Getting Lost in the Crowd: Francesca Bifulco at Jna Gallery
A few months ago, I saw painter Francesca Bifulco’s work at Bergamot Station’s Jna Gallery in Santa Monica. Her “crowd series” moved and impressed me with their sheer size, the density and details of the crowds depicted, the hard-lined graphics, and the oscillating feeling between oppressivity and sensitivity that she creates. – Ellen C. Caldwell, Los Angeles Contributor
There was something in the process and details of her work that really spoke to me…How these hard edges and emboldened lines and cross-hatchings could create one image when viewing the work from afar, but a totally opposite and sensitive moment when standing closer and looking at the details of a very particular facial expression of a specific crowd member or an intricate detail of an architectural element.
I also found her color choices to be so compelling. The unexpected use of neons, when paired with and against the muted neutral tones create an interesting dynamic. I learned that Bifulco’s crowd series were inspired by actual crowds she had experienced and encountered in her own life and travels. Born in Italy, but living in Los Angeles, Bifulco is just beginning to explore the changing crowds and scenery on the west coast of the U.S. I was able to catch up with her to discuss her process, inspiration, and style…
Ellen Caldwell: Can you tell me a little bit about what led you to the crowd series?
Frencesca Bifulco: I don't really have a good explanation for why I chose to paint crowds. I've been always attracted to them. When I was younger, I would see a crowd in a movie, specifically crowds of people walking, and I would always stop, rewind it and watch it again in slow motion. These are the earliest memories of my fascination with crowds I can remember. Of course later on, I always enjoyed being in the middle of a screaming crowd at a concert too.
EC: Specifically where are they, what was happening?
FB: The very first painting I made consciously was in 2009 and it was a crowd, a black and white one, with a little touch of red, with a self-portrait from behind lost in it. I made it in about 10 days, which is fast for me. So I think there was an urgency I was holding inside that I didn't honestly know I had till I was done with the painting. Shortly after I finished my first Crowd, I met a married couple from Boston. After seeing it, they told me “America needs your art.” I will never forget those words. They became my “Good Friends from Boston,” and I think those words led me to keep painting. After that, everything happened very naturally, and over time I've come to see the crowd as a social subject matter worth painting.
The two pieces [you saw] on display at Jna Gallery are a corner in Naples and a protest in Rome. Both of which are crowds I was in and that captured my eye's attention. The protest was something I had the chance to chat with a few people about during the opening at Jna. There was a woman telling me how she recognized herself in it when she was protesting for female rights while Bush (not sure which one) was president and she realized how strong that experience was for her and how one face in particular took her back to that protest. When people tell me stuff like this, I feel I am going in the right direction. She, amongst others, help me realize how important a subject crowds can be.
EC: I know you live between Italy and California...Have you expanded upon this series and painted crowds in LA? And if so, how do they differ (or do they) from the Italian crowds?
FB: This question is particularly relevant to what I'm doing right now as I am working on a new series stemming from my own observations of the contrast between crowds in Los Angeles, where I live, and in Naples, where I'm from. It will feature my first LA Crowds. The differences between the two are everywhere, in the environment, the architecture, the sounds, smells; they are completely different. Even the traffic in LA has a distinctly different feel than in Naples or Rome. But, the biggest difference for me is in the people. Right now I'm working on a Neapoletan outdoor market scene. I'm noticing that the facial expressions of these Neapoletans are different from that of Los Angelenos. I'm having to play with different sets of geometry and adapt where I put my brushstrokes to help get this across.
There is something in LA that I've found my brushstrokes particularly lend themselves to. I've been told several times that up close, they look like the palm trees fronds. It's something that’s finally come into play in one of my newest crowds from this series. But I've never had the chance to paint them until now. I just finished a Venice Beach scene with lots of palm trees, and painting them was so natural and fluid, I really enjoyed it.
EC: Yes, that is so interesting about the crossover between your brushstrokes and the frond imagery…There is something really compelling in your portrayal of people's faces in your works. They are at once abstracted and discreet, while also being so hauntingly descript…How did you come up with this style?
FB: I didn't really come up with this style. It's just the way I paint, it is my personal way to work on the subjects. What I do is paint sharp lines that form shapes. Sometimes faces come out more expressive than others which, instead, are more abstract; only lines. And this mix of passion and apathy in the faces I paint can work really well. For instance, in the Protest Crowd, the faces reflect what happens when you are in the middle of a protest. People don't always know why they are there. They don't always really believe in what they are fighting for, or won't always go back home thinking that what they just did was right or wrong. Crowds are made up of people with a story behind them, and that's what I try to tell through my brushstrokes.
EC: Your color choice is also really interesting and unusual. The fluorescent and neon street in "In the Crowd #5" for instance just pops out from the natural purple and burgundy toned walls of the street architecture -- but it works so well together in unexpected ways. Likewise, in “In the Crowd #4," the monotone colors of rust brown and white are just briefly broken by the flash of giant green scissors held by someone in the crowd. Could you comment on your color choices and aesthetic?
FB: The color palette is always something I think quite a bit about before starting and I keep thinking of throughout my process. Sometimes it changes directions on the way, sometimes I stubbornly stick to the original plan. I really enjoy blending colors; using a lot of different tones of the same hue, as I did with all my Electro Crowds and I am beginning to bring that element into my other works. It is an aesthetic choice that I feel improves the quality of my work. As to my choice in color for the yellow street, it happened really fast. I was talking to a cousin of mine about it and we started picturing the street in our mind. We came up with the idea to use a neon yellow which worked out really well, I have to agree. Sometimes it's when you think that there is no way that a certain color would work that it's the one that ends up working the best and to your advantage. After that crowd, I started challenging myself more with colors. You can see it in the Venice Beach Crowd as well. I never thought that I would have used so many “positive” colors, given that I started painting in black and white.
Francesca Bifulco’s work will be featured at a group show at Jna Gallery from January 4th through February 2nd, with an opening reception on the 4th from 6-9:00pm. She will also have her first solo show at the same gallery in 2014.
Francesca Bifulco was born in Paestum, Southern Italy in 1986. She holds a BFA in Visual and Performing Arts from the Academy of Fine Arts in Rome. In 2008, she started working in set design, special make-up effects and costume design. She started producing her first painting project “In The Crowd” in July 2011. Since January 2012 she lives and works in the United States, based in Los Angeles, California. She is represented by Jna Gallery, Los Angeles and Waas Gallery, Dallas.
Ellen C. Caldwell is an LA-based art historian, editor, and writer.