Mythic Figures

“Acid Rain”
Oil/Canvas 
16″ x 20″
2021

“All That Was Left”
Oil/Panel
20 x 36″
2021

Oil/Panel
24″ x 18″/24″ x 18″
2021

This piece was tossed off one evening in the studio in the company of a friend who was working on her own painting. Early in the evening we had talked a little about a relationship I was in with a woman that was unique, at least for me. It was a platonic relationship in that we didn’t sleep together nor were there aspirations of falling in love one day. And yet, we were tender and even a little intimate with each other. We shared nearly every nuance of day to day thoughts and feelings and we kissed and held hands when we greeted each other and departed. For most of Covid we met up nearly every day for at least an hour over lunch or coffee. Earlier we would often meet for dinner and then go for a walk or make art together. Our talks were animated and insightful.

And yet… it had to end. Covid held us together in its peculiar cocoon. She received a vaccine early due to a professional connection. Almost immediately after the first shot our relationship began to cleave open. We questioned what it was with increasing frequency and depth until at last with the silence afforded by smooth clarity it settled into a more conventional friendship.  

Like my abstract work, I didn’t sit down with the intention of making a piece of art about my relationship or how it moved from one state to another. But, wow, this piece is as clear as a photograph the unseen truth of what it is everything that matters and nothing of what is. 

“Portrait of a Friend”
Oil on board
30” x 18”
2020

This piece is actually oil paint applied over charcoal and pastel. The charcoal and pastel were done in 1982 when I was an undergraduate student at Penn State. I never liked the piece but could not bring myself to throw it away.

During the COVID 19 pandemic summer of 2020 I had a lot of time to develop this website. That meant going back through old paintings and drawings and photography them. It also meant deciding what was worth keeping and what was not. During that summer I had a lot fires after the sun went down in my fire pit. Not only were the fires a great way to take my mind off the pandemic but they were a fun way to get rid of a lot of bad art.
 
This piece was about to get tossed on the fire one night when I realized how to make it better…..putting a big swath of thin black paint over the whole face.
 
Once that was done I realized it was important for me to keep this piece for another reason. It was the first time I painted a portrait and left so much of the surface blank beneath the figure. This large field of “empty space” works as a counterpoint to the intense detail of the portrait and is one of the reasons the piece is fresh and dynamic as opposed to predictable and cliche. I went on to use this technique for deliberately and with much more awareness in paintings many years later and even to this day. 

“Buddha”
Oil on panel
18” x 12”
2020

This is a small painting. It is only about 12” tall. Sometimes I wonder why bother making a small painting. Most of what I want to achieve by painting I don’t think I have every experienced in front of a small painting anywhere ever, not even in front of an exquisite small Vermeer painting in a world class art museum. Usually I am hoping the viewer will experience a kind of full body moment of aesthetic arrest in front of my work; a kind of speechless moment that transcends time, thought and even space. I’m being a little bombastic here, of course. But not entirely.

Most of my paintings are big and their size usually creates, at the very least, a moment of surprise, a close cousin of aesthetic arrest. Anything less than that begins to feel decorative to me. And while there is nothing inferior about decorative, it’s not what motivates me to paint. In fact, I pride myself on being rather good at decorating. But I prefer to do my decorating with furniture selection, color choices and the well placed house plant. These considerations can work to create a pleasing space and experience in that space, but that is not art. Art is something that restores the soul and nourishes or reconnects us with spirit. There are many ways to achieve that and aesthetic arrest is one of them.

Nevertheless, ever since I painted this piece sometime during the summer of 2020 I nailed it to a narrow wall between the door to my bathroom and the door to my workshop. It barely fits. I pass it several times a day and I still see something fresh and different in it each time I pass. Moreover, it reminds me of the ways in which thought and sight can obfuscate each other and that can be a source of delight.

So, no, no great moments of enlightenment on my way to take a piss. But it does remind me that little paintings have their place, and that isn’t just on those narrow walls near the bathroom. And so, among these great insights about the nature of consciousness, perception and thought, I often think I should do more small paintings each time I see this illusive 300 pound Buddha on a little 12” x 8” place mat I lifted from a local Chinese restaurant.

I really should do more small paintings.

“The Break Up”
Oil on panel
28” x 12”
2020

This small painting is a painted version of a page from one of my journals.  

It incorporates many of the layering of images that are part of the visual vocabulary I developed over the years.  And while I suppose it would be possible to decode this piece in order to discover what it means, I think that would be a waste of time.  
 
The hope is to have it trigger some thoughts about your own relationships

“I-5 Self Portrait”
Oil on panel
14” x 11”
2020

This is a nearly unaltered fragment that I cut out of a much larger painting that I did in 1998 or so.   I am not sure when I did the original piece.  In any case, after many years I finally had a space big enough to display the whole thing.  It was 4’ tall and 32’ long.   And I hated it.   

However, there were pieces that I loved.   So I cut those out. 

This piece features a symbol that is a kind of magic symbol that represents both me and the space I occupied during that time under the Interstate Highway that runs through Seattle: I-5.   It also incorporates a little of my family name in Chinese.   This symbol is as close as I got to a tag like a graffiti artist would have to leave their mark wherever they go, with adolescent splash of excitement and the thrill of getting caught.   

To me a tag is the artistic equivalent of a dog marking its territory with piss.   Here, I am marking my own territory, the canvas.   But also, by extension, the space it represents under the freeway.   The whole process made the space my own in a spiritual sense which was more real to me than the psychological space that graffitis tags on walls attempt to achieve.   

Try as I might I can’t avoid the whiff of narcissism of almost all graffiti that I see.  My favorite graffiti moments are ones where the cacophony and din of so many voices crying out in the simple Yelp of “look at me…look at me” are covered and layered in an accidental crust of echoed haste.   

Perhaps this painting is my own echo chamber.  Here I am in my swanky spacious space that I pretend to own through a lease and regular payments chopping up old work and appropriating it with little more than a table saw and a signature.  Maybe it’s not narcissism.

“Beach Hut”
Oil on panel
12” x 12”
2020

The beach hut is an actual hut on the beach at my friend’s property in Hawaii.   The hut was imported from Indonesia and put back together on the lava flow that cut a swath 50 yards wide along the jungle creating new land that is now about 50 years old.  The hut has been a sanctuary and a studio for me over the years.  On various visits I also helped with repairs and upgrades where I learned a lot about managing a vacation property in Hawaii in the process.  

 
I will probably return to this magical place at the end of the road in one of the most remote places in the United States.   And I will probably rediscover a place within myself of grace and give my body a chance to recover from the endless waves of challenges I continue to capitulate myself into even as I enter my seventh decade.   

“Midlife Review”
Oil on panel
48” x 44”
2020

“Portrait of Gio?”
Oil on panel
30” x 20”
2020

This painting was not done with a model and without anyone particular in mind. However, it ended up looking so much like the my friend that it just made sense to call it “Gio.” The process is worth noting. I painted and repainted the face several times in the same sitting until it arrived at the current state. The result has a sketchy chimera like quality. It looks realistic but also still like a sketch. The hope is to convey something of the individual’s inner thoughts in the way it holds together, as well as if not more so than the expression on his face.

“Relationships”
Oil on plywood
36” x 18”
2020

This painting was inspired by a sketch I did around this time in one the sketch books I carry with me nearly everywhere I go. This way of creating figures and putting together an image is very satisfying and allows me to explore ideas in a way that would be difficult and more time consuming with more formal approaches.

Collectively these images form a kind of intuitive diary. In this case I’m pretty sure this is a self portrait overlain with the face of the woman I was dating at that time.  Clearly some kind of relationship was developing, but would it be romantic, sexual or cerebral or some combination of all of those.

These drawings are rarely didactic but more commonly express the nuanced and unclear way in which thoughts and feelings elide and develop.

“Integrity: The Intersection of Money, Sex, Desire, and Relationship”
Oil/Panels
24″ x 24″
2019
 

In March of 2018 the Seattle police department conducted a very carefully prepared “sting” operation to ostensibly catch and prosecute a nasty ring of people, mostly Chinese nationals, trafficking women (mostly Chinese women) into the sex industry.   The intentions were good and they did have some success at identifying and arresting a few people who may or may not have been guilty of sex trafficking but were clearly guilty of unfair labor practices and just plain old bullying.  You see, the problem was that most of the “girls” were actually in their 40’s and 50’s, liked what they were doing, loved the money and certainly didn’t want to return to China where they had been doing pretty much the same thing under even worse conditions and for a lot less money.   What they wanted was to be franchised….empowered….not arrested or shamed for what they were doing.  

What most of them were allegedly doing was providing massage and manual sexual touch for mostly male clientele.   (Massage with a hand job or what is jokingly referred to as a “happy ending.”) One particular rub ( yes, the pun is intended) was that almost without exception these women did not have a massage license.   

In a nutshell, their bosses required that the women be at the shop at all hours even sleeping in the massage rooms.  However, they were only paid when they did a “massage.” And they were told if they stepped out of line they could be turned over to authorities and deported.     Even with these harsh conditions, the women were able to send a lot of money home each month or amass quite a sum to be used as investments for their later years.    

What the specially hired Mandarin speaking rescue teams discovered that what these women mostly wanted was support to get their own business licenses so that they did not need to cower under their bosses.   And the opportunity to take the Washington State massage license test in Mandarin.   It is currently offered in English, Spanish and Vietnamese.   Why it is not offered in Mandarin was further proof to these women that they needed to operate in the shadows.  

Well…to somebody’s credit, the nasty bosses were arrested and levied with nasty fines.  And the women who were on the front line were given support, offered the opportunity to return to China but not deported and released without any criminal consequence or having their visas revoked.  

I know a bit more than the average person about this because I speak Mandarin well, know a lot of people in Chinatown and had been dating a Chinese woman for a few months when this all happened.   And, it turned out that she was one of those women….sort of.   She and her sister had in fact been recruited to come to America a year before under these auspices.  However, being smart ladies and a bit older (49 and 51 at that time) they had already partially figured out how to emancipate themselves.   By the time we were dating they had already opened their own shop with the help of a friend of mine….a Chinese woman who has her own legitimate foot massage shop in Chinatown.   

My girlfriend was terrified by this experience at first.   However, it became more clear to her and others in the industry that if they were careful they might be able to continue to do what they wanted and that there might now be more freedom and support to claim more for themselves.   I helped my girlfriend get her own business license and open bank accounts to separate her personal money from her shop’s money.   I also helped her establish a firm understanding of the various taxes she would be responsible for and got her set up with a bookkeeper and tax accountant.  Eventually her sister got married and the massage shop became entirely her own.  She could make her own hours and decline customers as she saw fit.   

What she continued to lack was a massage license.   I helped her as much as I could but she spoke little or no English.   At 49 it was not likely she was going to to learn much and certainly not enough to pass a professional licensing exam.   To help her I used Google translate to translate a sample test for her.   This took about 30 minutes and cost exactly nothing.  It did make me wonder why the State does not offer the test in Mandarin.   It would cost almost nothing to do so and would offer a path of legitimacy to many woman.   

But that is really only the beginning of this story.   What is infinitely more difficult to report but so much more interesting is the complex inner workings of sexual desire, money, empowerment, fatigue and the simple need for human touch just to name a few.   As her boyfriend who speaks Mandarin I saw deeper into this world than most people could, even more than regular customers.   I was there at the dinner conversations as complaints and frustrations were discussed.  I was there to see my girlfriend slowly and painfully peel the invisible mask she wore for protection off her face and see her body melt into exhaustion and authenticity each night….a process that took almost 2 hours and was also exhausting to me.  
And I watched her carefully navigate the relationship with her college age son as he became increasingly aware of what his mother was doing to pay for his college education here in America.   

So much unspoken sacrifice.   So much secrecy and shame.   So much glum pride and nerve wracking fear.  Not to mention the soul wrenching aspect of the work itself.   It was a wonder to me that this woman could get out of bed each morning.   And yet she did.  Cheerfully.  

But then there was me….a man with my own needs and concerns….for my safety…my reputation….my future.  What was I doing after all?   I am too wise to engage in a rescue mission and yet too compassionate to not at least offer and do something.  And so each day was an exercise in thoughtfulness and restraint.  I spent most of my time with her son actually.   We did a language exchange almost every morning over coffee.  I hired him on my remodeling crew.   We took hikes and went kayaking together.  He and I became actual friends.   I really enjoyed our time and knew that was perhaps the most meaningful and least controversial way I could support my girlfriend…his mother 

But despite all her fortitude and my gracious intentions the vice grip of all these conflicting forces squeezed my girlfriend so far from her integrity and subsequently mine as well….that it had to end.    My mother died in early December of 2019.  And within days of her passing I know this relationship had to pass as well.   And so I leaned into the shock and grief of the loss of my mother to capitulate the final end of a relationship that had in fact already really ended months before.  

During the period of our relationship I filled many sketch books with drawings that were essentially a visual diary of all of this.   Occasionally these drawings would become paintings like the 2 featured here.  They are chalked full of overlapping symbols such as the tree of life, the dollar sign, snakes, skulls and lascivious silhouettes.    It would be hard to say what any of these paintings means.   They don’t read like a novel or short story.  Instead they read like a dream.   Things overlap and merge in seemingly illogical or unrealistic ways and yet seem to convey a poetic truth more powerful and more real than the accretion of facts I wrote about in the preceding paragraphs.   

Whenever I look back on paintings that come out of times like this I always wish I had done more.  And so it is again.   To be sure there are more than 2 paintings of all this, but there are clearly not enough.      Meanwhile, my former girlfriend and her son and all the others that have gotten caught up in various messes continue to muddle forward….like we all do trying to find a way to balance the conflicting forces that threaten the best of our intentions and sometimes squeeze to the surface some of the worst.   

These paintings are like that….rich and full and ….beautiful in some sense.   But also deliberately and gloriously ugly….like a pimple that has finally come to a head…..and in its own little way….popped.

“Choices”
Oil/Panel
16″ x 12″
2016