Blog Archives

Q: What more would you wish to bring to your work?

Tile worker in South India

Tile worker in South India

A:  I tend to follow wherever the work leads, rather than directing it.  I have never been able to predict where it will lead or what more might be added.

Travel is essential for inspiration.  Besides many Mexican sojourns, I have been to Bali, Sri Lanka, South India, Guatemala, Honduras, Brazil, Peru, Argentina, Paraguay, and other places.  A second trip to India is upcoming, to Gujarat and Rajistan this time.  

Last year I had the opportunity to go to Bolivia. In La Paz I visited the Museum of Ethnography and Folklore, where a stunning mask exhibition was taking place.  As soon as I saw it, I knew this would be the inspiration for my next series, “Bolivianos.”  So far I have completed six “Bolivianos” pastel paintings with two more in progress now.  This work is getting a lot of press and several critics have declared it to be my strongest series yet.

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: What’s on the easel today?

Work in progress

Work in progress

A. I have just started working on a small pastel painting.  Although the mask looks Tibetan, surprisingly, it is from Bolivia.  It’s one I encountered at a mask exhibition at the Museum of Ethnography and Folklore in La Paz.   This is another in my “Bolivianos” series.

Comments are welcome!

Q: What’s on the easel today?

Finished and signed

Finished and signed

A:  I have finally finished “Oracle,” soft pastel on sandpaper, 26” x 20.”  It’s the third piece in my “Bolivianos” series. 

Comments are welcome!

Q: What has been your scariest experience as an artist?

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

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

A:  It was the approximately six months in 2007 when I finished the “Domestic Threats” series and was blocked, certain that a strong body of work was behind me, yet not knowing what in the world to do next!  For a professional artist who had been working non-stop for 21 years, this was a profoundly painful, confusing, and disorienting time.  I remember continuing to force myself to go to the studio and for lack of anything much to do there, spending long hours reading and thinking about art.

Eventually after all of this reflection, I had an epiphany.  “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 considerably richer and more profound than the previous “Domestic Threats.”


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mments are welcome! 

Q: What’s on the easel today?

Work in progress

Work in progress

A:  This is the first day – with only one layer of soft pastel in most places – of a 38″ x 58″ pastel painting.  It’s based on a photo I composed at the National Museum of Ethnography and Folklore in La Paz, Bolivia.  This is the fourth work in my “Bolivianos” series.

Comments are welcome!

Q: What’s on the easel today?

Work in progress

Work in progress

A:  I’m working on a large pastel painting based on a photograph shot when I was vacationing recently in La Paz, Bolivia.  How fortuitous to stumble upon a mask exhibition at The National Museum of Ethnography and Folklore!  It felt as though the exhibition somehow was staged for me, just waiting for me to come along and photograph it. 

Incredibly, I returned to New York, after a spectacular trip to Bolivia, and found myself with photographs that are inspiring a new series.  Certainly this has never happened before!  The series is tentatively called, “Bolivianos.”             

Comments are welcome!

Q: What’s on the easel today?

Work in progress

Work in progress

A:  “White Star,” 38″ x 58″ is slowly progressing.  The title of this painting alludes to David Bowie’s last album, “Dark Star” and is my somewhat more optimistic take on that phrase.   

The white Guatemalan figure and the Sri Lankan mask on the top right still could use more details.  Over time the “Black Paintings” series is becoming more about what is left out. So how much detail to add is an open question.  

Comments are welcome!  

Q: What is the one painting that you never want to sell?

"No Cure for Insomnia," pastel on sandpaper, 58" x 38"

“No Cure for Insomnia,” pastel on sandpaper, 58″ x 38″

A:  There are two:  “Myth Meets Dream” and “No Cure for Insomnia.”  Both are part of my “Domestic Threats” series and were breakthroughs at the time I made them.  They are relatively early works – the first from 1993, the latter from 1999 – and were important in my artistic development. 

“Myth Meets Dream” is the earliest pastel painting in which I depict Mexican figures.  It includes two brightly painted, carved wooden animals from Oaxaca sent to me in 1992 by my sister-in-law.  I have spoken about them before.  These figures were the beginning of my ongoing fascination with Mexico. 

“No Cure for Insomnia” includes a rare self-portrait and is set in my late aunt’s sixth-floor walkup on West 13th Street, where I lived when I moved to New York in 1997.  My four years there were very productive.  

Comments are welcome!  

Pearls from artists* # 152

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

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

* 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 first picture I took of a black man was easy.

That’s the way it sometimes goes for me:  I start on a new series of pictures and right away, in some kind of perverse bait-and-switch, I get a good one.  This freak of a good picture inevitably inspires a cocky confidence, making me think this new project will be a stroll in the park.  But, then, after sometimes two or three more good ones, the next dozen are duds, and that cavalier stroll becomes an uphill slog.  It isn’t long before I have to take a breather, having reached the first significant plateau of doubt and lightweight despair.  The voice of that despair suggests seducingly to me that I should give up, that I’m a phony, that I’ve made all the good pictures I’m ever going to, and I have nothing more worth saying.

That voice is easy to believe, and, as photographer and essayist (and my early mentor) Ted Orland has noted, it leaves me with only two choices:  I can resume the slog and take more pictures, thereby risking further failure and despair, or I can guarantee failure and despair by not making more pictures.  It’s essentially a decision between uncertainty and certainty and, curiously, uncertainty is the comforting choice.

Sally Mann in Hold Still:  A Memoir with Photographs

Comments are welcome!