Getting Past Ideology

This afternoon I made this painting — Self-Portrait At 40 (When I Thought I Was Old), 36 x 36 inches, oil on canvas. I’m not sure it’s done… some of the drawing feels off and I don’t think I have a real sense of flesh yet. At least not in that way Francis Bacon got flesh. But that’s a high bar. And as a first go, it’s not half bad. 

It shouldn’t be a surprise that I made a figure painting since I spent the day preparing for and facilitating a workshop on the Queer Male Figure. I like figure painting, but graduate school freighted it for me. I tripped into a program dominated by faculty who espoused ideologies intent on burying painting with incessant claims that “painting’s dead.’  But as David Hockney’s pointed out, the claim that painting’s dead is preposterous. The human need to make marks and depict is too central to who we are as a species. The claim, whenever it’s been made, always turns out to be reactionary (and made without an understanding of how painting works).

Like so many painters of my generation, I navigated – survived, if I’m being honest — graduate school by establishing a conceptual crutch for painting. It involved autobiographical narrative and the figure. And now working with the figure takes me back to those ‘problems’ — which often takes the joy out of the work. I’m trying to shed all that nonsense and focus instead on the questions that animate my painting practice. But it’s challenging. Too often teachers become ghosts in the studio, and this afternoon I realized I need to perform an exorcism. 

This isn’t the first time I’ve realized that my education got in the way of my practice. And it won’t be the last time I have to unravel ideological lessons in order to access my sense of direction. I do regret, however, that I’ve avoided doing the work and allowed my practice to be stunted as a result.  But it’s an equally distracting mistake to regret the past, so I’ll do my best to look toward a more robust future. And make more figure paintings without the drama.

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