Sunday, July 22, 2012

Why I Paint Faces (And Other Thoughts On My Art)

Georgia O'Keefe painted flowers. Mondrian painted bright-colored squares. Monet painted water lilies. Bonnard painted his wife. Jackson Pollock is famous for his splatters and Warhol for his screen prints of pop culture icons. Ed Newman paints faces.

How do artists choose their subject matter? Especially now that everything is possible, that there is no dominant ruling "idea" that forces everyone into its mold. 

I'm sure there are a variety of forces at work when artists zero in on an approach or a theme or a concept that in some way defines them. This blog entry aims to share a few of these forces that led me to paint so many hundreds of faces these past few years.

As a fine arts student in the early seventies I was introduced to a variety of styles as we studied the art's evolution from representational to everything other. I found Rauschenberg's eclecticism fascinating loved the the exploratory expressiveness of Picasso who once said, "Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up."

But there were so many other artists creating work that fascinated me,especially painters. I loved the feel of applying paint on surfaces in all the varieties of ways one can do so. And I liked the smell of the paint, and the colors. So I responded to David Hockney and Larry Rivers and many others whose works we were discovering. I really didn't take to Mark Rothko and the color field painters at the time. I also liked the abstract expressionists as well as the inimitable Dali.

My paintings went in variety of directions. A common denominator in much of my work as it evolved was the desire to connect with an audience. I myself can find pleasure in purely abstract expressions, but there are many people who cannot.

Is this why I paint faces, then? To give people something to look at? Not entirely. If the aim was to make things people can identify, I could paint geraniums, pygmy goats or the moons of Saturn. Instead I keep being drawn to faces. Why so?

I believe it's tied to something innate in our being human. An article at recently caught my attention and offered the answer to a question I'd been asking myself for some time now. Why am I so fascinated by faces? When people ask why I paint faces, I am often asking myself the same thing. I'm also asking myself why I see faces everywhere. I look at swirly patterns in the floor tiles and see all kinds of expressions. Clouds historical stir our imaginations to see various animals and such. I routinely see faces. The 2007 article by Alice Park was titled "How Babies Decode Faces."

It's almost instinctive -- you see an adorable baby, and you start to coo, smile or make a face to elicit some kind of response. But even if you get a blank stare back, rest assured that the tyke is processing every change in the shape and rhythm of your mouth and face. 

Upon reading this I immediately jumped to several other websites to learn more about this primal activity. I reflected on how early our own children learned to smile, learned to recognize Mommy and Daddy. The words came later, but visual recognition came very early.

Another feature of faces that I find endlessly fascinating is the manner in which they convey emotion. Sadness, pain, joy, suspicion, gravity, dignity, scorn... how vast the emotional terrain that is packaged in a facial expression.

Exploring how our minds decode information is, for me, as exciting as the process of creation. Watching the various ways in which a face emerges from a surface I am painting is equally exciting. I am simultaneously creator and spectator. Most artists understand this, whether it be the visual arts or music. It is a form of therapy for the artist and a means of connecting the wider world when our art is shared and we find a resonant response from our audience and our friends.

I'm not sure yet how to turn all these ideas into an "artist statement" but it's starting point. Hope your day is a very special one. And inasmuch as it is Sunday, let's all pray for rain.

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