“I am my own muse. I am the subject I know best. The subject I want to better.”
— Frida Kahlo
“Le vieil homme dans la Lune”, oil on canvas, 50 x 50 cm., 2021.
“Eternal Sleep — Mors Vincit Omnia”, 80 x 60 cm., oil on canvas, 2021.
One of the largest challenges for an artist is possibly that of deciding / daring to envision and portray oneself as dead. While Death itself is a fascinating theme for many artists, the psychological and superstitious reasons for not painting oneself as deceased keeps many artists in lockdown as regards trespassing and overcoming this mental and emotional hurdle. On ne peut pas vivre sa vie en ayant peur de la mort. Mais soyez assuré que la mort l’emporte sur tout, y compris la peur.
You cannot live your life being afraid of death. But rest assured that death wins out over everything, including fear.
This is my twenty-fifth self-portrait, featuring two headshots in profile, and which are facing another straight-on headshot. The intention is to simulate an age-weathered Warhol-era Pop-Art silk-screened graphics poster background, with the figurative images in a style that might be reminiscent of charcoal and oil stick sketches. Here pop-art meets and confronts the classical-modernist sketching class. Having resided just a few blocks from Warhol’s studio, I never once wondered about or marveled at the co-existence of these two art worlds in the same neighborhood. Life and Art were a cross between a busy beehive and an everyday circus back then. But all worlds met up at nighttime … at bars, rock, punk and New Wave clubs, discotheques, coffee shops … and sex clubs/gay saunas.
This naked and introspective selfie-study is a commentary on the Artist in social distance isolation, and is in reality a subjective investigation of oneself. How does one see and perceive oneself privately — through different angles and profiles — like when we look into a mirror?
Choosing a COVID-19 Vaccine — the Three Prisoners Problem”, oil on canvas, 50 x 50 cm., 2021.
From 1957 to 1980, Martin Gardner had a monthly column in Scientific American magazine where presented mathematical games. One of these games was the Three Prisoners Problem. Here is the problem explained in Wikipedia:
“Three prisoners, A, B, and C, are in separate cells and sentenced to death. The governor has selected one of them at random to be pardoned. The warden knows which one is pardoned, but is not allowed to tell. Prisoner A begs the warden to let him know the identity of one of the two who are going to be executed.
“If B is to be pardoned, give me C’s name. If C is to be pardoned, give me B’s name. And if I’m to be pardoned, secretly flip a coin to decide whether to name B or C.
“The warden tells A that B is to be executed. Prisoner A is pleased because he believes that his probability of surviving has gone up from 1/3 to 1/2, as it is now between him and C. Prisoner A secretly tells C the news, who reasons that A’s chance of being pardoned is unchanged at 1/3, but he is pleased because his own chance has gone up to 2/3. Which prisoner is correct?”
In this 24th self-portrait I create a new problem and dilemma: given the known and unknown information regarding COVID-19 vaccines today, which vaccine do we choose in order to better survive the pandemic?
Here the images resemble cut-outs that are cocooned within a violent and haphazard mass of white noise. The questions are many, and the possible consequences are yet unknown. Should I take a vaccine, or not? And if so, which vaccine is the right one (and the safest) for me? The whiteness promises hope and security, but the internalized drama is almost overwhelming. The seemingly unfinished background of the painting is by no means uniform. The sharp edges from the palette knife reveal both urgency and random underlying patches of darkness, both of which threaten to challenge the assurance of science. The message is clear: “Time is short. Humanity is at a crossroad. Choose your fate, and live or die with the consequences.”
I have approached self-portraiture in numerous and various styles; and always in my own way, for sure. This time I have explored Post-Impressionism, but in an updated fashion which is a step away from the works from the early 1900s. The “extreme art” element here is actually not the unraveling head. It is a popular theme in Surrealistic Art. Surrealism had its beginning at the tail end of Post-Impressionism, so in that regard, it perhaps could be seen as “extreme” by the established Post-impressionists and Impressionists in their hey-day. Surrealism is a standard and non-extreme expression of art today. But here the “extreme” and unsettling elements are the turquoise blue eyes on a Black man, as well as the unsettling naked look on his face — as though he is neither surprised nor alarmed by his unraveling. In addition, when things fly apart it is usually a traumatic experience. Here, instead, trauma is nullified by the serene and fluid background, which is as gentle as a brook or a summer sky. And just as an artist must acknowledge and wrestle with the aesthetic problem of naturalism versus abstraction, thus — here — the Mind of the Viewer must reason with human experience and memory … and in the world of extreme Art two plus two do not always add up to four. The image is even more dramatic in that the unraveling process is at the beginning stage, rather than totally realized. The Viewer can thus recognize the quiet panic that ensues when he/she knows that all is about to spin out of control.
The painting is meant to be disconcerting, if not startling under the surface. In today’s society the “Beautiful People” are those who are strong on the inside, albeit possibly seemingly emotionally approachable externally. I have presented myself in various ways through my self-portraits. Here I am neither in control over my psychology, nor am I emotional (human?). That, together with the turquoise eye color, almond-shaped eyes, twisted and flattened features that are almost mask like, and elongated forms (à Dali, Picasso, Chirico etc., who succeeded the post-Impressionists), creates an « alien » (alienating) effect that is uncomfortable. It is not so weird that it is acceptable, but rather strange in a way that invades the consciousness. Alas, that Devil is also a part of me.
“A Portrait of the Artist as a Psycho”, oil on canvas, 60 x 80 cm., 2021 is a new self-portrait — no. 22 in the series.
This self-portrait explores many questions, including the suggestion that a degree of psychosis can be a defining element in creative genius, as well as containing hints of visual processing abnormalities, visual stimulation, perceptual aberrations and hallucinations, color preferences and phobias, and moreover the difficulties in identifying a «psycho»; who most often looks “normal”, and whom many interact with — some even on a daily basis. With the preponderance of mental illness, a worldwide change of Consciousness, and increasing tolerance for being “different” than the norm, being «a little psycho» is becoming the «new normal». More and more persons are owning up to their extrasensory perceptions (ESP), clairvoyance, encounters with extraterrestrials, speaking in tongues, hearing voices from Spirit Guides, automatic writing, painting and composing. Some artists (such as myself) get ideas and “coaching” from guides (both known, and not). It is not always easy to sign some of my own paintings because sometimes they (works of Art) literally paint themselves due to the energies that join in the process. It is perhaps understandable that some psychotic persons refer to themselves as “We”, rather than in the first person (I).
What colors are persons with varying degrees of psychosis attracted to, and repelled by? Can one identify a psychotic artist through his/her visual art? If we feel drawn to art created by artists with a degree of psychosis does that mean that we (the Viewer) also have such leanings?
Here I use my own image (a self-portrait) because I see myself as a mirror and a filter — through which I process my environment and my interactions with it. Every painting that I create is a part of my own image, and my own mirror/filter. As a co-creator of my World and all its realities and psychoses, I am condemned to own those creations.
Thus, it is not mere support of persons with degrees of mental illness that prompts me to say: “Je suis psychopathe”.
This raw, figurative painting is a significant update (if not a re-interpretation) of the original surrealistic exercise in “Flying Pope” by Ban’ya Natsuishi. The painting pictures myself in a self-portrait, looking up toward a skeptical and pouting Pope Francis who is flying high overhead — in the heavy fog-ladened and snowy Winter sky — while gazing nervously down at The Plague/COVID-19 Reaper, who is partially-concealed in shadows … lurking, and ready. The painting exhibits social distancing, as all three protagonists are deep within their own thoughts and concerns, but well aware of one another. One can wonder why the Pope has no one in his hot air balloon. But his job is perhaps not to save lives or souls, but rather to communicate the Love and Blessings of God Almighty to us … regardless of our individual fates. The ice-crystallized and sometimes violent brushstrokes of the white Expressionistic background voice a hurried sense of panic and trauma, but yet with a sense of being trapped in a padded cell, or in a vacuum — with a sense of helplessness not unlike that of experiencing a train wreck in slow motion. The effect is a disassociation between the figures, and from the Viewer to the protagonists. The figures capture the eye, but the only one who looks back at the Viewer is The Plague Reaper, whose blackened eye sockets are a real danger for the careless, and for the overly curious. The blank expanses in between the figures make the painting feel at once both unfinished and yet complete; it is an unfinished symphony — that can never be final. While the heavy abstract fog may perhaps impair our visibility immediately, we do not need to use our eyes to know that The Last Word is but an oxymoron; or thought expressed all too quickly. And that the apprehensive silence of the white expanse tells us much more Truth than the protagonists ever will. One thing is certain, the freezing cold ice crystals thickening the air and the three protagonists huddling within their own individual consciousness give little immediate sense of hope or solace.
“Jeux d’eau – une forte pluie est imminente”, oil on canvas, 60 x 80 cm. This is a self-portrait in black, white and grey tones, featuring a cameo of myself lost in thought; and frozen within a simple abstract-minimalistic backdrop of an overcast day in January with an imminent threat of rainfall. Here, the holiday celebrations and New Year’s resolutions are put on hold, acquiescing to reflection and the early stages and impulses of new creativity … and ultimately leading to a Renaissance of self-definition. It is a visual representation of aloneness, which is more characterized by the promise of fulfillment rather than loneliness. It is … perfection.
The painting is inspired by my poem of the same title:
jeux d’eau ;
dégel du printemps :
parfois en cascades …
beau à regarder.
et pourtant fascinant de voir
comment ces jeux d’eau
peuvent à la fois
donner une nouvelle vie,
et nous soutenir …
mais quelque fois aussi détruire
beaucoup de ce qui est
naturel et artificiel …
from my book: « Jisei », 2013, Cyberwit publishers.
“The Scream” (Isbad), 60 x 80 cm., oil on canvas, 2020.
My twentieth self-portrait is entitled “The Scream”. This painting is inspired by Edvard Munch’s iconic painting of the same name, and Marina Abramovic’s fantastic work based upon Munch’s painting. There have been countless interpretations of Edvard Munch’s famous painting. Here I have presented the theme as a self-portrait (in semi-realistic style) which is (like the original) based in Norway. I have subtitled the painting “Isbad” (Ice bath) which is a Nordic winter ritual entailing skinny dipping in ice cold water. Ice bathing is a very old tradition in the Scandinavian countries, and it has a reputation for being both healthy and cleansing. The painting’s protagonist (me) screams in initial shock at the severity of the experience.
“La mort rappelle une vie passée”, 60 x 80 cm., huile sur toile, 2020.
“La mort rappelle une vie passée”, 60 x 80 cm., huile sur toile, 2020. Voici un nouvel autoportrait, qui est surprenant, puissant et bizarre. Il présente la mort — symbolisée par un crâne. Ètonnamment, le crâne ouvre sa fermeture éclair pour révéler sa dernière incarnation … c’est “moi”, bien sûr.
“Death recalls a past life”, 60 x 80 cm., Oil on canvas, 2020. Here is a new self-portrait, which is surprising, powerful and bizarre. It presents death – symbolized by a skull. Surprisingly, the skull opens its zipper to reveal its latest incarnation… it’s “me”, of course.
“Madre e hijo”, 60 x 80 cm., oil on canvas, 2020. This new self-portrait is based upon a photo of myself as a three-year-old, together with my mother, in 1957. This, my nineteenth self-portrait, is a somewhat simple, but poetic (Stimmung), light impasto, semi-realistic painting, which is partly inspired in theme by Edvard Munch’s iconic painting “The Sun” (“Solen”, 1909), which also is a homage to the Sun; and Picasso’s many mother and son paintings. But here, rather, the sun takes on an all-pervading expression of hope, realignment, and healing after a period of intense challenges and changes, as it is symbolized by a double-sun which burns through the gloaming of our somnolence. The twilight blue background, painted with soft velvet texturing, hints as well at blankets of both sky and sea; giving a sense of opportunity, expansiveness, and profundity. I have avoided common clichés such as red suns, piercing sun rays, and the sun setting in landscapes or seascapes, and I have instead painted the background in a way that implies parched earth reflected blue by the expansive twilight sky. This vision is delightful but within its mysteries lies a reminder of an inescapable Truth: even the best moments of our lives are but temporary. The figurative renderings are composites of our features then and in later years, extrapolated from an old sepia-print daguerreotype from the mid-50s. I tried to capture the unspoken worry in the face of the Mother, from various life challenges: the Cold War, divorce etc.; as well as my own exaggerated quirkiness — not unlike The Fool in the Tarot — unwittingly joyful, but like the Mother, trying to smile somewhat forcibly for the photographer. In the original photo, the smiles are beaming and beautiful, but here I wanted to reach beyond the moment in between the coaxed frozen smile elicited by the photographer; resulting in a universal archetype all can relate to (contortions included). These altered faces are painted and shadow-masked in desert camouflage-style; thus alluding to the understanding that major efforts must be made in the face of conflict and struggle. This is accentuated by the purposefully uneven border around the portrait, which is wavering and stretching toward the sun — in hope of the best future for her son. And at the same time, the lifting of the corner can be interpreted as the eventuality of the photographed moment blowing away with the Winds of Time, and being quickly forgotten. I have in this way attempted to move beyond the photographic portrait, and capture the emotional and psychological attributes behind the photogenic smile, posing questions as to the truest image: that in the photograph, or in the painting which goes beyond the photographic still moment. The theme and the liberties of the portrayal taken are also a nod to Pablo Picasso. It was in that same year (1957) that Picasso started his huge series based upon Diego Velazquez’ iconic “Las Meninas” painting (1656). Picasso’s politically confrontational series was painted twenty years after Guernica (1937), and it continues the political protest of said earlier painting against the mistreatment of Republicans in Spain under Francisco Franco. And it was Franco who ruled Spain with his iron fist when my family moved to Madrid, just a few years after the photograph was taken.
NB. My mother was herself a realistic painter, and she accessed personal strength and resolve through presenting herself outwardly as “unflappable”. Thus, admissions of internal struggle were rare; and worries and problems were protected by an underlying “on the need to know” basis of secrecy. She would never have presented herself publicly as she was on the inside … and the contortions of her own life were severely controlled under the mask of the enigmatic strong and beautiful Black Woman archetype. It was ultimately the source of her successes and of her undoing. I was her confidant from an early age. And she often commented that she and I “grew up together”.
In addition, this relatively New Mother and Son duo is also hoping that the tomorrows in their intimate relationship might forever be filled with dreams of Promise and Light. Life is a beach; and the sun shields us until the arrival of Darkness. This is echoed in the word “Cuando …”, hinting at the title text from a major popular song from my childhood years in Madrid, Spain, just a few years afterwards: “ Cuando Calienta el Sol”: Cuando calienta el sol aquí en la playa; Siento tu cuerpo vibrar cerca de mí; Es tu palpitar, es tu cara, es tu pelo; Son tus besos, me estremezco, oh, oh, oh …
And on another level this painting also serves as a commentary on those moments where we take a step back (voluntarily, or not) in order to catch our breath, and to reflect upon our state of mind, and of the future of our world and humanity in the always instructive Yin – Yang cycle of existence. Moments of respite allow us to enjoy the spoils of our labor and folly, and to assess our learning, forgive and heal ourselves from our egocentric and careless transgressions … before we once again challenge ourselves and our environment in Life’s seemingly never-ending cautionary tale.
”COVID-19 — fini les bises à la pelle !”, oil on canvas, 60 x 50 cm., 2020, is a self-portrait of myself hesitating to kiss my own death skull, and is surrounded by a ring of blue roses.
The blue roses symbolize the unattainable; here, an unfulfilled love-moment that is even too complicated to be described in words because our natural habit of performing the delicious bises à la pelle is abruptly stopped by the cold mental forewarning that “some doors should never be opened”. There is nothing to say, save perhaps “Oh, I almost forgot.”
This is, indeed, a challenging conceptual and technical study and essay. The image of a person kissing a death skull is an age-old meme (if not a cliché). Here the twist is to play on the concept of The Picture of Dorian Gray, whereby the death skull is the mirrored image of my true Self — i.e. that part of me that always remains constant, regardless of the « accoutrements » of fashion, disposition, or aging. In the Age of COVID-19 a simple kiss on the cheek can become the shovel that digs our own grave… Indeed we must all face our own Death, with eyes open or shut. And yet Death finds meaning only against the background of Life, though measured in mere years or breaths. Just as Light has no significance without shadow or Darkness, we cannot live Life fully being afraid of Death. On ne peut pas vivre en ayant peur de mourir …
In the immortal words of John Donne:
Death, be not proud
BY JOHN DONNE
Death, be not proud,
though some have called thee Mighty and dreadful,
for thou art not so;
For those whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow
Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be,
Much pleasure; then from thee much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee do go,
Rest of their bones, and soul’s delivery.
Thou art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell,
And poppy or charms can make us sleep as well
And better than thy stroke; why swell’st thou then?
One short sleep past, we wake eternally
And death shall be no more;
Death, thou shalt die.
«Secundo fluctus» (Second Wave):
“Coffin Portrait / Lockdown — Summer fun”, oil on canvas, 55 x 46 cm., 2020, the second title is perhaps self-explanatory. But it doubles as a Coffin Portrait (see https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coffin_portrait). This painting is a continuation of my self-portrait series, in which I explore different ways of seeing and presenting myself — with various styles and painting techniques.
«Vanishing Act», 46 x 55 cm., oil on canvas, 2020, is a raw self-portrait about being careful what we wish for. While many would wish for the rapid disappearance of the CoronaVirus (COVID-19), it would presently seem more plausible that such reference be most applicable to the Fade-Out Star (R Coronae Borealis). In the upper left corner one can barely make out a vanishing star, consumed by the Darkness of Uncertainty — truly Hell in its most natural form. The raw background hints of that in many well-known paintings by Old Masters, but here there is a messy disharmony that is threatening to consume the figure in the painting and the viewer — like an unavoidable train wreck … in slow motion. There are many important lessons yet to be learned from the COVID-19 experience. It is karmic, and in that understanding lies a solace that enables us to adapt to both life during struggle … and to the inevitability of Death. The figure — itself already vanishing behind protective gear — is waist-deep in the mire, but is yet optimistic — if not aloof to the dangers of chance and folly. The true challenge is perhaps not how quickly or how completely we can return to normality, but whether the former normality is actually the problem itself.”
“Moi, je et moi-même. Je suis Adam. Mais dans ces autoportraits … alors, entre nous, nous sommes tous Adam.” — Adam Donaldson Powell “This is my ongoing self-portrait series, in which I explore different ways of seeing and presenting myself — with various styles and painting techniques. I paint self-portraits because I am so often alone because I am the person I know best. I tried to drown my sorrows, but the bastards learned how to swim, and now I am overwhelmed by this decent and good feeling. Nothing is worth more than laughter. It is a strength to laugh and to abandon oneself, to be light.” — Frida Kahlo
I have gained much inspiration from visiting the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, the National Portrait Gallery in London, and several other art galleries and art museums in Europe whose exhibitions and permanent collections feature portraits. As a result, figurative art and portraiture have become new and exciting genres for my own artistic expression. While I cannot say that I am following in Vincent Van Gogh’s footsteps by painting self-portraits, I do see the value in doing so to chart my personal and artistic development. These self-portraits teach me much as regards technique, and they allow me to explore many diverse painting styles — as I attempt to “redefine portraiture” in a contemporary sense — meaning incorporating portraits into contexts with relevance to far more than myself alone, and with styles that range from caricature to semi-realism.
Perhaps like the self-portraits of Vincent Van Gogh, my own painted selfies also reveal where my head is at — and rather candidly — at any given point in time. I have painted twenty-five self-portraits to date. More are certain to come.
— Adam Donaldson Powell
NB. Van Gogh painted more than thirty self-portraits in the last five years of his life. Rubens painted seven self-portraits. Rembrandt painted more than forty self-portraits. And Frida Kahlo painted fifty-five self-portraits.
“Grotesque”, oil on canvas, 50 x 50 cm., 2021.
“Grotesque” is an architectural painting, depicting an abandoned villa in ruins. The painting derives its title from the terracotta grotesque on the facade of the building, which is a miniature self-portrait of The Dreamer. Underneath the grotesque of the sleeping dreamer is the inscription «Domus Somnia». This painting is about a nocturnal journey where the dreamer, who has been out walking about, suddenly comes upon an inviting and dilapidated villa — empty and door-less. As in many dreams, the structure is both familiar and not to the dreamer. Here, there is a head-on frontal perspective which is at once both two and three dimensional, and almost cardboard-like, thus accentuating the fragility of this mental architectural construction — which can change or disappear in a fleeting second. Even though the columns of the entrance show signs of a dizzying slight sway forewarning collapse, the Dreamer cannot resist entering through the dark portal — unwitting that he is soon to fall into a bottomless void of Darkness. Should the dreamer allow the building to collapse before entering and rather move on to another dream sequence in this nocturnal journey, or should he play out his role as The Fool and hope that he can wake himself up when necessary?
In the twenty-fifth hour,
as sleeplessness concedes
to Jungian twilight,
the inviolate ticking
of the bedside clock
with sinister rhythm.
It is a requiem of
unprotected souls are
magically ushered to
the threshold of time’s end.
Clock hands melt into
surreal images of groping,
disembodied appendages which
pull me down into the
infernal swirling oblivion.
I seem to fall forever;
plummeting past floating
sandstone ruins, through
prehistoric jungles and
at last into a vast galaxy
of translucent emerald shards.
The heartbeats of innumerable
urge me to scream before
striking bottom, and I
awaken in a panic: grasping
for the luminous dial
of my unwitting timepiece.
— Adam Donaldson Powell, “Collected poems and stories”, Cyberwit, 2005.
«Beauty and the Beast — the kiss of the fairy», 70 x 50 cm., oil on canvas. This playful self-portrait evokes fairytale analogies by way of combining semi-realism with cartoon-like expression. It is a story about love and friendship, and of eyeing boundaries and possibilities. An older man and a younger woman — both with their respective charm — in perfect dialogue, and yet each with secrets to be shared when the time is right. Unlike Edvard Munch’s dark painting entitled “The Kiss”, in this light-humored painting the kiss is not about becoming lost in one another, but rather about the play of friendship and flirtation.
DON’T ASK … please don’t ask me how I am; you can’t really expect me to be any different than I was yesterday. we’re all really quite normal – me, myself and I, and in spite of our narcotic state can be up and down simultaneously. and don’t look at me too long; I despise those “I know how you must be feeling eyes” and concerned tone. why must you always misconstrue the way my gaze avoids yours? my anti-social disposition is intended to protect you from us. no — it doesn’t help to speak slowly, pronouncing each word with the sweetened diction of a nun or nurse. I honestly can’t tell you how to act, for I have trouble enough getting us to agree about how we’ll shield you from me. it’s really best to let me volunteer, lest my unbridled demons unleash their flame-throwing dragons to singe the delicate threads of your own ego. and you, so footloose, must avoid looking back into the darkness whose glittering maze of mirrors encapture those who poke their noses where they don’t belong. go ahead — ask me how I am … (poem and oil painting by Adam Donaldson Powell) «Il tessuto dell’Uomo», oil on canvas, 55 x 46 cm., explores Florentine textiles and the noblemen who adorned themselves with them. On a more conceptual scale, the painting alludes to «the fabric» of humanity itself.
See a slideshow with all of my self-portraits to-date here:
PORTRAITS OF (and based upon) OTHERS.