“Jenny’s China Dream”
24” x 36”
I have felt since 2017 that the dream of China becoming a middle to upper level wealth country would never happen. And worse, that the Faustian deal the people of China made with the CCP would not go well. The deal was simple in concept: you let us have control over many aspects of your life and we will give you an economic miracle that will lift you out of poverty. Well, for the first 20 years it did. But the fact that there was no exit strategy for how and when that would end, not to mention how the moral decay that is baked into a deal like that would affect the ability of the country to control corruption at every level.
By the time I met Jenny in 2021 and learned about how her husband’s film company had been stripped of its wealth by the CCP and muzzled from producing documentaries that would allegedly undermine the CCP’s authority, it had become obvious to most China watchers that things were getting bad.
This started out as a pleasant portrait of Jenny, an attractive and spirited young woman from Shanghai. But the more she shared her story the more I felt compelled to altar the painting. Now, as I write this in early 2024 things in China have reached another level of severity. Virtually every aspect of people’s lives are surveilled. And every communication is censored and monitored. Furthermore, people’s private savings in banks are routinely garnished by federal and municipal governments to meet their budgetary needs driving people to park their money in other places … like Realestate. This has created a Realestate bubble that has led to over building in staggering proportions. It is estimated that there are currently 3 billion unfinished and empty apartments in China, a county with 1.4 billion people. That is approximately 2 empty apartments for every man woman and child in China. The collapse of the Realestate market in China has already begun and may be the beginning of the end for the CCP. And the end of Jenny’s China Dream.
“Glory to Ukraine”
When I sat down to write about this painting I realized it was only half finished. I don’t mean there is anything left to do on this panel. Instead, what I mean is that there is going to be a second panel, equal in size and shape to this one. But before I describe what and why I will paint a second panel, let me share some of my thoughts about this one.
I am writing this piece in the summer of 2022. Russia invaded Ukraine in late February earlier this year. And after some initial hope that Ukraine might unbelievably be able to throw off the much mightier Russian military, it now appears that while Ukraine may still in fact prevail, it is going to be a long hard, painful, costly and deadly war.
When the war first broke out I was painting a nude that was no more complex than a celebration of the beauty of the human form and an effort to push my technique forward in the way I do with virtually every painting. However, I couldn’t stop thinking about what could I do to support the cause.
Very quickly myself and many of my peers saw the war in a way that I believe the leadership of Ukraine wanted us to see this … .as a struggle for Ukraine to at last commit itself unequivocally and at great cost to European values and culture. And what could be a more quintessential Western “story” than the underdog who represents the voice of freedom against a mighty foe that represents authoritarian dominance. It is the subject of Michelangelo’s David, one of the West’s most celebrated works of art, to just for its quality but for the way it places the individual heroically composed within itself in the face of overwhelming odds.
And so, of course I thought of Delacroix’s famous painting done to celebrate a similar cause unfolding in France 150 years earlier as the French struggled to form a republic against the forces of Napoleonic thought. “Victory Leading the People”. Here we see a bare breasted woman leading the charge against near certain death holding the flag of the French Republic against a bloody wind.
All things Ukraine suddenly became known to any American who wasn’t living under a rock. The blue and yellow of their flag and the importance of the sunflower as their national flower but also as an important export crop perhaps like the way we might see champagne as the symbol of France or oil from Saudi Arabia. Well, it didn’t take long for me to rework the arms of the figure. I even asked one of my staff to hold a flag so I could see how the fabric wrapped around her hands. And for anyone who knows me and my oeuvre they know I love sunflowers. In fact, not only is it my favorite flower, it is more like a “spirit flower” to me the way some people say they have a “spirit animal.”
The piece came together quickly. I tried a few things that didn’t work but quickly revised them to my greater satisfaction. Hung the piece on the wall and have felt a mixture of pride and deflation ever since. Yes … it’s well painted and certainly well intentioned. Who could argue with any of that. And indeed, many have expressed how moving the piece is and how thoughtful of me to create and display it in my spa.
And yet, I could not escape the fact that it wasn’t finished. I just didn’t know what was missing until now … the other half.
Unlike France’s democratic movement, Ukraine is literally attempting to turn its attention away from its modern history of influence from and domination by Soviet culture and authoritarian rule. It literally wants to turn around and look the other way. And Russia has revealed its hand by invading Ukraine, making it clear that at least its top leadership wants to return to its imagined glory days of Soviet dominance. Almost like an aging fighter who wants to make one last gasp for championship as old age and sinking relevance threaten to overwhelm a beleaguered ego that never came to terms with a fundamental law of the universe… change. Not to mention another feared inevitability notoriously avoided by those who love power over awareness… decay.
And so I will create a second panel in the style of so called “Soviet realism.” I may even include Putin himself as he would like to be seen, bare chested and stalwart… fist clenched and seen slightly from below as if to suggest his exalted bearing, rising above the din of us mere mortals gladly surrendering our individuality for the might of the State…through him of course.
Two paintings. Side by side. Each vying for our attention. Each representing in subject and method the values and sensibilities of its country’s choices. That is the state of things. And the choice for the viewer will be theirs to make. Which one do you like better? And is there something of worth to have them both? Together. Are they greater than the sum of their parts? Do they stand alone? Will any of this matter 20 years from now?
My challenge is to paint this second painting with as much care and sincerity as I painted the first. As a business owner and father of 2 children I can certainly relate to the power of authority and its efficiency, especially in times of crisis. And so, I will visit this side at least while I complete this second part. Fortunately, my children and staff will be there, thriving in all their glorious messy creativity and free wheeling spirits, shining a light for me to return to when the work is complete. Yes, I like the power and efficiency that comes with authority. But like the Ukrainians, I wouldn’t trade it for the glorious mess that is freedom.
Glory to Ukraine smacks a little too nationalistic to some of my learned peers. And I see where they are coming from. But not being a speaker of the Ukrainian language I can not know the implications and nuances of this slogan. Nevertheless, I have my own interpretation based on what I see and read. It means glory to us and our destiny to self actualize, to be free from tyranny… a people willing to fight and die for our individual rights but that now we have come together under this flag to galvanize our strength and to work together. It’s implied that while they are fighting under this Blue and Yellow banner, unlike their Russian advisories, when they prevail they will have the freedom the right to not give a shit about a flag. They will be able to focus less on being “a people” and much more on being simply people.