctor in the center of the composition could very well have been Dr. Earl Zimmerman.

Throughout my 20’s Earl grew impatient with my fickle inability to commit myself to art. But by some twist of fate we both landed in the Northwest in the late 1980’s. He was the Chairman of the Neurology Department at Portland’s prestigious medical university and I was at last a full blown bohemian devoted to art and living in a warehouse under a bridge. On the surface our lives could not have been more different. Earl was a major University Chairman and I was broke and only then in my late 20’s ready to steel myself for the hardships inevitable in my choice to devote myself to art.

Earl did not take pity on me. He celebrated my resolve and was no doubt relieved that I had finally stepped up to what he had known all along was my destiny.

And yet, he was troubled and distracted by a tumultuous second marriage. Once that ended and perhaps even more so, once he met and married the love of his life, he was able to invite me into his world in a way that was exactly the right way and the right time.

By now it was the early 1990’s. Earl was married to his third wife and was finally really happy. They bought a gentleman’s farm and moved to the country. I had finally let go of any semblance of a career or even a job and was painting night and day.

And so….I started going down to the farm to rest and recover. Earl and Jody would cook fabulous meals for me and we would work together on projects that were physically demanding but they were outside in the fresh air and we would quit when the sun went down. After a few days of that I would return to my studio cave in Seattle and paint for another 3 months straight.

Earl and Jody started buying paintings from me as well. And hosting shows. Earl even snuck into a gay leather bar one time around this time and bought the best painting in the show my dealer had mounted there. Eventually they also commissioned a painting that would somehow capture the essence of those halcyon days.

Around that time I had invented a number of ways to paint. One them was a kind of cartoony collection of figures I would often depict dancing or celebrating. And so I chose a theme of celebrating an abundant harvest to capture the zeitgeist of the farm.

Fortunately they loved the painting.

Harvest Abundance

Thirty years later Earl’s beloved Jody passed away and he had to find a smaller home. Along the way his assistant at his new University post in Albany New York fell in love with the painting and so Earl gifted it to her.

Now, as I write this citation for this painting Earl is dying. His condition is so frail that I needed to send what I presume to be my last letter to him to Nancy, his assistant, so that she can read it to him. Because of what she read to Earl she realized that I was the artist of her favorite painting. So she sent me this photo of the painting which is a true gift since until then I had no visual record of the piece.

Now, as I look at it here on my computer I am swept back to the gardening, the projects, the meals and the hilarity and fun of those years…so restorative and so crucial to my becoming what Earl always knew was my destiny. I simply could not have become the person and the artist I am and have been these last 30 years without the love and generosity of Earl and his dear sweet Jody.

Thomas Eakins’ painting “The Gross Clinic,” exhibited at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, depicts a surgeon performing in a medical school’s theater. Despite dating back to 1875, the central figure strongly resembles Dr. Earl Zimmerman in character and presence.

48 x 40”

In the 1980’s a young artist rose to prominence very quickly with his iconic signature work inspired by the cultural response to AIDES. And then, before he even reached the age of 30, he died of AIDES. He was Keith Herring and his Art still remains popular in pop culture and still reminds us that pop culture can be high culture. 
Or can it? I wanted to play along. I even like Herring’s work and definitely admire his brief but ambitious career and work ethic.  And I admire and appreciate the important work he did to raise awareness about AIDES and elevate the public’s opinion and acceptance of homosexuality. All very important. But I still wonder if it’s art by my own definition.  
No.  My intuition keeps telling me, no. That is not art.  And while I also would like to say, so what, I do think there is a purpose to making the distinction.  Conflating one thing with another usually diminishes one’s ability to effectively create either.  And art, by some folks definition, rejuvenates the soul.  Increasing awareness, making something terrible feel playful, expanding the acceptance of marginalized groups of people are all worthy endeavors and arguably more important than art.  But that makes them closer to social work than art work.   
I was in the throughs of figuring that all out for myself around that time.  And because of that I played with some of the techniques of pop artists I liked such as Keith Herring.   In fact, I even developed my own cast of characters initiated by his iconic solid outline cartoon character.   And, since I was also developing my relationship to antiquity and mythology, I merged this pop art approach to my own ideas about ancient mythology.  
Here, the figure is described as Prometheus. He is in his moment of ascension as he soars up to the heavens in pursuit of stealing fire for humanity.  Already he is taking the form of a crucifix portending his sacrifice on behalf of humanity hinting at my own belief that the Prometheus story and the story of Christ are essentially the same powerful myth that is built deeply into what makes us human: the urge to risk ourselves for the benefit of others.  
Is my painting art? Hard to say. But that was certainly my intent.  It is definitely not a very good teaching tool for learning about antiquity or Christianity.  No social awareness building going on here.  And no real attempt to make clear my ideas about the archetypal nature of Prometheus or Christ.  Just a drawing with some hints and suggestions and hopefully that certain “je ne sais quoi” that leaves room for it to become art.  By the way, “je ne sais quoi” is French for “I don’t know what.”  It expresses the same difficulty to pinpoint exactly what it is that makes something a work of art.   

The story of Prometheus captivated me for several reasons. The idea of a figure who was half god and half man appealed to my developing ideas about mankind as a combination of animal and god by virtue of consciousness. And that consciousness would therefor almost demand a deep sense of connection to and commitment to the well being of others.

Prometheus is known because he stole fire from the gods, not for himself, but to give to humans. And for his crime he was forced to suffer a punishment for eternity. He was eventually released from his bondage through interesting circumstances but that is another story.

To me, fire represented so many things. Warmth, technology, invention, control over one’s environment, passion, the arts and so much more. What mankind did with it is also interesting. As the gods had foretold, people would misuse and even abuse it creating untold horrors and eventual destruction of the world. Perhaps climate change brought about by excessive use of fossil fuels for endless abuses of fire are the fulfillment of their prophecy.

Here I have placed Prometheus as a kind of messiah uplifted and surrounded by a field of energy. Its clearly a reference to Salvador Dali’s crucified Christ. But hear he is not floating above the earth. He is soaring above or possibly out of a volcano. He is the fire itself.

You can’t see this piece without thinking of Keith Herring, an artist about my age who died of aides in his late 20’s. This piece is a kind of homage to another artist I thought of as a kind of Prometheus. A man who claimed his spiritual power through committing every hour of his short life to bringing as much art and fire into this world as he could. His commitment and passion are still burning inside me. This piece is an homage to his sacrifice.

“Cubism, Rothko and My Own Brand of Symbolism”
48” x 40”

By the time I painted this I had already started painting the nude figures in a realistic mode. Within a year that would take over almost all of my creative energy for years. But here I am at my peak of combining all the things I thought were useful to express the way I conceived the world. The layers and ordering of Rothko’s color field painting elides with the planes of varying degrees of spatial depth that was cubism to me and then there is the symbolism of a single boxed drop hanging over a seated figure full of suggestive meaning. Is it a tear? Is the figure mourning? Is it a last drop of water? Does it represent nourishment? Why is it boxed? Why is it yellow? Is it falling? Is it going to crush the figure? Is the figure melting and is that a male or female figure?

All these opened ended questions are exactly the point. The spatial descriptions are as vague yet solid as the depicted content. It’s a strange piece and one of the last that were done serially from drawings. From then on I would do a piece like this once in awhile but as paintings they would not spring from their successor the way this one does and much of my work during these few years before I turned my attention to figurative realism.


Cubism, Rothko and My Own Brand of Symbolism

“Double Portrait”
20 x 18”

It’s called a double portrait because it’s meant to be seen as 2 overlapping portraits. There is a the silhouette in the back. And on top of that a gruesome horrifying face somewhere between rage and rot.

This piece is unfortunately a “one off.” It’s not even a mini series. As I look back on it from the perspective of 30 years I wish I had done more. There is even a pang of hope that I will revisit this. There seems to be a lot of possibility here.

“Couple with Grave”
“8 x 8”

This painting doesn’t exist anymore. I painted over it. I have included a photo of the painting that now exists on this canvas. It is a stronger more complete painting.

No regrets. But only because I have a picture of it.

This is not a good painting. But is an excellent image of everything that was about to change for me.

This piece was an attempt to sum up everything I had been assimilating from a number of chosen artists and periods of painting. But ultimately it became more of a struggle for where I was going next: reintroducing realistic figural nudes into a “field” that was both abstract and illusory. Symbolic yet informal. Modern in the sense of referring to the art movement from roughly 1870 to 1960. But new. A new kind of figure.

I remember how intensely happy I was with the woman. Her position, her gesture. Her line. Her volumes. Her integration into the field in which she existed. All of it.

And I remember how frustrated I was with the man. He kept looking like a boy no matter how many times I repainted him. I couldn’t get his feet on the ground. His hand on his hip looked forced and unnatural further conveying the figure’s weakness. Furthermore and making matters worse, the more I re-worked the male figure the more he looked like me.

And that was the truth that was being revealed. Here I was, capable of so much and yet even at 31 or so I had still not really embraced my manhood. Somehow I kept portraying myself as an adolescent … a Peter Pan … who just wouldn’t, couldn’t grow up. Or ground myself.

And then it happened. Around that time I challenged my Father to help me come to terms with the physical and mental abuse I endured from him when I was a kid. And in that confrontation I unexpectedly forgave him. And that changed everything.

Within a year I began painting the figure in the bold straightforward way I had wanted but until then could not find the courage to do it. I also took the decisive step of painting over this painting with my new figurative style… a painting of two powerful men in a different kind of struggle.
This time, one of the figures is emphatically me and the man I am struggling with looks conspicuously like my father.

Couple with Grave

“Tuning Fork” 2 Versions
Both are Oil/Paper
“24 x 10” and “36 x 10”

36 x 24”

I decided to portray Sisyphus as a cock and balls character. The myth is about a man who must push a stone to the top of a mountain each day at which point it rolls back down. This could be a story about the futility of work or the boring nature of much of life’s labors. But to me it is a story about the laborious aspect of sexual desire. Each day one must struggle with the urge and if disciplined will use some of that energy to achieve something. There may even be a moment of joy at the summit. Perhaps even an orgasm. But then, each new day brings the burden of desire once again. And the labor starts all over again.

But what about that empty cart?

“Couple with Dead Child”
Oil on board
40″ x 38”

“Beach Couple”
Oil on panel
48″ x 34”

This is a painting of my lover at the time and me jutting my head in from the outside of the painting. This is as much about the deteriorating relationship as it is about my interest in Picasso’s cubist/surrealist crossover works. Tamaki has become a self contained freak chicken monster. And I am barely even in her universe. It looks like I’ve positioned myself safely outside her zone and am peering in for one last look. Seeming to be beaming with glee for having extricated myself.

Not long after i painted this I pulled myself out of the relationship altogether and then the shit eating grin became rage and regret. You can see that in subsequent work on this website. It’s always exciting to think about ending a suffocating relationship until the moment one cuts the cord. Then one must deal with the loss of whatever was good in the connection which is often invisible until it’s gone.

“The End”
24” x24”

Breaking up with Tamaki was one of the most painful acts of my life. This piece conveys the grief and guilt I experienced at that time. Our demise was Shakespearean. We loved each other but the terms and trajectory of our lives meant being together was damaging to her. She was an International student in graduate school. Her visa status meant she could not earn money. She was a graduate student in art history.

I waited over a year to kiss her until her divorce to her Japanese husband was complete. My soul ached for her. We spend 3 years together as I sank deeper into poverty and was unable to support her. She, in turn, as an art history student knew what my commitment to art meant and could not bring herself to pressure me to work. We were in our young 30’s. As the clock ticked the pressure ratcheted up. She was a long way from home and a family that did not condone divorce much less partnering with a white man. My art took me into painting the nude and that challenge was the straw that broke the back of our relationship. It split us up. And I have never been more uncertain of anything in my life.

“Boy Riding Bull”
Oil on 3 door panels
80” x 60”

What the fuck? As in, “what the fuck is this?”

This piece is so bad and yet I can’t get rid of it. I could have not put it on my website. But I think it’s part of the story. Here it is. This big awkward painting. It’s on 3 separate hollow form doors. But it’s not a triptych. It just needed to be wider so I added two sides.

I painted it because I wanted to see one of my drawings blown up into a colorful painting. I can’t find the drawing but when I do I will add it here. I remember how powerful the little line drawing is. And I also remember how disappointed I was with the painting. And yet I couldn’t bring myself to paint over it.

I even sold it once. The buyer bought it for $200. But perhaps it’s telling that he never picked it up. That was 15 years ago so I consider the deal absolved. Never heard from him since and don’t know how to contact him. Weird.

Perhaps I hang on to it because someday I will challenge myself to make something more authentic and interesting. My problem with it in its present condition is that it is neither authentic nor interesting. It’s pretty. But that’s not enough.

“The Large Juggler”
6’ x 4’
By the time I did this painting, my work already appears to have had several distinct chapters. And that has become even more apparent at the time of this writing (2017). These “chapters” seem more chronologically distinct if one does not look at my drawings and graphic work. This piece was one of the main pieces from that chapter of my work that ran from about 1990-1994. However, I continue to draw and sketch in this manner even now. A better way to state my over all work would be that at almost all times I am sketching, drawing, painting and sculpting in a variety of styles and modalities. But for periods of time one style or modality will be the stuff of my more major works.
Before elucidating the particulars of this painting I want to discuss briefly the role that my sketches and the sketches of this kind of painting in particular have played in my life. The easiest aspect to describe is that these “funky figures” (as I have come to refer to them) have provided a kind of visual diary for me. The figures are easy to draw and so allow a free flowing stream of conscious. Often, I myself do not even know what the figures are about until months later. They are often closer to dream figures and dream stories than real life. But what is more compelling is the openness to form manipulations that happen in this type of drawing. There are visual puns, surrealistic distortions, thematic repetitions, and ways of shaping images that reflect the ever changing sense of how an image can be constructed.
At the same time, there has also been a development of vocabulary figure types and mark making as well as pictorial devices for resolving or confounding compositions. I have come to relay on all of these devices like the collective components of a language. In the early 1990’s, I was executing the stream of graphic images I was making into more fully developed paintings. This process of making paintings of these drawings stopped almost completely and almost overnight when I began painting figures in a more realistic manner in 1994. When I did paint one of these funky figures in subsequent years, the paintings seem disingenuous to me, as though they were people trying to be paintings from another era… or like people who have crashed a party. 


At one point in the early 2000’s I made a brief conscious effort to find a fresh way to translate these drawings into a painterly expression. The results were both fresh and very satisfying. I don’t know why I did not continue. When I begin painting again I hope to have a small room devoted to this kind of experimental work.

As for this particular painting, I did hundreds of drawings on the theme of acrobats performing for each other, crowds or children. Here, there is a father type performing for his own child. The theme is a strange projection of my own future fatherhood that was to come 8 years later. At the time I did this painting I had no idea if I would ever have children. When I did eventually have kids I became that acrobat… entertaining and teaching my observant child. Since then this painting has always seemed like a talisman of the interconnectedness of time and its ability to collapse into a single all inclusive point. The very stuff of painting. The impact, pleasure and power of that experience is why I am a painter… not a novelist.

20” x 12”

“Rape of Europa”
10” x 10”

The rape of Europa is a story from Ancient Greece. According to legend Zeus, the King of the gods, seduces a young Phoenician beauty and she has twins as a result. The story continues and the plot thickens of course. But what interested me was the dynamic of the intertwining aspects of beauty and power, sex and seduction and the fact that this became such a frequent theme for Renaissance painters.

One of the more famous paintings from that period is a large painting by Titian, an artist I was fascinated with through my 20’s. These artists often depicted Zeus as a bull and as such there is even an element of bestiality infused in these stories and paintings which to me has always represented sexual extreme or sex devoid of spirituality.

Later, during his surrealism period, Picasso would also explore this theme in drawings and prints in part due to artists of that time being interested in the work of Sigmund Freud and the ideas of the unconscious. Other than that, however, the theme has fallen out of favor and rape has come to be seen as simply an act of aggression, hardly even a sexual act and devoid of the complexities of the interplay between the power of beauty and the power of authority.

I was tiptoeing into that complex territory with these little paintings and drawings. And it is noteworthy that I never painted anything on this theme larger than 12 inches or so. I was unsure of what it all meant. And since I didn’t yet have any authority in any aspect of my life, it was all an intuitive abstract concept. Moreover, suggesting there was more complexity to much of what was lumped under the category of rape was completely out of step with my times…and still is.

But now I have authority in several aspects of my life. I have 2 children. They are grown now and so it’s different than when they were little. But still, there is an implied respect for my role as their father. I also own a business and have employees. And I’m in my 60’s and even in America there is some implied authority when I sit with people more than a decade of so younger than me. In fact, it is the complexity of the kinds and degrees of authority that sets the table for a myriad of different ways in which that comes into play in courtship. This website and this tiny painting is hardly the place to detail all of that. But the point that it is complex, nuanced and different with every situation is an important point and relevant to this piece and why it is so small.

It is interesting to me that I depict Zeus as a deformed bull who seems consumed with guilt and shock at his own actions. But Europa seems to be enjoying herself. There are also twin spirits that appear to be curious or even possibly blessing the moment. Perhaps they are the twins she will give birth to later?

Rape of Europa
Rape of Europa

“Man with Bird”
48” x 40” – 2 Versions

This figure emerged out of a style of drawings I developed around this time. Eventually this figure made his way into my realistic paintings that came on strong about 1995. And then eventually in my performance art in the late 1990’s and 2000’s. I referred to the character as “mud man” at first and then eventually “Eden Mensch” in honor of my German heritage.

This character is already acting as my altar ego. Here, in these 2 paintings he is holding a bird. Is he capturing the bird to kill and eat it? Or is he rescuing it? Trying to protect it? Is the bird a symbolic representation of the man’s creative spirit or his inner female nature? Is he a monster or a gentle giant? Is he Hercules or Shrek?

Shrek is a good analogy. Here is another giant with distorted male features but with a complicated soul and a big heart. But Shrek is no Hercules. His realm is intensely personal and psychological. I’m not sure how, but my character here and even more so in later development, wonders into the realm of universal through ritual and symbolic reference.

Shrek is more Mutant Teenage Ninja Turtle and less Superman.

Still, it’s interesting to me that American late 20th century culture would develop multiple versions of the distorted almost monstrous male figure who nevertheless has good intentions and is even capable of self sacrifice and personal growth.

In these works I hoped to convey the character’s ambivalence. Now that it’s 2023 at the time of me writing this essay and 30 years since I painted these pieces I can’t help but see these works through the issue of climate change. Is the overblown monster male the protagonist in the destruction of our precious earth? And is the bird a stand in for nature itself? About to be inadvertently strangled by a humanity coming to realize it’s murderous actions just a tad too late?

Somehow all this time I stayed away from making art that was issue driven or as emphatically story telling like these cartoon references I made here. I wanted my works to move away from the particular and closer, hopefully, to the universal. In the process I hoped they would be less entertaining and more thought provoking or spark more creative thought and personal reflection. I’m not sure any of that has worked. But I’m absolutely certain that until now it has made them exponentially less seen and rendered them almost non existent. So far …

Photo references to some of my subsequent art:

30″ x 30”
These pieces are hard to define. Are they abstract pieces? Are they figure pieces? Are they landscapes? It’s hard to say. Whatever they are I had around this time came up with the idea of things that were underground. These objects are supposed to suggest items that are buried like sacred objects or planted like seeds.  

“Figure with Bones”

“ESL Couple”
48″ x 34″

My last job was teaching English to International students at Seattle University. In order to keep things interesting and lively I devised some activities involving art…sort of. One such activity involved me calling out body parts. Head … neck … left arm … long nose … etc. After each body part was drawn I would instruct the students to pass their paper to the person on their left, or right or across from them. This tested their English and kept them from getting attached to their drawings. It was also endlessly entertaining.

At some point I asked the students to pick a couple of favorites that they would enjoy seeing me turn into paintings. Eventually I made 20 or so of these and displayed them in a cafe on campus. We had a big party and sold most of them for $20 a piece. I used the money for the party.

The random inventiveness of the forms really appealed to me. And I’m very glad I still have these two.

“Ghost Runner”
Acrylic on burlap coffee sack
24” x 36”
Around this time I became interested in painting on found surfaces just to see what the various textures would yield. I was also painting at a furious pace and had very little money. I remember going to places like Costco and rounding up dozens of large pieces of cardboard to paint on. I would troll alleys for pieces of abandoned plywood and frame stores for scraps of matting that is used for picture framing. I needed tons of material to feed my painting frenzy.
I think what was driving this insatiable urge was a build up of a few years of not doing much art between about 1991 and 92. I was working at Seattle University and getting a masters degree in educational administration there at the same time. I did some art during those years, but not like what was to come from 1992 on.
I also had the misfortune of needing to move my art studio several times during this period. For a year or so in 1991 to 1992 I had a small but wonderful studio at 8th Avenue and Virginia Avenue right in downtown Seattle. It was in an old building that had several floors of clothing sweatshops. The businesses were all in decline and the building was slated to be torn down and the city courthouse was built in its place years later. It was in this little space that my true creative energies were born.
At that time I met Doug Newton. Doug was a poet, writer and musician. He would hang out in my studio for days writing poetry, stories and working on music. He also began writing poems in response to my paintings. And in turn, I started doing drawings in response to his poems. He was a keen observer of my work and a great source of encouragement and camaraderie. After a short stay at eighth Avenue and Virginia I moved to a space in Eastlake that would become my studio for the next 20 years. It was in this little space that my true creative energies were born. And the positive affect that the stability and affordability had on my ability to develop as an artist can not be over stated. 
It was early in this new space that I got the idea of painting on burlap sacks. Seattle had several coffee companies that we’re growing rapidly at that time, most notably Starbucks. I knew that their coffee came in big burlap sacks and heard from someone that they gave them away down at their factory. I went and indeed they did. I collected many bags on more than one occasion. Eventually they closed this charitable function of their business.
Around that same time I developed this reductive figure style which I called “funky figures“ and which  Doug called “gigantism.“
In any case, these figures became staples of my drawing vocabulary. They were also like characters in a novel. They began to have a life of their own inside my head. I would also draw them over and over again, anxious to see how dozens of variations both big and small would affect their expressions and their stories. 
These figures also became the subjects of many paintings at this time.   
Eventually I developed a style of painting figures that was more realistic, but these “mythic” or “funky figures” continue to play out in my drawing and doodles now almost 30 years later.  

30″ x 24”
Around this time I designed this figure who appears frequently dancing and holding a bowl full of fruit over his head. I did these to both celebrate the moments of prosperity I enjoyed and to invoke more prosperity. It was my feeling that by drawing and painting this image I could invoke more prosperity. I don’t think it was effective in invoking fiscal prosperity but it definitely woke an era of unprecedented creative output for me which continues to this day. 

“The Juggler Paintings”
Oil on Canvas and Panel
Various sizes
I have often been fascinated by the visual and metaphorical aspects of juggling. The basic idea is so straightforward and simple. Somebody has a little nack… a little trick that they do which captivates an audience just long enough for them to be mildly amused, maybe drop a few coins in a hat and then move along. A few may actually reflect on the larger meanings of the little schtick… most will not.  
Even though painting is in some ways the polar opposite of juggling I have often thought about the similarities that are on a deeper level. The juggler hones his craft with countless repetitions alone in his garret. Then, for brief moments he captures and captivates his audience with a little show on the street.  
The artist too must work away in his studio preparing his paintings for an exhibit. If he is lucky the gallery that hosts the show will drum up a little crowd who will come mostly for the party and the libations. With a little luck he may have an audience that actually looks at the paintings for a few moments. And maybe one a rare occasion, someone will want to purchase a piece… but not without much haggling over the price.