Empathy, Virtual Reality, Hallucination and Dream

One reason to make paintings – as with films and literature – is to put the viewer, and even the painter (who can also be the protagonist) through the experiences and states of mind he or she in all likelihood would never otherwise experience, with the object of them finding a vicarious pleasure in feeling empathy in standing in the shoes of the suffering protagonist, even though in doing so we are still standing safely on the sidelines in our own shoes – indeed if we had (figuratively speaking) removed our own shoes first to make the other’s shoes fit good enough to walk in we could be in danger of becoming enmarshed on extreme and lonely ground from which we may not be able to extricate ourselves and return to find our own shoes, get back into them and walk away. With regard to films depicting extreme emotional excess like, for example,“A Clockwork Orange”, “Irreversible” and “Titus Andronicus” which lead to such stunning acts of beautiful and brutal violence the sensitive viewer might be wise to reinforce his head-to-toe emotional and psychological armour as well as tightly lacing up his own shoes before seeing them. And yet with paintings, more so than with most other forms of expression, we are often less sure of what is literally going on, what it is we are seeing, and to quote from the catalogue of my solo exhibition “Soul in Search of a Canvas” some of the images with their storms of brush strokes which assault the canvas from every direction, showing not just the forms themselves but my feelings about them whilst I am experiencing the intoxicating role of creator (which at times are even on the verge of obliterating the forms, although usually with more restraint than Artaud who “made use of the real only in order to crucify it”) seem to suggest that “it is more desirable to be touched violently than never to be touched at all”.

Even in the case of my life-size, full-length portrait in oil paint of Scarlett Johansson, which although visionary is probably nearer to illustration than most of my paintings; although she is recognisably who she is, if the viewer has the opportunity to view it in a gallery and not just as a virtual image here on Facebook or my website, and to experience what I intended is the very next best thing to actually being up close in the presence of the real Scarlet Johansson and to feel her atmosphere, and to as it were breath the same air as her even though she is trapped like a rare and breathtakingly beautiful butterfly under a sheet of museum glass, she seems to have an intensity about her not normally encountered in real life, which in a sense suggests that she is even more powerfully present in this work of art than you could expect her to be if you encountered her in real life. I’m aware that most people have many faces, not all of them entirely human, for we are still animals after all, and although my painting could only be of Scarlett and no one else but Scarlett, I wondered if she’s ever actually looked quite like this – have I captured her secret self and is that the same thing as her future self? For here in this portrait of her, Scarlett looks considerably older, lovelier and more mysterious than ever, confidently aware of her womanly power, smouldering with attitude, her penetrating eyes returning our gaze as if to say ‘Who d’ya think you are looking at?’ and yet her knees, her thighs outlined through the diaphanous material of her dress are confidently parted as though she is daring us to approach, her arm is pulled back over the back of her chair emphasising the firm shape of her breast as though she is both inviting and challenging. The effect is both unsettling and thrilling as though she knows what the viewer is thinking and is both affronted by it and aroused by it. During the nine weeks’ struggle I had painting this portrait having watched most of her films and studied her image in a number of fashion magazines, as the presence of Scarlett became stronger and stronger in my studio until she seemed to fill the air she breathed whilst gazing at me so intensely I felt this uncanny incarnation was about to speak, I became more and more nervous, until during the last few weeks of painting I couldn’t face her without having prepared myself with a large Scotch, until during the last few sessions when she was nearly here I started talking to her, conjuring up her presence as though she were my Pygmalion, coaxing her arrival by telling her how wonderful it was that she was with me, what a marvellous actress she was, how much I loved her films, and more besides which I daren’t print here! Eventually, drunk and exhausted after this final crazy thirty-six hour session I collapsed on the sofa and dreamt she too spoke, to me. When I awoke I could only remember one word that she said ‘Serendipity’. I stood and gazed at her for a long time in silence until the room grew dark. She gazed back at me through the fading light without blinking, as though she knew I was there, but she didn’t speak again.

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