The following is an interview with the artist Christopher Rico. His works stirs something deep inside me and engages me on both primal and etherial levels. He’s also a very dear friend:
D. A. Adams – You began your career as a sculptor. Can you describe how you evolved into becoming a painter?
CHRISTOPHER RICO – In those early years, I was using a lot of found materials and playing with all kinds of mediums; copper, aluminum, cloth and driftwood from the [Mississippi] river, because my studio was so close and I would take long walks with my dog down there. I mean, I made things that hung out in space, but they were still essentially paintings. At that time, I skated the line between painting and sculpture. I wasn’t really interested in making things that were freestanding in space, – I wanted to make the space. I didn’t know what I was doing to be perfectly honest, but I have always been attracted to industrial materials and their connotations when used by artists.
I got a few gigs as a set designer; -I had spent time in the theatre in high school and college so it was a natural world for me. I guess I’ve always learned best by doing, and the more I worked in space, -you know, the more I made things to inhabit space, I realized that my concerns were just so much more about playing with surface and people’s perception of the two-dimensional. I felt as though I could say what I wanted to say, or at least explore more fully what was interesting to me through painting. It really just evolved organically.
I think my paintings are somewhat sculptural. I generally use deep stretcher bars, so the paintings come off the wall more than usual. Also, I really try to see the painting from all points in a room and not just head-on. I think we can’t always make the kind of art we think we should make, only the kind that we are meant to. So with that in mind, I think I was always a painter.
DA – Can you explain your process of painting with your hands? How did you come to use this technique?
RICO – When I decided to start painting I tried using artists’ brushes. It just felt so forced. I had been embracing this world of industrial /trade materials and techniques and somehow using these small little brushes just seemed so precious. The first attempts were disasters. So I went out and bought a bunch of house painter brushes; angles and flats and 4” wide brushes and just went crazy. The feeling of gesture was so much more immediate and real to me with the larger brushes.
I decided to go to graduate school and after many failed attempts to get in I took a couple of years of undergraduate art classes. When all that was over I experimented with the artists’ brushes again, -bought myself some really nice ones. I had obviously developed technique and had some formal training but I still felt stiff using those brushes.
I remember I read “The Road” by Cormac McCarthy, and as a new parent it just freaked me the hell out. I walked into the studio the day I finished the book and grabbed a painting I had been working on for some time and just started flinging black paint at it. Hurling it really. Then I threw the empty can at it, then jars full of terp and finally I just rushed the thing and started smearing the surface with my hands. That painting now reminds me Gerhard Richter’s work, but it was really important for me developmentally. The evolution was slow, it came in ebbs and flows, but by the time I got to the St. Teresa Suite earlier this year, I was already just pouring and rubbing with rags.
I was also painting a lot with my daughters and of course using finger-paints. I would just sit back and watch them and how they approached picture making. I just kept thinking how free they seemed. I tried it on some little post card sized canvas boards in the studio and things just sort of took off.
I feel really intimate with the materials, like how I felt all those years ago when I spent days burnishing my copper surfaces with a wire brush attached to a drill. Watching things react and occur, it’s really magical.
DA – What is your definition of “abstract” art?
RICO – I really dislike that term. The only thing worse is “non-representational.” I am really influenced by jazz music. I like it because it’s essentially a non-narrative form of music; each note is largely based on the previous one. The artists of the 50’s and early 60’s in New York were there when all this music was being made, and they saw it and heard it and were out in it. I think if there is an American-type painting, something really created here, then that is Abstract Expressionism.
I guess I distinguish abstraction in painting from abstract painting. Picasso certainly was abstracting his figures and forms, so was Cezanne for that matter. All painting is to a certain degree abstract. The more one tries to create the illusion of verisimilitude the more technical and abstract it really is, – the more it is really about the materials and not the subject. If you look at somebody like Vermeer for example, if you take his work in stages and look at a painting in its initial phase, he’s just laying down abstract forms that suggest the eventual composition. If you get the chance to see someone paint in the “Old Master’s style”, their paintings look like nothing for so long before the final skeins of detail and depth appear.
I’m steeped in JMW Turner. A lot of people consider that abstract painting, I don’t know, I don’t think he did. I respond to what is going on in the moment on the surface with the materials. I’m not trying to represent a subject or describe a situation or person through fashioning its likeness. Rather, I’m exploring conditions and perceptions and attempting to dip into a collective ethos, -explore mythological imagery. The Forest and the Sea paintings really blew that wide open for me and I think so much of that is scale.
DA – You came to parenthood relatively late in life. How have your daughters changed you, not only as a person, but as an artist?
RICO – Absolutely they have and continue to change me. For one thing, there is the connection to the world and to society that I’ve never really felt. That’s a broad feeling and a big change. But they teach me and I think they keep me honest in my art. I respect their freedom, their abandon in making pictures. I mean, they are obviously not trained, so they don’t possess the ability to discern and then take action based on those perceptions. (That’s why, -no, your kid couldn’t paint what I paint, and neither could mine for that matter, even though it may appear child-like). I feel like I have to preserve the confidence and freedom they feel now. That’s part of my job.
Also, and you know this because we’ve so often spoke of it. Also, looking into their eyes for the first time just made my resolve to not only continue to be an artist but to become successful at it, all that much stronger. It’s scary, wondering about paying for college and weddings and life, but I understood in that moment that this is what I am. This is my Way and I have to be true to that no matter how hard the road is. I want them to see my life as having integrity. I want to show them that they can follow their true path in life once they find it.
I was 40 years old when I became a daddy. So I hit middle age and new parenthood at the same time. It was intense.
DA – Speaking of age, you and I share the experience of being so-called late-bloomers. How have age and experience contributed to your artistic vision?
RICO – People love to talk about Mozart. It’s a compelling narrative, especially in our culture when young people make it really big. Some do. Some have meteoric rises to fame and fortune and their genius is easily seen and summarily exploited. But for every story of someone under 30 changing the world or achieving historical status, there are as many if not more stories of people who find themselves at a crossroads later in life and take the path less traveled.
I could site a bunch of examples: Barnett Newman, Rothko, Louise Nevelson. But I feel like that would be justifying something that doesn’t need to be justified. By art world standards, I’m actually still fairly young. I’m not worried about it.
I think one difference in being older is simply that I’ve lived. I don’t hang on approval, nor am I crushed by rejection. I’ve gone out and gone crazy and been in trouble and won and lost and loved and hurt and so nobody can take anything from me. My work is mature, even though I haven’t been doing it very long. I think maturity can produce mature work. I see that in your writing now as opposed to the writing you were doing when we met in college. That was good writing, but what you’re doing now is really on a whole different level. We both took time off, in a way we’re just starting. But now the whole of our lives is behind our art. So yes, I guess that contributes quite a bit.
DA – You were raised an Air Force brat. Can you explain how living in numerous states contributes to your art?
RICO – Air Force and then Army. I don’t know, it’s like being part of a tribe. Military kids can spot each other in crowds. Most people grow up in one or two places, -at least they used to. My life was uncommon at that time in this country. I kept having to adapt: every 2 or 3 years a new place, a new school, always the new kid. I think I built a very rich internal life and that still manifests itself in my work.
I spent a lot of time in my room, drawing and reading. I found Dali very early on in life; -he was very accessible to me as a young boy. Art was also a way to navigate constantly changing social situations. I could draw pictures for people in class and then they would like me or not beat me up or give me pot or whatever. I could whip out a copy of an album cover or comic book character in a couple of minutes, so people thought I was cool and talented. But it was boring; I always felt there was something else.
My parents and I didn’t know about fancy art schools. I ended up at a big state university and failed 2-D because the first time I had to get up and present a project I just freaked out and left class and never went back. I was really shy and couldn’t stand being in front of people. I was so used to being alone. I still like the studio because of its solitude.
DA – We’ve had conversations about your disappointment at not being accepted into an MFA program when you made the decision to pursue art seriously. Now that you’ve been productive for many years and are building a solid reputation, has that disappointment dissipated or morphed into something else?
RICO – It will always sting I guess. That feeling of not being “good enough” and feeling rejected by what I perceived as my peers. But I have developed by leaps and bounds on my own. My work doesn’t suffer for lack of that paper. Nobody cares at this point. Sure, I think I get passed over sometimes for not having a degree, but I can’t say it has hurt my career as an artist. I’m selling work, I have a great studio, and I balance work and family. I don’t have tens of thousands of dollars worth of debt cutting into my sales and in truth I never wanted to be a professor. It all worked out just fine.
People sometimes see my work for the first time and ask where I went to school, like it’s a given. So that tells me that I’m on a professional level. Some day I’ll pick up an honorary degree and that will be just as good if not better.
DA – As a “self-educated” artist, can you share some of your artistic influences?
RICO – Modrian, who by the way was also “self-educated.” Turner, as I said. Pollock, we’re all influenced by Pollock; he’s our Picasso, -you have to overcome him. Rothko, Still, Blake, the Spaniards like Velázquez, Goya, I love the painterly-ness of those surfaces. New stuff all the time, Schnabel is actually a big one.
I also read a lot of artists’ writings. So there are artists whose writings influence me, you know, their ideas, even if the work doesn’t thrill me. Frank Stella, for sure. Motherwell, -though I like his work very much, his writing is out of this world. Recently Tworkov.
DA – Outside of visual art, who are your other major influences?
RICO – I’m a fanatic about quotes. I consume movies. I read a lot of history. You could say that I am a student of greatness. So anyone who has been great, that’s an influence. Lots of people for very different reasons but the common thread is greatness. Not always fame or monetary success either. I am really interested in people who changed things.
DA – When we were young students, painfully naive and full of ourselves, we used to discuss creating our own literary movement. Now that we are older, somewhat wiser, and a little more humble, what do you see as our opportunity to leave behind as our artistic movement?
RICO – I want to make significant work that future artists will respond to, perhaps even contend with. Honestly, that’s it. Truly significant work. If other things come with that, fine. Those things are not what drive me. The world of painting is changing right now. I think I am really a part of that tide because I’ve stuck to my guns and followed my vision through the past decade. I just happen to be in that space right now because I never left it. I think we make our own luck. But who knows, right?
DA – Any final thoughts you want to share?
RICO – Trust your visions. Work like hell. Treat other people like you would like to be treated. Don’t deny yourself success because of false modesty or the misguided belief that poverty is noble. Go to the studio. Inspiration is great, but highly overrated. Lots of people have great ideas, but few realize them. Never be afraid to ask; sometimes the answer will be “no” but it will certainly be that if you don’t ask. I’ve been surprised at how much people have been wiling to do for me, -often for free, simply because I asked.