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Interview: Jackie Saccoccio

I first saw Jackie Saccoccio’s paintings when she showed at Black & White gallery in 2007. I spent time with the work, caught by the color and freedom of her painting style. I was intrigued by the play of the linear wall drawings and the painterly works themselves. I ruminated with the imagery for the next few days and managed to make it back to the gallery a couple of times. Jackie’s work resonated with me, and the more I thought about it the stronger it seemed. This is no small feat, especially for abstract painting at this time – her works are both smart and sexy.

We caught up with Jackie for an exchange of ideas just before her new show at 11 Rivington opens on January 11th.

Mark Stone: Your show in 2007 was a marvel for a lot of abstract painters, and I think it heralded a new interest in abstract painting amongst gallery goers. This past summer there was a sort of fashionable resurgence of abstraction in the galleries that had to do with the critical success of your show. In the context of the public over the past year what do think has changed for abstraction – what has become “sexy” about it?

Jackie Saccoccio: That’s very generous, thank you. I think the propensity of complex painting out there has been building for a while. I think that has to do more with the public at large trying to make sense of some of the larger looming uncertainties – the life price for unabashed greed, for example – war, global warming, etc. Blatant literalism of some of the 90’s work rings as glib or propagandistic in this type of climate. Work that asks questions or is open-ended offers a place to reflect and accept uncertainty. Some of this fresh stuff finds itself in abstraction for sure and the level of complexity is growing – that’s been building for many years with Michel Majerus, Joyce Pensato, Rosemarie Trockel, Katarina Grosse, Sarah Morris, Mary Heilmann, etc.

MS: Your work expands the possibilities of the expressionist 80s without resorting to Postmodern mannerist overtones. The possibilities for your work seem limitless – you have form, color, space and light. How have you managed to push beyond the Postmodernism of the “New Abstractionists” of the early 90s? What is your relationship to Postmodernism – if any?

JS: I had blinders on in regards to Postmodernism in NY. My formative years here in the late 80’s were all about idealism. I would hang out with other artists, painters and sculptors mostly, dismantling and pushing one another to challenge whatever specifics lay within the core of our work, not to make an ‘ism’ that would be the sum of all of our works. We weren’t particularly ‘career-minded’. Non-linear is how I would describe the common thread between that group if that’s possible, with Artschwager and Guston serving as grandfathers to us. I try to push my work deliberately towards a mannerist sensibility, at least in the manner that Denise Scott Brown spoke of in the videos that accompanied the Piranesi show. Her description, far more eloquent, but to the effect of: “Mannerism stems not from those who are so bored with knowing the existing rules of their art form too well, but as embodying a vitality that comes from an architecture being influenced by many sources, not one.” is one I can ascribe to.

When I was in art school in the early 80’s, Arte Povera, the Transavanguardia and the Neo-Expressionists were it. In Providence and Rome, we weren’t looking at them ironically. It was a way to access history even if the artists’ intentions were otherwise. When I moved to Chicago, students weren’t wearing their emotions and politics on their sleeves in quite the same way, but there was an undeniable love of the object and paint which comes from the largely Hairy Who faculty and the city itself – the flat light – lack of shadows, little integration of the architecture, every building standing solely and alone. The cities and worlds were compact, so it was possible to make these correlations. NY is not so easy to pin down. It is still thrilling and confounding. I came to understand the importance of what was happening in NY and Warhol through later, mostly Europeans’ interpretation of it: Sigmar Polke, Katarina Fritsch, Martin Kippenberger and Christopher Wool – not the other way around, as one might expect, being in NY at the time.

Interrupted GridMS: Your paintings are extremely visual and a feast for the eyes. I especially like the way you break the spaces in your work – almost as if you fold the strokes back onto themselves or rip them into other forms. For instance in the work Interrupted Grid on the left the work plays easily on the surface – a sedate abstraction – then it looks as if it rips and tears across the right side of the canvas – stretching the spaces and forms into something else creating a lot of movement and speed. This is a new kind of space in abstract painting – can you tell us more about where this comes from? Are you looking for a deeper expressive possibility by “interrupting the grid”?

JS: I was thinking about the Mannerist architect Vignola and his manipulation of water at Villa Lante when I was making “Interrupted Grid”. His use of hidden hydraulics and his labyrinthine design sense allow the water to transform joyously as it traverses the garden. The very same molecules spew, trickle, foam, cascade down stairs, splinter into narratives with nymphs, plateau into a table that begs to be sat at and finally rejoin at the bottom of the hill into four static pools denoting E, W, S, N. It is an elegant and humbling celebration of nature. In this painting, the variation and repetition of orange/brown strokes are an attempt to bring that reintroduction of a constant into varied dialogues within the same painting and stretching that experience out the way Vignola does.

MS: I also am intrigued by the wall drawings that punctuate the painted surfaces. The play between something that looks projected and traced versus the really painted surfaces is stunning. To me this is a very self-conscious provocation. How much of this has to do with the prevalent lens culture that permeates painting these days? Are you making a statement about the “extended field” (gallery as experiential rather than as backdrop) or do you have something else in mind?

JS: The provocation is intentional, but not towards a lens culture as no element in either comes from a projected image. The paintings are initially perceived as abstract because they are just marks, and the drawing representational because they look like objects. However, when the viewer tries to position themselves in relationship with either, they are faced with a contradiction. The ‘gaze’ of the marks in the paintings is that of a 3/4 view, to be objectified, consumed. The knowingly executed marks on the wall have no fixed reference to proportion so disperse and become musings of abstract energy that come from no one fixed place. The marks within the paintings play off of an established representational space. Relative to the drawing, they become representational. Because one is monochrome and the other not, it is a given that there is no attempt for them to mesh.

In the paintings I am working on now, I am trying to combine the results of that wall drawing/ painting within painting alone. I am looking to establish a ‘gaze’ within the marks that is frontal, immediate and material, not unlike that middle ground of Courbet. The paintings are comprised of formal swollen grids that present themselves as characters corrupted by ancillary, castrated lines and dashes. This interruption of form prods the viewer to focus on the tension between these schisms and the spectrum of abstraction that each embody. The heightened acidic colors celebrate the spontaneous bobbing between the static and the ephemeral.

MS: Your work is based also on the high classicism of 1950s American Abstract Expressionism – I see DeKooning and Mitchell among others. Hue and value are extremely important in your paintings – more so than for the ABEXers. What did you want to take from that period and how have you moved beyond the overconfident materialism that is prevalent in that sort of work?

JS: Well, I take from everyone I can. I have respect for the ornery rage of Mitchell’s works. She approaches nature in a very unforgiving way. I think she also takes that from Courbet and his raucous paint handling. She used color to agitate, so did Elizabeth Murray, and the Mannerists – Pontormo, Beccafumi, Rosso. Theirs was a space of theatricality, truncating space so that it exists in a pile, tumbling out of the canvas. Their use of acidic colors jammed up against one another gives such passage into the angst-filled questioning of religion at that time. DeKooning’s Excavation was a pivotal painting for me. I found color in his self-imposed limitations. It was Andre Masson’s Massacre Drawings in painted form, roiling bits of humanity seething through snippets of blacks. In his later works, untitled III, 1981, for one, the variety of pastels in the background stops me dead in my tracks with their acuity and ability to destabilize that yellow.

Green GridMS: I’m a sucker for Venetian painting. Whether or not it’s there I see a lot of the Venetian flow of composition in your work. Especially in the way you move and warp the spaces. In Green Grid you divide the canvas into 3 levels with the composition tearing through the top left and pouring over into the right side. Tintoretto used a similar compositional device in his “Annunciation” in the Scuola di San Rocco. What are your deeper influences and how do they affect your work? How do you incorporate them into the 21st Century?

JS: Yea, the Venetians are amazing. They had a grip on it all – ephemera, clarity, drama, crispness, pathos. Titian is my favorite these days. Tintoretto’s Annunciation is fierce. I recently saw Mantegna’s Dead Christ and Tintoretto’s Discovery of St. Mark’s Corpse. I was amazed at a couple of things – one, how lovingly Tintoretto must have studied Dead Christ and two, with how little artifice Mantegna is able to make such a staggering painting. Seeing the Tintoretto, where there is a long arched corridor, a patterned floor, other figures set proportionally in the background, extreme lighting all to get a like effect of this corpse, one realizes just how tremendous a feat Mantegna’s painting was.

In Green Grid, I am trying to very literally introduce the green as an element that obliterates but can still exist concurrently… like the green recycling bins in Paris. There is so much refined visual activity in the streets and along the building facades, then there are these huge receptacle blobs, 2 meters tall at most intersections – at once confrontational AND part of the urban fabric. The city ceases to be a historicized cartoon character of itself but dynamic and thriving. The premise behind this series of new paintings is conceptually not so dissimilar to my previous investigations with contradiction.

InstallationIn 2003, at Galerie Michael Neff, I dissected (non-literally) an earlier painting of mine. For the installation, plywood panels with rough sketches of extracted layers from the painting leaned against the walls. Installed above them were ‘masterful’ ink drawings of the same painting, but attempting to recreate as opposed to dissect. Following that my work focused on natural ephemeral occurrences (fog, sunlight) and how they could visually transform something massive and static. Using two like images on two separate panels, repetition served to disengage the viewer from a ‘gestural abstraction’ interpretation. The wall drawings with paintings take that dissemination a little further and these recent paintings take aim at paint and the canvas to describe this. They are not so reliant on illusion to describe a temporal state.

As far as deeper influences, there is something about the perversion of space that infects what I do. Understanding the movements, the nature of the people, the urban fabric or the geological substructure of a place is a method that I latch onto to decipher the structure of the work that has been made there and what I produce. For example, take Italian Baroque architecture and the differences between one city and another – the rawness and the immediacy of the Sicilian and Neopolitan Baroque and how diverse it is from Lecchese or Roman Baroque, but those are societies that flourished under intense turmoil including live volcanoes. It’s cliché and base, and of course only a miniscule part of how the work evolved, but it fuels my interest and work.

Since 2001 I have made a conscious effort to be aware of my architectural and geological surroundings and how that alters the work I make. I currently work in three small studios, one downtown, one in Harlem and one in rural Connecticut. Painting is more like a performance. I react to my surroundings, the shape of the studios, the neighborhoods, etc. I’m just a vehicle to harness the energy of contradiction that is out there in my surroundings. The wall drawings provide me the unique opportunity to respond to the immediacy of a lot of different spaces. I still believe that most artists have this ‘Rosebud’ connection to their sources. I love Polke’s description of his use of Ben-day dots – how they stem from his memories of growing up in deprived circumstances in East Germany with poor eyesight, peering longingly at signs at the bread store with the odors wafting around him.

MS: In Rough Trade we discuss the current crisis in abstraction as being located in the nexus of lenses and computers or the programming of visual culture through lenses. We discuss the work of Frank Stella who talks about “working spaces” and David Hockney who talks about “eyeballing” or actually seeing without the lens prosthetic. Can you tell us more about how you’ve come to paint here in the 21st Century and what issues you see arising for abstraction?

JS: I hesitate to make large statements about art and where it’s going to go or what effect my contribution will have. I would be making pedantic illustrations if I knew the answers beforehand.

Take an opportunity to see Jackie’s work in person at 11 Rivington starting on January 11 – the opening reception is that day 6-8 pm. For more info on Jackie’s works click here to go to her web site.

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