This commissioned piece for Team Diva Real Estate practically painted itself.
Late last year, I heard from my fabulous collector Lisa Picard. She was looking to acquire a painting for a modern getaway spot she’d designed and built in northern California, and had her eye on this one . . .
Alas, this particular midcentury goddess had already found herself a home. So Lisa decided to commission work specifically for her new place. She was drawn to the restfulness and solitude of the lady in her spare-yet-sort-of-busy modernist expanse. Lisa built her country retreat to be a relaxing gathering place for herself and her community of outdoorsy friends. She was looking for art that would embody restfulness, and also the dualistic nature of her work and life: developing dynamic, urban work places in big cities, but feeling equally at home pedaling her bike through rugged mountain terrain.
The commissioned work was destined for the guest room, which is in a separate structure from the main house and connected by a patio. It has a garage door that can open the entire room to the outside. The house epitomizes the California ideal of indoor-outdoor living—which is of course right up my alley! We ultimately decided on two facing paintings: One would capture the reviving solitude of this creative urban dweller’s country place; and the other the communal nature of both work and play. (Of course, at the time we had no idea that solitude would soon become a recurring theme for everyone, and communal bonhomie a fond memory.)
I spent the spring and summer of 2020 developing the imagery for the two concepts. The mid-century ladies whom I normally pilfer from magazines to use in my paintings are models posing as housewives. In my work they often stand in for the viewer; in this case the viewer was a CEO of a large company and her contemporary, active, nature-loving pals. The main character in the solitude/interior piece had to draw them in and feel like a kindred spirit, despite her fifties-housewife trappings.
I spent a lot of time on the geometry and perspective of the interior. As in the painting that inspired it, the space was to be largely defined by a tile floor. For this kind of project, I use a chalk line to draw the receding parallel lines of the floor and walls, anchored by pushpins at the vanishing points. I could geek out for hours about the particulars of perspective (and I have), but I’ll spare the reader that part of the journey. This interior took elements of two houses from a book of Julius Schulman’s photographs.
I swiped this gal from a Culligan ad. The magazine that she’s pretending to read features, not surprisingly, another Culligan ad. Like many of my star players, she’d appeared in a previous painting.
Choosing the fabric is critical; it sets the tone of the painting, and is the one thing (besides the shape) that can’t be changed. The choice is part instinctual, part circumstantial (a model had just scored the brown fabric and gifted it to me). In this case I was focused mostly on the main character’s outfit. I had already decided that the left one would be her top and the right one her pants, and planned to leave some matching curtains in the distance. The one on the right is kind of wacky, and I nearly swiped it for a dress for myself, but the sympathetic vibration between the stripes and the different shades of orange in the two together won out.
The second painting was to be set at night, from the outside looking in, and with multiple characters, perhaps at a party (remember those?) or its aftermath (yes, even more fondly).
This house is also a composite. I usually draw it first, then draw potential characters on separate pieces of paper, so I can pin them up and move them around. Scale is a matter of trial and error: I move a figure up and down on the drawing, to find a believable spot for someone that size. Sometimes they never feel quite right in the space and I have to toss them. Many of these people were cut from the scene.
The shape required me to build three irregular panels, one with five sides.
The phone lady is another recurring character from my past work. Her friend in the chair was someone I’d been wanting to use for years: she had me at the knee socks, but her setting is intriguing, too—a sort of flattened theatrical space. Perhaps the corrugated translucent fiberglass will make its way into some future painting.
I chose more oranges and browns for the fabric, to unite the palette of the two facing works. The brown tiki print would be someone’s groovy swimsuit, and also double as some sixties “primitive” art on the wall.
Both final paintings, and their stunning home, can be viewed on my commissions page.
I have been painting twisted vintage Americana, much of it food-related, on found fabrics for over twenty years. A couple of years ago, I found myself with an overabundance of tiny (4″) plywood “doughnut holes” left over from building larger round panels. The tiny circles were so appealing, I had to make them into painting supports. I used them for studies of the food that was piled on a table in a commissioned piece I was working on at the time. I was trying to mix the weird colors found in 1950’s cookbook illustrations of processed food, mimicking the color printing process by using only four colors of paint (CMYK) plus white.
The project later evolved into a way to trick myself into painting more loosely. The tiny paintings were from scraps, and such a low investment—if one wasn’t working, I’d just paint over it.
I would get hungry every time I worked on them, even when the food was kind of gross.
In my work I’ve often depicted highly decorative culinary concoctions that channeled an inordinate amount of female creativity into bizarre and ephemeral projects. For example: start by gutting a simple potato, loaf of bread, or hard-boiled egg; mix the innards with other ingredients, primarily mayonnaise; then stuff them back into their original container to create a similacrum of the original—now there’s a productive use of time! Working alone in a room painting detailed, labor-intensive food pictures makes me feel a sort of kinship with my homebound foremothers who labored over the actual food. Their creations were devoured (or not), the evidence of their labor and ingenuity vanished. Art is arguably undervalued in our culture, but at least there do exist people willing to shell out money for it and hang it on their wall. So I’ve got that going for me anyway.
I was finishing this series just as the pandemic was starting to drive many of us into the cocoons of our homes. Home-cooked food has suddenly taken center stage as a source of comfort and symbol of togetherness. There has also been a resurgence of food-as-craft-project, a reincarnation of the fifties mom sculpting strange concoctions out of humble, edible materials. We’re mourning our former social, public, busy lives, and appreciating anew things we took for granted, including sharing food with friends. When we finally re-gather and rebuild and sit down to a nice dinner together, we’ll be starting from scratch, as it were, in a new world. We’ll never have that recipe again.
Appropriately, this series of twenty-four food paintings will be shown for the first time in a home. The Food Art Collection has existed as a gallery in curator Jeremy Buben’s apartment since 2017. We had already planned to show this work there this year, just before everybody went home and did everything, including showing art, online. Opening in June, all the paintings in I’ll Never Have that Recipe Again will be hung together on a real wall in a physical gallery. They will also displayed on the gallery’s website (and online store), and video tours and talks will be scheduled in the coming weeks. The paintings will remain on display in the physical space through the summer. We anticipate possibly moving into “phase 2” in Washington next month, which means the gallery will likely be open for in-person viewing by appointment in the coming months. A reception seems less likely, but stay tuned.
My first food paintings were of eggs. Lots of eggs. Eggs distributed one to a plate, eggs enshrined in stainless steel bowls. I was working out, among other things, my angst-ridden resistance to the cult of motherhood and its reproductive mandate. I had just begun to pilfer 195o’s magazines for imagery, and at the time I was particularly struck by how busy all the ladies pictured in their pages were with countless projects —shining floors, whipping up cakes, contemplating their kitchen cupboards—but really, it all seemed to me to be just a sublimation of the main message: Their true and only purpose in life was to make more tiny Americans. It didn’t seem to me, in the 1990’s, that the message had altered much. It still doesn’t.
On a visit home to Cleveland around this time, I asked Mary Beth, my very brilliant but troubled oldest sister, whether she would be attending the following day’s family Christmas gathering. She replied cryptically, “Of course I’m coming: I’m making . . .deviled eggs.” She slowly drew out the name of the favorite midwestern delicacy, lingering on the “devil”, imbuing it with a significance I could only guess at. My cousin, an academic who is never at a loss for meaning, pointed out that perhaps here lay, in the humble deviled egg, my next subject matter. Take the egg—embodiment and symbol of the female’s power to create life—remove its core, fluff it up with mayonnaise and reassemble it into a decorative appetizer, a mere warmup to the main event of manly meatitude. The project of the patriarchy in a nutshell. Or eggshell.
I’m Making Deviled Eggs (1999) was something of a break-out painting. It won first prize in a juried show in 2000, which led to my first commercial gallery representation. It was the first time, after working in near-isolation for ten years, that I felt that my art was of interest to a wider world, the first hint that I could have a professional career at it, and maybe even one day make art full time. I had named the painting in an ironic nod to my sister’s cryptic quote. Mary Beth died in 2010 under rather unhappy circumstances. In retrospect, given what a pivotal moment this piece represents, artistically and professionally, I’m happy I did. It feels less ironic and more like an homage to a very smart woman born at the wrong time, whose potential, like that of the deviled eggs, was never fully realized.
I’ve since expanded the menu considerably, but I’m still drawn to those highly decorative concoctions that seem to be channeling an enormous amount of female creativity into bizarre and ephemeral projects. The theme of gutting something, mixing the innards with other ingredients, primarily mayonnaise, and stuffing them back into their original container to create a similacrum of the original—it recurs again and again. (Twice-baked potato, anyone?) It is, come to think of it, also an apt description of what I myself do with the ephemera of the American Dream.
I have been working from 1950’s and 1960’s magazine ads for almost thirty years. My temporal relationship to the material is strange when you think about it: The first time I started cutting up and mining for material an “old” magazine that I’d found in a thrift store, the images were thirty or forty years old. Now they’re sixty or seventy years old, which seems more like an antique. Antique that they might be (and I’m getting close to that myself by that standard), I’m not precious about them. They are my still-living source material. I tear out things I find interesting or telling or oddly relevant, or maybe I just like the colors. I file the torn-out images in rough categories. I have a drawer overflowing with manila file folders of ragged magazine photos with labels like People, Children, Kitchens, Decor, Patios, Lawns, Pools, Appliances, Food, Cake, Disembodied Hands. That’s basically my system, and when I’m working out a composition and I need, say, a husband for someone, I look through the People file until I find a few candidates for the right guy, in the right pose, with the right clothes.
Some people just come in handy, time and again.
The little boys above were posing with their “My Fair Lady” outfits with a row of little girls in equally silly garb when I came across them in a magazine, McCalls maybe. When I used them in a painting, I placed them out in the wild to better showcase their feral quality. I used a fabric with an overall pattern of olde timey maps of a vaguely colonialist flavor, which seemed like a perfect match for the little suits of little capitalists in training.
I felt a particular bond with the little boy on the left. Steve said he looked like Drake Deknatel’s images of himself as a little boy, which he’d painted right before he died. Indeed, the painting’s eventual owner, with no knowledge of that conversation or of even of Drake himself, told me that that boy was her favorite one, and then spontaneously dubbed him “Frederick”, which, chillingly, happens to have been Drake’s real name.
But I digress. A few years later, I snuck the same boy into a newspaper that a smoking dad is holding in this piece, Cowboy Diplomacy. He’s at the top left.
And here he is again, looking over the fence at an execution in an homage to Manet’s homage to Goya.
I finally gave him a solo show about two years ago, overtly acknowledging the homage to my late mentor. He’s changed a bit since I started painting him, and he seems happiest in his mayhem now. I think Drake would have liked this one.
Sleek shiny cars, gleaming ribbons of freeway, convenient modern handheld devices like TV remotes and light meters—we’re all nostalgic for the future that never happened.
My show of recent paintings on vintage fabrics, remixing images of mid-century car ads and real estate porn into dissections of the American unconscious, is up through this Friday, April 26 at Atelier Drome Architecture + Design, 112 Prefontaine Ave. S in Pioneer Square. Hours are 8AM- 5PM Monday through Friday.
Recommended by The Stranger as one of the top shows to see this spring.
When I was a model for painting classes, I often heard one professor tell his students a story about a Chinese artist who received a commission for a painting of a fish. Some months had passed when the patron inquired as to the status of his fish painting. The artist replied he was still working on it. More months passed, the patron inquired again. Still working on it, the artist replied again. A year goes by, the patron asks after his fish yet again, and the artist once again tells him he’s still working on it. Another year later, the patron finally just goes over to the artist’s studio and says, please, I really want my fish, I’ve been waiting for two years now, can I get my fish painting? The artist pulls out a brush, ink, and a piece of paper, then deftly paints a fish on it and hands it to the guy. “Wait, why did it take so long if you could just make one in five seconds like that?” the patron wants to know. The artist walks over to a closet, opens the door, and out fly hundreds of pieces of paper with fish painted on them.
I’m not sure if I have all the details right from the professor’s version, let alone whether it’s really an old Chinese fable—the professor himself might have just made it up, for all I know. It really doesn’t matter where it comes from, because the story as I have come to understand it (and retell repeatedly to my own classes) is wise and useful regardless of its fuzzy provenance. The point is that you have to make a whole lot of bad or mediocre art in order to get even close to making good art. You have to fill rooms and rooms with bad, or just not-quite-it, fish paintings. And you have to keep doing it. I’ve been painting and showing and selling paintings for over twenty years, yet I am still filling up the fish closet with crap. I’ve learned to embrace it.
When I made the series Floor Plan for the American Dream (AKA the Manet covers), I started one piece that never, ever worked out. The working drawing, pictured above, gives you an idea of how I tried to squish way too many people into an overly complicated composition. Yet I persisted in squishing and started the painting itself on two panels, one of them truly weirdly shaped. It only got worse from there.
You can tell by the wildly fluctuating color changes that I was grasping at straws. Eventually I figured that out myself and stopped painting, separated the panels, and whited out everything except the curtain and two ladies.
I put those panels away until I’d finished the rest of the show. I occasionally pull them out and do stuff to them. They might make their way out of the fish closet and be reborn as completely different works, but it’s OK if they don’t.
The last four years have been boom times for the fish closet. The slight distraction of buying a building happened to coincide with the distinct feeling that one period of my work was ending and it was time to find the next evolution. That particular alignment of stars meant that the experimentation, focus, and long, seemingly unproductive hours of making work destined for the fish closet was further complicated by a lot of unrelated interruptions. I messed around with a lot of processes and ideas that would probably never make it into finished form but had to happen anyway.
Experiments included ink sketches of patterns set in the traditional prototypes I found in a 1948 book for textile designers; tiny square magazine collages; paintings of patterns based on carbon atoms and organic molecules; and attempts to wed the painted patterns to existing fabric ones.
Meanwhile, I was also trying to learn to compose in a circle. I had kept my first tondo paintings simple—single objects centered on a patterned-fabric ground—but I always intended to get back to narratives and architectural space.
Let me tell you, it’s not easy to squish the entirety of the American Dream and its discontents into a circle. I had managed to get people to behave themselves a little bit, by keeping to an intimate scale and leaving out the complicated architecture. These paintings felt like they had the right amount going on in them for their fourteen-inch diameter.
But I craved big ideas, big spaces, big hunks of steel. I confidently and foolishly built two 42-inch panels then spent two years figuring out what to put in them. I had been wanting to explore the cult of the automobile, its shiny finned candy-colored midcentury rockets luring us to planetary demise. For a setting, Albert Frey’s gorgeous Aerial Tramway gas station of Palm Springs beckoned.
Doesn’t that yummy car just want to drive up to that yummy gas station? Not so fast, buster. What do you think this is, a RECTANGLE?
It didn’t work but, determined to marry the car theme to the architecture, I pressed on. I stumbled upon a picture of this lovely car dealership in Las Vegas.
Then I found this stunning interior. Finally, something that looks like a car dealership but there’s a place to put the people! And it’s even in one-point perspective, which is something that works just fine in a circular composition.
I tried adding the car, but it was still weird.
I have a wall in my studio that is its own fish closet, just for humans. Lots of them are drawings of people I ended up using somewhere, but in a different size, so these wrong-sized versions accumulated on this wall. I’ve had it in the back of my mind to put them all in a painting together some day. This seemed like the moment to try it, as nothing else was working.
Oh, and I also had this guy. I loved that he was shining his car until he could see himself, looking like an overenthusiastic housewife with her Lemon Pledge. I gave him a car upgrade, but I had trouble deciding where to place him along the hood, and then he wouldn’t fit into any of the other spatial settings I’d drawn, let alone into a circle. He’s still on the wall and may be destined for the fish closet, despite the fact I still have a little crush on him.
Sometime in 2017, in the midst of these forays into the abyss, I did stumble upon one image that worked in a large circle. This fancy lady in her automobile is straightforward, focused, in one-point perspective, with a clear center, and she knows what she wants. The circle demands simplicity, which is nearly impossible to get right, but sometimes you stumble upon it.
However, doing something once is easy compared to following it up. I spent another year and a half struggling to come up with a second composition. In a book about Los Angeles architecture, I found some black and white photos of their famous freeways; one under construction, and another of an interchange known as “the stack.” Rather than try to squeeze one or the other of them into my mold (like tuna into a ring of lime jello), I made a new image out of parts of both, and then I found the perfect family to drive on them, in an ad for the wonders of asphalt.
Clearly, after all that endless, angst-filled, fish-painting, the only solution was to break every known rule. Put a big gray concrete post dead center. Crop people across their faces. Make the perspective ask more questions than it answers. I painted it relatively quickly (if not as fast as that Chinese artist with the patron breathing down his neck). Quickly, that is, if you don’t count the four years of filling the up closet with all those fish.