Marc Dennis
Portrait of a man with a large afro

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Portrait in the Composition of a Jackson Pollock Painting, Echo No. 10, 1951
Collection of the artist

I have always been interested in the idea of making a large figurative painting based on the composition of an abstract expressionist painting. The subject is one of my former students, Darren Earl, ’05, theater major, Elmira College, NY. Darren has an interesting face, an overall well-defined head, but more specifically an inspiring hairstyle. It’s a challenging fro—with lots of flow—wildly fluid, bunched up, disquieted and demanding of attention—all at once a dynamic albeit humble and undefined form. It was a symbol for the spasticity, mass, style, volume, weightlessness and provocative interpretive capacity of an abstract expressionist painting. After many preliminary sketches it occurred to me that my portrait was going in the direction of a Jackson Pollock drip painting. I visited MoMA to look at Pollock’s Echo No. 10, 1951–a painting with lots of flow—the shapes and forms overlapping, collapsing in on themselves and maintaining structure. Right then and there I decided that Darren’s hair and Pollock’s painting shared a similar nervous yet controlled energy—all the elements snapping tight to the canvas’s surface, the perfect infrastructure for my intentions and style. Formally the overall composition responds directly to the compressed space and design of Pollock’s painting, but it also has a totally different symbolic meaning. I wanted to represent an Army Reservist’s last night before being shipped off to the war in Iraq. To comment on the precarious line between hope and bleakness, I posed Darren as a glassy-eyed, tired, somewhat confident, yet nervous man on the morning after a farewell party held in his honor, signified by the still-life in the lower right-hand corner of the canvas. The objects are: an empty glass, representing a sacrifice (signified by the residue of red wine); an ashtray with an extinguished “Kool” cigarette, representing potential death; and the pristine white porcelain plate with a sharp knife precariously balanced along its edge, representing the contradictions and complexities surrounding war and the information and decisions that led our nation into war. The thoughts of the mind inside the large imposing head with full eyes and wild hair are anyone’s guess.