One summer in Colorado, I was hiking alone and taking a short cut across some fields. I hopped over a fence and into a pasture where two horses were grazing. Stopping to play my didgeridoo, which served both as a walking stick and instrument, I found a melody that captured my sense of tranquility. I offered the sound of my drone as communication to the horses, who ceased munching and lifted their heads to stare at me. When I finished and continued my way across the field, the horses quickly shifted from a frozen standstill and ran up to join me, flanking my sides. As we walked swiftly across the vast field, I held my gaze firmly forward and noticed that the horses were looking over at each other. I wondered if perhaps I had excited them and they were hoping I would play again. Upon reaching the fence, I hopped over and looked back at the horses who were still gazing at me attentively, took a deep inhale and exhale of goodbye and continued on.
The significance of this episode remained with me and topped my list of themes I wanted to develop as painting. I saw a great potential for an image of a man walking with two horses to function as a visual metaphor for the human condition, and saw how it related to the chariot allegory described by Socrates in Phaedrus. I set to work making small sketches and also began a large detailed drawing to study the anatomy of the walking man. I modeled myself in the mirror as reference, and this allowed me to tinker with the body language; adjusting the pose to best express a sense of will and determination. While making the drawings, I found a pair of bronze horse statuettes and an Ethiopian wooden sculpture clothed in a paper dress that was same scale as the horses.
I placed them together on a table arranged as in my sketches. With a lamp, I began to play with the light direction and shadows. The small painting study that ensued featured a Gandhi like figure walking two horses through a stormy landscape. However, I felt a need for greater rhythm in the horse musculature and I remembered Da Vinci’s sketches for an unrealized equestrian monument. I made a careful drawing based on Da Vinci’s, altering the position of the heads and leaving a space for a man that I drew in and erased out.
During the spring, I returned to Odd’s farm in Norway, bringing the recently generated plans and studies with me. It was a perfect time and place to continue working on the composition. Odd had allowed his neighbor to pasture two beautiful horses on his fields and here was a great opportunity. I offered a trade for modeling time with Odd’s long time Norwegian assistant, Jan-Ove. I would model a few hours for one of his paintings and he would hold the horses in place so I could paint them from life. I made another small study using living models, which would then be my guide for a final large-scale painting. I stretched and prepared a large piece of herringbone linen that Odd had given me, and started to transfer the composition finalized with live models. The larger scale required even more information, so I returned to painting myself in the studio with a mirror, however the lighting was not ideal and did not support the illusion that the figure was outdoors. So I set up my painting in the courtyard and continued to model nude using the sun as the light source. I could then observe how the blue of the sky is reflected into the shadows on my skin.
As I was painting the final touches, Odd came out of his studio announcing triumphantly that my painting has the impact of a masterpiece. His comment took me by surprise and melted my hard concentration and caused a welling of tears. Never had anyone praised my work so highly, and it meant so much coming from my mentor who did not believe in flattery. I finally accepted that I had made a beautiful painting. In 2008, the painting was exhibited in the Kitsch Biennale in Munich alongside Odd’s painting, ”Man with a Golden Coin”. During the exhibition the painting sold to a prominent Croatian family, and since then I dreamt of making an even larger and more dramatic painting of the same subject.
Earlier this year, I was invited to an opening at a gallery that was new to me, 12 Gallagher Lane. After several meetings, the director, Derek Cabaniss, invited me into their gallery program. Through many discussions and studio visits we began to solidify a plan for my future exhibition, which is now currently on display until the end of the year. Derek fell in love with the subject matter I had made during my apprenticeship and saw how it would be great addition to the space. Most of the work I still had available was small and I needed to make a few new larger pieces to round out the exhibition. Derek loved the theme of the man with two horses and his encouragement to make a larger version was in line with my desire to paint it.
Stretching a large piece of linen, I prepared the largest representational painting I had ever made. To quickly distinguish it from the three previous versions, I decided to paint the man to look like me and I reversed the image so the subjects now face left rather than to the right. With the four-color palette developed in Odd’s tutelage, I brought the subject into the twilight of a star-lit sky. The darkened stage presence adds potency to the drama and also helps the flesh tones of the man pop. This painting and “Painting in the Dark,” have established a new standard for my work. The focused direction of these paintings has provided me with a road map for the work I am now preparing for next year’s solo exhibitions. One can expect to see me continuing to use the limited palette on herringbone linen to depict open-ended narratives featuring animals and myself in a twilight atmosphere. I am so thankful to those who have continued to support the production of my work.
About half a year after completing my apprenticeship with Odd Nerdrum, I asserted my independence by revisiting my prior interests. These paintings included images of water and urban environments. I was eager to re-explore that which was tabooed in Odd’s circle.
However, these landscape paintings didn’t contain the same emotive force as figure paintings. I found myself, once again, driven to paint human beings and their psychological relation to the environment and other living things.
I began to exclusively use a limited-palette in conjunction with other historically proven materials. The simplicity of using only white, black, red, and yellow allows me to have greater control over the illusion of space and form, and also gives the pictures a darkened patina that harkens back to centuries past.
I tracked down a supplier of Belgium twill linen and promptly bought their entire stock. The unique herringbone weave of this linen is the strongest and most archival fabric support for painting and its texture is a wonderful surface.
As much as I wanted to return to this body of work, I also had reservations. For one, the work is quite challenging. These paintings require serious focus to orchestrate compositions, position the figures, and adjust and fine-tune the facial expressions. And I was also hesitant to succumb to the fact that: yes, I did learn some very valuable lessons while I was Odd Nerdrum’s apprentice and that I also received some great tools to express my ideas about life experience.
Making the return to this subject matter on my own volition outside of the umbrella of Odd’s tutelage is liberating. While working with Odd, I was completely steeped in his ideas and surrounded by an international entourage of acolytes. But now that I have ventured out and have explored other avenues with my work, I must say that I feel so grounded and confident that I have now made this “Journey Back.” I am so excited about these new paintings and I can say with confidence that they are my best works to date.
For a few winter months, I lived together with another young artist in Iceland. Our routine involved taking turns modeling for one another’s paintings. The seasonal lack of light compounded the intensity of long painting hours and had a mercurial effect on our moods. Excursions to the local geothermal-heated pool was essential. Through the physical exertion, we could escape the trappings or our focussed minds and slowly reconnect in an atmosphere that seemed to defy the hardships of winter. In the floating world of rising steam and water, we could interact more expressively, and playfully re-establish harmony.
The pool became a stage for body language as communication and seemed the perfect arena to visually explore relations between men and women. I made sketches upon returning to the studio, experimenting with various arrangements of partially submerged figures. I liked one composition in particular that concentrated on the male psychology in relation to a female figure in the background. The man is in contemplation, perhaps unable to understand the inner world of his female friend, and he catches his breath while embracing lava rock. The position of the man’s head and arms could be perfectly filled by the position of the woman, and expresses some potentiality for an embrace. A scene depicting a male in the process of cultivating compassion as a necessary step towards forthcoming intimacy.
I was hiking in the mountains of North Carolina the morning after some very heavy rains. Strolling along, I noticed that the river was at flood levels. Then hearing screams coming from upstream, I turned and saw a boy in an inner-tube, in a total state of panic. I moved swiftly from the trail to the bank of the river. When the boy saw me onshore, he stepped out of his tube and was quickly pushed under.
In just a couple of quick splashing steps through the rapids, I found him beneath the currents. Finding his torso first, I realized that he was being held down by the force and pressure of many cubic feet of water. I reached back to find his leg and then dislodged his foot from a rock, that was working as a pivot holding his body down like the arm of someone losing badly in an arm wrestling match. Grabbing him under his armpits before he was drifted away, I lifted the body up against the currents and brought him above the surface of the rapids.
It was a resurrection of sorts, pulling the boy from the dark depths back up into the bright realms of the living –almost a kind of baptism scene involving a brush with death. Rescuing the boy seemed to resonate with the archetypal, as if the boy and I were playing the parts in some ancient play.
Some years having passed, but with the memory still resonating strongly, I began to make some drawings to compose these two figures together. I realized that these drawings subconsciously referenced the pietas of Michelangelo that I had viewed in Rome, Milan, and Florence.
I made the painting in Norway and found a model, a young painter who was visiting Odd. Andrew who was visiting from Toronto seemed boyish enough to model as the child being rescued and I used myself as the rescuer. I spent several sessions painting him from life. He left before I finished, so I ended up using someone’s younger brother who was later visiting for the final stages. Despite using the two live models it seems that my own features have integrated into not only the rescuer but also the rescued figure. The pollination of ones own image into that of another is typically symptomatic of a painter who has made a lot of self portraits.
It is certainly possible to consider both of the figures as myself. The rescuer can represent the responsible aspects of my conscience, and the rescued is one that is more adolescent. This battle between my mature self and my immature self is constant.
The two figures together create a shape in the composition that looks a yin-yang. The head of the rescuer arches up to the right of the composition in a clockwise fashion, whereas the rescued is arching left in a counter clockwise direction. The two turning directions can represent generative and degenerative energies, as they do in a variety of traditions.
Sometimes ideas for paintings are born simply when two objects are placed together.
One day, I found in Odd’s studio a small nordic boat on a shelf, behind a stuffed arctic fox. Immediately, I desired to invent a composition to include the beautiful little vessel. But I was not sure what that would be and for a few weeks it sat on the windowsill next to my easel.
Then, I found a small toy horse, probably left behind by one of Odd’s children. Its velvet coat reminded me of the Icelandic horses I had seen out to pasture in the lava fields. And I realized how it was in the same scale as the little boat. So why not just put the horse in the boat. I had been reading an Anthology of the Icelandic Sagas, and knew that the Vikings settlers had brought the horses over on small boats, a feat that perplexed and amazed me.
In the studio, I joined the horse to its boat and holding it at eye level I simulated the rocking sea and started to imagine many possible narratives with this horse galloping motionless over the swells. First of all, what was this horse doing all alone in this boat. Did a loaded boat break free from dock in Norway or did the horse kick everyone and everything off the boat in frustration? Or was this a boat in which they towed a designated horse boat behind a larger boat that somehow got detached? I painted a rope that had broken on the stern of the ship to suggest the possibility that something had occurred.
Mostly I wanted to cultivate empathy and curiosity for the experience of the horse as a metaphor open to interpretation. A powerful land animal confined to a vessel in an environment not supportive to its survival. It stoically waits enduring these circumstances until currents carry its ship to shore. Then upon reaching the land the horse can finally realize the true potential of its being.
While painting this horse and considering its experience, I began to relate to it. At the time I was an unknown artist in a foreign land, isolated with minimal resources, and regardlessly working quite hard. I saw the horse as standing there firmly in the boat enduring the tossing seas with its heart set on eventually landing a shore where its organism would flourish. I related this to my American homecoming after such a long sojourn in Europe.
In 2006 I traveled to Norway to become Odd Nerdrum’s apprentice. Shortly after I arrived, he and his wife, Turid, moved me to their house in Reykjavik, Iceland, which was originally built as the old city library. It turned out to be like a housesitting gig. On the night before they headed back to Norway, Turid casually mentioned over dinner that the house is haunted. Odd interjected that it was an old house, and it creaked, and then asked me if I suffer from nerves.
If I entertained the thought that the house was actually haunted, there were many things around that would spook me. The entry to the house alone was incredibly terrifying. In the molding, where the walls join the ceiling, were many scowling and smirking gargoyle heads staring down on me. And also in the foyer were some scary pieces of art hanging on the wall such as the etching of the “Sick Girl” by Edvard Munch and his death mask.
On the other wall facing Munch’s mask was a very large old mirror. It was spotted and tarnished and quite dark, which made it difficult to see a reflection in. It became a curiosity for me despite its spooky factor, and I was driven to paint the image I saw in it. Looking into the mirror, I could see myself in a dense dark atmosphere.
During my first few months in Iceland, I was heavily influenced by the process of coming to terms with the rapid disappearance of daylight. Even just before Odd headed back to his Norwegian farm by the sea, he told me, “David, you need to go into a dark cave and look for a small dark flame.” This strange yet magical set of instructions was understood on many different levels. Mostly it meant that I could no longer suspect to be guided and inspired by the beauty and natural surroundings that I’ve experienced in California. Now I was headed for winter in a country that touches the Arctic Circle. This meant a season of extreme cold with nearly no light at all. The inspiration and ideas would most likely not come from experiences out-of-doors, but instead I would need to search for memories that inspire awe in the same way as witnessing incredible light.
I realized most of these memories I was digging up contained narrative aspects that usually involved the experiences of my interactions with the natural world. To begin the process of composing these memories visually I would need a model, and to use myself is quite convenient, as it’s already guaranteed that I will be there when the painter is ready to work.
I had painted myself many times in the past using mirrors and was excited to do so again, but this time with new styles and modes of expression. I approached the mirror positioning myself, contorting my body, moving around, thinking about Greek sculpture: contrapposto, the S-curve. And then there was the fact that no matter what position I took, I would still be painting; so why not make the act of painting part of the pose? I wanted my physique to convey something that was heroic, dramatic and active. I settled into a pose that I’d thought was somewhat snake-like. My arm and the brush became the head of the snake, ready to strike the canvas with the mark of a stroke. My torso pivoted back at my waist to add potential energy to the thrust of my brush.
As I worked the painting, the sensation of a presence grew inside the canvas. An image of another being with its own will was translated to me from the dark mirror. The mysterious old object guided this new composition, and as the months rolled on, I discovered more objects that ignited my imagination and fueled the creation of new paintings.
The painting “Solstice Midnight” depicts a woman kneeling in a geothermal heated river in the wilds of Iceland. It was the summer solstice of 2007 and I convinced a friend to join me on an adventure to commemorate the longest day of the year. We drove two hours south from Reykjavik to a trail head that follows a river. The two-hour hike upstream was on a narrow and often treacherous path. In the lowlands, we passed through many soggy and muddy areas; as the trail climbed up the valley, the hillsides became a kind of shale that fed steeply into many pots of bubbling earth.
Just before midnight we arrived to our destination: a wider valley with a small warming cabin. The river had been widened where the warmest water flowed in, making a peaceful flowing hot tub. Having the place to ourselves, we took off our clothes and waded in. The water was shallow; to fully submerge you practically had to lay down, with steaming water constantly flowing downstream. I was struck by the gorgeous atmosphere of the place. Vapors rose from the river and various mud pots bubbled down-river. There was a soft hazy patch of sunset colors that hovered in the lower portion of the sky. I knew I would have to paint this barren landscape as it was juxtaposed with the nude figure of my friend. I imagined her rising in a serpent-like S-curve from the water, mimicking the movement of the river downstream. I wanted to photograph her like this and she insisted on another position where she was laying down with her head resting on some rocks, hands gestured and her body exposed in the shallow water. I made photographs of her that way hoping that I could also photograph how I wanted, however she did not cooperate into the less revealing pose I had intended.
When we returned to the studio, I was not interested in the open pose. It was suggesting some kind of attainability in the landscape and I was more interested in depicting a private and less attainable experience. The photos from the trip were useful to reference aspects of the landscape and the light on her skin. When we returned to the studio, she agreed to model in the twisting pose and I was able to make the painting.
The palette of colors I used in the painting is very limited—only white, black, yellow and red. This system of color came out of a conversation I had with Odd Nerdrum about how Rembrandt achieved an illusionary sense of space in his paintings. It was Odd’s opinion that strong color does not well support the illusion of space and volume in painting. He continued that if one color does not work well harmonically with the others, it will fall out and disturb the composition. By the end of the conversation we were both convinced to begin working in the limited palette. Over the next week we experimented with developing mixtures of the two colors with white and black that would yield colors that mimicked our color palette that was made with various pigments. To this day Odd is still working primarily with this palette and I still revisit the palette especially for portraits. This limited palette gives a painting an old master look with an aged patina.