Paolo Arao

Susan Klein visited by Paolo Arao

I met Susan Klein while on a residency at The Wassaic Project this past June. There’s a humor and human-ness to her work and color palettes that resonated with me. Susan’s work is a very smart and playful combination of sculpture, painting and craft presented in wonderfully weird tableaus. They reward long looking. I visited Susan this past July during her residency at the ISCP studio program in Brooklyn.

Can you please tell me a little bit about yourself? Where are you from and where did you go to school?

I grew up in Morristown, NJ and studied art at NYU for two years.  I then transferred to the University of New Hampshire.  I got my MFA in 2004 from University of Oregon.  


Can you describe the series of work(s) that are in progress in your studio?

Right now I am working on sculptures and paintings.  The sculptures are made up of bases and forms that sit on or within the base structure.  The forms are ceramic, epoxy resin, plexi, and found objects (with a few other materials thrown in now and then).  The bases are also a mix of materials: plexi, found objects, plaster, etc.  Some of these pieces sit on paintings.  The paintings, on raw, unstretched canvas, act as throw rugs.  There are also paintings (unstretched and raw) on the wall that act as tapestries.  

The work revolves around a symbol system that references artifacts, devotional objects, and popular culture. I like to think of this body of work like an artifact of the present.  

How did you start working with ceramics? Do they inform your 2-D work or vice versa?

I have been working with 3D elements since grad school, on and off.  In the past two years the sculptural has moved more towards the forefront.  I was working with sculpey, epoxy resin clay, paper mache clay, and foam.  Ceramics was a logical step.  I wanted a material that responds to my touch like paint does but has a longer working time than some air dry clays.  I have worked with ceramics for the past year and I love it! They absolutely inform my 2D work- I’ve become freer and more open to rawer moves in the paintings and drawings.  And the 2D informs the 3D- all of my work seems to refer back to a painterly sort of space.

What are the main questions/ ideas that you’re trying to answer/develop in the studio?

I think about the relationship between painting and sculpture - the connection between image and object.  How does an image become an object?  How do the things that I create relate to the ones that already exist? How does my daily studio practice relate to the history of making….not just art making, but the daily making of anything?  Why do I engage in making? What drives humans to make objects that do not serve a functional role? How can/has art exist/existed as a conduit between the physical and the metaphysical? 

Can you describe your use of color? Do you figure out the palette before you begin working or is it more of an intuitive process of call and response?

Talking about color is always sticky for me because it is a highly sensory experience and is intuitive.  Where I live, the nature of the light, my surroundings, and my mood all influence color choices. Sometimes a particular shape needs to be a particular color and I don’t know why. Sometimes color relates to a taste or texture - I often describe color in terms of these senses: soft, gnarly, acidic, sweet, smooth, etc.  My recent palette also stems from me giving my myself permission to make color moves that seem “bad” - I am giving myself complete freedom to let the color go where it wants, to indulge my instincts.  The new body of work feels like the light of the Southern Coast where I relocated four years ago.  I think the colors here are unlike anything I have experienced and are sinking deep into my psyche. The day is bracketed between peach and lavender: the mornings are infused with a warm pink-orange glow and the evenings with diffuse lavender light. 

You curated a show recently at the NARS Foundation in Brooklyn. Can you speak a little about the show and if curating has had an effect on your studio practice?

I really enjoyed curating. I had the idea for this show about a year ago, after meeting Heather Merckle and Holly Veselka and connecting them conceptually to Skye Gilkerson, who I have known for about 5 years.  I love the work of all three of these artists and was interested in the way that the work addressed our relationship with nature and time in various ways.  Heather’s work is more humorous, Skye’s more minimal, and Holly’s more based on optics, yet all three artists address the cosmos and the role of humans within it.  These artists make work that is different than mine, and I like stepping outside my own practice.  It is good to go beyond one's studio practice and think about the ideas and processes of others. 

What person/place/thing has had the most influence for you and your work?

Oh wow, this is a hard one!  I am completely overwhelmed by the visual information in the world, so I need to translate lived experience through a creative act.  I don’t think I can choose one thing…..I’m a total carnivore, a sponge.  I want to eat the world and then barf it back out in my work. 

Do you listen to music/ the radio/ podcasts while you work? What have you been listening to lately?

Yes!  Music depends on my mood, a lot of times it is my giant playlist of liked songs on Spotify.  It can range from Bach to Laurie Anderson to Angel Olson to Chrome Sparks.  I am loving the new Blood Orange and Justice albums. I also have a dance playlist because sometimes I have secret dance parties for one in my studio. I listen to many podcasts.  Call Your Girlfriend, Marc Maron, and Terry Gross are my all-stars. On Being is good too, and I recently added Sam Harris to my playlist.    


What is a typical studio day like for you? Do you work early/late? Do you work every day?

I like to get to the studio in the morning.  I have my best focus before lunch.  My ideal day is studio from 8:30-5, then yoga, then dinner and bedtime. Of course, it usually doesn’t pan out that way! When I am not teaching, I am in the studio every day.  During the semester, I get in three-four full studio days.  On teaching days, sometimes I can get a few hours before or after class, or in the evening.  I need to work so I get in there as much as possible.  The studio is the place where I feel calmest, most at home, most myself. 

Are you reading anything interesting at the moment?

I’m almost finished with a great book: 4321 by Paul Auster. It’s hard to put down. I love fiction and usually have a novel on hand to read.  I am also re-reading Cat’s Eye, by Margaret Atwood.  She is one of my favorite writers and I relate to this book in a very real way.


Knowing what you know now, what is a piece of advice that you would give to your younger artist self? 

Have confidence in yourself and don’t look to others for approval.  That is a big one.  I spent a lot of time people pleasing and second guessing myself.  Also, have patience!  Things take time to emerge - art practice, career, relationships, everything.  Give yourself time to grow and mature. 


Do you have any upcoming exhibitions you’d like to share? 

I currently have a solo show called "Day Person" in Sumter, South Carolina at the Sumter County Gallery of Art.  It’s up until November.

For more information on Susan please visit her website.


Max Colby visited by Paolo Arao

I met Max Colby while on an artist residency at The Studios at MASS MoCA in North Adams, MA this past April. I was captivated by his work the first time I saw it and instantly felt a connection. I was happy to meet another artist working with textiles from a queer perspective. Max’s work straddles the line between representation and abstraction. His work appears gaudy and excessive, but there’s something rich embedded beneath his opulent surfaces. I paid a visit to Max’s studio in Bushwick a month after we returned to the city from our residency at MASS MoCA. 

Can you please tell me a little bit about yourself? Where are you from and when did you move to Brooklyn? Where did you go to school?

I moved to New York City six years ago immediately after receiving my BFA from the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston and Tufts University in 2012. I grew up between West Palm Beach, Florida and Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

How did you start working with textiles and embroidery? Can you elaborate on the specific embroidery technique(s) you use in your process?

I began working in textiles in my senior year of college, 7 years ago. I was experimenting with very fragile collograph plates for printing. The plates were figurative and their destruction through the printing process referenced a certain degradation and malleability of the self and identity, but the work was missing something. An introductory textiles course opened up the exploration of embroidery in this work and turned into a series of several dozen prints each customized with embroidered accoutrements. I’ve been obsessed with embroidery and textiles ever since.

The technique I primarily use when embroidering is called Crewel embroidery, which arguably began in the 11th century with the Bayeux Tapestry, but became increasingly popular during the Victorian era. It was used on clothing, furniture, and innumerable domestic and personal objects. It’s a very full and rich form of embroidery, comprised mostly of different iterations of long and short stitches. The history of this specific technique is always interesting to me as its function, execution, and accessibility are emblematic of points of contention regarding gender equality, capital, class, and power while providing an intoxicating desirability. 

Can you describe the series of work(s) that are in progress in your studio?

I’ve been working on a series titled They Consume Each Other, which is comprised of many small sculptures resembling religious relics or ceremonial objects. I’m simultaneously expanding a series of embroideries on original photographs from gay porn magazines. I like to move between several modes of production. Embroideries and flat works influence the development of sculptural work and vice versa. They Consume Each Other currently has 20 pieces, though I’m several dozen away from my goal. I’m interested in developing the work towards an immersive, participatory installation as well as exploring their performative potential. Lately, I’ve been envisioning them littered in vacant churches and homes. 

What are the main questions/ ideas that you’re trying to answer/develop in the studio?

I’m interested in exploring some pretty big questions on sex and power structures. For instance, the limited representation of gender, race, and physicality in the LGBTQIA+ community which follows a larger discussion in our culture about who’s life is valued and idealized. Nearly all of the magazines I utilize keep their models within a certain type. They’re white, cis-gendered, able-bodied and masculine men. Whom are considered the standard bearers of beauty and attractiveness across queer communities. Embroidering with extreme richness over these images aims to disrupt that narrative while provoking the viewer to consider what’s behind these desires. These various elements act as echoes. Can one get past that pure desire?

There’s a lot in conversation here, but my hope is that the work can provide a new frame for conversation on these issues. Often the work doesn’t go there for people and it’s simply visible, queer work. Or maybe it’s a new, fantastical way of seeing materials they often associate with domestic work experienced through their family unit. If my work can provide a fresh lens for someone grappling with sexuality, representation or identity, that’s incredible.    

What persons/places/things have had the most influence for you and your work?

I grew up in a family that loves art. My dad collected outsider art, and I was always taking extra art and music courses outside of school and in the summer since I was very young. I think that early creative development made a big impact on my work as an artist today. When I started to get serious as I got older, artists like Nick Cave and Cindy Sherman were huge influences on me and my understanding of artistic practice and its potential. Recently, shows like Trigger at the New Museum in 2018 and Queer Threads curated by John Chaich, to name a couple, introduced me to a slew of queer artists whom have influenced my practice. 

Can you elaborate on your use of decorative pattern and color in your work? Are your decisions purely formal or is there a conceptual underpinning behind your choices?

I like to play with blind desire in my work and strive for lush, opulent effects when working. There’s a back and forth between formal and conceptual elements. In sculptural work, I keep my choices limited, i.e., only collect European or American floral fabrics and trims, typically in colonial or Victorian styles. When I embroider, I stick to traditional Crewel embroidery and copy designs from historic textiles. The materials alone carry a great deal of conceptual backing. They directly invoke conversations on class, capital, desire, domesticity, disparity, and gender and I’m interested in subverting those associations. After making those decisions, I leave a lot of room for play. Color, form and composition are all done organically – nothing is pre-planned.

I'm really interested in the multitude of ways that Queerness is being represented by artists now. Do you consider your work to be abstract or representational or both? Is this important for you?

Queerness to me is open, fluid, evolving, resistant. It’s important to me that the work reflect that. The fantastical, maximal, nature of the work leaves it somewhere between the two.

Do you listen to music/ the radio/ podcasts while you work? What have you been listening to lately?

I mostly listen to music. Lately I’ve been playing Erykah Badu, Cardi B, and Grace Jones in the studio. Making work is so much about play for me, and I laugh at it a lot of the time. It’s hard to avoid when putting fabric flowers next to Victorian brocade fabric shaped like a phallus. Making also helps mitigate and redirect some strong anger and frustration I have towards injustice and inequality in society. What I have going in the background usually reflects those things.

What is a typical studio day like for you? Do you work early/late? Do you work every day?

I work full time in my studio and typically work morning to night. Most of my work is pretty time consuming and almost always hand sewing, so I set production goals. I’m an obsessive worker and can lose track of time, but I try to stand and stretch every hour or so, and on the flip side keep my studio time under 50 hours a week. At a certain point my eyes give out.   
Writing and research are also important parts of my practice, which I end up doing on days I’m not producing.  

Are you reading anything interesting at the moment?

I recently finished Frames of War: When is Life Grievable? by Judith Butler and Close to the Knives by David Wojnarowicz. I also keep Queer (Documents of Contemporary Art) by David Getsy always handy in my studio. 

Knowing what you know now, what is a piece of advice that you would give to your younger artist self?

It’s easy to get lost, don’t waiver from your values. 

For additional information about Max visit his website or instagram.

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52 Weeks

A studio visit with Paolo Arao by Nick Naber

Paolo and I met at SPRING BREAK ART SHOW in 2015. He was visiting a booth where I had work up, and we chatted for the first time. We had been friends on Instagram before that point, and it was nice to put a face and personality to the paintings that I’d seen. The first time I’d visited Paolo was in the summer of 2016, a few days after I moved back to Brooklyn. His studio was by the Navy Yard, and he was working on a yearlong painting series called Yearbook in which he painted one painting a day for the entire year. And each 12 x 9 inch painting was completed in one hour.  A few months passed and he visited me in my studio, and then I went back and visited him again, this time in a new studio in Crown Heights where he had started a different yearlong painting series. Paolo is now in Bed Stuy and is approaching the end of the same series that I had seen in Crown Heights, but the paintings have changed quite a bit from what I had seen over the summer.

Visiting Paolo’s studio is always something new, not just because he’s moved spaces frequently but because he’s so prolific. When I visited him this time, I was taken by the twelve paintings that he had on his wall. It reminded me so much of the Yearbook paintings that I had seen on my first visit to him in the summer of 2016. There was something different from the works I had seen over the summer too. Paolo’s interest in textiles and sewing is now more evident in his newer work. As I look at the paintings I start to notice the seams on the support. They are imperfect and in spots the linen is left bare. These new paintings are vulnerable and open in a different way than his earlier Yearbook works.

This past year he’s been working on a series of 52 paintings in conjunction with making longer-term work. These 52 paintings are compelling for many reasons. Similar to his Yearbook series, Paolo has set up a specific set of rules to create them. He makes one painting per week; the painting is completed in one day; and they’re each done on an 18 x 15 inch support. In discussing how this affects his results we looked at some of the earlier works from this series. I discovered that the works from the early part of this year looked more like larger versions of his Yearbook paintings.  Over the course of the year they have become something else. And there appear to be multiple groups of series that have developed within the overall project. In most recent works, he has begun to stitch together pieces of linen to reinforce a grid, albeit a soft-edged and not quite perfect grid. With the slight change in his surface support came a change in the way the work was carried out, the color palettes, the painted lines, the edges, and the movement on the surface.

I begin to wonder about the way he’s applying the paint to these surfaces. And I‘m curious about why he’d go through the trouble of sewing these supports and then in many ways completely disregarding the physical lines he’s created. For him, it becomes a play between the paint and the physical nature of the support. He’s resisting the grid, and pushing his abstractions outside the physical limitations of their supports.

Paolo uses an intentionally uncomfortable yet playful combination of color; they’re odd, pretty, high key, muted, and at times, off-putting. On the raw linen the typically bright or garish colors become muted. He doesn’t aim for his canvases to be pretty, in that he doesn’t want his work to only be about pleasing and harmonious colors. He is continually obfuscating what one would say is a beautiful color by pairing it with a color that may be perceived as ugly. His use of color in combination with the geometric forms he employs leads you deeper into these works because they are in many instances queer and disorienting.

In a majority of these paintings there is a specific intention not to cover the entire support with paint. It was originally uncomfortable for him to leave so much of the linen bare. In some instances you can feel that struggle. He works on a new painting with 12 weeks of previous paintings behind him on the wall, allowing him to work through the different tensions and idiosyncrasies inherent in each work. This allows him to riff on older work, or to improve things that he didn’t like in previous iterations.  The variation between the works is subtle, but evident.

We talked about knowing when a painting is finished. His self-imposed time constraints force him to be completed in one day, however, he doesn’t stop thinking about the completed painting after it’s done. The canvases that he makes on a weekly basis have an influence on each other, but also allow Paolo the opportunity to "fix" things that he didn’t like in the previous painting without overcomplicating it.

This idea to make both the Yearbook series and his current 52 week series arose out of a desire to not overthink and overwork a painting. He devised the idea to work quickly on a painting to help him loosen up, but also to experiment with and focus on his own painting language and technique. In many ways both of these series have seeped into his overall practice. He is able to reference and re-appropriate from an encyclopedic volume of past work when concentrating on other paintings that take a few weeks to complete.

In our visit we talked about the benefits to making a lot of work. The fact that there is always another painting waiting to be made the following week frees Paolo from the constraints or difficulties of any one work. And the amount of failed paintings are equally as important as successful paintings, because it gives him the motivation and desire to keep coming back to the studio, to keep pushing his process and to keep making.  

Paolo will be going to the Vermont Studio Center for a 4-week residency in January. He intends to make a lot of works on paper in addition to experimenting further with sewn textiles and painting. He will have a forthcoming two-person show opening at the end of March 2018 at c2c project space in San Francisco.

For more information about Paolo check out his website, or see him on Instagram

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