Why Portraits?


This writing was for a presentation given at Brooklyn College.

Many people ask me why I make portraits – why I have an interest in the human condition and various sociological issues. These are fair questions of course – even though the answers are not things I especially enjoy talking about. But whether pleasant or not – it has become apparent that in order to talk about my art I must answer the ‘why’ in order to set a context for the ‘what’. The answer to the ‘why’ can be found in my upbringing as a bi-racial American. And for the sake of this presentation I will do my best to clearly explain this by referencing some of the ideas of Stuart Hall.

In my view the bi-racial experience leans heavily toward Hall’s second notion of ‘identity’ – something that is a complex construct of context and positioning. Because of the fact that ‘bi-racial’ could mean anything from half Black / half Japanese, half Chinese / half White, or half Mexican / half Irish – there is no real way to have a ‘fixed identity’ or a baseline to start from. Hall talks about a ‘collective; one true self’ or (for example) the underlying ‘Caribbeanness’ of the Caribbean people – these notions of ‘oneness’ cannot be applied to bi-racial Americans.

This notion of ‘oneness’ cannot be applied because two of the main factors that help determine a bi-racial person’s identity are basically variables. How someone looks - and the social circumstances of their upbringing are two things that obviously vary from individual to individual. For instance - if an individual is half black / half white but looks ‘black’ – they will be treated as such as they move through life. And if that person grew up in a majority black neighborhood, they will have a different experience than say if their neighborhood was majority white. The stories of Barack Obama, Derek Jeter, Tiger Woods, and Alicia Keys have similarities – (but as Hall describes it) it’s the ‘deep and significant’ differences within their bi-racial experiences, which made them who they really are – or what they have become.

This brings me to my own story – which again, should set the context for the ideas explored in my art. My father’s family is Irish Catholic from New England, while my mother’s family is from the Bronx and Harlem. So on one side it was basically John Kennedy and Ted Williams, while on the other side it was James Brown and Sugar Ray Robinson. There were great differences, but great similarities as well – both families had the kind of ‘old’ American social capital that I carry with me to this very day. Or as Hall might put it - their ‘fixed identities’ as Americans who came of age during the 40’s and 50’s were very apparent to me from an early age.

I grew up in Montclair, NJ, which at the time was pretty evenly split demographically - 50 percent black / 50 percent white. This combined with the fact that my appearance at first glance raised more questions about my identity than answers - would define my experience during adolescence. My freshman year in high school was 1994; which was a very ‘racially charged’ era to say the least. The events of the time included: the Rodney King beating / trial, the L.A. riots, the rise of hip hop after the conservative 80’s, and of course the O.J. Simpson trial. While all this was going on I was almost in the role of the ‘other’ as Hall describes it. Not in the exact way he describes it; but almost as an ‘observer’ – for I was kind of left in the middle of the ring while each side had gradually moved to their respective corners as a result of almost inevitable self segregation. I was not invested in either side of the tensions or issues that arose. I was not invested because after being discriminated against by both black and white people; I began to realize my place. I was the outsider, somebody who took people as they came, and someone who learned very quickly that it was wise to speak less – and observe more.

But it wasn’t all bad - for my position allowed me to appreciate the common bonds that all human beings share. It allowed me insights into social capital and human networks – though I didn’t realize it at the time. It allowed me to see how human beings interact with one another – and how their own ‘complex identities’ interact with their own ‘fixed identities’. And it allowed me to have friends of every race and every background.

The bottom line is that my interest in ‘people’ was born out of my bi-racial experience. That experience was the spark for the work – but it is not dealt with within the work itself. My interest in human beings led me to issues of history and politics - for these of course play a great role in establishing the human condition. Thus arose notions of justice, equality, and the ‘idea’ of America. In President Obama’s speech on race he spoke about how the ‘idea’ of America is a part of his ‘fixed identity’ as a bi-racial American. In that speech he stated, ‘In no other country is my story even possible – out many we are truly one’ - I have always felt this way in some degree or another.

Recently, I have come to realize that I need to ‘describe the waters instead of trying to part them’ – which basically means I need to revisit my original ‘role’ as the observer. However, we’ll leave that notion for the next presentation.