bodies in knowledge


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Ernest Hemingway's grandson strides into the etching studio and saddles up next to my bench partner, Alex. I'm vaguely aware that they're friends, yet Hemingway makes me uncomfortable. I like Alex, he's funny, smart and handsome. I occupy myself with aquatinting and try not to listen to their conversation, which isn't much about anything, anyway. He kisses Alex, full on the lips, maybe even a flick of the tongue, and walks away.

It was a short kiss, but being my first kiss, witnessed, between men, I remember it as vividly as my first kiss, actualized, with a woman and, again, with a man. It changed the room. It made me hard. I tried to forget it, etching. I tried to forget it again, getting coffee. I tried to forget it over dinner, with my girlfriend, and, later, again, when she wanted to have sex with me, which I couldn't do. I tried to forget as I tried to fall asleep. I tried to forget when I woke up in the middle of the night, having sex with my girlfriend (sleepwalking? sleepfucking?) while dreaming about Alex. I tried to forget again and again for three years.

Although I was convinced that going to graduate school would provide and interesting context for learning, the complexities of a long distance relationship kept me from submitting the application that I assiduously crafted. My life, as it was constructed, precluded the possibility of developing a practice. I tried to carve a space to paint, but increasingly that space seemed to script me as a Sunday painter. On a particular day in Manhattan, the precarious relationship that prescribed my life imploded. It certainly wasn't the first time that the relationship had faltered, but I felt a different resolve in this dissolution. As I drove the Interstate 95 corridor, I sensed new possibility. More than that, I understood that I needed to establish a claim to my time and life.

A cynic might construe my motivation as careerist. As a life-long academician, I had hit a ceiling of advancement. The lack of a terminal degree had stirred the interest of certain colleagues who didn't appreciate my non-traditional approach to credentializing. In their view, experience mattered less than theoretical mastery. Indeed, what had made me successful as an activist and educator -- directing a center for service and social change marked me as suspect within the academy. Yet, the politics of my professional life -- much less the question of whether I would ever be deemed worthy by my peers to be named an "associate dean" or a "professor" -- mattered less than the necessity I felt to re-orient my community toward a different use of my time.

I've been a painter since I was 15, but my community constructed painting as, at best, and avocation and, more often, an exoticizing hobby. (Painting became a structuring absence for my identity I was known as a painter, even if there were no paintings in production -- underscoring my sense of fraud and frustration.) Intuitively, I knew that committing myself to the studio wouldn't provide me with the professional or social space to pursue the work rigorously. I needed a recognized structure to convey that I was serious. Graduate school became a structure through which I developed a practice and I re-oriented my community's understanding of me.

"What's with the hair?" It was the first question the reviewer asked me, hours before the opening. It freaked me out. What does she mean? Does she infer a fetish? Is she truly confused? What's with her hair? Doesn't she get it? Am I too abstract? Hair is emblematic of identity. The way that we wear our hair is a culturally laden marker of social place or transgression. Haircuts are constructed by our society as something that reveals our place, connote our standing, or project sexual power. The process of having one's hair cut is one that often provokes anxiety because it places one's projected identity in the hands of another, therefore repositioning power and creating a scenario of potential subjugation. That's what's with the hair.

I had been an abstract landscape painter. I was drawn to land, space, and pictorial structure because of its poetry and loved the way that perception and cognition conspire to create a visually coherent environment. As much as I love the idiom of landscape, it also provided a convenient and persuasive cover for the fact that I was terrified of the intimacy and emotional revelations of figurative painting. It was a consequence of the closet.

The funny thing about figure painting is that it seems to endure. Countless reports of its passing have been relayed over centuries, yet, here it is. I think it has to do with the intimacy of its construction. I know it has to do with our collective narcissism, we just can't help but look at the human figure. As viewers, we relate to the subject (and object) because we know that its been mediated by another human soul. Unlike photography, which is so forcefully mediated by technology, a human hand works figurative paintings. It's this intimacy that scared me away from figure painting for so long.

Complicating this further, I don't paint for a "high art" audience. I paint for people who are searching, like I am searching, for a deeper understanding of the human experience. In working, I dig into my life and relationships in order to contemplate what it is for me to be in this world. My work is more likely to be situated in someone's daily life; my revelations are likely to become an opportunity for daily meditation. It opens me to inspection and analysis. My earlier work, abstractions and landscapes provided me with cover and distance. Their language was more obscure, requiring some initiation. Although they weren't narrative, in the way that my work is now, they were, as Tom Wolf tells us, literary. Now, I bare more and accept the risk of armchair analysis.

Drawing with my aunt, something of a vernacular artist, inspired by her seascapes, I attempted to draw some of my own. The intersection of sea and sky is still a personal idiom and this might be the seed of my fascination. This day, however, my exuberance for the genre led me to include some intrepid ships sailing across the horizon. I was distinctly told that ships on the horizon dont look as real as ships that are drawn below the horizon. An early lesson in perspective, to be sure, yet also a moment of shame. There was an inference: I should have known how to do it right. Clearly, I wasn't looking close enough.

I was resilient and within the hour I was proudly exhibiting my (correct) drawing to my parents. I asserted that I planned to be an artist when I grew up. The memory, as fragile and wrought by time as it is, seems clear. This declamation was as serious as fireman, doctor, construction worker or any other job that might have as easily struck my fancy moments before or hours later. Yet, my mother's reaction was bracing. "You dont want to be an artist. Artists are queer."

I have no perspective to know whether I was conscious of the meaning, the content of the statement, but the shame is vivid. I remember where I stood on the rug. I remember the color of the light in the room, the temperature of the day. I remember a weight that hung over the room the moment the words were spoken. We dont need to be cognizant of meaning to understand powerful moments of containment or to integrate them into our soul.

Becoming an adult, consciously aware of my desire's form, I lost my facility for openness. I can vividly remember a childhood that was curious and engaged. I was the kid who knew everyone, connected easily in public spaces and more often than not connected my family to other families when we traveled. I remember my parents remarking on my ability to make friends, to meet people, to connect. Loss of openness is a devastating location in which any artist can find himself.

When I was 12 or 13 and word started to spread that I was fooling around with boys in the neighborhood. Through this, I realized that some openness wasn't always the most effective way keep friends. Indeed, openness, curiosity and exploration could get you in trouble. The one thing I never understood is where these rumors started. Were my accusers ashamed that it might be discovered that they liked our encounters? Or was igniting my shame an effective strategy for subduing their own? Humiliation is a form of containment; the trick is figuring out who's being contained.

Shame inhibits connection, certainly, but more so it precipitates fear and deadens one's soul. Shame operates with a geometric dynamic. Once engaged, it penetrates one's life, causing one to question every situation and to create a moral calculus that's focused on safety. In the worst cases it creates self-hatred and even leads to suicide. In some instances, when one is aware of the process, but unable to fully engage the source of the shame, it creates a kind of cool distance, bitterness, or antagonistic demeanor. In all cases it keeps one from taking risks, from stepping out of safety, from looking deeply within and acknowledging the systems which frame our existence. Shame places bodies within constraints, places them in a specific quadrants. Like a piece on a chessboard or a figure in a painting.

Figures in paintings are fascinating. Figurative painting is emotionally risky. It reveals. At least it opens one to myriad armchair psychoanalysts who think they can deconstruct the artist's psyche by "reading" any particular painting. Recently, at an opening in which I had a painting, a viewer dogged me with questions about my "dark side" which she saw so evident in the one painting at her disposal.

I started to teach myself figurative painting two years ago. I can't, precisely, say why, but the idea of being a figurative painter was an insistent voice. It had to be answered. I don't mean this to read heroically, this isn't a calling. It's not destiny nor is it a fixed notion within my practice. I dodged the voice for a long time and did my best to avoid engagement with explicitly affective themes. Cool, calculating distance is compelling. It doesnt implicate or make one complicit with others. It allows a shield from prying eyes.

Making figurative work places the artist, as much as the subject, into the field of the painting. Any figure becomes a surrogate for the artist, for desire, longing, hurt, joy, and experience. When I uses my body, use myself as the subject and the object of inquiry, it gets complicated.

I've understood drawing as the process of recognizing and representing patterns of energy. In landscape painting it's easy. Perception of space, time, form, energy is highly subjective in the form. The "poetry" that can emerge from a landscape practice is also highly subjective. I'm not dismissing the complicated relationship between artist, object and audience by any means. Simply, I'm making an argument for the flexibility of subjectivity in the form. Figurative work is different. It's seemingly less abstract and either excites a viewer with the immediacy of connection or challenges a viewer with the implications of a human confrontation.

We are all figures in a ground. It's a post-structuralist observation -- systems, systems of power, discourses, systems of thought, ways of seeing, being seen, gazing, glaring, et cetera, et cetera. Systems are obscured, obscure, less than visible to the inattentive eye. People are this way, too. The various grounds we inhabit privilege and obscure different bodies. The process is always political, but I think its perceptual, too. Noticing this thing or that, this body or that one perceptually narrows our field of vision sometimes for a split second, sometimes for a lifetime. How we learn to see a more faceted world, how we see bodies that were implicitly taught not to see, whether in educational landscapes or the gallery (or for that matter in the world), is a compelling question. Consideration of this question underlies my practice.