"The soul, in patches, shapes the tattoo, the set of crossed lines drawing a force-field: the space occupied by the formidable pressure of the soul in its efforts to erase gently the shadows of the body, and the major entrenchments of the body to resist this effort. On the skin, soul and object are neighbors. [...]
The ecstatic transformation, the loss of the body into the soul, removes the tattoo."
- Michel Serres, The Five Senses (p. 25)
Cropped detail of intaglio print, "Tracings", Amanda Clyne

Cropped detail of intaglio print, "Tracings", Amanda Clyne

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.

Happiness Bores Me

At the artist talk that I just gave to a group of artists this past Friday night, a man asked me why I didn't paint portraits of women smiling. Why did I have to make them all look so sad? Without hesitation, I responded, "Happiness bores me." Everyone laughed (I didn't mean it to be funny), and several people looked at me with an almost pitying look. Doesn't everyone want to be happy? Why not paint happiness? But for better or worse, throughout my life I have always sought interesting over happy. And just 24 hours after my artist talk, reading the last few pages of the book The Psychopath Test, I found a kindred spirit in its author, Jon Ronson:
"There is no evidence that we've been placed on this planet to be especially happy or especially normal. And in fact, our unhappiness and our strangeness, our anxieties and compulsions, those least fashionable aspects of our personalities, are quite often what lead us to do rather interesting things." (The Psychopath Test, p. 271)
Happiness seems simple. Personally, I like complicated. One of my favorite quotes about the nature of art asks:
Amanda Clyne, "Silver Variations No 2", oil on canvas, 2010
"How is the artist's perception unique? I don't think that when you see the most extravagant, extraordinary exhibition [...], you're really seeing the art. These are maps or charts or clues to the process that makes the art. The art is [the artist]'s perception of the world. The art is happening in [the artist]'s head. These are the maps to that art." (Arnold Glimcher, speaking at an interview with artist Louise Nevelson, quoted around minute 19:00 of the video)
I like to think that people are similar to artworks in this way. In trying to understand others, we can only go on the clues that they may offer or reveal by way of their words, actions, appearance and deeds. Clues from happiness seem to offer little in the way of insight, and perhaps more often than not only serve to mask the more interesting flaws, struggles, fears and desires that remain hidden behind those smiling eyes. For me, happiness just seems too cozy with that equally deceptive and ever-suspicious "normal" and its nefarious kin "perfect".

These curiosities lie at the core of my art. How do we connect to one another and on what basis? What do we allow others to see of ourselves? What are we sensitive enough to see in others? How much do we miss? How closely do we really look?  And how do we navigate through all the fragmented and often irreconcilable clues to understand a person in all their meandering complexities? The veneer of happiness seems to offer little in the way of answers. So don't expect to see one of my paintings smiling back at you anytime soon. :-)

My Painting is an Introvert

Although I have my extroverted moments, I am by all accounts a pretty hardcore introvert. So I recently succumbed to all the publicity I was hearing about Susan Cain's new book "Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can't Stop Talking" and from the first page, I couldn't put it down. 
"We live with a value system that I call the "Extrovert Ideal" - the omnipresent belief that the ideal self is gregarious, alpha and comfortable in the spotlight. [...] Introversion -- along with its cousins sensitivity, seriousness, and shyness -- is now a second-class personality trait, somewhere between a disappointment and a pathology." (Cain, p. 4)
Cain doesn't vilify the extrovert, but rather makes the case that introverts offer different strengths that are too often overlooked and undervalued. And I began to think how this introvert-extrovert paradigm may help to explain not just the struggles with how we introverted individuals may relate to the world, but also the struggles of so much introverted art that must contend with our cultural "bias against quiet".

If you put a celebratory Beatriz Milhazes next to a poetic Giorgio Morandi:
Beatriz Milhazes
Giorgio Morandi

or a visceral Gerhard Richter beside a meditative Agnes Martin,
Gerhard Richter
Agnes Martin
or an aggressive Kim Dorland across from a dreamy Kaye Donachie,
Kim Dorland
Kaye Donachie
the quiet introverts have a tough time competing for attention. Jonathan Lasker once wrote in his essay "Beauty in the Age of Road Kill":
“Contemporary culture is oriented toward sensation far more than it is toward beauty.  This is very much in keeping with the image of our world:  the texture of life is seldom beautiful, although it is usually sensational.  It is fast, loud and enervating...[...] We want a more direct and less onerous way to pleasure, which we hope to augment by increasing our sensations.”
But introversion is much more than beauty. Cain ascribes the following qualities to the introvert:
"reflective, cerebral, bookish, unassuming, sensitive, thoughtful, serious, contemplative, subtle, introspective, inner-directed, gentle, calm, modest, solitude-seeking, shy, risk-averse, thin-skinned". The extrovert is "ebullient, expansive, sociable, gregarious, excitable, dominant, assertive, active, risk-taking, thick-skinned, outer-directed, lighthearted, bold and comfortable in the spotlight." (Cain, p. 269)

Lasker may be right that our culture is becoming so numb from such persistent over-stimulation that only more sensational or shocking displays can move us. But I don't believe this is inevitably or always true. The loudest voice is not always the most interesting or the most poignant. I firmly believe there remains an important place for gentler, quieter expressions of our contemporary experience. There are many of us whose sensibilities crave a more contemplative space, not just for repose but for reflection and revelation. I see my paintings becoming more introverted now, and I'm becoming emboldened by the possibilities in quietly subverting the Extrovert Ideal.

Eugène Carrière

I discovered the work of French Symbolist painter Eugène Carrière after leaving the Alexander McQueen show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York last week. I saw this small painting hung in the corridor of the museum. Through my new McQueen-infected eyes, the work struck me as particularly haunting, with a renewed contemporary relevance.

"The Communion", Metropolitan Museum of Art

Here are a couple of Carrière's portraits that I think have an equally eery, fragile presence.


A Sign of Intimacy

In my Collins English Dictionary, the word "intimate" is defined, in part, as:
deeply personal, private, secret
having a deep or unusual knowledge
of or relating to the essential part or nature of something; intrinsic
For me, there is no question that painting has a distinct capacity to express intimacy. I would argue that at its best, painting always does. Which is not to say that all paintings are intimate expressions. Many (too many?) are not. Which means it cannot just be the medium itself that evokes a sense of intimacy. There must be more to it than just paint. But what exactly?

What role does the iconography of the painting play - can a still life, a sprawling urban landscape, a figurative portrait, a graphic abstraction, each convey an "equal" (not necessarily similar) sense of intimacy? My initial instinct would be to argue no, that the human body/face has an unfair advantage. It must be easier to feel intimate toward a person than a pear, a building or a shape. But there are simply too many examples (innumerable, really) of painted objects, views and blobs, that, through the eyes of many viewers, evoke as much (if not more) intimacy as peering into the face of a stranger. And if that is true, then perhaps it is not what is painted, but how it is painted.

So then is it the artist's touch that humanizes the surface into a sensual being? If so, is any touch sufficient or do we all have to be de Kooning? Chuck Close used an airbrush in his early work to remove the baggage that comes with a strong gestural imprint, but when face to face with the real paintings, the surface cannot be said to read as mechanical. In contrast, Richter's blurred photo paintings are clearly of the hand and brush, but I can't say I would describe my encounter with these works as one of intimacy.

Does the size of the painting matter? Can an enormous painting be as intimate an experience as a miniature? The immersive experience offered by a large canvas can swallow the viewer into its vision, but is that really what we would describe as intimate? But if the canvas is too small, does the viewer dominate it like a giant to a child, keeping the viewer at a remote distance like a photographer looking through a viewfinder. De Kooning spoke of sizing his works to relate to the scale of the human body. I like this approach, and have been adopting it as of late, but I know this cannot be the only viable option to creating an intimate relationship between painting and viewer.

Color must play a role in it somehow too. In my own work, I have found using too much of the synthetic pigments that have no real existence beyond the chemical usually severs the intimate possibilities in a work. But is that to say that must always be the case?

Of course I am sure there is no definitive rule to be discovered. In the video of Chuck Close that I posted yesterday, Close wisely states, "Problem solving is way too over-rated. Problem creation is much more interesting." So the problem I have created for myself is to grapple with the question of intimacy, to strive to create paintings that engage the viewer in an intimate confrontation. As Jonathon Lasker wrote in his essay "Paint's Body" (and one of my favorite quotes about oil painting):
"We are all at present, more divided, less empowered, and certainly far less connected to the effects of our world than we should be. It is for this reason that I am deeply involved with the textures of a medium capable of universalizing so much lost intimacy."

Can I Have An Amen!

Just a short posting today (with a little help from the great Spanish painter Francisco de Goya).

I'm spending most of my time painting these days, but during a short break today, I managed to read a few more pages of my "Spanish Portrait" exhibition catalogue. This thing is a gold mine. It seems every time I pick it up, I come across something else inspiring and right on point with my work. The most recent excerpt that rocked my world came at the end of a discussion about the developments in portraiture with respect to the royal courts from the 16th to the 18th century.

Author Javier Portus references Goya's portrait The Family of Charles IV (posted here) to emphasize "the pictures and written accounts of the Spanish and European courts with their highly significant mixture of intimacy and spectacle." (p 46)
..."...highly significant mixture of intimacy and spectacle..." Amen to that.

Focus Girl, FOCUS!

I have been out of town all week, trying to remain productive by choosing new images and working on compositions for future paintings. After trolling through a million images and experimenting with a hundred different ways of working with them, I have decided that I have to just stop and focus. And paint. I could plan new paintings until the end of time, but that won't get me very far. So I have chosen to concentrate on portraits for the next couple of months, and leave my other ideas aside for the moment.

Lately, I have been thinking a lot about the work of Chuck Close - his merging of the idioms of photography and painting, his reliance on the portrait, and his ability to straddle the worlds of abstraction and representation. 

Painting by Chuck Close
I've also been thinking about the work of Shelley Adler - her large scale portraits are so beautifully painted, bold and yet sensitive to her subject's particular character.
Painting by Shelley Adler

Her paintings seem to capture a tender moment of vulnerability, providing a touching antidote to Close's restrained, analytical approach. I'd like to think my work offers (or, I should say, is beginning to offer, or aspires to offer) a combination of these approaches - the rational with the sensual, addressing the artifice of the image while exploring the human frailties hidden within.

My Sesame Street Theory

" encounter between persons and forms [is] in truth an encounter between persons - the maker and the receiver." (from Susan Stewart's "The Open Studio")

That was the opening to my first artist talk that I delivered to employees at Daimler Financial on Thursday. It was an amazing opportunity to reflect on the developments in my art and life over the past few years, and share my passion for art. It affirmed to me once again that being a viewer of art is in itself a creative exercise, and that the experience of art is a dynamic conversation, and hopefully connection, between artist and viewer.

The employees' response to the talk was amazing - the best compliment for me was that they appreciated how "accessible" I was. We talked about how a lot of artists try to build an aura of artistic "genius" by deliberately making themselves inaccessible. It is as if "accessible" in the art world has come to be synonymous with "mediocre". (I began to discuss this idea in my earlier blog posting "Over-Exposure".) But every time that I speak to people who love art and yet don't have a background in art and art theory, I am constantly struck at how much they want to understand more, and how remote the world of art seems to them. Does it really have to be that way? I work hard in my own practice to engage with the more complex ideas that the experience of art raises, but I am cautious to not make the visual experience of my work alienating. I want those viewers who are not necessarily familiar with the references and theories that I'm grappling with to still be drawn in - seduced - by the beauty of the image, the sensuality of the paint, and the ambiguity of the distortions. I think of it as my Sesame Street theory of art - I want my work to connect with "the kids" just as much as "the parents". Because until relatively recently, I was one of "the kids" too.

A Little More Inspiration

Petah Coyne

I'll begin with Petah Coyne, an American sculptor. One website ( describes her works as follows:
"Unlike many contemporary artists who focus on social or media-related issues, Petah Coyne imbues her work with a magical quality to evoke intensely personal associations. Her sculptures convey an inherent tension between vulnerability and aggression, innocence and seduction, beauty and decadence, and, ultimately, life and death."
Love that.

And then I came across an Australian photographer, Rosemary Laing. After looking at Bettina Rheims yesterday, I was struck by the continuing theme. And yet after the explicit sexuality of Rheims' work, these stripped down photos by Laing are an interesting flip side. These photos are from her "grieving blondes" series.

Rosemary Laing
Rosemary Laing

I can't say the pink backgrounds do much for me, especially as a repeated element (they begin to look too staged), but I like the idea of them.

The photographers are definitely taking centre stage for me lately. My camera awaits.