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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
FM: Or tomorrow for that matter.