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February 10, 2003


Their rubber axe fells the plain

Felix Macnee, with "Portrait of Felix Macnee," by Matt Gonzalez. Photo by Larry Roberts, March 5, 2003.

The third in an ongoing series of interviews between Matt Gonzalez and Felix Macnee. The newly elected president of the Board of Supervisors and the painter sat down post–Super Bowl Sunday to have a talk, January 26, 2003.

New work by Macnee, “The Red Series,” will be shown in Gonzalez’s office throughout February.


Felix Macnee, Savignyplatz
Felix Macnee, Red Painting

Matt Gonzalez: First off, I’d like to make you my vice president, if you’re available of course.

Felix Macnee: Would I have to go to many funerals? I don’t have any dark suits.

MG: Well yes, there would be a few, and the occasional ribbon-cutting ceremony.

FM: I once ran with scissors, and I never got over it. Couldn’t you name me the city’s artist laureate, instead?

MG: You’d probably have to wait your turn. After Wayne Thiebaud, Tom Schultz, and Jose Lerma.

FM: Who’re those guys?

MG: Well, Thiebaud likes to paint cakes, Shultz is a pretty good house painter in the East Bay, and Jose Lerma, well, he’s still trying to forget the Korean War. You’d fit right in.

FM: Does the vice president have discretionary gambling funds, or does he have to use his own money?

MG: I think you may be confusing the office of vice president with that of mayor. Seriously though, I don’t have time to argue or persuade you on this point. I am offering a very important post and you should not squander this opportunity.

FM: I appreciate your offer, but I’m afraid I’m no good at filibustering and gerrymandering.

MG: Okay, but what I’d really like to ask you: What role do you think the artist plays during wartime?

FM: Artists have no significant voice, so anything they say in response to war is meaningless. No work of art is as devastating as a gun to the head. Though works of art can address atrocities, art making is essentially personal, and in a way selfish. Guernica for example is a great work of art, but it came after the fact. It really did nothing for the victims of that bombing. Now, artists are reduced to making shrill political gestures with elephant dung and dissected cows. The only proper response to war is disgust and horror.

MG: I think that it goes without saying that a gun to the head will always be more immediate than a painting by a Spaniard in exile. Wanting a painting to “do something” for the victims is to create an impossible measure for relevance. Couldn’t it be said that an artist has contributed to anti-war efforts if the art itself causes rebellion or repugnance to the war machine?

FM: Yes, and I suppose you could also regard the artist as a type of historian, one who records sentiments rather than facts. Artists have always responded to cultural and technological developments, and war always pivots on the conflicts between these two. But really, I would ask, what role does anyone play during wartime?

MG: Fair enough. So let me ask you, will you be at the anti-war rally on the 16th?

FM: Probably not. Although I abhor the drive to war, I am repelled by the dynamics of crowds, whatever their cause. I find that people behave stupidly in packs. Also, I think the relevant protests are often silent. I’m referring to the effects of our everyday decisions, what we tacitly agree to, what we are unwittingly complicit in, how we use our money. Every time you buy something, you are voting for whatever makes it possible.

MG: Do you think butoh dance is relevant?

FM: The Japanese witnessed people slowly staggering through the streets of Hiroshima, eyes melted from their heads and the clothes burned from their bodies. They turned this vision into a beautiful dance. Nothing speaks of the strange triumph of the human spirit more strongly.

MG: Even its most modern incarnation?

FM: I would say that modern butoh has become clichéd, often stylized and boring. Maybe it has had its day. But then some have said that painting is dead.

MG: The only certainty with butoh is that it is very slow.

FM: A lot like watching paint dry.

MG: You said before that artists have no significant voice, so shouldn’t butoh be the perfect art form?

FM: That earlier remark was dramatic, and not to be taken so seriously. Butoh, or any other art form for that matter, has its particular form and a corresponding range of expression. We like to think of art forms as unlimited, but really they have unlimited expressive range within certain boundaries.

MG: Tell me why are all your new paintings filled with red?

FM: The excess of red appeared as a response in some way to how insane I feel the world has become. Of course, I say that now, when I can look back at the process of painting. At first I just felt like painting red. There’s a lot of power in red. But I think it in some ways relates to an anxiety I’ve been feeling. I recently dreamt of an arc in the sky made of blood and carrion. Maybe there’s something wrong with me.

MG: Well, I’ve been saying that for years. But really, I think that red is commonly associated with passion and blood and the like. But the red in the paintings you are doing now seems to me to be about landscape more than a particular emotion. Well, perhaps not landscape per se, but about a terrain — as if otherworldly. Would you comment on that?

FM: I think the red suggests an arena or context within which certain creatures come to life. Which reminds me that in the euphemism of war, battlefields are referred to as theaters of operation.

MG: I like the idea of a theater, more than terrain or arena, insofar as it suggests characters in a play with a message to impart. Tell me what the figures in this one over here are saying?

FM: You mean in The Virgin of the Octopus? The female figure is in congress with the octopus, which is a conduit between worlds. As iconography, I suppose you could say it is blasphemous.

MG: Do you mean blasphemous because of the appropriation of Christianity’s Virgin?

FM: I just like the way the word blasphemous sounds. Its meaning eludes me, and it probably eludes the painting, too.

MG: How about this other one. I’d like to take it home with me. Looks like maybe she’s fallen off her bicycle?

FM: It’s embarrassing to discuss paintings that contain so much blatant sensuality. I’d rather not discuss that one, if you don’t mind.

MG: Come on Felix, cut it out. The sensuality, if any, is suggested here rather than imposed. You could hardly have difficulty discussing it.

FM: The painting is actually a female pieta. In my mind, at least, it falls into that category because of the suggestion of a confluence between death and beauty. Pietas have always been sexual. I find it interesting that the Christ figure should be treated with such eroticism. Not surprising, but interesting. It’s the same with crucifixions. But I’m not so interested in that set of images — that is, religious images. You can’t approach it now without postmodern irony, which in the end is pretty empty. I prefer to make my own pietas, which in a way are homages to Gorky’s portrait of his imaginary wife.

MG: So now you are painting your wives?

FM: Every painting is a mistress.

MG: Have you seen any recent shows that were particularly noteworthy?

FM: I thought the Gerhard Richter show was pretty impressive. I was struck by his ability to paint what he wanted to paint, seemingly without worrying about the critical response, without regard for making what some would call a beautiful or an ugly painting. He just painted, and painted. Of course he put a lot of thought into the work, but he also simply made a lot of work.

MG: I was struck by how he painted from ordinary photos taken from brochures and magazines, as if real life couldn’t provide sufficient inspiration. Naive painters do this often, but Richter is such an accomplished painter, I was just surprised to see this. Also, the finished work was often out of focus.

FM: I think he may have simply enjoyed the effect it had of disturbing the viewer’s expectation of what a painting should be — that is, readable, clear. He almost erased the act of painting by blurring them. It’s a type of heroic or even bombastic gesture, to erase your work. It almost says that the work is too powerful to be seen in focus.

MG: But don’t you think that certain things can be made to look better through the act of blurring? Doesn’t it allow the mind to fill in the gaps?

FM: Well, I doubt that he’d paint something truly amazing, and then blur it. I know that blurring can make a fair painting look better, on some level. It unifies the surface and glosses over weak areas. But I still think it takes some bravery to destroy something precious, and I believe he’s doing that at least some of the time.

MG: So are you saying that before he blurs he has to actually paint it out right?

FM: That’s the idea.

MG: So then how does the blurring occur?

FM: The painting is still wet, out of the womb, so to speak, and he blurs what he has with a large, clean brush, or aborts the whole thing with a palette knife. It’s interesting that he did this to the paintings of his wife and baby. But most often the process is less violent, and more united with the generative painting process. That is, it is united with the image. But there are instances, such as with the mother and child paintings, and the painting of the table, where it seems more destructive. But it isn’t surprising, in a way, since he seemed to have no fear of moving away from what he had done to pursue another avenue. He was radically frontal in this way.

MG: Would you say that of the painting of his wife, Ema, descending a staircase?

FM: Well, it’s more readable than Duchamp’s nude descending a staircase. Yet it still raises the question of whether nudes should be painted out of focus.

MG: I doubt we will be able to resolve that question tonight.

FM: Or tomorrow for that matter.