Sunday, June 23, 2013

Ways of Seeing

I've been thinking a lot about the ethics of painting and working with live models lately--like thinking a ton, more than usual (which is usually a lot).  Even talking extensively with a therapist about these topics.  The questions: why is the female figure and face so endlessly transporting for me, when so many other topics get old or don't draw me so powerfully?  How many beautiful women do I need to paint, exactly?  When will the anima or the goddess or the inner feminine or the outer feminine or what have you be sufficiently appeased?  In painting these images, am I prostrating myself before the feminine or am I standing in power over her?  Am I participating in the imperialistic, patriarchal, oppressive-objectifying project of so much of western art, or am I moving in a new, mutually empowering way with respect to feminine beauty?

I mentioned a number of these questions to the last model I worked with, and then said that as usual I'm probably overthinking things.  She said, "yeah."

In his groundbreaking exploration of western art called Ways of Seeing, which was originally a BBC program, John Berger raises these questions too and truly calls out the figurative art of the west for being concerned, as he puts it (paraphrasing now), with the owning, possessing, lascivious gaze of the painter/owner/viewer (a viewer always understood to be male) rather than being concerned with the actual woman being depicted.  The women in western art are objects of the male gaze who wear their nudity as a garment, an overlay covering their own agency, rather than subjects possessing their own lives, concerns, sexualities, and desires.  As he puts it (again, paraphrasing), they are always nude, never naked--naked in the sense of simply being themselves, naturally, owning themselves and inhabiting their own skins.  And he talks a great deal about the double standard, in which women are depicted for the sexual pleasure of men while simultaneously being blamed for the moral downfall of the men doing the viewing.

Well, here are two new paintings that address themselves to these questions, I think.

This one is painted with an eye focused on the beautiful back-curve, of course, from nape to bum.  The model has a gorgeous figure, and the drapery is arranged to highlight her ultrafeminine curves.  As I noted in the previous blog entry, the drapery makes the image more sexy than it would be otherwise, but even still, this is an image that appeals to my deep responsiveness to womanly beauty--it does feel like it is about me at least as much as about her.  

So yeah, I guess I do plead guilty here, to some degree at least.  Yes, there is a part of me that is hunting for particular satisfying images, and this is one of them.

I will also say that I think it is a good painting.  It uses the powers of watercolor, especially the transparency and the luminosity available through the use of vivid complements (orange and blue here) quite well.  I love the arm especially, and the face is a good likeness.

Here is a less good scan that shows the whole painting:

This is a less good painting but one I still like OK.  It captures the portrait pretty well, although the model is even more beautiful in real life than the painting shows.  I like the shoulders and the breasts.  I do not think I have captured the model's gorgeous skin tone yet.

I do a lot of these "bust portraits," as I like to call them, and in these I do feel like I am getting closer to letting her have her nakedness rather than impose upon her my own nudity-image.  This is her--really, idiosyncratically, her.  The gaze at the viewer here feels powerful and self-possessed.  

Which is not to say that the gaze in the top image doesn't feel that way to me.  I am actually painting these models in these images, not idealizing, sculpting, or photoshopping in any way.  For whatever that's worth.

Well, more about these topics in the future.  I think and hope that there is a "pure" and innocent love of beauty that can be expressed through this work.  Perhaps I'll articulate what I mean by that next.  Back to painting.