Now Featuring Piero Passacantando
Piero Passacantando says he is a “painter mimicking a painter,” and somehow, that funny statement is exactly right. Exploring collaboration and restriction in combination with research into art and social history, he reveals painting as cipher, meditation, communication, pattern and picture all at once.
To view his collection of LPP exclusive prints: Go here.
MH: Can you talk about the way collaboration has evolved in your work? Your collaborators range from your father to Nepalese Thangka painters, but these interactions most often result in paintings?
PP: I have always enjoyed collaboration. In my late teens at the peak of my activity as a graffiti artist, I was constantly working with fellow artists, particularly when painting on big walls. Even before then, in my early teens, I remember drawing comic characters with friends. My first collaborative paintings were done in undergraduate school… it wasn’t done consciously but reflecting back, collaboration has been a thread running throughout my artistic path. Also I have been actively thinking of and involved in group dynamics as a result of my activities as an educator and activist.
Using painting as a strategy for collaboration became a more conscious pursuit at the end of graduate school. As a painter involved in a social practice-based program, after a period of keeping the two separate, I started to develop strategies to use painting as a participatory tool. Painting offers a framework that most participants can “understand” and relate to, even those who are not involved in contemporary art. Nearly everyone has painted at some point in their life, at least as kids.
But I am also not a collaboration fundamentalist. My RGMBW series is a totally solo enterprise. At times, I like to make things alone.
MH: Can you talk about your time in Kathmandu studying Thangka painting and explain what this painting tradition is?
PP: My experience there was amazing. Thanks to a Fulbright grant, I was able to go to Kathmandu, Nepal, to research Thangka painting along three lines of inquiry: technique and methods; philosophy and iconography; production system in the context of contemporary Kathmandu.
Thangka means “rolled up.” It is a painting technique developed around the 11th century AD in Nepal. It is a Northern Buddhist art form and the images are very rich in iconography, mainly mandalas and Buddhist deities. They are on fabric treated with a ground and animal skin glue in such a way that it can be easily rolled. This makes its transportation extremely efficient. The paints are traditionally created with handmade pigments, but artists now use regular acrylics, poster colors and watercolor. Nowadays they are produced in workshops, each work resulting from the efforts of a number of hands.
I studied Thangka painting at the Dharmadatu Foundation, a Nepali grassroots organization. The organization offers scholarships to children from the rural areas around the Kathmandu valley belonging to a specific ethnicity and social layer, Tamang. After the children turn eighteen they are trained in Thangka painting techniques. The organization then sells the Thangkas to supply more scholarships.
After some training in the traditional techniques and iconography, I decided to produce my work in a much different way than I had planned, in part because I didn’t feel comfortable using imagery and iconography so integral to the Nepali spiritual practices, and different from what I had previously done in general. I decided to hire and collaborate with Dawa and Sherab Tamang, two young and incredibly talented painters from Dharmadatu, to paint and create compositions inspired by (not copied from) the geometries embedded in the traditional Thangkas. This shift was inspired by my research into Thangka painting and also was influenced by a Vipassana mediation retreat to which I participated while there. I am not religious at all, but this meditation technique offered some amazing new tools to relate to my own mind and body. A really transformative experience.
MH: How did you develop this current series of work featured on LPP? The title RGMBW references the restricted color scheme, but also to mechanical/digital printing processes… and the paintings themselves recall design and textiles of the late 1960s.
PP: These paintings are a direct evolution of the works I did in Kathmandu. There, the paintings had a kind of meditative dimension. Kathmandu is a crazy busy place, but somehow the feeling I had was very centered, and so the works reflected this state of being. After Kathmandu and months of roaming here and there in search of a new home, I ended up in New York.
Here in NYC, my emotions completely shifted. Although I took a formal approach, the RGMBW series is first and foremost an emotional response to this new situation. It is almost a romantic group of works. Shortly after moving to NY, I got a day job as a software trainer in midtown Manhattan. I had to commute everyday to Grand Central train station, and it was the mass movements of individuals, the flows of people that really inspired the first RGBMW paintings. I decided to shift from the centralized and depth-oriented composition I used in Nepal to all-over, grid-based patterns. I opted for a very strict five color scheme that I lifted from a photo in a fashion magazine that appealed to me. I delved into artistic research to expand my knowledge of how other artists have dealt with similar issues, either relating to New York or pattern making. I decided to keep the works very neat and task-oriented as a stabilizing, almost spiritual, approach. I tried to make them as close to computer made as I could, in part as a reflection of my observation as I software trainer of the relationship between humans and computers. In this attempt to be computer-like, the most interesting thing is the tension between the perfection/imperfection of the human hand.
As I began to paint these works they started to ask me certain questions: where does the line between fine art and decoration lay? Are these spiritual works? Technical explorations? Pure eye candy? Is there more to what they mean? Are there elements of representation? I don’t know! All these questions come together in these pieces and have kept inspiring more. I use compasses and rulers in the drawing stage, but the brushwork is all freehand, no tape. This is important because part of the work was this task-oriented meditative process, with very strict guidelines. In a sense all my life felt extremely crazy at the time I started RGMBW, and the paintings offered a kind of structure.
MH: What projects are you working on now? Do you have any upcoming collaborative work?
PP: I am working on a new project called MyNerva (www.my-nerva.com). MyNerva is an experimental center for artistic research, dialogue and production exploring structures, aesthetics and rituals of the corporation. This idea is directly inspired by my current day job as a clinical information systems trainer for a healthcare software company. It is now at the proposal stage, but I am very excited about it. It will consist of a physical office, a website and a newsletter all based on corporate aesthetics but that will aim at self-transcendence. Each month there will be a series of conversations in the office, which will in turn result into physical changes to the space itself. The website and newsletter will also be a place for dialogue and will have a monthly call for submissions
I am also making some more works on the lines of RGMBW but in grayscale, and I have been working on some explorative paintings in the studio.
As far as collaborations, I just completed a project called “I Paint You. You Paint Me.” for two art festivals in New York. I set up a banner, two facing easels and provided the materials. I painted portraits of participants in exchange for their portrait of me. Most of the participants were passersby. I ended up painting 49 participants, which means that now I have 49 paintings of myself! And they are amazing!! I plan to show these soon. In addition, I am currently building a website which will house the documentation of the project and will also give participants an opportunity to share their experience.
MH: What artists/makers are you interested in? As longtime influences? As new discoveries?
PP: I really am influenced by all kinds of things, from science to fashion, from history to sociology. I obviously love paintings from the western canon with a strong formal and geometric bent. These artist come to mind now: Emma Kunz, Sonia Delauny, Piet Mondrian, Bridget Riley, Eva Hesse, Agnes Martin, Sol LeWitt, Ad Reinhardt, Mark Grotjahn, Shawn O’Dell, Suzan Frecon, Todd Chilton. Nevertheless, I am far more interested in the trans-cultural and pan-historical aspects of geometrical paintings and artifacts. I tend to a look at the use of pattern and geometry in a wider sense: I am interested in why human beings (me included) across time and space have used geometry and mathematics as a base to create visual works. It is almost like a human need!
As far as influences for my participatory/social practice works: Ted Purves, John Leanos, Amy Franceschini, Sam Gould, Josh Green, myVillages, Superflex, Temporary Services, General Idea, Harrell Fletcher. This week’s favorites: Michelle Levy, People’s Ping Pong Party.
MH: How do you invite participation in your work? I imagine being a painter is a good introduction, in some ways, because painting is so widely recognized as a technique of artists (if I was trying to act out “artist” in charades, I’d mime painting at an easel) but it’s also familiar, most people at least try it in school. But at the same time maybe it’s challenging since so much western painting, especially since the 19th century, is considered solitary work.
PP: I have tried different strategies to foster interaction: some fairly “removed,” like mail-based art or craigslist adds, some more direct, using food and live painting for example. I think you are right in saying that this has to do with familiarity and I find your charade observation essential. The painter is in the public imagination the quintessential embodiment of the artist. In my case, the funny part is that I am actually a painter mimicking a painter. It’s a bit like a false farce, which is perhaps the truth!
I think that the painter as a solitary figure is more imbedded into the artist imaginary than that of the general public. I feel that it is more difficult for me to bridge out of it than for the audience to accept a collaborative way of producing.
MH: And finally, what are you interested in trying that scares you? I enjoy how you describe coming to the RGMBW works through the dislocation of moving, and starting a new project can be scary no matter where you are…Is there anything you’re dreaming about tackling that you haven’t gotten to yet, or a way of working that you’re waiting to try?
PP: Having a baby!!