Together (No. 26)

"Together (No. 26)," mixed media on birch panel, 48" x 36"

This painting sold a few weeks ago at a show in Woodside, CA, near San Francisco. I got a lot of questions about why all the people in the scene were giving their backs, something I do often in paintings like this.

In some art book I once read, maybe by Dave Hickey, or John Berger, I can't remember, there was a discussion about two essential ways figures have been depicted in European art. I don't know if I buy the metaphor—or, really, want to buy it, given how binary it is—but it has stuck.

The first mode is essentially feminine. These are works from the Renaissance and earlier. Christ or the Madonna are in the focal point, glowing and golden. They're prominent but receded. Surrounding them are cherubs and saints, welcoming you in, enticing you, the viewer, into a land of warm pastel pink and green. Backs and sides are depicted more than are full frontals, because the whole idea is to attract, guide, suck you in.

Rubens, "Assumption of the Virgin Mary" (1626)

The second, more recent mode is essentially male. These are works from the Baroque on up to today. Portraits of wealthy and powerful patrons who are pushed forward and occupy most of the canvas. Tenebrous and stark, aggressive and intimidating rather than enticing. They're more lone heroes, individuals, and less products of communities. They want to grab you by the neck and issue an order, to stir the fight-flight instinct.

Velázquez, "Portrait of Innocent X" (1650)

Aesthetically—in the pre-politics realm of imagining new ways to be in the world—I'm for the former. I think it's in my art, in my bones. I'd rather be enveloped than prodded, even if it means immersion in the sort of nightmare worlds described by Dante or Bosch, which I also want to know about. But I'd rather be worked on gradually, marinated, not shocked into learning.

It's not that I don't see a role for shock to play in busting through our complacency, it's that it fades as quickly as it comes, like anything hyper-stimulating that needs to be increasingly increased. You can't keep up and the lag turns into illness. It only works if it's used sparingly.

By tuning oneself into subtlety, though, looking for the deep and enduring, perhaps even grasping the thing on its own terms rather than one's own, I think a more sustained learning can occur. A love can grow. And we can be more aligned with reality.