Classical Figures Series – Amplexus Aeternus
"Good art is a vehicle for intimacy, which involves stepping inside of someone else’s shoes and seeing the world through their eyes. Truly stepping into someone else’s shoes is a profoundly challenging and life-changing experience and requires that we set aside our own beliefs, viewpoints, fears, prejudices, and sacred ideas—momentarily—to quietly embrace the beliefs, viewpoints, fears, prejudices, and sacred ideas of another human being. If we can do that—even for a moment—we cannot leave that interaction unchanged."
What themes does your work involve?
The spiritual goal in Buddhism is Enlightenment, which means the willingness to fully embrace reality as it is—not as one might want it to be. That is obviously a goal which is constantly evolving, requires genuine humility, and which one can only approximate. There are two important corollaries to this concept. The first is that most suffering in the world comes from trying to sustain illusions, which my own life experience constantly reaffirms. The second is that reality can’t fall out from under you—only illusions can. And in my experience, they do that with relentless reliability.
The overall theme of my work, throughout my career, has been to ask viewers to step out of their own comfortable frame of reference and thoughtfully reassess their own beliefs, viewpoints, fears, prejudices, and sacred ideas. I am certainly not claiming that my viewpoints are superior or more “correct.” But I am asking the viewer to step inside another way of looking at the world and perhaps consider some realities that might at first be uncomfortable:
the idea that a relationship between two men can be romantic, sexual, healthy, and exquisitely intimate rather than perverse, unnatural, or an abomination in the eyes of God; or the profound loneliness of a young man hoping for a father’s affection only to be met with a cold, stony, unyielding silence; or
the unfathomable cruelty of a religion that advocates that you love the sinner, but hate the sin when the “sin” is the spiritual essence of that “sinner;” or
that being a “real man,” whether straight or gay, requires humility, integrity, compassion and emotional depth—not bravado, brutality, indifference, and emotional catatonia.
If I am successful, my work might help the viewer to glimpse the inner world of someone who might be very different from them, enable a somewhat fuller understanding of the enormous complexity of the forces that act upon all of us, and hopefully provide some awareness that because of our fundamental interconnectedness any harm we inflict on another being is more damaging to us than it is to our victim.
Within that framework, I also have a passionate admiration for the sculptures of the Greco-Roman gods and heroes from antiquity. These perfected beings are the “superheroes” of my artistic pantheon. Even in their most fragmented condition these statues are astonishingly life-like. Their fragmented bodies both challenge identification of the original persona and, at the same time, invite imaginary completion by the viewer.
The ancient Greeks thought of nudity as embodying a sense of wholeness in which exterior physical perfection indicated internal spiritual perfection—man at his emotional, physical, and spiritual best. Christianity perverted this appreciation of physical beauty through the myth of the Garden of Eden wherein nakedness was equated with evil. I challenge this “modern” contempt for the fully nude male figure, which is thought to be at best embarrassing and at worst indecent. I invite the viewer through the sensuality of my paintings—color, texture, light and illusionistic form—to confront their own beliefs and values about the naked body and to resolve for themselves the question of good and evil regarding nudity in general, and male nudity in particular.
Describe your creative process.
I am enthralled by objects. Or I should more accurately say I am enthralled by “the light that falls on objects”. I am very interested in de-sensationalizing the nude. And I am also intrigued by the ways in which the artist can engage the viewer.
Almost 40 years ago I painted life-sized images of Adam and Eve on the front of refrigerator doors, with Eve holding in her hand a fully three-dimensional apple which the viewer would have to take out of her hand in order to open the refrigerator—a contemporary representation of the Garden of Eden. In order for the viewer to get into the Garden of Eden, he or she had to take the apple and participate in original sin—a commentary on the hidden costs of participating in the abundance we keep in our refrigerators.
In my current work, I have been exploring placing nude figures in banal intimate interior settings, where the naked human being is one of the most natural and innocent things imaginable. The details of these locales—flowers, vase, mirror frame and reflection—are given a similar degree of attention as the figure itself, allowing me to combine my two interests in the figure and the object. By necessity, the viewer is granted admission to this intimate interior space and asked to ponder the meaning of the assemblage of objects and images in that intimate space.
Although I paint from photographic sources, I don’t consider myself a photorealist, nor am I particularly interested in capturing the appearance of the photograph. The photo merely gives me information about subjects that for one reason or another—time, location, scale, etc.—I cannot paint directly in real life. But even as I paint from the photograph, I am constantly adjusting the image from my understanding of rendering illusionistic three-dimensional form.
Although my paintings may have the appearance of classical academic art they are executed through the most un-classical of methodologies. First, I paint exclusively with an airbrush and second, I work from photographic resources. However, I use these un-classical methodologies to construct paintings in much the same manner that classical academic paintings are built—I begin with an uunderpainting in earth tones in which I establish the overall compositional value pattern, and then I “glaze” colors on top of that. I don’t want my paintings to appear to be airbrushed because I came to the airbrush from a fine art background and not a commercial background. I tell my airbrush students that if the first thing that comes to mind when they see a painting is “That’s an airbrush painting”, then it is a bad painting. The image and subject matter are of utmost importance, not the means by which the artwork is created.
What influences your work? What inspires you? Why do you make art?
I make art because there is nothing else that has ever captured my interest. I began at 8 years of age doing paint-by-number paintings provided by my parents. Then, at one point, I used the left-over paints to draw and paint my own version of DaVinci’s Last Supper.
My father looked at what I had produced and thought it showed promise. He took my painting to the Sisters who taught art at the Catholic High School in Waterloo, Iowa, and asked them what they thought. They apparently agreed with my father’s assessment, and he then removed me from public school and enrolled me at Sacred Heart. Despite the fact that my father worked in a meat-packing plant and my mother worked at the counter in the neighborhood drug store, they paid private school tuition until I graduated from high school at Sacred Heart so that I could also have art instruction—which was not available in the public schools in Waterloo. Only one of the many ways in which my father protected and watched over me.
In addition, other people have been very important to my development as an artist. A major source of inspiration for me throughout my career is a painting completed by a mentor and friend, Shirley Haupt. The title of the painting basically conveys why it is important to me:
The day the last Precious Brushstroke arrived at the Art Historians National Monument Park Reserve, on which occasion highly esteemed art historians presented papers, the most widely acclaimed of which was a seminal study entitled “New Insights into idiosyncratic tactility: Worn pressure areas on shafts, the dents on metal ferrules, and variations in the shape of habitually used sable points of seventeen XX century painters.” 1967
So, for me this work by Shirley Haupt served to validate the journey I had embarked upon in the last semester of my undergraduate study—of purposefully eliminating the obvious gestural mark. This ultimately resulted in my replacing the “precious brushstroke” (what Chuck Close, about this same time, was referring to as the “clichéd” art mark) with the anonymity of the airbrushed mist so that the hand of the artist didn’t interfere with, or compete with, the reading of the image. Initially I didn’t realize that this attitude was already “in the air” amongst artists like Chuck Close, Audrey Flack, Don Eddy, Richard Estes, Ralph Going, Richard McLean, Tom Blackwell, Charles Bell, Robert Cottingham, Malcolm Morley, Ben Shonzeit and a host of other artists.
Following my undergraduate education, I was fortunate enough to be admitted to Cranbrook Academy of Art where George Ortman became a lifelong mentor, friend, and source of inspiration. At a time when modernism was all the rage in art departments throughout the country, George supported my exploration of photorealism and the use of the airbrush.
And about this same time I became more fully aware of the fact that I was gay, and it became important for me to incorporate that kind of imagery in my work as well. In 1978, Margaret Walters wrote in her book The Nude Male: A New Perspective that “The male nude is a forgotten subject.” And in 2009, Grady Harp wrote in his Foreword to the book Powerfully Beautiful that “The male figure’s time has come. Or returned!” A lot has happened during the roughly 30 intervening years between those publications thanks to the rise of the feminist movement and the gay liberation movement initiated by the Stonewall Inn riots in New York City in 1969. In both arenas the male nude returned to center stage in the guise of a political statement. So, I began to concentrate on celebrating the beauty of the nude male figure, both sculpted and living.
I don’t think that the male nude was forgotten, I think it was purged by a religiously repressive society. But as society becomes more enlightened and accepting of marginalized minorities the bastions of hypocrisy are crumbling as we see scantily clad men appearing in advertising, more publications dealing with the male nude, and a few brave gallerists willing to support artists who address the male nude.
What is good art? What makes a piece of art great?
We tend to talk about artists as if we think they should be prophets or seers—people who somehow have more insight or understanding than others into life and its meaning. But most often that is not true—and it doesn’t need to be. There is a saying in Buddhism that “great souls endure great tribulation.” Perhaps those among us who have the most insight into life and its meaning are those of us who have gone through the most difficult of life’s experiences, and somehow been able to master and transcend them. Sometimes those people are artists, most often they are not. We live in a culture that expects the artist to have that same degree of insight and understanding. And while I may complain at times about how hard my undergraduate and graduate training was, I still think the prize goes to Victor Frankl or Nelson Mandela.
What I would like to suggest to you is that very few people have the experience with suffering, or the intelligence, or the insight to provide us with grand insights. And very few of the people who have that kind of insight are artists. But what every artist can do is to allow others to step inside of their shoes, see what they see, feel what they feel, understand what they understand, and to allow a moment of intimacy. Because moments of genuine intimacy, when they occur, are profound experiences. They are not “grand insights.” But they are profound—they leave us forever changed at an intrinsic level.
So, I believe extraordinary art is produced by artists who have endured and transcended great suffering. Great art is produced by artists who truly invite an intimate encounter with the viewer and do everything in their power to make their work accessible to the viewer. If somehow the artist is able, through his artwork, to communicate something that resonates with the viewer, then perhaps both the artist and the viewer feel a deeper level of understanding, little less vulnerability and isolation, and a bit more connect to another human being than they did before.
This page was published by Circle Foundation for the Arts © CFA Press ∙ Images are courtesy of the artist