Over time

After getting so excited about Dave's portrait last month, I have been persuading friends to model for me. It turns out that writers are good subjects, because they not only have flexible schedules, but can keep themselves occupied by thinking deep thoughts while they are sitting and giving me their faces. Zach went first, and was a lovely subject. I was surprised to find myself, in the first few moments of beginning the painting, deeply shy of looking so directly and hungrily at the face of someone I didn't know very well. It's both an intimate and demanding thing, this gaze. You never look that intensely at someone's face in ordinary life; there is no social equivalent.

Here's the first state:

And here is the finished (mostly? I still feel like poking at it a bit with a brush, but judiciously) version:

What with my newfound interest in painting people's faces, I finally watched the Alice Neel documentary. I've never truly loved her paintings, but I deeply admire her energy and commitment to keep working, all those years in obscurity. And I carefully transcribed this Robert Storr quote from the film, because I think it is the perfect philosophical/metaphysical explanation to anyone who asks what the difference is between painting from life and painting from photographs:

The business about the difference between painting and photography becomes crucial in the sense that the photograph does capture somebody in a manner which freezes that person in an instant. Painting never freezes in quite that way, painting takes place over time. But the mere fact that painting is not a second arrested, but is a relationship of seeing and of the seer and the subject means that painting contains duration somehow. When you look at a painting you’re seeing an extended moment, you’re seeing time happen, not just time stopped, which gives the photograph a somewhat more obviously morbid characteristic and painting a less morbid one.

Yesterday, I started a new painting of our friend Jesse, or "Ole Pretty Eyes" as we like to call him:

He is threatening to get a haircut and shave, so we'll see how different he looks at the next sitting.

And I also started a self-portrait a while back, that I want to pair with the portrait of Dave as a diptych, so that we're looking at each other, a la Piero della Francesca's portraits of Federico da Montefeltro and Battista Sforza. But then I realized that while I can do the face from life (or a mirror, as the case may be) I will need to work from a photograph to get the eyes looking in the right direction (i.e. towards the painting of Dave, not out towards the viewer). So photographs do have their uses in painting, even from life.

Finally, I also recently re-read Dave Hickey's essay, "This Mortal Magic," from his classic book Air Guitar, in which he riffs on Storr's notion of painting containing duration, and therefore being less morbid than photography.

It’s not so much what we do, or even what happens, it’s the way things overlap and intersect:  I was sitting at the desk in my office, in my apartment in las Vegas, reading John Shearman’s observations on the historical circumstances of Renaissance portraiture. Shearman had begun by positioning these portraits within the lives of their sitters, sketching in their lives before and after the paintings were made. Now he was suggesting, on this evidence, that the technical obsession with capturing the palpable vivacity of the sitter in Renaissance portraiture was very likely due to the fragility of life in that period, to the poverty of communications in Italy, and to the mobility of the class of people who had their portraits made—arguing that the portrait, where it hung, functioned less as a picture or a documents than as an icon of the sitter’s actual presence in the space from which she or he was absent due to death or duty. Thus the passionate vivacity of these pictures. The sitter was supposed to be there.

Reading about these short, perilous Renaissance lives on a quiet, desert morning in the late twentieth century must have sharpened by awareness of time whooshing by, because I suddenly remembered that I had to make a telephone call. Closing Shearman’s book, I pulled over my Rolodex and flipped it open immediately, accidentally, to the late Scott Burton’s card. I wasn’t surprised to find it, since I stopped  clearing dead people out of my Rolodex years ago. Throwing those little cards away into the trash is a very depressing chore—and leaving them there, with their disconnected numbers intact and their abandoned addresses appended, is a way of remembering, of being reminded in the midst of life. On this occasion, seeing Scott’s name there, on the little white tombstone of his file card, in the midst of reading about mortality and Renaissance portraits, made me think of how nice it would be to go somewhere and see a full-blown, luminous sixteenth-century portrait of the artist in his glory.

I could have pulled an exhibition catalogue off the shelf and looked at a photograph, of course, but photographs are nailed in the moment of their making and when the subject is dead, this distance from the present only reminds you of that. I would have preferred an image that reminded me, persuasively, physically, that Scott had once been alive, that we had told some jokes, had some laughs—something that caught the little tremor that flickered around Scott’s upper lip, always threatening to burst into a smile or a sneer, you never knew which. That’s what painting used to do—what only painting can do—and does no longer, and this seemed a pity, since regardless of fashions in image-making, we continue to die at an alarming rate.