Photograph by Tom Powel
De Kooning once said, "Flesh is the reason oil paint was invented." Oil paint being used to describe flesh has a long history; in many ways, the act of painting another person has always been about desire. But as a queer woman, I feel that my point of view is still largely uncharted, or maybe more accurately, marginalized territory in painting.
I think of the surface of the body, and the painting, as a landscape or map. Moles, veins, scars, wrinkles and stretch marks, so often photoshopped away in our contemporary culture, are to me the exciting landmarks and tributaries that inspire my process.
The impetus for this work began many years ago, as part of a social practice project I started in LGBTQ and feminist communities called The Breast Portrait Project. In 1997, when I was 26, I painted a self-portrait of my torso in order to confront my own traumas. I felt empowered by the self-portrait, and began doing torso portraits for friends, and later, strangers at women’s and queer festivals and retreats. On the whole, the sitters found the portrait process to be healing, just as I had. I collected documentation of every portrait sitting in DIY books containing photos of sitters with their portraits, alongside their writing, which often focused on ideas of celebration and survivorship. More than 500 people have posed for the project to date.
For the past ten years, I've been focusing on making large-scale torso portraits. By making my figures monumental, I affirm them as sacred and powerful, not just vulnerable, bodies.
More and more, I think of the body as a kind of altar. Just as we adorn and alter our bodies, we create our stories and identities. Tattoos, surgeries, hormones, jewelry — ultimately, these choices are not just about self-presentation, but about survival, self-definition and self-determination.
My current practice includes both paintings of torsos and paintings of altars. There is a strong kinship between the subject matter; both are an affirmation of queer feminist autonomy and joy, and a claiming of a sacred space.