Portrait of the artist as Web 2.0.
I like creating composite portraits in which the subject has some say in how she-he is viewed via a text statement that goes with the painting. For Mutually Beneficial, the participants’ personal ads accompany their likenesses, and, for Apple Pie, the subjects’ statements about what it means to be American helped to create a richer experience of those who inspired the portraits. That said, I’ve never thought to invite comment from anyone other than the subject of the painting, and I’ve certainly never thought of inviting it directly on the surface of the painting! But this is just what artist Geoffrey Raymond has done with his portraits of Wall Street’s elites and other love-to-hate-them celebrities.
Raymond creates portraits of today’s movers and shakers, working in a Pollock-y drip painting kind of style and leaving the background of his paintings completely white. He then takes these works directly to the scene of the crime—to Wall Street for his portraits of financial-types, to National Conventions for his Presidential hopeful likenesses—and invites passersby to write a message to the subjects of the portraits on the painting itself with a permanent marker.
In these uncertain times, Raymond’s work acts as catharsis, and, in a world where the everyperson’s tweets about a Presidential debate are newsworthy, these annotated portraits (as the artist calls them) are the ultimate validation of our opinionated selves.
We expect to be able to add our two cents—or 140 characters—about everything. But we don’t normally get to do so in a venue that will be valued by posterity…directly on a work of art for example! Raymond’s work elevates the comments on his annotated portraits and, in doing so, he makes the everyperson’s opinion matter again.
Curious about Raymond’s process, I contacted him and asked him a few questions. He was nice enough to grant me the following interview.
Have you always painted? How did you get started painting?
I don’t know how I got started. I do remember that in 4th grade I was obviously drawing a higher grade of hot rod than my schoolmates. I used to sculpt more than paint, plus I was the cartoonist for Oncology Times (a medical journal). But mostly I was a businessman until about two years ago.
Why Pollock? What attracts you about his work or his manner of working?
About six or seven years ago I was working on a project I called “Paint Like Pollock”—a kind of tongue-in-cheek coffee table book with the subtitle of “Why pay seven million for a Jackson Pollock when you can just make one yourself.” In the process I produced ten or fifteen Pollock like paintings. In doing so, I found the experience of painting like Pollock to be a much more fulfilling artistic experience than I had thought it would be. I loved the lack of control, the chaos, the building up by layers, the infinite depth of the mature images, the physicality of walking around the perimeter of a canvas throwing the paint. I liked the fact that the painting was more interesting after the cat walked through it. And that I could just spit my clementine pits into the paint as I went and that was okay too. I also liked that you could drink beer while you were doing it.
Why portraiture? Why do you want “to become the pre-eminent American portrait painter of the 21st century”?
I ended up with two or three really stunning “Pollocks,” but it was obvious that if you paint like Pollock you’re always just going to be a Pollock impersonator. But I liked the process so much I didn’t want to quite let go of it. So I was looking around for some way to “own” the drip style. Chuck Close is one of my favorite painters, and I was staring at one of his paintings in a museum a year or so after I stopped drip painting (the project never got off the ground) and I thought, hmmm, portraits. What if you turn Pollock 180 degrees and become super-representational? What if Jackson Pollock painted like Chuck Close? Or vice-versa. So I started painting huge heads in what I called a Jackson Pollock/Chuck Close fusion. First a self-portrait. Then a smashing reinterpretation of a Close self-portrait. Several years into the idea I’ve evolved away from that too-easy phrase, but the guiding idea in the early going was “Pollock/Close fusion.” So I became a portraitist so I could use the drip style.
The reason I want to become the pre-eminent American portrait painter is that I am competitive by nature. The first post of my blog is titled “Chuck Close must be freaking out.” I doubt if he is.
In reading your blog, I discovered that you used to prefer working from photos of the subject which you had taken yourself. These days, you do a lot of work from stock images. How does this change your process and the finished portraits?
I hate it. It is vastly preferable to shoot the subjects yourself. I think the quality of the paintings for which I’ve shot the photo myself is, on average, higher than the one’s where I’ve not. That said, the process doesn’t change. I’m still holding a photo in my hand and throwing paint on the canvas.
You were interested in commission work a few years ago. Do you do that now? If so, do you enjoy commission work? And how is your process for commission work different from the way you create your annotated paintings of current icons (if at all)?
I love commissioned work and get a good amount of it. People commission me in two ways: they either want their own painting of Alan Greenspan or some other Wall Street person—which is fine—or they want a painting of themselves. I much prefer the latter, since it allows me to shoot the photos as noted above. Also, it’s always amazing to see people’s faces when they first see a portrait of themselves. These works are typically unannotated.
Is there something generally that you try to capture with your portraits? An over-arching theme to your work?
With my annotated portraits, specifically, I try to give a voice to people who find themselves in situations where they have none. Standing in front of Lehman Brothers headquarters during the week of that company’s meltdown, I saw hundreds, possibly thousands, of people who’s lives were completely turned upside down through none of their own doing. And out of those thousands, about 125 somehow stopped in front of The Annotated Fuld, took a green pen from me, and wrote what they had to say on the face of my painting. The healing power of art sounds like a lot of bullshit, but it’s floating around in there somewhere. One guy wrote “You are a coward.” I said “Thank you, sir, for participating.” He said “Thank you for the opportunity.” Catharsis in four words doesn’t bring your job back, but you feel better as you walk away.
Drilling down slightly deeper, I think that what I am trying to capture is the truth. And history. I walk around Chelsea and—sad to say—I feel like most of what I see is absolute crap. Coy, self-referential, ironic ... but in the end witless. Chelsea is the epicenter of the absence of truth (Andy Warhol really fucked us up). I think my paintings do speak the truth, in large part because of the participation of others. And i think it’s that truth that has struck such a chord with the public.
What I think is interesting as I watch my paintings get annotated is two-fold: First, as the annotations become denser, building up by the hundreds, they stop being written words and start being impressionistic brushstrokes. The painting changes as a function of how it actually, physically looks. Second, also as they build up, the painting changes in another way. It becomes an historical document as much as a painting. This, to me, is very cool.
How did you decide to invite comments directly on your paintings?
I was experimenting with writing my own thoughts on some of my political paintings. I did a portrait of George W. Bush that featured a hand balled up to look like a mouth puppet (like Senior Wences, if that’s meaningful). With the thumb forming the lower lip of the mouth, I painted the likeness of George W’s nose and eyes across the top. Around the edge of the painting I wrote “Speak to the hand, ‘cause the face ain’t listening.” But in the end, I’ve always been leery of writing on paintings. I like Basquiat a lot, but I wonder if, after you’ve read the same gnomic phrase for the hundredth time does it still have any meaning? Am I smart enough to write something that won’t ten years later, sound like fatuous nonsense? Nah. But, hey, if I let somebody else—vested parties in the event I’m painting, if you will—write something. Now that changes everything.
At least that was the thinking.