Blog Archives

Q: Would you comment on the origin of the title for your photographic series, “Gods and Monsters”?

Untitled c-print, 24" x 24" edition of 5

Untitled c-print, 24″ x 24″ edition of 5

A:  My title is borrowed directly from a 2001 catalogue essay by the late art critic, Gerritt Henry.  The essay was about my first pastel painting series (“Domestic Threats”) and it’s called, “Barbara Rachko:  Gods and Monsters.”  

Among other shared interests, Gerritt and I both loved old Frankenstein movies from the 1940s.  Around 1998 interest in James Whale, who had directed the original films, was riding high thanks to an Oscar-winning biopic about his last days in Hollywood.  The film was called, “Gods and Monsters.”  The title was taken from a line in “Bride of Frankenstein,” in which Dr. Pretorius toasts Dr. Frankenstein saying, “To a new world of gods and monsters.”

My photographic series came after “Domestic Threats” and some years after Gerritt’s essay was published.  When I was searching for a title for the photos, “Gods and Monsters” seemed a perfect fit!

Comments are welcome!  

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.

Comments are welcome!

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: 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.  

Comments are welcome!  

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: 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.    

Comments are welcome!

Q: Why do you call the small paintings in your “Domestic Threats” series, “Scenes?”

"Scene Thirteen: Bathroom," 26" x 20", soft pastel on sandpaper

“Scene Thirteen: Bathroom,” 26″ x 20″, soft pastel on sandpaper

"He Urged Her to Abdicate," 58" x 38," soft pastel on sandpaper

“He Urged Her to Abdicate,” 58″ x 38,” soft pastel on sandpaper

A:  At first I didn’t know what to call them.  I was looking for a word that meant “a piece of some larger whole.”  Initially the word “shard” – a fragment of pottery – came to mind.  However, that didn’t capture the meaning I was seeking, since my paintings have little to do with pottery. 

My large “Domestic Threats” paintings are theatrical.  There is substantial labor and much thought involved in their creation, so I often think of myself as a director and each image as a play. 

Small “Domestic Threats” paintings are made from a portion of a photograph that I use as reference  for a larger painting.  For example, “Scene Thirteen:  Bathroom” (above, top) is a small version of “He Urged Her to Abdicate” (above, bottom). 

A “portion” of a play is a “Scene” so that’s what I finally named them.  Additionally, I numbered the paintings in order of their creation and added the room where each takes place.

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!     

Q: Can you talk a little bit about your process? What happens before you even begin a pastel painting?

Barbara in Bali (far right)

Barbara in Bali (far right)

A:  My process is extremely slow and labor-intensive. 

First, there is foreign travel – often to Mexico, Guatemala or someplace in Asia – to find the cultural objects – masks, carved wooden animals, paper mâché figures, and toys – that are my subject matter.  I search the local markets, bazaars, and mask shops for these folk art objects. I look for things that are old, that look like they have a history, and were probably used in religious festivals of some kind. Typically, they are colorful, one-of-a- kind objects that have lots of inherent personality. How they enter my life and how I get them back to my New York studio is an important part of my art-making practice. 

My working methods have changed dramatically over the nearly thirty years that I have been an artist. My current process is a much simplified version of how I used to work.  As I pared down my imagery in the current series, “Black Paintings,” my creative process quite naturally pared down, too. 

One constant is that I have always worked in series with each pastel painting leading quite naturally to the next.  Another is that I always set up a scene, plan exactly how to light and photograph it, and work with a 20″ x 24″ photograph as the primary reference material. 

In the setups I look for eye-catching compositions and interesting colors, patterns, and shadows.  Sometimes I make up a story about the interaction that is occurring between the “actors,” as I call them.

In the “Domestic Threats” series I photographed the scene with a 4″ x 5″ Toyo Omega view camera.  In my “Gods and Monsters” series I shot rolls of 220 film using a Mamiya 6. I still like to use an old analog camera for fine art work, although I have been rethinking this practice.   

Nowadays the first step is to decide which photo I want to make into a painting (currently I have a backlog of photographs to choose from) and to order a 19 1/2″ x 19 1/2″ image (my Mamiya 6 shoots square images) printed on 20″ x 24″ paper.  They recently closed, but I used to have the prints made at Manhattan Photo on West 20th Street in New York.  Now I go to Duggal.  Typically I have in mind the next two or three paintings that I want to create.

Once I have the reference photograph in hand, I make a preliminary tonal charcoal sketch on a piece of white drawing paper.  The sketch helps me think about how to proceed and points out potential problem areas ahead. 

Only then am I ready to start actually making the painting. 

Comments are welcome!    

Q: Can you discuss your process, including how you actually use Mexican and Guatemalan folk art figures in your art?

A corner of Barbara's studio

A corner of Barbara’s studio

A:  When I set up the figures to photograph for a painting, I work very intuitively, so how I actually cast them in an artwork is difficult to say. Looks count a lot – I select an object and put it in a particular place, look at it, move it or let it stay, and sometimes develop a storyline. I spend time arranging lights and looking for interesting cast shadows. With my first “Domestic Threats” series, all of this was done so that Bryan, my late husband, or I could shoot a couple of negatives with his Toyo Omega 4″ x 5″ view camera.  For  my “Black Paintings” series, begun in 2007, I shoot medium format negatives with a Mamiya 6 camera.

I always look at a 20″ x 24″ photograph for reference as I make a pastel-on-sandpaper painting, plus I also work from the ‘live’ objects.  The photograph is mainly a catalyst because finished paintings are always quite different from their associated reference photos.  Also, since I spend months creating them, the paintings’ interpretative development goes way beyond that of the photo.   

I once completed 6 large (58” x 38”) pastel paintings in a single year, but more recently 4 or 5 per year is common.  It takes approximately 3 months to make each one.  During that time I layer and blend together as many as 25 to 30 layers of pastel. Of course, the colors get more intense as the painting progresses and the pigment accumulates on the sandpaper.

Comments are welcome!