Eichenberg’s Inquiries into The Self
David Eichenberg is a figure painter who redefines contemporary portraiture by expertly capturing physical likeness and distinct textures, imbuing them with emotional energy. Balancing minute three-dimensional detail with flat nondescript backdrops, he plays with light and color depicting everyday people. Following in the footsteps of Diego Velázquez, Eichenberg prefers to paint those who traditionally would not have been considered appropriate subjects for portraiture — yet unlike Velázquez he avoids accepting portrait commissions.
As a father of two young daughters, inevitably Eichenberg paints them on occasion but most of his subjects are artists and performers. Eichenberg’s focus is on people who are not afraid to express themselves. He’s inspired by individuals who show compassion for others, people who know and understand the meaning of integrity. He’s captivated by piercings, tattoos, and eccentric hair coloring — especially natural redheads — and people who, as he puts it, “wear themselves on the outside.”
Eichenberg’s portraits invite us to behold these outsiders and stare at them from the safe zone a painting offers, in a quest to change our misconceptions by shining a light on beauty and humanity — and ourselves. His paintings are mostly based on simple snapshots or rough photoshoots without fancy lighting which he later manipulates on the computer. The comfortable collaboration with his models spontaneously leads to learning intimate details about their personal lives, which result in fresh compositions and neoteric ways to depict the human figure.
My first encounter with Eichenberg’s work, many years ago, was Duchess of Toledo, a modern-day Baroque portrait of his one-year-old daughter Eden which continues to captivate me to this day. The exquisite chiaroscuro of the child’s profile contrasts beautifully against the miniature landscape in the background. While the contemporary pattern of her clothing and the plastic pacifier hint at modernity, the hand-constructed tabernacle style frame evokes 15th Century Italian splendor, yet surprises the perceptive viewer with quirky sculpted pacifiers. Intricately carved oak leaves represent the child’s surname — Eichenberg translates from the German ‘oak mountain.’ The delicate drop of saliva on the baby’s chin reveals profound love for his child.
Eichenberg met Alan Coulson, fellow realist figure painter and portrait artist, in London. Fascinated by his red hair and idiosyncratic looks, Eichenberg took a snapshot of Coulson in a hallway and later painted his portrait. This piece exudes technical skill and a keen eye for capturing personality. Eichenberg states, “This is the tightest piece I’ve ever painted.” Details are so minute, even Eichenberg’s monogram signature found on the rim of the glasses can hardly be seen without a magnifying glass — note the size of this piece. Eichenberg says, “Once you know how to handle the technique, there has to be more. How to incorporate that something extra to reach a new level is different in each new painting.”
At first glance Devan & Stripes is a modern-day version of a fallen Madonna or a contemporary adaptation of Ingres’ La Grande Odalisque. Detailed realism is set against a nondescript flat striped background showing a voluptuous seminude woman sensually reclining in a chair. However, first impressions are deceptive. The woman’s sideways gaze through dark glasses — a stare both challenging and inquisitive — suggests there’s an underlying story. Perhaps she’s not merely the sexual object we imagine.
Knowing that Devan is a transgender person brings this painting’s essential narrative to life. It was the model’s wish to be depicted as an ideal of femininity, to somehow defy or purge the unimaginable hardships and suffering that living inside the ‘wrong’ body implies. Devan, born female, identifies as a male. This realization breaks down the barrier between Devan and the viewer, who will hopefully switch from seeing a sexual object to wondering what tortuous tragedies played in a life where feeling out of place is a painful daily reality since early childhood. This painting confronts us with the ways in which we perceive and judge others and ourselves. It examines the tragedy of not being seen for who we truly are.
This brings me to the painting that motivated me to interview Eichenberg…
Eichenberg’s Rubber is a departure from his usual portraiture as it hardly shows skin or facial features, yet remains rich in textures, details, and an abundance of symbolism. Best described as a modern-day Pietà, a woman in a red latex bodysuit tenderly holds a man in similar black attire wearing a latex inflatable ball mask hood — fetish wear worn for constraint and sensory deprivation, in particular among sadomasochism enthusiasts.
Rubber deals with taboos regarding sexual repression and pervasive puritanical views within American culture and is a defiant reaction towards social media — such as Facebook — that has a sad record of banning artists for showing nudity in artwork yet allows images of war, carnage, and cruelty. Painted as an exhibition piece for the academia environment or a museum setting — as opposed to work that goes to market to sell to collectors — Eichenberg had the outfits custom-made for this project. The couple who modeled for the photoshoot (Aimee and Eric, who, by the way, are not into SM) had a lot of fun getting dressed up, using copious amounts of talcum powder to be able to wriggle into the skintight suits while sweating profusely.
Everything in this painting has a meaning. The checkerboard floor is evocative of European churches symbolizing the continued influence of religious dogma in our current thinking. It contrasts starkly against the flat green wall, a color Eichenberg describes as “institutional green” reminiscent of old school walls and prison-like regimented environments. It is the color of false narratives and harsh rules representing “the way things have to be.” The white dresser not only balances the off-center composition but is distressed and chipped, symbolizing the idea that one should be ashamed of one’s body and that sex is not for pleasure. It is a metaphor for society’s dressing-down (pun intended) to cover ourselves up and hide away our innermost being. This painting explores sexual mores in a confrontational yet novel way.
Looking at the depersonalized figures we see no sexual act, no erection, no curvaceous eroticism, no carnal pleasure, no lewd gestures. Although their uncomfortable, strained pose still manages to suggests a sense of compassion and love, the figures are clad in constricting rubber suits that reduce physical sensations, desensitizing them from each other and dehumanizing them to us, the viewers. The male wears an inflatable ball mask hood mirroring the halo of Pietà’s suffering Christ, a sensory deprivation contraption that effectively renders him deaf and blind. The only visible bare skin (besides mouth and eye holes) is the woman’s hand that tenderly cradles and supports the man’s head. The only visible nipple is the valve stem on top of the balloon hood used to blow it up; another sardonic symbol for the repressive nature of societal value systems regarding nudity.
Eichenberg was well-aware this subject matter would shock, perhaps even repulse many of his followers, yet forged on anyway. Being an artist is about being able to take rejection, about taking risks by following one’s inner vision and expressing a personal message — it is not about winning a popularity contest despite the artist’s natural yearning for approval. It takes courage to invest so much time and effort into an artwork without knowing its destiny, yet Eichenberg feels the effort was justified precisely because there’s a reaction within the deafening silence of non-reaction. Still, it must’ve been taxing when he posted the finished Rubber on Facebook to get a mere 45 ‘likes’ instead of the usual hundreds his other work normally receives. Eichenberg laconically states, “Reactions have been weird.”
This painting — I must admit — stopped me in my tracks when I first saw it. I am, by no stretch of the imagination, a prude and consider myself a person without sexual neuroses or inhibitions, so naturally it surprised me that when scrolling past Rubber on Facebook I did a double take. I stared at it. And stared at it again. The painting made me feel uncomfortable, and looking at the unusually low amount of ‘likes’ and comments it received I assumed many others felt the same way. Why is something this visually non-sexual so inexplicably unnerving yet strangely fascinating? I couldn’t stop looking at it. To me, Rubber felt like a mirror held up to my face, telling me I better examine my response because it could teach me something about myself.
This piece is not only exquisitely painted but interestingly elicits questions regarding our personal reactions to it. It would be fascinating to have this piece displayed at a museum or other public venue and watch viewers react to it. One can only look openly at this painting if one is willing to look within oneself and examine one’s primal reactions. Why does this painting make viewers shy away, what makes people reluctant to react to it on social media? Perhaps Eichenberg has touched a sensitive nerve by presenting us with an image that asks a crude, difficult question. Its symbolic content is definitely an important topic to discuss in a world where images about sexuality and nudity are deemed more shocking and scandalous than images of brutality, famine, and destruction. This is not about physicality or sex; it is about our consciousness surrounding our understanding of sin.
In regards to technique Eichenberg’s mentor once said, “There are no secrets.” Meaning that artists who achieve a certain skill level stop competing with each other and instead compete with themselves. Eichenberg says, “We’re all in it together.” So, once he grasped the principles of the how-to of his abilities he moved on to the ‘what’ and ‘why’ of subject matter. He’ll continue to push that envelope hoping to make his mark and prove himself. Asking what success in the artworld means to him, he thought for a moment and said, “It’s very hard to balance and figure out what success is. But making a living is an important form of validation.”
Besides painting, Eichenberg would like to teach yet worries his painting techniques are too time-consuming and laborious to condense into a workshop. He’s currently working on a way to break down his technical process into a teachable method. He also has ideas to teach art students about the business realities of an art career and would like to give lectures on professional practices which is an important facet most beginning artists know nothing about. He says, “If they knew the information up front they’d be much better able to make important decisions.” For those lucky enough to find themselves in Toledo, Ohio, Eichenberg has an open-door policy so you can visit his studio anytime to talk shop. If not constrained by geographical location, I’d visit his studio in about half a second. Eichenberg has much to give.
Written by Lorena Kloosterboer, realist artist & author © Antwerp, Belgium.
First published in PoetsArtists Magazine, February 2017.