The artist, Gary Aitken—alias, Dasmang—is the commemorative portrait king of great musicians and their legacies. Not all of his portraits are for deceased musicians; he has painted Esperanza Spalding and Bradley Thachuck, both of whom are still very much alive both in the body and in the world of music. But what Gary Aitken does that reawakens the portrait so vividly in art is not just to present the subject in an emotionally stirring form with facial expressions and body language that speak to the viewer as much about the subject as his or her own music might, but also to meet head-on the problem of the background in the portrait. Indeed, there is power in the proverbial negative space where Dasmang Art is concerned.
When an artist paints a group of people, the background can easily be a room or any space where that group is most easily associated. When they paint a portrait, however, any closed-in room that the subject may be in will feel incomplete; either some part of the area will be cut off by the edge of the painting or will be partially covered by the subject of the painting. While these issues are still present in the painting of a group, they aren’t so problematic because the grander sweep of the painting itself offers the viewer enough to enable him to accept the limitations. In a portrait, however, a viewer can become frustrated by a portion of a chair, or a section of a doorway, or an excerpt of a plant. In a portrait, virtually nothing in the background is able to be complete, and that creates limitations for the art form.
Historically, artists have dealt with the problem in a number of ways. Flemish painter Jan van Eyck (c. 1395-1441) dealt with the issue by simply offering the viewer a single colour for a background. It proved quite effective, for as mundane as a single colour may be, it had the effect of enhancing the power of the portrait itself, so that the subject seems to be bought out of the painting toward the view in a 14th -century form of 3D art. His best-known “Portrait of a Man” is, perhaps, the finest example of this technique, with a simple black background, but three of his portraits are offered as examples.
Senior Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) dealt with the problem by moving the subject out of doors so that he could offer a landscape background with his subject. His famous “Mona Lisa” stands as a prime example. In this case, while viewers still don’t get a complete scene, there is no sense of lack of continuity that an indoor scene would offer, because the natural world suggests its own continuity.
Now, let’s take this back to Dasmang, in whose works we see neither of these techniques. Dasmang’s art is expressionism, a post-impressionist style in which the artist attempts to convey what he or she feels over what he or she sees. Their tools include primitivism, exaggeration and symbolism, among other things. Additionally, colour takes on new meaning for emotion in expressionism: Warmer colours are used to convey more aggressive or hostile emotions (including passion or anger), intermediate colours for more passive or pleasant emotions (such as joy or contentment), and cooler colours for docile or depressive emotions (like sorrow or remorse). What Dasmang offers instead of a background in his portraits, is a visual representation of the music the subject might be playing with all the emotional impact that the music might carry. We are given texture as an extension of the subject rather than a background to fill in the canvas. In short, the entire canvas functions as the portrait with the negative space serving as a major expressionistic component. Let’s look at some examples.
“I Gotta Right to Sing the Blues” is a portrait of Billie Holiday (1915-1959) that might have been inspired directly by photographs of the singer. As a result, it would have made sense for Dasmang to place her on a stage, especially since the microphone is already included. But that’s not expressionism, and that’s not Dasmang. Instead, this painting displays Holiday’s singing both radiating from and hovering around her microphone, as thought it is personified and is experiencing the passion in Holiday’s singing. Ironically, also, given the title, is the use of the colour red in this negative space. One would think that if Holiday is singing the blues that blue would accompany her portrait, since the blues come from a sense of sadness. But let’s not forget that the blues is an art form. The topic may be sorrowful, but the presentation is pure passion, and that is the very sense that comes across from this painting.
In a more recent painting called “Kiss,” Dasmang presents Prince (1958-2016) in his wonted flamboyant purple garb with the negative space filled with a flower and paisley design. Any verbal description, however, only serves to utterly undermine the intense power of this piece. Prince’s eyes are presented with an acute stare and are combined with the illusion ascribed to the “Mona Lisa” of following the viewer around the room. I find the piece intimidating. One would also think that a paisley design would serve to grant a more effeminate appearance, but it doesn’t. The portrait’s stare and deeper colours and designs only suggest the struggles that person goes through to be an artist at the top of the charts.
The portrait of David Bowie (1947-2016) is as distinct as a portrait can ever be. It is called “Changes,” and portrays Bowie in an amalgam of portraits from different times in his career giving the subject something of a cubist appearance. But the negative space is fascinating. It is predominantly blue presented in cubes or blocks placed in parallel rows directed toward a vanishing point behind the subject, giving it the effect of perpetual motion as though Bowie were constantly moving toward the viewer. It is not a “stand out” appearance that Van Eyck used (as mentioned earlier) but more a feeling that one sees with the Enterprise on an episode of Star Trek: the background—the stars moving toward a single vanishing point—gives the sense of motion for the viewer. In this sense, Dasmang illustrates his title in two distinct ways: the first being the portrait’s amalgamation portrait—how he changes for us over time, and the second is the forward momentum illusion given through the background, as though the changes we see in Bowie are just stops along the way while he is making this grand musical trek. It is more than impressive, more than breathtaking.
I’m going to break every rule of writing that I ever learned for this conclusion. I feel no need to sum up, and yet, it should be noted that the art of Gary Aitken has deepened my appreciation for the art of music—and he has done this on more than one occasion. I am mildly embarrassed by this fact because I am also a musician. Nevertheless, his art made me familiar with Esperanza Spalding who sings and plays double bass—my instrument. I had never heard of her until I stumbled on Dasmang’s portrait of her. More importantly, however, I never really understood the passion of Billie Holiday’s singing until Gary Aitken; Dasmang’s art made me listen with renewed assiduity. I was also more a fan of David Bowie’s acting than I was his music until Gary Aitken. I was no fan of Prince at all until Gary Aitken. And all of this because I was able to experience though Dasmang’s expressionism, the power of the impact of these fabulous musicians. Now really, what more can you say of any art?
About the Writer
Author A. J. Mittendorf is a poet, preparing to release his second volume of poetry, “Carnival of the Animals,” this summer. He is also an actor who often presents his own poems or poems of other poets as mini-dramatic pieces. A. J. Has had three stories presented on The Vinyl Café with Stuart McLean, and two more have been approved for presentation. He writes short fiction, articles, and is in the throes of completing his first novel. A. J. is also a musician who has studied his instrument—the double bass—under the guidance of world renown bassist, Gary Karr, and A. J. has arranged music that Karr has played at his annual summer concert in Victoria B. C.