Joseph Piccillo became a great artist after working as an accountant and art dealer. I stumbled upon his website http://josephpiccillo.com/ and was immediately drawn to his work which totally speaks to me. Needless to say, I contacted him and here’s our great chat …
“… Artists must be true to themselves to produce, absent of the want of acceptance or the lure of the popular. I think artists that do so must have courage and they must have a total disregard of failing …”
MICHAEL: Hey Joseph, I love your work. I see color blocking and topography in your paintings. I love the simplicity of your work. What's the inspiration behind your work?
JOSEPH: Hello Michael, My roots in painting began as primarily a landscape representational watercolorist, so I think that part of me remains in the work. As I matured as an artist I moved to abstraction, first using oils and then acrylics, initially the work was quite textural and done with palette knife. Color and line interested me and I let the process lead me and I see myself as a color field painter.
A few years ago, I was asked to do a show in Sicily where I live for part of the year. Not wanting to ship paintings from the U.S. to Sicily, I decided to work there. Being in a small town in the mountains of central Sicily, I wasn't able to find the materials I needed to do the larger scale abstracts, so I decided to paint small, representational work and while working, I found that the principles I was using in the abstracts I was also applying to the watercolors and simultaneously simplifying as I went. It was a kind of reducing the image to the essential while I wanted the viewer to see what I saw, I also wanted the viewer to find the universal in the painting on their own. I wasn't reporting what I saw. I was saying this is how it appears to me and these paintings weren't answers but rather questions.
The show was made up of about 30 works in vignette-style watercolor depicting ordinary life in this tiny town. The question I was asking was, “Do I get it?” “Do I understand Sicily and the Sicilian?” Coming back to the U.S., this concept of reducing the work to the essential became the genesis for my current paintings.
MICHAEL: And yet, I'm not sure I want to call your work necessarily "Minimal." Hmm. Reducing something to its most basic elements can be either totally boring or very new and exciting. What kind of reactions do you get from people who've seen your work?
JOSEPH: The reaction has been most positive and that is great. Contrary to the myth that artist don't care what people think - we do - artist types are human and acceptance is always a good thing.
I have a wonderful dealer in New York who is wonderfully supportive (Susan Eley), but to the heart of your question ... that very thing is the essential in itself the universal attraction or is it the stuff around it, which by definition says, I must put a limitation on myself. So I decided to push that limitation. I limit myself to a few colors – three or four at most - to line five at most and to a few shapes as well to further that limitation to mostly square canvases. The question then becomes a bit different. It goes from is the essential enough, to the possibilities of limitation.
Now let me digress a bit. I think art comes from the unknown. By that I mean, it is what interests an artist and that interest is what the artist explores. So it's about the questioning and somewhere in that questioning if the artist finds the universal, the artist finds art. In life, we all face limitations. I can't be a starting quarterback in the NFL because I'm too old, too short, etc., so it's about what are the possibilities that fall within my limitations? This is the question of my work.
Through self-imposed limitations, there’s the exploration of the possibilities. So far, I find limitation is limitless, but all this is sounding too cerebral. I am simply trying to fill a space in a pleasing way while hoping to touch the outskirts of beauty. If I dare say the word out loud, but the work is not minimal. Don't you find writing a sentence of importance in a few words much more complex than a long paragraph of the same topic?
MICHAEL: Interesting. There's something about Italy - I've never been there - that seems very hip and sophisticated. I see this hipness and sophistication in your work. Do you know what I mean? What could it be?
JOSEPH: Italy is a wonderful place to live. I'm most blessed to have that in my life. I've been going to Sicily for over 20 years now so something may have rubbed off.
The Italians have a wonderful sense of style and a deep respect for art. It's interesting that a country steeped in antiquity loves the contemporary as they do. Many of my paintings are about Italy. The colors I see and the very atmosphere. I also live in Key West for about five months a year and the remaining part of the year in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. So my influences are wide. I found it interesting that colors that work well in one place change in another environment.
I do think less is more and the simplest of things have the most elegance. Hip and sophisticated are words I don't use to describe myself. I'm just a small town guy. What I hope I am or trying to be, because my job as an artist requires it, is to be open to things and to really see what I'm looking at. A drawing teacher in a class I once had kept repeating, “If you don't see it you can't draw it.” I think - and I hope this doesn't sound egotistical - I found my own voice in my work and speak with my own vocabulary and I'm certain that the places I live and the art I've seen make that voice possible.
MICHAEL: What would you say is the "Vocabulary of Art"? I think that will make for a great subtitle of our interview. Art definitely has a vocabulary, but what is it for you?
JOSEPH: The basic vocabulary of art of any kind: writing, music, painting, etc. It’s the craft, in the case of painting, line, form, shape, composition, etc.
The challenge of an artist is to use those basic tools in such a way that it’s you and that the arrangement and application is unique to you, no easy task. There are many obstacles in an artist’s way. I think the highest hill to climb is to ignore what is popular. Earlier, I said artists want acceptance and I think that's true, but in the studio, artists must be true to themselves to produce, absent of the want of acceptance or the lure of the popular. I think artists that do so must have courage and they must have a total disregard of failing and they must keep themselves out of their comfort zones. Being at the edge of your safe place is where your voice lies. There are many wonderfully talented painters that have total command of the craft but haven't found their voice. If an artist is true to their vision and their passion, they will find enough of the universal and in the universal find truth and from this truth, art … in their voice.
MICHAEL: How did you become an artist? Do you come from an artistic family? What's your first memory of art?
JOSEPH: I was not exposed to art as a child. It was while in high school that I became aware of my interest in creativity, trying my hand at writing and music. I didn't come to painting until my early thirties. I was actually a public accountant and gave up my practice when I found myself a single parent. I opened an art gallery in Bucks County, Pennsylvania because it was close to a school and my son and I could live upstairs from the gallery.
The gallery wasn't the busiest of places and having a lot of time on my hands, I began painting to fill time and my first teachers were the artists I exhibited, especially a very kind artist, Taylor Oughton. Taylor encouraged my activity and not wanting to compete with my artists, I kept my work in the backroom, not showing on the walls, but gallery patrons still found the stuff.
I became the gallery's best selling artist It’s puzzling why. I think I was just terrible back then and subsequently, I opened a second gallery in New Hope, Pa which was the heart of the Bucks County impressionist painters scene and had a reputation as an artist community and attracted tourists. By now, my work was improving and other galleries were showing my stuff and after a bit, I closed the galleries and devoted myself to painting. Some years were pretty good, others less so, but it has been a grand journey. I can't place the time frame in my life, but my earliest awareness of art was seeing one of Van Gogh's “Sunflowers.”
MICHAEL: You've just mentioned something that I continue to think is very sad. It's the fact that art galleries are nearly empty a lot of the time. As a writer, this is great for me because I have no distractions while I write during visits, but it's terrible for galleries that are trying to sell art. What's the problem here? Why are galleries empty so much?
JOSEPH: I think that the market for people buying fine art is fairly limited and the folks buying higher-priced work even more so. It surprised me that some of the fairly well-known galleries in New York are asking artists to “collaborate,” which is code for “pay” to have a show or share costs for having work taken to art fairs. Personally, I avoid this, but it's becoming more common place. I think things are a bit different in the smaller regional galleries and the spaces that have been around a bit are selling art, but it is a bit sad. There are a ton of artists looking for opportunities to show their work and galleries are less willing to take a chance on someone without a track record. I would love to see more artist-owned galleries like you see on the coast of Maine and other niche markets.
MICHAEL: Do you think the digital age is increasing appreciation for hand made things or decreasing it? Could that be another reason why contemporary art is so challenged these days?
JOSEPH: E-commerce for me is great. It has made buying and selling more democratic. Anyone with a computer can buy and sell worldwide, so I think it keeps the market honest and holds down pricing. Isn't that a good turn for the average consumer?
The downside I think is it removes a person from the touch and feel of a thing. That's just fine for the everyday items a person might need, but not so good for those things like handmade items that for me, require the feel of the thing. It’s akin to social media; we can meet more folks from all over the world, but we become less intimate in the process. As to the challenge facing art, my accountant side makes me believe it has much to do with the general state of the economy. After all, buying art is a luxury purchase, so it tends to fall down the lists of what people consider important to have. From what I've read on the topic, that seems to apply to all art sales, from the highest secondary market to the new collectors.
MICHAEL: Back to your work. When you're painting, what goes through your mind? Is the process more emotional, intellectual or spiritual? What inspires you?
JOSEPH: I don't buy into the notion of, "being inspired." Work, work, work! If you're a writer, write, a painter paint, and the ideas will show themselves.
I'm in the studio every day, doing something or other. Sometimes, I’m just mixing colors or prepping canvases. It's my job so I go to work. Because my interest is the idea of what is possible within imposed limitation, I find plenty of things to work on. I try and “try” is the operative word here, to leave myself open to what the painting on which I'm working requires. I swear sometimes the canvas talks: “Put this here or that there.” When I'm in that place, absent of the awareness of craft or result, the better stuff comes out.
I think in sports, it's called being in “The Zone.” That’s when you're there. Nothing but what is immediate is going through my mind. Usually in Bucks County, I'm working on three to five pieces at a time. In Key West, my studio is outdoors, so I limit myself to one or two.
I'm pretty much a person who comes at things from my intellect, but I don't see my work as cerebral. But you would be a better judge of that than me. I truly believe over time the viewer gets it better than the artist.
MICHAEL: Have you never wanted to be based in New York? I know Bucks County isn't far from New York, but...
JOSEPH: New York is the art capital of the world and I'm fortunate to have representation there. My current dealer is a wonderful lady, Susan Eley. My first entry into New York was with the Blom & Dorn Gallery in Soho.
John Blom & David Dorn retired some years ago and closed their lovely gallery. Early on in my career, New York wasn't part of my thinking, but as time went on and I had more confidence in my work, I thought it would be worth trying to show in the city. I think there are about 1200 galleries in New York and artists from all over the world want to be there. It's hard to find representation there, so I feel most blessed. There's something quite exciting about an opening night of a show of yours in New York, at least for this small town guy.
MICHAEL: Joseph, I could go with you, but I'll make this the last question. Why do you care about art? Most people don't.
JOSEPH: Art is transformative. It takes the viewer to somewhere beyond themselves. Now art is a damn hard thing to make in whatever form, but all the great music, writings, paintings, they all have that in common. They move us to a place beyond ourselves and they stand the test of time.
As a painter, I feel so lucky for the privilege of being able to create and early on, I realized with the privilege comes a responsibility to do it as well as I can. Now my best might not be great or even good, but that's okay. If I can now and then do it well enough that people find a bit of truth in it, then I'm the richer for it. I'm not certain how many folks care about art, but I'm certain when exposed to something beautiful or sublime, all of us care.
MICHAEL: Thanks Joseph. Very cool chat.
JOSEPH: Michael, Thank you for the questions I had a grand time.
Check out Joseph at http://josephpiccillo.com/.