is fashionable in the name of "contemporary art" to look askance
at the portrait as some sort of fancy sign painting. For me, painting
another human being is the artist's greatest challenge. Have you read
D. M Thomas's The White Hotel? We are each a white hotel -a place of many
rooms, each with stories and lives, pain and pleasure, mysteries that
anticipate themselves, as a serpent devouring his tail.
must talk to the person I paint. I try to peek into a room or two of
the complexity that is human being. The exploration is misleading -
I cannot know my subject, but I can get an idea and I try to capture
something of my co-conspirators in the work. Sometimes I write stories
in the background - telling a little of what my subject told me. For
example, in one drawing of Alexandra (a model who came to sit for our
sketching group every Saturday morning), I wrote the story of Thelma
and Louise. Alexandra had a tattoo which said "Thelma" just
above her mons venus. I thought this "Thelma" must be someone
dear to Alexjandra, but when I asked, she said no. Rather she and a
friend had decided one day, with nothing better to do, to get a tattoo.
Neither could think of the right image. They had recently seen the movie
"Thelma and Louise." So Alexjandra had the name "Thelma"
placed pretty much indelibly on her body, and her friend responded with
"Louise." That's what I mean
I weave in images which add to the story. In Family Portrait, I have five monkeys (there were five kids in my family), painted with reference and gratitude to Frida Khalo. In the hand of the monkey peeking from behind my youngest brother's head, there is a tiny cigarette because despite all, he persists in smoking. The references are not always obvious, but they are an attempt to locate special rooms in the singular place that is each of us.
Each portrait is a dialogue between sitter and artist - a dialogue that includes not only what was said, but that which is understood, although perhaps not shared in words.
Copyright © Joan Tumpson, 2004. All rights reserved.