In The Studio: Painting Rules for Anthony Palocci
Anthony Palocci’s (NAP #104) large-scale paintings are at first glance abstract grids of beautifully painted lines, repetitive marks that vibrate with painterly energy. Then, with a steady gaze, their thing-ness snaps into focus, taking enough time that you may indulge in the liminal shift, from the initial effect of reductive abstraction to a three-dimensional view. In Looking Up, I first saw an entire building with a few glowing windows, the accident of who was still awake in that building at 1 am, before I realized the subject was actually much closer to me. - Shana Dumont Garr, Boston Contributor
The situation is simple, yet mysterious. You’re standing outside, on a sidewalk, looking into a home through a window fan. The fan fills the pictorial field and is not anchored by a framing device such as a windowsill. Still lifes more than scenes, the paintings do not provide narrative, but they engage us in a vague sense of looking into a private, interior space so we may fleetingly wonder what’s happening inside. Although the paintings allude to the presence of people, we don’t know much about them, and we don’t need to know more, because the physicality of the paint captures our attention.
The works hum with tensions: between two and three dimensions, between pattern and representation, between representing and suggesting, among others. The symmetry and the centrality of the fan in our field of view hint at a more intense voyeurism or curiosity. Above all else, Palocci says that with this series, “I solved the problem for myself of the form (what to paint), and now I am solving how to paint.” The paintings facilitate his rigorous experiments in the painting process. A repeated subject enables him to focus on representing a three-dimensional world with flat shapes from a range of distances, positions, and angles. His choice of a fan as the subject makes straining to see and withholding a complete story central to the painting's’ subject matter.
Each work begins as a means to carry out new “what-if” situations executed in conjunction with academic painting tenets. Palocci’s thoroughness in executing his self-assigned puzzles is central to the character of the series and generates a compelling group of variations on a theme.
He asks himself specific questions, such as what if there is a screen in front of the fan? What if the fan is seen from below? What if the fan is especially dusty? If you were to take a picture, does the lens focus on the window screen or on what is beyond it? What if we are positioned between the screen and the fan? No matter that a screen adds technical complexity and obscures the fan- such challenges are what he seeks. In Shadow, he captures the delicate grid of a screen cast onto the less regular double-grid of the fan, with the viewer positioned as though s/he is a fly between the screen and the fan. His next work will focus on objects beyond the screen and the fan, and he is still working out how much and what to place there.
Palocci began focusing on a single object six months ago, a shift he credits in part to a studio visit with Franklin Evans (NAP #62). The fan’s first iteration was the newest of his works included in the 2013 DeCordova Museum Biennial. In May 2015, a newer work in the series, Looking Up, was included in “Yeah, You Missed It!,” a pop-up exhibition curated by Robert Moeller at the Mills Gallery. Looking Up demonstrates an advancement of Palocci’s ideas because the fan is seen from a sharply tilted perspective, as though viewing it in a second-story window fan from the sidewalk, rather than a direct view. His curiosity is at times fueled by the painting lessons he teaches at Montserrat College of Art and the color and drawing classes he teaches at Massachusetts College of Art; he became a professor at both colleges within two years of receiving his MFA at Pratt Institute.
Palocci’s studies, such as Looking Up, more clearly represent the fan. The gouache on paper medium gives them a more delicate finish than his larger-scale finished works of oil on canvas. Painting the studies brings him closer to understanding how to construct the fan. The studies are drafts where the marks, erasures, and linear repositioning makes the structure familiar to him so in its next iteration he can pare down the marks as he brings the same image to a larger scale. “When it is bigger than you,” he says, “you’re aware of its forms in a distinct way that brings in more than concept and eyesight. People are incidental.” Palocci assembles shapes in order to avoid rendering the finished work. He builds the oil on canvas works with consistent, repetitive brush movements; paint follows the forms.
As the light changed during my visit, I could more clearly see through some of the painted screens to the fans just beyond them. The paintings play how paint works with light. Oil is a transparent medium, and Palocci keeps the permeability of the layers in mind. He uses yellow as the undercoat so that the surface of the painting feels rich and alive, and the source of light and the source of colors are one. He limits his colors, building the layers over a foundation of under-paintings that he color-codes to guide the spatial relationships. Yellow, green, and red represent the base, forms, and shadows, respectively. His most recent paintings further limit the colors, as the base layer uses only red and green to make chromatic greys, with only two greys, a light and a dark grey. Each of these limitations is in place to guide and focus Palocci on structure.
As active meditations on constructing forms with paint, the series is also about people, although less directly. If we consider the fans alongside Jeff Koons’ vacuum cleaner sculptures first exhibited in the early, parallels emerge. Both appliances represent ways we try to rein in disorder by regulating the flow of air. Vacuums pull in and collect dust. The placement of never-used, brand-new vacuums in Plexiglas vitrines by Koons stresses the idealism and the virtue one feels by maintaining a pristine home.
Unlike the vacuum sculptures, the fan paintings are not trophies of the ascendant, upper middle class. Like other objects (refrigerator, computer key pad) he has painted, the fan is not new and sleek; rather, it is older and worn. Perhaps it isn’t summertime. Maybe those who reside in the space beyond the painted grids haven’t removed their window fan, for one reason or another, even after a persistent chill returned to the air. Fans are purchased in the hope that they will cool people when it is hot, but in reality, they push hot air from one place to another and upend stacks of paper. As cheap seconds to air conditioners or better yet HVAC systems, they are a quick reach to solve a problem, but hope usually exceeds results.
The same fan that is the subject of this series, older and broken now, is still Palocci's primary model in his studio. A photo of it also hangs on the studio wall, facilitating his experiments in the painting process. As the first viewer of his paintings, he also wants to see how each new premise will turn out. Following his chosen systems, rather than building organically onto the canvas as he goes, serves him well. He creates work where we may indulge our senses with the painted surface while dwelling upon exquisitely specific spaces.
Shana Dumont Garr is a writer and contemporary art curator. She is the first Director of Kingston Gallery, an artist-run alternative space in Boston’s SoWa Gallery District, and she teaches art history at Montserrat College of Art.