A recent conversation with a friend about my Divine Beauty series led me to reflect again on my intent. I have an artist statement, but artist statements are, by design, brief and to the point; much gets left out.
The origins of the Divine Beauty series goes back to a conversation I had with an artist named Sadko Hadzihasanovic at his exhibition opening in the first year of Beyond-In Western New York. Sadko (as he’s known professionally) told me that he is often mistaken for being gay because he deals with the male figure (he references a variety of sources, some of which no doubt do have homoerotic undertones). This annoys him, because the male figure, and particularly according to Sadko, the male chest, has a long tradition in European art. I was intrigued by the idea of a straight guy making homoerotic art. I saw it as something of an artistic challenge; am I capable of dealing with male eroticism? Is it really about light and shadow, paint and brushstrokes? I left the exhibition that evening energized. As I exited I told curator Sandra Firmin that I had just decided the artistic direction I wanted to take next. Actually though, I only had a vague idea.
To some degree this elusiveness of purpose has never completely abated because, as in all my work, there are multiple layers of intent, some conscious, some not fully conscious. Even within the framework of the series, the work keeps sidling off in diverse directions. Different layers of intent are emphasized to varying degrees within each piece. In the past I’ve used my work to comment on the “male gaze” as it pertains to the female figure in art, subverting the conventions of the nude in historical painting, so I wanted to do the same here with the male figure. Religious iconography seemed to be the ideal vehicle for this. One reason is that depicting biblical scenes and the martyrdom of saints was for a time during the middle ages the only opportunities many Western artists had to portray the human figure. And it occurred to me that fashion advertising today often gives off the same vibes as religious art in a world where the male figure is still something of a taboo. Ad art and iconography might even perform similar functions in their individual fields.
Some people have expressed difficulty getting a bead on what I’m doing, which makes me wonder if there’s something about this series that causes some sort of cognitive dissonance. In an email exchange with my friend (and former Buffalo News art critic) Richard Huntington, he reacted to my concerns that the intended effect—especially the homoeroticism aspect—might be incomprehensible: “Martyrdoms, St. Sebastien the most obvious, have been given homosexual emphasis since the renaissance and before. Posolini’s film, “The Gospel According to St. Matthew,” has played in church basements for decades without any of the uninitiated noticing that it is gay-themed. The guy off the street might be befuddled [by your work], the Jesus star-struck born-again might be confused and offended, a gay man might mistake it for actual gay depicted salivation over sexy guys, but the rest of us smart asses shouldn’t be having any trouble. It might have been befuddling if you had done the ads straight (sorry) without all the embellishments that ring bells that you are totally aware of what you are doing and clear-cut in your relationship to your subject.”
As I mentioned in my last entry (below), Catholicism played a big role in my development as a child. It left its mark and there’s no escaping that fact. Today I look back at my religious rearing with a combination of bemused detachment and incredulous affection. I am an unbeliever with nostalgia for belief. As a skeptic and humanist, I have issues with religious indoctrination of any kind, but that’s not at the heart of this series. I just really respond to religious imagery, and of course religion plays a huge role in Western art. Part of what this series does is ask the question, what if we retained the conventions of religious iconography, but transferred them to fashion ads? Part of what I’m saying is maybe we did.
I’ve had people tell me they didn’t even realize the paintings were riffs on religious imagery, and I’ve had one visitor to my studio name most of the saints in the paintings by their symbols (where I use symbols). I’m interested in artistic and cultural conventions; where they originate, how they develop and change, and how they reveal the predilections of the cultures they emerge from. I started this series by referencing art styles of the middle ages but with a loose, expressive painting style. Gradually I drifted into stylized realism, and baroque and renaissance art. I’ve included a few women in the work. Lately I’m changing directions again, employing glazing to give the work a sheen and luminous quality like old masters. I’m also thinking of transitioning to mythological subject matter (the other great theme of European art), but with a new approach, no more fashion models. I may go back to using live models. Or I may drop the figure entirely. Who knows?