Saturday, March 25, 2017

"The Visual Is Over"


"The visual is over."  A dear friend of mine spoke those words to me a few days ago while we were having lunch together, talking about the blessings and (mostly) challenges of life--for her the latter are at present challenging indeed.  My heart was sore for her, listening to tales of trials and injustices she is facing.

The comment came when we were discussing my art.  I had told her the story of my collaboration with the model above, a model who had worked in the high-fashion modeling industry and experienced its many toxic dysfunctions: ridiculous expectations, an equation of moral superiority with a certain look, the whole abusive trade that exchanges beauty for money--and disordered eating, self-alienation, and shame.  This is the reality that my friend was referring to: not, I think, the visual in general but the commodification of the visual within a global capitalist frame.  "Capitalism is based on exploitation," remarked a lecturer I heard recently, an offhand comment that took me off guard.  It's easy to forget just how true that is, capitalism being the replacement of a slavery system with a wage system.  As in slavery, under capitalism, you're always still putting your heart, body, and spirit into the gears for another, to hell with your own will, desires, meaning--the only difference between the two systems is the paycheck.

So I get it--that part of the visual is over, or if it's not, it damned well should be.  "That part" equals all the ways in which the beauty of our sacred bodies is bought and sold within a value system that has nothing to do with real value, with the ways we really live, or can best live, in the world.  Our beauty is stolen from us, sometimes never to be retrieved.  And of course it's very much worse for women than for men.  Many commentators have noted the cruel irony of the modern age, that just as women (in the west, at least) are finding a voice, acquiring rights, accumulating wealth and power, they find themselves cruelly self-alienated, caught in a no-win battle with their own flesh.  Everywhere I look--and as a college professor, I watch the dynamic unfold with young women every day--I witness this holocaust of utterly needless suffering.  Yes, I too wish to end the tyranny of the visual, and I would trade anything, including all my art, if it could be ended.

This model, bless her, came to me from one of the art collaboration web sites, where artists and models meet.  She's the first such model I've ever hired.  Like my friend, she was a young woman who told me stories of a life spent navigating trials and injustices, not to mention cruel abuse.  She had learned to play the game, parlaying her very considerable conventional beauty into profit.  Hearing her speak, I was reminded of a line from Ani DiFranco's song "Letter to a John": "I want you to pay me for my beauty, I think it's only right / 'cause I have been paying for it all of my life."  She took my money, earning every penny, plus, I know, my care and my friendship to boot.  She's a delightful and wonderful person, a dear child of God, and I loved our time together.  Indeed, it was amazing to work with, well, a pro.  She was obviously very, very good at posing, at settling into the gaze of the camera, at giving her beauty generously.  She had down the fashion-model's pout.  I felt a sense of keen gratitude at being tutored in the work by such an accomplished subject.

But it was impossible for me not to feel, more and more as we worked, a sense of self-consciousness. I heard her sad life stories, and as I heard them, her face felt to me like it was embodying the sadness that her beauty had brought her.  And I found myself wanting her to break out of her habitual, practiced mold, to be "really her."  "Smile," I implored.  And she would smile, and each time she would blanch and look away, embarrassed.  And I realized--I feared--that it was possible that my own gazing and my own request to her to be "really her" were just...more of the same.  More objectification, more alienation, more demand to self-abnegate.  Certainly I realized, to my shock, that my project, which I have always claimed as a project of celebrating the truth of my subjects, "seeing and celebrating the real her," could very well be just yet another commodification--and this time perhaps a worse one, as for my pictures the model stands not just nude but truly naked.  What if I succeed in seeing "the real her"?  And what if it's a violation, a deep intrusion of privacy, to see someone so truly?

Can my kind of art redeem the visual, buy back our beauty for our own delight and good living in the world?  Can it be the antidote to the holocaust of the visual?  As I worked with this model, I so wanted it to be.  I wanted my art to save her.  I want my art to save the whole world.  That's all I have right now--lots of questions and my prayer that my painting might be a redemption song.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

A Slow Period


I've been pretty dry this first part of the year--"dry" being a very apt term when it come to watercolor blocks.  They're always curious to me, these dry spells.  They accompany depression, usually, but I can never tell if I'm dry because I'm depressed or depressed because I'm dry.  

The common feature of the dry spells is that I become un-enamored of my work.  The brush strokes all go awry.  The colors don't seem to blend right.  The efforts all seem less than futile.  I am not doing justice to my subjects, and that feels like a sin or a violation.  I don't think I would have it otherwise--don't think, for instance, that I would accept the bargain to not have the dry spells if it meant losing my commitment to doing good work.  But the dry spells are definitely the opposite of fun.

It is the case that I did a lot of painting toward the end of 2016, preparing for me show at UUCSR.  Just looking back over the blog, I find that I completed 11 paintings between September and January--a hugely productive stretch for me.  And all good work, too!  I like everything I painted during that stretch, which included some of my very favorite pieces, period.  The portraits still amaze me, and I like all those Semester at Sea land / sea / cloudscapes.  So I do try to cut myself some slack.  It makes perfect sense that I would wax arid for a while.

But now, aided by my spring break, I am back at it.  I love the painting above, of a new model.  The story of this painting is one I want to tell, because it speaks deeply to the themes that drive my art, but I need to think about how I might do that without violating the privacy of the model.  So perhaps for another blog entry.  Suffice for now to say that this piece captures the model in the kind of moment I prize: a moment of sheer grace, between all the other moments when our bodies are constrained and disfigured by our self-consciousness.

The other two pieces I've completed recently please me less.  Here is the one that really gave me fits and prevented me from even wanting to visit the easel for a few months:


I love the idea of this bodyscape.  It's incredibly graceful, the curves and the stance, the model's gorgeous figure in light and shadow.  But man....  the color just didn't come together.  I labored over it until the labor had gone sufficiently awry for me to abandon it for a while.  I also tried here to do more with masking--carving out skin highlights.  The result did not please me.  It looked too artificial, too obvious.  And worse--sin of all sins for a realist painter--inaccurate.  Shudder.

Here's a portrait I am quite fond of, however:


Yeah, this one is working OK.  It captures the model's special beauty accurately.  She and I had a good time working together, talking nerd talk and laughing.  I love a model who takes pride in her underarm fur.  And I dig her messy hair, like post-shag hair.  I hope I can say that while also affirming that my work is not, never has been, and never will be (as far as I can see now) overtly sexual.  It's only right now, as I'm looking at this, that this piece has a sort of special chaste eroticism about it.

More soon, when I can figure out how to tell the story of the top piece.  My experience in working with that model has shaken me, and I want to sort that out.  For now, yay for painting.  I told my wife yesterday, "when I'm painting, you know all is OK with me.  I have occupation, I have a reason to live, I'm living out my passion.  When I'm not painting, you have my permission to be concerned."

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Oops--Forgot a piece

And then there's this one:


Guilin, China, a Semester at Sea image.  Always wanted to paint this scenery.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

New Work

My first art show is now hung up at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation, Santa Rosa.  It's very exciting.  The ladies of the Aesthetics Committee did a great job of arranging and hanging the 36 paintings, and I have been receiving a lot of lovely comments.  I really am proud of my work now.

Here are two new pieces.  I seem to be choosing, in painting pictures of my wonderful friend Nancy, to try my hand at very complex pieces.  One was the lovely photo of her holding light in her hands.  This one I chose because I was very interested in evoking her black velvety dress.


Well, the whole picture turned out very complicated: her legs, her face, the reddish wall, the furry blanket she's sitting on.  The piece took a long time to complete.

And this one turned out much more interesting than I thought it would be too.  I chose it--the first picture of a new model--thinking it would be a quick and easy one-off.  And then, as usual, I found that her skin and the light shining on it were far more complicated than I thought they would be.  In places her skin glows.  How do you paint a glow?  The answer is with strong contrasts and with my old friend, the color orange.  


I love this piece--I love both of these pieces.  This one especially is accomplishing my highest calling as an artist: advancing, just a little bit, our understanding of the miraculous interaction of skin and light.

I am feeling good as an artist.  And lucky.  It's very gratifying to know that my paintings are making their way in the world, just a little bit.  And I feel like I will always have this blessing, this romance between me and my paintbrush.  

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Sitting by My Dad's Bedside

I'm sitting next to my dad's bed.  He's weak and out of it--drifting peacefully toward death.  I think it could come soon.

I'm playing Beethoven for him--symphony #3.  I also read some more Beowulf and also Keats's Eve of St. Agnes, looking around for some of the most beautiful language I know of.  My dad's face looks like a child's face to me now.  I so much see the family resemblance.  He has the Miller German mouth and the round head and blue eyes.  At other times of death, I have noticed this heightened awareness of the body.  It's a feeling of deep gratitude for the body that has been.  In this case, it's a body that half-created me and then that carried me, cared for me, gave me shelter and love.  My earliest memories are of riding horseback-style on dad's back.  I remember the scratchy flannel of his dark tartan Pendleton shirt.

That's my dad in the painting above.  The likeness is far from perfect.  Especially the mouth.  The painting challenges me to paint another, better portrait.  It looks enough like dad to have served as a Christmas gift to my brother Mark.  I'm also having prints of it made for my other brothers and family members.

I like the painting for how it captures much of my dad's personality and, well, self.  His camera, for instance: dad was always an inveterate photographer, more for documentary purposes than anything else.  I've heard him say on a number of occasions, "if it's not documented, it didn't happen."  So here, in this painting from a photo taken aboard a catamaran that we sailed on a sea excursion in Kauai in 2008, he's got the camera, because of course he does.  And then there are his glasses--the thick-lensed pair that darken or lighten with the sunlight.  He always wore glasses, and it was a point of pride for him that the optometrist always said, whenever he had a new pair made, that his glasses were the heaviest he had ever made.  Then there's the shirt and the hat that I recognize, and the characteristic posture.  All that make up a person.  So I learn in painting this portrait that portraits capture even more than I ever thought they could.  For a familiar viewer, they can capture the life that the body embodied.

It was a pleasure and honor to paint the picture.  I didn't think I would be able to do it--painting portraits being such intimate work.  But when I saw this photo, I thought, oh, I can paint that: that's so much my dad's self-in-the-world, the self that all got to see.  I wrestled with it--that mouth gave me fits.  Like wrestling an angel.

New gratitude for the gift of artistic vision.  Old gratitude, newly enriched, for my dad's life.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Story of Another Painting


The healing power of beauty is so mysterious.

My father's life is ending.  He's nearly 81, he had a wonderful life full of love and manifold contribution--he's a lucky man.  And he was healthy for nearly all of the 81 years.  Then lung cancer struck, and now he's dying of a brain metastasis.  I will miss him terribly.

My days now are relatively normal--not living very close to my parents.  I go through my days at work and taking care of Noah and finding time with Susan.  Intermittently, like today, I manage to get down to visit.  Today I came down after my brother John sounded the alarm: it looked to him like the end was near.  So I came down today and spent several hours sitting next to him while, mostly, he slept.  His face is beginning to wear the mask of death that advanced cancer patients put on.

I laugh at myself: what I read to him was Beowulf, the ancient Old English epic poem of great deeds and monstrous attacks upon the Shield-Danes.  We are of Scandinavian stock.  The warriors in the poem are our ancestors.  I like the idea of invoking for my dad the image of the Viking warrior--our forebear.

Three postings in this blog in the space of as many days, more or less, come by virtue of my mad painting in this very difficult time.  Trump on the one hand, death on the other.  What can I control?  Where can I find solace?  Painting offers some.

I love this painting.  I painted most of it while I was down staying with my mother-in-law after my dad's first big scare.  While he was over the hills potentially dying, I was over here sculpting this lovely model's beautiful back and feet and bum with washes of gold, crimson, purple, aquamarine.  I celebrate the body through this painting.  I celebrate the body as my father's body is diminishing toward oblivion.  

It's a common classical pose: the odalisque or reclining nude.  I have no doubt that this is largely a guy thing, but the beautiful female body, and especially the beautiful female backside, signify, well, life in so profound a way--the fleeting, magnificent fecundity and grace of our lives in these bodies.  As I sought to capture the beauty of this model, it felt like I was pulling out of myself a fierce love of all that we are in this plane: the so transient miracle of our flesh.  

I love this painting.  I am so happy that I got to paint it, and so happy that I get and got to be my dad's son.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Story of a Painting


On Wednesday, November 9, 2016, we all awoke to the reality that America had chosen for the most important and hardest job in the world a man who is utterly unqualified, who proudly doesn't read, who inherently hates government unless it can help his business prospects and channel his bigotry, who is erratic, narcissistic, sexually predacious, deeply Machiavellian, and dangerously impulsive.  We chose him over a woman.  The woman had the faults that come with being an establishment candidate.  But she was immensely qualified, intelligent, and stable.  We chose one of the worst public men in America over one of the most admired and prepared public women in America.  We did that.

I worked on this painting during the evening of election day and finished it on that awful Wednesday.  In terms of genre, it's simply one of my usual "bust portraits"--I'm working here on skin tone, on shading and shaping, following my usual love affair with light.

As I worked, I couldn't help feeling like my own despair, my own sadness and hurt over my country's rash choice-making, was working into the painting.  In the photo from which the painting arises, the model looks more sultry than sad.  In this portrait, I see my own shock and confusion.

And I almost never have painted a model's tattoos.  Here, I found that I could not not paint her Wonder Woman arm-band tattoo.  She is still Wonder Woman, underneath her clothes and in spite of a cruel repudiation.  She is still Wonder Woman.  I will still be here, the painting says to me: I will still be here, with the beauty and dignity of my body and with my fierce pride in it and in my own power.  Slumbering fierceness can awaken jagged energy.  

I love this painting.  It offers a new level of art for me.  I would call it a political commentary if that didn't sound so calculated.  It is a spontaneous message of hurt and defiance.

I would put my body on the barricades for this Wonder Woman and all Wonder People who demand justice and humanity from this world.