Q: Your “Gods and Monsters” series consists of tableaux of Mexican and Guatemalan figures that are photographed in a way that blurs certain elements to abstraction while others are in clear focus. Can you please speak more about this work?
A: When I depict the Mexican and, more recently, Guatemalan figures in my pastel-on-sandpaper paintings, they are hard-edged, vibrant, and in-your-face. That’s a result of the way I work in pastel. I slowly and meticulously build up layers of pigment, blend them with my fingers, continually refine and try to find the best, most eye-popping colors. It’s a very slow process that takes months of hard work. An aside… One frustration I have as an artist – I am hardly unique in this – is that my audience only sees the finished piece and they look at it for perhaps ten seconds. They rarely think about how their ten-second experience took me months to create!
In 2002 when I began photographing these figures, I wanted to take the same subject matter and give it an entirely different treatment. So these images are deliberately soft focus, dreamy, and mysterious. I use a medium format camera and shoot film. I choose a narrow depth of field. I hold gels in front of the scene to blur it and to provide unexpected areas of color. Even as a photographer I am a colorist.
I want this work to surprise me and it does, since I don’t usually know what images I will get. Often I don’t even look through the viewfinder as I position the camera and the gels and click the shutter. I only know what I’ve shot after I’ve seen a contact sheet, usually the next day.
The “Gods and Monsters” series began entirely as a reaction to my pastel paintings. The latter are extremely meticulous and labor intensive. At a certain point in the process I know more or less what the finished painting will look like, but there are still weeks of slow, laborious detail work ahead. So my photographic work is spontaneous, serendipitous, and provides me with much-needed instant gratification. I find it endlessly intriguing to have two diametrically opposed ways of working with the same subject.
Comments are welcome!
A: I’m more critical on days when I am sad so that the faults, imperfections, and things I wish I had done better stand out. Fortunately, all of my work is framed behind plexiglas so I can’t easily go back in to touch up newly-perceived faults. It reminds me of the expression, “Always strive to improve, whenever possible. It is ALWAYS possible!” However, I’ve learned that re-working a painting is a bad idea. You are no longer deeply involved in making it and the zeitgeist has changed. The things you were concerned with are gone: some are forgotten, others are less urgent. For most artists the work is autobiography. Everything is personal. When I look at a completed pastel painting, I usually remember exactly what was happening in my life as I worked on it. Each piece is a snapshot – maybe even a time capsule, if anyone could decode it – that reflects and records a particular moment. When I finally pronounce a piece finished and sign it, that’s it, THE END. It’s as good as I can make it at that point in time. I’ve incorporated everything I was thinking about, what I was reading, how I was feeling, what I valued, art exhibitions I visited, programs that I heard on the radio or watched on television, music that I listened to, what was going on in New york, in the country, in the world, and so on. It is still a mystery how this heady mix finds its way into the work. During the time that I spend on it, each particular painting teaches me everything it has to teach. A painting requires months of looking, reacting, correcting, searching, thinking, re-thinking, revising. Each choice is made for a reason and as an aggregate these decisions dictate what the final piece looks like. On days when I’m sad I tend to forget that. On happier days I remember that the framed pastel paintings that you see have an inevitability to them. If all art is the result of one’s having gone through an experience to the end, as I believe it is, then the paintings could not, and should not, look any differently.
Comments are welcome.