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 last spring, I visited a mask exhibition at the National Museum of Ethnography and Folklore in La Paz. The masks were presented against black walls, were 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 three pastel paintings in the Bolivianos series. Two more are in progress now.
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. Each painting is a Trojan horse. There is plenty of backstory to my images, although I usually prefer not to over-explain them. Much is to be said for mystery in art.
The world I depict is that of the imagination and this realm owes little debt to the natural world. Recently, at an art talk 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.”
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A: Here it is.
My long-standing fascination with traditional masks took a leap forward in the spring of 2017 when I visited the National Museum of Ethnography and Folklore in La Paz, Bolivia. One particular exhibition on view, with more than fifty festival masks, was completely spell-binding.
The masks were old and had been crafted in Oruro, a former tin-mining center about 140 miles south of La Paz on the cold Altiplano (elevation 12,000’). Depicting important figures from Bolivian folklore traditions, the masks were created for use in Carnival celebrations that happen each year in late February or early March.
Carnival in Oruro revolves around three great dances. The dance of “The Incas” records the conquest and death of Atahualpa, the Inca emperor when the Spanish arrived in 1532. “The Morenada” dance was once assumed to represent black slaves who worked in the mines, but the truth is more complicated (and uncertain) since only mitayo Indians were permitted to do this work. The dance of “The Diablada” depicts Saint Michael fighting against Lucifer and the seven deadly sins. The latter were originally disguised in seven different masks derived from medieval Christian symbols and mostly devoid of pre-Columbian elements (except for totemic animals that became attached to Christianity after the Conquest). Typically, in these dances the cock represents Pride, the dog Envy, the pig Greed, the female devil Lust, etc.
The exhibition in La Paz was stunning and dramatic. Each mask was meticulously installed against a dark black wall and strategically spotlighted so that it became alive. The whole effect was uncanny. The masks looked like 3D versions of my “Black Paintings,” a pastel paintings series I have been creating for ten years. This experience was a gift… I could hardly believe my good fortune!
Knowing I was looking at the birth of a new painting series – I said as much to my companions as I remained behind while they explored other parts of the museum – I spent considerable time composing photographs. Consequently, I have enough reference material to create new pastel paintings in the studio for several years. The series, entitled “Bolivianos,” is arguably my strongest and most striking work to date.
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A: I have been devoted to soft pastel for more than thirty years. In this blog and in countless interviews online and elsewhere, I continue to expound on its merits. For me no other fine art medium comes close.
I have developed my own original methods for working with soft pastel, pushing this venerable 500-year-old medium to its limits and using it in ways that no one has done before. I have created a unique science of color in which I layer and blend pigments. When viewers (including fellow artists) see my work in person for the first time, they often ask, “What medium is this?”
My self-invented techniques for using soft pastel achieve rich velvety textures and exceptionally vibrant color. Blending with my fingers, I painstakingly apply dozens of layers of pastel onto acid-free sandpaper. In addition to the thousands of pastels that I have to choose from, I blend new colors directly on the paper. Each pastel painting takes about three months and hundreds of hours to complete.
My subject matter is singular. I am drawn to Mexican, Guatemalan, and Bolivian cultural objects—masks, carved wooden animals, papier mâché figures, and toys. On trips to these places and elsewhere I frequent local mask shops, markets, and bazaars searching for the figures that will populate my pastel paintings. How, why, when, and where these objects come into my life is an important part of the creative process. Each pastel painting is a highly personal blend of reality, fantasy, and autobiography.
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A: I consider myself extremely fortunate to have seen a mask exhibition at the National Museum of Ethnography and Folklore when I visited La Paz in May. Presented as they were against black walls with dramatic spot-lighting, the masks looked exactly like 3D versions of my paintings! These old Bolivian masks were stunning.
I spent a long time there composing photographs on my iPad. Immediately I knew this exhibition was a gift because I now had material to keep me busy in the studio for several years.
I have completed the first pastel painting in my new series, “Bolivianos,” and am far along into the second. I’m looking forward to many more to come!
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A: Mine is a slow and labor-intensive process. First, there is foreign travel to find the cultural objects – masks, carved wooden animals, paper mâché figures, and toys – that are my subject matter. If they are heavy I ship them home.
Next comes planning exactly how to photograph them, lighting and setting everything up, and shooting a roll of 220 film with my Mamiya 6 camera. I still like to use an analog camera for my fine art work, although I am rethinking this. I have the film developed, decide which image to use, and order a 20” x 24” reference photograph from Manhattan Photo on West 20th Street.
Then I am ready to start. I work on each pastel-on-sandpaper painting for approximately three months. I am in my studio 7 to 8 hours a day, five days a week. During that time I make thousands of creative decisions as I apply and layer soft pastels (I have 8 tables-worth to choose from!), blend them with my fingers, and mix new colors directly on the sandpaper. A finished piece consists of up to 30 layers of soft pastel. My self-invented technique accounts for the vivid, intense color that often leads viewers of my originals to look very closely and ask, “What medium is this?” I believe I am pushing soft pastel to its limits, using it in ways that no other artist has done.
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an ongoing series of quotations – mostly from artists, to artists – that offers wisdom, inspiration, and advice for the sometimes lonely road we are on.
The mission is to stay hungry. Once you need to know, you can proceed and draw distinctions. From the heat of this necessity, you reach out to content – the play, the theme, or question – and begin to listen closely, read, taste, and experience it. You learn to differentiate and interpret the sensations received while engaged with content. The perception forms the basis for expression.
Have you ever been so curious about something that the hunger to find out nearly drives you to distraction? The hunger is necessity. As an artist, your entire artistic abilities are shaped by how necessity has entered your life and then how you sustain it. It is imperative to maintain artistic curiosity and necessity. It is our job to maintain in this state of feedforward as long as humanly possible. Without necessity as the fuel for expression, the content remains theoretical. The drive to taste, discover, and express what thrills and chills the soul is the point. Creation must begin with personal necessity rather than conjecture about audience taste or fashion.
Anne Bogart in and then, you act: making art in an unpredictable world
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Q: In your earlier “Domestic Threats” series, you liken your paintings to scenes in a movie. Is there an audition process? What qualities must a figure possess to be cast in one of your paintings?
A: There’s not an audition process, but I do feel like the masks and figures call out to me when I’m searching the markets of Mexico and Guatemala. Color is very important – the brighter and the more eye-catching the better – plus they must have lots of “personality.” I try not to buy anything mass-produced or obviously made for tourists. How and where these objects come into my life is an important part of the process. Getting them back to the U.S. is always an adventure. For example, in 2010 I was in Panajachel on the shores of Lake Atitlan in Guatemala. After returning from a boat ride across the lake, my friends and I were walking back to our hotel when we noticed a mask store. This store contained many beautiful things so I spent a long time looking around. Finally, I made my selections and was ready to buy five standing wooden figures, when I learned that Tomas, the store owner, did not accept credit cards. Not having enough cash, I was heart-broken and thought, “Oh, no. I can’t bring these home.” However, thanks to my friend, Donna, whose Spanish was much more fluent than mine, Tomas and she came up with a plan. I would pay for the figures at a nearby hotel and once the owner was paid by the credit card company, he would pay Tomas. Fabulous! Tomas, Donna, and I walked to the hotel, where the transaction was completed. Packing materials are not so easy to find in remote parts of Guatemala so the packing and shipping arrangements took another hour. During the negotiations Tomas and I became friends. We exchanged telephone numbers (he didn’t have a telephone so he gave me the phone number of the post office next door, saying that when I called, he could easily run next door). When I returned to New York ten days later, the package was waiting for me.
While setting up a scene for a painting, I work very intuitively so how the objects are actually “cast” is difficult to say. Looks count a lot – I select an object and put it in a particular place, move it around, and develop a storyline. I spend time arranging lights and looking for interesting cast shadows. I shoot two exposures with a 4 x 5 view camera and order a 20″ x 24″ photograph to use for reference. I also work from the “live” objects. My series, “Domestic Threats,” was initially set in my Virginia house, but in 1997, I moved to a six floor walk-up in New York. For the next few years the paintings were set there, until 2001 when I moved to my current apartment. In a sense the series is a visual autobiography that hints at what my domestic surroundings were like.
Q: Mexico has been a big influence on your work. What first drew you to Mexican folk art – masks, carved wooden animals, papier mâché figures, and toys?
A: In 1991 my future sister-in-law sent, as a Christmas present, two brightly painted wooden figures from Oaxaca. One was a large, blue and white polka dot flying horse, the other a bear, painted with red, white, and black dots and lines.
At the time I was living in Alexandria, Virginia, studying at the Art league School there, and working as a full-time artist. I had resigned from the Navy after seven years on active duty, although I still worked one weekend a month at the Pentagon as a reservist. I was looking for something new to paint with soft pastel, having found portraits deeply unsatisfying.
I had never seen anything like these Oaxacan figures and was intrigued. I started asking friends about Oaxaca and soon learned that the city has a unique style of painting, the self-titled Oaxacan school, and that the painter, Rufino Tamayo, and husband and wife photographers, Manuel and Lola Alvarez Bravo, were from Oaxaca. (Manuel Alvarez Bravo founded an important photography museum there).
I had been a fan of Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, Leonora Carrington, Remedios Varo and other artists associated with Mexico, and had a long-standing interest in pre-Columbian civilizations. I knew some Spanish, having studied it in high school. I began reading everything I could find about Oaxaca and Mexico and soon became fascinated with the Day of the Dead.
In 1992 my future husband, Bryan, and I made our first trip to Mexico, spending a week in Oaxaca to see Day of the Dead observances and to study the Mixtec and Zapotec ruins (Monte Alban, Yagul, Mitla, etc.), and another week in Mexico City to visit Diego Rivera’s murals at the Ministry of Education, Frida Kahlo’s Casa Azul, and nearby ancient archeological sites (the Templo Mayor, Teotihuacan, etc.).
I began collecting Mexican folk art on that first trip. I still have fond memories of buying my first mask, a big wooden dragon with a Conquistador’s face on its back. Bryan and I found it high on a wall in a dusty Oaxacan shop. The dragon was three and a half feet long and three feet wide. Because it was fragile, we hand-carried it onto the plane and were able to store it in the first class cabin (this was pre-9/11). I chuckle to remember that we covered its finely carved toes with rolled up socks to prevent them from breaking!
I have been back to Mexico many times, mainly visiting the central and southern states. I travel there to study pre-Columbian history, archaeology, mythology, culture, and the arts. It is an endlessly fascinating country that has long been an inspiration for artists.