Cornelius and The Diplomats
It was a characteristically sunny day in Los Angeles, and I had decided that it was time for my father and two suburbanite younger sisters to have a different kind of experience than their quotidian movie rental or mall visit. It was time for something new. That day, I was taking them to see the Diplomats.
I had been invited to one of the Diplomats’ monthly events, and my curiosity was piqued. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but the nice thing about taking relatives with you to art events is that you can write off anything that happens, because, well, it’s art, and you can never be sure what to it will be like, you know.
The Diplomats had promised to draw portraits, on the spot, for a mere $25. I was skeptical, to be sure. Who wanted portraits these days, anyway? The Diplomats had promised a lovely atmosphere—all their events were held at houses of collectors, dealers or other artists. And, they insisted, none of them would be wearing black (“so as not to crowd the area where they work with the uniform of the art world”). The deal closer perhaps, was that “dolphins sat for free.” If only I had a dolphin to bring. I wondered if my pug would be extended the same courtesy, but decided not to push my luck.
What ultimately lured me was the performance aspect of it—people willing to perform artistic tasks, to exhibit their talents on demand, on site, for money. It reminded me of what I imagined court painters to be like in the medieval and renaissance eras. I thought of jesters and organ grinders, midgets and agile dogs. I loved the idea that in LA, where one can buy anything, for almost any price, even someone with an artist’s income such as mine could buy authentic performance art and portraiture all at the same time.
After 40 minutes of driving, my family and I arrived at the Mar Vista locale of the Diplomats’ event. By then my two teenaged sisters had all but lost any initial enthusiasm and curiosity, and were walking along with their shoulders slightly lower than normal, touting apathy and skepticism. My father remained optimistic, perhaps encouraged by the possibility of having his Warholian 15 minutes and the fact that I had promised to pay for his portrait when we got there. We shuffled apprehensively down a narrow corridor alongside a house, pushing aside vines of hollyhocks and passion flowers tendrils. At the turn of a corner we entered a wonderland of music and wine, with jovial people mingling around a modernist, slate-tile patio and reflecting pool. The only hint of art cliché was the small radio blasting a very NPR-esque play-list. (Kraftwerk ushered us into the soiree.) There was a conspicuous absence of black attire (as promised) and two small girls with loose curls played in golden sunlight on the patio like the incarnation of a Maxfield Parrish painting.
The three Diplomats had set up their easel under a tree and were drawing clients who sat in a chair in front of them. Drawing each portrait took around 20 minutes, give or take some time for set-up, pose, and easel negotiation. As I watched the Diplomats in action, the appropriateness of their name became clear. In the manner of a simultaneous exquisite corpse, all three artists drew on the paper at the same time. Most of the time there were three hands on the page at once, often obscuring the composition from view of the others. No one Diplomat told the other what to do or what not to do. No one pushed or shoved or huffed. They worked efficiently and harmoniously. And the amiably bemused spectators all gasped and murmured, “It does look like him!” as the portraits emerged.
I signed my dad up and shortly thereafter he was posing in the chair. Through the process of his portrait, I came to some realizations. There really was something undeniably seductive and thrilling about watching the emergence of a hand-drawn likeness of a friend or loved one. Even more exciting was that it bore remarkable resemblance to the sitter, not just in image, but in sensibility as well. I was transported to a pre-photographic era, but still felt the mystique of the latent image—for it truly seemed to exist already, invisible on the paper, waiting to be revealed with the right twitch of the wrist and swab of the pastel. Like Michelangelo simply removing the unnecessary stone from around the freed slaves, the Diplomats filled negative space with lines and squiggles. Their drawings offered a summary judgment of three pairs of artists’ eyes. And, despite the very ‘80s neo-expressionist color palette of their portrait of my father, I found myself unavoidably enchanted by it. I found punctum in their portrait of my father; in the folds of his eyes, the skewed half smile, his oddly outdated hat. I loved the portrait, because I love my dad. The diplomats captured the familiar and, like traditional portraitists, they portrayed the most distinguishable characteristics of their sitters as the most alluring assets.
Before the advent of photography, custom portraiture historically occupied the realm of royalty and aristocracy, most commonly offering flattering depictions of those best able to pay for it. The middle and lower classes would pay miniaturists, or silhouette painters, and eventually photographers. The kitschy, middle class version of this can be found in the 20th century at amusement parks or in front of international tourist sites. But today the role of public portraitist is being replaced by computerized photo booths that allow you to select an “artistic” filter for your digital portrait. In the era of digital immediacy, it is once again novel and thrilling to see hand-drawn likenesses.
Despite art theory proclaiming otherwise, the proverbial Author is still very much alive. Or, at least authorship is still an issue. We editors at X-TRA have an ongoing debate about the meaning of listing authors of articles and artworks on the cover. I hear frequent discussions about authorship as both an artist and a teacher. It does still matter. It matters because in a capitalist system, authorship is still a commodity. And yet, the Diplomats have eagerly conflated their individual authorship into a new entity that is something of an authorial collage. It also follows that one of the members will readily engage in a lengthy discussion about why he does not think Marcel Duchamp “was so great.” (Having rewritten the meaning of author, it is understandable that Duchamp might strike a few atonal chords in the Diplomats’ ideology.)
The Diplomats formed in 2003, and they hold an event roughly every month, often around holidays—so you can buy your sweetheart a Valentine portrait or a Christmas memento. The events are always at a location of interest (the one I attended was the home of the daughter of the former president of Lebanon, in her beautiful studio with enviably high ceilings and light-wells). The individual Diplomats are Paul Bob Velick, Pierre Picot, and Francesco Siqueiros. Each of the Diplomats has had his own art practice since the ‘70s or ‘80s, and continues to work independently today in the Los Angeles area. Picot is a painter and sculptor, Velick works as a designer and idea man, and Siqueiros runs Nopal Press in downtown Los Angeles.1
The Diplomats are kind of like a teenage punk band. They are defiant, playful, and decidedly anti-bourgeoisie. Their collaborative portrait-performances subvert the current cult of individuality in the art world, yet their three-for the-price-of-one portraits still satisfy the American hunger for “more for your money.” Their model of portraiture rearranges the hierarchies of historical portrait painting, while putting the fun back into performance art. And in the post-post-modern era, what’s more punk than a romantic return to traditional portraiture?
Micol Hebron is an artist living in Los Angeles, and is one third of a performance art group called The Elizabeths.
- You can see a great video portrait of Picot by Dane Picard at: http://www.danepicard. com/html_56K/pierre_picot.html. More about Nopal Press is at: http://www. fauxpop.com/nopalpress/. And Paul Bob Velick, former half of Bob & Bob performance duo, is the co-author of List Your Self; Listmaking as the way to self discovery (1996). For inquiries about the Diplomats, email: firstname.lastname@example.org↵