Gabrielle Vitollo was awarded a Fulbright Research Fellowship for 2018-19, and has recently relocated from Brooklyn to Philadelphia, which has influenced the direction of her paintings. Influenced by sculpture, printmaking techniques, and even glassblowing, Vitollo’s work is an exuberant, techno-futurist ride. She’s also planning to organize a bi-weekly painting critique group in Berlin, Germany, starting this September, as she pursues the Fulbright project — details after the Q&A!
Can you tell me a little bit about you?
I grew up in the suburbs outside of Philadelphia where there was very little to do, which is great for developing a creative mind. There was a lot of nature, which is where I found all of the bones for my sculptures. My parents raised me to value the arts, environmental preservation, and sustainability, long before climate change was considered “fact”. I always thrived with hands-on learning, so my dad would often let me skip school or church to go to a museum in Philadelphia or investigate forestry. My parents gave me a lot of freedom for creative expression. All-girls Catholic school had a lot restrictive ideas on what women could and could not do, so I needed outlets like visual art and music.
I received a BFA in Painting from the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA). After undergrad, I received a grant to apprentice a world-famous butcher who was known for his local and sustainable practice in Tuscany, but I objected to treatment of women in Italy and moved to NYC after a few months. I resided in Brooklyn for five years while working for seven artists and receiving an MFA in Studio Art from New York University, which is where my art became more interdisciplinary. When not in a degree program, I have been teaching, fabricating art, and assisting artists while trying to learn a couple of languages, intaglio, and glassblowing. I spend most of my free time either making objects or seeing live music.
When did you first discover art, or realize you wanted to make it yourself?
As a child, I always drew and played with watercolors until I switched to oil and acrylic in college. I think watercolor shaped how I understand the world through color – something about laying down diluted films of paint and employing the white of the paper to make light bounce around inside the pigment. In kindergarten I received an award from the Catholic Diocese of Philadelpia for a watercolor of Christ, God, and myself that was hung in an exhibition space. That early validation in part encouraged me to continue making 2D work. All of my childhood, I wanted to direct music videos — back when MTV was all music videos — but the tools were never readily available to me. When I was seventeen-years-old, I saw Soutine at The Barnes Foundation. He strongly felt something that I was in return connecting into decades later after his death. Then I saw the Francis Bacon retrospective at the Met in 2008 where had a similar experience. This also happened for me again at the Mike Kelley (2013) and Maureen Gallace (2017) retrospectives at MOMA PS1. I longed to be part of this culture of talking without words, so I enrolled at MICA because I heard it was the best painting school in the country and they awarded me a scholarship.
You’ve been awarded a Fulbright Research Fellowship for the 2018-19 year – congratulations! Can you tell me a bit about what you’re planning to work on?
Thank you! Thank is very kind of you to say. I will be working on an Intaglio portfolio at Kunsthochschule Berlin-Weißensee based on my observations from Renaissance Decorative Armor and Dürer’s engravings. This project’s genesis originated from reading about decorative armor being the precursor to engraving and etching, and that Dürer was accredited with this building this technical bridge. The armor’s depictions of growing and expanding flora and fauna, and complex, interwoven battle scenes give compositional ideas for paintings. When I applied, this project seemed a perfect match to consider armorial embellishments as a means of conceptualizing the defensive body and prosthetics, in relation to themes about the body and technology that were developing in my practice.
What ideas are you exploring in your practice?
In my art I employ motifs that reintroduce the viewer to the everyday in a way that is both strange and intimate. While living in NYC, there was always technofuturist and cyberfeminist aesthetics with weird bodily themes in my work. My paintings depict machines, hardware, and amorphous forms as symbols for contemporary understandings of sex, gender, and reproduction.
I do ultimately consider material and craftsmanship as my highest concerns. In my paintings I choreograph spatial and material oppositions to reflect a world constantly changing and in motion. I alternate thick and thin paint application, high-pitched and local color, flat space and deep perspective. These elements unite to create a pictorial world full of contradictions and paradox. I ultimately strive to entertain my audience in the way action films entertain, but through a slower read of decision making. I revel in the moments when two or more brush strokes come into contact to create an edge.
What is your process like?
There are a lot of preliminary works and cross-pollination between small and body-size paintings, sculptures, collages, and digital models so it is hard to say how long the process takes. Sometimes I work on both sculpture and painting in the same day. Recently I have been staring at flowers I see outside or satellite images of climatic events such as hurricanes for a long time and then painting them from memory.
You mention that among other things you have learned glassblowing; what attracted you to that?
I was looking for a more economical way to make my reliquary sculptures so I applied and was granted a scholarship to study at UrbanGlass. Glassblowing was the only course offering that fit in my schedule. Through glassblowing, I was forced to make my sculptures — which usually look like paintings — more three-dimensional, because you can’t stop rotating the hot glass or else it will fall and shatter. As a painter, I was quickly seduced by the medium due to its shiny, viscous, and translucent properties, and glass comes an array of colors…It’s like the surface of a glazed painting stretched into a 3D form. The transparent nature of these materials feels like a film negative from which I can manipulate the luminosity as I do with paint. That’s what makes painting or glass unique – contradictions, impossibilities, or abstractions can materialize.
Has experimenting with other art forms, such as printmaking or glassblowing, influenced your work in any way that surprised you?
When I started making sculptures, I documented and presented them as manipulated 3D scans so that they would be archived and digitally immortalized. I was fascinated by how the computer program’s brain would map out the skin of a model like an extricated Cubist painting — it almost looked organic. I tried naturalistically painting the digital files while presenting them in the narrative context of me working as a painting fabricator, or a “human printer”, for a number of artists in New York. Both the program and my hand were imbued with so many glitches and human error that the attempt to copy the superficial “reality” of the digital files was stressful. I grew tired of the concept after the third painting and put it to rest. The surfaces were dead. Everyone makes bad paintings. I keep the strategized paintings around to remind myself of what I am not.
The reliquary sculptures started out as gelatin-filled base supports for my Pepper’s Ghost holograms. The gallery that exhibited the works had the heat on and the gelatin rotted very quickly. I got in a lot of trouble due to the smell, but I managed to take a photo of the mold that formed. I wanted to make the reliquary sculptures more archival and found a synthetic gel that worked. I started making multi-plate etchings depicting the reliquary sculptures. When I shined a light through the sculptures I was mesmerized by the elusive shadows they projected on the wall and started painting them expressionistically.
Printmaking and glassblowing are still very new to me and I am still very focused on the process aspects. I am uncertain whether they inform the rest of my work. I let each medium express it’s own unique qualities, but my drawing hand, imagery, and aesthetics echo. It’s all an intertwining of materials and amorphous shapes to give form to the invisible. Looking deep into blown glass feels like being inside a color, which I also sense when I work with watercolor or listen to certain music. Like synesthesia. Glasswork is a perfect fusion between process, color, and structure – like a sensation materializing. I haven’t tried painting from glasswork or the projections they create on a wall yet, but I have been painting saturated flowers so maybe I am paring down an image so I can focus on this obsession with color.
Do you have a mentor, or a piece of advice (or both), which has influenced your practice?
My friend Rachel Borenstein, who is an incredible artist, once mentioned to me that contemporary art is like theatre and painting is like music. I am sure a number of people would disagree or state that there is a lot overlap in these disciplines, which there is. The statement helped me reorient my priorities in making art. The more realized and intense the preliminary works become, the more art-theory-bros tell me I should just be a hyper-rational sculptor. Who are you living for?! I do not think I have to choose one medium, but I do ultimately consider myself a painter. I most value making things involving pleasure, emotion, and vulnerability like in painting and music. Also the IG account @francis_bacon_daily contains images and quotes that are my daily inspiration.
What is your studio like?
My studio is always changing. I had a big grad school studio, then I was painting and sculpting on the floor of my Brooklyn bedroom floor for a year. Now I am painting in a basement. It is so cold and quiet so I can be fully attentive to the paint…I call it The Dungeon. Soon I have to leave it for a Yaddo Residency and then for my Fulbright project.
What do you find most daunting, challenging, or frustrating about pursuing art?
Balancing space, money, and time. Sometimes I focus more on money so that I can dedicate the time for more ambitious projects. In my ideal life, I would have enough blocks of time in order to work exclusively with wet into wet paint (I use a lot of safflower oil). I am constantly making objects as one can make art out of anything. Painting is essentially just smearing mud on a surface — it’s very primal. I also enjoy the challenges in a push-pull dialogue with painting, it keeps me returning to the painting’s interface. Paint is so evasive and temperamental. Physics, chemistry, climate, and current discourse can change the surface of the painting in minutes, hours, or years. This makes me feel alive.
What are three words you would use to describe your work?
eerie, beautiful, assertive
What are you working on right now?
1) Paintings that are based on sculptures that I can shine light through like a piece of film. I either paint the sculpture or the projection, or an overlay of both.
2) Paintings of flora and women with attitude. After I went to a Death Grips concert in October 2017, I was fixated on highlighting women I saw physically asserting themselves in the moshpit. Now extricated from the city, I am surrounded by greenery. I search for the apocalyptic or the sci-fi in the everyday, particularly iconic objects that make reference to the hyper-feminine. I like utilizing these symbols with bold brushwork in order to stage an exhilarating near miss with the cliché. I started depicting lush flowers as stand-ins for women (or anyone with flair) in chaotic pictorial spaces as evidenced in the painting, Pushy Daisies. Another example is my painting Flowerback, in which the tulip is turned away from the viewer, almost indifferent to the human’s existence. Everywhere there is evidence of humans’ attempts to control and physically regulate nature. The straight forward portraits of women are my badass friends and I hope to show them alongside the flora paintings.
Anything else you would like to add?
Thank you for inviting me to participate!
I am forming a bi-weekly painting critique group in Berlin, Germany, starting in September 2018. If any artists would like to join, please email me: firstname.lastname@example.org.