1986: PRINTMAKING STUDIO
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.
July 2002: KINGSTON, RHODE ISLAND:
"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.
1999 present: RESPRESENTING BODIES
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.
1971 or 1972: CAPE COD, MASSACHUSETTS
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.
1980 - 2002: SHAPING SPACE OF DESIRE
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.