Sunday, May 21, 2006

Faces Of Missing Children

I paint them from the "Have You Seen Me?" fliers, distributed to over eighty million homes in America. What do you do with the fliers when they come to your mailbox? Since 1992 I have painted the portraits of hundreds of missing children from the mailers. To learn more about how I began this project and the different ways the paintings have been displayed to reach the public, visit my website,

Here are some images of the Installation at Infusion Gallery in Los Angeles, which runs through the end of June, 2006. The paintings are suspended from high above the gallery floor, some nearly reaching the ground, with others at varying heights, raising above the heads of viewers. They gently turn as viewers walk past, putting the interactive display in motion.

My junk mail came to life one morning, when I learned that a child I knew had disappeared.

It was only then, that I finally noticed the “Have You Seen Me?” cards, with their blurry little printed monochrome faces. Each week, the cards are sent to millions of homes across the country. What do other people do with them? Instead of throwing the cards out, I kept mine in a drawer in my studio. When the drawer became full, I spread the cards out on the floor and was overcome by the realization of how poorly they seemed to reflect the lives of these children. Holding a card in one hand, and my paintbrush in the other, I took clues from the bland descriptions of eye color, hair color and age. Squinting at the tiny washed out photo on the card, I painted a portrait. Then, another. Art and Courage flowed from my brush. For fourteen years, week after week, I have painted these faces.

I wonder: “What is the right way to paint a missing child? Who is this portrait for? Does the interval of space between tear-duct and nostril matter? Is it necessary to separate emotional content from pigment?”
If approached as an exercise in color and form, I can detach, and these paintings unfold like calm meditative journeys. Other times, I let down my guard, and allow my mind to explore the imagined story of a child and a family I do not know. This is a searing experience, like holding one’s finger over a flame. In the process, a disposable mass-printed source material transforms into something unique and intimate: a presumed depiction of a multi-dimensional being.

In truth, my own questions regarding the appropriateness of this task remain unresolved. At what time should this body of work end? Every week, another new “Have You Seen Me?” card arrives in my mail. At which face would I discontinue?

Thursday, May 18, 2006

The Tate Award and my Rusty Muffler.

The Tate Gallery in Britain must have disappointed the fans of cutting edge art when it announced the nominees for the esteemed Tate award for 2006. ``We are moving away from sensationalism and toward a more serious realm,'' said Stephen Deuchar, the Director of the Tate. Seriousness? Is the sensationalist party over? Does this mean that they weren't "serious" until now?

As an American Artist, I have watched each year, as the Tate's huge monetary prize has been lavishly awarded to the corniest of conceptual entertainers. It's always a hoot. I dig whenever artists get awarded stuff, but am always disappointed when the "controversial" winning work ends up seeming like an art school project put together two nights before the final critique. ( I did attend art school and even I mockingly turned in a bent-up rusty car muffler as a supposed "sculpture" for a particularly lame 3-D design class, so I am familiar with the sloppy options available for fine artists to embrace as they bullshit their way past whatever generation holds tight to the rudder of culture du-jour).


Art-as-circus-stunts ought to be born from acts of sarcastic defiance, but when everyone on the shortlist is popping out of a clown-car, who exactly is risking anything? If all the young artists back in my dopey 3-D design class were busy turning in bent-up rusty mufflers, I would have never done so myself. I always go for that "road less traveled" idea, and am a bit weirded-out when a big progressive institution like the Tate seems to always tramp firmly on the corny road most easily trodden. But now, why the sudden news that the Tate wants "serious" art to showcase?

The "seriousness" of art is a matter of taste and cultural reference, I suppose, but is the Tate actually taking a risk in not promoting a goofy oblique installation this year? Does the Tate suddenly feel that "serious" art will be all the rage?
Will "serious" art now be marketed as the culture du jour? Must the weathervane of change spin around and expel gas equally as disconnected to our daily lives? "Serious" art? Why now?

Oh, I see: Because of the London tube bombings? Because of the alarming Blair-Bush marriage? Because of the pending ethnic war brewing in Europe? Because of complaints that the Tate was not really representing the totality of British art culture, but only the zany aspect? We must beware of labels like "serious" art, "political" art, "abstract" art, "figurative" art and "cutting edge" art when they are adopted by big prize-givers with agendas.

I'd like to see other labels. How about: "Art that reflects the spectrum of passions among the British scene". Or maybe the terminology doesn't need to be spelled out so damned politely. Maybe the prize could just be approached with that term in mind in the first place.

Oh, my rusty muffler? I kept my poker face when I submitted it, so I got an "A".

Monday, May 15, 2006

Painting A Portrait

Welcome to "Art And Courage". I'm John Paul Thornton.

I have alot of paintings going on for upcoming shows, but I've also got some commissions that I will be documenting on this blog. Right now I am just finishing the final touches on a formal portrait of a lovely young lady whose parents commissioned me to paint her before she heads off to Italy for school. The decidedly classical portrait smacks of my love for Venetian art. I wanted to share some pictures of the work in progress.

Here we are, working from life in the sitter's home.

A peek into my studio. I always have a number of paintings going at once.

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Sweet Audacity

A young French painter named Jean Germain Drouais returned home from studying in Rome in 1780. He was asked by the Art Academy to present a humble copy of an old masterwork as proof that he had spent his stay in Italy wisely. At the time, all good students were required to dutifully copy a painting and deliver it to their professors as a final step towards earning their certificate of graduation. Drouais chose not to submit a humble copy to the Academy. Instead, he announced that he had created a billboard-sized original painting of his own making and It was this that he wished to submit.

The esteemed members of the French Academy were flabbergasted by the painter's arrogance. They refused to acknowledge such a brazen offer by a student. In short, they would not let him graduate. Drouais responded by telling them to go to hell. He announced to the Paris-elite that his huge painting would be on display in the parlor of his family home and that they were welcome to view it for themselves. This well-publicized act of defiance drew all the intellectuals of Paris to view the scandalous artwork. Even Thomas Jefferson, visiting from America, joined the intrigued crowds who stood in line to experience one of the first artist-launched independent exhibitions. Oh, the uptight Academy ultimately let Drouais graduate. Today his huge painting, Marius at Minturnae hangs proudly in the Louvre Museum.

Nothing says "revenge" better than getting your work in the world's biggest museum...

60 years later, Paris was still the art capital of the world. A great many talented artists were working in the traditional neo-classical style which advocated smoothness, order and idealization. However, a painter named Gustave Courbet did not work like everybody else. He had an especially unique vision of the world: He tried to paint things as they actually appeared in life. The curators of the formal annual salon did not look favorably upon his pictures. Courbet’s art seemed too raw and uncomfortably real among all the other artists depictions of polished Venuses and smoothly lyrical landscapes. His nudes in particular were presented in a shockingly "in your face" style.

Courbet's "The Origin of the World"

The curators rarely allowed Courbet to exhibit.
Instead of letting the rejection of his work defeat him, he did something remarkable. The painter fused art and courage. He rented a huge building located in the middle of Paris, where he displayed his gigantic paintings. He called his alternative exhibition "Gustave Courbet's Pavilion of Realism." It opened the same week as the official art salon and met with rave reviews. Thousands of people came to see his work, and helped Gustav Courbet to became a notorious celebrity. His two greatest paintings, Burial at Ornans and Portrait of the artist at work in his studio now occupy the central hall of the elegant Musee D’ Orsay in Paris.

A decade later, a group of young artists found that they too were experiencing barriers when it came to exhibiting their paintings within the confines of the official art world. They decided to put on their own show at an alternative venue. They asked their friend, Nadar, who owned a camera studio, if they could use his place and hang some of their paintings on the walls. The camera studio seemed an odd place for an exhibition of paintings, but it had the distinction of being just around the corner from the very up-scale Paris Opera House. Even better, it was also directly across the street from the most elegant café in the whole city, Le Café de la Paix. Location,location,location...

The bustling Cafe De La Paix

The group of artists sent out press releases and placed ads in newspapers. When their show opened, people lined up to view their strange new style of painting. Some of the viewing public responded negatively and the artists even considered hiring guards to watch the exhibit and to keep their art safe from physical attack.
A dismissing critic down-played the group by calling them merely "Impressionists", but these artists gained much acclaim from their courageous independent exhibition. They decided to hold one annually for the next eight years, which cemented their reputations, making them all world famous. Monet, Renoir, Dégas, Mary Cassatt, Pissarro, Berthe Morrisot, Gaugin and all the other independent painters might have possibly worked in obscurity if they had not dared to make the first move themselves.

Let's advance forward to the dark years of World War I. In Zürich, Switzerland, a group of playful artists and writers gathered at the Cabaret Voltaire. They produced kooky, startling events and stage shows that challenged the accepted standards of the day. No gallery or respectable venue would have anything to do with them, but their self appointed spokesperson, Tristan Tzara, was an articulate writer. He published a newsletter with reviews and articles about his friends’ new made up art movement, which they called..."Da-Da." They explained that Da-Da was one of the sounds that an infant would make. They believed that Art had to be reborn in an infantile form to cleanse itself in the face of mankind's infernal madness.

Hugo ball wearing chic "Da-Da" duds for a performance.

The international press picked up on these articles and their activities became famous. We must keep in mind that the Cabaret Voltaire was not a large performance hall. In fact, it was a glorified coffeehouse, approximately the size of a modern Starbucks. The "Da-Da" movement grew to become the "Surrealist" movement, which counted among its members Pablo Picasso and Salvador Dali. Both art movements defined the 20th century and were launched by artists who were courageous enough to take control of their own careers.

At the dawn of the twenty-first century, photographer Gregory Colbert and architect Shigeru Ban have built upon the model of independence by creating Ashes and Snow. Colbert’s photographic works and motion pictures explore the spiritual relationship between human beings and animals. Architect Shigeru Ban created a 56,000 square foot cathedral-like temporary structure called the “Nomadic Museum” to house the exhibit, and thus bypass the over-booked and squeamish gallery world. Rather than taking the sardonic or oblique stance that many multi-media installations seem to have resorted to, Ashes And Snow aims at communicating warmth in an unashamedly direct way.

"Ashes and Snow"creates a total environment for viewers.

Hundreds of thousands of visitors in Venice,Italy, Manhattan,New York and Santa Monica,California have viewed the exhibit (and gladly paid an entry fee to experience a dynamic, undiluted vision). As the Nomadic Museum illustrates, people are willing to immerse themselves in art and pay for the privilege when it is presented as an alternative to the norm. Many people I have spoken with here in Los Angeles have even told me that they rarely find time to attend traditional galleries, but visited “Ashes And Snow” repeatedly, always amazed at the vast crowds and sense of community that it fostered.

All of these examples highlight a power that artists seem to rarely exercise.
They point to some of the relatively few artists who have stepped out of the framework of traditional expectations in order to reach people. These artists risked ridicule, professional embarrassment or financial loss to boldly make their personal statements. They had the audacity to by-pass the existing arena, and they had the audacity to succeed.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Sleeping In A Swarm Of Bees.

It was a time of revolution… Crowds had erected barricades at major intersections throughout the city. The crackle of gunfire, and the acrid smell of smoke filled the air. The date was 1848 and the city was Paris, France. The country was erupting into frenzy but the neo-classical painter Jean-Auguste Dominique Ingres continued to paint at his easel, carefully blending his brushstrokes on his painting entitled: Venus Anadyomène. The canvas depicted a sensual nude Venus standing doe-eyed in the midst of a swarm of cute baby Cupids…

The absurdity of this scenario is delicious.

I get a creeping wave of nausea in my stomach thinking about this masterful painter obsessively and steadily working on an erotic scene from ancient Greek mythology, while the blood of his real-life neighbors ran in streams outside his studio window. His disconnection from reality has always seemed inconceivable to me, and Ingres has always served as a warning in my mind about how not to behave in times of emergency. Now, in my own young adulthood, the twenty-first century emergency buzzer is loudly sounding around the world, asking me the pressing question: What is on my easel?

As artists, we all share something in common: We have the ability, (or the need) to be alone. From the time we were little children, the ability to quietly go into a trance as we colored with crayons or doodled on our notebooks set us apart from the other kids who simply could not sit still long enough to create. I suspect that people who become artists, no matter how social their lifestyles, would still agree that withdrawing in some way remains a component of their creative process. We hunker down as solitary figures in order to conceive of, fabricate or complete an artwork. At times, the outside real world simply seems irrelevant to the art that we create. (For instance, I must confess here and now for all the world to read that the week Princess Diana was killed, I was intent upon painting a miniature nude figure on an 8x10 inch canvas. I listened to a radio account of Diana’s historic funeral procession as it passed through the grieving population of England, while I leisurely rendered a tiny set of round breasts in oils.)

In the dark days following the September 11th terrorist attacks in 2001, I was at first so numbed by the video images and news stories that I could not lift my brush. Yet once I could function again as an artist, I found myself painting a four foot by seven foot canvas of a joyous Nepali wedding ceremony ! I had just returned from an amazing trip to the Himalayas a few months before the attacks and I would be damned if a crackpot jihad-stunt would make me forgo the positive depiction of the experiences I had with another culture! My wedding painting was filled with colorful dancing figures and exotic foreign sensuality while the television was filled with images of carnage, the charred remains of ground zero, and seas of mourners waving American flags.

As I painted the coy expression upon the face of the swooning Hindu bride, I suddenly became aware that Jean-Auguste Dominique Ingres and I were no longer separated by time and space. He seemed to be beside me, cheering me on, helping me to stay focused upon my wedding scene just as he, one hundred and fifty years earlier, had fiddled with his Venus.

Art and Courage go hand in hand when we are at our highest level of performance. Maybe my wedding painting was like a visual prayer, or a talisman against evil and chaos. Maybe it was functioning like garlic, designed to keep the vampire of fear away. Whatever, the effect was real and meaningful to me. It was positive and comforting and pleasurable. It was proof that the craziness of the world would not eclipse my own faith in life. So would my experience as an artist be like that of a man standing in a swarm of bees, refusing to flinch at the stings? How long could I ignore the reality and unique dynamics of the changing world?

In fairness to me I had to remember that, as artists, our job is not to react in a knee-jerk fashion. Our response may be quick or slow, but it is best when it is honest. Sometimes we require time to formulate our next move and sometimes it takes a while to really hear the buzzing of the bees.

Our time erupts with passion and possibility. The distinct smell of smoke is drifting through our windows. We are being called to consider what is sitting on our easels.