A Conversation with Marco Palli

By Peggy Roalf   Friday November 30, 2018

Marco Palli, a New York-based artist who hails from Venezuela, recently completed a major sculpture commission in Malaga, Spain, which will open to the public next summer. He is currently engaged in an independent studies program at the New York Studio School of Drawing, Painting, and Sculpture, where he received his MFA in June. Following the NYSS Open Studios, two weeks ago, we sat down for a talk about his work and process. Above: Palli, with Don Quixote and Dulcinea (2018), El Jardín Panorámico, Colmenar, Malaga, Spain

Peggy Roalf: You trained as an engineer, then worked in photography before taking up sculpture. What is there about forming masses with your hands that intrigues you?

Marco Palli: Before my hands engage with form-making, my mind struggles with problems that can  seem overwhelming. For instance, gravity. Yes, it fascinates me, but because it exerts a downward force that nothing on earth can escape, all I can do is accept it. Accepting this negative force field governs the way I conceive the work before my hands are engaged.

And I am delighted that you reference my hands because they are my most trusted tools. With the resources we enjoy today thanks to the incredible people   who keep innovating our technology, it is barbaric not to use automated systems. However, when I compare something I produced digitally with something I made by hand, I find this latter work to be as unique as my fingerprints. And just as my hands inhabit what I’ve made, the effect is reciprocal. For example, when I am forming a hard material such as steel, or marble, some of the strength from its resistance is fed back to me; it refuels me to keep working. Conversely, sometimes I simply don't know what I am doing, as I have no agenda. I let my hands explore materials freely; I just keep myself alert and hope that I have the wisdom to know when to stop. Some good work has emerged through this approach.

The Universe's Language, installation shot, Sideshow Gallery, Brooklyn, NY, 2017

PR: Does your background in science influence your thinking about the work? And how does your discipline in scientific thought and mathematics come to bear on your art practice?

MP: I did study engineering, and I have an MBA in Management and Finance because I love mathematics. I’ve also done advanced breathing practice. Everything comes to bear on my art practice, without question. The metal sculptures you’ve seen are governed by a delicate balance between immutable gravity and the desire to rise up; without scientific calculations, however, they would topple over. But on a deeper level, I would have to say that it is the body-soul dependence that most clearly informs the progress of my work. It’s as though we are all born as blocks of marble. Each experience we have is equivalent to the soft stroke of a chamois, or the hammering of a mallet and chisel. Each experience makes its mark, altering the surface of the marble, shaping the enclosure of the soul. As the process continues, we are formed; our form keeps evolving until, finally, we are reduced to dust. Whether I am modeling clay, bending metal, or chipping marble, this natural continuum is my conscience. 

PR: You have worked in many different sculptural mediums, from carving marble, bending wood or steel into flat forms that curve into space to shaping strips of rusting metal into fractal-like flowers—what is there about the materials you adopt that attracts you, and how do their qualities as matter speak through your hands?

MP: If I could work with a cloud, I probably would, but most sculptors who have tried to form a cloud commonly end up working with robotics, pumps, vapor machines, wires, pipes, computers, and such. Their work ends up being something that requires a great deal of intervention by other professionals. I admire that determination, but the only way I would work with a cloud would be if I could touch it. Otherwise I would wait for as long as I must for a random cloud to incidentally appear in the shape I want, with the color I want, so I could snap a photo of it. And then my work would not be a sculpted cloud, but a photograph of one.

Don Quixote and Dulcinea
 (2018), El Jardín Panorámico, Colmenar, Malaga, Spain; architect: Chris Williamson, Weston Williamson + Partners

A true master can make absolutely anything with one material, that material having been mastered. For instance, marble can be made to look like water, or even seem weightless! But I have no interest in mastering materials. I am not in the business of illusionism. If I wanted that, I would have become a painter—because everything is possible in a painting. I still struggle using words—both oral and written language—trying to communicate the concerns that inhabit me. If I could have mastered the use of spoken language, I would have been a poet.

Every language—written, spoken, visual—is a system that uses base elements to communicate. My elements are my physical materials; what those materials allow me to do with them becomes the system. Each material I have used has taught me a language, and each language can communicate particular ideas better than the others. For instance, those ribbons of rusting steel bent into flower-like reliefs, are among my audience’s favorite works. People stand in front of these pieces trying to figure out: what does it resemble? A flower? A guitar?

When I give workshops, I tell my students that certainly, the work is the result of my decisions—perhaps bad decisions from inception to conception, because I wanted to cut the metal by hand, then bend it by hand, using no tools. I literally wrestled with the metal, repeatedly throwing the cut-outs against the floor. At a certain point it was as if I were starving and the only food available was a wild animal that was stronger than I. But does the work represent struggle? No, the struggle that came from within me resides in the work. As the metal absorbed my struggle, I became as strong as the material. This is how their qualities as matter speak through my hands.

PR: It seems that whenever you work in new materials, creating a new body of work, you always return to clay before going on to the next thing. What is there about clay that keeps you so involved—and please talk about the most recent abstractions you showed at the New York Studio School Open Studios a few weeks ago? 

MP: This body of work is a reflection of what you might call three distinct “resolutions” that I have made through personal reflection. Sometimes I don’t understand these thoughts immediately, but I like to give all ideas a chance. Here they are:

I think of clay as a noble material—it always wants to become the complement of whoever—or whatever—touches it. Think about it: when clay is in its ideal condition, the negative form of one's hand is being absorbed by the clay when you handle it. For instance, the work you just mentioned, “The New Herd Of Thoughts,” [below, left] which is an evolution of an earlier body of work titled "Herd of Thoughts". It consists of four dozen pieces of clay that I shaped while “having a thought” as a reaction to a moment in which someone interrupted me, saying “hold that thought.” The interruption caused me to lose my “train of thought” because I was struck by such a literally simple, but wonderful, idea: the most elemental thing you can do to clay is to strangle it. Well, I had those “thoughts” lying about in my studio like an infestation of what they seem to resemble: miniature ruminants. This body of work resonated with me, and one day I realized that the surfaces of those “thoughts” were entirely my touch, because my hands were the mold.

Left: Inspecting The New Herd of Thoughts, with artist Kyle Staver, at New York Studio School Open Studios, November 18, 2018 info

The thought that fueled the series “Inner Strength / Superficial Decay”  was a conclusion about my own reality, which is somewhat embarrassing yet very simple, and, I think, quite universal: “I want to stand”. From cutting so much metal, one day the steel told me “I want to stand” and I simply said “me too!” so I shouted, “I WANT TO STAND!” Then the pieces for that exhibition [presented last summer at Sideshow Gallery, in Williamsburg, Brooklyn] just kept coming, one after the other.

The idea that transformed me and sparked the series “The Universe’s Language,” came to me after making about fifty works on paper. Subsequently, a part of me said, “Do not do what you would do; do what you wouldn’t do.”

So these three different "Resolutions," combined with the sublime sensation I received from experiencing the Navajo Nation/Four Corners during the summer, materializing into something that I am still cooking.

PR: There’s something about the visual language of your flowing, synthetic resin on aluminum folded/scrolled pieces that make me think of intergalactic flowers. How did you come to this formalism, having previously done the very minimalistic Cutouts and Offcuts series? 

MP: My apologies for making you think of intergalactic flowers! The name of that series is “Unfinished” and it was a departure from “The Universe’s Language” because in the process of moving the work to storage after the exhibition ended, some of the pieces got scratched, and even dented. I could have refinished the resin and restored the pristine white coating on the aluminum, but I had just accepted the mantra, “Do not do what you would do; do what you wouldn’t do,” and that resolution kept haunting me. Therefore, I decided to treat the works as found objects, and started playing with them as if they were not finished (therefore the title, “Unfinished”). I took a wrench and started making drawings on the white resin, imagining a delinquent using a key to scratch graffiti on a brand new car—and this is clearly something I would never do. The work began to evolve into something that I later understood as conceptual self-portraits, depicting myself as the worn out, beaten, scarred, aging, conflicted person that I am; the form they acquired was simply a harmonious response from the material as I was working it.

PR: Music also plays a significant part in your practice. Could you talk about your connection to music and how it weaves into visualization? When I look at the highly graphic "light painting photography" see a very systematic framework and would like to know more about your thinking here.  

MP: I love the word “systematic.” Yes! I am very systematic. However, the “Do not do what you would do; do what you wouldn’t do” resolution has liberated me from my acquired vices, so I began to realize that I am within a more elaborated system. And that is exactly what music is, a system that I respond to: when the music comes on, reality begins. And perhaps I am about to introduce another layer to this conversation, but somehow, I see the music as a significant part of my practice. It’s not about music itself, since I have recently come to the conclusion that music is a direct channel to our original primal rituals. When I work, I play music; instrumental, academic, and world music. Often I find myself making animal noises as I bang at the materials I am working with. These synergies caught my attention to the point that I had to do some research, which I call “the experience something offers”. It began because I needed to accept, just as I accept the facts of gravity, that I enjoy making my work like nothing else in life. While I am working, a portal opens to a higher state of mind. I honestly believe this is a ceremony in which I connect to a better part of myself, and some of that goodness remains.

Cuts, Cutouts, and Offcuts installation, Robert Lehman Art Center; Director, Amy Graham. North Andover, Massachusetts Info

PR: You’ve done teaching workshops in conjunction with some of your recent exhibitions. How does the exchange with your students inform your process?

MP: The exchange with my students has elevated me in two major ways. First, the initial challenge I encounter by having to communicate my own ideas verbally, has forced me into thinking of different ways to offer them, which led me to understand my ideas and myself more clearly. And second, but not least, the brilliant feedback I have received from my students! Unequivocally, I get to see my own work through their senses and I have grown more confident that it is possible to communicate effectively, solely through the artwork. For example, at the exhibition that is currently on view at the Robert Lehman Art Center, in North Andover, Massachusetts, I intentionally did not include an artist’s statement, wall labels, or details of any kind. Because after I began teaching, I realized that I have arrived at a maturity that allows my work to speak for itself, and invites visitors to engage with the work in an experiential way, rather than through my words. I would rather have my audience switch on their sensory detective mode, look for clues, then come to their own conclusions. I have learned that their conclusions, in consensus, are far more truthful than what I, as an artist, would say to them. In fairness, I often don’t know what I am doing—and worse, when I think I know, but actually have no idea of what is happening. But later on, when I move beyond my own narrative for my work, only then do I experience the work I have made. Then it hits me like Michelangelo’s hammer, giving form to the block of marble that I am, as I continue my journey into becoming dust. sculpture2019.19

Cuts, Cutouts, and Offcuts | Marco Palli, continues through December 15th at the Robert Lehman, Art Center,  Director: Amy Graham, Brooks School, North Andover, Massachusetts. Info Info  [P_V2.2] CV19.EX palli_conversation roalf.dart.interview interview0-2018