I have to thank Michael Armitage for helping me finish this painting. Well, not the man himself (I’ve never met him, and no doubt he’s never heard of me), but his masterpiece “#mydressmychoice”.
I’d been struggling with my painting for a few years – constantly repainting and changing the background. I knew what I wanted to say, but didn’t know how to say it. And then, about this time last year, while looking around the Radical Figures exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery, I had my eureka moment. I had stumbled upon Michael Armitage’s superb painting #mydressmychoice and suddenly it seemed so obvious what I had to do.
I needed a collection of seedy, smirking, sweaty middle aged men to fill the background – all dressed in suits with patent leather shoes. So who could I choose? That was easy; you can find them everywhere: A disgraced politician; a Prince of the Realm; convicted sex offenders. I even added my own likeness, leering in the top left, standing next to someone wearing a mask, who could well be you.
The problem with this painting was that it had originally been intended as part of a larger composition with a different story. I abandoned that project, after spending an awful lot of time and money on it – it just didn’t work visually when I scaled it up to full size. But I did like this particular section, and the sentiment it evoked. And so I continued working on it. For four years. And then I saw Michael Armitage’s painting, and I knew how to fix these figures of mine.
So, after nearly four years of frustratingly little progress, it turned out to be quite easy to finish the painting in the end. Below is a short video of me adding the figures to the background.
The Judgement of Men is a painting about male menace, predatory behaviour and misogyny. I must admit to having been, only on rare occasions, one of those men; sitting in a group, talking loudly and ogling women walking past. I do feel a little embarrassed, and feel also a sense of complicity. Perhaps that’s why the male gaze has become a recurring theme in my recent work; maybe I’m seeking redemption. In my defence, I grew up when Miss World and Benny Hill were primetime family viewing.
I was particularly interested in painting something based on The Judgement of Paris, because it really is such an anachronism in the present day, and seems to me an epitome of the male gaze. For the character of Paris, I painted a figure with more than a passing resemblance to Prince Andrew; looking somewhat disempowered in his nakedness. By his side, to replace Hermes (Mercury) in the original Rubens paintings, I painted someone resembling Jeffrey Epstein. Amongst other things, Mercury is the god of financial gain, eloquence, trickery, and thieves; he also serves as the guide of souls to the underworld.
Above is the source of my inspiration – The Judgement of Paris painted by Peter Paul Rubens in 1636. It shows Rubens’ version of idealised feminine beauty, with the goddesses Aphrodite, Athena and Hera on one side and Paris accompanied by Hermes
Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
So, what could you do in four years? I was showing my brother this painting, “Men in Suits”, explaining how it had taken four years to complete, from troubled start to tortuously slow end. And then I said “Well, what else would I have done?” “Well, you could have completed a degree course in less time” he suggested, which got me thinking. Damn! Four years is actually quite a long time. It took just a little longer to build the Hindenburg, but it only took two years to complete the Titanic. The First World War only lasted four years; time enough to kill 8.5 million soldiers. The Trump presidency survived four long years, and look what he managed to do. Okay, so none of them had to contend with models cancelling at the last minute; or with four studio moves. And then there was Covid… Well, Trump dealt with Covid, sort of. Now, I must add that I haven’t been working on this painting everyday for four whole years. Most of the time it has been turned towards the wall. But it has been painted and repainted on numerous occasions in that time. And well, yes, now I think about it, it is a long time.