Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Domestic Drama

Happy birthday to me.  I am now 55 years old.  It feels like a big jump.  I'm now in AARP territory.  In so many ways I feel completely like me, but in other ways I feel the years slipping by--speeding by, really--and the tale is told in my muscles and joints and in other places.  Our lives are so short.

In this post are three new paintings that speak to me of the preciousness of life in its rapid slipping past.  All three are of the same model, my most recent.  As I have noted in recent posts, she's a dear, dear friend.  


So things are not all well at home or on the painting front.  My wife and I have been relating across distance lately.  That passing of time brings so much, and one of the things it brings is a history to our intimate relationships, a history that, for us and for many couples, I don't doubt, brings an accumulation of, well, hard stuff: resentments, irritations, frustrations, growing awareness of differences.  Even apart from that ours is a difficult situation: too much damn work on both sides, plus a young son at home, all this demanding of care and attention, inevitably means that the spark between us gets neglected and dims to more of an ember.  About a month ago, my wife acted out of her frustration around the growing distance and decided that my painting was a prime problem, thinking that both the painting and the work with models was tantamount to an affair.  She asked me to take down all of my nudes, and she asked that I not work with any more models.  I think she would be happy if I took all the attention and creativity I've been channeling into painting figures and diverted it in the direction of, I don't know, model railroading.  So I took down the paintings and I put away my easel.


But I had completed these three paintings, all of which I like for various reasons.  This one, the seated figure above, is my favorite.  What a beautiful pose.  And there's the rub for me.  Can I say, honestly, that painting has taken my attention away from home?  Yes, I suppose so, but in a very complicated way (and way less than, for instance, work has).  I am someone who responds powerfully and viscerally to beauty in all its forms, and the beauty of women's bodies (including my wife's) is a rapturous delight for me.  I'm hardly alone in this.  And it is not as though abandoning painting will make me immune to noticing the beauty in others, including women, any less.  Still.  I do understand where my dear wife is coming from.  It must feel very lonely to be with a guy like me who channels erotic energy outside the marriage.

"Erotic energy" sounds so, I don't know, serious.  I'll say again what I've often said, that painting figures for me is startlingly platonic.  I'm an introverted, shy sort of person who very much reserves sexual intimacy for truly intimate relationships.  I've always been this way.  Sex is sacred to me--which is not to say that it's not fun and playful (indeed, for me, play is sacred)--and I treasure my memories of all of the small number of women I have been physically intimate with.  Beauty, including the amazing beauty of women's bodies, is equally sacred to me.  Is worshipping the sacred beauty of women's bodies outside of marriage a form of infidelity?  Perhaps.  I certainly understand how it can feel that way.

I've been listening to a book on Audible called The State of Affairs, by Esther Perel, a wonderful Belgian psychoanalyst who specializes in treating couples who either are beset by extramarital troubles or who just have trouble nourishing the erotic connection within the marriage.  Perel offers a complete and complex set of understandings for marital disharmony and marital ennui, both of which my wife and I have been experiencing of late.  Without going into details, I can say that our experience is very common.  There are so many challenges that couples endure in their passage through time.  The dance of marriage requires balancing so many needs and longings: security and adventure, stability and excitement, love and sex.  Many couples, I learn from Perel, have difficulty achieving this balance, i.e., difficulty holding all these competing vectors within the crucible of one union.  Many individuals or couples can't do so--hence the state of affairs.  On balance, my wife and I have been pretty good at holding, nurturing, nourishing, and valuing all the energies.  Ours is a good marriage.  (And I have had a bad one, so I do know of which I speak.)

But even good marriages "leak."  Even good marriages meet only some needs, embrace and allow for only some aspects of each partner, and contain only some of the erotic energy and longing partners have.  I have my share of "unauthorized" longings that I've explored and allowed to live through my painting of figures.  Add to the whole mix this challenging fact: I have depression.  My depression is not of the debilitating sort, but it does make life very difficult for me at times.  And my cure--or rather treatment--has tended to be to seek and nourish erotic vitality, the opposite of depression, anywhere I can.  I nourish it through music (I've been studying piano), through model building (infrequently), through housekeeping and gardening (even less frequently), and most especially through painting.  I can't not do that nourishing.  Giving in to my depression--making it harder for me to get out of bed than it already is for me--would serve no one, least of all my wife and son.  Thus my wife's banning me from painting figures feels a bit like asking me to return to the desert after I had found an oasis.  

Well, we're entering into some couples counseling.  The aim there will be, for me at least, to address the pileup of resentments and frustrations that have created alienation in our partnership.  It certainly will be to find ways to revive play and erotic frisson between us.  And it will be to bring the subject of my painting into the open where we can really look at it and assess its deleterious effects--and, I hope, its benefits.

For I do believe that there have been benefits.  I do believe that painting figures has allowed me to cherish my marriage and my wife and to bring some energy back into our partnership.  How can it not?  And there's the real paradox or irony.  Below is a final painting, one I adore.  To the model I said that this painting could be called Breast Study with Maniacal Grin.  The painting captures a spontaneous moment of the life of my dear friend.  Sure, it's intimate: she's naked and unguarded and so beautiful here.  But in painting her I carry a piece of her life with me everywhere I go, including into my marriage.  Understanding how and thereby cherishing gratitude for everyone involved here--my model, my wife, myself--will be my ultimate aim.


Friday, March 16, 2018

We Can Do It!


My latest piece, above, is another real labor of love.  I painted it as a gift for my dear friend who modeled for me after several years of talking about modeling, dreaming about it, circling the possibility through many conversations.  My friend is so many things: a writer, an artist herself, a rabid Harry Potter fan, a rabid fan of much mythical literature besides, and also someone who is very literate in feminist theory.  She is far more up than I am on the concept of the Male Gaze and far more thoughtful about all the dynamics of commodification that alienate women from their bodies and from each other.  She also is very sex- and body-positive, having worked at women-friendly sex shops and so forth.  She is herself queer (currently only dating women), and, on top of that, she is classically gorgeous, with a figure that just begs for the brush.  She is just flatly the most awesome human being.  I love her so much, and I am so incredibly privileged to call her my friend.

Having said all that, I have probably already made it clear why this image drew my artistic ambition. This strong-woman pose so perfectly suits her--it mirrors my inner view of her.  When I gave it to her, to my eternal delight, she beamed and said, "I want to put it on my wall!"  That's kind of what I was hoping she would say. 😃

To be sure, I am not entirely happy with the piece.  The facial portrait especially is far from perfect.  But I still like the piece, especially the play of light and shadow that sort of criss-crosses her body.  As I look at it, my eye travels down, across, and back up her figure in a most delightful way.

When we last met, talking art and eating lunch in my home, she saw for the first time not only this piece but also the other major piece I've done of her, below:


In my discussion of this piece in my earlier blog entry, I stated how much I love the piece--very much indeed--and also noted that one of the reasons I love it so much is that it captures one of those moments I cherish and love to paint: those moments when the model is, or seems to, be in a moment of self-delight, happy and content to be alive at this time in this body.  But when I showed my friend the painting, she did not express that flavor of appreciation.  Instead, she spoke (haltingly, I must say) about the oddity or the shock of seeing herself objectified (not the word she used) in a painting so, well, nakedly.  She stated that she does appreciate the painting as a work of art and sees and appreciates the beauty of it.  But still: the blatant fact of the picture's blatancy, within a social context that is so fraught with tensions around bodies and image-making, is cause, she said or implied, for considerable ambivalence.

"Why can't we just love ourselves and appreciate the beauty of the body for the simple beauty that it is and offers?"  That's the question I frequently hear from people, women especially, when we look at and discuss my work.  There's a poignant loss and longing there, a feeling that I certainly understand and share (as I have noted in other entries).  "Why did we get kicked out of this garden, where we could just uncomplicatedly love ourselves, and is there any route back?"  That might be a way of paraphrasing the question.  Who knows why we lack or lose the simple, innocent joy we have in our own bodies and in the bodies of others, and who knows why that joy gets replaced by fear, anxiety, shame, protectionism?  There are 18,000 answers to this question, but all point to one conclusion: There is no easy way back.  There is no way out but through.  We have to take our bodies back.  In that spirit, can we say the following?: 

  • Every time we stand in front of the mirror and see something we like, that is a triumph
  • Every time we claim our right to pleasure and love our bodies through touch, through orgasms, through use and exertion, that is a triumph
  • Every time we bravely stand up, whether for art purposes and any other, and say, "here I am in my body, here I am, bodymindsoul, and I take delight in myself and in your love of the body that you see before you," that is a triumph
I don't think we have any alternative but to say yes and say yes again and say yes again and again, in opposition to the voices that tell us no.  We can do it!

Thursday, February 8, 2018

Christmas Presents


Here's another labor of love painting--a birthday present for my brother.  The picture has lovely relevance for our family life, as the photo from which it was taken came from our annual men's and boys' camping trip.  This was taken last June, in the wake of our dad's passing, and it felt to me like a rich privilege to be able to capture some of the love that our family shares--especially the love between fathers and sons.  

I can't say that I'm 100% happy with the painting, but it's good enough.  My brother especially looks great in his purple-and-orange shadow.  I enjoyed painting the T-shirts too.  Behind the trio is an old downed giant redwood, and the contrast between the dark background and the sun-highlights is the main interest of the painting for me, technically, of course.

I have enjoyed making paintings as Christmas presents in the past several years--two still lifes and then a portrait of Dad for Mark (I always seem to draw Mark's name out of the hat), and then this piece for John.  It did occur to me recently--again--while looking at my backlog of paintings that, for me, the muse has not over the past ten years or so been the whole world.  Rather, it's been bodies and faces.  I'm pretty obsessional, I guess, and the muse for me is the Muse in the old fashioned sense.  I get inspiration from worshipping at the altar of the divine feminine, as I say ad infinitum.

So I think, if and when I get time to really paint a lot, my challenge will be busting open to allow the rest of the world in.  It's certainly not that I don't enjoy painting landscapes or still lifes.  So why don't I paint more such paintings?  Seascapes, cloudscapes, and landscapes especially--aren't they what I originally came to the easel to capture?

There's an interesting drama going on in England at the Manchester Art Gallery, where the decision was taken to remove, for a time, this painting from the wall:

(John William Waterhouse, Hylas and the Nymphs, 1896)

In place of the painting, the Manchester Gallery put up a sign announcing that the painting had been removed during a "group gallery takeover" led by featured artist Sonia Boyce, and comments were invited through the provision of post-its.  Many comments, both irate and supportive, were posted.  The painting was rehung fairly quickly, but an interesting controversy erupted nonetheless, in print and offline.

So who was Hylas?  I just looked him up.  Turns out he is one of the great symbols in myth of the man who makes the mistake of putting hoes before bros (sorry, I absolutely could not resist).  He was an argonaut, a sailor with Jason and friend--and lover--of Heracles.  It's a simple story: Hylas goes in search of water, finds this pool, and succumbs to the charms of the nymphs dwelling therein, disappearing from the story, from history, into the arms and charms of a lusciously feminine Eden.  To figure the story in that way makes history itself relentlessly masculine and something else, something outside history, as thoroughly feminine.  And what is outside history?  Well, heaven itself, the other-worldly, the beyond language, the eternal tropic of eternal earthly delight.  Does Hylas win or lose by succumbing?  Of course, the answer rises from your point of view.  A perspective that honors masculine culture and masculine adventures would lament the story.  Of course, I say he won in the biggest and best way possible to win.  Thus I love the painting.  At the moment of the picture, Hylas seems simply befuddled, or maybe startled, and the girls....  Well, the girls, who are very clearly girls, not women, seem more curious than anything--not curious about what is going to happen (indeed, they know what's going to happen) but rather curious to watch themselves taking this part in the human drama.  They're a little afraid of their own power, it seems to me.  Only the one who's taking the lead, the central figure and focus of the piece, seems overtly sirening here, and her siren call is nothing more than a Mona Lisa smile, reaching hands, and a tight gaze--along with, of course, the divine beauty of her face and figure.

So obviously I wonder how much this myth applies to me.  Am I too abandoning worthwhile projects and a more, I don't know, serious mission for my art by losing myself in this worship of goddesses?  Have I missed my Argo?  Of course I don't think so--this is all far too serious.  I have the luxury of going there, of playing Hylas in my art.  I don't care what anyone thinks about it, and I'm just trying to please myself.  If I want my studio to be a lusciously feminine Eden, a grotto of nymphs, I can, so there.  But what if I wanted to please other people more too?  Do I have anything against that?

Of course not.  The Manchester Gallery controversy, to my mind, is yet another instance of the perennial question of whether Western art is or is not largely just a space for men to explore and exercise and exorcise their fantasies and dreamscapes.  There's nothing wrong with that project as a project.  But too it is perfectly right for women artists like Sonia Boyce to raise the question of what gets hung and what gets ignored among a gallery's established library, so I love this little experiment.  Women have the right to have their fantasies and dreamscapes explored and exercised on the walls of galleries too, and all of us have the responsibility to listen with care when critical eyes ask questions about what is in those paintings we make and like so much.  And as an artist, I too value the chance to think about the viewers of my paintings and to want to include dreams and fantasies that invite joy from others too.  

I hope my brother and his family like my painting.  I am so glad to have gotten to make it.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Choosing Paintings to Submit

I am going to enter my work in a contest at a regional art gallery, on the prompting of a friend and former model who lives in that community.  I've decided to submit figures only.  So now I am trying to decide which three pictures to send (such being the limitations).  Almost no one looks at my blog regularly except me, but if anyone happens to see this post, please feel free to weigh in.  I'd love to know which pictures you think represent me and my work best.  I'll number the pictures for easy reference and basically go from approximately oldest to newest.

























Tuesday, January 16, 2018

The Perfection of the Real


My friend Marjorie posted this poem on her Facebook account not long ago, and I love it.  It so captures the spirit I THINK I am trying to attain in my painting:

A Landscape
Carl Dennis, 1939

This painting of a barn and barnyard near sundown
May be enough to suggest we don't have to turn
From the visible to the invisible
In order to grasp the truth of things.  
We don't always have to distrust appearances.
Not if we're patient.  Not if we're willing
To wait for the sun to reach the angle
When whatever it touches, however retiring,
Feels invited to step forward into a moment that might seem to us
Familiar if we gave ourselves more often
To the task of witnessing.  Now to witness
A barn and barnyard on a day of rest
When the usual veil of dust and smoke
Is lifted a moment and things appear
To resemble closely what in fact they are.

"[T]o suggest we don't have to turn / From the visible to the invisible / In order to grasp the truth of things."  My journey of artistic enlightenment has carried me thus far, I think: toward a vision that says that we have made a terrible error in thinking that we see more deeply when we "turn inward" or "seek the higher truth" or anything like that.  It's a vision that resets Platonism wholeheartedly.  It's a vision that says that exactly what is wrong with the world is that we have so often and in so many ways rejected the gifts that the physical, the real offer to us.

This idea comes home especially in light of bodies--in light of bodies in the light.  The painting above, a new one, is of a current favorite model whom I painted several times now.  She's the model who has endured abuse of many sorts--the worst sorts of abuse that family members can offer each other, and then the usual dysfunction coming from the world of high-fashion modeling.  In the photograph from which the painting comes, she does not look anything like so sad.  And yet I seem to have painted her in a state of deep dejection.  Why?  No doubt my own painterly lack of skill bears some blame, but too I felt myself, in painting, projecting onto her some of my own dejection, in sympathy or empathy, I suppose.  I am sorry that I couldn't find a way to include the model's one tattoo, which appears on the inside of her left arm.  It's a quotation from Vonnegut: "Everything was beautiful, and nothing hurt."  Alas, the words were a tad small.

I find myself thinking in religious language.  It is a grave sin, one of the gravest sins, I think, that we have been committing in Western culture for millennia now: the sin of rejecting the actual for the imagined, the sin of straining after a "rotten perfection" (Kenneth Burke) and dismissing, ignoring, inconsequentializing the real.  Our bodies live in this inhospitable world we have made for them, and understandably they rebel.  They rebel in acts of self-attack, like the cut wounds on this model's thighs, or in acts of other-attack, illness, or other abnegation.

I want to heal the world.

Below is another piece.  This one is of a model I've worked with before, only never nude.  She and I have talked literally for years about working together more, and when we finally did, both of us wondered how easy and comfortable the work would go.  It turned out to be the loveliest day imaginable, the model dancing her way into and out of poses and again and again striking poses like this one, of an amazing, beautiful young woman confident and in love with her own real perfection.  Again, I thought: this is the most important work in the world.


Saturday, November 11, 2017

Vermeer's Nudes


Recently I had the good fortune to be in Washington DC, a lovely place to be in the fall, and while there I had the good fortune to visit the National Gallery just as an amazing special exhibition of genre paintings by Dutch masters (Vermeer, ter Borch, de Hooch, Steen, etc.) was showing.  The exhibit was a revelation: picture after picture of subjects (usually women) sitting or standing in the light of a window, their clothing and features illuminated in magical chiaroscuro.  I gazed at all the paintings with a keen recognition: wow, here's where a lot of my aesthetic comes from.  Or wow: these guys shared my obsessions too.  (I'm not sure which sentence is the truer.)

The recognition was so keen that I found myself thinking, where are Vermeer's nudes?  Of all the paintings in the exhibit, Vermeer's were the ones that moved me most profoundly.  All the painters shared similar interests in observing people (again, women mostly) illuminated--revelated by light, sculpted by light.  There were many excuses for the paintings: moralistic excuses (some paintings were Christian allegories); exoticist excuses (picture girl with parrot); domestic excuses (here's my sister doing what she always does: tatting lace).  But it was Vermeer who most keenly observed the fleeting grace of a face and a figure caught in time.  I felt that his paintings were deeply compassionate, deeply loving.  And his were the paintings in which the excuse felt most deeply like what it was: an excuse.

Vermeer's most famous painting was not in the show, but it's my favorite just as it is a worldwide favorite.  Here is is:

(Girl with a Pearl Earring, c. 1665)

This painting does have an excuse--the exoticism of the earring and costume--but those details are so obviously extraneous to the real subject here, which is the sitter herself and her candid beauty.  You get the feeling that here Vermeer threw up his hands and said, "to hell with it!  I'm going to paint what I really want to paint, the only true subject: human grace."  The result is what we see.

So yes: where are Vermeer's nudes?  Was he content to create his domestic scenes of the public-private life of Delft, of women reading letters, playing music, and so forth?  Part of me doesn't believe it.  The existing paintings, to me, gesture toward hidden possibilities, or probabilities, that this artist, like so many other artists before and since, could not not have exercised the longing to understand the deeper and greater grace of the figure unadorned.  I fantasize the existence, or former existence, of a large body of drawings and paintings made in privacy, perhaps with his wife, with whom he had at least ten children.  Perhaps he sketched or painted some of those children.  Perhaps he worked with professional models, as many of his contemporaries did.  Whichever, part of me does not accept the possibility that he was content to paint fabric rather than skin.  We'll never know, of course.  But I grieve.  Wouldn't Vermeer's nudes have been glorious?

I thought of this question too as I looked at the other works in the regular collections, both at the National Gallery and at the American Art Gallery, which I also visited.  As so many commentators (feminist commentators especially) have noted, there is no shortage of nudes in art galleries.  Recalling my entry some years ago on the commentary of John Berger and his distinction between the naked and the nude (the nude being the much more common objectified woman--the woman seen and eroticized under the male gaze--and the naked being the vanishingly rare subjectified, agent-bearing woman--the woman as she "really" is, with her beauty, certainly, but her true her-ness too and her desire and her self-possession, in the fullest sense).  There are many nudes, and the nudes tend almost universally toward idealization or mythicization.  Here's Hiram Powers's The Greek Slave (1846):

I think this sculpture is very beautiful, and it is not unrealistic, but compare it with this amazing sculpture that I found in the American collection: Erastus Dale Palmer's June (1865):

Here we have the real hair, the real breasts, the real face of a living, real young woman.  How much more miraculous, to me, is this true portrait.  This bust portrait hints to me of the kind of nudes Vermeer would have painted: portraits and figures that glory in the true grace of the true human body and spirit.

I hope my latest painting, all the way at the top, shares in this work, as I hope that all of my paintings do.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Me Too


Periodically Facebook becomes a forum in which people who are feeling the sting of violence and oppression can share their experiences and express their grief and frustration.  Now is another one of those times.  The hashtag #metoo is making the rounds, signifying that the poster too--like so many other women--has experienced some form of sexual abuse, assault, or harassment.  Of course every single woman I know has either posted the "me too" or has commented on the movement (always admitting that they COULD have said simply "me too" too).  I weighed in, trying hard not to mansplain (and probably failing).  I wrote down these thoughts the other day and did NOT post them.  I will do so here:

Yes, this is the cultural movement we really need.  All honor to those who wish to own the traumatizing they have endured by posting "me too," but how do we put the responsibility where it lies--on the men who abuse and on all men for explicitly or tacitly supporting rape culture?

Even if we limit the inquiry to, um, egregious cases, we are talking about millions of men.  Millions of us.  Millions of "fine upstanding citizens."  Millions of husbands, fathers, professionals, workers, siblings, uncles, movie producers.  What would it look like to open up the wound of what I have come to think of as the dark life of men and cleanse it for the good of all?  How many men will take up this invitation?  Couched in this way, we all know the answer: approximately zero.  

We need a truth and reconciliation movement for the problem of sexual abuse, assault, and harassment.  But what would that look like?  I don't think we know.  And there's a catch-22.  None of us doesn't think that the Weinsteins and Cosbys should not be prosecuted and outed.  But each such public case in many ways only drives the dark life deeper into the shadows.  

It's absolutely up to us men.  Women can and should have no responsibility here beyond simply saying "me too": speaking to the universality of the problem.  We men need to find a language to talk to each other about the sexual abuse, assault, and harassment that we commit.  Building this culture is no small project.  I think a great deal about how we might do it, speaking especially as an educator of young adult women and men.  Have I gotten very far in thinking through the challenges?  Nope.

Here's all I know: it has to start young.  It has to start with boys and men learning ways to speak with one another honestly and openly about the dark side of our hearts and the dark side of our dysfunctional and abusive culture.  Until we create these systems of healing,    (and that's as far as I got)

The dark life of men.  In many ways, my painting occupies a shadowland in my life.  It's not as if I share these figure studies widely.  I only, in fact, share them with a very few close friends and with the models.  I don't like needing to be so secretive.  I am proud of my work.  I don't think that anything is wrong with it, indeed I think that everything is right with it, that this kind of art can and does heal.  But in a sexual-political context of completely understandable deep suspicion, I know that I have to be very careful.

It's important for me to say this: in my painting, I am not trying to abuse, oppress, harass, assault, or victimize in any way.  I am trying to understand, adore, worship, meditate, express love.  Do I know, ultimately, whether my painting is better in these regards than what a catcaller in the street might say "I'm just expressing my appreciation!"?  I like to think so.  Is my focus on women's bodies a form of what I have heard referred to as benevolent sexism?  Maybe.  But I'm not trying to save, protect, infantilize, patronize, or make anyone dependent either.  

I'm pretty sensitive about these questions, aren't I?  Should I be suspicious of that mere sensitivity, i.e., am I being defensive?  

The painting above--the first painting I've completed in several months--represents more of what I have been trying to do with my art: celebrate a woman in a moment of unguarded joy in her life and in her body.  The model, a friend and former yoga teacher of mine, is an amazing person and a wonderful teacher from whom I have learned so, so much.  I loved working with her as a model, and I so hope my art honors her.

That's an answer for me: it's all political, but it's all personal too.  And how we as men treat the actual women in our lives and in the world is what it is all really, ultimately about.