Friday, October 12, 2007

Homeless

This will doubtless prove my most controversial and thought provoking painting to date. When I started this project a couple of weeks ago, I approached it simply from a documentary standpoint. The subject is derived from some digital photos I snapped in midtown Manhattan. The scene is pretty typical New York: a homeless guy sleeping on the sidewalk. One sees it in every neighborhood in every borough.

In the context of the city's daily rush and rumble, we tend to become desensitized to the presence of our homeless neighbors and thus tend not to notice them. Becoming just another image in the visual assault that is New York City, one filters out the homeless in the same way one filters out the cabs, sirens, and crowds. A psychologist would probably argue that this filtering process is a pretty common coping strategy for residents of noisy and noisome big cities.

So, back to my sense of experiment . . . If you've followed the commentary on my paintings, you already know that I don't do portraiture, nor do I populate my images with people. When they do appear, they're always in the background and amorphously defined. In that sense, this painting was a leap, because it's a double portrait and the people are the focus of the image. Although I approached the paper with trepidation, I was ultimately pleased with the result, particularly the man's varying skin tones and the folds of his red pants.

Nevertheless, after looking at the finished image over the last 24 hours, I begin to see how some might not view this in a purely documentary fashion. For example, there's the obvious issue of race, which initially didn't figure in my calculations. Having been raised in a family environment in which race was a non-issue, I initially didn't think of the implications of portraying an African-American homeless man. Homelessness affects people regardless of race or ethnic background, and as a documentarian I was just happy to capture such a good composition. But as a former historian with a background in southern history, I soon recognized that race - and the juxtaposition of a homeless African-American man and a white model - could make this a difficult image to approach.

If one has read much southern history, sociology, and literature, one understands the psycho-sexual link of these subjects in the region's cultural DNA. The theme appears in Flannery O'Connor, Wilbur J. Cash's Mind of the South, and in the speeches of the region's most notorious racist politicians. It's less pervasive today, obviously, but from the age of slavery well into the 20th century and the years of the Civil Rights Movement, that image of the black man paired with a white woman proved a powerful psychological tool in the perpetuation of racial archetypes. Addressing that complex set of issues was never my explicit intent. Nevertheless, it can't be avoided if one comes to the painting already carrying that cultural baggage. I welcome comments on this one . . . but be polite, even if you disagree with the way in which the subjects are portrayed. I'm still debating whether or not to include this in the November art show of which I'm a part. Reaction from friends and readers will help me make that decision.

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4 comments:

One Wink at a Time said...

When I look at this terrific depiction, I see the vast contrast between what is real and what is not. The woman represents to me the glitz and glamour of everything in our society which is fake and shallow. The homeless man is real and distinct, colorful and alive-although tired from his daily struggles with life. There is depth and truth in him and the woman is without that depth. The black and white of her world leaves no room for individuality or warmth. She (and her grim world) looks down upon this man and all that he stands for. There is a kind of derisive judgment on her face. There is soooo much symbolism here. The woman towers above him in "stature"... he is right there in front of her, close enough to touch and yet she looks past him as though he doesn't exist.
Definitely put this in the show. It's amazing.

One Wink at a Time said...

Also, your foreshortening is impressive as hell!

Falconmyst said...

I USED YOUR PROFILE pic in a post, surf by when you get a chance and please leave a comment, I would be encouraged. Really admire your artwork and the suject is very compelling, nicely exicuted.

Anonymous said...

Help us help the street homeless

Call 311: to report homeless individuals and families who you see on the Streets of New York City (all Boroughs)

Outreach Teams will be sent to offer assistance.

Thank you