ONE OF THE MORE interesting mental relics I took away from the recent Open Studios event was a conversation I had with a young fashion designer, probably in her late twenties. She and her male friend were my last visitors of the weekend, two marvelously upbeat African Americans. Almost immediately, we made our way to a painting that only hours later in the post-event gathering down in my studio would capture the attention of a fellow painter, who despite the controversial nature of the painting, was vigorously drawn to the “power and beauty” of it. Of course, as a friend and fellow artist working in the same building for nearly two years now, he might “see” the painting with different eyes.
The painting, perhaps unfinished, depicts an abruptly vivacious nude, a cosmetically-alluring young woman arguably of African origin. Although she is underpainted and defined by highlights of white paint, her face and lips offer little doubt as to her ethnicity. Her right leg is wrapped in several strips of white bandage. From one hand, a clear cup of blue-greenish liquid is being flung. And one breast, at once full and riveting, is painted out in what amounts to an imperfect cadmium yellow triangle, signifying yet another departure from a typically romantic depicture of what is obvious to anyone, a beautiful woman.
Behind this strikingly enigmatic figure is a wide sash of white with no particular objective reference to explain its presence, curving to some undetermined vanishing point behind her back. One might easily imagine this object, this sash of white—perhaps six to eight inches in extrapolated width—as a bolt of cloth extending across the canvas from side to side, whose only purpose would be to cover the woman’s nakedness at some future point in time. However, there is another reason to suggest that this “cloth” has instead, been torn from the woman, as there is a rather wide tear in the fabric.
In the distance beyond the woman and sash is an industrial smokestack with its gaseous plume spilling off into the background. Tossed around this smokestack is a noose, oversized and more in scale to perhaps match the woman’s upper appendage. It is the presence of the noose which in this racially charged environment is doomed to create scandal. There are only two other details in the painting as it currently exists. Etched into the light reddish-brown background in large black hand-painted letters are four words: SLINGS HOT DIXIE CUP, a menacing threat no matter how one slices it, as if to set all the objects of the painting in motion.
As a painter from the Old South of a certain era, stop! Actually that phrase is loaded with meaning that simply does not apply, and rather than use this space to eat away at those preconceptions, let’s revisit my earlier intentions. Let’s return to the young African American woman who visited me in my studio and upon seeing the painting I just described, asked me what the painting meant to me. My response was immediate, and not nearly as evasive as one might accuse, as I returned the volley back to her, “Well, what does it say to you?”
Allow the truth to settle in first. The truth is that situationally when someone coldly demands a “dancing bear” act of storytelling and interpretation on the spot without ever having said a word, positive or negative about a work, I nearly always clutch up, and have nothing to say. If I intuit a feeling that someone likes the work, is truly puzzled by a work after giving it some thought, or absolutely hates a work, and shares something of themselves from ANY of these three perspectives, perhaps in the utterance of merely a single word, I am free from my bondage of initial timidity and mistrust, and can suddenly speak a blue streak.
Sometimes the breakthrough will require a bit more from a particularly baiting individual to open up the floodgates of my daring generosity, for I refuse to be drawn into perfunctory traps, because demands like—tell me about this one—accomplish nothing but resentment in me towards the entire process of dealing with an insensitive or undereducated public, and of course, nothing but dismay and boredom in the individual passersby who’s just weathered a half-baked yet wholly conflicted response from the artist himself.
It is my opinion that my work is often complicated, and even conflicted within itself, but it is narrative. As I have put it, I try to layer in as much ambiguity as I can manage. I am not a preacher, nor am I a player in the world of party politics, but my work is nevertheless the result of a lifelong struggle with religious and political concepts. Let’s put it this way—I’m not shallow enough to think I represent all the answers, but I’m inclined to think I’m deep enough to represent interesting questions.
But on this particular Sunday afternoon, this young fashion designer wasn’t about to leave me disgruntled, even though she tried one more time by uttering the same words any artist reluctant to wax beyond the nature of his own chosen art has heard too many times before, “Well, the reason I ask is that a lot of painters usually can tell a story about what they were thinking…”
I interrupted her there. The blue streak had begun, this time in ducking the obvious.
I mentioned industrial lynching, and talked about Wheeling, WV, and the industrial rot there, about my punk rock roots, of never having painted until three years ago, but I had indeed drawn a few conclusions on the wall with magic markers back in the day, about the struggle between the national and the international that had plagued me since I was a young kid down in the south. About the fact, I still believed in America.
She then surprised me with a few remarks. One might surmize that her remarks were aptly colored by the recent ascendency of Barack Obama’s race for the White House only now being tarnished by his beleagured association with the controversial Rev. Jeremiah Wright, but my instincts tell me she had long carried these feelings inside her. She agreed with me that America is usually much too hard on herself. And that all these ethnic issues Americans sweat and toil to harvest or reject are minor compared to those in other parts of the globe and in world history. Her catchy reality-grounded metaphor of Americans having the same mother by different fathers and the social problems inherent to that situation, was a sparkler in the hands of this boyish painter who wants nothing more than to help bring forth from his generation a new way of looking.
The fashion designer and her friend then left, but only after I was thanked for returning to the visual arts.
I was humbled by youth, and glorified by honesty masquerading as itself. Makes me wonder if there’s enough hope to go around if I keep all I’ve got. And I wonder about the painting. It seems finished, but is it? The real question here is the problem of one group or another claiming ownership of divisive cultural symbols. What I did not give to this vibrant young woman were those thoughts on my mind when I was painting this image—when the noose was finally thrown into the mix, almost the final object to make its way into the scene thus far. Only one item has been added since.
I apologize for my cowardice. Inward cowardice explains the yellow swatch covering the right breast of the woman in the painting. A false stab at false modesty. The artist’s own cowardice at the subject matter, the conflict created of not wanting to offend, and yet being compelled to tell the truth as he sees it. The yellow sheep. Chinese and Western zodiac hints. The yellow flag of cowardice is everywhere the artist turns.
He believes that the American race problem is self-perpetuating, and is being driven by false flags. Injustice is one matter, superficially inflated hurt feelings another. The insult industry knows no bounds, and eventually will consume us all. Better that we each look ourselves in the eye, and simply decide to get over it. The old “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me” adage is most apropos in the age of creeping censorship of words and images that are historical in nature and common in the contemporary fields of our senses.
A few facts address the dilemma facing the artist. More horse thieves and bank robbers in the American West were hung by their necks to die than the estimated 400 or so blacks who died at the hands of white men in robes at the end of a rope, and yet the noose has become a condemned symbol. In Iran, homosexuals and adulteresses are still hung today, when they are not being stoned to death. Accused spies and traitors were often hung. Several of those involved in the plot and the aftermath of Lincoln’s assassination were hung.
In 1776, American patriot, Nathan Hale was hung as a spy by the British. Hale is often attributed with the last words, “I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country.”
Guilt or innocence simply does not enter into play here. Is the aphorism of “give a man enough rope and he will hang himself” contaminated forever, or at least never to be used in “mixed company” when trying to make the point of which that old saying was meant to convey? Find a better way of stating the same? What silliness!
Solution to this problem? Keep it simple, stupid.
You do not own the noose that hung the horse thief.
And so forth. Yes, this can be scandalous if not treacherous ground to travel, but this is the intelligent thrust of my most idiomatic work. Pushing the envelope of mental restrictions back to more sensible forms I will sometimes use symbols which both confront a problem by its very existence, while also using that symbol to make another point entirely because the use of that symbol is most suited within the framework of my own peculiar visual vocabulary of war and strife, peace and policy thrown into a syntax where nomenclature is multi-dimensional and of no single meaning, so as not to give fuel to those who seek to stir men’s souls with pomposity and hatred rather than transcendence and humility.
It is not my intent to be vulgar in my bellicose use of raw nerve images, but rather, my intent is merely to be as precise as a mature work requires. Experiencing the difference between arrogant humility and humble arrogance is key to understanding the narrative of my work. If given the chance to explore, I dare hope I may actually uncover something fresh and revitalizing, something from which we may all find healing through the shared experience of expanding rather than contracting the universe in which we live.
WHERE DO YOU WANT THIS KILLING DONE?
We speak with the language of war. We laugh
with the language of peace. Knowing that all life
is born of crisis, punctuated by brief periods
of solace, we also know that after all is said
and done, we shall never cheat infinity, nor
shall we extinguish the mark
of a single thought.
We are spaceless stars
doing distance, mocking intrigue.
Or perhaps, I have just hung myself.