A Life Obsession: The Art of the Make Over

by Alden Cole on February 13, 2017 · 0 comments

“You never actually finish a painting. You either run out of time or you give up.” – Ron Rizzi (1941 – )

1986AC@42-2ViewsWP1986: Self at 42 • left: oil on canvas-board, 20″ x 16″ • right: pastels on paper, 18″ x 14″ • both, collection of the artist.

These two self portraits done only months apart in 1986 succinctly reveal the story of my life: an often unspoken dissatisfaction with things as they are, coupled with trying to reform what I personally perceive as needing improvement. This has been my modus operandi, seemingly from day one. The painting on the left, done in the spring of 1986, while still living in Portsmouth NH, was relatively true to what looked back at me from the mirror – an unflattering but honest appraisal of self. The pastel on the right however, done a few months after moving to Philadelphia, was an idealization of the reflected image – who I wanted to see, or be, looking back at me, instead of the reality of myself at the time. I was in the midst of trying to REmake myself into something better, more acceptable to myself and to the world, and the process was fraught with difficulties and dissatisfactions. I was never pleased with the painting on the left, due to its unsparing qualities. My ideal was to paint ‘beautiful’ portraits, including beautiful self-portraits; so in that regard, the painting was not a success. Fortunately that I didn’t try to ‘improve’ this piece, as I did a number of the others featured in this posting.

1987.MaryMaxwellWP1987: Mary M: a Portrait • oil on canvas, 18″ x 18″ * collection of Mary Maxwell. No photograph exists of the painting prior to alteration for comparison; this image was extracted from a small, blurry polaroid.

I grew up wanting to be glamorous! That word is more often associated with describing women than men, but that didn’t stop me from wishing I could be that way. I grew up wanting to be other, to perform a little make-over magic that would turn me into something else, other than what I was, which didn’t feel good enough. I was a little boy who often wished I were a little girl, which would have made everyone in the family happier, particularly my mother. I learned to pretend, to be an artful dodger of sorts, an entertainer who discovered that making people laugh was good: it generally made life easier, charmed people into liking me, even occasionally defused aggression. And that came in handy, being the youngest of three sons in my immediate family, and the youngest of seven grandchildren in the larger family unit that shared a multi-acre compound consisting of two adjacent dairy farms in Dayton Maine.

MaryPillsbury1983-88WPMary P: a Portrait • oil on canvas, 18″ x 18″ • collection of the artist. Started in 1983 – left image extracted from an inferior polaroid print; painting extensively revised in 1988.

In addition to those early feelings that I wasn’t totally accepted as a little boy by my family, which helped to engender a desire to be other, there was also the religious indoctrination I was receiving on a weekly basis from the church we attended, an actively proselytizing denomination of Protestantism which saw itself as God’s elect, the new chosen people. With the dawning of self consciousness around age five I increasingly began to feel guilty for a variety of minor ‘bad thoughts’ as well as actions, which preyed on my mind with increasing anxiety throughout my childhood and youth. The groundwork for intense internal conflict was well laid by the time I went off to school in Providence in 1962 to become a fashion designer. By that time I had given up an early teenage desire to become a beautician in order to do make-overs, turning plain Janes into beauty queens. Time has revealed that this possible life-path appealed to me based on a begrudging acceptance that I was never going to be that beautiful girl I wanted to be, but at least I might be able to help other girls achieve what I couldn’t. So much for the early plans and delusions of youth that didn’t pan out quite as hoped.

1985-88.MindyREvisited2WPMindy: a Portrait • oil on canvas-board, 20″ x 16″ • collection of the artist. Started in 1985 – left image extracted from an inferior polaroid; revised in 1988.

Life eventually turned me into a seeker after self-approval even more than a seeker of the approval of others. Feeling a deep sense of inferiority because of my doubts that conflicted with the feelings of superiority encouraged by my religious indoctrination, I was ripe for a sense of deep confusion and chaos in my life that lasted pretty much throughout my 20s and 30s. It wasn’t until I moved to Philadelphia in 1986 at age 42 to sort out that chaos that life began to make sense, providing me with a basis for understanding and resolving those conflicts, leaving years of residual guilt behind me as I came to accept not only myself, warts and all, but to like who I have become in this life. It ain’t been easy being green, but it’s proved to be quite doable, even fun on occasion. I’ve learned to Be Here Now, happy being alive, despite not having it my way in a number of areas of life.

EricGerman-Before&AfterWPEric: a Portrait • oil on linen, 18″ x 18″ • painted over. Started in 1987 – left image extracted from an inferior polaroid; revised in 1989.

Having chosen art as my profession, the need to improve, to make better, provided a driving force that played a major role in my various careers. Despite the lows which drove me from one job to another for over a decade, internally conflicted all the way, I maintained a sense of myself that would not yield to total despair. I began to understand that art was my therapy, my way of self-discovery that would lead eventually to a sense of refined purpose, self-knowledge hopefully, and internal peace about my condition as a homosexual who chose not to form a one-to-one relationship with another human being, but chose instead to discover who I AM through trial and error.

DanaBefore&AfterWPDana: a Portrait • oil on canvas-board, 18″ x 24″ • collection of the artist. Started 1985 – top image extracted from an inferior polaroid; revised in 1990.

Life has been quite an adventure. While in Portsmouth NH working for Weiser Publications, I started a series of painted portraits, mostly friends, with one of Mindy a model who sat for a group of artists with whom I met once a week. I’d done lots of portrait drawings in pencil during my Portsmouth years, but only a handful of paintings. These canvases accompanied me to Philadelphia, where I eventually reworked them after I had been here for a few years. I was obviously in the thrall of ‘improving’ the things surrounding me, since self-work, the science of self-knowledge that allows you to resolve internal conflicts, was the focus of my life at the time. I was studying with a metaphysician who had given me a number of tools with which to better understand myself and my choices. And one of those choices was to heavily revise several of the portraits that had traveled with me to Philly. Their expressions became painful to my eyes; I wanted to make them beautiful. Little did I know then that I was going to turn them into virtual cartoons, Stepford people who didn’t look like real people any more. One of the influences steering me in this direction was encountering the work of Richard Bernstein (31 Oct 1939 – 18 Oct 2002) sometime early in my Philadelphia experience. Bernstein was the creator of those slick portrait covers of the young, beautiful and trendy for Interview Magazine back in the day. But I didn’t work in that direction with enough focus, so I eventually accepted the fact that I was not meant to be a portrait painter, and moved on to other expressions of art.

1985-87-RobertBoardman2VersionsWPRobert: a Portrait • oil on canvas, 18″ x 18″ • collection of the artist. Started in 1985; no photograph exists of the painting prior to the alteration seen on the left, which was a major revising of the original. This image was extracted from a very blurry polaroid. The version on the right is a second revision done in 1991 where I took the painting over the edge into absurdity. I had obviously not yet learned my lesson to quit messing with portraits that shouldn’t have been revised at all. The original version of this painting of my friend Robert Boardman had a wonderful sketchy, spontaneous quality to it when first painted; qualities that I lost forever once I started revising. Lessons learned. Perhaps that’s why I never messed with the final would-be portrait painting below.

CathyPalumboWP1992: Portrait of Cathy • pencil on canvas-board, 24″ x 18″ • collection of the artist

In the case of the image at left, I never even started to make it a ‘painting’ so there was no painting to “never actually finish”. I gave up on this one at the drawing stage, when I realized I had drawn another self-portrait projected onto an actual sitter. It gave me a rather literal understanding of the comment “Every portrait is a self portrait.” This particular canvas-board was the last of the attempts at painted portraiture of others. I finally acquiesced to painting only portraits of myself from time to time. Photography was another matter however, but that’s another story…

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