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Q: I especially enjoy your “Black Paintings” series. You mention being influenced by the story of how Miles Davis developed cool jazz, making this work uniquely American all around. How did you use jazz history in this series?

"Between," soft pastel on sandpaper, 20" x 26"

“Between,” soft pastel on sandpaper, 20″ x 26″

A:  In 2007 I finished the Domestic Threats series and was blocked, certain that a strong body of work was behind me. But what would come next?  

The idea for the Black Paintings began when I attended a jazz history course at Lincoln Center and learned how Miles Davis developed cool jazz from bebop. In bebop the notes were played hard and fast as musicians showcased their musical virtuosity. Cool jazz was a much more relaxed style with fewer notes being played. In other words, the music was pared down to its essentials. Similarly, the Black Paintings evolved from dense, intricate compositions into paintings that depicted only the essential elements. As the series evolved, what was left out became more important, resulting in more demands being placed on the viewer.

Eventually, after much reflection, I had an epiphany and my painful creative block ended.  “Between,” with drastically simplified imagery, was the first in a new series called Black Paintings.  I like to think this series includes work that is richer and more profound than the previous Domestic Threats.

Comments are welcome!

Q: Can you tell us about the different series of work you have created and what they embody?

Barbara’s studio with work in progress

Barbara’s studio with work in progress

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 two years ago, I visited a mask exhibition at the National Museum of Ethnography and Folklore in La Paz.  The masks were presented against black walls, 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 nine pastel paintings in the Bolivianos series.  One is awaiting finishing touches, one is in progress now, and I am planning the next one.

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.  In this sense each painting is a kind of Trojan horse.  There is plenty of backstory to my images, although I usually prefer not to over-explain them.  Some mystery must always remain in art.

The world I depict is that of the imagination and this realm owes little debt to the natural world.  I recently gave an art talk where 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!

 

Pearls from artists* # 325

"Myth Meets Dream," soft pastel on sandpaper, 47" x 38"

“Myth Meets Dream,” soft pastel on sandpaper, 47″ x 38″

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

Homo sapiens is the animal that means something, or that desperately wants to mean something.  Undoubtedly our thirst for meaning has a lot to do with our petrifying awareness of death, itself a side effect of the imagination, and one that makes our unique position as much of a curse as it is a gift.

As the prime fruit of the imagination, art is the incontrovertible sign of humanity’s presence on earth.  But what constitutes the human itself?  The prehistoric paintings at Chauvet confront us with a dimension of ourselves that, though familiar in ways, remains in many respects unknown and may ultimately be unknowable.  Human consciousness has access to a powerful otherworld, the place of dreams and myth, poetry and lunacy.  [This is]… the “imaginal,” the name Henry Corbin gave to the intermediate realm, central to the inscrutable mind of God.  As a concrete manifestation of this imaginal realm in the public sphere, art calls us back to the source as a matter of course.      

J.F. Martel in Reclaiming Art in the Age of Artifice:  A Treatise, Critique, and Call to Action 

Comments are welcome!

Q: Do you consider your finished pastel works to be drawings or paintings?

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

“The Sovereign,” soft pastel on sandpaper, 58″ x 38″ image, 70″ x 50″ framed

A:  Among artists who work in pastel, these two words, ‘drawings’ and ‘paintings,’ have very specific meanings, somewhat unrelated to the usual distinctions made by art historians and others.  For a pastel artist, a ‘drawing’ refers to a work in which the paper or other substrate is allowed to show through.  In a pastel ‘painting’ you do not see the substrate at all, i.e. pastel is used much more heavily in a painting than in a drawing.  Since I have always spent months creating each piece, covering the entire sandpaper ground with up to 30 layers of pigment, I have considered my work to be pastel painting.

Comments are welcome!

      

Q: As an artist what would you say is your particular ‘superpower’?

Barbara's studio

Barbara’s studio

A:  I have been told that it is my unique way of composing images or, in other words, how I deliberately move the viewer’s eye around the picture.  More exactly, it’s the way I combine flat shapes, patterns, angles, forms, modeling, decoration, details, lights, and darks in surprising ways when I make pastel paintings or pick up a camera.   

But I think there’s a secondary, more subtle element:  my understanding of and sensitivity to using color for psychological effect.  The way I use color in pastel paintings is intuitive.  This is something I haven’t reflected on very much yet, but will examine in a future post.

Comments are welcome!    

 

Q: Have any artists influenced you technically?

Barbara at work, Photo: Marianne Barcellona

Barbara at work, Photo: Marianne Barcellona

A:  I’d have to say no one, because my technique of using soft pastel on sandpaper is largely self-invented and it continues to slowly evolve.  I apply up to thirty layers of pigment, blending it with my fingers, and creating new colors directly on the sandpaper.  It is a rather meticulous process that suits my personality.

My unique way of applying and mixing pastel is a richly complex science of color.  This intricate technique is one of the reasons that my pastel paintings cannot be forged by anyone.

Every great artist throughout history has invented their own techniques and created a world that is uniquely theirs, with its own iconography, its own laws, and its own specific concerns.  Artists who are most worthy of the name create their own tasks and make and break their own rules.  

Comments are welcome!

Q: How important are the titles of your pastel paintings?

"Provocateur," soft pastel on sandpaper, 26" x 20"

“Provocateur,” soft pastel on sandpaper, 26″ x 20″

A:  I’d say they are important.  Titles serve mainly as “a way in” for viewers, giving some clues about my thought processes while I am making a painting.  Usually titles emerge only after I have been working on a painting for weeks or months.  For me they are very much like mementos after a very interesting journey.       

Comments are welcome!

Q: Your pastel paintings are immediately recognizable as yours alone. Did you consciously try to develop a signature style in your work?

Barbara's studio

Barbara’s studio

A: I don’t believe that is even possible.  An artist’s style is something that evolves with plain hard work and experience, over many years of trial and error, as one finds what techniques work best and discards those that don’t.  It is a process of continually experimenting, refining, and clarifying.  In other words, style is something that emerges naturally as you gradually strive to improve your art-making. 

Style develops in close connection to what an artist is saying as she undergoes a very personal and idiosyncratic journey.  Again, it would seem improbable for an artist to strive for any particular style, since style is not something over which an artist can exert much conscious control. 

I would even say that each artist’s unique style is inevitable.  It would be nearly impossible now to make a pastel painting or photograph that does NOT look like a Rachko. 

Comments are welcome!

Q: Do you have any favorites among the Mexican and Guatemalan folk art figures that you depict in your work?

Idea for an upcoming pastel painting

Idea for an upcoming pastel painting

A:  I suppose it seems that way, since I certainly paint some figures more than others.  My favorite characters change, depending on what is happening in my work.  My current favorites are a figure I have never painted before (the Balinese dragon above) and several Mexican and Guatemalan figures last painted years ago.  All will make an appearance in a pastel painting for which I am still developing preliminary ideas (above).

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!      

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