Mirroring Empathy

A few months ago, I started a new series of paintings that, instead of fragmenting multiple versions of one source image, I began building new portraits by combining sheer layers of multiple source images. The paintings aren't completed yet, so I have no great reveal for you right now, but since I began this work, I keep bumping into parallel universes that are signalling to me I may be on the right track.

Inspired by the connection of the mirror/image to the desire for empathy and intimacy, I felt the fates twist in my favor when I recently came across a reference to "mirror neurons". Seriously, MIRROR neurons? If things couldn't get any better, it turns out this is science's name for those neurons in the brain identified as the source of our empathic instincts. I just had to know more. To start, I found this pretty good video produced by PBS's NOVA series that explains the current research findings.

And if that wasn't awesome enough, I then came across a random Tweet about an amazing artist, Megan Daalder, (who I am now painfully jealous of!) who took this idea of the mirror neuron one step (or perhaps more accurately, a million steps) further by creating a "mirror-box" to enable two individuals to physically merge their mirror reflections into one another in real time. It is a living, breathing version of what I am exploring in my paintings, and it could not be more inspiring. I beg you to watch the video about her work -- it's an amazing story of the power of art, the promise of technology, and the mysterious science of empathy.

Beyond the Dress

Installation of Alexander McQueen at Metropolitan Museum of Art

High expectations can be a dangerous thing. Once you expect something to be amazing, it is far too likely that you'll end up disappointed, or worse, that the truly amazing will no longer be able to actually amaze you. But the much-hyped Alexander McQueen show "Savage Beauty", which I saw at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York this week, easily surpassed every sky-high expectation I had.

There are enough reviews of the show that I don't think it's necessary for me to repeat all the accolades again, but I'd like to share a few thoughts I had about the show:

Art, Not Fashion

When I first arrived at the museum and saw the throngs of people waiting to enter the show, I admit I felt a little jealous that a fashion designer was able to draw a larger, more excited crowd to the museum than any art exhibition I had ever seen. Inside the exhibition, as each viewer stood in awe, patiently soaking in the exquisite nature of each McQueen dress, jacket and pair of shoes, I was a little hurt that I so rarely see such attention being paid to the artworks of the greatest painters and sculptors.

But then I realized that we had all been duped. While I'm sure many, if not most of the visitors had come to the show because of their interest in fashion, Alexander McQueen (and the absolutely brilliant curatorial team at the Met's Costume Institute) made sure that we were not looking at just clothes and accessories, but at a fully realized artistic vision, one that incorporated sculpture, painting, performance, installation and new media, all under the guise of fashion. I remember years ago seeing the Armani exhibit at the Guggenheim. I loved the show but the dresses and suits were - let's be real - just dresses and suits. But the McQueen show was so, so much more. It was art in its most masterful, dark, and poetic form of expression. When I left the show, the world looked different. McQueen had undeniably infiltrated my vision.

A Second Skin

I love the abstract nature of fashion and how it plays with form, movement, color and texture. When I look at fashion, I see abstract paintings. One day, I plan to paint them. Throughout the McQueen show, there was certainly no shortage of extraordinary sensations. My favorite was an organza dress, so intricately layered that it created the impression it was made entirely of smoke, the floor-length skirt appearing to rise from the floor like dry ice. But from the very beginning of the show, it was clear to me that McQueen's works were impervious to abstraction. The garments and accessories are so thoroughly steeped in narrative, that the body itself becomes an inextricable element of his design. Some garments seem to attack the body, while others seem to have instigated an irrevocable process of metamorphosis in which the woman is in the midst of transforming into a hybrid being, morphing with creatures that offer her new forms of protection and defense. And a few garments violently suggest the aftermath from some sort of dehumanizing body-snatching invasion. With each garment, the dress covers the body not as a decorative article of clothing, but as a second skin, as if it were a kind of natural outgrowth from our dark, mutating, genetic make-up.

The Perfect Eulogy

At about the half-way point in the show, my eyes welled up with tears, and I spent the rest of the show fighting them back with only moderate success. It was all so overwhelming, so haunting, so brilliant. By the end, I felt like my heart and head would explode from a potent mix of ecstasy, emotion, and inspiration. The metamorphosis suggested in his garments seemed to be taking place inside me. But there was still another show I wanted to see -- the Richard Serra drawing exhibit. At first, I wasn't sure that I could absorb another visual onslaught, and when I first entered the Serra exhibit, the weighty, spare, geometric drawings seemed better suited for another day. But as I began to wander through the exhibit, I began to see Serra's drawings as the perfect eulogy for Alexander McQueen himself. Confronted with one of Serra's large towering black squares, the entire surface immersed in the heavy scrawls of rich, caked-on paint stick, I saw the roughly textured surface transform into the delicate ruffles and decaying lace of McQueen's creations. Standing back to take in the drawing's impenetrable blackness, grand scale and stark form, I experienced a dark, monumental silence. It seemed the most fitting conclusion to McQueen's truly epic exhibition, and the most eloquent representation of the lingering, tragic void left by his senseless death.

Richard Serra (detail of drawing)
Richard Serra at Metropolitan Museum of Art

Look. LOOK!!!!!

It's not about the body.   If I want you to see me, to really see ME, I want you to see my face.  The body can be revealing, but it is not the most insightful.  That isn't to say that the body cannot be expressive, but it's distracting.  The naked body is too wrapped up in sex, flesh, carnal pleasures and pain.  The clothed body reeks too much of status, style and costume.  As my studio fills with painted portraits, I realize I have systematically deleted the body.  All that remains of the original images is the face, painted larger than life, looking at the viewer with a certain yearning - to be looked at, to be seen.

Such A Dirty Mind

On Friday, Nitasha and I ventured out to Chelsea to see if there was anything worthwhile. I always find it's pretty hit-and-miss in the Chelsea galleries, and I wasn't optimistic for the August shows (New York is deserted in August). Generally, I would say there were mostly misses this time, but there were a few great things.

One of the highlights was a Cecily Brown painting from 1999 ("Boy Trouble" - left image) that was hung in a group show called "Naked" - a collection of almost 50 figurative paintings from as early as the 1800's to today. The Cecily Brown painting was one of the best I've seen of her work (I saw the Oct 2008 show at Gagosian and had mixed feelings about it) and it was definitely the best piece in the show. The paint handling was a tour de force - varied and exciting. While the style was loose and gestural, there was a great sense of editing, just enough control that every smear and mark oozed with intention. I thought it was a much more powerful piece than those from 2008. The newer work is much more chaotic, full of anxiety and a hyper-kinetic energy - the initial confrontation with it is impressive, but with a longer look, the paint overwhelms every representational reference, making the experience more of an adventure in painterly abstraction than anything else. But in this 1999 painting, the energy seemed to emanate from within the figure itself - a man with a huge erection dominating the canvas.

But since I've always considered myself an abstract painter, it makes me wonder why I wouldn't prefer Brown's 2008 paintings that have been obliterated into abstraction? When did I cross the line from abstract painter to conceptual painter to (gasp!) FIGURE PAINTER?? While I have been using the figure in my work, I wouldn't say my work has been ABOUT the figure. But maybe it should be. Maybe I want it to be. Maybe it already is. Dear God.

And then there's that huge erection. Really? I'm certainly no prude (and I love this particular painting), but I don't understand why so much of the figure painting in contemporary art (that gets any international attention) seems to be either graphically violent or pornographic. It's just so OBVIOUS. Are there not more subtleties to be explored in the human condition? And even if sex and violence are so fundamental to human nature that any image of the figure cannot avoid them, are there not more interesting and complex ways to address them? In Camera Lucida, Barthes talks about how some photographs are endowed with a "blind field" - that the punctum of the photograph (discussed in my posting yesterday) implies a broader image/context than the photograph explicitly shows, which the viewer makes seen through his own assumptions/imagination/input. That seems much more interesting to me. Why do these artists feel compelled to display the contents of their own dirty mind, when it seems much more confrontational and provocative (and ultimately more effecting) to create an image that forces the viewer to delve into the contents of their own dirty mind. I think Kara Walker is one artist who does this particularly well - the disturbing implications of her work come from the viewer making the final connections in the images she creates, a much more potent and shocking experience for the viewer - although a lot of Walker's work is still pretty graphic, I think her more ambiguous images are much intriguing and arresting.

Speaking of the erotic image, Barthes writes:
"it takes the spectator outside its frame, and it is there that I animate the photograph and that it animates me. The punctum, then, is a kind of subtle beyond - as if the image launched desire beyond what it permits us to see: not only toward "the rest" of the nakedness, not only toward the fantasy of a praxis, but toward the absolute excellence of a being, body and soul together." (p.59)
Admittedly, it's much harder for the artist to involve the viewer in the completion of an image, but as Barthes argues, those are the images that the viewer retains in his/her memory - when the image is completed by SHUTTING the eyes.

My fascination with these issues may mean my work is heading somewhere new - sensuality, eroticism, seduction...more subtlety and may be a whole new world.