In the mid 90s after doing lots of works on paper, I wanted to make larger works. This provided a challenge because I could not find the kind of paper I needed in a larger size. I wanted to continue working with the techniques I had built a repertoire from, in which the surface became transparent when melted wax was applied to it and showed what was beneath on the level below, which I had painted using a different process. It took some experimenting. That’s one of the fun parts of being an artist, seeing what happens when you try to expand the paradigm. Eventually I found some muslin that acted with melted wax in a way that was similar to the paper. So as far as the technical /physical side of things I was off and running.
I have not mentioned, in past entries, that since the mid ‘80s I had been developing a 4” x 6” card file of drawings, which, by the mid 90s, was comprised of hundreds of images. Most of them were made in pencil and some had been augmented with tones of gray in graphic markers. They were my “image library” and they served as a source for images used in my all my work.
As I surveyed them and the wax works on paper I had done, I noticed a recurring structure that emerged in many images, although it had a variety of presentations. In a discussion with a colleague around that time, the word “omphalos” was suggested. The Greek word means “navel” and usually refers to a spot at the “center of the world”. It is often marked by navel shaped stone which is said to allow one to communicate with the gods. The Oracle of Delphi is a famous omphalos. As it is described as a navel, I became interested in the inside / outside relationship of the structure/ shape. Among the images I had gathered and used, I saw that a repeating structure in the various objects I had been attracted to, was in essence, conical in form. This image/ structure was common to the hats, canoes, shoes, vitamins, buttons, bridges, pop up tents, corncobs, cigars and beehives I had been drawing. Having come to consciously identify this underlying form I felt…well, gratified at least that I noticed something that was unconscious for so long. And I saw that my emphasis could shift from the literary content of the images, which is what had attracted me to them, to the content of the structure of the images.
As a kind of celebration of that realization I chose to focus on the image of the hat as the penultimate image /structure that encompassed the archetypal omphalos form. One of the pieces that seemed to touch a cord for many people was the work on paper, “Lincoln’s Hat”, 1993. The stovepipe hat did have an extra political sign that perhaps made it more a point of interest than most other things. And there was a red aura emerging off of the top of the hat as well as a tiny dot of red in the lower center, both of which alluded to the great man’s assassination. So there was a subtle expression of a great drama in the image. That hat became the symbol for everything about Lincoln; his giant stature both physical and spiritual, his elevated intelligence, his covering and protecting the nation, his great sacrifice for equality; all was encompassed through the image of his hat.
So taking that as a motif I thought I’d make a series of portraits of people I admired, by painting their hats, as they would have appeared on their heads. The images were taken from paintings or photographs of these people (except in some cases where I had to imagine the context.) The people themselves were not depicted, so the hats sat in some kind of floating posture, in space. This construct alluded to the physical/ spiritual nature of existence. The hat I felt was a symbol and sign of the body, a covering, a dome, under which sat the mind or intellect, which is invisible. The hat could be a shrine, it could be a navel where the connecting cord runs and feeds the embryo (brain) and there are many other associations as well.
Gathering all these ideas together, gave me great conviction to make a number of large paintings. The series was done pretty fast. They just came out once I got going. By the spring of 1998 I had completed most of them. One of the mistakes I made however then, was inviting over a few older artist friends, people whom I looked up to and admired. Unfortunately the wife of one of them was a well-known artist too and she really liked the work. She liked the hats so much that she decided to quickly do her own series. Unlike me, at the time, she had a gallery and so in about a month she had a show in town, of “Hat Paintings” and thus making it potentially appear, at least to the public here, that had I shown mine, I must have copied her. Of course her paintings were different from mine but she did imitate at least one of the hats exactly and centered it floating in the middle of the canvas as I had done. I ended up having to show my works out of town. That show was at the Heckscher Museum’s Bryant Library and it was a good space. Robbie Stein wrote a very good piece for the catalog. Nevertheless, I have stopped inviting artists over to see my work before I show it. “A tempest in a teapot”, as they say… unless you’re the one that got ripped.
Anyway as each hat was based on individual people many of whom were artists, or important people to me, I felt I could reference their some of their artistic qualities in making the images. In “Van Gogh” I painted the artist’s straw hat that he wore while painting in the hot sun in southern France. The color I chose was a bright yellow mixed with the straw like color of the raw beeswax. It was like his sunflowers and it had expressive marks and gestures that celebrated his brushstrokes and energy. The whole thing was about his white-hot passion, the fever of Van Gogh’s purity of intent, his empyrean quality.
In “Walt” (Whitman) I painted the poet’s broad but soft-flowing slouch hat. The raw beeswax is literally the color of honey. That amber tone alluded to Whitman’s writing as natural anti-bacteria, a healing balm. It also referred to his stint caring for the wounded during the Civil War. The hat was set against a silvery background that represented his stature as an artist; a mercurial might that soothed a nation with the balm of his words.
In “Jimmy”, aka “The Singing Brakeman”, I painted a rail road conductor’s hat which was a symbol for Jimmy Rogers, the great singer/ song writer of country music who wrote so many ballads about the poor and desolate life of those in the American heartland. He rode the rails, wrote about the “lonesome hobo” and was foundational to modern country music.
In “Bob’s Latest”, I painted an imaginary hat thinking of the many hats Bob Dylan has worn. Then I was into the old songs he’d surveyed in his twin cover albums Good As I Been to You and World Gone Wrong. I’ve always been a fan of Dylan. The fact that he has worn many hats, i.e., used many identities, was not lost on me. This particular hat and the colors of red and black with the natural beeswax made the image have a kind of iconic and dramatic feel.
In “Mary”, I painted a scarf covering the head of an imagined Mary Magdalene, a figure I very much admire from what I have read about her. It was also an image of another spiritual Mary. Mary Sutherland Maxwell, a Baha’i, who became Ruhiyyih Rabbani, a Hand of the Cause of God and wife of the Guardian of the Baha’i Faith, Shoghi Effendi. She always wore a scarf and the image of her wearing it became indelible to me. I had seen her speak in New York in 1992 and I remember her talking about the indigenous people of the world, many of whom she had sought out and befriended, sometimes going into terrain no white person, much less an elderly white lady, had ever gone before. She had said one thing that was quite common among all of them was how they had “seen” the potential dangers that technology could bring without spiritual maturity how they had actually made the conscious choice to approach technology slowly and more carefully. And while the rest of the world may have thought of them as “backward” or “primitive” they “were no threat to the planet”, implying of course, that we indeed, were- are.
In “Sergeant,” I painted a WWII army helmet with the netting that was commonly wrapped around it. This was used to stick branches and leaves in it from local environments that would camouflage the head of the soldier. This image was a portrait of my father who had been a sergeant in the war and had designed camouflage in very innovative ways for a number of campaigns. At the time I painted it, in the late 1990s, Syd was in a home for Alzheimer’s patients and was in the middle stage of the disease where he no longer knew our names or many other things that had been part of his life. In the painting, the netting on the helmet was frayed and broken in a few places, symbolizing the missing synapses that had occurred in his brain.
In “Charlie”, a porkpie hat sits upside down symbolizing “The Tramp” the beggar that was Chaplin’s important character. I was interested in the poverty / riches aspect of the character, how though materially poor, in spirit Chaplin’s characters had so much energy and love. It was that love that came across when I saw the movie, The Tramp. The green background was symbolic of wealth. It also referred to one of my best and most loved long time friends, Charles Teague.
“Country Gentleman” is painting of a porkpie hat tipped in space. This was a hat I wore at the time and so it had a kind of self-identity I was exploring but also eluded to any number of characters from the 19th Century, including painters, writers and musicians that wore the ubiquitous dome. For me it had opposing connotations, of buffoonery and sophistication.
“Gathered Rider” is portrait of my wife, Claudia Spinelli, who despite her circumstances, became an eminent horsewoman. She worked mucking out stalls at five in the morning when she was 11 so she could ride later in the day at the stable and she became a champion rider in her class, outdoing the rich girls from Westchester where she rode. Eventually though, without wealth, it becomes impossible to have a horse that can compete, so for over 20 years she was without riding. Luckily, during the late 90s we moved to a house near a wonderful horse farm and the lady who owned it became friends with Claudia and when she discovered Claudia’s skills, she invited her to come to the farm. Claudia was re-discovered as a kind of horse guru. Since then Claudia is offered horses left and right because of her ability with them. She’s saved some from the proverbial glue factory by steadily caring for them and bringing them back to health and she’s helped other riders understand how to deal with riding and horsey issues. The helmet in this picture was from a photo of her siting on a horse in a winner’s circle.
“Tropic of Henry” has the added technique of burning out the image that is saved by wax. Yeah actually paper burns faster than wax, so the drawing in wax is saved once I light the thing on fire. I then took the saved part, which was Miller’s hat and attached it on to the yellow background. So it’s a fire-relief cutout. I am not sure why Miller was so important to me at one time…something about the striped down prose, I think.
Then there are a number of other works that were done throughout this period. Some have tangential relationships to the omphalos shape, like “Skiffle”, which is an image of shoes. It refers to skiffle bands that played in England in the ‘40s which influenced the emergence of the Stones and the Beatles, and it was also a way of moving, walking. There are two tent paintings, “Red Tent” and “Pop Up”, “Amphora” and “Bells”. They all have a pretty obvious relation to the omphalos and it’s fun to see how far you can get from something and still see a relationship to that thing.
“Surveillance” was one that was out of the box. I just loved the image of the field glasses and they were an old pair I had, of my dads. This is a thick encaustic work and was truly “sun cured’. I didn’t like it much for a while and so I left it out in the yard facing the sun for several months in the summer. The black wax really sunk into the weave of the linen and when I recovered the abandoned work, I realized the melting sun had fixed the painting for me. When we see what is going on now with the invasion of our privacy through the easy gathering of information on things like Face Book or through phone records, this painting is perhaps somewhat more relevant now than when I made it.
This group of work was the culmination of a long period of using representation. I had gone to it because I felt that a common visual language was the most appropriate way to communicate with others. I still believe that. But the seeing of the emergence of a repetitive structure, a structure that is content, changed the direction of my focus. My work after this group, moved more into the realm of abstraction which I had left 2O years earlier.