WORDS Barry Buxkamper
Three and a half paintings and seven months into this series I finally admitted to myself that these are myself. I could no longer maintain the whoppingly delusional fiction that the figure was an anonymous model who coincidently bore a striking resemblance to the artist; no portrait intended; just some poor dope requiring no remuneration or model’s release form; who was always available; and who’d honor the artist’s every whim without complaint, mostly.
You can get away with one painting using yourself as the model and thinking it’s a “figurative” painting representing humanity in general—make that white, male, old, American humanity. But two or three of these and we’re talking self-portraits—a term I was unwittingly avoiding.
Forget the fact that they all featured me; the “duh” moment came when I realized that all four were the same environment. Well that, of course, was just a matter of convenience, right? It’s just a spare room that is now storage space—in reality much more organized and uncluttered, but less visually interesting than represented in the paintings. Did the fact that this was the self-same room that my wife was going to use as her personal space in our new house, but never got the chance because she died, not figure into the equation? Were the images of flight and fleeing also just coincidental?
Do the answers to these questions make the paintings any better? Probably not, but I think seeing the paintings in total changes the effect of each, whether you know the questions or not. And for me, the realization that they are connected by a common thread, regardless of the viewers’ knowledge of the origin of that thread, serves as an impetus to paint more of them. Now I’m consciously owning the origin, realizing the appropriateness of the empty chair in the latest painting as a metaphor for a missing person.
Chairs are profoundly human. Imagine a line of empty chairs around the walls of a dance floor, around a dinner table, in a theater. In each case we see people, not inanimate objects—a realization that returns me to the issue of portraits, in this case self-portraits. The image of the chair, actually virtually any object, is not thought of as a portrait—though it certainly could be. Objects, natural and otherwise, seem to lend themselves to metaphor and universality.
Are portraits too individual to express the universal? Does their very specificity create a tantalizing barrier between them and us? Like seeing your neighbor through a window? Or does the very specificity of a portrait draw us closer; make us feel a stronger connection; create a singular reality far greater than a generalized, iconic representation? Do we know, feel, think more about our common bond to one another from the very specific or from the universal?
And how dumb do you have to be to finish three paintings and start a fourth and not realize you’re making self-portraits?
Barry Buxkamper is represented by Cumberland Gallery, www.cumberlandgallery.com.