Q: What art project(s) are you working on currently? What is your inspiration or motivation for this? (Question from artamour)
A: While traveling in Bolivia in 2017, 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, the series I was working on at the time. I immediately knew I had stumbled upon a gift. To date I have completed seventeen pastel paintings in the Bolivianos series. One awaits finishing touches, another is in progress, and I am planning the next two, one large and one small pastel painting.
The following text is from my “Bolivianos” artist’s statement.
“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 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!
A: Except for many hours spent in life-drawing classes and still life setups that I devised when I was learning my craft in the 1980s, I have always worked from photographs. My late husband, Bryan, would shoot 4” x 5” negatives of my elaborate “Domestic Threats” setups using his Toyo-Omega view camera. I rarely picked up a camera except when we were traveling. After Bryan was killed on 9/11, I inherited his extensive (film) camera collection – old Nikons, Leicas, Graphlex cameras, etc. – and needed to learn how to use them. Starting in 2002 I enrolled in a series of photography courses (about 10 over 4 years) at the International Center of Photography in New York. I learned how to use all of Bryan’s cameras and how to make my own big color prints in the darkroom.
Early on I discovered that the sense of composition, color, and form I had developed over many years as a painter translated well into photography. The camera was, and is, just another medium with which to express ideas. Pastel painting will always be my first love. However, pastel paintings take months of work, while photography offers instant gratification, especially with my current preferred camera, an iPad Pro.
Comments are welcome!
A: Generally, I am most interested in exploring Mexico and destinations in Central and South American because they offer endless inspiration to further my work. I’m not exactly certain why this is the case. I DO know that I cannot get enough of travel to points south!
My 2017 trip to Bolivia proved to be crucial for my current pastel painting series. “Bolivianos” is based on an exhibition of Carnival masks encountered at the National Museum of Ethnology and Folklore in La Paz.
I had high hopes of making a return visit – along with a private tour guide – last February. However, since President Moreno resigned last November, much political instability, violence, and turmoil resulted. I would not have felt safe traveling to Oruro to see Carnival celebrations this year.
In the mean time I look forward to traveling to Chile, the Atacama Desert, and Easter Island next winter!
Comnents are welcome!
Q: You have worked with twenty-plus galleries during your career. Which ones do you consider the best?
A: Probably the most prestigious gallery that represented my work was Brewster Fine Arts on West 57th Street in Manhattan. Brewster was my first New York gallery. In the summer of 1996 I mailed the gallery a sheet of slides, as we did in those days. I was living in Virginia and had been a working artist for ten years. In July while traveling around Mexico, I decided to check the phone messages at home in Virginia. I was thrilled to receive an invitation from Mia Kim, the gallery director, to exhibit pastel paintings in October! And she had not yet even seen my work in person.
Beginning that fall, I gained representation with Brewster Fine Arts, an elegant gallery specializing in Latin American Masters like Rufino Tamayo, Diego Rivera, and others. I am not Latina, of course, but I showed there due to my subject matter. At my October opening, I remember Mia declaring to the attendees, “Barbara has the soul of a Latina!” That night I met fellow gallery artist Leonora Carrington. She and I were the only non-Latina artists respresented. I knew I was on my way!
The gallery continued to present my work in group exhibitions and the staff gave brilliant talks about me and my creative process. For many years whenever I introduced myself to a new art aficionado, they already knew my work from having seen it at Brewster. I continued to be represented there until the gallery closed years later.
Also, Gallery Bergelli in Larkspur, CA did an excellent job of representing my work. I applied for one of their juried exhibitions, was accepted, and afterwards, they offered permanent representation. Soon they introduced me to one of my best collectors, with whom I am still friends.
I have worked with many galleries, some good, some not, for various reasons. Ours is an extremely tough business. Unfortunately, many of the best and formerly-great galleries are gone forever.
Comments are welcome!
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!
A: I have just started working on a small (20″ x 26″) pastel painting. The figure is a Balinese dragon I found last summer at “Winter Sun & Summer Moon” in Rhinebeck, New York.
Preferring to collect these figures while traveling in their countries of origin, I made an exception this time. My reasoning? I have been to Bali (in 2012) and at four feet tall and carved from solid wood, this dragon is quite heavy and would have been difficult to bring home.
Comments are welcome!