What compels you to the specific women you choose to paint?
I mainly work with professional art models. I meet virtually all of the models I work with through Spring Street Studio, a long-standing open life drawing workshop in lower Manhattan. I try to get several chances to draw any model I’m considering painting before actually approaching her to paint - these drawing sessions allow me to ask myself if the model is really as interesting as I first thought. By the time I hire a model, I’m fairly confident that she is not only visually striking in one way or another, but likely a good conversationalist - this is really important, given that painting takes a long time, and I tend to chat while I paint.
Anyone looking at my body of work will see that within the larger group of women I’ve painted, there is a much smaller number who appear in painting after painting. These models profoundly interface with some facet of my outlook, so that in looking at them, I cannot help seeing a broad section of my understanding of the world. Images linked to them proliferate in my mind, and I feel that I could go on painting them forever, and given the chance, I do.
Tell us about a strong reaction you have received to your work and the impact you sense it has made on the subject, viewer or the greater cultural landscape.
This happened with my first real painting. I got through the body, and kept screwing up the face. We would work three hours on the face, and then I would wipe it off in frustration. After six or seven rounds of this, the model said, “What are you going for that you’re not getting?” I said, “I don’t know, but I’ll know when I get it.” A few sessions later, I finished, and I said, “This is it.” She looked at it and said, “This is it. This doesn’t look like what I look like in the mirror, but it looks like who I think I am.”
I may have told this story before. It is important to me and keeps coming back to me. It is very easy to look in a mirror, and very difficult to recognize who you are. If I have any impact at all on the so-called greater cultural landscape, I hope that some of that impact is to return a piece of that lost recognition to people. Certainly to me and my models in particular, but in general to demonstrate that this original self remains real, and that there is a road inland.
What is it about your personal journey that has brought your gaze to focus so deeply on women?
I think that in regard to gender, life is asymmetric. Men and women face each other across a line of symmetry, but they are neither copies nor mirror images of one another. I am submerged in a constant craving for femininity. There is something to it that is missing from me. In my eye there is a glamor cast over the surface of women, but the glamor corresponds with a magic that glows from the core.
Why this visual dialogue? What do you hope to accomplish through your work?
I hope not only to remind people, but also, for my own part, not to forget. Whatever the subject is, in every drawing and every painting, I am fighting against forgetting, which is Time’s awful enforcer.
How does your subject make a change in your artist's gaze?
My gaze changes shape to conform with the nature of what I am looking at. So for instance, the painting you have in the show, “Rachel Grieving,” is painted on a rough-textured Ukrainian linen, and has very thick paint with visible brush marks. This is a mode of painting I developed specifically to paint Rachel. Rachel is a dancer, with a broad and powerful body, and the will and discipline to make artwork from her motion. My own painting technique until I met her tended to involve watercolor-thin layers of oil paint. But these did not do justice to Rachel’s strength. They lacked the physical presence you would need to really express what makes her a striking individual. So I went away and wrestled with how to see her properly, and how to express what I saw in its own native language. I taught myself a new way to paint to do that. Some similar transformation takes place with every one of the key models I was discussing before.
When do you know you have made a significant connection to your subject and what does that feel or look like from your perspective?
There is an abrupt clarification, as if a dark and distorting film had been peeled from my sight. Every instant of the configuration of light, flesh, power, and form seems perfect, each moment of it meaningful and worth getting just right in the work. The model seems to stand without secrets; everything is legible in the expression and the face, the body and what it does. No thing remains hidden, and there is no reason to be ashamed of any part, fact, or history. Each part is necessary to make up the exact person I see before me.
This description, however, makes it sound as if I am too much at the center of things. I can think like that all day, but it is in the things I don’t recognize and don’t understand that evidence of a significant connection resides. So to take “Rachel Grieving” for an example again, the physicality of the paint probably isn’t the most important thing about the painting, in the sense of the connection you’re asking about. The fact of the matter was that Rachel actually was grieving when we painted this, she’d just lost a few people who were very important to her. So she would drift off into her thoughts, and I would paint her expression and posture and body language. I thought I should call it “Rachel Grieving” because that’s what she was doing. I hesitated because it seemed too personal, but Rachel was very pleased, because it was a painting of how she was feeling at this difficult time in her life. Anyone on the outside would think that I was marvelously empathetic. But I wasn’t at all. I was a kind of autistic resonator for her emotions, and they passed themselves from her to the image without my recognizing them anywhere near as clearly as she did when she studied the result. That’s a form of connection, I think, that is very important to my work. It happens again and again. But it demonstrates that in some fundamental ways I function very brainlessly, or heartlessly.
Tell us about your current series or work and how it may be different from the work submitted for the show.
I’m afraid it’s not ready to show yet, but I woke up from a dream the other night, and in the dream I had painted a series of paintings called “The Red Hotel.” They were thickly painted and nearly abstract, and each one focused on a different part of a room in this hotel. The room was a dark mix of browns and greens and blues, and the focal part in each painting was red - in the dream I reviewed to myself what reds I’d used: mostly cadmium red deep, with some cadmium red, and cadmium orange. There was a menacing vagueness to these paintings. As soon as I woke up, I went straight to the art supply store to get the right sized canvases and a fresh tube of cadmium red deep, and then I went to the studio and painted the first one, “The Lodger.” It’s very awful. It will take a couple more layers to finish it, but it will remain awful, it’s supposed to be. So I’m tootling along with my usual mix of highly-rendered observational paintings, but I’m also doing this unlookatable expressionist series.