Transcribed and Edited by Max Fields
On the heels of a summer exhibition at David Shelton Gallery, Houston-based artist Michael Bise sat down with Suplex for an interview to discuss his life and the autobiographical narratives that have inspired his art making practice. While his stories are truly unique, Bise’s artwork offers an honest perspective of domestic and personal hardship that is relatable to anyone who has been born into a home that follows a strict religious doctrine, suffered the loss of a close family member, or has lived with a serious illness.
This interview is the first in a series of long-form interviews with artists from Houston, Chicago, and beyond and was inspired by Michael’s artist lecture at Moody Gallery during the final days of his exhibition, Love in the Kingdom of the Sick. It was there when we first met and talked, that I first heard him speak about his life, and when I knew he should be the first artist to participate in this project.
Max Fields (MF) Could you introduce yourself and briefly describe your work?
Michael Bise (MB) Sure, my name is Michael Bise and I’m an artist living in Houston, Texas. My work is all drawing, most of them are large scale, and they’re pretty much all autobiographical.
MF I wanted to ask you about your education at the University of North Texas (UNT) and I thought it would be interesting to talk about your transition into the University of Houston (UH).
MB Well, it’s interesting because my entry into the art world didn’t really follow the pattern that is pretty common now, where at a very young age students in the arts know or at least have a sense of direction in where they want end up in the arts. They have at least a passing familiarity and awareness of contemporary visual art. I had none of that. When I got out of high school, I wanted to be a fiction writer, but the furthest I got was mimicking Hemingway. I wrote these really simple blunt sentences; it was like a terrible version of Ernest Hemingway. Even though I hadn’t really explored writing that much, I think I knew at that point that I wasn’t really very good. What I knew that I was good at all along and had tried to deny for awhile was making art.
After high school I spent three years at community college taking classes, failing them, dropping them, drinking a lot, not really taking care of myself, and not really thinking about what I might do professionally other than fantasizing about being Ernest Hemingway. I had written some things and decided they weren’t very good and at a certain point I made a really spontaneous decision to apply to the one university in Dallas that seemed to have some kind of reputation in the arts, and that was UNT. So I applied and shockingly I got in. Later I realized that they’ll take everybody for undergrad at that point, but that’s when I started studying art.
I majored in drawing and painting and I minored in philosophy, which is just to say I took six extra philosophy courses. My professors there were Vernon Fisher, Annette Lawrence, Vincent Falsetta, and Ed Blackburn. I never took classes with the latter two, so my two main professors where Fisher, Lawrence, and a watercolor instructor who basically taught me how to paint named Rob Erdle. Erdle didn’t have a particular artworld reputation, but he’s the guy who taught me how to put paint to a surface.
MF What were your influences while you were at UNT? What were you looking at to make work outside of class?
MB I mentioned before when I came to UNT, I came as sort-of a blank slate, so I had no sense of where the art world was in 1997. So, I graduated high school in ’94, I spent three years in exile, and I came to UNT and I had no sense of where contemporary art was at that moment. Since I knew I didn’t have that structure, I went into the art history classes, took them very seriously and started learning from day one. Your survey classes are divided into art history one and two, which is essentially prehistory to the moderns and then from the moderns to the contemporary, and those two classes essentially formed the basis of everything I knew at that point. The work that I started making then were all large-scale abstract paintings that came out of studying and falling in love with the abstract expressionists.
I had no sense of the history of abstract expressionism or sense of the dialogue of painting from then to where I was at that moment, so I discovered the abstract expressionists as kind of a blank slate. I thought I was discovering this really magical moment and in a lot of ways I was. But I became very didactic and ideological about not having any imagery in the work. It was really about trying to separate everything in the painting from a reference to imagery. For example, I wouldn't have anything strictly square or circular in the painting, so I really tried to remove paint from its associations with imagery. Which is always a failed project because as soon as you put paint down and place paint on top of it you have a shadow, a dog, a sun, a cat...whatever. I tried really hard for a couple of years to make these big paintings that were just purely abstract but as I said before, I had no sense that this project of mine had been worked on for forty years at that point.
That’s the work I made in undergraduate school. And of course, I looked to all the abstract expressionists world who made work like that, but when I started to discover the post-painterly abstractionists, I started to have this sense that there was something else going on other than the pure pursuit of quasi-spiritual meaning through paint and trying to eliminate references to imagery. So, in a lot of ways I was a really good student and tried to follow along and realize these different things. At a certain point, I reached an impasse. I don’t think I really believed in the abstract paintings I was making, but I didn’t know what else to do because I had gone so far into this ideological position of declaring and believing that you shouldn’t make images in contemporary art work. And it was at that point when my dad suddenly died.
That personal moment which had nothing to do with art caused a rupture in my life and in turn spilled out into my art-making. When it happened, I thought I needed to start seeing images in my work, not for any philosophical reason, but for desperate, pure reasons in a way. I took this photograph of my father in his coffin at the funeral, and since I wanted to see images in my work, I started photocopying it over and over and over again and started incorporating it into my abstract work. I started to claw my way out of making abstract paintings from that very personal moment. There’s a quote that I haven’t been able to find since, but it’s something that Joseph Beuys said–well maybe he didn’t say it but in my mind I’ve made it so–something to the effect of, “the only way you can have genuine change in your art-making practice is from something that happens external to the practice.” I had read that somewhere and that moment caused this crisis, which allowed me to find my way of making abstract pictures.
MF Were you looking for a change when you went into grad school?
MB I can’t say that I was. Part of coming to graduate school was rather personal, because my dad had died a year before I graduated from UNT and my family was in a crisis, as families always are when something like that happens. To me, my family has always been very dysfunctional, and very hard to deal with for me. So, part of going to grad school was escaping as quickly as I could from my current situation, so I didn’t really apply to too many schools. I knew that applying to certain schools on the east coast would be really challenging and I didn’t feel like my work fit conceptually, because at that point I had a fair grasp of what was going on; the politics of going to graduate school and how certain work will find you in a certain place.
The work I was making at the end of undergrad was completely disrupted because I had been making these strictly abstract paintings and then I started making these image collages, and the work wasn’t in a very resolved place.
So, I applied to a few schools, but I applied to UH with a fair sense that I might be able to get in. When I did, I left as quickly as I could. So going to graduate school was more of a desperate escape rather than need for progression in the work.
MF Do you think that when you were making these abstract paintings, they were acting in a different way than your more figurative work in regards to your autobiographical narrative?
MB I think they worked in a very different way. I was raised in a really fundamentally religious family. It’s a little difficult for me to say now, but it was essentially a kind of cult offshoot of Pentecostalism. So, it wasn’t really traditional in any sense that you may think of. Like a Southern Baptist church: It’s very strict, it’s very ideological, there are lots of prejudices, there are lots of problems with it, but it’s not quite cultic. The religion that my parents were associated with was pretty cultic. So what I think happened when I started making the abstract pictures was that I jumped from one quasi-religious set of rules and instructions to another. I think that was the appeal of the abstract expressionists, because if you boil it down it’s essentially the same thing. It’s a quest for spirituality through the making of art and it’s quasi-religious. I was just susceptible to it. Not open to it, but susceptible to the bewitching aspects of it.
MF I’ve heard you talk about how you didn’t really follow or believe in that faith that your parents subscribed to. Was there an exact moment you remember that caused you to lose your faith?
MB It was kind of always. It’s not so much when I was small that I thought “this is wrong,” it was just that it didn’t have any resonance for me. It felt like an alien thing. It didn’t feel like something I believed in, so I never took it incredibly seriously as a belief system. But having said that, when you’re a little kid and you’re in this cultic environment where the beliefs are very extreme and very strange–even if it doesn’t appeal to you–there is still this trauma that gets built into your awareness. You’re a soft mind, so I would go to bed and have fearful daydreams about the apocalypse and stuff like that.
MF I didn’t know that you did any abstract expressionist work or collage work.
MB It’s never been seen [laughs].
MF Can you talk about your shift from the photo-collage abstract work into your current process and mode of working with pencil?
MB Like all genuine projects, you don’t really know what’s going on at the time. Now, fifteen years later, I look back and I see that there was this really clear process happening. When I stopped making the purely abstract paintings, which I had made for about two years, I went into a period of time when I started incorporating images into abstraction through collage. Then at a certain point I stopped making abstraction altogether and I started making figurative oil paintings. My great touchstones at the time were Richter’s figurative paintings. Well, there were two people really, Gerhard Richter and Philip Guston. Guston helped me find my way out of abstraction through his own process which was similar to mine.
He was making these abstract paintings and then–so the myth goes–there was this time of upheaval and political crisis in the late 60’s and 70’s with Vietnam, Nixon, and all of that, and he started to believe that what he was making wasn’t exactly relevant to the moment. So he started to change his work by making these small ink drawings or small paintings with just black ink. He would make a painting or a drawing of a chair, but the chair would be comprised of essentially abstract marks and in turn there were these very simplified forms that started to grow out of gestures based in abstraction. So I looked at those things Guston did and then of course those ended up becoming the iconic Guston paintings that we all know. I mean students of art history know Guston’s abstract works, but Guston is primarily known for his paintings of imagery. Those came late in his career and they grew out of this abstraction. The great thing about Guston is that you can see his path before he gets to the figurative paintings he made. So Guston was really important in that sense. I thought, “oh, here’s somebody else who was really ideologically committed to abstraction and for whatever reason found his way out.” So he gave me permission to be able to do that first of all.
And then Richter... The great thing about Richter was that he made paintings from photographs, which is what I wanted to do but felt embarrassed about doing. Of course, all of the photorealists made paintings from photographs, but they didn’t appeal to me. There was nothing there that I could philosophically identify with. A lot of Richter’s paintings from photographs were his own photographs, from his own family, from his own archive; not all of them, but a lot of them. And then he would change them, he would blur them, he would shift them around and play with them and that was really exciting to me because I loved the way it looked first of all, and I loved that they were autobiographical. So I started making figurative oil paintings that weren’t blurred necessarily, but I would mess with the painting a little bit and do little things to it. So I made those for a long time and then eventually I started to question why I was doing it. I felt like that was Richter’s project and there’s no way I could compete with that project. Not simply because he’s a great painter, but just because it seemed like that was his project.
Sort of by chance, I went home for a visit and found that my mom had a big sheaf of drawings that I had made when I was a little kid of these cartoon figures based on characters from movies I used to watch. So, I found these and I began to make all of these little drawings of little Roman soldiers. I stopped making those fairly sophisticated oil paintings and I just started making narrative drawings with these Roman soldiers. It took me a while to deskill myself and to try and make them look as if a twelve year-old made them, not because they were particularly crude, but because they were kind of sophisticated child drawings. They weren’t the kind of things you’d see pinned to a refrigerator door. They were comprised of circles and squares and an iconic shape for the helmet that was repeated every time. So, the figures were all little pieces put together and were all the same with some variation. So I started making those just after I got to graduate school.
The way I justified the autobiographical narrative in those paintings and drawings of the Roman soldiers was to say, “I’m making a drawing of a drawing. I’m not actually drawing this character, this Roman soldier, I’m reproducing my old childhood drawings. So, there’s this little shift in there. Eventually I let go of that little caveat of making a drawing of a drawing and I just sort of dove straight into making those Roman soldiers actual characters. I was no longer making a drawing of a drawing. The drawing of the drawing idea obviously comes from Richter making a painting of a photograph and from Via Clemins, who would make sculptures of a rock that looked like a rock and drawings of photographs. There was this whole body of work from these artists from the 70’s that had made paintings of photos and drawings of drawings and sculptures of objects, but eventually I let go of that and just started making narrative paintings with these Roman soldier guys.
MF And those narrative paintings were not autobiographical; they were telling a different story.
MB They’re autobiographical in the sense that the drawing came from a drawing that I made when I was child, but they were also vaguely autobiographical. The painting that’s behind us now is of a bunch of Roman soldiers presumably in a battlefield clinic. When I made it I didn’t think it was autobiographical, but now I think they’re clearly about my experiences with surgery and things like that. But at the time they weren’t strictly autobiographical.
The shift from those to the purely autobiographical work came in a single painting where the Roman soldiers were laying siege to a castle and were going to rape these women and children inside and the women and children became my mother and two sisters. In that painting I put an autobiographical narrative into it in which I addressed my guilt of having left my mother and two sisters to go to graduate school. So, in that one painting, I put this very specific autobiographical overlay onto it. And then a couple paintings later, I started making purely autobiographical work without abandoning the cartoon style.
MF You became extremely prolific as you were leaving graduate school, or at least showed your work a lot more after you became represented by Moody Gallery in 2005. You also participated in a Perspectives exhibition at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston in 2006.
MB The first show I had at Moody Gallery in 2005 was a show called Widow and it was about me trying to imagine what my mother’s life was like alone in her home after her kids were gone and her husband was dead. I had already planned the idea for making that body of work before Betty [Moody] offered me a show so that really just fed fluidly into that exhibition. I will say that because I had the opportunity to show the work right out of graduate school, the presentation of my work became more structured. Had I not had a show or had I been in grad school it might have just been disjointed images, but the opportunity to have the show allowed me to create one specific narrative in the gallery in which each drawing would function as a frame from that narrative. I gave it the enigmatic and dramatic title Widow and that was when I started thinking about structurally trying to mimic a film that tells a story. That’s the way that show changed the work. It became more structured and put a stamp on the work with the title. That really fed into almost everything I’ve done since then, which is: I make a body of work, the body of work is all related, it’s couched in a title, and in some ways it’s kind of the work of a...I don’t want to say frustrated filmmaker because I’ve never tried to make a film, but somebody who has the impulse to tell filmic stories. The work included in the CAMH exhibition was less cohesive than the work at Moody; there were bits and pieces of different narratives in the show. I think that had I had more time or had I been more ambitious, I might have tried to make it more coherent, but it wasn’t. So I don’t think that having the opportunity to show the work dramatically formally changed the drawings but it did help me think of presenting my work in a certain way.
MF The show at CAMH made me think of the exhibition you curated at the Houston Art Alliance and the ties you have with your classmates at UH. It’s something I see repeating in a lot of artists in Houston. A lot of people come out of school, move around, stay, whatever, while still showing with and working with their classmates.
MB Most of the people in that show were people I went to school with at one point or another: Eric Pearce, Rabea Ballin, Kent Dorn, and Joseph Wooten. I became really good friends with Kent and Joe in school and we still are today. I have a lot of acquaintances and about four friends and they’re two of them. Grad at UH was great at that time because we didn't really know what we were doing. I went to the last MFA show [at UH] and I saw work that was a lot more savvy. It was a lot more aware of the current moment in painting, and by current I mean the last twelve months. The students are really tuned in to what’s going on at this moment. When we were in graduate school, whether we were just stupid or unambitious, we didn’t have that sense of the moment.
I think that the professional impulse in art is a good thing and I think it has become much more acute for students in MFA programs. I think it’s always been that way in programs in the East and to the west, but I think that here in Houston and probably in Dallas too, I’ve noticed a real awareness of the professionalized aspect of the art world from the students, especially in the last five years. I think that comes because Houston is growing and has a lot of money and the art scene is becoming more vibrant and more active. So, I think it’s a good thing, but I don’t think that we had that when we were in graduate school. We had these very idiosyncratic paths and these friendships were formed less around aesthetic allegiances and more just because we didn’t know anybody else in Houston and because we were in the grad studios on the weekend ‘till two in the morning. I also think we may have been the last batch of students that had the trash cans full of beer on Monday and no work done. It was really kind of chaotic and pretty unprofessional.
MF So it was nice to be able to do a show again with them.
MB Yeah it was. Eric Pearce for example, he’s one of the founding members of Sketch Klubb and he teaches high school and doesn’t show his work. Eric’s a really interesting example of a great artist in Houston who has a very genuine perspective on how his work should function. I remember we had a group show that Aaron Parazette organized at Barbara Davis Gallery when we were still in graduate school, and we were talking about pricing our paintings and I said something like, “yeah man, I want my paintings to be like two thousand dollars” and Eric wanted his paintings to be no more than two hundred dollars so that his friends could buy them, and he’s still the same way. He makes prints at Burning Bones Press and he gives everything he makes away. Kent on the other hand shows at Freight and Volume in New York and is with McClain here in town and we’re all still close friends. Joe showed at Moody for a while but doesn’t show there anymore. They’re strange paths you know, not informed by a real sense of career ambition.
MF One of the main things I wanted to talk about was Love in the Kingdom of the Sick, but before we get there, I want to talk about the three shows at Moody that you had leading up to that exhibition.
MB The title of Love in the Kingdom of the Sick came from a series of drawings that I had made for the CAMH exhibition. They were small drawings that I made while I was in the hospital getting a pacemaker. Because I have this congenital heart disease, I had an arrhythmia and passed out in class–It was an abstract expressionism class ironically– the instructor was talking about Clyfford Still and my heart started racing, I walked out of the room, and passed out. So I made those small drawings while I was in the hospital and it was also during that time when I read Susan Sontag’s Illness as Metaphor, which talks about cancer and tuberculosis and the way that the recognition and treatment of disease has a lot to say in terms of language that defines those diseases: “fighting cancer” and phrases like that.
The book talks about the way disease has a lot to say about our interaction with wellness and sickness and what it can say about our cultural moment in society in a larger sense. So I read that book and there was a phrase in the very first paragraph when Sontag talks about every person having two passports: they have a passport to the Kingdom of the Well, which they use most of the time, and then they have a passport to the Kingdom of the Sick, which everyone is forced to use at some point. The thing that really impacted me was that she said that when you are using one passport or the other, you cannot necessarily identify with the condition that you are in when you use the other passport. So if you are in the hospital and you are ill, that consumes your entire existence. You want to be out of there certainly, but you cannot put yourself in the comfortable, confident position of a well person. By contrast, a person who is well cannot fully put themselves in an empathic way into the position of someone who is sick. So there are these dramatically separate worlds and when I got the pacemaker it was one of the first times that I suddenly pulled out of this other world where I was presumably well, having a margarita on the weekend with my friends, and I was put into this very different place. So all of those drawings were titled Kingdom of the Sick, referencing this place that I was in. The show that you talked about, Love in the Kingdom of the Sick, is a conflation of the novel by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Love in the Time of Cholera and Susan Sontag’s book.
MF Can you talk a bit about Birthday? Could you talk about the image of gravestone that reads “Here Lies Michael Bise?” Does that refer to you?
MB Well, I was 23 when my father died. He was 49 and died three days before he would have turned 50, so we had his funeral on his birthday. Birthday was about the experience of finding out that my dad had died and my experience of attending the funeral. So, that exhibition had the very cinematic but also literal title Birthday. The gravestone in the exhibition that you referenced is my father’s gravestone. I have the same name as he does, so I’m a junior. That’s that kind of amazing conflation of his identity and my identity. He died at that really tricky stage between a child and parent relationship, where the child is old enough to act like an adult but isn’t quite old enough to have reconciled the childhood issues with the parents, or have gotten to that point where you deal with your parent as an adult one to the other. You’re still very much in a stage of being a child, which isn’t something you ever really escape.
I had a lot of anger and resentment towards my parents, and my dad died right at this moment when I felt like had he lived another year, I may have been able to find my way out of those perfectly natural resentments that children have towards their parents. Maybe I could have started to relate to him in a different way, start to ask his advice about things, start to do that kind of thing. But, I didn’t have that so in many ways–I didn’t really ever know him as a man; I only knew him as a dad from the perspective of a child. That was in my mind when I made that show–these questions of how much like him am I? So I’ve done a lot and I’ve written about it before where I kind of fold myself into him sometimes. Sometimes I’ll have a thought and I’ll think maybe he thought that way at some point. And then as you get older you start to do things, you don’t become your parents, but you do things that your parents did physically. There’s this strange fusion as well as an emptiness between he and I that I kind of fill by trying to imagine him in my shoes.
MF A lot of your work seems to be comprised of a mix of literal objects (photographs, sculptures, iconography), fantasy, and in some ways, horrific daydreams. You also create a strange tension in the work through the use of an off-kilter perspective and arrangement within the drawings.
MB The perspectives that lend the work this element of the grotesque came from taking a cartoon language that I was working with the Roman soldier pictures. Those skewed perspectives started as a way to become a little more conventionally realistic in the drawings but not really being able to let go of the stylization of the earlier cartoon drawings I made. I would have a really wrenching, sincere, emotional moment and I would counter that emotion with something silly like having a tabletop flipped up parallel to the picture plane. At that time–and the drawings still read this way– they had this nice tension between this silly rendering and these heartfelt biographical moments. I liked that tension for a long time and I wasn’t really willing to let that go because it was working pretty well. You can look at each body of work and see that each one progressively lets that skewed stylization relax a little bit. The last show that I did, Love in the Kingdom of the Sick was a very different kind of stylization that had less to do with the formal mechanisms of cartooning, and was a twisted stylization that had something to do with emotional or metaphorical meaning. For example, there is a large drawing called The Elevator at the End of the Hall and in it there is a skewed perspective because the drawing is composed of images from three different sources. There’s a hallway that is a quotation of the hallway in The Shining, there’s a large foreshortened bed in the front of the drawing, which was taken by me with a camera while I actually sat in bed, and there’s a gathering of people that comes from a photograph taken at my wedding. In that drawing, it’s less of a silly cartoon skewing and instead it comes from a collage of different source material. In that show I wanted to use a vernacular akin to horror films and the surreal, so every drawing in that show was a quotation of a horror film in a way; it also referenced 19th century ghost stories.
In the past, even though the perspectives may have skewed, there was always a literalness to the work. For example, I would never draw an aura or draw a mysterious shadow. Everything had its place in the real world even though the style that it was drawn in was simplified and cartoon-like. There was never any intimation of the surreal in any of the work I had done since graduate school because I’ve always had a very pragmatic perspective on the world and I never wanted to create an image of the metaphysical in it. The thing of course that changed with that the show was due to receiving a heart transplant. A lot of things happened in that experience that were not unexplainable, but so powerfully and disorientingly emotionally surreal that to be true to the experience, I had to be true to how I felt during that time. For example, when I was in the ICU I experienced this thing called ICU Psychosis. That happens from a combination of being on all of these drugs, being in the ICU where they have the lights on all of the time, and not being able to sleep. You’re in this incredibly disoriented state. Some people do alright; they’re a little high, but everything’s fine. For me, I experienced six days of severe delusions. I thought there was a conspiracy to take the heart out of my chest and I thought that certain nurses were out to do me harm. It was a very disturbing situation and was the first time in my life where I’ve experienced something that wasn’t real that I believed fully to be real. If you can imagine a very realistic nightmare and not waking up and living in it for six days. As soon as they took me out of the ICU and took me up to the room, the illusion was shattered and it crumbled away, but having lived through that experience where things that were not real, were absolutely real to me, shifted my perspective on the world and how I view things now. It’s not that I had a spiritual conversion or anything, it’s just that are moments in the world when your sense of reality can be shattered and that exhibition tried to reflect that awareness.
MF Let’s talk about what is on the horizon. What’s next? What are you working on now?
MB So you’re in the studio now and you can see what I’m currently working on, which are these two large drawings for a group show at David Shelton Gallery this summer that’s focused on the figurative impulse in art work. My work has changed yet again from the last exhibition. All of the work in Love in the Kingdom of the Sick was made in the collage-like manner using images from different sources that come together in the final presentation. All of the work I’m making now is largely based on a single photographic image and it’s very different visually than the collaged environments. They have more of a central iconic feeling to them, this sort of one figure, and they also let go of the incredible strict adherence to moments from my life. So, they’re all still autobiographical, but they’ve let go of describing a situation that happened.
I’m making a large drawing of a stray dog in a very distressed state. The idea to make this picture has been germinating since I got out of grad school.
My friend Joe Wooten and I would do faux-finishing for wealthy clients in River Oaks and elsewhere, and the guy that owns Cavenders Boots asked us to go to his country cabin–it was not a nice cabin, it was a shitty cabin in the middle of nowhere– in Bullard,Texas. We drove to East Texas and this guy wanted us to faux-plaster his cabin.
When we got there we saw this donkey in a run on the property. It was the only animal on the property and it had seen better days, not to say it was in completely deplorable conditions. But, patches of fur were missing, the dung in its run had not been cleaned in a long time, and it was generally in a really sad state. I had this very visceral, heartbreaking reaction to the donkey. I equate it to the story they tell about Nietzsche where he’s walking down the street and he sees a coach driver beating his horse and he runs to the guy, throws himself on the horse, screaming for the coach driver to stop beating it. This moment signals Nietzsche ’s crack-up and breakdown, when he moves back to his mother and sister’s home and he’s never the same. The moment I was having with this donkey was probably occurring because of my knowledge of that story, so I can’t claim purity in my reaction, although it was sincerely heartbreaking. But as an artist and creative person, you always have this overlay of stories and myths of things you carry around in your head, so in the moment I had a genuine feeling and I superimposed this apocryphal Nietzsche story. I took a photograph of the donkey with my old flip-phone and thought about it for a long time and sometime after, I watched the film Au Hasard Balthazar directed by Robert Bresson. The film traces this donkey’s life starting with its birth at a farm with a little girl who loves him, his being sold, and his life spent going through various owners who either heap abuse upon him or take care of him. In the film, this donkey becomes a mirror of the people that own him. When he’s in the presence of the young farm girl, he is a mirror of her affection and love. When he is sold to a man who owns a granery and is being beaten while he works, the donkey becomes a mirror of that owner. So, I saw this movie and I thought about the donkey I had seen on this ranch and I thought about how he mirrored how that guy took care of that donkey. I carried this around with me for a long time.
Sometime after that my wife and I got a bassett hound named Oliver, who I loved very much. Literally months before my heart transplant, Oliver got cancer and we had to put him down. Shortly after that, we got a new dog and moved to a new house, where I am now. We live in a really beautiful pocket around a more blighted neighborhood that has a lot of poverty in it and everyday when I walk outside, I see starving and malnourished stray dogs. I’ve rescued a few, but I can’t rescue them all. Suddenly it seemed, everything had come full circle, from Candido the donkey, to the Bresson film, to losing my dog Oliver, to getting my new dog James, to seeing all of these other animals that are in some sense a reflection of their environment. That is to say, all of these stray dogs are a reflection of the economic situation in this neighborhood because people are so pre-occupied with taking care of their children and going to work, that the least of their concerns is a stray dog.
I had been wanting to make a picture of a dog for a long time and at first I thought that I would make a picture of my dog Oliver, but that just didn’t seem right because it would seem like a mythologizing picture of my pet and would have no larger resonance. So, the drawing I’ve made now is this sort of meta-dog. It’s this iconic dog that is an encapsulation, condensation, and a metaphor for all of these experiences I’ve had with animals and how they reflect who people are. I want to make more animal images because I’ve been thinking a lot about animals lately. Ironically, today on my drive, NPR was on and there was story on about a lawyer who brought a case to court, trying to grant personhood status to chimpanzees. On the face of it, it’s kind of outrageous and in some ways it is, but it speaks to this idea of the autonomy of animals and even the autonomy of other living things. I’m no sentimentalist or activist so the best I can do is make this drawing.
MF Thanks for talking with me today.
MB Thank you.
© Max Fields and Suplex Projects, 2014.