Dedicated to covering the visual arts community in Connecticut.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Looks good with the furniture

The River Street Gallery @ Fair Haven Furniture
72 Blatchley Ave., New Haven, (203) 776-3099
Industrial & Personal Subjects Depicted in Paintings by Steven DiGiovanni
Through June 30, 2007

"When I was in grad school, I would never have thought I would show my work with furniture," says painter Steve DiGiovanni. We're talking about his work in the River Street Gallery hosted by Fair Haven Furniture. About a dozen of DiGiovanni's paintings hang on the walls in a large showroom of tony hand-crafted beds, nightstands, sofas and coffee tables.

"But I really got into the warmth of this space, and finding a place to hang things," DiGiovanni continues. "I think [the paintings] blend effortlessly into the furnishings."

There has long been a streak of sly, often dark, occasionally self-lacerating humor in DiGiovanni's paintings. He has specialized in obscure figurative narrative works. His subjects often uncomfortably share claustrophobic interiors, noirish apartments where alienation, desire and ennui fester. DiGiovanni employs an ever-shifting repertoire company of models-friends, other artists, his fiance Chisato and himself (always depicted in less than flattering terms). Along with the figurative works, DiGiovanni has regularly crafted riveting industrial landscapes, initially inspired by time he spent living in Brooklyn.

The works on display in Industrial & Personal Subjects Depicted in Paintings were painted in the past three years. Most of them feature his muse Chisato, either posed in offbeat domestic interiors or incorporated into industrial compositions.

DiGiovanni tells me that he has recently been working at overlapping imagery. He directs my attention to the oil painting—they are all oils except for one—"Untitled (Sexy Dress)." My mental reaction is "Good Lord!"

"I wanted to do a portrait of Chisato and I thought it would be fun to play with overlapping her with an industrial landscape," DiGiovanni explains. "I wanted to play with the quasi-Cubistic deconstruction of her form into industrial forms."

His idea was to realize an image that would read cohesively at two levels, as an industrial image and as an interior. Fundamentally, the painting depicts Chisato in a short dark dress, sitting at a kitchen table set with a couple of goblets of red wine. But, as if in a CGI-created scene from a Terminator movie, the walls of the apartment kitchen become transparent, revealing an imaginary factory. The floor isn't linoleum but rather metallic scaffolding. And some of Chisato's form is deconstructed as an industrial skeleton. Typical of his work, the figure has a believable grace and the industrial forms have a chilly verisimilitude.

"Untitled (Sexy Dress)" took some four months to complete. "Festival of Floats (Handa City, Japan)," the most recent work in the show, is the only acrylic painting and has a much looser gestural approach. DiGiovanni describes it as "the most fun painting I've had in years. There was no work involved. It was pure visual self-indulgence."

"For all intents and purposes, I felt I had to reinvigorate what I was doing for myself," DiGiovanni says.

He recently acquired a digital camera. It promotes, he says, a "kind of image scavenging." He re-photographed the cover of a tourist guidebook, capturing a blurry image of a festival in Japan where they parade ornate floats. He started the painting with acrylics because they were handy. Because they dry much faster, they offered "a rapid way to realize the basic structure." With no clear idea where he was headed—not usually the way he works—he started making marks with the acrylics, using the festival image as a touchstone. His plan was to just cover the canvas with acrylic medium and then paint oils over that.

"But I got into the acrylics. And the thing is, you can paint almost at the speed you're thinking," says DiGiovanni. "When I was painting the crowd, I instantly started deconstructing it by wetting the canvas and letting the acrylic bleed like watercolors. It became stream of consciousness."

The result is a painting unlike the others in the show. Forms are suggested more than defined, with something of an exception in the inclusion of an image of Chisato on all fours wearing a cat mask. DiGiovanni allows some of the surface of the cannvas to show through and also decorates the space at the top of the composition with Constructivist diagonals. It was a release for an artist who says he always has "a battle with the desire to overly describe things."

Of course, his success in "describing things" has always been one of the pleasures for those of us who admire his work. "Festival of Floats (Handa City, Japan)" rewards close attention but I certainly found myself most impressed with "Untitled (Sexy Dress)" and two other oil paintings, "Studio with Figures" and "Untitled Industrial (with Golf Course)."

In the former, Chisato and her daughter Rachel sit posed as models in a small apartment studio while the paint-smeared artist—DiGiovanni—works in the background on a canvas that we can't see. But we can guess at its style. A number of completed 'paintings' in a European Modernist kitsch style hang on the apartment walls and clutter the floor. None of the figures engage each other. The artist attends to his canvas. Chisato gazes off to the right, looking beyond the composition. Rachel is plugged into a Discman, a halo ringing the profile of her head. A playful cat at Chisato's feet is the one note of interactive disruption in this otherwise wry portrait of domestic alienation.

"Untitled Industrial (with Golf Course)" is a tour de force on several levels. Although DiGiovanni doesn't refer to photographs or real power plants, he renders a convincing depiction of industrial metastasis. The emotional impact of the behemoth network of pipes, towers, tanks and smokestacks is heightened by DiGiovanni's keen attention to lighting. The human element is introduced with a fillip of tongue-in-cheek social commentary. While workers in hardhats stand on elevated platforms and take in a raging industrial fire off in the distance, a tiny figure, the owner of the means of production, in the lower right practices his shots on an incongruously situated putting green.

"It's fun doing these industrial things," says DiGiovanni. "I feel like I can dig and navigate through these spaces like in an architectural way."

And it's well worth navigating through the attractive furniture to check out his creations.


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