Using what I find
This piece began with finding two identical, linen canvases, portrait length. I didn’t have an intended use for them, but I like to keep things that I’m drawn to, and let them find a way into my work. Usually, the my mind and the object work it out, and when it comes time to do a piece, the objects I draw from couldn’t be more perfectly suited to the action.
The set up
With open studios coming up, I set my studio up with the paintings on either wall, with my circus curtain in front, which would leave only part of my arms and paint brushes showing. Above I fixed a canopy which I loaded with spent balloons- too little helium to float, but still retaining their shape. I borrowed two long handled paint brushes, set a palette up on the floor at my feet, and was ready. There was to be an award of $10,000 to the best of the graduate studios at CCA, for which we were all preoccupied. The problem for me, I was to find, was that we were not allowed to be in our studio during the judging. Issues like this made being a performance artist challenging. Returning to my studio after the judges left, I taped my microphone onto my costume, turned on my record player, and began painting.
As I worked on the canvases, I had a running monologue about my understanding of these two historical personages, noting the issue of the lack of accurate images of either man, how I was born on the day they met, things like that. In my mind, a crowd packed my studio, listening to my every word, and then, with the next thought, I was completely alone in a big empty hall.
Painting as Performance
Having painted for many years, I often draw from this experience in my performance work. Performance allows me to address issues that used to come up regularly in my work as a painter- who am I painting for? how do I get beyond petty aesthetic moods to paint what I need to paint? can painting be more than just visual dictation?
I perform as the character Cortezuma, which is a blended-word of Cortes, the Spanish Conquistador and Moctezuma, the Aztec Emperor. I’ll say more about the character in another post, but basically it is my way of addressing the complicated relationship I have with my Mexican heritage. Cortezuma wears crowns that come down over his eyes, effectively shutting down the use of his eyes for the duration of the performance. It seemed fitting that as a performance, Cortezuma should attempt to paint both ‘parents’ simultaneously, and on opposite walls. In my work, I deal with the ridiculous. I like to explore in action what I call physical metaphor. For instance, Cortezuma is, in a sense, a walking portrait of these two historical figures. What if he actually tried to make their portrait- at the same time?
Like a circus performer, something nearly impossible is being attempted, we assume the performer will fail, and that’s probably why we watch. The Aztecs used to have a round platform in one of their grand plazas where captured warriors would battle Aztec heroes. The captured warriors would be given mock weapons made of paper with which to fight. Maybe something of this sense of futility and comic doom lingers in my own work.
Closing the eyes to see the image
Describing out loud what I knew of these two personages, I would dab paint onto the two canvases where I imagined it would go. As my eyes were covered by my crown, I would sometimes have to grope around with the brush to find the canvas. I began to see painting in a different way. Whether or not these painting looked like Cortes and Moctezuma, they were Cortes and Moctezuma because that’s what I had painted. For me, this is one of the biggest problems in representational painting. When we look at an object in a painting, say a truck, we can’t help but compare it to the idea we have in our minds of what a truck looks like. Rather than focus on why there is a truck in the picture in the first place, we’re busy debating what the truck looks like.
For anyone in the audience that day, they heard my descriptions of what I was painting. I decided that I didn’t want to interrupt the image that I had painted in their mind by having the canvases’ image to distract from. I had covers made for each painting, by Cameron Kelly, the talented artist and good friend of mine. In this way, the paintings can be presented, but never actually viewed. When I’m about to work on them, I take them out of the covers, and then put them back inside as soon afterwards as I can. In this aspect, I imagine they function somewhat like a holy text, like a torah scroll that is presented to the congregation while inside its cover.
Paintings as objects
As the act of painting has become a common theme of my performance, the object of painting has pointed toward sculpture. When the two objects of Double Portrait are hung on the wall, they function more as sculpture. They are of course, paintings, but the paintings do not exist for the eyes of the viewer. Of course, they completely exist for the mind of the viewer- but the title cards are much more like arrows, pointing the viewer back inside their own mind to find what image they may have of these historic personages.
In this way, I’m seeing that the act of painting can function more like the act of conjuring. When we focus intention, action and thought onto something, we can sometimes draw it into our presence. I imagine the cave painters doing this, thousands of years ago, watching the cave walls dance with the flicker of the fire. With a few smudged marks on the wall, suddenly, an antelope appeared in front of their eyes.
Painting for the rest of my life
A few years later, I was invited by the San Diego Museum of Art to re-perform Double Portrait. I was flattered by the opportunity, but conflicted by the thought of re-creating magic on demand, for conjuring is a kind of magic. Letting my thoughts simmer for awhile, I was pushed in a new direction that put me completely at peace, integrity intact. As this performance was about painting, I could continue painting these portraits on the same canvases, whenever the offer or opportunity arose, effectively continuing this performance for the rest of my life.
The piece was part of their summer 2013 programming called, Double Portrait, and they were wonderfully gracious and accommodating, especially the young curator, Alexander Jarman. They located me in a gallery which housed Spanish paintings from the Age of Exploration- a very special location for me.
As part of the larger exhibition, I was asked by a young artist, Farrah Emami, to submit something for her project- The Gift Shop. The Gift Shop was a trailer that was pulled up in front of the museum where items were sold. I offered her an image to make a cake with, which she did, and which she sold for $5 a slice.
I have performed Double Portrait a third time, this time in the Fall of 2014 in Los Angeles, California. I was invited to be part of Perform Chinatown a day long event put on by the galleries in Downtown LA’s Chinatown. This time around, the experience wasn’t so easy- a Chinatown gallerist I had come down to see wasn’t interested in seeing me perform (down the walk way), there was a band playing loudly at the time of the performances, many people were drunk. Still, I connected with my good friend Eric who I ended up unwittingly in the role of assistant and who I hung out with afterwards for the evening.
On my way out of town, I stopped in at La Placita, the church on Alvera Street in Downtown to say a prayer and offer a simple ex-voto of my Perform Chinatown experience. People leave such things on the side grotto dedicated to La Señora de Juquila. It was more important that I be honest than positive in this ex-voto. There are all kinds of offerings, but I haven’t come up with an exception to them being honest.
This is the only image I have of my performance; I have no photographic images. Though I imagine some attendees must have whipped out a cell phone and taken a picture of the strangely costumed man, standing partly under the stairwell between two buildings, arms outstretched like Jesus in the dark. “Because art”, people are apt to say these days.