L a - b e a u t é - s a u v e r a - l e - m o n d e ~ D o s t o ï e v s k i

L a - b e a u t é - s a u v e r a - l e - m o n d e  ~  D o s t o ï e v s k i

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Les Perruches

I've recently finished the painting that will be used for the invitation to my first solo exhibition at Winston Wächter in Seattle.  The show opens in June and continues until the end of August.  I'm very happy that this particular painting will represent the body of work.  I started work on this painting early last year, before nearly all of the others that will be in the show.  It's also my first completed example of a specific kind of painting that I've wanted to attempt for a long time.  On more than one occasion, during my last few shows, when being asked about what I hoped my future work might be, I said that I wanted to find some way to take 17th century Dutch genre painting - specifically the figure in an interior - and meld it with a late 18th century French aesthetic.  Perhaps an odd, even perverse, idea, but I really wanted to see what this would look like.  And I thought, starting Les Perruches, that I might finally be ready, technically, to pull it off.

Les Perruches [the parakeets] - acrylic on panel - 30x24 - 2012


I knew that I wanted green drapes.  I think that was the first element that came to me.  The only certain one.  There were several related ideas - incorporating a fairly shadowy interior, with a good amount of color, especially reflected color - that shuffled around in my head for quite some time.  But all of the half-shaped concepts featured more or less quantities of green drapery at a window or door, letting in a limited amount of light upon the centrally placed, full-length figure.

On a nice sunny day early last year, I put on the old Gap dress shirt that I'd modified to serve as a  low-cut dress bodice, and G took pictures of me as I posed in the thin line of light that was let in through the nearly closed pocket doors that divide the two main rooms of our apartment.  I was the first particular of the composition.

The other particulars were assembled in differing ways.  As I hadn't yet made a big, puffy red satin skirt that I could pose in - I have one now - I worked from a photograph of a 19th century gown that's in the collection of Metropolitan Museum's Costume Institute, inventing the ribbon trim and sash.  I adapted the coiffure from a fashion drawing of the time; both gown and hairstyle would be appropriate for the mid to late 1780s.  Most often, at this time, bodices would be trimmed with lace or some sort of a ruffle at the neckline, and/or filled in with an often quite puffed out, gauzy fichu.  But I decided to go with a plain neckline - certainly not incorrect - which also has the benefit of showing a bit of chest hair; I'd never want to entirely hide the fact that there's a man in that dress.

I really love the word perruche and, after deciding on the inclusion of a bird to be juxtaposed with a stylishly improbable hairstyle, wanted to use it for the title.  I quickly found that I had mistakenly thought it was the French word for parrot, when it is actually the word for parakeet or budgie.  Turns out the French word for parrot is perroquet.  Which is terribly confusing.  So I did a bit of research and found that the parakeet group is much broader than just the little domesticated, stripey birds I've always seen in cages.  (Actually, it seems that parakeets as well as cockatoos, cockatiels, etc., are all just different forms of parrot.)  And I was happy to discover that there were plenty of varieties that were called parakeets yet looked sufficiently parrot-like to serve my specifications of size and color.  I chose a Red-masked Parakeet, or Conure à tête rouge.  I found a photograph that met my compositional needs, though I did have to reverse the lighting.  I love the particular angle of his turning head.

As I said, I had different ideas about what the room might look like.  But then I saw a photograph of  a sequence of rooms at Versailles that I thought would be perfect.  The petit appartement de la reine is a beautiful and celebrated suite of small rooms hidden behind the queen's state rooms, facing onto an interior courtyard.  Facing that same enclosed courtyard and turning the corner from the petit appartement, is a little known series of four private rooms.  They had rarely if ever been more than a service passage - behind unexpected, awkwardly placed doors there are cramped little staircases leading to the floors above and below - but it was also the only private way to get from the queen's rooms to that of the king's; a door hidden in the wall next to the queen's bed in her state chambre lets into this passage.  (Famously, Marie Antoinette fled by way of these rooms, escaping the rampaging mob that October night in 1789.)

As far as I can tell, these rather haphazardly shaped rooms had never been updated or re-decorated. At least not after the beginning of the 18th century. So I took the basic structure and gave it a modest face-lift. I simplified the paneling and added new elements that are in the neo-classical style that was au courant for the 1780s. I think of this as an "economical make-over", as if the theoretical owner wanted to be very stylish, but didn't want to spend too much money. I could have added color or gilding to the paneling - I considered adding some background tinting to portions of the over-door carving - but I think that, in the end, I prefer the subtle shifts in color reflected onto the plain white walls.

I wanted something particular for the round cartouche over the door, most likely some mythologically themed tableau.  I was beginning to scrape around in my brain, thinking I'd have to design something from scratch.  Which, honestly, I wasn't looking forward to.  But somehow I managed to remember a cameo brooch that had belonged to my mother's paternal grandmother.  It was always in my mother's jewelry box when I was a child, though I never remember her wearing it.  She gave it to G as a wedding present.  I adapted the design, and I'm happy to have included something of my own family's history in this piece.

I couldn't figure out what painting should go in the picture frame I intended for the wall at the left of the composition.  I thought I might come up with some frothy romp - something very Fragonard-ish - or another mythological tableau.  But then, out of nowhere, I had the idea that I could use one of my own paintings.  Le Passage was a previous exercise in that Dutch/French blending I spoke of, though an exterior rather than interior; it's inspired by a painting by de Hooch.  I really enjoyed making a miniature version  of my own work, and it was especially fun to imagine the painting in shadow, with an extreme foreshortening.

Le Passage - acrylic on panel - 24x18 - 2009

One of the things I really like - and kept - about the actual rooms is the peculiar variations in the wooden floor, but then I had to work pretty hard to get the sections of parquet de Versailles laid out properly; Photoshop wasn't nearly the help I'd hoped for.  Having a carpet to hide some of it was a blessing.  I adapted the design of a very stylish neo-classical rug that would have been perfect for that fictional re-decoration of the 1780s.  I simplified it, changed most of the colors and added different elements.  It was fun to design it to coordinate with the "new" paneling.  While not overly match-y, both incorporate clusters of leaves, ribbons, scrolled vegetation, etc.

Surprisingly difficult to find an image of a cat sitting in this position.  As it was, I had to change the lighting and reposition the tail.  I love having animals in my work, but the cat was added mainly as a compositional device; I needed something in that corner.  Mainly for balance.  Only after the fact did I wake up to the whole cat/bird dynamic.  That rather clever subtext was some sort of divine intervention, I guess - but I suppose I should just say that I'd planned it all along....

Sunday, April 15, 2012

And continuing: Privacy

Continuing from my last post, there's an aspect of my - perhaps obscure - argument that I don't think I was really clear about. Not clear in my own mind, certainly. And that is that I think much of my objection to the portrayals of brutalization and death that I mentioned is because I believe it demonstrates a disregard for the person's privacy. Who deserves to have their privacy respected? And to what degree? And under what circumstances?


I'm an artist who will tell you or show you almost anything about my life, no matter how pathetic or embarrassing. That's what I do, that's who I am. I'm married to a writer who is very open as well, who writes about her life and doesn't shrink from from telling the often awkward truths. Most of the people we know are artists and writers, who frankly tell their stories. We don't really know many terribly private people.

There are many in the world who, by avocation or ambition, become well known to others. Well known to those far beyond their private sphere. Politicians, actors, musicians, etc. It's part of the game, wanting people to know who you are; it's how you succeed in your profession. At least to some degree they know and understand that they have to give up some degree of personal privacy. (Though I always admire those famous people who somehow manage to keep themselves and their families out of headlines; it has to require a special kind of discipline, a skill.) While I don't think it's at all ethical for the media and the public to use them - performers, especially - as punching bags, at least they made some choice - however unprepared they might have been - to be seen and known.

And that may be a crucial difference for me, why I'm so troubled by the use of the lives of private, otherwise unknown people for the production of true crime books or narrative film. The murdered prostitute or child wasn't given the choice whether or not they wanted to have their death graphically described in a book. The young trans man wasn't given the choice to decide if and in what manner paid actors were able to show the world every detail of the wretched manner in which his life was cut short. They never made the choice to give away their privacy; it was taken from them. By the cruel acts that were the only things that made them to a greater or lesser degree famous. And I think we make subtle decisions about the worth of their privacy by how we respond to those acts.

A lot of the reaction to the previous post was - expectedly - the strong sentiment that these stories need to be told. I think in some cases that that is very true. I think the story of Brandon Teena is very important to tell. I think the murders of a prostitute or a child - or so many other tragedies - do not usually need to be graphically told. Except for someone's profit or to satiate a "morbid curiosity", what purpose can it serve? In any case, as a society - truly a tabloid society, an all-the-news-all-the-time society - I think we need to be much more sensitive to other people's privacy. We need to be so much more careful and respectful. And I think we should spend more time asking ourselves, when confronted with a display of someone else's private matters - whether they had a choice in that display, and so much more when they didn't - do I really need to know this? Should I know it?

Arguing death and respect and the Titanic

How long should we wait before we get to use tragedy as a basis for our entertainment?

If it's on the news, we don't wait at all. I believe we deceive ourselves that that isn't really entertainment; it's something we're supposed to know, have a right to know if it's on the news. Just like we have a right to slow down to see that accident on the freeway. Or hear about the personal tragedy of a celebrity. Or even see the video of Gaddafi, beaten and bloodied and on his way to an ugly death. But maybe we think that's OK, because he was a really bad guy, and it's history? I suppose we've always been that way; public executions always had excellent attendance. We have a right to gawk, don't we? It's not hurting anyone. Everybody else does it. It's just human nature, isn't it? Are we able to convince ourselves that it's natural and harmless to carelessly witness and disrespect the tragedy of others? We do. All the time. Without giving it a moment's thought. There's something in us that tells us look, but isn't there something, too, that says look away?

And when it's you and your life? When it's your loved one who had a heart attack at the mall, or the one being pulled from the crushed car? When the news camera is pointed at the people you love - your husband, your mom, you child - when they are most vulnerable?


I've never really been afraid of death. I know many - most? - people are. And I'm not terribly concerned, personally, about what happens to what's left of me afterwards. My body or my soul, should I have one. So it's really peculiar that I feel so strongly about how the dead are treated, the lack of respect we show them. We drag celebrities out of their graves, over and over - Whitney Houston, Michael Jackson, Amy Winehouse, so many others - pouring over the details of their sad lives. And true crime writing is really disturbing to me. I feel that people like Ann Rule and her ilk make their living off of the horrendous misfortunes of other people. I have to say that I have no respect for that genre or for the people who crave that kind of thing; before they were tortured and murdered - children, old people, prostitutes - those were real people. Why can't we leave them some dignity? Why can't we let them rest?

I'm also very disturbed by how people's real lives are portrayed in entertainment. A documentary is one thing; I'm generally alright with that. But when it comes to "recreation" or "portrayal" of someone's life, when actors are involved, I get very squeamish. Boys Don't Cry, as an example, was a very respected film, a very well made film. It told the true story of Brandon Teena, a young trans man, who was beaten, raped and - with two other people - murdered. I feel confident that everyone involved in the project had great respect and reverence for their subject matter and the lives of those portrayed. I'm also sure that those who think so highly of the film feel that it made a huge statement for tolerance and understanding. Even knowing that, I think it was wrong. Mainly because, in spite of all the noble intentions, in telling this story the whole point of Teena and the others' lives is that they were victims. That became the sum of their lives. What we are left with is a very ugly visualization of how they were beaten and killed. We don't really get to know the humanity of them, just the ugliness they endured as they left this life. I understand that my take on this is unusual, but I feel that the replaying of their awful tragedies, no matter the intention of the filmmakers, further victimized them.

I know that one of the most offensive aspects of that film for me is that it was made only six years after the event. So, how long after the fact is long enough? And when is it alright to start (intentionally) fictionalizing events that were traumatizing to the nation, to the world? To (knowingly) use them for entertainment purposes? When I think about the film Titanic, I often wonder how long it will be before some poorly-written and silly love story will be set in the collapse of the World Trade Towers. Is it too soon?

I really don't know how long is long enough for me. Sometimes I'm sad that tomb-robbers/archaeologists didn't leave King Tut and the other ancients alone; they had prepared their deaths so well and so beautifully. Though I suppose I do see digging up ancient graves as a desecration, I guess I don't get too worked up over it. I'm not offended by the dramatized deaths of Borgias or Tudors or the like. And even though I'm fairly steeped in the personal tragedies of Marie Antoinette or various Romanovs, it would be hard for me to take offense by some bungled telling of their demise, though I'd be disappointed by the bungling. (Again.) The more I think about it, it's the use of the "little people" - people not much or at all remembered by history - in some sloppy retelling, some re-invention of historical trauma that I find most distressing.

And I guess that's the reason I detest Titanic. It's a very stupid film. Clichéd and - save the historical fact - implausible. I will give that much of the design is well-done, much better than most American films. But what pains me most is the way that the real-life victims of the tragedy are used. Not the famous people; they have a record of their actions, and history acknowledges them and can defend them. But the "nobodies", the hundreds - most of them poor - who drowned and left no trace? At the end of the film, when bodies become nothing more than props, sliding down the angled deck, dangling and falling into the sea, I find it painful. To me it feels like the actual people who died that night have been stripped of their humanity in order to become a dramatic tool.

We all - most of us, anyway - have very small lives. Nothing much happens to us; we accomplish little of importance, from birth to death. Nothing that anyone will record, nothing that anyone will remember long. But it's our life. Full of love and pain and loss. Anonymous and often difficult. We know our own hardships and the hardships of those in our lives, but the lives and tragedies of strangers aren't for us to laugh at and disregard. Everyone is trying, struggling. And I feel we should respect that. In life and in death.


One small detail of Titanic bothered me more than anything else. I've only seen the movie once, and I don't expect to see it again, so I'll admit that I can't fully corroborate my memory of the detail I'm speaking of. It concerns the band that so famously played while the ship sank, the men losing their lives. It was just a moment in the film - honestly, I can't remember the content - some communication among members of the band that was played for humor. I remember that, whatever it was, it offended me.

But it's the band on the Titanic that is always the sorest, most affecting part of the tragedy for me; really, I'm never able to speak about them at all, without starting to cry. (Even just writing, like now, starts me off....) Wallace Hartley was the young leader of the eight musicians who formed the band that night. When tragedy struck they stayed on deck and played, trying to help keep people calm while those who were able to, scrambled into life boats. And kept playing afterward for those who remained, when it was impossible to escape. Until the ship sank. And they died.

I think to myself, you know, they probably weren't the greatest musicians; they probably considered themselves quite lucky to get such an excellent gig. I'm guessing they had very average lives, doing the same things we all do; Hartley had just gotten engaged. And then, in this horrible moment, with all that they must have been feeling - knowing that they would die - they transcended whatever small talent they might have had, trying to give some peace to the other doomed passengers. They gave the only thing they had to give. And it was a noble thing. And it was honorable and a blessing. I can't even really grasp why it is that this touches me so profoundly. But I salute those men and the way they chose - under horrible circumstances - to end their lives. To those eight men, and all the other hundreds of people - man, woman, and child - who lost their lives that cold night, peace. Rest in peace.


More information on Hartley and the other musicians here and here.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Two other words that start with G

Blogger's spell-check doesn't recognize the very-important-for-painters word gesso. Its only suggestion for correction/replacement is...Gestapo.