On Painting the Figure and Re-Presenting the Self
On the technical work of painting the figure and conceptual work of re-presenting the self
Painting the Figure, Quickly
Luca Giordano, The Fall of the Rebel Angels, ca. 1660 or 1665, oil on canvas, 419 x 283 cm (approx. 166 x 111.5 inches). Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna
Recently I visited to Venice for the first time in fifteen years and returned to the church that changed the way I see art forever. The church is San Sebastiano, which was painted almost in its entirety by Paolo Caliari, also known as Veronese. The church, which is dedicated to the martyrdom of Saint Sebastian, is a kind of Gesamtkunstwerk on a scale I had never seen before.
Previous to seeing this work of art I hadn’t really been interested in older painting. My mom reminded me recently that she asked at the time if I was going to see much older painting when I was in Venice, and I responded no, I was only interested in modern and contemporary art. Walking through those doors, by accident, changed that. I was impressed by what Veronese had accomplished and the color, vibrancy and immediacy of his work, which still felt totally fresh hundreds of years later.
I set about trying to learn to paint the figure in a more “realistic” way – that is, using more naturalistic colors and painting from observation. Previous to that, in college I had been using colors intuitively and painting figuratively, using preliminary drawings as a basis. Now I was fascinated by the ability of paint to create this illusory space. It seemed like magic.
But I made the mistake that a lot of contemporary figurative painters make, in my opinion, which is, when looking at a beautiful figurative painting from the past of thinking, “this must have taken forever.”
A second revelation came for me when I learned more about the work of Luca Giordano. I love his painting “The Falll of the Rebel Angels,” which is in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. The painting is huge, vibrant and dynamic. You feel the movement and grace of the Archangel Michael who casually raises his sword and you feel the believable suffering of the rebel angels in their agony as they are cast into hell.
The painting is large, nearly four meters twenty tall (thirteen feet nine inches), and when I’ve asked friends how long they think it took him to paint this the answers have varied any where from a few months to a few years. Based on what I know about Giordano and what I’ve learned about painting, I’m going to take what I’m sure is a fairly accurate educated guess: He probably spent a total of about two weeks working on it.
Giordano was famously known as one of the fastest painters of all time, as his nickname “fa presto,” attests. His studio produced purportedly more than 5,000 paintings during his lifetime, not including his numerous frescoes and friezes. He once painted all of the frescoes in a church in a single 48-hour period.
He lived to be 71, so let’s give him 52 years of productivity, which is 96 paintings on canvas a year or about two paintings a week. Of course many figurative painters in our time are fast, with artists like Wilhelm Sasnal and Luc Tuymans known to only spend a single day on a painting. But their paintings also look very quick and deliberately unfinished. This isn’t a judgement – but it was a realization for me that a painting someone might look at and say “that’s highly rendered,” might actually be done quite quickly.
At the time, around 2010, I started to paint quickly to see just how much or how little was enough. Just when did a figure start to appear and start to gain form? Ultimately these experiments were very interesting and fruitful for me, but not an end unto themselves. I strayed away from the figure and even from painting for several years, which was an enjoyable time of experimentation and playing with chance and not planning in advance what I would do in the studio.
Over the past four years in New York I’ve learned to take something from the quick and dirty approach of not worrying too much about the details while still making the painting look, at least on first glance, fairly rendered. Many who have seen the paintings from the iPhone Self-Portrait series have thought that I’m spending a long time rendering details, but I’m not. Some of the paintings (that is, the oil paint part of it that represents the album cover) were done in a single session. I almost always spend more time doing the masking and lettering for the iPhone background and text of the album cover than painting the figure.
Of course, I’m not always that lucky and I’m by no means a fa presto. But I’ve found a lot of figurative painters, myself included, getting bogged down in details and not letting themselves learn from the paint. That, I think, is because there’s a false assumption that things are either sloppy or tight. But there’s a middle ground that I think is under-explored. It’s in this middle ground that most of the old masters actually operated.
Getting back to Giordano, many would argue: sure, but he had assistants. Giordano, from what I read, probably did have several assistants at any given time. But what the assistants probably did was prepare the canvases for him, mix the pigments and colors (there was no paint in tubes back then) and grounds and maybe fill in some of the preliminary background colors. When you are working that fast, assistants will only get in the way.
So how did he paint this huge, magnificent painting so quickly? Once you start to learn a little about painting you start to see it.
Luca Giordano, The Fall of the Rebel Angels (Detail), ca. 1660/1665. Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna
For example, the highlights on the brim of the helmet of the Archangel are all single strokes. His hair was certainly done by applying a layer of ochre and umber then painting into that with quick strokes of what we would now call “Naples Yellow” but was just a mixture of pigments used back then.
The cherubs and also tortured figures fade in detail as they recede toward the background, but the eye doesn’t notice this because this, in fact, is how we see. It’s not natural for the eye to see everything with the same amount of detail at once and the composition and coloring moves the eye around in a way that makes a distinct overall impression.
There Is No Morality Attached to a Medium or a Particular Way of Working
Of course, I don’t mean any of this in a moralistic way, that one way of painting is better than another, or that figuration or abstraction is inherently better or that painting itself is better or worse than any other way of expressing yourself.
It comes down to a passage by St. Augustine, probably my favorite author. He talks about how people tend to think their customs, way of dress or whatever habits from their time and place are inherently morally superior and other customs, habits, etc. are somehow wrong because of their difference, whereas all of these differences are really arbitrary and one thing is not necessarily to be preferred to another.
This is true for artists, too. I’ve certainly been guilty of this: once you find your voice and your own particular way of working, there’s a temptation to think my way, is somehow better than others and other people are on the wrong path. I’ve found, as Andrej Tarkovsky (another one of my favorite artists) rightly says, that the artist invents the means to say what she or he has to say.
Everyone’s existence and experiences are different and anyone’s way to express what they have to say is to be judged by how true it is to themselves. In other words, it’s a self-contained system: the artist builds her or his own universe.
Ways of Re-Presenting the Self
Dean Sameshima, City Men: George Michael, 2017, acrylic on canvas, 145 x 104 cm (57 x 41 in). Courtesy Peres Projects, Berlin. Photographer: Matthias Kolb
This brings me to thinking about other artists that have influenced my work in a different way.
With my most recent series, many people have pointed out the parallel to Richard Prince’s Instagram inkjets. Part of me was responding to him, an artist who I’ve respected for two decades. But in terms of portrait painting and more specifically representing the self in a contemporary context, he isn’t one of the artists I’ve been thinking about most. His project, at least the Instagram Inkjets, has more to do with voyeurism, whereas my paintings, in addition to engaging with the history of portrait painting, are about representing personal feelings with autobiographical details in a broad, generic way, just like the songs I’m referencing.
Among painters who are my colleagues, Sam McKinnis is doing something similar in terms of the kind of painting I’ve been describing here. His touch and movement of paint is quite beautiful. I’ve only become aware of his paintings in the last year or so, but he clearly knows what he’s doing with paint, and the paintings themselves both celebrate the subject matter and express a pure enjoyment at the act of painting them. They are both quick and exquisite.
For my work, though, that’s not enough, although I enjoy it in his. I need to make a more direct personal statement.
This originated during the winter of 2013, when I was going through a very dark period in my life. Simultaneously, it was reported in the media that Berlin was experiencing the least sunlight since the winter of 1945 – an ominous year. I was reading Andy Warhol’s Popism, and it struck me that Marilyn Monroe was clearly a stand-in for Warhol, a kind of self-portrait. By his own admission he related heavily to her and saw her as a double for himself. She was never taken seriously, was seen as a kind of blonde airhead, and Warhol saw a parallel to how he was seen by the larger art world: a silver-wigged airhead, also not taken seriously and readily dismissed.
Another story he told in the book left a lasting impression. He wasn’t sure what to paint and someone told him to paint what he loved, so he painted Campbell’s Soup, Elvis, Elizabeth Taylor, money etc. The work I’ve been making since moving to New York has been a combination of these two approaches: I’m painting what I love, especially musicians and songs, and simultaneously they are stand-ins for myself.
After experiencing my life falling apart and losing everything I loved, music became increasingly important to me. It always was, but it really helped me to make it through a difficult time like never before and I started having the experience of, “Oh, that’s what this song is about!” Whereas before I experienced many songs as abstract emotions, at that point in my life they became very real and came to represent exactly what I was experiencing.
Sameshima, Bickerton and Gonzalez-Torres
Another work of art I’ve felt close to recently is a painting, City Men: George Michael, 2017 by Dean Sameshima. The painting is an enlarged receipt for a gay cinema in Berlin, replete with three cups of free coffee. The details here are incredible: that it is from Christmas Day, 2016 and the exact day that George Michael died. It also has "BED1" printed near the bottom, which is probably short for "Bedienung," German for "server," but in the context of the work could have another connotation, and ends with "Vielen Dank" ("Many Thanks"). The painting implies sex and pornography but is also kind of banal and harmless, since it’s a receipt that includes free coffee. It’s so specific and yet totally generic, which I find extremely strong. I couldn't help seeing this as a kind of self-portrait.
A work that really influenced my current body of work is “Tortured Self-Portrait” by Ashley Bickerton, which I saw at MoMA as part of the Ileana Sonnabend collection a few years ago. With acute ironic distance, Bickerton emblazoned the logos of all the brands he consumed onto an immaculately fabricated, highly fetishized “contemplative wall-unit,” replete with industrial looking handles and a removable cover, very much the consumer product. This piece blew me away. I loved it and its influence on this current series is obvious.
I’ve also occasionally come across the portraits by Felix Gonzalez-Torres, consisting of phrases, dates, song titles, etc., running as a text high on the wall and then titled “Portrait of ________.” These are images, phrases, songs, ideas, books, etc. that Gonzalez-Torres associated with this person or were somehow important to their life and came to be a kind of portrait. I think this is a brilliant way to represent a person: as words representing specific ideas and associations.
This is a far-flung group of topics, but what I hope to accomplish is a synthesis both of the technical work of creating a figurative painting and the conceptual work of re-presenting the self.
Berlin, July 2017