There is a well-known series of paintings by Robert Longo called ‘Men In The Cities’. Twenty years ago, at art college, they fascinated me. They helped also to confirm that my own highly graphic style of painting was as legitimate a form of artistic expression as any other. The Longo paintings are photorealistic images of suited men and women set against plain white backgrounds. Each figure is contorted into a strange pose; some look like they are falling, some as though they have been struck by unseen projectiles.
Many years after first seeing those paintings, I would come to recall them while watching footage of people falling from the Twin Towers – grasping an image familiar and understood while trying to comprehend something so brutally uncommon and desperate.
My mind holds onto so many isolated images of so many people. There are those I know and love; there are those who are familiar, but who will forever remain strange and unknown; and there are those thousand absolute unknowns, never to be knowns, never to be seen again people, too.
I can see my wife in an image that repeats as it first appeared this morning: I see her from my pillow, as she sits up in bed, my eyes slowly pulling her in – the curve of her back and then her breast and then her long brown hair – becoming sharp in my vision. An image trapped next to it of a tear on my daughter’s face, also from this morning; my finger pressed to her cheek and the water resting upon the ledge of my finger. People become those moments and become frozen. Those moments accompany me and serve as fixtures which soothe and shock and haunt.
My mind returns to those Longo paintings and to people suspended in the midst of actions; fragments which are chipped and fallen, which are small parts of another world. In the paintings I’ve created, there is a hand holding onto the hand of another. There is the flesh of a knuckle pulled against a stone wall and about to rip. There is the man, from a few hours ago – a man in the city – suited, locked into stillness, behind the gate at the exit to the station. He has fed a ticket through the slot at the front of the barrier, but he remains stuck there, the gates remain closed, his weight is forward, but he doesn’t move. Another fossil now lodged in my mind.
In those Longo paintings, those figures were so very still and the white void of their surroundings was yet more eerie than the way their bodies and limbs were configured. The figures falling from the towers that day were bolted to a background that was too incomprehensible to not also be close to having its meaning erased; a context which had been made unreal by the most violent contrast imaginable. And this collection of images in my head is a mixture of worlds both paused and completely immobilized, of narratives connected and dislocated, of things which belong to my world and my heart, and then also to a world that continues all around me, without me, regardless of me.