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Studio Visit: Riccardo Vecchio

By Peggy Roalf   Thursday January 17, 2019

Several years ago, Riccardo Vecchio, whose studio practice combines multiple disciplines, from illustration and painting to sculpture and photography, began a series of paintings on location in the mountains near his family home east of Milan. A selection of these works were first shown at the Institute of Fine Arts in 2016. Photos above and below: courtesy Riccardo Vecchio Studio

The sites Riccardo visited were along the Alpine ridges that separate Italy from the former Austro-Hungarian Empire. During both World War I and II, these mountain passes saw some of the fiercest fighting, under the worst possible environmental conditions. I was intrigued by the small, powerful evocations of the past made present, and so I contacted the artist for an update. During my visit to his Long Island City studio last weekend, we talked about the pull that the place has exerted on his work. In particular, the ways in which the series, “War X Artifice,” has evolved from the small paintings he first made during his three- and four-day pack trips to the Dolomites, to large-scale studio paintings like the ones shown here, which will be seen in two forthcoming exhibitions in Italy: one in Vittorio Veneto at the Galleria Civica d'Arte Medievale Moderna e Contemporanea and one at the “Museo del Risorgimento” in Rome.

Peggy Roalf:Which came first: the pen or the brush? 

Riccardo Vecchio: Definitely the pen. Painting came much later, and when I paint I tend to use the brush more like a drawing tool rather than a traditional painting tool. 

PR: It appears that you easily combine assignment work with your painting and studio practice. Do the two disciplines co-exist in time and space? Or do you move through different ‘force fields’ for each? 

RV: Overall, the assignment work and the studio work rely on the same artistic sensibility, but what changes significantly is the marketplace in which the work lives. For me, it is a symbiotic relationship. Each has its own challenges, and doing one helps to do the other.

PR: How did you arrive at making the commitment to illustration? 

RV: I can’t point to a certain moment in time. In fact, it never occurred to me that a person could choose to do something like that. I studied design in Germany, and then came to NY on a Fulbright to SVA. I was lucky enough to get work for the New Yorker while still in school, and then things just happened naturally over time after that. 

PR: The work you’ve been doing for the Criterion Collection embodies most of the disciplines in which you are working today—with the possible exception of the beeswax topo sculptures. How did this artistic alliance come about—could you talk a little bit about the interaction you have with the Art Director? Photographs left and below, Peggy Roalf

RV: I have worked for the Criterion Collection in the past, and thanks to social media, the AD had been following my painting work with great interest. She got in touch with me when this project came up. According to her, when the Criterion Collection decided the movie cover should have a redesign, my mountain painting series, based on the battlefields of WWI in the Italian Alps, struck a chord with her for the project. She and I approached the job more like a curatorial project rather than your typical commercial commission. Talking in depth about my inspiration for the series, and looking at some of the paintings I did at the actual locations, all made the process feel much more organic, and gave me a real sense for what they wanted to communicate with the design. I wish there were more jobs like that! 

PR: What I love about your work for CC is: when you look at the Instagram page, you get the idea that you’re visiting a group show. The work keeps changing in materials and methods; it almost seems as if a different artist shows up to take the assignments from month to month! 

RV: I assume that having studied design has a lot to do with that. You show up with a different concept and explore different fonts for each project, each challenge requiring a fresh outlook. I often feel that one approach does not work at all in another context, and I purposely don’t want to limit myself to one look. My first published works were photographs!

PR: The recent ink drawings [Etger Keret, Amos Oz] are exceptional for their clarity and humanity—in each drawing one gets the sense that you were sitting down with the subjects.  Can you talk, in general, how you’ve developed your power of observation over time; and how you avoid pitfalls inherent in working from photographs? 

RV: It’s funny that you bring this up. When budgets were not an issue, clients would send me out to sit with subjects, or view a production, precisely so I could immerse myself in the project in a fulfilling way. Most of the time, of course photographs are the only reference, and naturally there are inherent limitations and copyright issues. For example, it’s impossible to work with famous photographs of your subjects, because the photos are themselves already resolved portraits. In addition, referring to an iconic portrait can be a pitfall because in most cases the subject has aged, and he or she doesn’t look like the famous image anymore. In any case, I think likeness can be overrated. I prefer to resolve the face as a drawing problem, usually putting the photographs aside once I begin working. I like to use my memory of the reference materials, together with what I know of the subject, because I find it very liberating. I typically start a project using three or more photographs, or video footage if it’s available.

PR: There is so much ease in this [CC work]— have you ever had an assignment so taxing it might have caused you to reconsider the idea of deadlines as a way of life? 

RV: Sometimes a deadline is the only thing that can stop you from obsessing about minutia and commit to a design decision. The good part is that you’re forced to come to a conclusion. It is finite situation, like taking an exam. Yes, when deadlines overlapped, I have had extremely difficult situations, but never enough to make me rethink doing the work. 

 

 

PR: The beeswax topo sculptures are very engaging. They bring a softness to the bitter subject of human conflict. How did you arrive at this combination of wax, color, form?

RV: The topography models have accompanied me for the last 4 years. They are miniature reproductions of the battleground locations I visited while traveling and painting in the Italian Alps. I had exact GPS locations, which I used in combination with Google and NASA resources, to get 3D topographic printouts. For me, it came about as a way to revisit the locations so I could look around and change the perspective. Gradually, I started to mold the models and use different materials to cast them. I focused on materials most likely to have been found in the trenches themselves such as paraffin, bee’s wax, felt, chocolate, water, steel powder, etc.

PR: And last, the subject of war: how long do you feel that you can sustain such an intense engagement with this subject? Or perhaps, more succinctly, how does the emotional conflict inherent in the subject sustain your engagement?

RV: Well, emotional conflict is very engaging! It’s what keeps many people in relationships for their entire lives! But, all joking aside, the events I have been commenting on, even though they are one hundred years old are, tragically, very timely. Geopolitically, today we are grappling with many of the same persistent and unresolved issues from that era. The battles over issues of nationalism, capitalism or ethnicity, I fear, will not disappear anytime soon. In fact, my own family background is a direct result of the conflict and shifting landscapes of World War I and II. I find engaging with this subject matter not only provides a way to reflect on the past, but more importantly, it helps to put our current situation in context. On a personal level, it also helps me to explore my own identity, and to think about both the flaws and achievements in our culture.  CV19.EX PITCH_HYPE

More about the Criterion Collection work here. Instagram. Websitedart-interview MP031019

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