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Pearls from artists* # 321

Museum of Ethnography and Folklore, La Paz, Bolivia

Museum of Ethnography and Folklore, La Paz, Bolivia

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

This is Bolivia, a country rich in cultural expressions.  Here many great civilizations have flourished, all of which, fundamentally, are bound to the soil from which both fruits and gods emerged.

As part of the expression of these cultures, masks are not mere accessories to conceal the face or represent a character for an artistic performance.  Neither are they simply for diversion.

Their roles as objects of art and diversion make sense only as part of a ceremonial act.  Then, masks can be understood as the remembrance of history and myth, the externalization of collective life.  They are seen within the context of a religious or social ceremony whose meaning is embedded in the past as well as present of a people.

These collective acts, without being set apart from daily life, are special celebrations where many distinct elements must be taken into account:  music, dance, costume, mask, food, drink, theatrical representation, work, history…    

Masked Dances of the Altiplano, by Manuel Vargas in Masks of the Bolivian Andes, Photographs:  Peter McFarren, Sixto Choque, Editorial Quipos and BancoMercantil

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Q: What is more important to you, the subject of the painting or the way it is executed?

"Sam and Bobo,"soft pastel on sandpaper, 36" x 31", 1989

“Sam and Bobo,”soft pastel on sandpaper, 36″ x 31”, 1989

A:  In a sense my subject matter – folk art, masks, carved wooden animals, papier mâché figures, toys – chose me.  With it I have complete freedom to experiment with color, pattern, design, and other formal properties.  In other words, although I am a representational artist, I can do whatever I want since the depicted objects need not look like real things.  Execution is everything now.

This was not always the case.  I started out in the 1980s as a traditional photorealist, except I worked in pastel on sandpaper.  (For example, see the detail in Sam’s sweater above).  As I slowly learned and mastered my craft, depicting three-dimensional people and objects hyper-realistically in two dimensions on a piece of sandpaper was thrilling… until one day it wasn’t.  

My personal brand of photorealism became too easy, too limiting, too repetitive, and SO boring to execute!  In 1989 I had at last extricated myself from a dull career as a Naval officer working in Virginia at the Pentagon.  Then after much planning, in 1997 I was a full-time professional artist working in New York.  

Certainly I was not going to throw away this opportunity by making boring photorealist art.  I wanted to do so much more as an artist:  to experiment with techniques, with composition, to see what I could make pastel do, to let my imagination play a larger role in the paintings I made. I was ready to devote the time and do whatever it took to push my art further.

After spending the early creative years perfecting my technical skills, I built on what I had learned.  I began breaking rules – slowly at first – in order to push myself onward.  And I continue to do so, never knowing what’s next.  Hopefully, in 2018 my art is richer for it.

Comments are welcome!

Q: Please speak about how the three pastel paintings series that you have created interrelate.

"The Orator," soft pastel on sandpaper, 38" x 58"

“The Orator,” soft pastel on sandpaper, 38″ x 58″

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.” 

Comments are welcome!

 

Q: Would you share your artist’s statement for the “Bolivianos” series?

Museum of Ethnography and Folklore, La Paz, Bolivia

Museum of Ethnography and Folklore, La Paz, Bolivia

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.  

Comments are welcome!

 

Q: Would you describe how you are taking soft pastel in new directions as a fine art medium?

Barbara at work, Photo: Marianne Barcellona

Barbara at work, Photo: Marianne Barcellona

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.

Comments are welcome!  

Q: Would you elaborate as to how your recent trip to Bolivia is influencing your work just now?

La Paz, Bolivia

La Paz, Bolivia

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!

Comments are welcome!

Q: How long does it take you to complete a pastel-on-sandpaper painting?

Barbara's studio

Barbara’s studio

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.

Comments are welcome!

Q: Can you speak about what draws you to the Mexican and Guatemalan figures that you collect?

Shop in Panajachel, Guatemala, Photo:  Donna Tang

Shop in Panajachel, Guatemala, Photo: Donna Tang

A:  I search the markets and bazaars of Mexico, Guatemala, and elsewhere for folk art objects – masks, carved wooden animals, papier mache figures, children’s toys – to bring back to New York to paint and photograph. Color is very important – the brighter and the more eye-catching the patterns are on these objects the better – plus they must be unique and have lots of personality. I try not to buy anything mass-produced or obviously made for the tourist trade. The objects must have been used or otherwise look like they’ve had a life (i.e., been part of religious festivities) to draw my attention. How and where each one comes into my possession is an important part of my creative process.

Finding, buying, and getting them back to the U.S. is always circuitous, but that, too, is part of the process, an adventure, and often a good story. Here’s an example. In 2009 I was in a small town on the shores of Lake Atitlan in Guatemala, called Panajachel. After returning from a boat ride across the lake, my friends and I were walking back to our hotel when we discovered a wonderful mask store. I spent some time looking around, made my selections, and was ready to buy five exquisitely-made standing wooden figures, when I learned that Tomas, the store owner, did not accept credit cards. I was heart-broken and thought, “Oh, no, I’ll have to leave them behind.” However, thanks to my good friend, Donna, whose Spanish is much more fluent than mine, the three of us brain-stormed until finally, Tomas had an idea. I could pay for the figures at the hotel up the block and in a few days when the hotel was paid by the credit card company, the hotel would pay Tomas. Fabulous! Tomas, Donna, and I walked to the hotel, where the transaction was made and the first hurdle was overcome. Working out the packing and shipping arrangements took another hour or two, but during that time Tomas and I became friends and exchanged telephone numbers (the store didn’t even 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!). Most surprisingly, the package was waiting for me in New York when I returned home from Guatemala.

Comments are welcome!

Pearls from artists* # 69

Masks from Sri Lanka, Mexico, and Bali

Masks from Sri Lanka, Mexico, and Bali

*

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 

Comments are welcome! 

Q: Your relationship with photography has changed considerably over the years. How did you make use of photography in your first series of pastel-on-sandpaper paintings, “Domestic Threats”?

"Truth Betrayed by Innocence," 2001, 58" x 38", the last pastel painting for which Bryan photographed my setup

“Truth Betrayed by Innocence,” 2001, 58″ x 38″,  the last pastel painting for which Bryan photographed the setup

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 beyond (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 in our 1932 Sears house in Alexandria, Virginia, and later, in a New York sixth floor walk-up apartment, using the Mexican masks, carved wooden animals, and other folk art figures that I found on our 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 (we met on February 21, 1986).  Having been introduced to photography by his father at the age of 6, Bryan was a terrific amateur photographer. He 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.  Over time, I turned myself into a skilled photographer.

Comments are welcome!