The tiger tooth and the coral

People often ask me about the tiger tooth and coral I wear around my neck. The fang reminds me that life is a battle, and that we are brave warriors just to live each day. The coral is often seen in Renaissance paintings, held by the baby Christ–it’s said to represent the blood he will have to shed for humanity. I’m certainly no altruist, but when I’m hurting, the coral reminds me that my pain will give me strength to be kind and empathetic to others who suffer, and that my work may offer a tiny bit of sympathy or encouragement to people. And the mermaid…I guess it’s there for the same reason pirates carved figureheads…

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The Ronin and the Geisha

I wanted this piece to be kind of a cross between traditional Japanese art and a great poster for a piece-of-crap samurai/yakuza movie from the ’60s, complete with ridiculously Romantic captions. My poem in the top right reads:

 

Twilight to dusk, we fall like two beasts, leaving a trail of blood.

The only thing I believe in is your sweetness. And this one blade.

My insatiable lips gulp your sweetness like a grape sake.

There may not be daybreak for us, but right now, right here,

We shelter each other in love and feel each other’s pulse in our nakedness.

 

I wanted this piece to be preposterously over the top…But there is something undeniably sincere and meaningful about the allegory of lovers holding onto each other, trying to shelter each other from a hostile world and their inevitable fates. Speaking of allegories, the characters on the katana (samurai sward) reads, “To Live Is To Fight.”

 

A ronin was a masterless samurai. And geishas, contrary to popular belief, do not necessarily sleep with their clients. They are highly educated in the arts, and are trained to be intellectual and emotional companions for their clients. Sexual services may or may not be exchanged, at her discretion. There is still a small population of practicing geishas in Japan.

 

The cast toward the bottom are some of my favorite actors and actresses (some of them have been dead for many years). Some of them are porn stars. The pink, bow-tie shaped insert toward the bottom is one of those color film sales pitches (ie. Technicolor, Metrocolor, Eastman Color), with which film studio’s tried to lure lagging audiences in the ’60s, each competing with their own “unique” brand of color technology, which was essencially the same thing as the others. I took this charming one which was used by an obscure Japanese adult film studio simply called Movie, and it says, “Sexy Color.”

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Mother Sky

While the irony of commercialism is inescapable, and you’re free to take it any way you want, that is not my personal focus. I’m more in the Warhol tradition than Rauschenberg’s. That is, I genuinely love commercialism. I love the beauty, fun, and sex of commercialism and pop culture. And when I look back at the last couple hundred years, it’s hard not for me to have faith in what capitalism and progress have done and will likely do for the well-being, happiness, and dignity of humanity. Perhaps I’m being naïve, but there are plenty of people I greatly admire who are painting darker pictures, so I figure it’s my calling to be naïve. So, while it’s impossible to see images like the Mobil Oil sign or a blimp for some mutual funds company and not see sarcasm, I’m actually using those symbols quite straightforwardly. I do believe that, while we’ve got lots of things we need to improve as we bravely ride on into the future, we will soar like the pegasus that caused magic waters to spring forth wherever he tapped his hoof, and we will find ways to mutually benefit each other instead of killing each other. And if I’m wrong, well, hell, i still say we ride on into the sunset and mushroom cloud, with faith and a can-do attitude, holding on tight to each other. 

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Hôtel la Vie

I’m constantly haunted by reminders that our time here on Earth is but momentary, like staying in some hotel. The hearse there to pick up the folks checking out–that was meant to be funny, but I hope it comes across as sympathetic humor. I drift through everyday, bewildered by the turmoil of beauty, heartache, joy, fear, love, thrill…all balled up in this incomprehensible experience called life. The happy lovers are central in this painting, but it was inevitable that I put in the older couple and the two solitary figures at each end of the horizon; it’s inescapably the work of an artist who knows what it’s like to be alone and miserable, and that even the most beautiful moments are slipping away as we speak. Birds seem to have a special significance in my paintings. I don’t believe in anything supernatural, but I enjoy the poetry in the idea that birds are some sort of messengers between a higher world and ours, and that if we are kind, loving souls, we can communicate with them. Papillia’s always talking to birds, and she tells me what they’re saying: that the world is in fact going to be a much better place, but that we have to do our part by being nice to people and creatures around us; that I’m going to be a really successful artist and touch the hearts of many people; and all kinds of crap like that. I can’t argue, because I wouldn’t know what the hell the birds are saying.

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Shôsan (Bloom, Fade)

I’d been doing studies for a Japanese summer festival scene–something of personal nostalgia. That’s when I was told my mother had been diagnosed with Cushing’s disease, caused by a very rare type of pituitary tumor, which, left untreated, is fatal. I was frantic. I’m extremely close to my mother; we’ve been through a lot together, and she’s the only person I’ve always been able to cry to. The massive tumor was all tangled in vital blood vessels in her brain. After the first surgery failed, Dr. Hojo at the Kyoto University Hospital told us he felt it was too dangerous to make a second attempt. I can’t describe how dark a place I was in.

The Japanese have always loved things that seem all the more beautiful because of their short lives. I suppose all such things mirror our own transience, and inspire sympathy in us. Fireworks, cherry blossoms, butterflies, running water, dragonflies, morning glories, and the summer night itself–all favorite themes in Japanese art. I always take pleasure in designing all clothes in my art. My yukata (summer evening kimono) has a typically Japanese, bold theme of a moonrise over stormy waves. It is a favorite Buddhist symbol that suggests, though our lives and hearts are full of turmoil, there is something sublime that, like the moon, remains unshaken by gusts. I have no idea what that sublime something might be, but it’s an enticing idea. I’ve also included cranes and a dragon, symbols of eternal life…I don’t know why–perhaps my heart wants to believe in something my head won’t. Besides, a thing doesn’t have to be factually true to be beautiful or in someway meaningful. I mean, much as I’m an atheist, of course I’m going to keep talking to my mom after she dies. The text on my yukata, mixed with the symbol of the skull, reads, “Is there nothing we can do but wait here for death?” I’ve included the “three stages of man” theme, popular in Western art–each stage is a self-portrait. The store-signs double as inscription inserts typical in Japanese art: the red sign in top left reads, in the traditional manner, “Shôsan, by the brush of Taiyo la Paix (Great Ocean of Peace);” and the bottom right sign is an archaic form of the character for “dreams.”

My mother, with her typical gallows humor, told Dr. Hojo, “Don’t worry, I won’t sue you if I die!” He took a chance and did a second surgery, a third one, radiation, and now continues to treat my mother with pharmaceutics. He tells me there is no longer a threat to my mother’s life. He saved her. And incredibly, while I have been a wreck worrying about losing my mother, she has overflowed with acceptance, positivity, humor, grace, and love. Of course, my mother will die someday, as will all the butterflies and cherry blossoms. Kingyo-sukui,  a beloved game at festivals, allows you to take home the goldfish you win. But they’re in such poor condition, they tend to live for but days. But right now, right here, they are alive, and they are together.

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Kiss

I did my first studies for Kiss in a backwoods cafe in North Carolina, during a lonely and miserable time in my life. A very young woman brought me coffee and coconut cream pie, and asked if I was studying art in school. She said she used to be in school, but that she had to quit when she got pregnant. I told her that I thought it is wonderful that she has a daughter. She seemed to genuinely appreciate that, and told me that my feelings are not shared by the conservative townsmen. I told her that it’s wonderful, and that she shouldn’t let anyone tell her otherwise. Of course, I can’t do a thing for someone like her, but I choose to believe that, nothing we do for love is ever a mistake. In the following weeks, I thought of her often as I painted my ode to love. Perhaps as a reaction to such incidents, when I started painting Kiss, it was really just about the lovers, undeterred by the rain or any of the world’s concerns. I was polarizing the lovers against the rest of the world, and I realize I was being a bit callow. In order to highlight the values that the lovers stood for, I was inadvertently devaluing everyone else in the picture. But as I worked on the painting, I started to see things more roundly. I came to realize that the businessman was not just a faceless suit, but a real person with real feelings. As I tried to render things with care and affection, I started to feel a deeper sympathy for everyone and everything, and as a result, I think it’s a much warmer piece than it started out as. I wanted this piece to have an intensely romantic core framed by a world that was sad and sweet at the same time. At first, I had the lovers framed by a pink umbrella—it worked as an idea, but it looked too distracting. When I painted the umbrella blue, everything was unified. I’ve always found the “Merge” traffic sign to be very sensuous. Above the neon “dolci” sign of the pastry shop, I wanted something quietly heartbreaking. I came up with “Tears of the Mermaid.” I like the idea that no one would ever see her tears.

 

I guess the image of lovers kissing in the rain is a real Hollywood cliché…I think we feel great pressure to avoid clichés and ridiculously romantic subjects, because we fear that our peers will regard us as weak or naïve if we admit to harboring such fancies. We either avoid clichés altogether, or we diffuse them with a self-conscious irony. But I go all out and shamelessly reveal my fantasies, regardless of how silly they may be. People have commented on my openness and courage. But it isn’t courage—it’s just that, to me, my fantasies are of greater importance than the need to hide them. I have a need to depict my fantasies, to give life to them, and in so doing, if my stupidity or weakness or whatever vulnerability is revealed, I suppose it’s a bit embarrassing, but I can live with that. And I have learned that people really respond to my honesty. I guess it is pretty ridiculous to fancy oneself as a protagonist in an absurdly romantic scene, but I don’t see anything wrong with any person wishing to be in such a scene, and anyone who can recognize that honest desire in oneself will probably respond to my art. Art that is meaningful to me is about real things we honestly feel, not things we should feel.

 

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Japonaise, la, 2009, gold origami and oil on canvas, 34 x 24 inches

Uploaded la Japonaise in Paintings section. My poem in top right translates to:

Don’t let go when the wind blows. Hold on tight till your last breath,

like a pair of love-crazed butterflies,

dancing in the sky, seeking out flowers,

sharing in their love for one another, in the last days of summer.

On the left, it says, much in the traditional Japanese style, “Portrait of Dearest Papillia, in the month of azaleas (May), the 2009th year of the Western calender, by the brush of Taiyo la Paix (Great Ocean of Peace).”

In the bottom right, it says, “To be continued,” in the typical, lower right format at the end of an anime episode.

The anime references are homages to some of my childhood favorites: Hayao Miyazaki’s Mirai Shonen Conan (Future Boy Conan, as seen on Papillia’s hand-held fan), Monkey Punch’s Lupin III (lower left), Tatsuo Yoshida’s Hakushonn Daimao (The Genie Family, seen on lower right), and Shigeru Mizuki’s GeGeGe no Kitaro (Papillia’s earing).

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She Smells Like a Coconut

Uploaded new painting, “She Smells Like a Coconut.” Much as I love what I do (I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t), I sometimes note that a great weakness in most of my art is that, it really isn’t, and never will be, important art. I especially felt so as I embarked on this piece, since it seemed basically to be trite, escapist fluff with, at the most, some sentimentality about the fleeting time and a vague benevolence toward the congregation of humanity. Yet…as I worked on it, I started to think that…if I were to look back on my life and pick out ten or so moments or incidents that are of greatest importance to me, most of them would look like the scene I have painted here. Sure, I’ve had a share of “important” issues and lessons in life, and I value them. But when all’s said and done, it’s moments like this one on the beach, spent together with loved ones, that I treasure more than anything. I’m sure not everyone feels this way. Many people have a far greater commitment to socially or philosophically weighty issues–either because their circumstances compelled them, or perhaps out of innate concern. But I think it’s good for each of us to be honest about what we value, and to try to do something positive with it.

I’ve decided to call the gay couple in the background Billy and Rod. I like them so much that, I hope to have them recurr in other paintings. There are no mean people in the world I depict. It is not a world devoid of suffering–that would be a bit too remote for me to relate to. But it is a world where there is no needless, artificial suffering caused by cruelty and hatred.

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New painting “Ecstasy”

Uploaded new painting “Ecstasy.”

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All Cats and Dogs Go to Heaven

Uploaded new painting “All Cats and Dogs Go to Heaven.” I was bereaved when my cat, Bu, was killed by a driver last year. Bu was the nicest fellow ever. He’d been abandoned as a kitten, probably because he suffered from epilepsy. He seemed at death’s door when we found him in 1995, and we nursed him back to life. He grew to be what some may call an under-developed male, and he did not venture out to seek females and fight other males. I soon discovered that Bu was a very special cat. He took in three wild kittens and nursed them, like a mother would. They adored Bu, and they were always together. Bu refused to eat his meals until his kittens were fed. He was uncommonly gentle, but would courageously and effectively defend his kittens against other cats. Bu was my only friend during a very difficult time in my life. And Bu taught me much. I’d had several cats before–they tended to be street-fighters, and never lived long. Conversely, Bu, the gentlest, weakest-looking epileptic who once seemed fated for an early death, ended up living for 14, healthy years full of love. I took this as a very personal lesson–it has left a deep impression on me, and has changed the way I treat people. It seems Bu died instantly; I hope he didn’t suffer. His sweet, tender heart that protects and cares for others will live on inside me, and in the hearts of all who see and recognize it in this painting. And whenever we are kind to others, I like to think that a little bit of Bu will live on.

Again, I have included Malcolm, Staci’s late, beloved goldfish. It’s hard to describe what it feels like to watch someone lose what they love, even if it’s a fish. Christians often read the fish as a symbol of the messiah, because in Greek, “ichthys” (fish) spells out an acronym for “Jesus Christ, God’s Son, Savior.” And by extension, the fish may also represent the resurrection. I’m not religious, but I like the idea that Bu, with his life, taught me about love, and that love can be reborn inside me and others.

Painting is for me a way of doing something about things you can’t do anything about. I can at least sing an ode to loved ones, and to all the beloved moments of life as they are irreversibly lost. It doesn’t have to be painting–I suppose others do it by cooking or picking up the trash. The title is meant to be ironic, wishful, allegorical, pathetic, sacred, funny–all of the above, but mostly tragic.

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