Painting in Water: A Studio Visit with Beatrice Pediconi
Pediconi discusses her work and career with fellow artist Leslie Wayne during her first exhibition at Sepia Eye in New York, on view through June 25.
LESLIE WAYNE: You grew up in Rome and have been living in NYC for the last six or seven years, right?
BEATRICE PEDICONI: I first came to New York in 2009 for two months because some artist friends invited me to check out what was going on here compared to the European art scene. On that first trip I met Stacey D. Clarkson, Art Director at Harper’s Magazine, who asked me to do a portfolio for their April 2010 issue. And because of that I was contacted by Michael Gira, of the New York City musical group Swans, who invited me to do the cover of their upcoming album My Father Will Guide Me up a Rope to the Sky, released in September 2010.
That’s interesting. The cover of the new Radiohead album reminds me a lot of your work and I remember thinking, “Gee, Beatrice really ought to think about doing something like this!”
Yes! Good thinking! That encounter with Swans really made me aware of the connections between music and my work and from that moment on I’ve often collaborated with musicians and composers for my videos.
You just did a collaboration with a dance company at the Sheen Center in New York recently and I was sorry I missed it.
Yes, the choreographer Vanessa Tamburi, and Artistic Director of Flusso Dance project asked me if I would do a video scenography for one of their performances during the Idaco NYC Festival of Dance. I like the idea of collaborating with other artistic disciplines to see my video in a different context. So I was very curious and I totally embraced the project when she told me that it addressed the issue of foreigners, which in my opinion is one of the ancient ghosts of mankind. It’s certainly a reflection on the future of Europe, which needs to solve the conflict between its bureaucracy and the desire to be hospitable, and perhaps rethink their fundamental choices about human mobility. Also I liked that when she asked me to do this project, she said it was because I was working with water, which represents movement and displacement. And in my work it’s not the water that moves, but all the substances/elements I make pass through it. So that project became Moving ID-ENTITIES, which I am sorry you missed. It was great and we hope to present it in another theatre in the future.
It sounds very dynamic. I also hope there will be another opportunity to see it. So where did we leave off? You were telling me about your album cover for Swans. That was back in 2010.
Yes. During that same period I met Lyle Rexer and after showing him my work he included me in a group show he curated for the Aperture Foundation called “The Edge of Vision.” Esa Epstein, the Director at Sepia Eye, who was at that time running Sepia International, saw my work there and suggested I apply for an artist residency called The Lucid Art Foundation, in Inverness, California. I got that residency, which brought me back to America in 2010 for three months. On my way there I stopped in New York and met David Freedberg, Pierre Matisse Professor of the History of Art, and Director of the Italian Academy for Advanced Studies in America at Columbia University, who asked me to do a solo show at The Italian Academy in February 2011. A few months before that show I decided to move to New York with my brand new artist visa. After all these incredible events happening in such a short time, wouldn’t you have moved to the US too? I saw it like a call I could not refuse!
Absolutely! What a whirlwind of amazing experiences and connections!
You know, I first saw your work at the Collezione Maramotti in Reggio Emilia two years ago. It was an immersive experience, and completely transformative. You projected a video of these moving fluids on all four walls, and they floated round the room on an endless loop and in total silence. It was as if I was back in the womb!
Can you tell me how you first came up with this idea of painting in water, as you call it?
When I was studying in my twenties, in Rome the most professional and prestigious school of art was the University of Architecture, so that’s what I got my degree in. During the first two years I was able to take courses in drawing and photography and I loved both techniques. I supported myself by photographing my professor’s architectural projects and publishing them in architecture magazines. That income helped me to continue my own research, which was more focused on drawing and abstraction and the very opposite of the static and immobile architecture I had to stage and photograph for money. I was much more interested in movement, the unstable and unpredictable.
Then one day around the beginning of 2000, I found myself in a shocking situation. Someone I knew very well had fallen down some stairs. I went to help them, not knowing what to expect and was feeling very anxious about what I would find. There was blood everywhere and I totally remember the exact moment I found emotional detachment from that scene and started to look at the beauty and the texture of the blood. I was amazed by it and this allowed me to find the strength to enter the room and call for help.
The day after when I woke up I took a tank from my dark room, put some water in it and I started to drop whatever color I was using for my drawing and painting into it, trying to re-create that beauty I had seen in the blood. The moment I saw the colors disperse in the water, I felt a kind of serenity I had never felt before. So from that traumatic experience, I created something that gave me a sense of relief, of being able to transform a tragic situation into a magical experience. I thought if just one viewer looking at my work could feel the same thing, that this was already a great success. So I really like that you describe my work as transformative, you totally get the sense of it.
Yes, I felt as if I was enveloped in an environment that had no language, just a kind of primordial beauty. But I also felt that it was utterly contemporary and of its time, in spite of our being in the middle of a digital revolution. It felt like you were taking a stand.
Unlike Andreas Gursky for example, whom I always thought was brilliant in the way he uses digital manipulation to create photographs like one would create a painting. But you literally are putting painting and photography on a level playing field.
But let’s talk first about your current show at Sepia Eye. You have on display four different manifestations of the performative act of painting. A limited edition artist’s book, a series of Polaroids, large format prints from 8 x 10 transparencies and a video.
I want to ask you about the performance first, as it is gestational to the rest of your work. From that initial traumatic experience, you have developed a unique method of painting as performance by injecting different substances into water, from honey, egg, oil and milk to inks and paints.
I say painting because I actually paint on the water. I have many brushes, all different kinds and thicknesses and also different syringes. To be more precise, I first drop the color, previously diluted with solvent in the case of the oil paint, and then I paint with brushes on the surface of the water.
It sounds relatively simple, but I know that you’ve done a great deal of research to find the perfect chemical structure for the water to accept the fluids in a way that they would perform most compellingly. You then document the fleeting essence of these fluids in motion, in prints, books and videos.
Actually this is the first time I have treated the water with a powder because water and oil don’t mix, and in order to facilitate my painting on the surface I had to make the water more jelly-like.
So for this project, you used only oil paint and the effects are quite different from some of your earlier works. The Polaroids and large-format prints look like aerial maps, or strange geological pools of something prehistoric. They also have the delicacy and beauty of marbleized paper.
First of all, the very idea of using Polaroid today is nostalgic. I so remember as a child being captivated by the magic of its instantaneousness! Now it’s a virtually forgotten medium, overcome by the newer magic of the digital revolution. Are you, like Tacita Dean, taking a stand for the inherent value of analogue film and the unalloyed image of an instant in real time?
Of course there is a kind of nostalgia in the use of Polaroid, but in my case it’s not intentional. I have been using Polaroid film since I first started to record my ephemeral painting process. What is new in this show at Sepia Eye is the format. I was lucky enough to work with the Impossible Project in 2014, which revived the use of the large format 8 x 10 inch Polaroid. I started using 4 x 5 inch Polaroid film first, as I felt it made perfect sense with the action of my work. Each print is a record of a unique instant in the paint’s movement. But also, Polaroid cannot be reproduced and so the prints are a singular and real record of the painting in the exact moment the paint exists before it dissolves.
I had a more conscious feeling of nostalgia for old artisanal techniques in the making of my book. Each book was individually wrapped in linen and each page was bound by me, using a loom I made for the occasion. The book is also wrapped and tied in the traditional method historically used for illuminated manuscripts.
The book is pretty complex in its conception. It’s not just a limited edition. It’s a project of nine unique books. The first book only has two Polaroids in it, taken during a session in March. The second book has three Polaroids, taken during another session in April, and so on, until you reached the ninth book which contains ten Polaroids from the last session taken in November. It’s a crazy idea, but at the same time makes perfect sense when you think about it. The Polaroid print is unique, the moment in time that it records is unique, and so each book is unique. Together, they form a kind of gestational record of the whole project, from conception to birth! Nine months, nine books.
Also, the way you open the book and see the Polaroids first framed behind a passpartout and then revealed when that window page is turned is very interesting. Just visually, seeing the pink of the film paper exposed is formally striking next to the monochrome of the print. But also to see the naked Polaroid like that is a way of declaring once again, that each one is unique. I can’t help but think that your knowledge of architecture contributes to the way you visualized these books as objects rather than simply enclosures for your photographs.
In general, do you think three dimensionally, or are you thinking only about what the two-dimensional photograph will end up looking like?
I love this question! To be honest I never think about what the photograph will look like. I just think about what I see while I am working. Even now with this new body of 8 x 10 inch Polaroids, I was painting with oil paint using red, blue, green and yellow but I recorded them with black and white instant film not even knowing exactly what kind of black and white grade they would be. I liked the idea that by giving the painting over to photography the work would continue to change, not just as a technique but in its color.
Transformation, illusion and movement are an integral part of my work in every sense. But I agree with you that my architectural studies have somehow influenced me in thinking three dimensionally. They’ve trained me to arrive at this kind of mental process, and I realized this even more as I started doing video installations to create an environment, a space that becomes a vessel in which the visitor is invited to enter.
Sepia Eye is at 547 West 27th Street, #608, New York, 212 967 0738