Angry White Men II: Further Explorations of the Face of Evil
I began the series Angry White Men in late 2016, sparked by the sudden wide-spread enabling of racism, anti-Semitism, anti-immigrant violence, and anti-LGBTQ+ hatred that followed the U.S. election, as well as the simultaneous rise of the visible, public fascist demonstrator in both the US and Europe.
I decided that, as a white man, it would be presumptuous of me to paint the victims of these angry white men. However, I could legitimately explore “my kind”: the violent white perpetrators and their fury, ignorance and, all too frequently, mental illness and social failure. More importantly, I could also shine a bright light on those successful and intelligent white men who – with cold detachment – work to influence, manipulate and profit from their angry white brethren.
In setting out to paint these people and their rage, I sought not to glorify, but to warn – and perhaps – to nudge us to ponder: “why?” and “why now?”. I hoped these works would serve as a mirror in which we could more clearly recognize the world we have created and perpetuate. Some may see themselves reflected directly, others not at all, but regardless, this is our shared reality, our present, our peril. For our survival as a democracy we must get ourselves out of this vortex of tribalism, nationalism and fury.
I expect people to be repelled, to find the images “personally repulsive” – I do.
I also believe that artists have a responsibility to reveal, not render opaque, the reality of their time, however brutal.
There is a long history of artists documenting evil. There is also a long tradition of letting the art speak for itself. In the Prado Museum, none of the most powerful and difficult works have signs warning the public of the subject matter they are about to see. – not Picasso’s Guernica, not Brueghel’s Triumph of Death, not Goya’s Black Paintings. People see the paintings; they choose whether or not to be offended.
In September 2018, during the first Angry White Men show in Seattle, I repeatedly was asked, “How could anyone paint these people who are so awful?”.
To me the answer seemed blindingly obvious: of course we should explore the dangerous, the ugly and the odious; of course we should seek to understand what we find threatening and abhorrent. Physicians and scientists study invasive parasitic worms and disfiguring cancers without flinching. Isn’t that how we find ways to combat these awful things?
I believe that, as an artist, my primary role should be to explore in paint, with unflinching honesty, the world in which I live.
Notes on The Face of Evil
These paintings are part of a much larger project that I have been working on for over 20 years, exploring the “question of evil”.
In the late 1990s I was intrigued by Roy Baumeister’s book, Evil – Inside Human Violence and Cruelty. Without any clear idea how I would explore the topic, I simply began gathering images of bad men or evil acts culled from photographs in mainstream magazines, newspapers, and, eventually, collections on the internet.
Finally, in 2015, I started painting. I decided to paint the faces of men who had done bad things, rather than their deeds or their victims. I decided to aim for a detached Renaissance-like realism such as that of Antonello da Messina’s Il Condottiere.
I was asking two larger questions: “Can one recognize evil by looking at a face?” and “If there is an omnipotent, omniscient and omnipresent GOD, why is there evil?” Mug Shots was the first of a planned larger set of series – The Face of Evil – soon joined by related series Evil in Disguise and Gangsters.
Bad Guys I was exhibited in Seattle and then Bad Guys II in Vancouver BC. Bad Guys III was planned for early 2017, but then November 2016 happened and Angry White Men I & II “jumped the line”.
Notes on the September 2018 Seattle exhibition
The response from some viewers of the first Angry White Men exhibition in Seattle in September 2018 caught me completely off-guard. The Southern Poverty Law Center identifies 26 hate groups in Washington State; I had mild concern that alt-right fascists might become enraged and threaten a brick through the Gallery 110 window. I was blind-sided by the incoherent fury directed at me by people with whom I basically agree with on most political questions. I was stunned particularly by ad hominem attacks – including threats of firebombs and damage to the non-profit Gallery 110 – by individuals who appeared to deliberately misconstrue the work, in the teeth of evidence to the contrary.
Artist’s Statement, Angry White Men I
Everywhere I look in the news of the world, I see angry white men. Their towns have been hollowed out by the closing of factories or mines. The work done by their parents for a decent wage is now done abroad, or by robots. Their insecurities are shaped into weapons by demagogues who blame the people who aren’t like them: immigrants, elites, liberals, democrats. Feelings of frustration and inadequacy are soothed by myths of an older, better time – a time when people loyal to their tribe or “nation” were honored, respected and rewarded.
As I paint these angry white men, I feel revulsion and righteous indignation. I must force myself to feel curiosity as to “why?” and “why now?” – to recognize their humanity. The market reforms of the 1980s, globalization of trade, and particularly, the technological advances of the last 40 years have, to some extent, enriched us all, but vastly more so the elite, while leaving many behind and in debt. The sense that ‘everyone is in the same boat’ has been destroyed.
I also have an uneasy suspicion that, given that in the right combination of frustration, desperation and fear, I might look like them. We may all have bred in our bones a capacity and instinct for suspicion and violence towards strangers who look different, talk a strange language and compete for the same resources.