This hunger is deeper than the aesthetic fascination; it goes back to my earliest years. I grew up in the hospital. Since I was born with spina bifida and underwent dozens of operations when I was 5, I was constantly surrounded by white-clad doctors and white-uniformed nurses, each in charge of my body. Everyone made me fear what would happen next: did I go back for surgery? Sent to painful tests? Did i ever go home I had no authority to say no, so I learned to read the truth on adult faces no matter what their words might say. I studied their subtle signals with the passionate dedication of a Talmud scholar.
For me, every mask is a minor but painful theft. The virus stole your face from me; It even stole my face from me. I use my face to soften people’s reactions to my body – my arched spine, my orthopedic boots, my silver-red hair, my limp. I radiate my expressions – and my words – to defend myself against harassment. Against ignorance. Against ignoring. Now my mask muffles my voice, hijacks my face and reduces my body to a diagnosis.
All of this is difficult enough, but how can I convey the misery of being a portrait artist during a pandemic? For 30 years I have been showing people who are experiencing stigma. My subjects have been mocked, threatened, humiliated for looking, moving or showing their identity. I paint in order to make them visible as they really are, as carriers of iconoclastic beauty. Portrait painting is the purpose of my life.
Visibility is crucial. Many of my co-workers – they are not mere subjects, but partners in creation – are disabled or queer or trans or people of color; those who are actually most at risk from Covid-19. Faces that are not only masked, but are completely absent in public life. People who, like me, are at such medical risk that we have no choice but to seek refuge locally. We have been made both invisible and vulnerable, our lives are controlled by those who don’t mask who, to be honest, are blatant threats. How do we remind them that we exist behind a million locked doors?
And so my career was turned upside down. I can’t take portraits if I can’t let anyone into my studio. I would need a space the size of an airplane hangar to create sufficient social distance, and even then I would have to look at my subjects through a telescope. Not quite the intimate experience one would want while portraying.