”Venus Pudica on Lava”
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 met Luther at an event that was held at my art studio in the 1990’s about once every few months. It was called “Romp Naked.” It was an all male naked dance party with no drugs or alcohol and no sex. It was a kind of Robert Bly-meets-nudist-meets-Gay Pride crossover. It was the intention of the organizers to make this a male experience… not a gay experience. Well… they tried.
Even though I am straight, I really enjoyed having this group of men gather in my studio and as a result I met some terrific people. Among others were people willing and even excited to pose for my paintings.
One fall they asked people to come in “creative undress” rather than be simply nude. Luther presented himself like this. I was struck by the comfort this 70 year old man felt in his body and his playful spirit. So I asked him to come to my studio for a photo shoot and possible painting. After trying various things I settled on the idea of him simply standing there on a simple block of concrete.
I liked the photo so much I decided to do a life size painting of him. He agreed and started coming to my studio weekly. I used the photo to guide my work when he was not there.
Around that same time I took some photos of a woman who was a sister of a friend of mine. She wanted to model for me and came to my studio with an old Volvo full of props and ideas. I could barely keep up with her costume changes and whirlwind of ideas. At some point it became clear that at 50 or so she was at the opposite end of the spectrum on her journey in accepting her aging body. So I painted her as well in a manner similar and yet very different from Luther.
The result is 2 paintings that stand alone just fine. But when presented as a diptych are a powerful exposé in subtle but very meaningful differences. Some of that is already visible in these tiny 6 x 4” prints.
“Jim and Tim”
Jim and Tim were 2 guys who very much loved each other. I met them at a studio event called Romp Naked. To learn more about that event, please see the citation under the photograph entitled “Luther.” Jim and Tim came to my studio weekly for sittings for a large painting. Tim, the seated figure, was blind so these visits were a little more challenging than they might have been otherwise in part because my studio was on a steep hill and because Tim had only just lost his sight a few years before this.
What struck me about them was their love for each other. At the time of this painting the fight for dignity and respect of homosexuals had largely already been won in liberal urban areas like Seattle. And this was especially true in the artistic circles I was running in. But the battle for rights to marry and have children had just begun.
So I choose to feature the love and essential humanity of them as individuals and as a couple. There were so many tender moments as they disrobed and then got dressed at each session. Some of my favorite moments were of Jim helping Tim find his clothes and then helping him into them. I still regret not doing more work inspired by these tender everyday moments.
I did, however, get a few stunning photographs and one large painting that remains one of my favorite pieces.
I suppose I wanted to think I was doing my part to help nudge the culture forward by presenting these unidealized men in the most beautifully painted way possible to convey something of the authenticity of their love for each other. Whether that helped the culture more forward or not… I don’t know. But my guess is probably not. The painting was rarely seen outside my studio. Then years later I gifted it to an art dealer who later stole many of my paintings then ended up in jail for other crimes. I suspect it’s just sitting in a storage unit now, or worse, been destroyed. But the images live on here, hopefully still conveying the beauty and tenderness that people of all kinds and orientations can feel for each other and that love is every bit as transformative wherever it shows up.
This for the photograph with the women with the seashell and beautiful fabrics.
This is a photograph of a Tableaux Vivant. That is a French term for an art form that roughly translates to a “living table.” The English translation is accurate but does not convey the sense of it being an art form in and of itself like painting or ballet. People have been creating Tableaux Vivant for several hundred years. As you might imagine it has undergone many transformations and applications. In fact, an argument has been made that Tableaux Vivant is the origin of comic strips and animated film. There was a period in the 19th century where artists presented stories in a series of tableaux, in succession, with the actors not moving in between the “moments” presented.
But as far as we know, it does not date back to the era of the ancient Greeks. And therefore it does not have a muse or spirit associated with it like nine other classic artistic muses.
In more recent times you can see artists presenting themselves singularly or with others dressed and made up to look like famous sculptures or paintings and busking for money in public spaces. These are arguably also Tableaux Vivant although there is sometimes no table.
I often found myself essentially creating a Tableaux Vivant as I arranged my models in the process of creating a painting. Often I used the ruse of it being a photo shoot in order for my models to feel familiar with the process. In the end, I had photographs that I intended to use as visual aides in the process of the painting. And in some cases, the composition and “look” of a painting would be created and complete in these sessions.
But these were not Tableaux Vivant in the formal sense of the term in 2 very specific ways. First, they were not created as things for viewing. Instead, in a sense, they were for my eyes only. And secondly, they were not based on classical or “famous” works of art. They were, instead, the best arrangements of the models and props and lighting to create the image I wanted to paint.
That all changed sometime in the 90’s when my cellist friend and I decided to present a multimedia evening of classical music, painting and tableaux Vivant. I worked with a Butoh dance troupe to create the Tableaux as well as provide the mechanism for moving the paintings throughout the concert. That evening was called “Eleven Portraits” and featured, among other things, an original score by another friend, Sarah Bassingwaithe.
But this Tableaux Vivant really became a thing when I started the Little Red Studio a few years later in 2003. The Little Red Studio, or LRS as it was called, had Tableaux Vivant presentations almost every Friday and Saturday night. They were often erotic, thought provoking or just plain weird. Some were funny. And some made no pretense of sticking to the no movement tradition. Some where used as visual eye candy for poetry being read aloud. Or to further deepen the impact of a spoken word or musical piece. Some were used as a vehicle to present and even serve food to the audience.
Occasionally I would snap a photo of these creations with the intention of making them into grand paintings. I never did. And that is regrettable.
It’s interesting to me how an art form can grow and change over time to serve the expressive needs of artists and audiences over time. And in most cases, few if anyone even knows anything of what came before. But I did. And I do think my knowledge of the existence of this art form as well as what it could do played a meaningful role in its becoming such a prominent part of those LRS “evenings.” And without those powerful and consistent presentations of Tableaux Vivant, LRS may never have become the 10 year weekly night of magic and transformative power that it was.
At the end of each night we ended the evening with a quasi pagan, part catholic ritual gathering in the front of the room on what we called an altar. It was solemn and serious in an effort to bring the heightened sexual charge to more contained and even spiritual vibe. It worked. We called it the “anointing” and it was looked forward to by nearly everyone. It was a big part of what made LRS something different than just another party of the precursor to an orgy. It was unexpected for first timers. It was elegant, a bit strange and aside from the slow procession of candle lit players, it was yet another manifestation of the spirit of the Tableaux Vivant. The Greeks may not have invented it, but I am certain there is a muse that should be named and added to the Pantheon. I have felt it move inside me even while it’s manifestation is essentially motionless.
“Jamie with Honeydew Melon”
”Marni & Gillette”
“Jordan in a Dress”
Little Red Studio: Madison In the Studio
I would never create a painting like this. Well, it’s very unlikely that I would. This is an image that is as much about the room as the figure in it. Yes, Mary is arguably the central aspect of interest. Without her lying there on the “alter” I would not include the photograph here on the website. It just wouldn’t be interesting enough.
But as a painting, it just would not work. And I would not want to spend days if not weeks painting the so called background just in order to paint this tiny figure in the middle. In order for her to be big enough to be interesting I would need to make the canvas about 8’ x 10’ if not larger.
But as a photograph it works. And on the website it appears as the same size as paintings I have done that are 8 x 10’ or larger. And they have a roughly equal visual impact in this setting. In real life the painting would be nearly overwhelming and the photo would be a tiny thing on my desk barely even noticed.
That is, in fact, one reason I decided to include a section on photography on my art website. Photography has been both an important tool for me creating my paintings. But it has also been an end in itself. This photograph particularly was shot as a work of art, not as a “sketch” for a painting.
I am interested in space after all. Usually this shows up as either landscape space or the space that is implied in a volume. My figures are almost always volumetric, not flat. But I have hardly ever painted interior architectural space like you see in this photograph. I’m not sure why. It’s especially curious because I enjoy looking at this photo and “feeling” the space. And I even wonder what it would be like to experience a large painting like this. Perhaps one day I will do it… or more likely… one year it may take that long to create.
“Little Red Studio: Madison Reclining”
“The Artist and his Wife”
“Adam & Eve”
At some level this is just a photograph of a painting in my studio. But ever since I shot this picture nearly 20 years ago I have always been intrigued by it. The painting is actually a shallow cabinet. It is depicted here in its closed position. And it is sitting on my painting bench. Back in the days when this photo was taken artists would usually take slide photos of their work. In order to minimize doing a lot of cropping with silver tape applied directly to the film, we would drape the wall with a special soft black fabric.
After shooting the slide film I probably reloaded the camera with black and white film and took this shot. I think it is interesting that the flowers are close to us but out of focus. The painting of the human backs are in sharp focus. Also, there is a seemingly random amount of white wall behind the black fabric. Furthermore the floor is white.
I think it is the floating quality of the black area with the painting which creates a kind of mysterious space that makes the photo so intriguing. If the floor was wood or painted a darker color it would not work as well. Also, the effect would be diminished if the black backdrop went all the way off the edges.
In any case, I have had this photo lying around my studio for years and it keeps drawing my eye. The truth is I really don’t know why. I have tried to find design elements to explain that fascination. But perhaps it’s nostalgia for an earlier chapter of my life. Or maybe it’s that I love that painting so much. I guess it doesn’t really matter why it continues to be so interesting. Like great paintings and my favorite people, it may be that the very fact that I can’t nail it down, define it or say how it works is the very thing that keeps drawing me back to it.
“Little Red Studio: Pimp & Ho”
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.
“Little Red Studio: Coyote Dream”
“Invisible Theater: Hanging Man”
“Jo in the Studio”
“Crouching Jo With Pumpkin”
“Jo in the Studio”
“Jo in the Studio”