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A portrait of the model as the artist's Muse
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Tess was seven when we met. I did not expect her, even in the everyday sense of the word. My appointment was with her mother, an art agent, whom I also had not met before. But as I came from the back of my house to answer the door, I saw her, this young girl, standing on my front porch, squeezed close to the screen door by her mother behind her, peering through my open entryway. She wore a light-red dress with miniature white polka dots, and shiny black shoes with white stockings. Her hair was waist-length and straight, golden and silver at the same time. But it was her eyes, even through the screen, that held me. My jaw did not drop, I did not stop and stare or trip over my own feet, but some part of me, I know, has never gotten past that moment. It is still standing in that little front room, waiting for the heavens to fall or the ground to open up beneath my feet. I know it is impertinent, almost archaic, to be so carried away these days, much less to admit to it. But this was my experience: it needs no embellishing in the telling, except, hopefully, by these photographs.
Her astounding physical beauty is obvious to anyone who notices such things, but that is only a part of her mystery. The graceful way she moves, placing her hands just so, unselfconsciously. Her quiet confidence, born of a high intelligence and a profound depth. Her expressive features which have not yet learned to lie, unmatchable by the artful visage of the finest actress.
For me, though, her charm is not simply that of childhood innocence or unspoiled potential. It is more than physical allure or the assurance of intelligence. It is more, even, than her fairylike grace and the enchantment of her voice. It is an ineffable quality that grounds all these things, that makes them possible. It is who she is.
At this point it would be easy to break into rhapsodic verse; to talk of "old souls" and otherworldly princesses; to hint at reincarnation, the unequal gifts of the gods, or the hierarchy of angels and near-angels. But I prefer to talk about what I know.
What I know is that Tess has been my greatest source of inspiration over the past five years, and that I am grateful for that inspiration. Together we have created over fifty drawings, paintings, and sculptures, and many times that number of photographs. I have kept these photographs to myself until now, believing them to be an artistic device--one best kept secret from my "audience." Frankly, I did not trust the viewers' ability to differentiate between the qualities of a photograph and the qualities of a painting. Photography has become a standard for painting to the detriment of both. The most common form of praise for a painting from life is that "it looks just like a photograph." This well-intentioned comment puts the problem into high focus. A painting whose goal is photographic realism is superfluous. On the other hand, most people would assume that if one chooses to paint objects, one would want to paint them as "realistically" as possible. This leaves the artist in the unenviable position of having to explain the value of subjective, personal qualities in art at the same time that he realizes that overanalysis will destroy that value.
What's worse, in this book the photographs will not be compared to the paintings but to photographs of the paintings. There are many people who will not see this as a meaningful difference, and it is for this very reason that most artists would never allow such a comparison.
If my goal were to sell as many paintings as possible or to be taken as seriously as possible by the current batch of art critics, I would suppress these photographs. But if such were my goals I would not be painting what I paint in the first place.
This book is meant to be a journal of my time with Tess, or her time with me. It is a record of her experience as the artist's model, and of my experience as the Muse's instrument. As such, I think it may be of interest to some. The photographs, taken in lieu of sketches, may not have the technical finish that some demand (although I must say, in my defense, that I did not want ultra-fine grain and a crisp clarity). Other purists will find fault that a classical painter uses photographs at all. Nonetheless I ask that the photographs and paintings be judged on their own merits, based on what they are, not on what they aren't. For there is something in them, I believe, that only those blinded by technical and formal considerations can miss. Something extraordinary has managed to sit still for me. And this is why I must share it: because art is not about technique, or selling, or definitions, or changing the world; it is about recognizing a gift when you've been given it. Tess is such a gift; I leave her with you.
(to the publisher)
The Preface I have included explains my intent in putting this book together. I know nothing about the world of publishing, but in the last decade I have bought and enjoyed the Aperture publications of Jock Sturges and Sally Mann, among others. It therefore occured to me that their audiences were ones I could see being my own, and that Aperture might have a ready market for such a work as this monograph on Tess (Treszka).
I am a well-known, though by no means famous, painter who has existed so far on the margins of Realism, not always comfortably. My work with Tess, the subject of this proposed book, has been some of my most popular, since its subject matter concerns a child. I will admit that it is probably the most accessible, emotionally. She is an extraordinary model. Her intensity reminds me at times of that famous photograph of Boubat [Lela, Bretagne]--with a sadness and nostalgia in her eyes that is shocking for one so young. For anyone. She is also similar at times to some of Sturges' work. She reminds me a bit of his photograph of C.-- my favorite work of his.
I have tried, in my printing, to make the black and white images of Tess look antiqued, for lack of a better word. Not grainy, not distressed, not blurry, but other-worldly. From a different age. That is the feel I get from her, and it is the feel I have tried to draw out in the photos, in the printing as well as the taking. I have experimented with toners a lot. You cannot see this well in the included images, I think, but the best of the B&W's look distinctly 19th century. Every trace of modernity has somehow been obliterated by her gaze and her pose. Enlarge the file Tesspic4, for instance. This is the central image of the book, I feel. It would make a good choice for the cover.
I see this book having several potential audiences. That of Sturges is one. But this book also overlaps two fields of interest--painting and photography--and will draw readers from both fields. Not only that, but many will find the process of photograph to painting interesting. Few if any books have published paintings and photographs by the same artist on facing pages, taken from the same shoots. From an artistic point of view, it has always been considered risky. But this element of risk will make it provocative, I think. At any rate, it is a risk I am willing to take, since I feel that both the paintings and the photographs stand on their own. They therefore cannot do much harm, one to the other.
It may also be interesting to the reader to see how an artist can build a large body of work around a single model. An obsession, as it were. I have now worked with Tess for over ten years, and have drawn or painted her head almost 60 times. I still go back to the early sessions, and paint from an image I have not looked at in years, amazed at the gravity of that little 8 year old. For several years, she could not produce a poor photograph. All I had to do is let her be, and circle her. She knew what to do with her hands; she knew where the folds of her dress belonged; she knew everything.