so many paintings, so little time

I want to be at the dinner

In Uncategorized on March 19, 2010 at 6:48 am

Still from Kevin Rodney Sullivan's 2005 film, Guess Who

I never intended to make a self-portrait for my show at James Graham & Sons. In fact I was relieved to be thinking about other people. The repainter’s work is all so self-portrait-y as it is. Enough!

So when I was telling Joe and Wanda over dinner late last year about working on a portrait show, Joe’s suggestion that I include one of myself irritated me. It’s been a rough year, first financially, but most of all because of my father’s decline and death in August. Did I want to look inward? Could I make a self-portrait that said something about my current state but wasn’t just a downer? A painting that people would enjoy, would want to look at and that declared my conception of a portrait as a picture that showed how people look–at paintings?

Also, I’d been thinking of my portrait project as a guest list for a fabulous dinner party. Did I want to miss out by not being there?

Joe and Wanda were both professors at Stanford until their recent retirement. In Wanda’s book, The Great American Thing: Modern Art and National Identity, 1915-1935, she had focused on key works like Charles Demuth’s “I saw the figure five in gold,” a painting that mattered to me. It’s a “Poster Portrait” of his friend, the poet William Carlos Williams. A few years ago, I repainted it as a portrait of the Dalai Lama.

Charles Demuth, I saw the figure five in gold, 1928, Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY

Over the gold “5” that in Demuth’s painting represents Fire Engine No. 5 clanging down a Manhattan street in Williams’ poem, I layered on a big number 14 (1+4=5) sandblasted on glass. (The current Dalai Lama is the 14th re-incarnation of the Tibetan Buddhist leader.) I pushed the colors toward the saffron and burgundy red associated with Buddhist monks. Then I replaced William and Bill with the Dalai Lama’s various names, Kundun and Lhamo.

Ken Aptekar, I saw the figure fourteen in gold, 2005, 60" x 60"

There are words and images and nobody’s face in Demuth’s portrait. He uses the visual language of advertising to represent a person. With my portraits, I add people’s perceptions of–and remarks about–paintings to embody a portrait of who they are.

The repainter needs to decide whom to repaint for his self portrait. Who better for the job? He’s delightful, he’s delicious, he’s delectable, he’s delirious, he’s de limit, he’s deluxe, he’s Demuth! And if he’s good enough for the Dalai Lama, he’s good enough for me. But do I want to repaint only one artist to speak for me? How about a nod to my pal Frank?

Francois Boucher, 1703-1770

I’ve repainted him for years. He’s never let me down. He’s French; I live in Paris part of the year. And Frank’s initials (FB) might remind people of everyone’s favorite pastime these days: FaceBook!

With Boucher’s inquiring woman’s face in my self-portrait, I slipped across the gender line.

Francois Boucher, Young Woman with a bouquet of roses

I want my self portrait to be raucous, fractious, elusive. If it shouted, Over here, take a look! all the better.

I made a series of self-portraits in 1978. They were part of my first exhibition in New York, at Franklin Furnace, a place for performance and artist’s book exhibitions founded by Martha Wilson. I was working at the time at Barton’s Bonbonniere, designing candy packaging. To make the mockups of candy bar wrappers, I used fine sable brushes and gouche. The work was boring. I found ways to amuse myself. On my lunch break I would stop by a Woolworth’s nearby where there was a photo booth. I’d come back to the office with a strip of four photos of myself, and paint over them. If someone came into my office, I quickly tucked my work in progress under a candy bar wrapper.

Ken Aptekar, Extensions, 1979, ink on paper, gouache on machine photo (detail)

As I continued repainting machine photo after machine photo, I found myself morphing into other characters. These people were me and more. I stuck the photos to a sheet of paper and added a short statement written by my extended selves. In one I became an obsessive compulsive who turned the presence of roaches in his apartment into a sick source of pleasure (above). There were twelve in all at the Franklin Furnace exhibition. My return to self portraiture now thirty-three years later, picks up on themes of fragmentation and extension that I first played with while scarfing down  Almond Kisses at Bartons.

Cindy Sherman, Untitled, 2008

Can a portrait be a portrait if it doesn’t show the person’s face? And if it does show the face, is it necessarily a portrait? When Cindy Sherman photographs herself as an upper east side dame, what is that?

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