Making Political Art

I was on an upswing with the painting before the election results. I’ve been making a living painting $100 portraits for almost a year which I hope to continue. Upheaval as a self-employed artist is problematic. You can’t just keep going to a job and getting a paycheck which is how I’ve mainly supported myself in the last 15 years… before which I was a “professional” musician.

It was weird; just as the election results started to come in, a guy in San Francisco bought five paintings. A record sale. Then action dropped off entirely, in part because my FaceBook page is my “storefront” and I didn’t want to just keep posting paintings unrelated to what was happening politically. That seemed trite. My FaceBook friends are almost all connections through music, art and activism so, my newsfeed is basically 100% political from a leftist perspective. Interjecting paintings of mostly Caucasian women seemed disconnected if not downright absurd.

I don’t think I actually painted for the first few days, and then, when I did, I painted five or six total duds (which is highly unusual for me). A week or so later, I felt quite “human” about that. It seems my basic ability to create art is affected by what goes on in the world, but that’s a scary thing when you’re self-employed. How long would I be making lousy paintings? I aim to paint one a day, but I consistently fall short of that. I sell half of what I paint, which is exactly what I need to pay my bills. I can’t afford to do subpar paintings.

I had been switching back and forth between people and animals around the time of the election, and suddenly animals seemed like a viable direction considering how I felt about humans.

It’s weird how many animals are used to define human characteristics – including the fox (foxy, clever) – but the whole fox-hunting thing in England with a bunch of snobs (including the royal family) tracking foxes is pretty awful as far as sports go. It’s right up there with bullfighting as far as tormenting an animal and then killing it as part of the outcome is nuts.

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“Fox #4” $100 USD

Yet, I didn’t want to be steered off course, so I returned to the painting people. I had thought that animals for Christmas might be a thing sales-wise, but now I’m not so sure that’s what I should be doing. I created a FaceBook Event page offering gift certificates,  wrapping and hand-painted cards, but it didn’t get any reaction. Anyway, I’m a painter, not a card maker. I need to stay on track. Maybe discounts and free shipping are of little interest to people interested in buying a painting.

Prior to the animals, I did five or so of Standing Rock Water Protectors with 15% going to the Red Warrior Camp. The ones based on the composition below (with varying degrees of abstraction) felt appropriate in terms of both “bearing witness” and documentiation. It was September at this point, before the reaction to the water protectors became more physical. I did one in late October of the cops drenching people with water cannons, ice hanging off the razor wire, but I wasn’t happy enough with it to post it.

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“Standing Rock  Water Protectors #3” SOLD

The act of creating non-political art in public places (including online) during times of international upheaval reminded me of being on tour with Unwound and Thrones during 9/11. We were supposed to play Boston that night, but that show was canceled, partly because of the club’s name (the Middle East) and our band name being “Mecca” Normal. Evidently they got some threatening phone calls because of that. The club owner fed us an excellent meal and then we all sat around in the band room trying to figure out what to do. Continue or pull the plug on the remainder of the tour and head home. We decided to continue. Our Manhattan show at the Bowery Ballroom (9/12 I think) was canceled, so the next show was Maxwell’s in Hoboken, NJ which is basically considered a NY show. I desperately wanted to perform relevant songs! I felt completely ridiculous going up on stage to sing about interpersonal relationships. It was interesting though. Phones had been out in the area so people didn’t know what was going on with their friends. The show turned out to be a gathering point. People went to the show to connect with their community, to see if friends were OK, to hear what had happened to them. We were on first and because it was the first show since the attacks that many people were going to (I think it was 9/13), everyone talked through our set, which is something that would normally bug me, but, in this case, I felt like we were providing some sort of service. It felt good to be the kind of band people could talk over. No bass and drums. It felt relevant, but I never would have thought of it in advance. We played our regular set and no one listened and that was, in that moment, fine. Not totally great as a band promoting an album on tour 3000 miles from home, but… whatever.

The incredible thing about both Thrones and Unwound were that their sound took over in a way that I’d never experienced before. Visceral. The low end was therapeutic. Like some sort of massively thorough massage. The volume was like a flood of dopamine or whatever. Endorphins. I didn’t expect this. How the music felt.

Back to present day. After the recent election results in US, I made one of my paintings of a Caucasian woman “political” by painting “anti-fascist” and “sloganeer” “tattoos” instead of eyebrows (below). I’d been thinking about Woody Guthrie’s “this machine kills fascists” and came up with that idea. I marked it “not for sale” at the time because I felt like my paintings should somehow be a reaction to what’s going on, but I didn’t want to be trading on people’s emotions. Weeks later I marked it for sale.

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“No Hat 111” $100 USD

I’ve been thinking about artists who are in the middle of projects, in either creation or exhibition mode. I wonder what it feels like to be making work that isn’t related to current upheaval, work that has been in progress for a long time and needs to continue. Certainly artists can’t drop what they’re doing to respond to current events, but I’ve been wondering how those artists must feel. My approach is to continue with what I was doing with variations made based on my understanding of what’s going on around me. I’m not normalizing or ignoring, but just not stopping. Not giving up. Integrating new ideas as they arrive.

I have, in the last week or so, been painting non-Caucasian faces which is, in part, a reaction to recent events in the USA. Of the six African American faces I’ve painted two have sold.

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“The Hat #46” SOLD

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“The Hat #47” $100 USD

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“The Hat #48” $100 USD

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“The Hat #49” $100 USD

“No Hat #116” (below)  got a tremendous reaction on my FaceBook page. 141 “likes” and “loves” and 20 comments yesterday! It sold a few hours after I posted it.

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“No Hat #116” SOLD

For me, this kind of turning away from representing white people feels appropriate, but it means having to “learn” new color pallets and figuring out how to paint features that are different than the ones I’ve been painting since I began the series back in February, 2016.

There’s a point in art-making when finding new territory to explore increases motivation to work and that’s where I’m at now.

I’ve just posted “No Hat #117” (below) on my FaceBook page and I plan to paint from the same source photo at least once more.

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“No Hat #117” $100 USD

The high point so far as a political artist was in 2014 when David Lester and I were  interviewed by Amy Goodman on Democracy Now! about a Mecca Normal 7″ (with a song about war protester Malachi Ritscher) featuring my painting “Discovering Utopia” on the cover (below) being included in the 2014 Whitney Biennial.

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“Discovering Utopia”

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