Painting, power, provocation

When I, a white woman, make paintings of Rory, a black man from the streets of Oakland I’ve been intimately connected to for the last 5 years, I’m not trying to tell people what to think about race, class, power or anything else. It’s more like I’m trying to uncover unconscious conditioned beliefs about these things.  A painting is a mirror for projections.  To engage, viewers must be willing to recognize that what they see are their own projections, rather than blaming me for making them feel some type of way. In other words, is the painting saying something or are they seeing something? If they see Rory as powerless because I painted him, does that mean I’m the one saying Rory is powerless? Maybe they are just unable to see Rory’s skin color and power as compatible. Or maybe they are unable to see the relationship between a black person and a white person as equal.

Maybe that’s the way they see it, but it’s not the way I see it. I know Rory better than anyone and vice versa. He is the most powerful person I’ve ever met. He’s no chump. Not at all. He doesn’t need to be painted into a white man’s royal world on top of a horse a la Kehinde Wiley to claim his power. He doesn’t need to be granted power by me or anyone else.  He’s got it already. That’s why he decides to pose like a reclining nude, playing to my gaze. He doesn’t have to maneuver or hide or project an image of the version of power that colonized the world. Being a person who has struggled my whole life with maneuvering, hiding and projecting an image, I love and admire him for this powerful way of being in the world.

If we can only recognize power as winning, we are a supporters of the white supremacist, patriarchal, capitalist game in which, in the words of Beyonce, “paper is the best revenge.” I don’t buy that version of power and I don’t sell out for it. Why would I? It has nothing to offer me but isolation and despair.

Here’s what’s ironic: This work I’m making now, which comes out of genuine love and connection, is proving to be more provocative than past work that had a definite critical intent.  This tells us something about the power of love to destabilize power.

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