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A bunch of words about two paintings.

4 Apr

I have this habit of visiting a place, and not truly knowing where I have been until I am home.

Sometimes this is is a tad terrifying. Like when I cajoled my travelmates into swimming at a mysteriously empty, remote beach near an abandoned gold mine in Aruba, only to learn later that the spot was named “Shark Feeding Beach”. Other times, as in the case of the small town of Vizzola Ticino in Italy, the sensation of having passed through something fascinating without knowing until much later just why I was fascinated, is close to magical. Admittedly it also brings on a hectic, close feeling – like claustrophobia – as the impossibility of wandering through the place one more time, right now, to look more closely, pushes in.

I went to Italy this past summer with one main purpose; to bike over the mountain passes of the Dolomiti mountains. Pretty fancy purpose, I know… but it was my honeymoon trip, and we like hills. The town of Vizzola Ticino was just about the least emphasized location on our entire trip. In fact, I only saw the name of the place on a map because we needed to pass through it – it was a negligible side note on the route between the boring airport-hotel town of Gallarate and an obscure bike path that we rode as a warm-up, waiting for some other cyclists to fly in. “Vizzola T” appeared on a number of humble traffic circles that we rode through repeatedly, and for the most part the town seemed unremarkable and like the suburbs around it. It’s inhabited part was just the size of a neighborhood and looked like a planned community… flat grid of roads, white convenience stores primarily selling ice cream novelties, flapping notices on the white community center, tiny houses with kind of startling electrical gates at the end of their car-length driveways.

What put Vizzola T. on my radar at all began with a few unexplained attractions that sprung up after we passed the “center” of town. A vast field with a completely empty farm building at its center. Old rock walls and gates to nowhere. A tall stone column bearing the town name beneath a crumbling eagle, in lettering old enough to boggle my sign-paintery, new-worldy mind.

The part of Vizzola T. that followed this sign was breathtaking and strange; beautiful, so old, and completely empty. Aged doors stood open, leaf choked. Intricately painted property walls drifted towards dust. Again, we were just supposed to be passing through, looking for a bike path somewhere on the left, near a canal that I found it impossible to find for three consecutive days. We were traveling with people who’d been to this area repeatedly, and no one mentioned anything about the town being worth note. I figured that was because in context, in this country that I’d never stepped foot in before, completely abandoned old villages were par for the course. Indeed, I even felt a little silly when I kept asking to pull aside and peek through a crack in a wall or take a photo.

Once home, I think my research into the town started because of the lettering in some of the photos above. I thought I might put together a collection of hand painted text from other countries, or repaint one of these phrases myself, and that I should know what they said. As soon as I googled the phrase above, “Senza Cozzar Dirocco”, I started finding some pretty remarkable stuff.

Turns out Vizzola T. was the original site of the home and factory of the famous aircraft innovator and manufacturer, Caproni. The now-empty town we were passing through once housed the aircraft factory’s employees… the tumbledown farms provided their food in an unprecedented model of agricultural efficiency. Even the strange, low canal we’d ridden along with the source for a now-closed hydroelectric plant. The empty fields had seen test flights, bombings in World War II,  a school of aviation from which flew the first female Italian pilot. Some of the most famous planes in the world were made here, in what was once one of the area’s most profitable industries.

(Senza Cozzar Dirocco was the motto for the Caproni family and company BTW, given them by the poet Gabriele D’Annunzio. The internet at first tried to tell me that it translates to the rather inelegant “Without touching the ground they destroy their targets”, but I’ve since found that most translations agree on “Without Clashing, I Demolish”. You know. Like a bomber plane. From the sky, without taking a hand to a hand.)

Suffice it to say I’ve worn out my pitiful Italian on aviation history websites, and bought a few great books. I won’t write at length about the Caproni family or aircraft manufacturing history, because I have such a scant grasp on what I’d be talking about that it would read like a 5th grader’s plagiarism of the World Book, and because if you are interested you will look into it yourself. What I suppose I’m writing about instead is the simple and universal experience of stumbling upon a place thick with palpable history, and the disparate ways that different people – and different countries – react to those places.

The strangest thing to me, as an American, is the way the whole area has been allowed simply to be. The way, decades and decades past Caproni’s move and eventual dissolution, buildings just crumble and barns stand open, vine bound, bent on obliteration. There are no plaques, no pretenses at preservation (admittedly there is a restored villa and an aviation museum in a nearby town, but I didn’t see it). There’s also no graffiti, no vandalism, no sign of squatters in the vacant blocks, just… vacancy. There was no reappropriation of factory dorms for luxury condos. It’s fantastic for someone like me who likes to (wrongly, borderline-insanely) imagine that they’re the only one to have stumbled upon a place.  There was nothing to stop me taking home the stones of a historic barn, or breaking my neck within the skeleton of a leaning water tower.

I have spent my entire life working out this preoccupation with historic and haunted spaces – wavering between a preservationist’s instinct to save, and a more visceral, naturalist instinct that they should be allowed to pass and decay and leave only psychic marks on the landscape – and I understand that it’s not at all a unique pursuit. I’m drawn like anyone to storied but obsolete industrial landscapes, empty houses with things still in their closets, bottles and metals buried in river silt. I think this all started when, on a poke through the woods near my house at about age 6, I stumbled upon an old foundation nowhere near any road and I was struck permanently dumb by sudden thoughts of the Once-Was and the Had-Been and all Gone-Befores. I’ve tried awfully hard to create stories from the depths of any number of forests and basements, and have been profoundly unsure what to make with these stories, or what constructive thing could be done with my interest in them.

Like a lot of the people I know, I’ve studied urban planning, geography and psychogeography, worked for preservationists and in repurposed mills. I’ve petitioned to save historic properties at times, and at other times wished parts of my own city could be allowed to sink down into the rising, Lovecraftian port waters, unmolested and unmarked. I’ve investigated any number of careers that might be even vaguely connected to a passion for the inexplicable spirit of places, I’ve worked with geocoding and survey-taking, and of course I’ve traveled and documented, but still I don’t hold a full-time job in any of these fields.

What do I do with my preoccupation instead? I “drive” the Google street view car around on my laptop at night, and by day I paint things.
Someday perhaps I’ll do more. But for now, here…

Two paintings inspired by Vizzola Ticino. These feature large mountain goats (stambecco) that are common in the region –  I did not see any – and that also happen to be the animal on the Caproni family crest.

Within each painting are some of the towns ghostly structures, some movement, some light from different times, and some scraps of the motto: Senza Cozzar Dirocco.
Maybe these paintings are about conflict, about clashing, about demolition and preservation, or just about a place.
I’m certainly not going to be the one to decide.


Le Temps Perdu

2 Feb

When I was invited to send two small pieces to the StolenSpace Love/Hate show on somewhat tight timeline, I thought it would be a good challenge. I don’t believe that I’ve painted anything under 4 feet in height in many, many years, nor have I often tried to respond to an assigned theme.

Luckily I was told I could respond to that theme in as loose and abstract a manner as I wanted. For both 18″x18″ pieces (tiny, fergodssake!) I’ve painted mockingbirds engaged in the more ambiguous stages of the mating ritual. Love? Hate? A feathery fluster.

I was interested in further pursuing my recent practice of combining wildlife with images of the most human landscapes, overbuilt environments, decadent interiors, symbols of status and civilization. In searching about for some imagery of bars and taverns (where better to engage in ambiguous mating battles?) I came across some very interesting, poetic neon signs, and thought I should give it a shot: maybe I could paint neon.

My response to “Love” features the amorously engaged mockingbirds, double-exposed with the neon sign for Le Temps Perdu in Paris. The bar’s name translates to “The Lost Time”.

My response to “Hate” features another tussle, and the sign for a Belgian bar called A La Mort Subite… “To the Sudden Death”.

Then again, you might well switch which painting is associated with which emotion and find something more in these. Who am I to say?

I am not sure about small paintings, but I might try one again.

As for the neon, I think I can paint it! It bears another attempt.

In fact, I think I’ll go work on one right now.


2 Jun

Dear Glass Window;


How on earth shall I photograph the sign that I have reverse-painted on you? The sunny day that I’ve waited for has finally come, and brings with it ever so many reflections.



Must I wait for nightfall? Must I find my old Canon SLR and its polarizing lens?



As ill-documented as it may be, I’m really pleased with how this window sign for West Side Wellness came out.

I am equally pleased with the massages I’ve been receiving at the same establishment, though I wish my body would stop requiring the words “quadrocep” and “adhesion” be spoken in the same sentence.

That is all.


21 Oct

Some things in the studio, gettin’ towards done. As is often the case, I’ve been painting horned animals and birds at an unusual scale, and in exaggerated poses.

As is equally often the case, some of my favorite parts of the work are the abstracted areas, the chance textures that come from strange paint reactions and adventures with the orbital sander.

And as is, yes, even more often the case, I am somewhat stymied and stuck as to how to finish these things, so I thought I would post them now, in honor of their incompleteness and pesky energy.

I’m really preoccupied with root forms lately, and have been making pilgrimages to local Asian markets in search of interesting bits. I’m seeking ginseng, or other interesting, woody and tangly medicinal roots (though so far all I’ve come home with is hot sauce and “sinus buster” tea). I’m moved to add root forms to these paintings, especially the one with the big horn sheep, drawn for some reason to this image of earthy growth intertwined with the animal or transposed on sky.

The problem is, I don’t know why. And I’m not sure whether it’s okay to simply keep going on impulse, or whether it might be nice to have a more… um… lucid understanding of my own work. Sometimes I wish I were like  Adam, who knows very well when he is, for example, “seeking out aggregations of quadrangular forms, resulting in architectural conglomerations with an ‘accidental’ feeling of high modernity. ” Yes. That’s definitely a thing.

I’m sure the delightful conflict between intuitive indulgence and purposeful meaning-making will persist for approximately my whole life. So for tonight, here’s a vote for creative guts that I just found while reading a book of Michael Chabon essays. (What “creative guts” means is different for all of us and hard as hell to put a finger on, but surely it’s something we should step up and celebrate.)

Chabon’s essay is about the act of writing, and he uses the myth of golem-making as an analogy for the writer’s (or any artist’s) pursuit. Talks about the creation of monsters, the fact that a fear of losing control of one’s creation is, more often than not, a sign that you’re doing something right.

The essay and its muddy metaphor ends like this, and so I will as well!

“If a writer submits his work to an internal censor long before anyone else can get their hands on it, the result is pallid, inanimate, a lump of earth.

The adept handles the rich material, the rank river clay, and diligently intones his alphabetical spells, knowing full well the history of golems: how they break free of their creators, grow to unimaginable size and power, refuse to be controlled. In the same way the writer shapes his story, flecked like river clay with the grit of experience and rank with the smell of human life, heedless of the danger to himself, eager to show his powers, to celebrate his mastery, to bring into being a little world that, like god’s, is at once terribly imperfect and filled with astonishing life”.

More relative abundance

4 Jun

This elk, ecstatic or wary as he may be, and accompanied by roots occasionally growing gold, is headed to One Way Gallery in Narragansett tomorrow. Go visit him in person… the gallery is RIGHT next to Crazy Burger, wherein you will find things crazy delicious.


4 Feb

I just met some deadlines. Met ’em head on. No one’s as surprised as I am that things came together as well as they did.

Much of what made up my to-do list over the past month was the usual glitter and debris; appointments and web launches, commissions and training sessions and about a hundred things I’ve already forgotten that I did.

I also finished a 160 hour contract design job which required me to commute about 3 hours a day and work in an office. I realize that even finding this noteworthy is a sign of my completely ridiculous and decadent freedom. I haven’t commuted, nor sat in a desk chair (any chair, really, I’m on the floor right now) regularly in over five years. It was a change. As was the need to wear a badge in order to return from the ladies’ room to my desk.

Simultaneous to said contract job, I finished a 48″ x 60″ painting and shipped it off to Thinkspace for the February 12th opening of “Fresh”, in which I’m flattered to be featured. This whopper of a piece is in freight transit as I type, and tracking predicts it’ll be in the gallery tomorrow afternoon. I’m really proud of this piece, proud of the brute force with which I wrestled it into my truck during a veritable sub-zero nor’easter, and also somewhat disoriented by how quickly it came (out of me) and went (out the door).

Oh elk painting, I hardly knew ye. I hope ye aren’t smearing in any way, as ye may not have been totally dry.

It’s taken a lot of momentum to pull everything together recently, and as I shake myself out (and bang myself against a river stone or two, like good old fashioned laundry) I’m really interested in how best to maintain this momentum, carry it forward into my new, next, as-yet-undefined projects. As well as a wee little twinge of frenetic, dyspeptic stress here and there, the kind of deadline-dependent projects I’ve just finished demand a kind of focus that I find really soothing, constructive and somewhat new. The past month has reminded me (and not just because I couldn’t leap from my cubicle without someone noticing) that you can truly only do one thing at a time, and that it’s best done deeply, without distraction, and until it’s done.

Right now my studio looks like this:

Ready and willing, blank and waiting. I may need to finish this bottle of wine first and I may need a little while to sketch, but I really do intend to keep up the forward roll I’ve recently set in motion– making choices without undue doubt and lollygagging, responding to ideas with action rather than double-thought, and finalizing projects decisively even without the imposed deadline of a particular opening.

Oh next paintings. I hardly know ye.