ďSixteen paintings by Felix
Macnee,Ē an exhibit at the City Hall office of Supervisor Matt Gonzalez,
is open to the public until January 15.
Felix Macnee was born
in Chicago and raised in the Bay Area. He graduated from the San
Francisco Art Institute last year and has shown in numerous galleries,
including the Carmichael Gallery, Figure 5, and Bucheon Gallery. He
currently has an exhibit of one thousand drawings, which he created in
collaboration with Paul Spencer, at the Nico Gallery in Seattle.
Matt Gonzalez is the Supervisor for District 5, which includes
the Western Addition, Haight/Ashbury, and Inner Sunset neighborhoods. He
is a board member of Intersection for the Arts. Recently, he has turned
his office into an exhibition space, with alternating two-month shows.
Felix Macneeís show is the second in an ongoing series.
On November 14, 2001 the painter and the politician sat down to
exchange a few words...
MG: I suppose I should ask you about where you went to school and
what your artistic influences are, but that would be too contrived and
expected, huh? Why donít we start by talking about the new show thatís
up at City Hall? Is there a common theme in the work that youíve
recently done? Are you moving away from the figure and perhaps
emphasizing elements of landscape in your work, and otherwise moving
FM: Well, the paintings could lead you to believe Iím moving in a
couple of conflicting directions at the same time. And I think Iíve been
interested in manifesting that in a single painting. So the figures tend
to show some disintegration, or pulling apart. And abstract elements
edge their way into the spaces. But really, there is a lot of
abstraction in figurative art. And a lot of meaning in abstract art.
What you see is not what you see, to misquote Frank Stella.
MG: Some of the work has a traditionally defined landscape while
in other cases it seems to become visible through the figures in the
respective paintings. Literally, as if bleeding through the figure
itself. Should someone looking at the paintings be focused on the
intersection of the figure and landscape or suppose some other purpose
in the work?
FM: I didnít decide beforehand that the landscapes would
intersect the figures, and so I had no feeling of purpose in that sense.
I began to want the figurative elements to function as signs, as visual
moments that reflected only on themselves in terms of how I thought they
were beautiful. But of course thatís impossible. Thereís always some
other intention, even if I try to erase it.
MG: If the beauty in the figurative elements was something you
were reaching for, why then are the figures purposefully disjointed,
missing parts? Are you trying to call attention to the unfinished
quality in them or making a statement about the beauty to be found in
parts rather than in an explicit whole?
FM: Iíve always felt like there was greater beauty in damaged
things than in perfect things. And pulling a figure apart is a way of
treating it less as a representation and more as a thing in itself.
There is no pretending that the painting isnít a painting. Of course
there is a certain violence in the pulling-apart as well. I donít try to
censor myself anymore. Sometimes Iím a bit worried that some of the
paintings seem so violent, that this should seem beautiful to me.
MG: Well, I would strongly disagree that there is violence in the
paintings; rather, I would say that the missing qualities may be missing
only explicitly. In other words, just as the landscape fuses into the
figure, perhaps the figure is falling through the landscape. Maybe we
should take down the paintings and look on the other sides of them, no?
Perhaps weíll find the rest of the figure there.
FM: Yeah, youíre right. I should probably double the prices, now
that you mention it.
MG: There is an ephemeral quality in the work. Is that something
youíre striving for? And if so, how do you know when a painting is
FM: Well, I like the idea ó of a sense of passing being in
something that will remain unchanged for hundreds of years. As for when
itís finished, itís hard to say. Itís more like the painting finishes
MG: Kind of like in the work of Felipe Alfau, when the characters
of a novel take control of the novel?
FM: Yes, exactly. Like in Locos, where the narrator surrenders to
the will of the characters.
MG: Iíve always been interested in how a painter, or musician for
that matter, works through a difficult component in the work. Do you
find yourself relying on certain devices that push you through to
resolving a particular painting or trouble area in it? Would it be too
much to suggest these devices are tricks of the trade? And is that what
they taught you in art school?
FM: Yeah, there are tricks that everyone uses. But Iím not sure
if everyone has the same gimmick. The idea is to make a work without
tricks. And if you seem to be relying on something, to be brutal with it
and let it go, get rid of it. There are a million crutches to throw away
in painting. What you have left will be more honest, maybe not as slick,
but naked and good.
MG: You are primarily a visual artist, but I know youíve
participated in dada performances. Could you say something about that?
Particularly, how it informs your work.
FM: Well, Iíve always been a clown of sorts. Or should I say
performer, or actor? For me, I think I get to express different moods in
different mediums. I would find it terribly confining to be limited to
only one. The dada performances allowed me to vent in a way thatís
impossible in painting. Also, itís more social than sitting in a studio.
MG: I never saw the performances. Iím wondering if you could give
your remarks a better context perhaps?
FM: Well, Iíve performed with Cheryl Leonard, whoís an intensely
soulful composer. She has a great love of nature, and that comes out in
her music. It connects me with the kind of person I want to be. And Iíve
performed with Paul Spencer and Todd Barker, at the Dada Festival and
other more personal venues, like the Adobe Bookshop. Paul and Todd are
masters of language and movement. When we get together, we have a lot of
fun. Todd has an incredible subtlety that I think a lot of people miss,
and Paul reveals himself in a personal way thatís very risky. Itís a
challenge to be as intense and thoughtful as they are. Performance
demands it immediately. You either work or you fail, and everyone sees
it. There are no revisions.
MG: But what did you do exactly?
FM: With Cheryl Iíve done all sorts of crazy things. Once we
buried ourselves under three feet of sand at Ocean Beach. We stayed
under there for about a half hour, breathing through plastic tubes,
until midnight, when a brass band we had assembled began playing in a
semicircle around the burial site. We then dug ourselves out and crawled
into the sea. And the brass band followed us. We were like a couple of
newly hatched sea turtles. Thankfully the sea gulls didnít eat us.
MG: Now I see why there are birds in so many of your paintings.
FM: Thatís right. Birds are good luck. If you paint them enough,
you get to fly in your dreams.
MG: What do you generally say to someone when they tell you they
like the work, but then say something you disagree with? In other words,
when they compliment a component of the work you think theyíve
misunderstood. Do you let it pass?
FM: I tend to just say thank you. I think a simple approach is
best. If someone likes something, I donít want to ruin it for them. And
thereís a good chance theyíre right and Iím wrong. But I guess Iím not
sure what you really mean by ďmisunderstood.Ē
MG: Well, who do you think should get to set the aesthetic the
painting has? Shouldnít someone complimenting you on your painting know
that they didnít get it, if thatís the case? Or do you think that is
being too rigid?
FM: A compliment is either insincere or correct. Besides, I think
thereís nothing to ďget,Ē in the sense that you can get a joke or get
the gist of an argument. The ďgettingĒ is in the seeing. It passes
through, so that if someone likes something, that means they got it.
They might change their mind later, but that just shows that thereís
more than one picture in a picture.
MG: Certainly if someone wanted to buy a painting you didnít
think was finished, though, you wouldnít sell it to them, would you? How
do you reconcile your respect for someone else's aesthetic with your
FM: OK, I see what you mean. Yeah, I wouldnít sell an unfinished
work, only because I would consider it stillborn. I canít let something
out in the world if I donít think itís strong enough to survive. Thereís
a difference between finishing and interpreting. Finishing is my job,
and interpretation is the prerogative of the viewer.
On the night of the opening party, you sold two works right away. One
was the profile of a womanís face with an aleph over her head. It sort
of reminded me of what a character out of a Dino Buzzati story might
look like. Do you know his work? I was hoping you might say something
about that particular composition.
FM: I like Dino Buzzati very much. Heís like a more romantic
Kafka, or gentler. Thereís a feeling of a nearly forgotten warm winter
night in his stories. But the aleph painting came somehow more from
thinking about Bruegelís Tower of Babel paintings. The notion of the
confusion of language exploding in the silence of painting interests me.
The aleph functions graphically and also as the idea of this beginning.
MG: The aleph as iconography appears often in Wallace Bermanís
work. Were you influenced by that? And how much importance should a
viewer give to a particular choice of a symbol or object like that in a
painting? I mean, do you think the painting would be different if you
had painted the roman numeral five for instance?
FM: I donít know Bermanís work, actually. A lot of choices are
almost random, but in this case, I chose the aleph because of its
Kabbalistic symbolism as well as its elegance as a graphic element. But
the heavy intentionality of the symbol makes me think it might have been
a mistake. I might have trusted something less loaded and obvious, like
a roman numeral, for example.
MG: I want to ask you some of the more mundane biographical
questions. Can you say something about where youíre from and about who
told you you could be a painter anyway?
FM: Mundane? What are you talking about?
MG: OK, OK, not mundane. But seriously, I know your grandfather
was a painter and your father is a musician. Can you say something about
FM: Iíve always thought what my family needs is more bankers and
fewer artists. But not really. I learned a lot from my grandfather.
Nothing about the technical aspects of painting, but a great deal about
why itís right for me to be an artist. He died before I really started
painting seriously, but the memory of sitting behind him as he painted
one day still remains clear. I think he taught me then that something
magic was going on, beyond what was simple and obvious about the
mechanics of making an image. I was lucky too with my father. Heís a
working musician now in New Orleans. He plays flute and saxophone in
various jazz and latin bands. One of the last times I visited him, we
talked about the alchemy of music. How unexplainable and amazing it is
that you can just blow into a metal tube, and it begins to talk. This is
like painting, when itís good. You form it so that it says something.
Itís not a human language.
MG: Itís funny, I have a vague memory of seeing you in a New
Orleans casino, near the French Quarter, recently. By the roulette
table, I think. I should have asked you this earlier, but is gambling
FM: If dada is a sickness that shits people through the large
intestines of a dead horse, then gambling is dada. I donít like my
chances at the poker table as much as I do at the easel.
MG: Anything else you want to add? Any hobbies people should know
about before seeing the work? Do you have bad table manners or anything
FM: Iíd like to have bad table manners, actually, because that
would mean I was eating with friends and family enough for it to be an
issue. I love games. Word games, poker, chess. I love how they create an
invisible arena that hovers over our world. Itís a shame. I used to have
a chess partner that I played with regularly, but ever since he got into
politics he hasnít had time for a game. Or maybe heís just ducking me.
MG: Letís end this on a serious note. This past summer, the
artist Margaret Kilgallen died. Iím wondering if you would say something
FM: I first met her ten years ago when we were both working at
the San Francisco Public Library. She worked in the book restoration
department, and I think that had a large impact on her paintings. The
beauty of the books themselves, and the artistry that went into making
them, found their way into her work. Her paintings also seem to carry a
witty narrative profusion, which could have come from this literary
relationship. I was upset to hear of her death. She was so young and
still had so much to do. Itís a real loss. But I suppose since she was
an artist, there is an element of her that is still alive in her work.
Do you know the Hulsenbeck quote, or maybe itís Tristan Tzara? ďThe best
artists are the ones who, in every work of art, snatch the tatters of
their bodies out of the frenzied cataract of life.Ē