Tuesday, November 10, 2009


A portrait is always someone else's opinion. 
Who we are is seldom what we are seen to be. Mirrors offer scant evidence, because they are always backwards; cameras often confuse the situation further. So how does one create a portrait that reveals on the outside what is the core at the center of a personality, a likeness, a semblance of being and a life? The art of portraiture is the art of the mercuric: to capture a face during its completely changing moments. This chimera requires patience, an intense ability to see deeply, and an innate sense of gesture in space. And it requires respect, at least, and love at best, for the subject.
Love at best is what Seth Ruggles Hiler, all the time, has for those in front of his canvas. And that canvas begins in places as disparate as the internet, his digital camera, and his social network. For this artist, portraits begin with a relationship. It's where those relationships might be found to start with that is the interesting part of how his portraits develop. Ruggles Hiler is an artist who moves quickly through ideas and just as quickly through visual transmissions of those ideas. A fascinating face found online is as rich with possibilities as someone posing right in front of him. A newspaper-clipped photograph can reward with something completely different when that image is transferred to acrylic, oils, ink, or graphite. Does this take away some connection? Not at all. It energizes it.

For Ruggles Hiler, the face is a veil that gets slowly lifted away, or slowly lifted back. The portrait can be a secret as well as an open book. Gesture -- the pose as well as the poise -- holds everything. It is the single part of a portrait that can reveal everything with one stance: An eye's angry glance, or a hand's passive acceptance; the curve of a mouth about to say something; the bend of neck into a beautiful line of a shoulder. The body is a face in itself.

I had the chance to speak with this disarming artist at his studio in New Jersey -- a wonderful place filled to the brim with portraits, figure studies, drawings, clippings, old canvases and new, as yet unused ones; cameras, computers -- the components of his thinking and working life. But it is in listening to his stories of how he comes to portraits that one realizes the rich ground on which they really begin. These are portraits in which subject and artist are speaking directly to each other, and what is uncovered in that process. This artist paints the portraits inside.

Why is the face such a powerful subject for you? What is it that portraiture provides for you as a painter, that your other subjects do not?

Art in any form or style affirms our existence as humans. It can connect us to our own space when we realize the invented volume of objects created on a two dimensional surface. Art can also connect us to another space, taking us far away from our current reality when there is a negation of figuration through abstraction. Either way it subconsciously reminds us that we are here. When the subject matter is that of the human face, our existence is not only confirmed, but connection to another’s actuality is established (or at least the idea of another’s existence.) The experience of seeing is heightened all that much more. My mentor in college, the painter Jerome Witkin said, “The human face is the most powerful image. You can’t make it up, you have to build it up.” That is what I have been trying to do since I met him.

In this time of mass celebrity, we have gone way beyond what in the 80s was referred to as "face time" -- or actually spending time in front of someone rather than on our computers. The irony is that everyone on Facebook presents their "portrait" to others, as a stand-in for actually being with them. What do you think has created this culture?

Just the time-line for human “progress,” our need for speed, our need to connect to as much as possible. The great irony in this “social networking” or even “online dating” is that it is not about “face time,” it is not actually social. Someone can sit alone in a dark room forever, not connecting to anyone in person. It is like Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, but rather than light bulbs, there are computer screens lighting the secluded room. Connection has become very removed, very sterile, very electronic, without vulnerability. Yet, people will share the most personal information and images because there is no fear of intimacy. It is virtual intimacy.

How do you choose your subjects for a portrait? What is some of the thinking process as you create the paintings, or drawings? Do you work from life or photographs, or from imagination? A bit of all of these things?

For my paintings, I choose my subjects from people I know: friends, family, neighbors, other artists, or people I come across in my daily travels. I usually invite most of them into my studio. (That is where I got the title "Studio Visits" for a group of paintings in my Twenty-Something series.) When they come to "sit" I will do some drawing studies and take a bunch of digital photos, experimenting with poses, lighting, placement in the environment. The whole time, I talk to my subjects. This makes them feel more comfortable. It also helps me to learn more about them and connect with them on a deeper level (whether I already know them or not). Over time -- not necessarily right away -- I will go through all of the photos and choose which ones I think will work. But, it is a repeated process of visiting them. I see which images I can connect to, which ones will translate into paint successfully. I am thinking about which medium, what size, how to design the composition. The plans often change several times before I actually begin a painting. But, I need that time to figure it out. Sometimes I will do drawing studies before I begin paintings and sometimes I will do such drawings when I am in the middle of the painting process. Often I will do multiple paintings from the same initial visit by a subject.

Your faces are dynamic for the application of their color, certainly, which literally is "in your face"; however, they compel the viewer because of the expressions -- the gestures of the face. These are not parlor portraits, and the intensity of the connection between painter and subject is tangible and potent. The heightened sense of eye contact is also what makes them so strong. Yet too, in the image of “Harold Smith” , the subject is not looking at you – but is completely with you. How do you achieve this?

I think it is a matter of sitting with the sitter and then sitting with the painting itself. I have to capture the natural moment, one that creates a definite feeling, that describes my experience of, and being with, the subject. My other option is to use my subject as an opportunity to explore an emotion I want to portray. As I explained, my studio is filled with several paintings that are in progress simultaneously. This allows me to take each painting through many layers and phases -- the "building up" that Jerome was talking about. With each application of paint and the time spent with it (and without it) I can make a more dramatic or more subtle feeling. It's really just pushing paint around. Well, at least until it makes "sense" to me.

Your work makes me think of Francis Bacon's portraits -- not in imitation of them, but in the sense that the canvas is reverberating as you look at the faces. He captured the face in action; your portraits capture emotion in action.

Bacon is one of my great inspirations. I have repeatedly pored over books of his images and read David Sylvester's interviews with him and seen a few of the pieces in London. But it all came together at his retrospective at the Met this past summer. To look at the whole body of work -- his progression -- and see hints of his processes -- was amazing, a true treat. But, the most powerful moment of the exhibit for me was coming across his small triptych of self-portraits. I said to my friend, "Well, now I know the definition of self-portrait." It was a self-exploration on canvas and very generous of him to create. Was he doing it for himself, or for us? It doesn't matter. We are going through that process with him. The action is not about blurs caused by open shutters. It is about moving into depths.

In response to my work capturing emotions in action, I think it is about connecting to what feels genuine. I try not to make things look staged. Only truth is timeless. And if I capture that natural emotion it may seem to be in motion, it can move forward with us, even though the image is sustained in one "frame".

The objective side of visual art is about relationships which your brain creates, using your eyes to connect similar things as well as notice differences. Through the design of an image artists are able to move the eye around the two-dimensional surface. We can't give an exact road map. But we can offer options for linking or contrasting parts of the composition with elements such as line, shape, tone, weight, size, direction, color, etc. I have more power over these elements than a photographer has with film or pixels. And I have total control in my color decisions. The color in my portraits may not seem truthful, but they strengthen my capacity in creating those visual relationships and also those emotional responses. The use of color is one of my tools in "capturing" emotions in action.

Your portrait of the young man seen from the back, "Young Man and The Sea" -- why do you feel a face does not have to be seen to define this as a portrait? How much of a person is revealed in the face, or in any part of the body in which a person can reveal character, emotion, or action? I'm thinking of Lucien Freud's extraordinary portrait of the naked Leigh Bowery, completely from the back!

Gesture is the most basic of drawing forms, the first thing taught in life drawing class. Gesture describes personality. It is an action and emotion defined in line. So, if enough is shown of the figure to reveal gesture, the face itself is not necessary to create a "portrait", to explain a being.

Where do you feel portraiture as a contemporary subject is today? What is being explored that is new, or revelatory? Who is our Mona Lisa? Our American Gothic?

Everyone is. It's all about self-portraiture today. Photography changed the way we viewed ourselves and it was the mode of portraiture and art in general for the twentieth century -- still photography along with motion pictures. Yes, many artists expressed themselves through photographic self-portraiture, but right now, because of digital photography in conjunction with the internet, you don't even have to be an artist to produce and "exhibit" your self-portrait.

Bacon worked a lot with photo booth picture strips to create his own self-portraits. Not only was it great and accessible reference material, I think it was a statement on the convention of the apparatus. Here was a machine in a public space capturing people in a very private and emotionally vulnerable way. Usually the photo booths were used to photograph friends or lovers hamming it up for the camera, playing out their relationship in a campy fashion. Bacon did not use it to act out anything. He photographed himself in the absence of another. It was a serious self-examination, just like the resulting paintings.

Today we even have a program on our Mac computers called "Photo Booth". It allows you to shoot unlimited "pics" of ourselves with instant gratification and with the power to edit and change anything about the image -- from the facial expression to the tilt of our head to the lighting and color scheme. The function of the original photo booth is obsolete and we now have total control. And to make us even more powerful in this situation, with literally a few clicks of the mouse we can expose our self-portraits to the whole world.

Because of photojournalism, the face as a subject has been a constant visual part of every day for all of us. Yet, the Wall Street Journal continues to use only drawings of its news subjects in portrait form. Can you comment on this? What do you think of these images?

I LOVE them! They are fantastic. They really level out the playing field. As the people's faces/personalities are just shown through line -- no variation in lighting, no background, only hints of clothing. They illustrate the stories of people rather than their politics or class. And they are beautifully done, I might add.

There are innumerable ways that the face can be seen -- captured, in the act of the paparazzi -- and made iconic if shown often enough. But a single fine portrait can stand the test of time and the remain the ultimate expression of a person. Warhol essentially brought into being the portrait as marketable product of celebrity (portraits always had some connotation of marketability). However, isn't it the face itself that makes the subject strong? Think of Marilyn, Jackie-O, and today of course Obama -- a huge upsurge of portrait art surrounding the new president's face. What makes a great portrait -- the subject or the portraitist?

Both. Usually portraitists choose to portray people because they are inspired and know the power of the image. But the subject does the inspiring. Also, it is easier for us, as viewers, to instantly connect to an image of someone we have seen several times. We come to feel we know the person. Our brain fills in the questions and details of the personality. The artist actually has to do less work. He or she has to make the person recognizable, but the story is already revealed.

How do you get to the "inside" of your subjects so that you can reveal this on the surface, with paint. What is needed to reach such an intimate exploration?

If I tell you, I may have to kill you. (Laughter). All threats aside...What is needed is something that clicks in my brain, something that makes me know that it is worth doing. When drawing or painting from life, I can usually find something interesting in any subject. They are there, sitting in front of me and I am able to shift and get them from any angle I want. There is also energy flowing from the person, that I can feel. I use it to understand them and also to define them in paint.

I am not always so lucky to have people sit for me in person. I actually do a lot of drawing from pictures I find online -- I have a whole series of "Twenty Something" drawings based on the idea we were discussing earlier of this being the age of digital irony -- distant intimacy. So, when I seek out these virtual sitters, the picture itself has to make sense to me -- the vulnerability, the joy, the macho facade -- it has to speak to me. Now, I don't know what is inside of these strangers, but I do know what they have revealed facially and through the image they have chosen to represent themselves. Their choices inform my understanding and lead to my interpretation of them as subjects.

How does the portrait lie?

Portraits don't lie. They interpret. When something is available by interpretation the possibilities are endless.

Why are old photographs so emotionally powerful for so many people -- as documents of veracity, or perhaps as confirmation of the familial and historical? Why do we seek certain knowledge in faces that is valuable this way? How do you paint something that might reveal part of your subjects that was even unknowable to them? Is this possible?

Oh yes, we only see ourselves when are confronting ourselves in the mirror (or taking pictures in our virtual photo booth). That is only one "face" which we are privy to. Others can see so much more in us. Artists can see all of this and then choose what aspects to emphasize. The power of old photographs confirming the familial and historical -- that goes back to art being an affirmation of existence. But these images don't just connect us to our own space, they connect us to a former place creating a history, giving roots, foot prints, lineage. If people can connect to the past, they feel much more important. Maybe it makes us feel we are serving the purpose of being descendants and that we may in turn pass it on as a legacy. It's not just affirmation of lie, it's promise of immortality.

How do your subjects feel about the way you finally present them? What are the most common reactions upon seeing your portraits of them?

Varied. In college I volunteered to do a project called "Spirit of the Lantern Awards" in which I painted different members of the Syracuse community who dedicated themselves to service. Over a span of six years we honored 24 people -- all of the portraits are part of the permanent collection in Hendricks Chapel at Syracuse University. At each of the awards ceremonies we had the portraits on display and the honorees got to see themselves painted for the first time. They had not seen anything of the project since the time they sat for a photo-shoot months earlier. They were small, gouache paintings, much more highly rendered than my work now.

It was very interesting watching them confront the images of themselves. They were all very humble people. I don't think that they even felt comfortable with accepting the honor of the award, let alone having a portrait created. They would comment on the beauty and the likenesses of the other honorees' paintings, but not on that of their own.

I think that it is a bit scary to have someone else paint your portrait -- especially when the artist has total control. The safer route has been the set-up over time and has been the bread and butter of countless artists. The portraits that I choose to paint -- for my own body of work, rather than commissions -- aren't as "safe" to hang on someone's wall as abstract pieces or realistic landscapes, or even nudes. Why should someone have a picture of some stranger hanging over them -- unless the colors match the pillows of the couch? Faces bring in something to confront, a whole other being -- with personality and attitude -- whether it be a direct or passive confrontation.

The reactions to my current portraits have been interesting to observe as well. I find that those of my subjects who are artists connect more instantly to the work than the non-artists. But they all seem to be pleased to participate in the process.

Do the best portraits come from deeper relationship? How much do you have to know about your subjects before you can paint them successfully?

Many of them do come from very close relationships, which I think makes their emotions more accessible to me. But I may not have to know my subjects at all. The different levels of history bring about different visual challenges.

In your extended training at the New York Academy of Art, how did you develop as a portraitist and what were some of the foundations that you learned as a student there? How were these helpful to you, and how do they continue to be?

Drawing. Drawing. Drawing. At the Academy we worked from life almost every day for two years. And when we were not working from life we were studying anatomy and figure structure -- the human form unconceptualized. This gave me a great understanding of representational art, the science behind it and the history of approaches to it. But it took me time to loosen up after leaving the Academy so that I could be free to be expressive while still applying the concepts I had learned.

What is the most compelling part of a face for you?

I love a good schnoz! No, really the nose is very important in establishing the proportions of the face while at the same time it can be used to add much dimension to the painting. It is the facial feature that extends the closest to the artist and the viewer. And everyone's nose is very different. It has taken me a long time not to exaggerate my own so much.

With the technological acrobatics of such things as Photoshop, how is portraiture being changed or enhanced by these new "toys"? To what positive or negative degree?

The more tools, the better, I think. They just bring more options -- in applying color/texture, distorting forms....a whole range of things. It is very positive. But the problem is that people are depending on Photoshop so much that they do not develop basic drawing skills. They are limited to manipulating the photographic image with which they started. I have seen some cool stuff where artists use the computer to alter drawings they have created. Technology functioning as tools = positive. Technology functioning as distraction/replacement to acquisition of tactile skill = negative.

What portrait has captured your attention and emotions most? What were the qualities that were present that made you have such a strong reaction?

Lucien Freud's "Portrait of John Minton" from 1952. It was commissioned by the painter John Minton after he had seen Freud's small portrait of Francis Bacon earlier that year. Five years later, Minton committed suicide. In the portrait, Freud captures this timeless sorrow. The man has a strong presence, but not of importance -- almost of his present , eventual invisibility.

How much of a self-portrait is actually composed of the self? What do you think about when you paint yourself? What is it you want to reveal or know in such a portrait?

When I painted myself years ago, I thought "Man, am I pretty." Now I just say to myself, "My hairline keeps receding." A self-portrait gives me a chance to be truly expressive -- I have unlimited model time, I know my face well (or at least the reflection of it) and I will not offend anyone if I take it too far. Self-portraits also give me the chance to document where I am at in life -- emotionally and physically -- as well as my painting style as it progresses and changes.

Jean Genet once wrote: "Ugliness is beauty at rest." How would you paint this concept?

I have no idea! Let's brainstorm that one. I love collaboration!

Images, from top to bottom: "Graphite Character, #5"; "The Stimulus"' "Harold Smith". 

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