Moral Dilemmas of Modern Life in the Paintings of Wes Christensen

Gerald M. Ackerman


Everything is remarkable about the paintings of Wes Christensen: the size, miniature or less; the media, a mixture of colored pencil and watercolor; the draughtsmanship, refined past normal eye-sight; and the invention itself: real-life situations in ordinary settings, sometimes with carefully described accessories which may be either accidents of environment or symbols. The paintings are very small, ranging from 3 by 3 inches or less to at the most a grandiose 10 by 14 inches. The figures are often cropped, leaning into the picture from outside the frame. They are seen in rooms filled with objects: some useful, some symbolic, others enigmatic; the rooms are often illuminated by the yellow, incandescent glow of indoor lighting. Other scenes are set in the bright intensity of the outdoors. And the figures are usually active: even in repose; there is energy even when their activity is reduced to states such as melancholy, concentration or fear.

Although we cannot say that Wes Christensen is part of a school, he is one of several young figure painters of Los Angeles, all of whom have had both to conquer their modern academic training in order to paint figures and to ignore the modern hostility against the practice. All of them work in strong, individually developed styles and use personally discovered techniques. Most of them know each other; they all have reservations about each other’s work – for they all see figures differently, not having established any norm or set of rules to help them balance correctness of sight with grace of presentation. Each embraces or avoids ugliness in nature in a distinct way. Consequently, they cannot criticize each other very helpfully, but they can encourage each other; and occasionally they exhibit together. Their leader should have been the late Joyce Treiman, a venerable local painter who persisted in painting figures through the previous decades of abstraction – the fifties, sixties and seventies when it was a painful experience – her friends thought she was mad – but her work is probably too touched by abstraction, anyway, to inspire them, although her personal example should. Unlike her, these young painters put their figures into situations where each must think and act independently. They know it was the habit of older painters to use a moral dilemma to give their pictures tension or meaning; they want to avoid the brainless realism of some modern “realist” figure painters who paint what seem like stuffed models, clothed and costumed, placed in various poses in various parts of the house. Jon Swihart paints in oils slightly larger figure groups in religious situations so ecumenical they include pagan rites and gods. His figure style is quite different from Christensen’s. He seldom crops, liking whole figures animated anatomically, not by lighting. And F. Scott Hess works on an enormous scale, five and six foot wide canvases of simultaneously horrible and hilarious southern Californian domestic situations painted in a wild, loose style in German Neo-expressionist colors. These artists have been met, recently, by a Californian working on the East Coast, Kate Doyle, whose figures, though often reclining or sitting in interiors, are full of the power of individual thought and feeling. All of them paint situations which seem to put their figures to test, morally, spiritually. The great thing is that they all know what to do with figures, an aptitude which many thought was lost forever.

This is not a “revival” of figure painting; it is a thoroughly modern continuation. Wes Christensen is not going back to some dead standards; nor is he chewing up and regurgitating a mangled tradition that mixes the prejudices of modernity with recognizable bits of human forms, as in the “(San Francisco) Bay Area Figure Revival” of the sixties, which was born out of Abstract Expressionism. Christensen works in a tradition that he has never considered dead: for him, Thomas Eakins, the “American Scene Painters,” and other bridge over abstraction back to Copley’s Watson and the Shark which he considers the greatest American painting. Christensen’s instinct has picked the right masterpiece; Copley’s painting signals the change from the depiction of universal themes to individual destinies, something that happens at this time in literature as well as in painting.

John Singleton Copley, Watson and the Shark, 1778

Intuitively, Christensen has accepted a truism of most art historians, that “modern art” or the modern age started in the Age of Revolutions, somewhere around 1776 (Watson and the Shark is dated 1778). This is a difficult idea for the general public that prefers to see the beginning of modern art a century later in a struggle between the Impressionists and the academics; it does not like to think modern art was started by the President of the Royal Academy.

The questions to be explored in art for Christensen are the unclear existential problems of daily life, not matters of style. These problems were pondered before that revolt as questions of a universal religion; not they are dilemmas of personal decision. The theme hitherto in almost all figure painting was the relationship of man to God’s plan; now it is the relationship of one person to the present situation or to another person. As Watson dangles over the shark, is he thinking about God’s will or his own personal safety?

Like Hercules, Christensen’s figures are often at the crossroads, trying to decide between the Path of Virtue and the Path of Vice. For instance, The Letter of 1982 depicts a seated woman examining an unopened letter, another woman stands behind her, hovering over her; we know she has brought the letter to the woman because she echoes the position of the servant delivering a letter to her mistress in Vermeer’s Woman and Maid in the Frick Collection in New Your City. The sudden physical lassitude of the Frick recipient (and our knowledge of the situations in the some other dozen similar works by Vermeer) lets us recognize her moral situation: an assignation, the letter is in the line of the message which King David sent to Bathsheba. But Christensen’s recipient holds a cocked pistol in her other hand: a symbol? A sign of anger? Or of action? The world and its choices are not so simple. Instead of a clear set of rules of right and wrong – as in Vermeer’s world – there are many courses of action for Christensen’s characters, each with a separate consequence. And is it action or morality that is the question here? I think Christensen wants the interpretation of the viewer to be as difficult as the decision for the actor.

Vermeer, Woman & Maid, Frick Collection    

The Letter, 1982

As for his own art-historical position, Christensen will say he works in the tradition of “narrative painting.” He uses the term counter to the professional usage – which describes a series of paintings telling a story step by step, as say in The Life of Christ on the back of the Maesta of Duccio, or the Story of the True Cross on the walls of San Francesco in Arezzo by Piero della Francesca. In the recent past, the term was used by several lazy critics for genre paintings which they could not fit into their perceived “main line of development,” particularly applied to some British genre painters of the 19th century whose work did not seem to agree with continental developments. Christensen’s own meaning is revealed by his preference for Rembrandt’s biblical scenes over those of say Raphael or Michelangelo; he sees Rembrandt’s biblical scenes in contrast to theirs as “narrative paintings,” meaning that he prefers paintings in which the human element can be read foremost, ignoring – where possible – the allegorical element so powerful in the work of the Italian masters. In academic classification, the biblical scenes of all three artists would be called “History Pictures.”

Countertransference is a direct homage to a work long attributed to Rembrandt, the David Playing for King Saul in The Hague. The picture easily read in terms of the emotions of the two characters is not, however, simply a story, a narrative. The young David with the purity of his song moves the jealously hostile King Saul to cry; at the same time the King holding the spear that he will soon in a rage aim and throw at the young singer. Like most biblical histories from the 17th century, the work can be read on many levels: an allegory on the unreliability of melancholic genius (Saul), the pain of falling from grace, the conflict of innocence and decadence; and for moderns, as a paradigm of paranoia, for Saul, jealous of the young hero’s fame, projects his own hostility on David, and imagining that the young man intends to kill him, tries to kill him first. Christensen has posed the characters as in the Berlin picture, but painted them from a different angle, and a shotgun – unfailing hostility – replaces the lance. Thus the “countertransference” is both psychological and physical. The sulking “King Saul” is one of his most fully-realized figures.

  Countertransference, 1988

  Covert Operation, 1991

Even more Rembrandtesque is Covert Operation; its sub-title of “I Samuel 24” allows us a quick reference to the Bible so that we can ascertain the identification of the scene as David trimming the cloak of Saul, rather than a new or Freudian interpretation of the history of Samson and Delilah (Judges 16). Actually, Christensen has conflated two similar stories about Saul and David. In the biblical account which Christensen cites, David is hiding in the cave from the hostile Saul, when Saul enters the cave to relieve himself; David hidden in darkness, cuts off a piece of his garment, which he later shows to the King as evidence of his lack of malice and hostility and of his peaceful intentions. A second version (I Samuel 26) has David – still on the run – creep into Saul’s camp at night where he finds the monarch sleeping; he takes away a spear and a water jug from near the sleeping Saul, retreats to outside the camp, and again challenges the King while displaying his modest trophies: “I could have killed you but I have malice for the Lord’s anointed.” For Christensen the story has the moral that negotiations are preferable to war; he painted the scene during the Gulf War. But another layer is suggested because it is a woman – rather than a young man – doing the cutting, and so close to the genital area as to hint at castration, prominent in the story of Osiris, hidden in the story of the drunkenness of Noah, and perhaps adumbrated in the story of Samson and Delilah. So perhaps it is also a comment on the female role in the war between men and women.

The meaning of the action become even more difficult to unravel, impossible even, when one learns that all the characters in his paintings are friends of Christensen. Did he choose them to pose because of fortuitous thematic agreements, or through intuitively sensed appropriateness, or simply out of convenience? Mysterious personal relations between the models and Christensen might be the tonic not in the mysterious discord between the black male saxophonist and his estranged white girlfriend in Haarlem. They are in the interior of a Dutch church – presumably in the European Haarlem and probably a citation from a painting by Saerendam. Does the setting suggest the sacredness of the relationship, and the saxophone its profane quality? Her blouse is decorated with a mixed black and white pattern.

 Haarlem, 1982

 Research, 1984

Again in the now lost Research, which measured five inches by five, a man and a woman are seen before a building. This time a sort of pre-Colombian building whose dark entryway encloses a young girl in shorts. The two, presumably archaeologists, face each other; she oblivious of the man, sits and looks through a Mesoamerican manuscript; he, on one knee offers her an ear of corn. There is another ear of corn on the chair beside her; its form is echoed by a spindle on a small table. Is he courting her, offering a phallic symbol? Does the dark entry of the tomb or palace (at which the proffered ear points) represent the mysteries of sex? Or are they simply discussing the importance of corn in pre-Colombian civilizations, looking at an old text for confirming information? As one studies the pictures, multiple meanings come to one’s attention simultaneously with the appreciation of the details. Still the machete is menacing, although peacefully held; there are many weapons and possible weapons in the hands of Christensen’s actors, sometimes proffered, sometimes exposes, sometimes held behind the back.

In Purple Heart the title at once lets you know this is a moment in a war, and that a wound has been received during an act of bravery. Two young men have evidently taken refuge in a private, carefully managed garden, where they repose on neatly laid out blankets on a concrete ledge as one binds a wound on the other’s arm. The ministering man is obviously a punk from his extravagant Mohawk hairdo; the other is, curiously, partially dressed – he wears only a colored t-shirt. But that the revealing nudity is not fortuitous is brought out by a faucet among the garden plants, an old pun for the penis, literal in some languages, visual in many works of art, and one that even the tradition-innocent can recognize. What was the fight about? A street riot of punks in some suburban area? The result of gay-bashing? Where they caught by homophobes in flagrante delicto? Or is it simply representative of the loving care gays give their sick brothers in this time of plague? The homoeroticism is clear on levels of lust and tenderness and absolutely certain to those who recognize the underlying scene of the early red-figured painting of Achilles binding the wounds of Patroclus in the bowl of the Sosias Kylix in Berlin (ca. 510 MC). The pose of the two figures is almost the same; the great crest of Achilles’ helmet is echoed in the full-arc of the Mohawk hair cut; and similarly the genitalia of Patroclus displayfully dangles from under a short skirt of leather thongs. So the homoerotic quality sensed in Purple Heart is backed up by the ghosts of Achilles and Patroclus, who, along with Jonathan and David, are archetypal male lovers.

 Purple Heart, 1986

 Sosias Kylix, ca. 510 MC

Of course such an image takes literary and art-historical information to crack it. Why not? But it still can be read as an emotional situation.

Wes Christensen’s small paintings are not to be easily dismissed; their seriousness is compelling, their skill assuring, their drawing convincing, their compositions challenging, and their detail fascinating. The small size makes seeing an effort, and turns seeing into thinking. The drawing is usually accurate on the surface of things, for Christensen was not schooled in figure drawing by a strict master of the old school – no one is anymore. He has developed his figure style from a study of old masters and from photographs. He has taken as inspiration the miniature style of Franz van Mieris the Elder and of Vermeer (although Vermeer did not paint many miniature, he used a miniaturist’s technique – that is, he painted with fine almost invisible brushes, and was exacting in his detail and the reception of light). Christensen derived his technique – of building up his forms with many layers of transparent and opaque watercolors – from certain masters of the English School of the 19th century, the much collected if not popularly known William Henry (“Bird’s Nest”) Hunt and Myles Birket Foster, both of whom heavily employed stippling, as Christensen does. He fortunately has a small but faithful following of collectors in Los Angeles, and the enthusiastic comradeship of local artists with parallel if not exactly similar interests; he is young, and devoted to his work. In his paintings he explores not only his personal interests and reactions to the world about him, but he backs up his interests with a large range of art-historical and literary reference. We must admit now that subjective and abstract art is not for everyone, that young artists enamored of the physical world should no longer be discouraged from studying and portraying it.

© Gerald M. Ackerman, Hercules Ever at the Crossroads: Moral Dilemmas of Modern Life in the Paintings of Wes Christensen, in Sulfur 30; A Literary Bi-Annual of the Whole Art, Spring 1992, Clayton Eshleman, editor; Eastern Michigan University, Ypsilanti, Michigan.