so many paintings, so little time

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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?

Opening Thursday, March 11, 6-8pm!

In Uncategorized on March 5, 2010 at 5:36 am

Ken Aptekar: Recent Portraits opens next Thursday 6-8pm at James Graham & Sons Gallery, 32 East 67th Street, between Park and Madison.

Go Jack, go!

The repainter is repainting as fast as he can. Will he make it in time?

Glass sandblasted with texts for all the portraits is scheduled to arrive at my studio momentarily. Holes need to be drilled, the entire video edited. Not to mention hours lost to the Oscars.

And Obama thinks he has his hands full.

Glass Case

In Uncategorized on February 16, 2010 at 4:21 pm

Crazy in love

Gotta get Ira Glass for my portrait show. His amazing radio program, This American Life, portrays real life characters with snippets of sound. My portraits rely on what the subjects say and how they say it, no image of them. Perfect fit.

I send him an email asking if he’s game. One of my oldest friends, Joel Kostman, read several of the locksmith stories from his book, Keys to the City, on This American Life. I have a connection.

I suggest in the email that we meet up at the Met and wander around, find a painting or two he’d like to talk about and that I can repaint for his portrait. Ira emails back, says yes. Amazingly, he indicates the exact painting he wants to use: Jennifer Bartlett’s 1984 canvas, 5AM from her series titled 24 Hours. In it, there’s a couple kissing while dancing, against an orderly grid of a space. I call the Met.

The painting’s in storage. Can we arrange a viewing, I plead, no more than an hour? I need to videotape Ira Glass–you know, This American Life?–talking about it. Difficult, they respond, security issues. What are they, crazy??? How can they say No to this? I ask to come in and see the painting, first, to figure out my line of questioning, but then to see if there’s any wiggle room.

It’s Friday, and I’m in a fluorescent lit space with painting racks, empty frames, a Picasso here, a Picasso there. Several art handlers are milling about with a sweet young woman from Modern Art who’s arranged the visit. The Bartlett has been pulled out. After a few moments, the Collection Manager arrives. I explain my project while she listens sympathetically. She says, Have a look at the painting, I’ll be back. After speaking with the head of security, she returns to inform me they’ll never let me videotape in a storage room. I’m dying. What to do? “You know what a difference it makes to look at the actual work rather than a repro,” I whine. She’s softening. Perhaps we can arrange to wheel it out on a dolly in the adjacent gallery on Monday, she offers, when the museum is closed but handlers are here. I’m thinking, Ira’s on a tight production deadline, tied up every weekday. This won’t work.

El Quijote Bar and Restaurant, Chelsea Hotel, NYC

I print up a repro from the internet. It’s Sunday and now or never. I meet Ira at the bar at El Quijote in the Chelsea Hotel. He helpfully grabs a pile of cocktail napkins to prop up the lens on my videocam, which I’ve pointed at him from the bar, and then adds his wallet for extra height. Ira worries aloud about the muzak in the background (“from a radio point of view this couldn’t be a worse environment”), but I love it. His music producer could easily have picked the song: “You must remember this….” As Time Goes By, from Casablanca. Handing him the repro, I ask, When did you first see the painting? Ira begins. For twenty five minutes without pause, he parses his attraction to a painting as though he had thought about nothing else in the 9 years since he first saw it. Where the hell does he get this insight to an art form about which, by his own admission, he knows next to nothing?

I tell him that when I asked the Met to let him have the Bartlett painting for helping me with my project, they refused, but they might just agree to letting me cut it in two so he can take home half. “Just tell me which half you want and why,” I ask him. “Where did you get this question???” he cries, “this is CRAZY! The painting’s already in me! I don’t want the responsibility!” I say, What would a destroyed Jennifer Bartlett be worth? Don’t worry.

Two hours later I jump on the E train back to my studio in Jackson Heights with pure Glass on a DV casette.

Next stop, Roosevelt Avenue, Jackson Heights

Ivan the Elusive

In Uncategorized on February 16, 2010 at 4:20 pm

I want a criminal. The higher profile the better. I’m assembling subjects for an exhibition of portraits at a gallery in New York. Rather than just the usual suspects–family, friends, art world types, I want someone bad. I see the exhibition as a sort of dinner party where the guests are a crazy mix. An ex-con sounds good to me!

Jacques Mesrine (left), played by Vincent Cassell in Jean-François Richet's recent film "Mesrine"

The economic crisis and bank bailout are all over the news. Who better than a Wall Streeter with a Hollywood pedigree? Ivan Boesky! The first of the big insiders to go down in the 80’s and the model for Gordon (“Greed is good!”) Gecko in Oliver Stone’s “Wall Street.”

Michael Douglas as Gordon Gekko

I learn that, like me, he’s from Detroit and went to the University of Michigan. When his ambitions were too big for the Motor City, where his parents owned a Russian deli we used to go to called Boesky’s (bo-ES-keys back then), he left for New York. Graduate school at Pratt Institute was my lure.

Boesky's Delicatessen, Detroit

Wall Street worked out pretty well for Ivan. He even donated $20 million to the Union Theological Seminary for a new library. And then the axe fell. Prison, divorce, Oliver Stone. Who do you become after all that, and how is it revealed through one’s response to art? What painting, I wonder, would he fancy looking at with me at the Met, or perhaps at the Getty in LA; I hear he’s living in La Jolla, nearby. Now years after he served his time, what might he say to priceless paintings by Rembrandt or Vermeer, or Hubert Robert?

Hubert Robert, Hermit Praying in the Ruins of a Roman Temple, 1760, Getty Museum, LA

I write Ivan a pitch letter, including this paragraph:

Yes, you committed a crime. And yes, that interests me as someone who tries hard to do the right thing but doesn’t always, but also as a Jew from Detroit, an alumni of the University of Michigan, and someone drawn to NYC out of his ambitions. Obviously, you are more than the crime you committed and paid for, and it is that whole person who I am interested in portraying in a portrait. Twenty three years later people on Wall Street are getting rich off ever more sophisticated scams. Seems like a good time to think again about Ivan Boesky, maybe from a new angle. Yours?

But where to send the email? I google. Lots of breaking news items from the 80s, the 90s, then the trail goes cold. I email the director of a Chelsea gallery owned by his daughter, Marianne Boesky. No response. Marianne herself. Ditto. I write friends from Detroit, including one with vaguely criminal connections, hoping for old family ties. Nothing.

Even in the age of Facebook, if you want to hide, no problem.

Moment of Color

In Uncategorized on February 16, 2010 at 4:18 pm

Charlotte's Crown in Sir Allan Ramsay's Coronation Portrait, 1761

While Barack Obama was working at getting elected, I was occupied with a series of paintings. I had been commissioned by the Mint Museum in Charlotte, NC, to make work based on their portrait of Queen Charlotte by Sir Allan Ramsay.

Sir Allan Ramsay, Coronation Portrait of Queen Charlotte, 1761, Mint Museum

Queen Charlotte, for whom the city was named, was married to King George III. The two ruled England when the colonies decided enough was enough. Now, you may wonder what Obama has to do with an English royal. And if you’re anything like me, the near certainty that Queen Charlotte was of mixed race escaped you. If you live in Charlotte, however, it wouldn’t have. Charlotteans, as they call themselves, have strong feelings about their namesake. For the 33% who are African-Americans, she is the Black Queen. For most of the rest, she’s British, by which they mean white. She looks white in her portrait hanging in the museum. More or less. Maybe her hair’s a bit frizzy, her lips somewhat thick and her nose broad, but Black is not the first thing that springs to mind when you see her. Stuart Jeffries, reporting on my project in the Guardian in London, writes:

Charlotte is intrigued by its namesake. Some Charlotteans even find her lovable. “We think your queen speaks to us on lots of levels,” says Cheryl Palmer, director of education at the Mint museum. “As a woman, an immigrant, a person who may have had African forebears, botanist, a queen who opposed slavery – she speaks to Americans, especially in a city in the south like Charlotte that is trying to redefine itself.”

Jeffries continues:

…[Aptekar] started by conducting focus group meetings with people from Charlotte to find out what the Queen and her portrait meant to citizens of the US city…. Among those who attended is congressman Mel Watt, one of very few African-Americans in the House of Representatives and who represents the 12th district of North Carolina that includes Charlotte. “In private conversations, African-Americans have always acknowledged and found a sense of pride in this ‘secret’,” says Watt. “It’s great that this discussion can now come out of the closet into the public places of Charlotte, so we all can acknowledge and celebrate it.”

I fly down to Charlotte.  Why should I care about this Queen Charlotte, I’m wondering? OK, so she was a precocious seventeen year-old plucked from obscurity out of the Duchy of Mecklenberg-Strelizia in the north of what was to become Germany and she was crowned Queen of England. An idealistic teenager, she was upset by the number of her countrymen returning home in caskets or wounded from a senseless war. She wrote King Frederick of Prussia a passionate letter urging him to end the war. Though he ignored it, others didn’t and her humane gesture made the rounds of royals all over Europe, including King George’s mom who was trying at that very moment to pry her son away from a hot commoner. She invited Charlotte up to the palace.

I ask the groups to imagine Charlotte writing her letter today, in Charlotte, NC. To whom is she writing, and about what? Someone suggests she’d have a blog about the pathetic public education and crushing poverty effectively killing young people in Charlotte. Another proposes a green agenda–she was wild about horticulture and founded Kew Gardens in London. The bird of paradise, originally from Brazil, was given its botanical name, Strelizia de la Reine, to honor her for first cultivating it in England.

Bird of Paradise (Strelitzia Reginae)

Viewers notice her vulnerability in Ramsay’s painting. Despite all the regal trappings, the throne, the crown, the heavy drapes, the lavish Queen get-up, when you focus just on her face, you find the 17 year-old who doesn’t know what hit her.

DETAIL Sir Allan Ramsay, Coronation Portrait of Queen Charlotte

Much beloved as Queen of England, Charlotte offered something for everyone in in this southern city–a touch of English class, a black heroine, an anti-war activist, a nature lover, the founder of the first orphanage in London, plus an ad for luxury textiles, a major industry in North Carolina.

When I get on the plane to NY that night, at the end of a very long day made easier by Contemporary Curator Carla Hanzal who had commissioned me, I leave with four hours of videotape, and I am reeling from all the Charlottes revealed to me. Soon after, I set out formulating what will become six separate panels each revealing a facet of this Queen. Together, these six paintings equal the surface area of the original portrait. They will hang in the new Mint Museum building now under construction in the Charlotte business district, and will link its collections to those remaining in the original historic Mint building more off the beaten path. Before they leave for Charlotte I will show them in New York as part of an upcoming portrait show.

I am bringing Charlotte, the Queen of England with African blood, back to life in new paintings just when Barack Obama becomes the first mixed race President of the United States. Palette change.

Barack "Barry" Obama, second row center, seen with his junior varsity basketball team, 1977, Punahoe School Yearbook, Honolulu

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