Our Faces Dianne Kaufman James Bruce May




Dianne Kaufman, James Bruce May


Across white walls, sunlight: bright rectangles creep as the sun falls. Upon those walls a row of paintings hang. Look once and be confronted – a second look, curiosity:


Look upon our faces: our faces are not our faces.
Look upon our makeup; it’s anguish, it’s humour.
We are here because we call; she smears and brushes and moves, to nudge us, to search within us.
We watch through eyes smeared shut as she searches beneath for the familiar,
for some reflection,
for some glimmer,
some echo of a world that’s real.
Look upon our faces: our faces are not our faces.



In the corners, canvasses lean. A long table is covered in stacks of sketches. One chair has a cushion, the other is wood. Both are decorated with tiny spots of paint. A painter, offering orange juice, motions for a writer to sit, smiles. The writer sees the smile lift the painter’s mouth; the brightness of her eyes holds understanding in a place where secrets dance. The painter describes the faces of her portraits, the warping of features by the spreading of colour across a figure’s visage – we’ve learnt to read each other by looking into the face, but the face is just a mass of flesh and vessels; it’s assembled randomly in such a strange lottery. It’s arbitrary. It’s not a true representation of the self, the character living and growing inside. The writer, swallows juice, says he sees torment and sorrow in the faces on the wall.


Our faces are not our faces.


The painter is someone who’s aware of loss and the pain within life; she’s in tune with it, always has been, despite having had a happy childhood, a happy life. She’s jolly, with a jolly soul – smiles lift the painter’s mouth – but with her work she explores this connection to the world she’s always had, and yes, the product is sometimes dark because the world is sometimes dark. People shy away for her work because they think it’s full of darkness. But she’s afraid they’re missing the humour. There’s anguish, true, but humour can come from a dark place too – if you’re not afraid to look for it. People shy away; those who are more concerned with when to put certain bins in front of their houses on certain days are likely too far gone to be able to contemplate the ideas emerging in her work, of the pointlessness and random ambiguity and suffering in life, the finite quality of flesh, the finite quality of age, too far gone into a false world designed to protect us from these ‘horrors’, but such ‘horrors’ are normal and so the emotion we experience because of these factors is perfectly normal too, and acceptable: an intrinsic part of the human condition. We should embrace the cold world, look it in the eye, and unlock the ability to emphasise with one another. The painter wonders why only artists, in all their different guises, can look life’s arbitrary nature in the eye, and see it for what it is.


We are here because we call.


The pair talk about music and how it influences their work. Music helps an artist reach the concentrated state of meditation that can enhance the channelling of creative energy into the work at hand. So it is for the painter. She wants to step back from herself, she doesn’t want to insert anything of herself into her work; she wants to see what she can find in the moment of painting, to see what the painting offers up. She wants objectivity, to step away from the cloud of thoughts that embroils the mind and to see the world for what it is – random, capricious, hard, robust, and within a structure far greater than itself, the solar system, the galaxy, the universe. Reason is revealed, a reason why our lives seem insignificant and small. Yes, there’s a place here for overwhelming anguish, crushing anxiety. Yet we must pay to explore the reason of human life: awareness and emotion means embracing the deafening knowledge of one’s place in the order of things. The painter brings this acceptance to her work. She doesn’t use a model when she paints, but enters this concentrated zone and tries and tries with whatever material, oil paints, watercolours or a chunk of charcoal, until she discovers something human. Watercolours reflect the randomness of the world as they create their own patterns as they dry, and may, or may not, show anything at all. If nothing human emerges, she’ll tear the work down and try and try again. It’s a high octane method, to destroy her darlings, but if the work is not equal to the task, she doesn’t hesitate to start from scratch.


We watch through eyes smeared shut.



The painter is aware this all sounds pretentious, when described so, but the writer nods: he knows the truth of the task. It’s this challenge to grasp something of the essence of our existence, something she recognises as human, in her work, that drives her. The pair talk about others whose work has been an influence. She admires German Impressionism, but can’t escape the agenda in the work (she wants to step back from herself, she doesn’t want to insert anything of herself into her work). She’s a feminist – of course – but only when she leaves herself behind can she discover what is revealed. The painter pauses, her arms drift by her side as if floating down on parachutes. She recalls to the conversation the finite quality of flesh, the finite quality of age. Rembrandt’s late self portraits were masterful because they acknowledge this fragility, this finite aspect of life. Her mouth lifts as she turns the question to the writer. The poetry of Hughes. His intelligence, she says, came from his decisions: he made a choice about where to observe, then allowed nature to present to him its mysteries, and waited to see what was revealed. All he really did was watch to see what came. The writer imagines the painter entranced by bleeding, morphing ink, by the dust storm of charcoal, the slow tide of oil paint, waiting to see what comes.


Some echo of a world that’s real.


It’s not possible to truly know another person’s mind. Yet perhaps by finding something in common in art, we can catch a glimpse. We walk here and there trapped inside our bodies, thoughts ricocheting about our skulls. There’s no way out. But if a painter conjures an image from her mind and places it in your mind – something she recognises as human – this offering could make a connection of existence; anguish, humour, the lottery of flesh, the finite quality of age; we can catch a glimpse, and know something of ourselves, of each other.


Look upon our faces: our faces are not our faces.
Try on our makeup; it’s anguish, it’s humour.
We are here because we call; your face is smeared and brushed and moved.
Nudge us, search within us.
We watch through eyes smeared shut as you search beneath for the familiar,
for some reflection,
for some glimmer,
some echo of a world that’s real.
Look upon our faces: our faces are not our faces.



The sky above the bus is heavy: clouds of dense grey gather. The writer sees again the lifted mouth, eyes bright with understanding, a heart where secrets dance. Trees still as paintings hold their leaves up towards the falling rain.





































Originally published by Artidest, 2017, as part of its Meet the Artist series - journal no longer available online
©James Bruce May 2017

Images ©Dianne Kaufman – see diannekaufman.co.uk for info
above – Portrait IX; Oils on canvas, 2017
middle – Face Off II; Ink and watercolour on Arches Aquarelle paper, 2017
below – Portrait VI; Oils on canvas, 2017

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