by Rico Marcelli
Painting is an endeavor which incorporates more of my personal abilities and professional experience than any other pursuit. My art practice is built on years of photography, graphic design, drawing, as well as political organizing, strategic planning, and philosophic inquiry. My decision to commit to visual art was not so much a question of whether I could make interesting paintings, but rather one of reconciling my artistic tendencies, which are very non-political, with my need to feel involved in social change.
This reconciliation occurred during my undergraduate studies into philosophy and social theory, as I came to realize that the human behaviors which build society are all attempts to represent an “inner” reality through transformations in material reality. Art is not confined to the arts. Art is simply an elegant way of proceeding—with sensitivity, determination and craft—toward a personal or shared goal, through whatever medium one happens to contend with. The entire process of social transformation is thus distilled into a simple and profound form within the artistic process. The artist is instrumental in creating the context for social and cultural transformation decades, if not centuries, before any political process even begins to represent the resulting changes. All this is a complicated way of saying that I had to come to an understanding of why painting is “doing good” in a larger sense and not merely the selfish indulgence it so often feels like. The only way for me to feel confident in the validity of my contribution is to allow my hands to create what my eyes want to see with as little cerebral interference as possible.
My work emerges from two abundant sources of inspiration. The first is my photography, which tends to emphasize "flat" surfaces with graphic qualities, such as walls, sidewalks and textures. The second source is a series of shapes which I derived from the eight trigrams of the I Ching almost twenty years ago and have been working with ever since. The photographs provide me with enough visual information to take on longer-term paintings, while the works on paper are improvisational and keep me in touch with a philosophical system which has great meaning for me. I have found that attempting to mix these two impulses can produce very unexpected and intriguing visual results. Therefore, my experimentation has been organized around finding new ways of combining these two seemingly disparate sources into one painting. This in turn has led me to become very interested in three particular technical concerns.
The first has to do with finding techniques for creating a rich and somewhat complicated depth of field which is nevertheless severely compressed. Questions arise such as how to represent the depth one experiences when looking at the ground, or how to combine two flat images in such a way as to create the experience of space and flatness at the same time. A second area of interest for me is the interplay between painted color and the physical body of the paint itself, as well as the object being painted on. Through an invented process we can build a painted object which is similar in composition to the material reality being represented. In other words, layers of paint on top of each other can be ordered in the same way as the represented surfaces, so that there is always the picture being represented with color, yet at the same time the body of paint reflects the same material but in a sculptural way. The interplay between these two aspects of a painting are fascinating to me, which is why I've been interested in painting images on top of sculptural representations of the same image, but mis-registered so that the viewer must reassemble the two aspects as one visual experience.
The third technical interest regards what I think of as the arc of a project—from the heady excitement of the beginning stages, through the sometimes tedious middle steps, to the tense endgame where each step is small but the stakes are higher. How does my emotional and physical state vary through the course of this trajectory? How does this personal envelope manifest in the work? How are a two-hour painting and a two-year painting similar? How are they different? During what stages do I execute my best work and why? How can I learn to execute the later steps with the same lightness of spirit as I do the beginning steps? Can I paint the underpainting on top? What should go under it? An obvious influence regarding these concerns, particularly my work with the trigrams, is Brice Marden. Less obvious perhaps is Agnes Martin, whose model of consistent patience and restraint serve to pull me back on course whenever I drift.
I cannot help but feel that there exists always the possibility of executing a perfect artwork—a single gesture which accomplishes each step with the same grace and command as a master calligrapher might execute the strokes of an individual character. While I am a long way from mastery in painting or any other medium, this is what drives me to start each new project. Regardless of whether one paints, sculpts or organizes people, the work is ultimately the same: discovering and accepting the constraints which define any given medium in order to unlock its possibilities and change the world.