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!
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Q: Can you talk a little bit about your process? What happens before you even begin a pastel painting?
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: Your new work explores relationships to figures through the medium of soft pastel. What prompted this departure from photography?
A: Actually it was the other way around. As I’ve mentioned, I was a maker of pastel-on-sandpaper paintings long before I became a photographer (1986 vs. 2002). However, the photos in the “Gods and Monsters” series were meant to be photographs in their own right, i.e., they were not made to be reference material for paintings. in an interesting turn of events, in 2007 I started a new series, “Black Paintings,” which uses the “Gods and Monsters” photographs as source material. Collectors who have been following my work for years tell me the new series is the strongest yet. For now I’m enjoying where this work is leading. The last three paintings are the most minimal yet and I’ve begun thinking of them as the “Big Heads.” There is usually a single figure (“Stalemate” has two) that is much larger than life size. “Epiphany” (above, left) is an example. All of them are quite dramatic when seen in person, especially with their black wooden frames and mats.
Comments are welcome!
Q: Your “Gods and Monsters” series consists of tableaux of Mexican and Guatemalan figures that are photographed in a way that blurs certain elements to abstraction while others are in clear focus. Can you please speak more about this work?
A: When I depict the Mexican and, more recently, Guatemalan figures in my pastel-on-sandpaper paintings, they are hard-edged, vibrant, and in-your-face. That’s a result of the way I work in pastel. I slowly and meticulously build up layers of pigment, blend them with my fingers, continually refine and try to find the best, most eye-popping colors. It’s a very slow process that takes months of hard work. An aside… One frustration I have as an artist – I am hardly unique in this – is that my audience only sees the finished piece and they look at it for perhaps ten seconds. They rarely think about how their ten-second experience took me months to create!
In 2002 when I began photographing these figures, I wanted to take the same subject matter and give it an entirely different treatment. So these images are deliberately soft focus, dreamy, and mysterious. I use a medium format camera and shoot film. I choose a narrow depth of field. I hold gels in front of the scene to blur it and to provide unexpected areas of color. Even as a photographer I am a colorist.
I want this work to surprise me and it does, since I don’t usually know what images I will get. Often I don’t even look through the viewfinder as I position the camera and the gels and click the shutter. I only know what I’ve shot after I’ve seen a contact sheet, usually the next day.
The “Gods and Monsters” series began entirely as a reaction to my pastel paintings. The latter are extremely meticulous and labor intensive. At a certain point in the process I know more or less what the finished painting will look like, but there are still weeks of slow, laborious detail work ahead. So my photographic work is spontaneous, serendipitous, and provides me with much-needed instant gratification. I find it endlessly intriguing to have two diametrically opposed ways of working with the same subject.
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A: After I lost my husband, Bryan, on 9/11 – as I’ve discussed elsewhere, Bryan photographed most of the setups for my “Domestic Threats” series – I needed to find a way to continue making art. In June 2002 I began studying photography at the International Center of Photography (ICP) in New York. I took a one week 4 x 5 view camera workshop because Bryan had photographed the setups with a Toyo-Omega view camera. I was surprised to discover that I had absorbed quite a bit of technical information just by watching him. Once I completed the workshop, I decided to start over and to learn as much as I could about photography. So I enrolled in Photography I. Over the next several years I completed about a dozen courses at ICP, eventually learning to make my own large-scale chromogenic prints. Around 2007 I began working seriously as a photographer, creating my photographic series, “Gods and Monsters,” with Bryan’s Mamiya 6 camera. In October 2009 HP Garcia Gallery in New York gave me my first solo photography exhibition (see “Exhibition catalogue” under Blogroll).
I’m busy getting ready for my next solo show there in October. This exhibition will be fairly comprehensive and will include recent photographs (diptychs and single images), new work from the “Black Paintings” series, and a selection of Mexican and Guatemalan figures. There will be an exhibition catalogue and later in the fall, the gallery will publish the first book about my work. I am particularly thrilled about the book, a new, but long overdue, career milestone!