My work has always had an organic, visceral aspect which I consider to be part of my concern with life issues, like vulnerability, passion, and the uncanny.
Drawing in notebooks is my lifeline to my work whether I am in my studio in Maine or Miami or traveling on the road between them. My hand goes where it wants in these visual journals. After I fill each one, I reconnoiter, selecting and tearing out what might be used for inspiration.
Last summer, after completing two long narrative works, I found that I was drawing heads and faces in my notebooks. I wondered how far the features could be distorted or moved around and still read as a face.
Before that, I had been mixing recognizable faces with imagined forms and questioning my need to do this.
Was the realism a crutch to impress the viewer that I could do it? Was it a way of enticing the viewer into the more difficult passages of my work? Or both?
Of course, I know that my best work is not so carefully considered. It’s what emerges when faced with an empty wall. But my fascination with faces was an issue I needed to explore.
I recalled that Philip Guston, at a turning point in his work, made a series of small painted sketches that he considered his “alphabet”, his vocabulary. The photograph of his efforts has always moved me because they are so direct, without sentiment and trying to hold on to what he’d done before.
Guston realized that a lifetime of devotion to art requires the occasional jolt to one’s satisfaction. Like a long relationship, it needs refreshment and redefinition, all the while staying true to the basic alphabet.
I thought back to his efforts and decided to challenge myself to create a vocabulary of heads and faces, leaving the next phase open-ended. Guston used his basic vocabulary as the inspiration for his new work – work that was not, at first, accepted by his admirers. I sensed that I was not taking as great a leap but embraced the exercise anyway.
Here’s what I did:
I culled 20 intriguing face/head sketches from my notebooks and transferred them to sheets of medium-sized Fabriano paper, using black ink and brush. Then I placed bright, colorful, geometric forms behind the faces to give a feeling of space behind them.
Part of my practice, in the last few years, has been to photograph my work with objects from the studio in the foreground. Manipulation of the light source and shadows furthers a process of refinement and integration resulting in a photograph that can be seen as the final “artifact” of the process.
One phase of the process involved masking areas of the paper to leave white paper where there was no color. I used mylar to mask the white areas – and I noticed that it looked lovely as it fell to the floor. Sprayed areas of color trailed off softly and marks made by tape were bold.
The discarded mylar, I decided,would become an integral part of my journey with these drawings, and I placed the scraps as objects in front of the original art. The conceptual kick of plowing my materials back into the work added to the visual mystery of the same color behind and on top of the black and white, partially-obscured drawings.
On the wall of my studio, I placed four or five drawings, arranging them with attention to their colored parts so that a head might be turned on its side. This was a way of keeping me from being too precious with what I’d already made, my carefully inked faces. The black inked lines became the girding – the strong base of my structure – while at the same time maintaining their identity as individual pieces of art.
Pinning and taping the colored mylar in writhing, playful interaction with the under-color and ink drawings, I made a collage on the wall. The mylar encircled, caressed, obscured and opened up to let the drawings show through, giving life to the big form emerging as a unified, amorphous piece of work. This was the pure joy of creation. I didn’t worry about tape or pins showing. I’d pushed through the step-by-step process – the plodding and earnest studying – to using the results of my work in ways I hadn’t intended.
And I had my own alphabet.
The photos of the entire collage (I made several) seem like documentation of an ephemeral site-specific installation, one that could be repeated in different locations. The close ups of different parts of the overall collage are exciting new photographs.
Afterward, I returned to the horizontal format with new interest in color and ideas of how to use the heads. Inspired by a recently recovered Degas (“The Chorus Singers” had been stolen in 2009 and found this winter at a bus station near Paris), I borrowed the composition of singers shown in perspective. Instead of figures, I “plugged in” my heads and painted them in colors I’d been using. It came out quite well but seemed a bit decorative and tasteful until I added the realistic head and face of a somewhat cranky child.
The journey had come full circle.