Art programs often start their courses with that little three-word questionnaire posed to their students: What is Art?
As an undergraduate art student in 1980, I remember a fuzzy blank void came to my mind as I tried to put my answer into words. By the time I was a graduate printmaker in the late 80’s I had a better idea what the answer should look like when I was distributing that same questionnaire to my own students. But it wasn’t until my fifties that I knew clearly how it would read.
At four years old I would often sit in our little sunroom tucked away in a quiet corner of our Marblehead house trying to emulate with crayon Leonardo’s drawings of raging horse heads I found in a book we had. Their gaping mouths and tension-filled expressions grabbed my focus as my parents yelled at each other in the background. I pressed the hard-black wax stick beyond the paper’s resistance, often tearing and crinkling it as I drew. These are the earliest memories of what became four decades of immersing myself in drawing and painting the form and expression of the horse. As a third grader I earned the highest esteem from my eight-year-old classmates who even at an early age were full of grace and sweet envy over my ability to draw them so well. At nine, I managed to extract riding lessons out of my grandparents, a seed that grew and developed for over a decade and in turn, greatly enhanced my understanding of a horse’s structure and movement. But from the moment I set foot in art school, I was continually challenged by my professors about my decision to use the horse as a form. Why would I choose a subject so prevalent throughout the history of art and portrayed so sentimentally by generations of casual painters?
While I knew my attraction to the horse had been a guttural response to their gesture and expression, and that it was never about their individual identity or their cultural role, beyond that, I knew little about what had drawn me to them. That said, I did an inadequate job of articulating to my professors my reasoning for focusing on them.
I earned my MFA in 1993, having moved from a printmaking candidate to a painting candidate a couple of years into the program. I had been awarded the GTA by the department chair in printmaking but was frustrated with the lack of directness of the medium for my own work. The faculty recognized my greater strength as painting, and allowed to move between disciplines, becoming the first graduate candidate in the department to do so. In the end, I surprised myself and my advisors with what I was capable of producing.
From 1993 through 2016 I did primarily equine work, varying formal problems such as light, types and combinations of marks, and scale, even pushing the scale beyond life-sized. I also continued with intermittent on-site drawings of architectural structures and urban scenes I had been dabbling with since high school. But my interest in figurative imagery was at my heels and growing in my heart. For every work that made an imprint on me, that on some level became a part of me, was done by painters who could get to the core of the essence of their figurative subjects. Artists who thumbed their noses up at unnecessary detail so not to compromise the raw elements that made their works loud-artist’s like Ben Shahn, Munch, and Bacon, El Greco, Baselitz, and de Kooning. I loved them for their courage and for giving me an understanding of what I valued in effective work. However, that period in my life had also been overwhelmed by profoundly challenging experiences resembling episodes from a Hollywood thriller. The shocking realizations, and extended periods of life on the edge of death changed my views about the world, but also gave me a unique combination of insights and a rawness that transformed who I was (am).
A New Era
By 2016 I was in my mid-fifties, and except for a four-year period from 2000 to 2004, I had painted throughout the transition. I had and raised three children and been married and divorced. I had shed most of who I was that had drawn me to use the horse in my work, and I could feel a void inside me every time I did an equine piece. I was still discovering who I had become, and what my work would need to be, but I was also aware of the advantage I had gained in the decades of practice of the equine works. I’d been making art in some form or another for over 50 years, and I knew my way around paint and materials better than most. I hadn’t bought into the philosophy being tossed around in art school that I heard one of my old professors put to a student so many years ago: “you’re better off working for a fast food joint and doing genuine art on your own time”. No, I had not bought into that then or since, I knew the value of practice and the learning curve, I understood it, and respected it.
By now, twenty-five years had passed since graduate school, and I understood how to answer that “concept question”, the one I could never answer for the horses. I could answer it, and it was loaded.
On a fundamental level I knew my work had to be about truth and deception.
Through a handful of commissioned animal portraits, and figurative sketches I had done between 2006 and 2016 I considered the idea of portraiture and my sensitivity with it as an artist. Not only did it lure me, but there was a vast difference in the strength of my human portraits compared to my other work. I was close to diving into figurative work, but I also knew I was not interested in the individual, just as I had not been interested in the individual identities of the horses.
Acutely aware of unavoidable characteristics of my more representative work, that ever so slight amplification of expression through marks, I believed that when that aspect of my work was coupled with my subconscious’s collective of imprinted observations, or stored data about a subject or event, that those two things could work together throughout the painting process. I wanted to explore using that process, and the effect of it, to illuminate the subject beyond what they were aware they were revealing. In short, I wanted to use my ability to accentuate expression and other visual subtleties to get underlying information about a subject.
Early Political Portraits
I began the first mid-scale portraits in 2017, political painted sketches that followed some initial small drawings. I played with story lines, groups, and themes of individuals that I wanted to fit the larger question of truth/deception into. I decided U.S. political figures would be good subjects because most people knew at least something about those subjects and knew what they looked like.
With each work I increased the size, as I had learned from the equine work, and the earlier figurative sketches, the portraits needed to be scaled larger than life.
Having used a 60 x 60” square for an environmental piece, I decided to continue with that format. I liked the idea of repetition and inclusion that using the same size did for each portrait in a group- a little piece of order and sereneness I learned from Donald Judd’s work.
Star Defender (2019) was the first public figure in that size, a portrait of Michael Cohen, Donald Trump’s former personal attorney. I thought Michael Cohen’s testimony to Congress was daring. I also found his warning about Trump interesting and compelling. I used a toy gun in the work as a metaphor for the pseudo-anger the congressional committee members displayed during the hearing, and I put Cohen in Zoro’s garb as a parallel to his activism against what he saw as a corrupt government.
Your Host (2019), was the next in progression and one of the most successful in the early group from my perspective. The lack of an accentuated expression of the subject helps to draw the viewer in, and the more subtle use of symbolism and country club colors give the viewer some license for interpretation.
Bill Barr’s (2019) portrait was a difficult one. I took a number of approaches to the symbolism, and in the end gained the most insights about using political figures to explore personalities from that piece. A year after completing the work, with the amplified tricksterism of pre-election politics, coupled with pandemic events, protests and riots, I began to break through what I saw as my own single-minded perspective toward him and the earlier portraits. The more I distanced myself from the voice of the media, the more I wondered about the way I had painted those subjects. Had these works been overly influenced by information I was relying on the media to get? I decided to take the political works into a new direction, and re-paint some of the portraits, this time from the perspective of the right wing media, presenting the concept, when the works are hung in tandem, that identities we create in our minds of public figures are usually completely created by intermediate parties and influences.
Portraits specifically about the influence of media are also in the planning process.
Another primary theme during that 2000 to 2016 period was what I will call The Red Herrings, but not because what I learned were not significant issues, in fact they were, but because they were not what I had set out to find. As I researched one thing, and dove down one rat-hole, it would lead to another, and then another and well, you get it. Ethics in government and oversight in industry were common themes. For instance, as I was googling aquifer maps in my own township in Campton Hills IL, I came across an article in the Denver Post about a uranium mine in Golden CO. It got my attention because our family had once lived a few miles from the mine. I began to investigate the case Colorado filed against the Schwartzwalder Mine. I spoke with the State of Colorado’s Division of Mining and Reclamation and got volumes of records from the radiation division of the state’s health department. Some of those records included interior conversations between the Colorado State Health Dept and the mine during the period the clean water act of 1972 was being implemented. And while my research in combination with other records reassured me that our family was likely not exposed to any harmful levels of radiation in the brief period we lived in the area, I was enraged at the veil over the wealth of information about the mine and Rocky Flats Plant. The long history of poor management at the RFP (the defense department’s nuclear warhead manufacturing plant outside of Denver), included leaking storage barrels, fires, and near accidents over several decades was well documented. Years after the plant was decommissioned, residual contamination was buried under a 1,300-acre pile of dirt in 2007 and labeled a wildlife refuge. The original site of a plant that once came dangerously close to a criticality incident in 1957, was now flanked with new housing developments. Today there are 58 nuclear power plants currently operating in the US vulnerable to natural disasters and terrorism, and waste storage remains a significant problem.
I knew I needed to paint about nuclear risks, and past catastrophic nuclear power plant accidents. I knew I needed to find a way to get people to pay attention, so the works had to be disturbing.
My first environmental narrative was Yellowcake. I decided to combine my approach to portraiture and my research about the mine into one work. The execution involved a thoroughly prepared photo session of the scene that would serve as my reference for the work. I hired a model, and a professional photographer and created the scene. I chose a palate that was the color of uranium ore products and made a confection cake that served as a metaphor for one of the byproducts of U ore called Yellowcake. I wanted the model to be dressed like a housewife in clothing that would equally reference 1970 and 2000, and I found the perfect shade of maroon lipstick to go with her white face powder. The finished piece was that first 60 x 60” square I went forward with on the subsequent portraits.
The second piece about radiation was Chernobyl. I wanted to depict the 1986 nuclear accident in the Soviet Union in a way that would describe not only the catastrophic nature of the initial explosion, but at the same time, the lasting effects of the radiation. I used crude smoky marks for the explosion and debris, juxtaposed with colorful translucent organic lines to represent the vulnerability of those killed or injured. Dolls were used as metaphors for not only the victims, but to describe how the event froze the area in time. I painted in several limbs from references of actual victims and intermixed them among the metaphoric dolls. As with the Yellowcake painting, I used an abrasive teal under-painting that came through the darker flatter pigments that formed the reactor. However, I struggled with the metaphoric elements throughout the process as I could feel the pull at me to be more direct in my articulation of the radiation’s effect on the actual residents.
In answer to that, for the next piece in the series I forced myself not to rely on the safety of using metaphors for the victims, and instead, used references of actual individuals that suffered from radiation poisoning as a result of the Chernobyl accident. That work is titled RFP, although there are no elements or reference images associated with Rocky Flats Plant. A couple of months after completing the canvas, however, frustrated with what I felt were overly static rendered forms, I painted over the image. It now exists only under another painting. Given its title, that is fitting, I suppose.
I am planning the next work in the series to be a conversation about the 1,300 acres of the former site of the Rocky Flats Plant.
While I am solid in my belief that my commitment to learning the craft of painting has given me the dexterity to transition into each new progression of my work, and that out of my life’s events where I had once felt submerged have come my voice and purpose, I look toward the resolutions still to come in my work. I am ready now, to honor and use those elements that come from the root of my identity and to build my new images on that framework. Elements that have always been present in my images, but throughout most of my work, I have tried to avoid or negate. Elements like an insatiable love for the banteringly play of deep values of colored grays and black, and my own crude way of putting down an energetically charged heavy mark. I know I will never be satisfied with my paintings until I identify and accept my own visual language-the one that makes me feel daring as I am working, and surprised and interested when I am done.
Great works are not intellectual statements, great works make you feel, and above all I must remember that.