Artists should have the courage of their convictions. That’s what people say. But should they? We’ve all seen artists that would have benefited from a dollop of self-doubt. Audacious confidence is not the universal virtue it’s cracked up to be. Here’s a topic I reflect on a lot.
I have long identified as a feminist. I have a NOW card that goes back to the first wave, and I served as an escort at abortion clinics—until the Supreme Court forced protestors back (a case successfully argued by my friend Lucinda Finley in Buffalo). Most of my friends are woman; in general I relate to them easier than men.
I also have a long history of commitment to contemporary art, and all that goes with that. As an artist I have always been drawn to painting as a medium, and to the human figure as subject matter. Both have had their ups and downs within contemporary art, but I’ve found them personally compelling. Over the years I have done many conceptually-based painting series, all of which are on my website. I often reference historical art periods I my work and I frequently play illusionistic depth against flat abstraction. Much of my painting has been about the idiosyncrasies of painting itself. I also often address, sometimes obliquely, issues of gender and body image.
While much of my work has involved people in attire, a good portion of my output from the last ten years has involved degrees of undress. In my Divine Beauty series I conflated fashion advertising with Catholic iconography. The resulting sexually charged images were derived from sources like GQ and Esquire. They were 80% male. I call it my gay period.
But I admit to a preference for the female figure, yet I am fully aware of the notion of the male gaze, and this is the source of my internal struggle. My painting style runs the gamut from loosely expressive to near-photorealistic, but my work leans toward the conventionally attractive. No Lucian Freud or Marlene Dumas grotesquery to mitigate my passion for the figure. No paradoxical Lisa Yuskavage cartoonishness. No John Currin or even Will Cotton level satire to hide behind. And of course no Kehinde Wiley ethnicity or gayness; I’m a straight, white, male dammit! I do employ irony though, so there’s that.
Lately I have been using models—friends, or friends of friends—which I work with collaboratively. They bring their own “costumes” and things, and I photograph them extensively as we improvise poses, and work from those. I favor models that do not conform to popular conventions of beauty, as with the ones in this book: https://www.facebook.com/SometimesBeautifulBook/). But unlike, say, Jenny Seville (who I admire greatly), I don’t repugnantly distort figures, or adopt many other visual tenets of the contemporary art canon. Though I am making an effort to expand my use of males, I favor women, and sometimes they come out looking like the sexual beings they are. I have also worked with Neo-Burlesque entertainers, who can be vampy or gender-bendy.
It seems though, that the very act of a male painting a female, given the long history of this practice, is suspect. Years ago I teamed up with Richard Huntington and the late Jackie Felix (a woman) to propose a three person exhibition to select galleries. At the time we were all, in one way or another, responding to the female figure in art and popular culture by undermining or satirizing male-centric traditions. One curator wrote back “As far as I can see, only one of you is qualified to comment on sexism in art.” I wasn’t totally surprised. I wrote back; “Can only people of color comment on racism? Can only Jews address the Holocaust? Why can’t members of the gender that caused the problem be part of the solution?” Of course she didn’t respond. This was back when you wrote letters.
Part of my process as an artist involves connecting with the models as people, getting to know them, or know them better. I believe this familiarity comes through in the art. Models regularly leave the studio feeling positive and reaffirmed. They often talk about “next time.” It is perhaps because of this emotional bond that it has been easier for me to enlist women. And because I enjoy this connection, and women as subject matter, I often wonder whether it is that or the art content that drives my decisions. I wonder if Will Cotton ever asks himself that question.
Sometimes it all feels like a balancing act, in which I lean too far this or that way at times. But I put just about all of my work out there, even when I have doubts; so I have the courage of my shaky convictions. Of course, that might not be courage; that might be damn-the-torpedoes foolishness.