Art was until very recently a search for visual harmony – Picasso’s “lie that makes us realize the truth.” That lie was compositional, spatial harmony. But what was that truth? We no longer have any faith in Truth capitalized. Plato says in The Sophist that “by the art of painting we make another house, a sort of man-made dream product for those who are awake.” I believe in those houses, that in this illusory space our stories unfold. This space holds as much power now as it ever has. The human psyche still dreams, those dreams are still our stories, and within these stories our consciousness is revealed. I need art to be the story, in visual terms, of what happens to people.
We inhabit a purely relative world, in terms of belief structures, yet each of us knows and in a sense, believes in, the need to be beautiful. My work is about beauty—what it means to be beautiful and what significance the idea has in the twenty-first century in the world of art. We all know that being beautiful is as important as being rich, that being beautiful is itself a form of wealth. One must be tall, thin and white. One’s features must be diminutive and regular. We recognize deviations from this norm, but recognize that these deviations, even if appealing, are far from ideal. The need to be beautiful fuels one of the largest and most ruthless industries in our world.
Beauty makes sense to me, has weight for me, only when it falls from grace. It starts to matter when it carries damage. Sorrow allows it to cast a shadow. It becomes three-dimensional. It enters our world.
Looking at Manet’s Olympia, I wondered about the two women depicted—the young, naked prostitute and the black maid servant—about the relationship between them and to the man observing them. His implied presence began to unite them to me, not as lovers, but as the prey sharing a foxhole. In my imagination, the women of my paintings entered that room. What my century brings to the ideas of race and beauty and sexual allure began to overlay Manet’s.
I began painting Anna, the dwarf in my pictures, two years ago. I was fascinated by the tragedy of her body. In Velasquez' paintings, dwarves possess the greatest sense of consciousness of any of his characters. Even in Las Meninas, after we take in the brightly lit perfection of the blond doll at the center, our eye is drawn to Velasquez’s own face, connects with him, and then moves laterally to the dwarf. The two—Velasquez and the dwarf—bracket with their awareness the hollow beauty of the golden child. That connection between the artist and the dwarf rings true to me. I believe in that space—outside the golden circle inhabited by the princess.
I see, in Anna, a perfect visual equivalence for what it feels like to live in this outside, other world. Being observed, as the young Olympia is in Manet’s painting, creates in every one of us the squirming need to appear desirable, beautiful. But even if we are lovely, in our need to be desired each of us subsumes who we are in order to present the blank screen of beauty necessary for admiration or affection—and in so doing, dies. Anna, however, like Velasquez and his dwarves, lives a life outside the harmonious, golden circle of “art.” That space outside feels absolutely honest to me.
After watching Anna leave my studio, I have knelt on the floor, stooped even lower, crawled, to see the room as she sees it. I have placed her in “Olympia” in a struggle with the young black girl . Today, this black girl is no maid, but another candidate for desire. Yet this young woman carries all the history of what it has meant to be a black woman—used by men, by artists, by us.
We are supposed to look away politely from the maimed. But I want to stare, inhabit their flesh. Such flesh feels like an honest revelation, what it feels to be stalked by the need to be beautiful. Hence, my paintings are never allegorical; nothing stands for anything else. They are the closest I can get to what my mind’s eye sees when it depicts the struggle of living to me.
As the painter, the observer of these young women, I am a predator, but it is the desire humans have had since the beginning of time—to hunt and consume their prey and dissolve within their spirits…scarily close to what we mean when we say we love.