R E D P O R T R A I T S
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“It was widely accepted among Cultural Revolution-era artists that images of Mao [Zedong] should be ‘red, smooth, and luminescent’... Cool colors were to be avoided; Mao’s flesh should be modeled in red and other warm tones. Conspicuous displays of brushwork should not be seen; Mao’s face should be smooth in appearance. The entire composition should be bright, and should be illuminated in such a way as to imply that Mao himself was the primary source of light."
Julia F. Andrews, “Painters and Politics in the People’s Republic of China, 1949-1979” (Berkeley; University of California Press/Center for Chinese Studies, University of Michigan, 1994). 360.
Both my maternal and paternal grandparents fled China in the mid-1900s when Mao Zedong’s party took power. Since then, my family’s relationship with the mainland has been checkered with bitterness and pride: bitterness from painful memories of exile, but pride in China's lavish history.
The Red Portraits series references Chinese Communist propaganda posters in the rapt expressions of its subjects and the idealized atmospheres they inhabit. The portraits, made by overlapping thousands of stickers, resolve into a seemingly straightforward image, smooth and luminescent. Up close they look chaotic, scaly, and jagged.
The Cultural Revolution feels distant while I watch my nieces and nephews, and now my own children, grow up in the states. For them there is only America, and yet those bitter old propaganda posters still resemble us more than anything we’ve seen here.
I start by gridding out both my source image and the drawing paper I am using, marking the X and Y axes with letters or numbers. Next I color white label stickers with red china marker. Using varying degrees of pressure, I create a spectrum of values from 1 to 14 or 15, lightest to darkest. Each sticker presents a single color value. Then I isolate a square on the source image and its corresponding square on my drawing paper and begin placing the stickers in overlapping layers to interpret what I see.
The photorealistic final product is a sum of hundreds of abstract squares. Each Red Portrait can take between 40-140+ hours.
Fast motion video--this studio session was 1:23:32 in real life. The portrait in this video was for a commission and not part of my "Red Portraits" series but uses the same technique.