Blog Archives

Q: Can you tell us about the different series of work you have created and what they embody?

Barbara’s studio with work in progress

Barbara’s studio with work in progress

A:  The Black Paintings series of pastel-on-sandpaper paintings grew directly from an earlier series, Domestic Threats.  While both use cultural objects as surrogates for human beings acting in mysterious, highly-charged narratives, in the Black Paintings I replaced all background details of my actual setup (furniture, rugs, etc.) with lush black pastel.  In this work the ‘actors’ are front and center.

While traveling in Bolivia two years ago, I visited a mask exhibition at the National Museum of Ethnography and Folklore in La Paz.  The masks were presented against black walls, spot-lit, and looked eerily like 3D versions of my Black Paintings.  I immediately knew I had stumbled upon a gift.  So  far I have completed nine pastel paintings in the Bolivianos series.  One is awaiting finishing touches, one is in progress now, and I am planning the next one.

All of my pastel paintings are an example of a style called “contemporary conceptual realism” in which things are not quite as innocent as they seem.  In this sense each painting is a kind of Trojan horse.  There is plenty of backstory to my images, although I usually prefer not to over-explain them.  Some mystery must always remain in art.

The world I depict is that of the imagination and this realm owes little debt to the natural world.  I recently gave an art talk where I was reminded how fascinating it is to learn how others respond to my work.  As New York art critic Gerrit Henry once remarked, “What we bring to a Rachko… we get back, bountifully.” 

Comments are welcome!

 

Q: Another interesting series of yours that has impressed me is your recent “Black Paintings.” The pieces in this series are darker than the ones in “Domestic Threats.” You create an effective mix between the dark background and the few bright tones, which establish such a synergy rather than a contrast, and all the dark creates a prelude to light. It seems to reveal such a struggle, a deep tension, and intense emotions. Any comments on your choice of palette and how it has changed over time?

West 29th Street studio

West 29th Street studio

A:  That is a great question!  

You are correct that my palette has darkened. It’s partly from having lived in New York for so long. This is a generally dark city. We famously dress in black and the city in winter is mainly greys and browns.  

Also, the “Black Paintings” are definitely post-9/11 work. My husband, Bryan, was tragically killed onboard the plane that crashed into the Pentagon. Losing Bryan was the biggest shock I ever have had to endure, made even harder because it came just 87 days after we had married. We had been together for 14 ½ years and in September 2001 were happier than we had ever been. He was killed so horribly and so senselessly. Post 9/11 was an extremely difficult, dark, and lonely time.  

In the summer of 2002 I resumed making art, continuing to make “Domestic Threats” paintings. That series ran its course and ended in 2007. Around then I was feeling happier and had come to better terms with losing Bryan (it’s something I will never get over but dealing with loss does get easier with time). When I created the first “Black Paintings” I consciously viewed the background as literally, the very dark place that I was emerging from, exactly like the figures emerging in these paintings. The figures themselves are wildly colorful and full of life, so to speak, but that black background is always there.       

Comments are welcome!     

Pearls from artists* # 102

New York, NY

New York, NY

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

That a photograph is unlikely to be a laboratory record is evident when we think about how it is made.  Most photographers are people of immense enthusiasms whose work involves many choices – to brake the car, grab the yellow instead of the green filter, wait out the cloud, and at the second everything looks inexplicably right, to release the shutter.  Behind these decisions stands the photographer’s individual framework of recollections and meditations about the way he perceived that place or places like it before.  Without such a background there would be no knowing whether the scene on the ground glass was characteristic of the geography and of his experience of it and intuition of it – in short, whether it was true.

Making photographs has to be, then, a personal matter; when it is not, the results are not persuasive.  Only the artist’s presence in the work can convince us that its affirmation resulted from and has been tested by human experience.  Without the photographer in the photograph the view is no more compelling than the product of some annoying record camera, a machine perhaps capable of happy accident but not response to form.

Beauty in Photography by Robert Adams

Comments are welcome!

Q: How would you define art?

Barbara's studio

Barbara’s studio

A:  At its core all art is communication.  I personally believe that without the component of communication, there is no art.  The expression of human creative skill and imagination becomes art when it is appreciated for its beauty, complexity, emotional power, evocativeness, etc.  A sympathetic and understanding audience is essential.  

Why might artists fail to communicate?  Perhaps they haven’t mastered their medium sufficiently to elicit a reaction from the viewer.  Perhaps the viewer lacks the necessary artistic, cultural, or intellectual background to understand and appreciate what the artist is communicating.  Maybe the viewer is distracted or preoccupied and not looking or thinking deeply enough.  There are many reasons.

Comments are welcome!

 

Q: Please speak about your background as a Naval officer and aviator and how that has informed your sensibility as an artist.

The studio yesterday

The studio yesterday

A:  At the age of 25 I got my private pilot’s license before spending the next two years amassing thousands of hours of flight time as I earned every flying license and rating I could, ending with a Boeing-727 flight engineer certificate. I joined the Navy when I was 29. I used to think that the 7 years I spent on active duty were wasted – during those 7 years I should have been working on my art – but I see things differently now. The Navy taught me to be disciplined, to be goal-oriented and focused, to love challenges, and in everything I do, to pay attention to the details. Trying to make it as an artist in New York is nothing BUT challenges so these qualities serve me well, whether I’m creating paintings, shooting and printing photographs, or trying to understand the art business and keep up with social media.  I enjoy spending long solitary hours working to become a better artist. I am meticulous about craft and will not let a work out of my studio or out of the darkroom until it is as good as I can make it.

Comments are welcome!

Q: How do you know when a pastel painting is finished?

"Big Wow," soft pastel on sandpaper

“Big Wow,” soft pastel on sandpaper

A:  During the several months that I work on a pastel painting, I search for the best, most eye-popping colors, as I build up and blend together as many as 25 to 30 layers of pigment.  I am able to complete some areas, like the background, fairly easily –  maybe with six or seven layers – but the more realistic parts take more applications because I am adding details.  Details always take time to perfect.  No matter how many pastel layers I apply, however, I never use fixatives.  It is difficult to see this in reproductions of my work, but the finished surfaces achieve a texture akin to velvet.   My technique involves blending each layer with my fingers, pushing pastel deep into the tooth of the sandpaper.  The paper holds plenty of pigment and because the pastel doesn’t flake off, there is no need for fixatives.

I consider a given painting complete when it is as good as I can make it, when adding or subtracting anything would diminish what is there.  I know my abilities and I know what each individual stick of pastel can do.  I continually try to push myself and my materials to their limits.              

Comments are welcome.

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