Ginevra de' Benci
I am a painter. This encompasses many things. Painting is a physical activity, which is, in reality, just the act of smearing paint on a canvas. Simple, direct, tactile. At times I like to trick myself into thinking it really is that simple. But every moment of my existence -- past, present and future -- feeds into the “smearing of paint.” I saw my first Rembrandt and Leonardo da Vinci in the flesh when I was in my late teens. Their work, their paint smearing, didn’t seem old to me because it resonated with a sense of a deeper purpose, a higher meaning.
Why paint a self portrait like Rembrandt did? Why not? It forces one to look at and into one’s own soul. Isn’t being an artist about seeing and then relating or communicating what has been seen? Seeing what’s in front of us and maybe beyond and what was and possibly will be? As an artist, my job is to reveal not what I think I know or even what I know I know, but what exists in the space between, which is for lack of a better use of language, a moment of being. Is there such a thing? I think so. I hope so. Descartes said it so eloquently, “I think therefore I am.”
I have had those moments - those ah-ha moments - when the universe makes sense, if just for a moment, when it informs and transcends and propels and all things become one and all time is that moment. That is what I felt standing in front of Rembrandt’s second to last self portrait at the London National Gallery. That is what I felt standing in front of Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper in Milano. The paintings could have been finished the year prior, or 1000 years in to the future and I would have still had that moment when all is one, that feeling that I am a part of something I cannot even begin to comprehend. I can only listen, look, feel, and be in the moment. When I am in front of a canvas with brush in hand, I understand Einstein’s theories and the concept of a space-time continuum makes perfect sense. So isn’t my job as an artist – isn’t my purpose to swim in that moment with my brush as a paddle that pushes and pulls the paint like the sun pulls the fabric of time and space to make sure the planets revolve around it, as our solar system revolves around the center of the Milky Way Galaxy for the same reason?
I started off as a figurative painter because that was what I knew - the visualization of the physical world. Somehow, and I don’t remember exactly where or when, I saw beyond this world. I saw with my mind and all my senses began to form pictures in my minds eye - or at least that is a phrase that I can
best use to describe it. It was like listening to Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings and registering the deep melancholy the minor chords summons, bringing moments of sadness from all of human history, pulling from the memory within the molecules that make up my person, all aligned and releasing their data because the sounds of that tune are calling them.
I used to paint people but I began to see past them, in what I can only assume Leonardo da Vinci was experiencing when he painted, and is so apparent in his first portrait Ginevra de Benci. The left side of her face has been pulled slightly forward as if he wants us to see more than what this world can offer from our fixed perspective, giving us a glimpse toward his future that came to full fruition with Picasso’s synthetic cubism, which tied into Einstein’s theories of relativity, all making up a visual and conceptual tapestry of time and space. Leonardo places one reality in front of another, both existed only in his mind before manifesting onto a wooden panel. Where is that landscape from? Sure, we recognize elements of the landscape in the form of trees, a pond, the sky, but was it a real place? It is now because he made it so. But it also serves as a prop, a backdrop for his sitter. There is something else happening in this
picture, something that lets me in on his secret, his inner vision which is revealed in the painting: he saw things few see - he saw through this world and into another as the space between them shimmered like a hallucinatory moment that exists between what we know and what we think we know. And when an artist sees that and is still able to breathe, let alone paint or compose or dance or sing, then the world bares witness to this elusive thing we call art.
I make images of things that don’t really exist -- which is usually referred to as art. I don’t deny that label because I don’t have another word for it. Time and the idea of time are becoming less important to me. Maybe it is because daily life is becoming faster and the rate at which we receive information is happening so fast that we really are now living moment to moment with each moment superseding the last. But somewhere within that swirling chaos of information is stillness where, as T. S. Eliot wrote, "At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless; neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is."
And that stillness is in Leonardo’s Ginevra de Benci, who for the past year or so I dance with her every day in my studio when I pick up my brushes and smear paint onto the canvas. Who could ask for a better partner?
February 5, 2012