The painting above is called “Eternal Bonds,” and I finished it back in 1990. Not long after the paint dried, it became part of an exhibit of my work. At the gallery’s suggestion, I kept a notebook on a stand where people could write comments. The comments became a fascinating window into the minds of the viewers, and this painting elicited particularly strong reactions. The responses included “The wedding painting is a powerful feminist statement,” “The painting with the bride is sexist crap,” and “Your wedding painting inspired me to propose to my girlfriend.”
Art in general tends to intimidate people. They look at a piece, and they’re not sure what’s going on or what it means, so they’re hesitant to share their thoughts in case they get the wrong answer. I wanted to encourage people to move beyond that insecurity and just allow themselves to interpret the work without worrying about my intent. I figured that: A) As an artist I couldn’t be standing over their shoulder explaining it to them, and B) They might gain more meaning out of it if they’re allowed to interpret it based on their own experiences.
(The answer, by the way, is that this painting was inspired by a friend of mine who was engaged to a quiverfull-style fundamentalist. From left to right, the first bride represents her turning her back to her friends who pleaded with her not to marry the guy. The second bride with moss growing on her represents the slow decomposition of her future. The triceratops skull represents her fiance’s prehistoric values, and the unexploded bomb the inevitable disaster their marriage would be.
In the right panel, the boy with his spine getting pulled out of his back represents my inability to get up the nerve and share my concerns about the guy. The dead dog the boy is hugging represents the fact that the painting was composed near the anniversary of my dog’s death. The fallen knight splayed atop the rubble means that no one was going to swoop in at the last minute and change her mind. And the framed photo of the woman represents the fact that she had asked me to do a painting for her wedding. The brightly colored x-rays of bones with verbs referring to breakage represents my diagnosis of the girl’s relationship with her fiance: it was brittle and bound to quickly break apart.)
I’m happy that this gloomy painting led to a marriage proposal, but obviously it was not intended to be an optimistic view of one person’s impending nuptials. But my thoughts about audience interpretation didn’t start to shift until I did a series of paintings about God. The painting on the right is entitled “God Pt 4: The Inevitable Moment When Love Becomes Lust.” The title pretty much explains the painting. The canvas itself represents the brain, with its gears and contraptions showing our thought processes. One the far left is a woman as the eye sees her, and on the far right the brain is breaking down her image into a series of increasingly abstract pixels.
I had hoped its didactic title would reveal my message. The painting is about Total Depravity. Even when viewing someone you genuinely care about, there is a moment when sin enters your thoughts and you objectify him or her. It may be fleeting or it may linger, but in that moment you are focused on your desires and gratification. But even with that explanation, I still had trouble conveying my thoughts. Eventually it would lead me to turn to fiction as a more effective medium to convey my ideas about God, and when that happened my thoughts about artistic expression and the audience changed dramatically.