24″ x 18″/24″ x 18″
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”
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.
Oil on panel
18” x 12”
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”
This small painting is a painted version of a page from one of my journals.
“I-5 Self Portrait”
Oil on panel
14” x 11”
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.
Oil on panel
12” x 12”
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.
Oil on panel
48” x 44”
“Portrait of Gio?”
Oil on panel
30” x 20”
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.
Oil on plywood
36” x 18”
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.
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.
“Yo-yo with Cat”
48” x 32”
Oil on panel and canvas
30” x 24” and various sizes
These are all paintings inspired by my friends around this time. None of them is an attempt to recreate their likeness. But all of the paintings do have something of the spirit who inspired them. However, that is only a coincidence.
My intent was to use my friend’s presence in my life to inspire my explorations of how I wanted to make paintings at that particular time. Portraits are easy for me. So they are a perfect subject to run my experiments on.
You see that each of these portraits a completely different way of constructing a painting. I would create these pieces and then leave them around the studio as markers for where I was going with my work. Some where done from life and others where done while I was alone in the studio reflecting on my friend and exploring a new way to make a painting.
The painting with the bright orange background was done of a person I did know very well at a salon I hosted every Tuesday night at my studio from 2010-2012. It was a mixed bag of artists and musicians and hangers on. I didn’t know this guy with the pony tail very well. But I liked him and I have always enjoyed this painting.
“Dream of Yudelka”
24” x 18”
Artists are often obsessed with their own studios. And I guess I am no exception. My studios have been my home as well as my place to conjure and make art. But whether I live in my studio or not, the studio is the place where I feel most at home. Or perhaps it’s better to say where I feel most meaningful.
Oil on panel
24” x 48”
Oil on panel
48” x 24”
This piece was done shortly after my girlfriend had inadvertently revealed was she was having a sexual relationship with another man. I won’t describe it as cheating, per se, because we were in an open relationship. Both of us had other lovers and were open about it. However, we told each other about those connections and even laughed at each other’s trials and tribulations. The implication was that these were all relatively superficial connections.
My girlfriend had warned me that the medication she took as part of her health regimen to mitigate her anxiety and help her sleep would sometimes produce a narcoleptic state where she would appear awake but was in fact asleep. Well, it happened one night. After preparing for bed we got to talking at the kitchen table. At some point it was apparent that she was not entirely awake or aware of her surroundings but was sitting at the table talking… to me. Except that to her I was somebody else. And his name did not match with any of the men she told me she had been with. I asked her some questions about Jeff in order to explore this strange rabbit hole that had opened. It became apparent that she no longer wanted to be involved with Jeff and that she was not sure how to bring that relationship to a close.
After that I helped her into bed. Got dressed and went home. The following day I ended things in as civilized a manner as I could and then went to my studio and painted this. I also created a multi panel piece which you can see in the cabinet section of this website. That piece is entitled “Ambien Daze” in honor of the medication that had loosened her tongue.
Oil on panel
48” x 38”
Oil and ink on various materials
“Melinda, Jeff, Sam and Lulu”
Oil on panel/canvas
“The Slide Review”
Oil on panel
20” x 18”
“The Slide Review”
Oil on panel
48” x 24”
Oil on panel
6’ x 4’
48” x 40”
“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.
“Pressure Form Portrait”
30 x 24”
Oil on panel and various mediums
“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.
“Rape of Europa”
48” x 48”
“Couple with Grave”
12 x 10”
60 x 36”
48 x 40”
“Couple with Grave”
48 x 40”
20 x 18”
24 x 10”
36 x 24”
“Boy Riding Bull”
Oil on 3 door panels
80” x 60”
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”
“Man with Bird”
48” x 40”
60 x 36”
60 x 36”
30 x24”. Approximately
There is a long tradition in the Catholic Church of featuring a portrait of Jesus holding an orb in one hand while the other hand is raised with 2 fingers extended in what appears to be both a blessing and an indication of the Cross. The orb represents the heavens or what we would now call the universe. The title is Italian for “savior of the world.”
My first real encounter of this tradition was ironically in an Episcopal Cathedral in Seattle that was straight up the hill from my Eastlake studio. In fact the hill was so steep and my alignment with the Cathedral was so direct that people would often joke that my studio was in the crypt of the Cathedral.
On Sunday night the Cathedral hosts a complain service that is all in chant. Attendees often lie on the floor or do whatever they need to in order to be comfortable for this very meditative short musical service. It is truly an unusual and very spiritual experience. It’s broadcast live on the radio as the Complain Service Sunday nights at 9:30 and has been without fail since 1961.
At the front of the Cathedral was a high quality copy of a Leonardo Da Vinci painting of a Salvator Mundi. I loved it and always went to look at it after the service. So I painted my own version of it.
“The Chicken That Laid the Golden Egg”
4 x 3’
This piece is a study for a much larger work.
As you probably know this painting is based on a story about greed. But who’s greed? There are various versions of the story but the one that struck me at this time was the version in which the farmer’s wife becomes consumed by her greed and fear which she then uses to focus her efforts on the farmer, compelling him to make a terrible mistake.
In a nutshell, the farmer’s wife is not happy with their material well being even as their security and material wealth increase as a result of the chicken producing a golden egg each night. The farmer’s inclination is to be content with his good fortune and enjoy the relative ease that his good fortune has brought him. And so it is with his wife, at first.
Eventually she becomes accustomed to the new standard of living and wants more. Soon she becomes so obsessed with increasing her situation that she convinces the farmer to cut the chicken open and get all the golden eggs at once. The farmer obeys her command and of course the result is the death of the chicken and the end of their good fortune.
In preparation to do the final painting I did hundreds of drawings and many paintings including this one. In the process, the imagery took on a sexual nature. Here the farmer has just cut the chicken open. The knife has become a phallus and the chicken’s wound has become a gaping vagina. The farmer is clearly becoming a likeness of me. The chicken, however, is a less certain figure. Perhaps it is Tamaki, my lover at that time and one with whom I was in the process of a very painful breakup. Or is the chicken “my Art” which I was mining each day for beautiful pieces which I was then in turn selling to make money, or at least trying to do. Converting the gift of creation into profit.
The painting could be seen as an essay on what became a major issue for me: the relationship and mechanisms of the gift economy and the market economy. Furthermore, the relationship that sex and sex energy would play in my creative work and the parallels with sex and it’s relationship to love and money.
It was like discovering that I had rocket fuel in a reserve tank that I didn’t realize. Now, I not only discovered that I had this extra power, but I also had permission to use it. It greatly influenced my imagery and my output.
In this work there are two figures dancing. Are they “female” figures with big breasts or are they “male” figures that are essentially dancing cocks with swinging balls? It’s hard to know, but clearly they are highly sexualized beings full of energy and humor.
After all, “The Boy with the Horse” knocked the wind out of me not because it was new. I already understood that had Picasso not gone on to create cubism he would be no more famous than Puvi De Chevanne, the French artist that inspired his Rose period paintings. But it didn’t matter. There was something deeply authentic and well crafted in a fresh if not totally new way that made this work so powerful. And I have been trying to make art that way ever since.
This piece was typical of the work I was doing at the time. It was figural, volumetric, done from imagination rather than from life or photographs and with a decisive Asian influence. In fact, looking back with the perspective of 25 years, these pieces were among my most successful integrations of Asian and Western studies. It would take another 10 years to make another successful integration of Eastern and Western ideas in my abstract/landscape work.
(see small “roller paintings”)
I lived in China and Taiwan from 1983 to 1986. I never traveled to Beijing at that time but I spent a lot of time studying the history, language and art of ancient and modern China. I know much more than the average American about Chinese geography and modern Chinese history, social trends and politics. It’s probably fair to say that I know more than the average Chinese person about these things as well. In 2004 I adopted a girl from China. She was born in Chongquing. I mention all of this to help explain that I have always taken a particular interest in China in general and the 1989 June 4 massacre at Tienanmen square in particular.
Living in Communist China in the mid-1980s was an opportunity to see what real societal and governmental oppression look like. When I lived in traveled in China everyone except foreigners and small children were required to wear a uniform known as Chairman Mao suit clothes. In order to unify the people, everyone was required to wear one particular kind of clothing. They were either army green, drab blue or black. Some white shirts seemed to be allowed. Apparently this changed rapidly after I left the country. Currently I am studying Chinese with a young tutor from China. He is 22 and does not even remember that people before him were required to wear these restricted clothes.
But restrictions on clothing were just the beginning. Artists were not allowed to paint whatever they wanted and they certainly were not permitted to show what they created or wanted to create. I had many conversations with people on trains and in their homes about this. I spoke passable Mandarin at the time so I was able to carry on conversations with lots of people.
Most of the people were focused on the freedom to travel. Chinese people had just been given the freedom to travel to other Chinese cities for the first time in decades. Many of them had not seen relatives in neighboring cities in over a generation. It was an intense rush. Railways were completely overrun. And in many cases, a single rail line was all the linked one city to another.
What I don’t understand, in looking back, is why I didn’t feel I had the right to stay and be a stronger advocate for change. Or was it the lack of courage? I think, pondering these questions now, in my mid-50s, would give me insight about the nature of maturity as well as my own personal growth. In my mid 20s, I was simply not mature enough to grasp the uniqueness of my situation, nor to have the confidence to have any impact on it. I was a tourist and a student in the mid-1980s. I was there to learn and I thought… to get my hands dirty, but really? I was not there to have any impact on the culture. In fact, I remember taking some pride in being able to slip somewhat unnoticed into the crowd, dressing in Mao clothes and speaking better Mandarin than many of the countryfolk I encountered.
When I returned to the United States, I eventually made my way to Seattle. I took a job in Seattle University where I became the director of international student services. Naturally I had Chinese students as part of my charge. I was working in that job in the Spring of 1989 and we were naturally very excited about the fact that students were leading a significant change in Chinese society through their democracy movement.
Our excitement turned to horror, however, when on June 4 the democratic movement came to an abrupt halt with the brutal shut down and massacre in Tiananmen Square. Within days my Chinese students and I were seized with the idea of creating a replica of the statue of freedom and democracy that students in Tiananmen Square had erected to galvanize their movement. It was a plaster replica of the Statue of Liberty. It was destroyed by tanks on June 4 along with untold numbers of students and protestors.
We did build a replica, several actually, but that is a story for another part of this portfolio.
We also had posters made featuring the iconic image in Time magazine showing a single student standing in front of a tank waving a flag. We used those posters to garner attention when the replica of the statue was moved from my studio to a prominent city park to protest and show solidarity with the students in China. We attached the posters to sticks so that people could hold them up.
At some point I began painting these figures in black and yellow right over the photograph. I thought from the beginning of these figures as the souls of the individuals that were killed that day. I gave them away as gifts. I don’t know how many I did. At some point, I wanted to do one for every individual that was killed. But even today, 25 years later, it is still not known how many were killed. Was it 400? According to official reports it was. Or over 1000 reported by students themselves? Even 400 is unimaginable. Try making 400 individual paintings sometime much less raising 400 children to become men and women.