Paolo Arao





About the Artist


Paolo is a visual artist based in Brooklyn.




with Drew Broderick, June 2018

Your work explores the elastic concept of queerness through abstraction, specifically geometric abstraction. When I think of geometric existence, and the ordering capacities of lines, I tend to think of straightness.

Exactly. I’ve been particularly interested in abstraction because, for the longest time, about ten years, I had been showing with a gallery in the city and I was making photorealistic charcoal drawings. Black and white drawings based on photographs that were homoerotic in content, and I felt like my work was getting pigeonholed into a corner. I thought: how can I deal with the content but not be so obvious or rely on the depiction of bodies?

I was thinking about abstraction, geometry, and the grid, and how these are thought of as rigid systems and structures. And, like you were saying: there’s a straightness in that. Working with geometric abstraction, it's become a way to subvert that rigidity for me.

It’s also about figuring out how to queer minimalist and conceptual approaches. I mean, if you look beyond straight white males a lot of these traditions are already queer. I feel like that's what I am striving for with abstraction and painting. I'm trying to contribute to it from a different angle. Something that hasn't had as much attention. I've been doing that with my paintings, and now I’m doing it using textiles in order to soften the geometry further.

Can you elaborate on how working with textiles has helped you to soften an otherwise hard geometry?

That's the thing that I love about working with textiles. First of all, I'm not an expert in sewing by any means, and I rely on mistakes and imperfections a lot. There's this quality or intent of trying to make something straight, but then when I sew it, inevitably it's crooked or it's off. This is particularly evident when I stretch things after sewing them: these seams and these lines, the way things are meant to go together, the intention was to make them as straight as possible but once they're stretched they become skewed, the geometry is distorted. I love the imprecision behind the intention.

While the distortion of straightness may be amplified when the sewn works return to the stretcher bars, it also feels a bit stiff in the sense that the work ultimately reads as a formal “painting.” At the moment there are a number of pieces on your studio wall that are unstretched. I’m assuming that they are also finished works. How are you thinking about these two different approaches, these two different bodies of works?

With the pieces that are stretched, I want to bring it back into the language of painting. But at the same time it also becomes an object. There's something about the textiles and it being stretched that they can still read as painting but they also have this object-ness about them.

The pieces that aren't stretched do resemble flags to me. And flags are representative of people, cultures, and movements but they’re also abstractions. They carry a political symbolism and they’re also beautiful abstract images. So it's a way to relate it to that language as well. The thing about the stretchers is that I love to play around with rigidity, try to fight it, but in the end I’m always referencing back to that, even if the textiles aren’t stretched.

Flags immediately make me think of nationalism. Nationalism immediately makes me feel skeptical. Have you been developing the flag works for a long time, or are they a recent addition to your practice?

They're very recent, within the last six months or so. Because up until then I've been painting in the traditional sense, using acrylic paint on canvas and linen. Those paintings were rooted in geometric abstraction and often referenced textiles and quilts, so rather than reference those things, I wanted to actually incorporate the process into the work itself. So that's when I started taking up sewing, and using textiles, rather than just looking at them in books or online, or in exhibitions. So the flags became a direct form of engagement with the materials, not just a source reference.

Was this shift related at all to the recent neo-nationalist political landscape of the United States of America or did it just happen?

It’s a bit of both. One can’t help but be affected by what’s going on in the political landscape of the US. In terms of the shift, I think, in a way, there was something that was going on with the acrylic on canvas and linen paintings that I was dissatisfied with, and I just needed to push it into a different direction, and there's also something about physically making and touching — there's this tactility of working with textiles that I really like. There's a felt connection to the material, an imbued history in the handmade.

Have you made any works that move between the two materials — acrylic and textile?

Yes. All the stretched paintings that you saw are made with a combination of textiles and used canvas drop cloths. In my studio I had these drop cloths on the floor while I was making paintings, so drips and stray marks would make their way onto the drop cloths, as well as footprints. It’s taking the action and history and lived experience of painting but then literally stitching it together with what's happening in the present. There's this performance aspect that's happening in them, there's a history that's literally embedded into the paintings.

That's interesting to think about, the ways in which a painting can wear the production of its own history.

Yeah, I like that idea a lot. That's the thing with this new work. How far can a painting go and still be a painting? That's another thing that I think about, these boundaries and these borders. How can I push the edges of them and find something that's still personal for me?

You're working towards a show in Beacon at the moment. When I hear Beacon, I can’t help but think of Dia:Beacon (for better or worse) and the influence that the institution has had in New York and at large. Did you consider Dia and its associated histories while you were putting your show together?

It's a three person show called “Good Vibrations” at a gallery called Mother. I have work in their current group show, which ends later this month. It's a brand new gallery that just opened up and this show will be the second exhibition. And I have a solo show that's opening this Saturday in Tribeca at Barney Savage Gallery. I’ll be showing a project that I did last year called “52 Weeks.” It's 52 paintings total, I painted one painting for every single week of the entire year of 2017.

In regards to Dia, it has certainly crossed my mind, and I love that it is just down the street from Mother Gallery. There are a bunch of artists at Dia whose work I have looked up to for a long time. It's nice to have that place within proximity. In the work that I make, and even more so recently, I'm trying to edit things down a little bit. Less is more. Dia:Beacon is so minimal, so powerful, so poetic, and I think that's something I want to try to bring into the work that I'm making, but still have my sense of color. I tend to use really bold colors, but still it's just this nod to the folks down the way.


I love the imprecision behind the intention.
— Paolo Arao

Have the 52 paintings all been shown together before?

Paintings from this project have been shown in various group exhibitions throughout this past year, but this will be the first time that all 52 will be shown together in one space.

Will their arrangement be according to chronology or some other structuring device?

They will be hung in grids throughout the walls of the gallery.

Would you care to elaborate on your use of the grid as a structuring device? How are you utilizing the grid to challenge its perceived neutrality in order to subvert it?

I'm drawn to the grid because it's already an established structure. It's also a limitation. And I feel like, within this limitation, there is so much potential for other things to happen. Before I was an artist, I was a classical pianist. I originally went to school to become a composer, and concert pianist. There's a lot of order in music. I would practice with a metronome, and I think I just like working within a structure, whether it’s one of time or space. I like having something to work with, and against, at the same time.

You mentioned that you produced 52 paintings, one a week.

Yeah, it's the second in a trilogy of yearlong painting projects. The first one took place in 2016 and it was called “Yearbook.” I painted one painting every single day for an entire year. They were 12x9 inches, and I painted one every morning, in the span of one hour. I timed myself. And it was a leap year that year, so I ended up with 366 paintings. So many things happened that year. It was the election, I got married to my husband, Shannon. Looking back at the paintings, it's like a visual calendar. There are a collection of moments — by looking at this painting, I can remember what happened that day. And then I can also see mistakes, things I wanted to finish but couldn't because I only had one hour. And I go back to these, for compositions, color — it's a language that I'm constantly referring back to.

A three part project — 366 (leap year), 52, and 12?

Yes! The 12 will happen in 2019! I’m going to incorporate more textiles. It'll still be a daily practice like my Yearbook project from 2016, but I'm thinking it will take a quiltlike structure or patchwork, so every day becomes part of the larger whole, and there will be 12 sewn paintings for the entire year. So it's composed of multiple parts. I'm also thinking ahead about storage. All those 366 paintings are in a storage space right now!

While we are on the topic of storage, I've been thinking about scale since we started talking. For some reason, hearing you discuss your past work, I'm imagining it not in terms of individual small scale units but as a singular massive field. Do you ever work on singular large scale works?

The whole issue of scale, it's all practical because my studio back in Brooklyn is kind of small. And also with the Yearbook painting project, I only gave myself one hour, so I had to work on a small scale. Any larger would have been crazy and expensive. I think for the third part of this trilogy, since there are only going to be twelve pieces, and they're going to be more textile based, I can scale larger, because I can then fold everything down. That's also the other reason why I'm loving working with textiles — they can fold down! I just had an exhibition in San Francisco at c2c project space. I had six pieces in the show, some of which were quite big, but all fit in a suitcase because they were all textile-based!

This relates to what you're expressing about the grid as well — limitations can allow for unexpected and at times extremely generative results.

Yeah, limitations. And also repetition. Because the more you do something over and over again, at some point something breaks, and you get thrown in a different direction. Repetition can produce innovation. Whether you're looking for it or not, I think it just happens. Almost like meditation: when you're not thinking of the thing, the thing comes to you. And if you try to think of it, it gets further away from you.

The gift of a quiet mind. As you’ve worked more with these materials and modes of production, have you noticed your process becoming streamlined? Do the beautiful mistakes still occur as often?

Yes, it’s starting to become streamlined. And I'm conscious of that, and I try to change. The pieces that aren't stretched, that became something that I needed to add, to change, because I don't want to get to a point where because of the practice — practice makes progress happen, but I don't want it to be too refined. If something feels too easy or complete, I need to mess it up. Throw something into it that throws the whole equation off. I do like this imbalance and asymmetry — that also relates to thinking about the grid again; this perfect, straight, ordered, totally harmonic system. I like asymmetry, skewing things, I like things to be a little off.

Perhaps it becomes a question of how to find humanity in the grid.

Yeah. Life is not perfect, right? So, many of the imperfections make it closer to being truthful. You can't have perfection without imperfections.

There’s definitely very little joy to be found in perfection. On the note of joy, do you ever work collaboratively or in a group setting?

I'm working on some collaborative textile pieces with a friend of mine down in North Carolina, Barbara Campbell Thomas. She also works with textiles, we met at a residency at Skowhegan in 2000. Just recently she saw that I've been working with textiles, so right now we're doing a project together. When you think about the history of quilts and how they were made, sometimes it involved a lot of people often together and sometimes as individuals. I had stitched together a bunch of things and sent them to her, and she sent me back a whole bunch of things where she basically tore everything that I did apart, free stitched everything, I said to do whatever, and it's a bunch of back and forth. It's still in its early stages, and we still don't know where it's going, but it's another way onward.


When you’re not thinking of the thing, the thing comes to you. And if you try to think of it, it gets further away from you.
— Paolo Arao

Photos by Walker Esner