Frame 61

Paolo Arao

Frame 61
Paolo Arao

"There’s a playful awkwardness to my paintings, as if they’re dancing (possibly even tipsy) with two left feet and vertigo. I want viewers to feel that."


Could you tell us a bit about yourself. How long have you been a practicing artist and where did you study?

Growing up in Florida and Virginia, I had dreams of becoming a classical concert pianist. I went to a school for the performing arts in junior high and high school. I competed and performed in local and regional piano recitals. I'd spend hours every day hunched over the piano, practicing Bach, Mozart, Chopin, Beethoven. I received a scholarship to study Music Performance at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Virginia. But after my first semester as a music student, I came to the realization that it was NOT the path for me. I really wanted a change and to pursue something different so I applied  to VCU's visual arts program; I was accepted and as a result I lost my music scholarship. Initially my parents weren't too thrilled about that decision!

I received my BFA in Painting at Virginia Commonwealth University (1999) and attended a few artist residencies soon after graduating: Vermont Studio Center (1999), Skowhegan (2000), and The Atlantic Center for the Arts (2002). 

I moved to New York in the Fall of 2000. And I have lived and worked in Brooklyn ever since. For the past couple of years, I've been focused entirely on making paintings as well as works on paper. 

I'm also currently training for a couple half marathons taking place in the fall; one on Staten Island, the other in Philadelphia.

Sunset Strips, 2016, Acrylic and colored pencil on canvas, 60 x 46 1/2 inches

Hot Corners, 2016, Acrylic and colored pencil on canvas, 60 x 46 1/2 inches

Could you talk about the group of paintings under the name “Yearbook”? Would you say that by giving yourself rules and restrictions, with this time-based project, adds another layer to the work?

Yearbook (2016) is an epic visual diary that consists of one painting every morning for an entire year. I give myself only one hour to complete each painting. I definitely work better under pressure so this self-imposed time restriction allows me to focus on the most essential elements to communicate in each painting in that given moment. Mistakes, failures, successes, and indecisions all share the same space. 

I’ve made a habit of texting a photo of each completed painting to my husband every morning. And it’s become somewhat of an extended love letter to him. Besides exhibiting all 366 paintings (it's a leap year) in its entirety, I plan to publish this project as a book.

I think there’s so much freedom in giving yourself restrictions. I’m always curious about the possibilities and directions a painting can go given the strict parameters I’ve established for myself. One hour is not a lot of time to make a painting, but I love the challenge. There are more failures than successes, but that's true in anything. It's slightly uncomfortable allowing people to see these vulnerable and imperfect moments. But it definitely adds another layer to the work.

Your work has a repetitive nature to it, with repeated patterers and even duplicates of the same painting in your series of works called “We Belong Together”. Could you talk about this series of works and the reason behind it?

Felix Gonzalez-Torres is such an important artist for me. His work has had an insurmountable impact on how and why I've come to make my work. His artwork of two wall clocks perfectly in sync with each other titled "Perfect Lovers" is an emotional and conceptual drop-kick to the face. It's poetic, deeply personal and conceptually rigorous - all with such an economy of means.  

It's inspired my series of diptych paintings called "We Belong Together." These diptych paintings approach abstraction from a queer perspective. Presented in pairs, these paintings are equally about sameness as they are about difference. They’re also very much about the act of looking and shifting perceptions. And a lot about being in tune with someone you love. I affectionately refer to them as my “same-sex” paintings. 

Yearbook (January), 2016, Acrylic and colored pencil on 31 canvases, 12 x 9 inches each

Yearbook (March), 2016, Acrylic and colored pencil on 31 canvases, 12 x 9 inches each

Line of Thinking (Diptych), 2015, Acrylic + colored pencil on linen over panels, 12 x 9 inches each

Two Left Feet and Vertigo (Diptych), 2016, Acrylic + colored pencil on linen over panels, 10 x 8 inches each

What do you hope the viewer gains/reacts from looking at your work?

I make paintings because I LOVE painting. I’m a sucker for skewed geometry, bold patterns and discordant colors. I have a soft spot for hard edges that flirt with imperfectly hand-painted areas. And I get excited when patterns slip or collapse happily into one another to create a dynamic, strange and dizzying space. I love when hues sing slightly off key through chromatically dissonant bands of color. There’s a playful awkwardness to my paintings, as if they’re dancing (possibly even tipsy) with two left feet and vertigo. I want viewers to feel that.

Are your works designed and planned out before the work begins, or do you cut straight to applying paint to canvas, and let the patterns develop through process?

My process involves a bit of both. I'm a planner and I love to make lists, but I can also be very impulsive. Some days, I feel the need to work out a pattern or overall composition or palette out in my sketchbook before moving on to the painting. Other days, I work intuitively and directly on the canvas. It's classical versus jazz. It really depends on what mood I’m in as I’m getting ready to start my work day in the studio. 

Crossing Swords, 2016, Acrylic and colored pencil on canvas, 36x28cm

Nervous Nelly, 2016, Acrylic and colored pencil on canvas, 53x46cm

Tell us a bit about how you spend your day/studio routine, what is your studio like?

I'm a creature of habit. I love to make lists. I need a routine otherwise I fell like I can't get anything accomplished. I really think this comes from all those years as an aspiring pianist and the daily routine and discipline of having to practice the piano for hours and hours on end. I often go out for a run in the morning before I head to my studio.. I'll run anywhere from 3 to 6 miles during the week and longer runs on the weekend. 

I've found that I tend to work best earlier in the morning. My mind is the clearest in those early hours of the day. My studio is in Clinton Hill, in a huge industrial complex of buildings, located one block away from the Brooklyn Navy Yards. It's conveniently located about 4 blocks from my apartment. I'm very lucky. It’s one of the best and most "professional" studios I’ve had (believe me, I’ve had many!) in my 16 years living in NY. I moved into it when they were being built out so everything was brand new and is still in great condition. 

Piles, 2016, Acrylic and colored pencil on canvas, 41x31cm

Stacks, 2016, Acrylic and colored pencil on canvas, 36x28cm

What artwork have you seen recently that has resonated with you?

My husband and I went on our honeymoon in Italy this past June. We visited Florence. Rome, Naples and Positano. And I would have to say that the Duomo in Florence is still as mind blowing today as it was when I first saw it back in 1998 while studying abroad in Florence. The facade of the Cathedral, the patterning of the marble on the exterior and the scale of it is absolutely and quite literally breathtaking. 

How do you go about naming your work?

Titling work can sometimes be a process. I try not to make titles too specific, because I want the viewer to have their own associations in relation to the work. That being said, I borrow titles for my work from song lyrics, or poems, or books I’ve read. Often times titles will come to me as I’m out on my morning run or from conversations I've overheard.  I think those titles are the best ones!

  Tie Breaker (Diptych), 2015, Acrylic + colored pencil on linen over panels, 12 x 9 inches each

Tie Breaker (Diptych), 2015, Acrylic + colored pencil on linen over panels, 12 x 9 inches each

What does the future hold for you as an artist? Is there anything new and exciting in the pipeline you would like to tell us about? 

I'm currently one of five artists in residence at the Fire Island Artist Residency in Cherry Grove, NY. It’s an amazing and magical residency and the first of it’s kind in the US specifically for LGBTQ artists.

I've got a couple group shows coming up in the fall. The first is in NYC at the Bureau of General Services, Queer Division and it’s an exhibition of the five artists in residence at the Fire Island Artist Residency in NY.

The second is an exhibition called "Common Ground" curated by Vika Dushkina at Triumph Gallery in Moscow which will eventually make it’s way to the US. The details are still being worked out.

Besides these shows, I’ll be working on getting my Yearbook project published as a book. So please stay tuned!

Artist website

Publishing date of this interview: 12/08/16