Human Rights Painting Project Catalogue

New York City, 2002

Tom Block wears several painterly hats at once; he's equally at home creating abstract paintings and expressionistic figurative portraits. In Caceres, Spain, where he lived during the mid-90s, he painted colorful abstractions on cast-off wooden slats that were spontaneous explosions of joy. A few years later, now living in a basement apartment in Gaithersburg, Maryland, he began a series of expressionistic portraits of friends and family. The subjects didn't necessarily recognize themselves, but Block, always intrigued by the "look of a person," wanted to capture the essence of each subject.

A philosophical thinker and writer as well as a visual artist, Tom Block is interested in the intersection of philosophy, religion and art. In a 1998-2001 series of paintings, drawings and collage, he explored the teachings of the Sufis, Christian spirituality and Jewish mystics by inventing a personal and contemporary visual language of sign and symbol. Art, for him, was a way to unite the three major religious beliefs.

Block's background in art and philosophy as well as his deep concern for the human condition has prepared him for the Human Rights Painting Project. Working with Amnesty International, he has portrayed the sufferings of dozens of persons from a worldwide group. Sixty paintings and two hundred drawings dramatize their stories . . . there are few happy endings. Portraits of three of these persons have been chosen as representative in this essay.

The portrait of Wei JingSheng, a human rights activist from China, seems to disintegrate quickly before our eyes. A charcoal drawing shows a young man's face and upper body crisply defined; high cheekbones, an attentive expression, a dissenter with a firm objective. Jailed for almost 20 years, his face in the oil begins to show the effects of his incarceration. A red, swollen nose pulls to one side, angry swabs of color mark his cheeks his lips are now a thin streak of black paint. His hand, once firm and youthful, is skeletal, grotesquely outlined. Wei JingSheng was finally released from prison in 1997.

In 1999, Sowore Omoyele, a Nigerian pro-democracy activist, was treated at the Bellevue- New York University Program for Torture Survivors. An ink drawing suggests only an outline of his body. Blue patches of paint enliven an otherwise ghostly portrayal. In a charcoal drawing of Omoyele's head, harsh lines emphasize his mouth and nose, his eyes stare fixedly ahead. In an oil painting, Omoyele's face and hands slowly disappear. One shoulder and arm droop bonelessly, thin splashes of reddish paint, blood or bruises, appear through his heavily impasto-ed shirt. The hell-fires of a burning city appear in the background.

The style in which his tortured subjects are portrayed is important to Block. While most of his images are painted in an expressionistic manner, the "Heretic's Fork," a charcoal on paper of a head, has the simplicity of a classic Roman-Greco drawing. Clean lines emphasize the man's neck, stretched and held firmly in place by a sharp forked instrument poised under his chin and neck simultaneously . . . a punishment reminiscent of crucifixions and other cruelties imposed on religious heretics. An oil painting of the subject in cool, dark colors does not scream anguish, but the pain is there.

All of the portraits are different . . . each one a testament to the individual suffering. Tom Block wants us to remember these people . . . maybe their portraits can help in some small way to change the world.

Perhaps, ultimately, art can remind us: "No man is an Island; any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankind; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee." (John Donne, Meditation XVII)

Caril Dreyfuss McHugh, New York City, 2002