Photography 1993-1999

”Venus Pudica on Lava”

”Liberated Pudica”

There could hardly be a more charged subject for an aging male artist to paint or sculpt than a nude female figure. Even the addition of the word “figure” at the end of the previous sentence seems charged with meaning. Why not just end with “female?” Or “woman” for that matter. Does the phrase “female figure” already reveal some level of objectification of the person? I don’t think so but I’m certainly thinking about it, yet again. While its a little burdensome to be having to check oneself, I can do it. And I think it’s a worthwhile effort.

Since Ancient Greece defined urban culture as we know it, as well as one of the quintessential poses for a woman depicted in sculpture, (even if she was to be the embodiment of a god) was the “Venus Pudica.” Entire books have been written about the tradition of this pose through the ages, as well as what was intended and perhaps unintentionally communicated about men’s attitudes towards women, women’s own ideologies about themselves, the nature of sexual power, idealization of form, the power of seeing vs. being seen and so much more.A simple google search will yield hundreds of articles from stodgy art historians, to raging feminists and even new wave anti-feminists about what this painting and sculpture reveal about this range of subjects.

As if this wasn’t complicated enough, the invention of photography in the 19th century added another level of complexity since the photograph was ostensibly the record of an actual woman… not the depiction of an artists’ imagination and effort no matter how realistically portrayed. And then photography went beyond the artist/photographer/expert into the hands of anybody that wanted one… men and women. And then pornography and eventually pornography specifically for women to consume and finally… catching up to the moment of porn for everyone, all the time, on the internet and largely created and produced by women.   Wow, we have come a long way from Praxiteles’ (a man) first sculpture of a woman slightly bent over and holding her arms and hands in such a way to hide the sexual areas of her body 3,000 years ago.

To be honest, when I shot these pictures of my friend in Hawaii I wasn’t thinking about any of that. I met her and her gay boyfriend/traveling partner on a beach in Hawaii one day in 1998 or so. We spent a few days exploring the island together and sharing meals. We often went to a nude beach and sometimes took photos of each other. It was playful and spontaneous. I didn’t even take a directorial role most times. I just aimed the camera and snapped a photo whenever I thought something looked good. Since there was film in the camera, I had to be more selective than I am now with my iPhone.   

Eventually my friends moved on and I lingered another few weeks in Hawaii. When I returned to Seattle and developed the film I was struck by this pair of images. I studied art history and was very much aware of current writings by feminist authors and post feminist writers such as Camille Paglia. So I could see the significance of these spontaneous moments.

I wanted to do large paintings of these two images. But I froze for various reasons. The main reason had nothing to do with the issue of Venus Pudica and my being a male artist. It was more about the fact that I didn’t feel capable of doing a strong work from just photographs. I had until then used photos in my work but only when I had access to the model coming to “sit” for me. I also wanted to express the combination of the Venus Pudica and the liberated Venus as depicted in these 2 images. I wanted to find a kind of conceptual yet realistic way to depict these two concepts in one image… a kind of realistic cubism. I understood and admired the idea of cubism allowing for multiple viewpoints and multiple concepts to be conveyed in one image but I didn’t want to surrender the wholeness of the form to do that.

I never did figure that out.   

Now, however, I would be inclined to paint them as I would but hang them side by side as a diptych. They are equally and separately true realities that most women live in still.   And moreover, I think a certain amount of the shame of the modesty for the Pudica is not quintessentially female. It is also carried by men. And living in an age where almost zoological sexual displays will pop up on my computer even while I’m shopping for a new area rug, I’m inclined to think that a little modesty might be a good thing.

So, perhaps I will stretch a pair of large canvases and get started. And if I need a real woman to stand in for my long lost friend, perhaps I will be lucky enough to find someone as joyful and spirited as her to stand around my studio for hours letting me stare at every shadow and wrinkle hoping to imbue it with as much dignity and love as befitting of Venus herself. I am, after all, still a male artist. As learned and enlightened as I try to be, there is still part of me that admires women differently than I admire men. Yes, I have painted and sculpted some spectacular nude males if I do say so myself, but they don’t have a sexual charge for me. That is still the case for me when working with a female model. But just because there is a sexual charge does not mean she is inherently objectified or that my thoughts and art are overrun by that. A charge is just that… a charge. A spark plug doesn’t power a car after all. But it does play a crucial role.

These photos still have a charge for me. As an artist they inspire me. Let’s see if that is enough to get the engine of my studio started enough that the power of the gift and true artistic inspiration will kick in, the kind of power to labor for hours over a minutia of details while holding the whole of the concept for hours and days and even weeks. This “holding” is a balancing act. It is the stuff of making art but it is also the stuff of conducting one’s life.I remain convinced we are capable of amazingly complex things. As men we can see women as individuals imbued with all the same power an integrity as any other individual male or female or any of the wonderful non binary varieties that are defining themselves these days. And, at the same time see them as sexual beings that may inspire sexual imaginings to various degrees without it impinging on all the other stuff. It might take some learning and practice, but it can be done. And increasingly, as women are more empowered in the world with money, rights, dignity etc, they will have the same challenges about their attitudes towards men.   There are indeed interesting times ahead and some very interesting artworks to come.   

I spent my early days trying to figure out how to be the first to create this or that new art. Maybe I will spend my elder years painting and sculpting the last work of art of this or that. It’s not likely but maybe I will create the last Venus Pudica. Here’s hoping

I have already written about how important Richard was in my life as an artist, model and intellectual. So I won’t go into that here. Instead, I will comment on how I believe I did so much painting and sculpture and photography on the male nude at this time because I was coming to terms with my own manhood. The term toxic masculinity had not yet been coined, but any thinking man was well aware of the fact that blind dominance of women was over even before my work here in the early 1990’s. But what was male power to look like if it not as a force to subdue women? How could it be a thing of beauty in and of itself?  And to sharpen the question even further, how could it be fundamentally beautiful and powerful in and of itself but not be emphatically gay or for just the homosexual gaze?
Well, I was accused of creating gay erotica and porn on more than one occasion. But that didn’t bother me for the reasons it might bother a moral prude or a straight artist. No, it bothered me that I hadn’t yet found that something more fundamentally male. It still an adjective attached to it….in this case…gay male.   
This photo, and others like it, we’re the stuff of that pursuit. And the paintings that followed.  
The work of keeping one’s affect on the world from being toxic is never completely done. But the issue was no longer an existential crisis for me after this period. Instead, it has been more like steady maintenance with occasional deeper “check ins.” But in any case, not the kind of things that drive an artist to create.   
“Study For a Pieta”
When I took this photo of my friends in my studio in 1993 the aides epidemic was still going but there was light at the end of the tunnel.  New drugs as well as a lot of understanding about how the virus spread was giving many people hope.  Still, too many people were dying miserable deaths and way too young.  Myself and others made art to cope and to dignify those challenging times.  
This photo was also among the first I took of friends as sketches for my paintings.  In many cases the speed and ease of a camera as opposed to sketching allowed for a flow with my models that produced the best “studies” for my paintings.  And occasionally one of these shots would turn out to be a complete work of art in its own right by some intuitive measure.  
“The Dream of Human Life”
This photo was inspired by a drawing of Michelangelo’s that he did late in his life.   My photo was staged and taken at nearly the beginning of my career.   I’m writing this piece almost 30 years after it was taken.  And since then I have come to understand better what it is and how it works.  I am now about the age Michelangelo was when he did the drawing.  
One of the main differences between the two works is the ring of humanity behind the main figures in the Michelangelo drawing and the stark blackness behind mine.  And my photo does not have a sphere representing the world or the heavens.  And of course, mine is a photograph and his is a masterful drawing.  
What is similar is the setting apart of one reality by virtue of a kind of altar which contains and slightly conceals another dimension.  The use of an altar is what fascinates me.  An altar is a sacred space set aside for making gifts to gods.   It is not of this world and not quite in the realm of the gods.  It is a both highly sacred and yet not quite anywhere.  It’s power is in this ambivalence.  It is charged.   
And on my altar I have assembled a group of 3 men that are in some conglomeration of huddling, cuddling and barely hanging on.  
They have in fact formed a temple of flesh.  
And under the altar is a single male figure apparently uncomfortably alone.  Even struggling a bit, maybe even in anguish, but not overtly so.  
Above, the altar is covered with a white sheet.  In sharp contrast a black clothe spills out from under the figure under the altar like a black tongue or fluid leaking from something filled with a vile liquid.  
And yes, the composition and the black have a majesty even something noble.  I don’t know what I was thinking exactly.   But I know I loved these men and had such respect for their willingness to come explore in my studio.   I remember showing them a photo of Michelangelo’s drawing and off they went.  Somewhere in a box in my studio there are many more shots from this evening.  Perhaps somewhere in that box there are clues to what this is all about.  
It’s not as simple as one world is real another a dream.   They are both real and both a dream.   They oscillate.   Maybe in another 30 years, if I am lucky enough to have that many more, I will have a better understanding of why I am so certain this shot is significant.   

“Jamie with Honeydew Melon”

By the time I shot this photo I had already absorbed and digested the work of Mark Rothko and Robert Motherwell. You can see that here in this photo. The geometry is Rothko. The elegant use of black, very Motherwell.   
I’m also very interested in the strategic if not odd placement of a singular object from nature which I think was my way of turning it into a symbol of something  greater than itself.  In this case, it’s a honeydew melon on her stomach.  Jamie’s pose is more than a little affected although not completely. However, the placement of the melon is completely affected. Who lies down with a large melon on their belly?
Still….it works somehow. And is more interesting as a photo than the shot taken just before this one without the melon.   
This shot did inspire a painting.  I have included it here. As I write this story about my photo in 2023 now roughly 30 years after shooting it and doing the painting, I am feeling like there is a lot more to say here. There may be another painting coming out of this old shot. And this future painting will probably have a melon.  

“Jordan in a Dress”

Now that I am approaching my mid sixties, I have seen several generations of people “come of age.” One of the interesting things to me is how wonderful it is that each generation thinks they are doing something so fresh and daring and original. And is, for the most part, completely uninterested in preceding generations “discovering” the same things for themselves and their generation.   
This is particularly true or at least visible with counterculture or non mainstream currents like transgender or transvestite cultures. But Jordon and his peers were already in their 40’s and 50’s when I shot this photo and many others of this group of friends in the mid 90’s. They had been cross dressing for at least 20 years by this time. For them it was not new. But it was no less exciting and no less apart of their personas. They loved cross dressing whenever their was the slightest excuse: a party, a volunteer drive, a walk in the park or a photo shoot at an artist’s studio. With one exception, these men were all gay and lived emancipated lives with regard to their homosexuality. But they only cross dressed on special occasions. The one exception was a straight guy who always dressed as a woman. I never saw him in men’s clothing.  
I am so grateful to have known these men and to have been included in their circle as a peer. Richard Jessup, who appears in other photos and paintings on this site is the one of the few I still know and work with.   

“The Artist and his Wife”

I shot this photo of my wife and I shortly after we were married. It was part of an effort to paint a large painting celebrating our union. I was inspired by a painting that Peter Paul Rubens painted of he and his wife shortly after they were married.   
But this is nothing like that. And, I never did the painting.  
I have asked myself for years, what is going on here. And 30 years after it was shot and 20 plus years since my divorce, I still don’t know. Is it just playful goofing around or does it say something if not mysterious about our relationship or the way I “saw” the relationship.   
First of all, this is shot in my studio. And specifically in the spot where I had by this time spent nearly 10 years making art. It was, in short, a sacred spot for me. And that is Melinda, my new wife, for whom I am so grateful that she was willing to play along and let me create this and a whole evening worth of creative photography.   
But, among many great shots, this is the one. The others are cute or funny or beautiful or flattering. This one, is all of those. And yet something else as well. Something I still can’t identify.  
And I still can’t say why I never painted it. It would be easy to say that I didn’t paint it because the photo already says it all. But that’s not really true. There is some other reason that niggles at me. Perhaps I should stretch a canvas some day soon and just get started, if for no other reason than to resolve these questions about a very important person and relationship in my life. We are no longer married but we remain friends and continue to work together to be parents to our kids.  

Artist & Model

This is actually not an artist and his model… not really. This is the model and her boyfriend, who often came along to hang out while I painted her and in this case picked up his own camera to take a picture of his sweetheart.

This couple commissioned me to do a painting of her. It was to be done from life. Usually I begin these kind of commissions by taking photos because this is the way most people feel most comfortable being seen… by an artist with a camera. It is in these moments that I usually find the painting. “The painting” is usually some combination of the pose, the lighting and the way the background becomes part of the concept and design. Then I have some photos to refer to when the model is not present.

Here, I just happened to be in the right place at the right time. I saw him preparing to take a photo and I moved to the right place quickly to place him in line with her so that their profiles matched like puzzle pieces and snapped the photo.

It’s cute. But it also suggests something about the separation and connection between artist and model.

“Invisible Theater: Hanging Man”

I shot this during a rehearsal for a theatrical production I helped create called the Invisible Theater. The Hanged One refers to one of the major cards in the Tarrot Deck. The card is often interpreted as the necessity of enduring hardship to discover hidden truths or literally the need to turn oneself upside down in order to see things with fresh eyes.   
In this case my friends also chose to stage the scene with a masked creature manipulating the rope. This adds the possibility of an alter ego or elder manipulating the process by which the hanged one undergoes his process of suffering and discovery.   
In some versions of the Tarrot it is the Hanged One who discovers writing. Instead of placing some symbolic device on the floor beneath him I chose to feature him just beginning to enter pools of darkness which are partially his own shadow.  
The whole shot is exposed improperly and many would have thrown it away. But now that film and film affects are a thing of the past, this particular affect of the incorrect exposure adds to the affect of this being some secret ritual or a thing going on in one’s imagination.  

“Hiroshima Butoh”
Wax and oil paint on photograph
20” x 24”

In 1996 I saw my first Butoh dance performance at a park in Seattle. It was a local company doing a tribute to the bombing of Hiroshima on the 50th anniversary of the atomic bomb. I was blown away. It was an astonishing moment of complete aesthetic arrest.

Days later I researched who they were and contacted their leader, Joan Laage. I succeeded in convincing her to do a redux of the dance in my studio so that I could paint it. And I did. It is a gigantic piece 21’ long and 8’ tall. I worked up the paintings from photos I took in my studio that day.

Later I printed some of them in a lab and then painted them.

This is Joan interacting with one of the members of her troupe.
Even before spreading hot wax on the print and smearing it with oil paint and dirt, the dancers convey bewilderment and longing. But the obfuscations and scratching marks further the impression of the mess and destruction of anything that survives a nuclear blast. And yet, there is beauty and even elegance here.

“Jo in the Studio”

These photographs were taken with the intent of being studies for paintings the way artists traditionally use sketches.  And, to be sure, the photo sessions with Jo resulted in many paintings.   I sometimes did several paintings inspired by one photograph.  
During the session I would figure out the lighting, the pose and even a sense of what it’s all about right there in the midst of doing it.    Often I would have one or two poses in mind before Jo would show up for the shoot.   And to be sure my aesthetic became more formed as I went along making it easier to get the studio ready before my model would arrive.   
Usually when a male artist makes art of a young beautiful woman the purpose is quite straight forward: a celebration of the beauty of a young woman……nothing wrong with that.   I’m not even one to say there is anything wrong with this degrading to pornography.  That has its place too.  But my intentions were more complex and subtle.  And definitely less certain.  
Looking back with the perspective of time I think what makes these images work is the juxtaposition of the young nude woman with the black rugged and heavily shadowed studio.  There is a tension in that contrast as well as in the arrangements of the shapes and shadows themselves.  They suggest youth and decay but in an elegant way.    And the presence of the pumpkins punctuates and hints at what might also have been driving the creation of these images: a love of Autumn and it’s aesthetics of lengthening shadows, contrasts of the bounty of harvest and the falling leaves.   And perhaps most compelling of all, a sense of premonition… this case that winter, old age and death are all approaching.  
That’s a lot to heap on a couple of nude pics.    The question is, do they hold up!   

“Crouching Jo With Pumpkin”

“Jo Seated”

“Jo in the Studio”

“Jo in the Studio”