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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Q: I have been always fascinated with the re-contexualizing power of Art and with the way some objects or even some concepts often gain a second life when they are “transduced” on a canvas or in a block of marble. So I would like to ask you if in your opinion, personal experience is an absolutely indespensable part of a creative process. Do you think that a creative process could be disconnected from direct experience?
A: Certainly personal experience is an indispensable and inseparable part of the creative process. For me art and life are one and I suspect that is true for most artists. When I look at each of my pastel paintings I can remember what was going on in my life at the time I made it. Each is a sort of veiled autobiography waiting to be decoded and in a way, each is also a time-capsule of the larger zeitgeist. It’s still a mystery how exactly this happens but all lived experience – what’s going on in the world, books I’m reading and thinking about, movies I’ve seen that have stayed with me, places I’ve visited, etc. – overtly and/or not so obviously, finds its way into the work.
Life experience also explains why the work I do now is different from my work even five years ago. In many ways I am not the same person.
The inseparableness of art and life is one reason that travel is so important to my creative process. Artists always seek new influences that will enrich and change our work. To be an artist, indeed to be alive, is to never stop learning and growing.
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A: I’m more critical on days when I am sad so that the faults, imperfections, and things I wish I had done better stand out. Fortunately, all of my work is framed behind plexiglas so I can’t easily go back in to touch up newly-perceived faults. It reminds me of the expression, “Always strive to improve, whenever possible. It is ALWAYS possible!” However, I’ve learned that re-working a painting is a bad idea. You are no longer deeply involved in making it and the zeitgeist has changed. The things you were concerned with are gone: some are forgotten, others are less urgent. For most artists the work is autobiography. Everything is personal. When I look at a completed pastel painting, I usually remember exactly what was happening in my life as I worked on it. Each piece is a snapshot – maybe even a time capsule, if anyone could decode it – that reflects and records a particular moment. When I finally pronounce a piece finished and sign it, that’s it, THE END. It’s as good as I can make it at that point in time. I’ve incorporated everything I was thinking about, what I was reading, how I was feeling, what I valued, art exhibitions I visited, programs that I heard on the radio or watched on television, music that I listened to, what was going on in New york, in the country, in the world, and so on. It is still a mystery how this heady mix finds its way into the work. During the time that I spend on it, each particular painting teaches me everything it has to teach. A painting requires months of looking, reacting, correcting, searching, thinking, re-thinking, revising. Each choice is made for a reason and as an aggregate these decisions dictate what the final piece looks like. On days when I’m sad I tend to forget that. On happier days I remember that the framed pastel paintings that you see have an inevitability to them. If all art is the result of one’s having gone through an experience to the end, as I believe it is, then the paintings could not, and should not, look any differently.
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