Paintings of Pictures of People with Paintings

Like many artists whose productive lives have bridged the twentieth and twenty-first millennia—a period marked by rapid technological change as profound as the industrial revolution was to the modernists a century earlier—I often ponder the relevance of making paintings in an era of digitized imagery. Why communicate on canvas when every cell phone is a potential digital gallery?

This question gains added significance in light of the modern proliferation of art reproductions in books, posters, postcards, and more recently in video, CDs, and on the Internet, all of which increase the likelihood that people will—more often than not—experience painting filtered through at least one layer of media. In addition, the widespread availability and acceptance of conventional and digital still and video cameras, and the “document everything” mindset they’ve spawned, have led to the common practice of recording art encountered firsthand for later viewing. This has contributed to a blurring of the distinction between paintings as discrete objects, and “paintings” as mass-produced reproductions.

The photo-realists of the 1970s adapted photography as a means of achieving ever more naturalistic effects, which when reproduced in printed form were often indistinguishable from their source material. In my own career I have routinely adopted different painting styles – often historic ones – as a means of thematically contextualizing subject matter. This series mimics photo-realist fidelity to underscore the irreconcilable connection between painting and photography. I was also interested in the dialogue between viewer, art, and museum environment, all of which are influenced by the presence of the camera.

My process involved photographing (digitally or on film) people in art museums as they interacted with paintings, some unaware of my intent, others consciously posing with the art (resulting in what I refer to as the “trophy photo”). I was subject to the peculiarities and limitations of shooting under amateur conditions. Many photographed were themselves taking pictures or videotaping.

In the studio I painted directly from these photographs, removing unnecessary information. These are not, strictly speaking, portraits. Nor are the paintings depicted in the works copies. Rather, these are painted representations of photographs, subject to the distortions, lost detail, and idiosyncratic framing characteristic of the medium. The process deepened my awareness of the limitations and artificiality of photographic imagery, and of the profound and often subtle communicative nature of painting.