I confess that I caught completely off-guard by the response from some viewers of this exhibit. Originally I had mild concern that alt-right fascists might hear of the show, become enraged, and threaten a brick through the front window. I never anticipated fury from people who think I’ve glorified the people I have painted.
What the images document is a rise in angry men globally. I think it vitally important that people pay attention to that. I know that I’m paying attention to that, which is why I’m painting these paintings. I think we all need to think hard about how we get out of this vortex of tribalism, nationalism and fury.
I have been working on this series, The Face of Evil, for over 20 years. Initially I simply gathered images of bad men, or evil acts from magazines, later from the internet. The images are all culled from photographs in mainstream magazines, newspapers and on-line journals, from collections on the internet. They have all been published. All are in the public domain.
I am exhibiting as I paint, getting reactions, comments and thoughts from viewers, expanding my plans for the whole series as new questions are raised. My first exhibitions of this work, Bad Men at Gallery 110 here in Seattle in October 2016, showed the first works of two sub-series “Mugshots” and “Evil in Disguise”. Those series were expanded upon in the exhibition Bad Men II in Vancouver BC in March 2017.
The series Angry White Men was inspired by the recent enabling of racism, anti-immigrant violence, anti-gay legislation, and the rise of the visible, public fascist demonstrator in the US and Europe. The paintings may simplify, but they do not distort or beautify the reality that is in the photographs – the perilous reality that we face in our world right now.
I confess to naiveté, to being woefully unprepared to prevent the complete misunderstanding of what I was trying to convey and the subsequent anger, shouting and threats.
• I had expected people to be repelled by the images, to find them “personally repulsive”, as I do. I did not come prepared with a manifesto clarifying what I thought people should think about the works and the exhibition. I value ambiguity and subtlety. I dislike being lectured by an artist or a curator. I believe that if an exhibition of art needs a long written or spoken explanation, the show is in trouble. What I have offered instead of didactic explanation is a multitude of quotations from others about anger, nationalism, the problem of human evil; statements that I hoped would catalyze thought to counter and layer the initial purely visceral reaction. I had expected to discuss their various reactions with viewers, and mostly I have been able to do so.
• I have been criticized for having said that my choice of images was “arbitrary”. This left me open for misunderstanding and subsequent criticism. But I am speaking truth: the choice was arbitrary in the sense that, regrettably, perilously, the reality of our times is that there are hundreds more media images just like these.
• I did not provide “Trigger Warnings”. There is a long history of artists documenting evil. I believe that artists have a responsibility to reveal or highlight the brutal reality of their time. In the Prado Museum, none of the most powerful and difficult works – Picasso’s Guernica, Brueghel’s Triumph of Death, Goya’s Black Paintings – have signs warning the public of the power and brutality of the subject matter they are about to see. Given these images are culled from the public domain, that they have already been seen multiple times, it never occurred to me that the public would need a warning at the door.
• I did chose to put prices on the works, not because I ever dreamed they would sell, but as a way of declaring that they have value as works of art. In three exhibitions, I have yet to sell any of these works. I am appalled by the thought of a person hanging such works in their home: it would be way too creepy to have intimacy with such evil. However, I had not considered several possibilities, and I am grateful that they have been brought to my attention, and sorry for the pain, upset and anger they triggered: I had not thought “what if David Duke or Richard Spenser offered to buy the work?” More concerning: “What if they attempted to but the work through an intermediary?” “What would I feel if I actually was given money for a painting I had done of an evil man such as Brevik or Roof?”
As an interim solution, Gallery 110 posted the following:
- The artist will donate all proceeds from any sales of the four large “Mugshot” portraits to the Equal Justice Initiative of Montgomery, Alabama. https://eji.org/about-eji . Prices for those works are now by request.
- The artist would not, for any price, sell the works to any organization or anyone he suspected might use them to justify or glorify hatred, racism or antisemitism. Should a responsible public museum or foundation offer to purchase one or more of the works, he would have no interest in keeping the money. The artist did not expect anyone to purchase these works, at least not while he was alive.
I now realize that the anger over this point is distracting us all from a much greater existential threat: the rise of fascism and the inability of the different ‘tribes’ to set aside fury and listen to each other switching to shouting and invective.
Ultimately, it’s only paint on ‘canvas’, and we will remove all prices for the works.