Adriano Valeri has a really refreshing sense of wonder about the idea of painting, first having approached it from a traditional, academic standpoint, Now, having loosened up his style a bit, he's interested in the legacy and timeless quality of painting as one very powerful medium to communicate cultural essences. A lovely chat with him about learning to branch out from the known, exploring the possibilities of oil paint, and "showing up for work."
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Hey Adriano, I'd love to know more about you! What first interested you in pursuing art, or painting?
Like most people, I began making artwork as a young child, playing a kind of make-believe, except [with artwork] you are then left with a tangible document. It felt like a very empowering game to me; my parents would buy me large rolls of paper and acrylic paints, and I would occupy the living room floor, imagining scenes filled with dinosaurs, volcanoes, and tropical plants. When I was 8 years old, we moved to Massachusetts from Italy, and my mother signed me up for art lessons held in the basement of a frame shop. The woman who taught us was an academically trained portrait painter; she took her classes seriously and had high expectations of us. She showed me how to use oil paints at a very young age. I loved it, and I just never stopped.
When I finished high school, I decided to go back to Italy and study painting and art history seriously. I had this idea that since I had so much experience using oils that I could basically make updated Renaissance paintings and it would be great. I soon learned that it didn't matter much how skilled I was, that I could emulate Baroque type portrait or classical landscape. It might feel thrilling to think, "Look this was hard, and most people here couldn’t do this," but beyond that it’s so uninteresting. I think a lot of people come to art school and think they are quite good because they have been told this up until then, only to discover that whatever technique they’ve worked on is just a medium; it has no inherent value, no matter how much control you have of it. Once I internalized this, then I began looking at painting with a new spirit of discovery and experimentation, and I began to really grow as an artist.
Can you tell me about your work? Where do you get your ideas from for your pieces?
My subjects are taken from everyday experiences with the urban environment. Plants, construction material, feral animals, litter. We live in a globalized and rapidly homogenizing world, and I'm looking for subjects that resonate with people basically anywhere. Cheap mass production and unending construction, and our growing dependence on information technology, disconnects us even further from the land we inhabit. I'm not interested in making work that is purely documentary -- I'm interested in how these marginal spaces teem with unintended interactions that result from our massive presence as a species, so I've developed a personal narrative style to convey that. I love how trees can absorb and deform a chain-link fence. It reminds me of the incessant action of biology, this weak force that is constantly at work everywhere, and is assimilating everything we shed.
Can you describe your process? Do you do research of any kind before beginning a piece?
When I translate the things I see every day into a painting, it's exciting, and the process can feel like a kind of sorcery. Usually I have something in mind that I want to be featured in the painting, such as an electrical appliance, a species of plant, an animal, or a kind of packaging. I'll pick something I've observed outdoors, and which I feel would be interesting to see represented. I may have taken a picture of this subject or made a quick sketch in a notebook, and I might use this image as a rough template for a larger work. If I do have any references, I soon put them aside and try to remain flexible about the direction the painting could take.
For me, it's important to be elastic and open to unforeseen possibilities, you can tell when a work is muddied by too much strain, and what I'm trying to evoke are fleeting and fragmentary impressions. Sometimes I make collages by cutting up several small paintings on paper and creating a final composition. I also find it useful to go back and look at what I've done in recent finished pieces, and keep some formal continuity throughout.
You usually work in oil on canvas. What is your favorite thing about your medium?
Oil paint is so versatile; you can blend it with different materials to make it opaque or translucent. I like being able to mix colors directly on the painting, and how the linseed oil retains light, creating surfaces with a permanent liquid quality. It usually takes a few years for an artist to become competent with oil paints. Because of the typically slow drying time, you need to be patient and observant. It can be frustrating, and for most of my time as a student I was never quite satisfied by my efforts. A cool aspect is that oil on canvas, when executed properly, can easily last for many centuries. Canvas paintings are easy to conserve, and I like to think that when I finish a painting, people incredibly removed from our historical reality might look at it and feel a connection to us, like we do when we look at historical artworks. It's such an appealing and expressive technology that I think it will be part of human culture forever, like playing the guitar or making ceramic sculpture.
What is your studio space or workspace like?
I have a spacious drywall cubicle with a large table and some small desks. There’s a window that overlooks a busy highway and some empty lots and the whole floor is occupied by artists and craftspeople. The studio is in an industrial part of Brooklyn that has experienced a big influx of artists and galleries lately.
What is the best advice you've ever received?
"A painting should surprise us, not astound us, but it should show us something unexpected," from a professor at the academy of arts in Venice. It's such simple advice that it's sort of banal, but I think it's often a good criteria for evaluating what you're doing.
What do you feel is the most challenging thing about pursuing art, either creatively or professionally?
Keeping your sense of focus, basically "showing up for work," because it can be fun and rewarding, but it can be disappointing and frustrating as well. I don't view it as a pastime, but a lifetime commitment to making art.
How would you define "success?"
In art, I think success is when you have confidence in what you're doing and the conviction that it's relevant. I feel successful when I've finished a piece and it stimulates me to make more artwork, when I feel it "makes sense" to have it in the world.
What do you need most to achieve this kind of success?
For me it took time, years of work in the studio, trying many different things and talking with a lot of different people about art, discovering the many diverse methodologies and motivations. I find it's also important to spend time seeking and experiencing really good art work, of all types, and to ask oneself, "Is what I'm doing on the same level as this?" It's a question we can't answer, but I think it's worth asking ourselves.
What are you working on right now?
I just finished a series of large circular canvases, so now I'm doing some smaller collages on paper.
Anything else you would like to add?
Other people have said this in previous interviews, but I'd like to reiterate that students shouldn't worry too much about whether a specific result is good or bad, and instead aim for meaningful content by developing a coherent practice. You can look at your recent works and can identify points of contact between apparently disparate initiatives; focus on these to gain insights on what you’re already doing and where you could possibly take it.
Find more at adrianovaleri.com!
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