I am in the early stages of several paintings—about six total, but I have only begun to actually paint two of them: “White on Red” and “Earnestness: What Modern Art Has Done to Our Conceptions of Beauty.” Both paintings are my attempt as a painter to go beyond simple portraits, and as an amateur philosopher to begin a dialogue about beauty and its epistemological immediacy.
I saw Allison at an opening of a painting show at Grimaldis in Baltimore. The artist whose work was being celebrated that evening chose to work with iconic images in the way Andy Warhol used them: as source material for interpretation. For instance, an iconic image of Edgar Allan Poe was used as source material and interpreted—quite faithfully—and put on a sheet something like vellum with acrylic paint. As I looked at the work—some fifty paintings which looked like prints but were painstakingly painted using brush and paint, I asked myself the same question people often ask me: What is the point of doing this kind of work when the original is already out there? People ask that question because they think the “original,” better image is either (a) the person I’m actually trying to paint, or (b) the one that a camera can capture more quickly and perhaps in some ways more precisely than the one I can in paint. My response usually involves some facts about physics and optics that I tentatively put forward (because, let’s face it, I don’t understand a lick of physics or optics) about lens distortion, but more importantly some ideas about philosophy and psychology that may not necessarily apply to photographic situations (e.g., the subjective distillation of many moments into one visual truth decided by both the subject’s presence and the painter’s understanding of the subject). Detractors want to say that my work, and the work of representational painters who try very hard to be faithful to nature, is derivative, just because they think the camera can do better. But what did Andy Warhol do when he silkscreened Marilyn Monroe? The original graphic image was derived from a photo that he did not even take. So what did Andy Warhol really do? What did any of the moderns really do?
I remember a few years ago being in a community arts class and being told by the teacher that the following week we’d be transitioning into the abstract, non-representational part of the course. I came to art late in my life, after I had developed as intellectually as I was going to, and I remember feeling very dissatisfied with the teacher’s response to my question about what the principles of abstraction were, and how that was to translate onto the canvas. May be I wasn’t asking the right kind of question, but at any rate, I went to the library and read through lots of books about abstract painting and artists who work in non-representational or semi-representational modes and the philosophical underpinnings of their choices. I was utterly confused. Realizing that the idea of general principles did not seem to obtain in abstract art in quite the same way as it does in representational art, I concluded that while these artists were trying to do different things, they were mainly trying to get away from the meaning of reality as immediate visual understanding about THINGS and towards the communication of concepts or meta-ideas—specifically, ideas about ideas about painting.
Ideas about ideas about painting seemed to me to be worthwhile, but my gut feeling, at least as to how these concepts related to what I wanted to do, was that the whole shebang was better left to words, and the visual was already chock full of ideas about ideas about painting anyway. So there seemed to be an artificiality and intellectual graspingness about abstract art.
So, at Grimaldis Gallery, in the sea of “reinterpreted” iconic images, or copies of things we’ve already seen a million times and thus can recognize instantaneously, I saw Allison, a tall, willowy redhead with a beautifully soft face, and I asked her to pose for me. The painting I’m doing of her is larger than life size in the way most hip portrait painters these days work because they are taking a cue from abstract painters who generally worked or work very large. Her head, which has a 19th century sensibility in some ways, makes an arresting negative shape against Mark Rothko’s “White on Red” that I’ll be painting into the background. I am really excited about this painting and excited to say a few things about it here. First, there is always this sense of “I could have done it myself”-ness when it comes to modern art (or worse, “my five year old could have done that”-ness). I happen to love Rothkos and have seen quite a few in person because Houston, where I grew up, happens to have a lot of his work. I have a sense that his work is probably easier to reproduce than, say, a Velazquez, but I’m not certain, so I’m interested in working a little in that mode, and also trying to make it look like a painting of a Rothko that is hanging behind Allison, and not a perfect copy of “Red on White.” Second, I want to say something about the concept of Painting, with a capital P. Here we’ll have a painting within a painting (the Rothko as painted by myself), but the piece itself (Allison in front of the Rothko) is a painting about an idea about painting: a beautiful girl whose beauty competes with the beauty of the Rothko but at the same time is a color companion, as she’s a redhead wearing white, so in some ways she’s “white on red”, too. Will the viewer of this piece recognize a demand from me to choose between one or the other? And how to even delineate the choices? Between one form of beauty and another? Between representation and abstraction? Between truth and falsehood (and if so, which represents truth and which falsehood)?
More on the second painting tomorrow.