That seems to be the one question we figurative painters get asked a lot... why do we paint in this manner? Why? It almost seems that the works we create can't be experienced if this question is not answered beforehand. As if the act of painting can't justify itself solely with the finished painting. I wonder if the opposite could be true - if you looked at a painting and absolutely loved it and later, after learning the reasoning behind it, you absolutely hated it. I can't believe this scenario is possible, and I also can't understand the first one where an instruction booklet is indispensable in order to enjoy a painting. It is in fact a moot point because the image has already been painted. I can imagine a conversation... well it never really feels like a conversation, it feels more like an interrogation. So, I can imagine the interrogation ending abruptly:

"Why did you chose to solve that problem through painting and not some other language?"

"Well... the paintings are done and are hanging in front of us at the moment, so lets not dwell upon it and lets judge the work accepting that the problem was attempted to be solved through painting."

Even if we don't want to accept it, we just try to find gentler ways if answering "because I want to." But the truth is that Art Schools and galleries and critics around the world will not accept such a simple answer. There has to be some sort of enchanting but intelligent reasoning behind such a daft act. Because we all know painting is something apparently ANYONE can do... it's so easy to comprehend, so quickly can one find its limitations, so rapidly can one bore one's self with painting, that it can never be a goal. Maybe a capricious whim, but never an objective in life.

"Oh, how cute, he made a painting."

"Don't worry honey, he'll grow out of it."

And I mention the word intelligent before, because it seems that as soon as a figure enters the realm of painting, it dumbs it down. Bouguereau's women might as well be blondes. I wonder if people have a checklist to establish how intelligent we are:

"Semblance of good drawing..."



"Thorough understanding of paint manipulation..."


"Harmonious sense of composition..."

"I'm sorry sir, 4 out of 4. You are legitimately stupid."

Truth is, we can't do much about it. I think it's ridiculous to try and convince someone that I am intelligent, or educated, nor am I willing to accept that my paintings should be judged on how much theory I can cram behind them. As long as there's people out there that will not give themselves a chance to experience a work of art in the way it was meant to be experienced (lets not forget, painting is a visual medium), we will be faced more and more with these sort of questions. What I have resorted to is blabbering the sort of answer the person wants to hear when they ask a stupid quetion. But in the end, just let them keep believing that dumb people are capable of making great paintings.


"Just Portraits"

A couple of days back something happened and even though it didn't strike me as odd, it certainly made me realize some things. I was advising a student of mine on her thesis, and for her final work she decided to present some portraits. They were wonderful representations of strangers (strange being the key word here) based on pixelated images from one of her chatroulette sessions. She decided to represent what 20 minutes looked like. It was a really clever way to translate time into imagery, and not only that but she did an installation on the wall with the portraits based upon their geographic location. So it was space and time filtered thru a webcam converted into color theory and form thru painting. I honestly thought, even though it wasn't something absolutely avant-garde, that the work was brilliantly executed.

When it was time to judge her work, her judges immediately, one could say with ill will, questioned the fact that she chose portraiture out of all the possibilities at her disposal. I was somewhat baffled by this attitude, because one could start to blindfully criticize anyone's work by stating that it could've been solved in a different manner. I find it a strange practice to think, when looking at a painting, that it would've been best solved if it was a video or a sculpture. I am one of those people who trusts that the artist's decision to chose a particular language and subject matter over another is an educated choice. I trust that choice, and it is within those parameters that I am willing to experience the work of art. If that experience moves me or not is something entirely different.

I find that this happens a lot with portraiture in painting. Granted, there's a myriad of mediocre portrait painters that don't help the cause, but I guess the same could be said for any other manner or subject matter. There are tons of mediocre films and film-makers, video installations, sculptures, photographs... god there's a lot of bad photos out there... and yet I would be an oaf if I beleived that wonderful things could not be executed thru traditional photography today.

Portrait painting still carries the baggage of being wrongfully interpreted as an elitist-oriented, empty and superficial manner of describing and interpreting a human being. A generation after Freud and Bacon (both of whom have inspired and shaped thousands of figurative painters) people have become somewhat lost as to what to expect when looking for contemporary portrait painting. I fear they want novelty, but amusing and unfamiliar elements are not indispensable in creating great works of art. Humanity loves easily recognizable, iconic traits. They feel comfort when associating El Greco with elongated bodies, Caravaggio with chiaro-oscuro, Van Gogh with thick choppy brush strokes, Botero with an obese universe... I think that when people judge figurative work, they want to be taken into a new world, a world where they are presented (spoon-fed) with that new and identifiable characteristic, where there's no direct reference to Rembrandt or Sorolla or Freud or Bacon. Everything is new and delicious. It's as if we were constantly pressing a "refresh" button in the hopes of being finally surprised with a new flavor that will quench, even if momentarily, our visual demands. A Michael Bay gum.

Well, to hell with novelty for the sake of novelty. And don't mistake this as a cry for stagnation. It's just that art solely depends on fascinating and reflecting human beings. When an interesting artist decides that he or she wants to paint a portrait, then it will be unique. And not because uniqueness was his or her goal, but because the "story" that was told, the way it was told, could have only been declaimed by that specific person.

And after the rant, (you can tell my discontent with the judging of my student's work) I just wanted to show some portrait work that I find inspiring. Are they proposing something new? I don't care to answer that. They just animate me, and that's good enough for me.

Courtesy of (in order) RVK, Brendan Kelly, Sangram Majumdar, Sean Cheetham, Kent Williams, Anne Gale (bow down), and Adrian Ghenie (get his book, awesome).