When I was a kid I used to sit on a hill looking down into a picturesque cow pasture and try to apply the stiff pencil techniques I learned from my trusty Walter Foster “How To Draw Landscapes” book. I had no idea that I was establishing what would become a lifelong pattern of avoiding direct contact with nature. I looked away from nature in order to, wisely or not, better attune my reactions to what exactly it was that other artists did. They could be world famous masters, dexterous illustrators or ordinary commercial hacks; they could, like me, contemplate cow pastures, or sentimental interiors or extravagant nudes or simply a rectangle of red paint. It didn’t much matter to me. Artists filtered things out, placed themselves between what seemed to me untranslatable nature and all the unimpeachable emotions that nature engenders. I was enraptured by sunsets, but I had no way of painting them and still come away feeling honest to myself. Nature, I soon figured out, was for the religious-minded, the utterly sincere, the pure of heart. The corruptible and the already corrupted were left with art.
As I see it, art takes a sidelong view of most everything. It has the audacity to interpret the world through a single mind (mostly) and then leave hints that this interpretation is somehow flawed or incomplete or ambiguous. Art doesn’t state a truth the way a philosopher states a truth. Rather, art takes a stab at a truth. This doesn’t make artists cynics (although some obviously are); it makes them realists. Artists -- or at least artists like me-- recognize that the world can only be properly grasped through a series of half-measures, almost random approximations, bits of scattered misinformation, even conscious misinterpretations.
A decade out of my Walter Foster days and I was thriving on misinterpretation. Norman Rockwell began to look to me like a weirdly cold-hearted Pre-Raphaelite. Some German Expressionist figures conjured up in my mind those very fleshy pinup girls of the 1950s. Later, when I took up abstraction, my paintings often were intentionally a little misaligned, their parts slightly out of joint, like they strove for the perfection of the modern masters but couldn’t quite reach it. They possessed a stubborn clunkiness that put a roadblock in front of the standard pleasures of harmony. Some were heavy and inert, their glacial brush work refusing the glamour of painterliness. Others hide subtleties behind an unfriendly over-plotted look. I liked them in the way you like a coarse, blunt friend who's smart but hasn’t learned ordinary social graces.
My later figurative work consisted of a series of incompatible marriages. One group featured nasty cartoon figures painted, roughly speaking, in the manner of late Picassos. I did a long series of painterly pinups that would suggest the influence of de Kooning were it not for the “untutored” hesitations in their contours and the slightly awkward contrivances of the overall composition. A few years back I revisited the German Expressionism of my college years in a group of paintings that attempted to reinstate lost paintings of Beckmann, Heckel, Pechstein, Hofer and other modern masters destroyed by the Nazi during World War II. For once I had to subdue my sense of mockery.
More recently I have used the gauche paintings of Thomas Kinkade as a launching pad for a. series of picturesque “cottagescapes” shot through with heavenly rays of light and sprinkled with blots of saturated color. (Back to landscapes: My early Walter Foster training may yet pay off.) In 2007, while in Mexico, I did a series of works on paper that commingled figures drawn from the great Mexican graphic artist, Jose Guadalupe Posada, with popular images ranging from cartoons to local folk painting to street decorations and vernacular signage.
This is a heap of sources, I grant you. But it seems to me that to think that the complexities of a mature art could spring whole from a single individual is plain artistic arrogance, and a fatal arrogance at that. We are all awash in our heritage, like it or not, even the greatest among us. Ingres, who sucked up the past like no other artist until Picasso came along, had something to say on this: “He who will not look to any other mind than his own will soon find himself reduced to the most miserable of all imitations, that is to say, his own works.”
Just before the opening for my exhibition Cottage Industry at Indigo Art, a friend of mind posted a review that purported to be from the New York Times. It turned out that it was a fictional review written by the artist himself. Numerous people were fooled into thinking that he had actually received a glowing appraisal of his sculpture and promptly sent along congratulations. Belatedly realizing that he had not provided nary a clue that this was an artist-made bogus piece of writing, he sent out an apology for fooling so many. This experience didn't however seem to quell his enthusiasm for the falsified article: he promenetly displayed it on a wall during his next show, and without any disclaimer of any sort.
I suggested to the artist that if he was to produce a false review it would have no social worth if, within its confines, he didn't place a seed that would clue the reader that it was indeed false. To illustrate my point I produced the fictional review by one Mercy Eberhard, a made-up name that alone would, I thought, reveal the review as hoax. The body of the review was crammed full of insulting remarks that would hold up in any court as vicious slander. The reputed critic called outright for my removal as an artist and made the suggestion that I take up Mubblety-peg to calm my excessive energies. Other absurdities, like the Jayne Mansfield story teased at the top of the page claiming that Jayne was still with us and late in life was trying to rescue her soiled reputation by claiming that a famous Weegee photograph of her with her blouse open at a public event was doctored. I thought anyone reading this would see it as at least a mildly humorous (I thought it was hilarious ) act of self-deprecation and social satire. But, alas, I too got missives, these saying how nice it was that I got a review in the Financial Times but so sorry about the thrashing! Either many people can't read or they possess little sense of the absurd. (A brief look at the usual earnest blather on Facebook confirms the latter.) As my wife, Wendy, says, too many people are "irony deficient" these days. These poor deprived folks might very well, if by some fluke they happened to read it, take Alexander Pope's "Rape of the Lock" as a vicious example of violence against women. I will continue to maintain my pledge to, except in rare instances where life, limb or the good name of a cuddly animal are at stake, put nothing but nonsense on social media,