Category Archives: Domestic Threats

Q: What genre do you work in?

“Broken,” soft pastel on sandpaper, 38″ x 58″ image, 50″ x 70″ framed

A:  I consider all of my pastel paintings and photographs to be “contemporary conceptual realism.”  In my work there is a disquieting quality, a feeling that things are not quite as innocent as they at first seem.   The world I depict is a world of the imagination that owes little debt to the natural world.  As one New York art critic noted, “What we bring to a Rachko… we get back, bountifully.”    

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Q: How has your use of photography changed over the years?

Untitled, 24" x 24" c-print

Untitled, 24″ x 24″ c-print

A:  When my husband, Bryan, was alive I barely picked up a camera, except to photograph sights encountered during our travels.

Throughout the 1990s and ending in 2007, I worked on my series of pastel-on-sandpaper paintings called, “Domestic Threats.”  These were realistic depictions of elaborate scenes that I staged first in our 1932 Sears house in Alexandria, Virginia, next in a New York sixth floor walk-up apartment, and finally in my current New York apartment.

I use Mexican masks, carved wooden animals, and other folk art figures that I discovered on trips to Mexico. I staged and lit these setups, while Bryan photographed them using his Toyo-Omega 4 x 5 view camera.  We had been collaborating this way almost from the beginning (circa 1991).  Having been introduced to photography by his father at the age of 6, Bryan was a terrific amateur photographer.

Bryan would shoot two pieces of 4 x 5 film at different exposures and I would select one, generally the one that showed the most detail in the shadows, to make into a 20 x 24 photograph. The photograph would be my starting point for making the pastel painting. Although I work from life, too, I could not make a painting without mostly looking at a reference photo. 

After Bryan was killed on 9/11, I had no choice but to study photography.  I completed a series of photography classes at the International Center of Photography in New York, turned myself into a skilled photographer, and presented my first solo photography exhibition at HP Garcia in New York in 2009.

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Q: One can’t help but make connections between the devastating effects of 9/11 and your series, “Domestic Threats.” Would they be right?

“No Cure for Insomnia,” soft pastel on sandpaper, 58″ x 38″

A:  Well, not exactly, since I began this work in 1991.  

All of the paintings in this series are set in places where I reside or used to live, either a Virginia house or two New York apartments, i.e., my personal domestic environments. Each painting typically contains a conflict of some sort, at least one figure that is being menaced or threatened by a group of figures.  For example, in “No Cure for Insomnia (above) the threatened figure is me.  So it was an easy decision to name the series “Domestic Threats.”  My idea was that these paintings were psychological dramas: surrealistic, metaphoric depictions of human fears, anxieties, inner conflicts, demons, etc.  

But depending on what is/was going on in the country at a particular moment, people make other associations. Since my husband was killed on 9/11, people think the title, “Domestic Threats,” was prescient and ascribed all kinds of domestic terrorism associations to the work. For a time viewers thought I was hinting at scenes of domestic violence, but that also is not what I intended.  The title “Domestic Threats” has proven to be fraught with associations that I never considered.

However, I am fine with any interpretations that are elicited because it means my paintings are getting a response.  That’s important.  I have been working, studying, and thinking about art for thirty years and hopefully, that’s reflected in the work I create.  It’s natural that it takes time for people to ponder all the complexities in a work of art.

Maybe this comment by the late Gerrit Henry, a New York critic, is more true now than when he wrote it sixteen years ago:  “What we bring to a Rachko, in other words, we get back, bountifully.”

Comments are welcome!

Q: Would you talk about your first solo exhibition in a commercial gallery?

"Big Deal," soft pastel on sandpaper, 58" x 38"

“Big Deal,” soft pastel on sandpaper, 58″ x 38″

A:  Although I had exhibited in a number of non-profit galleries in Virginia, Washington, DC, Maryland, New Jersey, and New York, my first solo in a commercial gallery was at 479 Gallery, 520 Broadway, in July 1996.  The previous summer I had entered a juried exhibition there.  My work won first prize and I was awarded a solo show.  

This exhibition was soon followed by representation at an important New York gallery, Brewster Fine Arts, at 41 West 57th Street.  I had my first two-person exhibition at Brewster in October 1996.  The gallery specialized in art by Latin American artists.  Besides myself, the sole non-Latina represented by Brewster was Leonora Carrington.  I quickly began exhibiting alongside a group of illustrious artists:  Leonora, Rufino Tamayo, Francisco Toledo, Francisco Zuniga, and other Latin American masters.  I could hardly believe my good fortune!   

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Q: Is there a pastel painting that you are most proud of?

"She Embraced It and Grew Stronger," soft pastel on sandpaper, 38" x 58," 2003

“She Embraced It and Grew Stronger,” soft pastel on sandpaper, 58″ x 38,” 2003

A:  Without a doubt I am most proud of “She Embraced It and Grew Stronger.” 

After Bryan was killed on 9/11, making art again seemed an impossibility.  When he was alive I would spend weeks setting up and lighting the tableau I wanted to paint.  Then Bryan would shoot two negatives using his Toyo-Omega 4 x 5 view camera.  I would select one and order a 20″ x 24″ reference photo to be printed by a local photography  lab.  

“She Embraced It…” is the first large pastel painting that I created without using a photograph taken by Bryan.  This painting proved that I had learned to use his 4 x 5 view camera to shoot the reference photographs that were (and still are) integral to my process.  My life’s work could continue!

Certainly the title is autobiographical.  ‘She’ in “She Embraced It and Grew Stronger” is me and ‘It’ means continuing on without Bryan and living life for both of us.

Comments are welcome!   

Q: What is the one painting that you never want to sell?

"No Cure for Insomnia," pastel on sandpaper, 58" x 38"

“No Cure for Insomnia,” pastel on sandpaper, 58″ x 38″

A:  There are two:  “Myth Meets Dream” and “No Cure for Insomnia.”  Both are part of my “Domestic Threats” series and were breakthroughs at the time I made them.  They are relatively early works – the first from 1993, the latter from 1999 – and were important in my artistic development. 

“Myth Meets Dream” is the earliest pastel painting in which I depict Mexican figures.  It includes two brightly painted, carved wooden animals from Oaxaca sent to me in 1992 by my sister-in-law.  I have spoken about them before.  These figures were the beginning of my ongoing fascination with Mexico. 

“No Cure for Insomnia” includes a rare self-portrait and is set in my late aunt’s sixth-floor walkup on West 13th Street, where I lived when I moved to New York in 1997.  My four years there were very productive.  

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Q: Would you say there is a unifying quality to all of the work you have produced in the last thirty years?

Barbara's portfolio book

Barbara’s portfolio book

A:  Yes, I can think of several.  Whether making pastel paintings or printing photographs in the darkroom, I have always been concerned with quality and craftsmanship and never pronounce a work finished until it is the best thing I can make. 

Although I started out as a maker of photorealist portraits in pastel, for twenty-odd years I have worked with Mexican folk art as my primary subject matter, treating these objects very differently in three separate series:  “Black Paintings,” “Domestic Threats,” and “Gods and Monsters.”  The first two are pastel-on-sandpaper paintings while the last is comprised of chromogenic photographs (c-prints).  A few years ago I also started making “Teleidoscopes” using an iPad app to photograph my Mexican and Guatemalan folk art collection.  This last one is just for fun; I do not offer them for sale.

Soft pastel is my first love and the two series of pastel paintings are my best-known work.  My technique for using pastel continues to evolve in intriguing ways.  I doubt I can ever learn all there is to know not only about color, but also about this medium.  Pastel is endlessly fascinating, which is why I have never wanted to switch to anything else. 

Comments are welcome!      

Q: What do you think are the most important qualities in an artist?

“Big Deal,” soft pastel on sandpaper, 58″ x 38″

A: Two essentials immediately come to mind.  I believe imagination and curiosity are very important qualities, not only for artists, but for anyone who hopes to look back on a well-lived life.  As Lauren Bacall famously said, “Imagination is the highest kite one can fly.” 

It is curiosity that keeps people laser-focused on a lifetime journey of learning.  I’d venture to say that curiosity is the not-so-secret quality of accomplished people in every profession.  We humans can never know enough!

Comments are welcome!            

Pearls from artists* # 160

"A Promise, Meant to be Broken," soft pastel on sandpaper, 58" x 38"

“A Promise, Meant to be Broken,” soft pastel on sandpaper, 58″ x 38″

* an ongoing series of quotations – mostly from artists, to artists – that offers wisdom, inspiration, and advice for the sometimes lonely road we are on.

When I get asked what one piece of advice I have for young photographers, this is what I tell them:  if you are working on a project, and you’re thinking maybe it’s time to put it out into the world, make sure you have already started your next body of work.  Not just started, either; you should be well along on it.  You will know that the first project is finished when you find yourself joylessly going through the motions to eke out a few more pictures while, like a forbidden lover, the new ones call seductively to you.  This new lover should be irresistible, and when it calls, you will be in its urgent thrall, making the work of your heart.

Sally Mann in Hold Still:  A Memoir with Photographs  

Comments are welcome! 

Q: How do you know when a series has ended?

 

"A Promise, Meant to be Broken," soft pastel on sandpaper, 58" x 38"

“A Promise, Meant to be Broken,” soft pastel on sandpaper, 58″ x 38″

A:  I suppose it’s when there is nothing left to say within a particular body of work.  The urgency to add something I haven’t tried vanishes.  Usually I can’t even think of anything I haven’t tried. 

I knew with certainty that the “Domestic Threats” series was finished while “A Promise Meant to be Broken” was still on my easel.  It’s no accident that I included a self-portrait.  This painting was my way of saying good-bye to an important body of work – literally turning my back on it – and summing up where the work had taken me. 

For artists each series is a creative journey with a beginning, a middle, and an end.  At a certain point it’s over.  Then you build on what you’ve accomplished and move on to create something new.  The connection between new work and old may not always be obvious, but one thing is certain:  all the previous work laid the groundwork for what you make today.    

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