By ANTHONY HADEN-GUEST, April 2022
An intently smiling Rosie Lopez was confronting her portrait, a canvas of hyper-realist exactitude, standing alongside Roy Nachum, the artist who had spent a year painting it. Nachum, who was holding a transparent beaker of Cadmium yellow oil paint as squishy as a melty sorbet, offered Lopez a display of four brushes. She fingered the bristles and made her choice, which he dipped it into the paint and handed back. Lopez began to apply her own streaks and strokes of pigment to the 84” inch high by 71” inch wide painting of her face, deftly depositing a loop of oil paint above each eye.
Which was impressive because Rosie Lopez has been blind since birth.
On the other walls of this space in A Hug from The Art World, a gallery in a 20th century town house on West 19th Street, hang four further portraits by Nachum which have already been slathered with paint by their subjects, who are also blind. Back story. Roy Nachum arrived in New York in 2004 to study art at Cooper Union and the 24 year old had felt instantly overwhelmed. “Coming from a small neighbourhood in Jerusalem to such a big city with so many people,” he said. “In Israel I was doing personal work. I decided that in New York I needed to do things that included everybody. I believe everybody is equal and everybody has a chance in life”.
So to the project. “The experiment that I did was to blindfold myself for a full week” Nachum says. Why specifically the blind? “There are a few ways to look at that,” he says. “One is a metaphor, to open people’s eyes. People sometimes they forget where they are coming from. They always want more and more”. His due diligence included time at the Lighthouse, an organisation for the blind, on West 64th Street. “Over there I learned how do you tell the difference between hundred-dollar bills and twenty-dollar bills,” he says. “And how do you find the right key to open a door? I really wanted to study that before I’m creating art.” He had long conversations with the blind. “They were so sensitive. They gave me inspiration, just waking up in the morning and doing simple things that are so hard for those that cannot see”.
Nachum quickly began channeling this material into his art. He made a suite of paintings in which an outsized golden crown is lodged halfway down the subject’s face, covering the eyes. One of these used a childhood photo of Rihanna and was on the cover of her 2017 album, Anti, along with a text by Chloe Mitchell, a poet quoted on a Kanye West album, rendered in braille. This cover got Nachum a Grammy nomination. And he taught himself braille so that he could paint poems which the blind could understand by touch. Kind of a breakthrough, this. It’s unsurprising that an artist should play with eyesight and its denial. Marina Abramovic blindfolded her audience for Generator at the Sean Kelly Gallery in 2014, Herman Nitsch of Vienna Aktionismus, who routinely blindfolds participants in his work, was at the Marc Strauss Gallery the following year and in 2018 two artists, Ford Crull and Jon Tsoi, made work blindfold at Springbreak. But Roy Nachum works with the blind directly. As with his current project.
This was born at an opening of the New Museum on the Bowery. “Everywhere there were signs in braille, giving people directions,” Nachum says. “But I couldn’t find any art done for people that cannot see. So I felt I wanted to include people that cannot experience visual art and let them be part of something. Then I decided, okay, I was going to pick five models to paint ... hear their stories ... get very connected with them on a personal level.”
Most of his chosen models were individuals he had got to know at the Lighthouse. “I tried to capture every little detail. It took me a year to complete each piece,” he says. He then told each model the next phase of the project, which was to apply their own paintwork to their portraits. Their reactions tended at first to be understandably startled.
“I had the brush in my hand. And at first, I didn’t want to do it,” Leona Godin told me. “My mom won’t be happy about this. Then I thought why not? I thought it was a neat idea to incorporate us into an art project.”
Godin’s additions to her portrait include painted lines from Milton’s Paradise Lost. “He went blind in his forties as I did,” she observes in the video, which recorded her participation.
You knew he had worked for a year on your painting, I told another model, Rebekah Cross. How did she feel about smearing it with oil paint? “Well, it was part of the project but it really was a little nerve-wracking,” she said. “It was a beautiful project, knowing that it created something new. But I wanted to make sure not to distract from the whole painting.”
As Cross’s observation indicates, the operation was at once a collision, a release of energy, and a collaboration. “I told them all the scale,” Nahum said. “I made them aware of the size of the canvas. And I gave them the scale of the face ... the top of the painting. I showed them the nose, the eyes, an overall outline of the face, where the ears are. And that was it. I let them choose any color they want, any brush they want, thicknesses of the brush, the paint. If they want it bright ... a darker blue, a lighter blue.”
Nachum’s five models had lost their sight at different ages.
Romeo Edmead did so as a child and on the video, which records his participation he recalls being screamed at for touching something on display in a museum. These videos capture how positive these models are, way more so than the average citizen, the remarkable absence of any vibe of victimhood. “I try to see the humor in everything” Rachel Cross remarks on hers.
Cross had picked pink as her color, Romeo Edmead had chosen blue, because his sister told him he looked good in it.
I asked Rosie Perez why she had chosen yellow?
“Because it’s my favorite color” she said.
Okay, I said. But just why?
“It’s the sun. It’s warm. It’s bright and happy. It brings out the happiness in me. It makes me smile. When I see the sunflower or yellow tulips. Or even yellow roses. My grandma was so nice, she had yellow roses.”
“In the garden?” asked Nachum.
“She had them in front of the house. Nice ones that I always wanted to touch and I always ended up getting pricked. I would say that hurts! She said don’t touch the flowers! I said but they are beautiful.” Hence the Cadmium yellow markings that drift across her face. Rosie Perez, again, has been blind from birth. WM
Anthony Haden-Guest (born 2 February 1937) is a British writer, reporter, cartoonist, art critic, poet, and socialite who lives in New York City and London. He is a frequent contributor to major magazines and has had several books published including TRUE COLORS: The Real Life of the Art World and The Last Party, Studio 54, Disco and the Culture of the Night.
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