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DAVID RUFO: SIMPLE COMPLEXITIES

David Rufo is a great artist who lives and works in upstate New York.  I’m very drawn to his geometric abstracts http://davidjohnrufo.com/ which make me smile.  As of this writing, he’s also working on a doctorate degree in education so he’s a busy guy.  Here’s our cool chat … 

“… In my own work, I don't attempt to delineate a specific message - rather I look to elicit a response. I want to connect somehow with the viewer, but that connection is dependent on the viewer's contexts and experiences ...” 

MICHAEL: Hello David, I love your work.  You clearly like geometry and word play.  I like the basic, elementary building blocks of your work.  I notice you do a lot of watercolors.  Does this mean you consider yourself a watercolor artist?  Why do you like that medium?

DAVID: Thank you Michael. I do not consider myself a watercolor artist specifically. I have enjoyed working in a variety of mediums over the years. Sometimes, I'll choose the medium based on an artist's work I have admired.

I have a fairly large collection of Sotheby's and Christie's Modern and Contemporary Art auction catalogues. The quality of the reproductions are amazing and I love the layout design and I find the essays fascinating. I first learned about the encaustic paintings of Brice Marden through these catalogues.  I was so enamored that I purchased a whole encaustic paint set up.

Other times, I'll use a medium based on visual intent. My wife's grandfather started Modern Art Foundry in Astoria Queens. My father-in-law, Robert Spring, introduced me to the work of a variety of sculptors including Lipschitz, Archipenko, Nadelman and Lachaise. Bob has an incredible knowledge of the lost wax casting and finishing process and has given me an appreciation for bronze patinas. I began to create sculptures that would mirror the sumptuous surfaces of Botero's pieces.

Other times, it's a sensory experience I'm after which led me to oils. After high school, I started out as an illustration major at Syracuse University. One day, I wandered into the building that housed the painting program and was immediately transfixed by the smell of turpentine, stand oil, damar varnish and the sight of cadmium streaks in the slop sinks. At that time, I had very little knowledge of the art world or art history. I didn't know what was going on, but I knew it was what I wanted. That was in the early 1980s when Neo-Expressionism was in vogue so everything was thickly applied with vicious strokes.

I recall kids mixing mounds of sand into their paintings to build up thick surfaces. For me, watercolor painting began in high school. I live in the suburbs of Central New York where just about a mile or so in any direction you can still find sprawling dairy farms and cow pastures.  Near my high school was an old farmhouse and barn. My high school art teacher would take us there to paint the scene with watercolors. I was surprised to find I had a knack for it and haven't stopped painting since.

My current painting process emerged a few years back from my desire to remain at the dinner table with my family instead of retiring to my tiny basement studio. The oil painting process I was doing at the time involved heavily loaded brushes with globs and skeins of flinging paint so that was out. Also that process had started to become formulaic and I wanted to get back to the feeling of surprise in my work, so I decided to do something I felt was completely different in medium as well as form. Watercolors provided a convenient solution since they set up very quickly and the Arches watercolor blocks store easily.

MICHAEL: I find it very interesting that you're an art educator during a time when society doesn't necessarily value art, let alone art education as much as it could.  Thoughts?

DAVID: Actually, I'm not an art educator in the traditional sense. Although my dissertation advisor is the Chair of the Art Education department at Syracuse University, my teaching background is in general elementary education. I've taught in private and public school settings for nearly 20 years. In my experience, I've observed how children are drawn to arts-based modes of learning. I would like to see a paradigm shift in education where the learning is student-directed, integrated, and organically-structured rather than teacher-directed in discrete subject areas. Instead of the arts being relegated to separate spaces, children visit for 45-minute blocks, they should be integrated into all the learning, dependent upon the interest of the child. 

With the advent of digital technologies, I think the argument could be made that there is a greater appreciation for the arts than ever before because of digital access. I've been able to connect with a host of artists across the world and in hubs such as New York City through social media. Whereas when I lived in NYC back in the mid to late 80s, I found it much more difficult and time-consuming to make connections to other artists or get access to the gatekeepers so to speak. 

MICHAEL: Interesting.  You know, in many ways, the internet has made things easier for artists and even people like me.  I am constantly chatting with artists all over the world.  ArtBookGuy is - in part - a product of technology.  However, the basic, fundamental access is still woeful.  Art galleries are often empty and many gifted artists aren't really selling their work and ironically, they feel disconnected.  How are you feeling as an artist?

DAVID: I'm feeling oddly young. Maybe it's due to having taken the year off to write my dissertation. I suddenly find myself having the luxury to think about painting during the day (even if I'm working at a job I'm constantly thinking about my current work, turning it over in my head, imagining the next steps) and having the time to produce it at night. I've always liked working at night. Even as an art student, I seldom did much during our all-day studio sessions. I would return to the painting studios at night and work from 7 p.m. until about 3 a.m. Of course, this would make me late for class the next morning. Now my wife and I finish dinner around 9 and I can paint until midnight. This gives me ample time make aesthetic decisions or go down conceptual rabbit holes if the need arises. In some ways, I'm feeling more connected than ever before. Of course, I don't have my finger on the pulse of the contemporary art world the same way you probably do. The lenses through which I view it are seldom first hand such as physically visiting galleries in NYC or LA. Then again, I wonder what the “art world” will look like in the next decade. 

MICHAEL: Many of your works on your website have circles as themes and I see a lot of fragmentation or perhaps defragmentation ... bits and pieces either joined or floating separately.  Hmm, is this a case for Sigmund Freud?

DAVID: Interesting. I haven't thought of it that way. I think, consciously anyway, it developed as visual templates to explore and play around with. The earliest pieces on the website date from 2011, so everything is fairly recent. This current series began when I decided to exclusively use Arches Hot Press 18 x 22 inch watercolor blocks, 1 inch square grids and 72 point letterpress printing blocks and go from there. I wanted a clean, printed look, but at the same time desired to engage in the process of painting a picture. It started when I first visited Dia Beacon in 2003 and was able to gain a new appreciation for the minimalist aesthetic. I loved what Agnes Martin, Carl Andre, Robert Ryman, Sol LeWitt etc., were doing. That's when I started to incorporate grids into my work. 

It eventually morphed into arcs after I discovered an old french curve my father kept in his desk drawer. It moved into full circles (sans the grid) when I wanted to have the edges of the rectangular field interact with the arcs. I almost stopped at the monotone color field background because they looked so striking, but I couldn't help myself and had to keep playing with the space.

I also like the simple complexity of geometric drawings found in old textbooks. Ironically, this is all coming from an artist who has been drawn to thick, energetic brushstrokes. I couldn't stand hard-edged, minimalist work when I was younger. I plan on eventually getting back into oil paint so we'll see what happens. Oil paint is my first love so it's just a matter of time. 

MICHAEL: You're wearing a lot of hats: artist, student, teacher, husband, father.  How are you balancing these things?  Or ... are you balancing these things?

DAVID: I like to think so. I enjoy working hard which makes it easier. I'm also at that place in life where I have time to focus on things such as teaching, art making and writing because my son is away at college and my wife's career is going very well. This year, my days consist of scanning the New York Times over coffee, responding to email, doing research, writing, errands, biking, dinner, then painting. I'm not good at relaxing in the traditional sense. I'd rather paint the house while others are enjoying the backyard pool. We vacation for a week or so in Amagansett each August, but I can only spend so much time at the beach before I feel compelled to see what's showing at The Drawing Room, Harper's Books or peruse the art supplies at Golden Eagle. My son is a poet and a big reader so The Ladies Village Improvement is one of our favorite stops as well. 

MICHAEL: Many people don't know that outside of New York City, New York State is such an artistically rich state (Hudson River School, etc).  Do you ever think about that and maybe feel part of it?

DAVID: Yes and no. Having lived in New York State all my life, and New York City for five years, has given me site specific perspectives. However, living in Central New York is a very different experience than NYC or even Westchester or Long Island. CNY is a great place to live, but very provincial. Although we have research universities such as Syracuse and Cornell, a host of colleges, galleries, an opera and a symphony for many years, there's a fairly large disconnect between “upstate” and “downstate.”

MICHAEL: And so given that, how do you function creatively?  Is your creative process impacted at all by your environment?  Are you more inspired in NYC or upstate?

DAVID: Both equally. However, the NYC inspiration includes the virtual whereas upstate includes memories. I'm able to tap into the current climate in NYC online between visits. I usually get down to the city a few times a year and check out the MOMA, Met, New Museum, Whitney, Guggenheim, Neue and various galleries. At home, I'm inspired by the light and childhood impressions. A lot of artists talk about the Long Island light, but we have some impressive light up here as well. There are also a lot of rolling knolls and meadows in Central New York. The landscape is great. The postwar suburban neighborhood I grew up in was actually called Sherwood Knolls. 

MICHAEL: What do you think about the art world and how it functions?  What could/should be done to reach a larger audience of new collectors?

DAVID: It seems to me that there are multiple art worlds: regional art worlds, K-12 schooling art worlds, MFA art worlds, childhood art worlds, local gallery art worlds, online art worlds, political/nationalistic art worlds, American homespun-suburban mythic art worlds, old money art worlds, new money art worlds, international art fair art worlds etc. 

I think there are disconnects between the various art worlds because they have a wide array of intents and purposes. Can you describe to which art world are you referring? Do you mean the post war, NYC as the hub, art world of blue chip galleries? 

MICHAEL: I see your point.  When you're working on piece, how do you know when it's done?  

DAVID: Like many artists, I used to wrestle with the idea of completion and the subjective decision to determine when a painting was finished. About ten years ago, I developed a process which removes that conundrum entirely. It started with the grid paintings where I would literally begin painting the square in the upper left and finish when I arrived at the square in the lower right. Painting was almost like reading a book - left to right, top to bottom. It felt like I was creating tiny one inch square paintings in each box. Now I'm no longer using squares, but drawing out the painting with a compass and rulers then filling in the spaces, much like painting by number. I originally expected that it would be a dry formulaic process, but I was surprised to find that it is relatively dynamic. Hypnotic in some ways, but there's also a quiet buzzing energy when I engage in the act of painting. I was also surprised at the number of decisions that have to be made. Although the process seems completely preplanned or programmed, many choices and serendipitous happenings remain. 

MICHAEL: When people look at your work, do you want them to see it the way you see it?  If you're sending out a message through your work, shouldn't people "get" that message?

DAVID:  I'm pleasantly surprised when people see something in my work that I hadn't noticed - an unintentional message if you will. I think a piece of art is capable of delivering multiple messages and communiques where the viewer takes part in the construction of meaning(s). In my own work, I don't attempt to delineate a specific message - rather I look to elicit a response. I want to connect somehow with the viewer, but that connection is dependent on the viewer's contexts and experiences. 

MICHAEL: Thanks David.  Nice chat.

Check out David Rufo at http://davidjohnrufo.com/.



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