Painter, Dioramatist & recovering Performance Artist
Interview on 1st July 2015 at his studio, Jiangtai
AR: The work I was doing in Korea was inspired by experiences I've had of weird, awkward moments.
KL: So you've chronicled them in little three-dimensional still lives.
AR: Yeah. I started making these little handmade scenes. They began as models for paintings then evolved and began to stand on their own as pieces. The way I work, I like to recycle everything. All this stuff [gestures toward a wall covered in cut out brush strokes] is from paintings that didn't really work out and I got into this habit of cutting things up. I just sit there with a pair of scissors.
KL: That sounds very therapeutic.
AR: Yeah, sometimes it can be. When you're painting, these creative processes, you're in creation mode the whole time. I like that manual labor aspect of things where I can just sit there and not be in creative mode.
KL: So these dioramas have a really personal meaning for you?
AR: Yeah, it's just a lot of stuff I was thinking about at the time. When I'm sitting in the studio, things would just pop into my head. The same memories would resurface every now and again. Half of them were from Seoul and half of them were old memories from grad school and stuff like that. They were always times when I found myself in an uncomfortable or awkward situation. I looked at these moments as something I could make something out of.
KL: So these are the moments in your life when you look back and think [smacks head] 'Oh!'
AR: Yeah! That one is from when I was in undergraduate school. One of my professors introduced me to the head of the department and I just didn't stand up and shake his hand. I sat there and looked up at him. My professor who I had a good relationship with said “Stand up and shake the man’s hand.” I don't know why it's always stuck in my head. Maybe it’s because he then gave me a really limp handshake. Ever since then I've always had a thing with handshakes, I feel like I'm really awkward with handshakes. Especially in Asia because no one really shakes hands, but sometimes people do. So you meet someone and think, 'Should I shake their hand?' but you can also get a really limp handshake. I'm afraid of that. When you get that, what do you do? Do you flap it around? Do you shake it? The hand is all floppy. Picasso would paint to get the memories out. I don’t think about it as much now so I guess it works, but it was never my intention.
KL: What's your training?
AR: I got my Bachelor of Fine Arts from the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth, Mass. and then I got a Masters of Fine Arts from Indiana University. I worked for a year in Boston, where I'm from, and then I came here to Asia. I lived in Seoul for about six years and then I came here.
KL: Do you find having more free time to work on your art is the major appeal of living in Asia, or, is living here important for your work?
AR: I think at first it was important, to be living here and inspired by a different culture. I go back and forth sometimes. Travel to me is very inspiring. Just being in a new country or in a new place, and I think that's what I’m trying to do in my work, just expressing those things. And sometimes, it's not always going to be inspiring, it's not always going to be like, this is amazing! But the free time is nice. Being here I can work two or three days a week at my job and have the rest of the time for painting. So that's good.
KL: Have you always worked in the same medium?
AR: No. Unfortunately these [large, loosely stacked oil paintings] are not framed because I did them in oils but I haven't re-stretched them yet. They were all rolled up in transit from Seoul. When you move you have to go through the process of finding a frame guy and a good art supplies store. I was trained in acrylic and oil painting, but the painting has led me into working in other areas like video and performance. I guess you would call these boxes sculptures. The small boxes and large oil paintings comes from the concept of a memory, a small moment in time that can have such a large impact on your personality. So the boxes are small and very intimate while the paintings are large.
KL: It's lovely from a structural perspective seeing them on canvas then in three-dimensional form.
AR: Ideally you would have them up on the wall in the same space. So you're in the little intimate space of the diorama and then go over at the wall and you’re absorbed into that space. Two very different kinds of spaces.
KL: So you do the two-dimensional stuff first and you work from that to the three-dimensional?
AR: With these pieces I did the three-dimensional work first then the paintings from them. With my new work the drawings came first. With this one, not to get all meta on you, I did a painting from a drawing from a sculpture of a painting of a doodle. I was doing this doodle of Chinese characters. Just playing with the language and the meaning of it, just trying to make structures out of it. I've got a whole sketchbook of them. That was one of the first ones I did. It was before I came to China.
KL: So what's the prominent character? What's it telling me?
AR: I'm trying to hide the character in general.
KL: It's a secret?
AR: Yeah. I don't want to be the foreigner that comes to China and does artwork about Chinese characters. I don't know if it is, but I feel that might be a bit of a cliché thing to do, Even though I am making work based on Chinese characters I do not want the character to be prominent. I’m more drawn to the structure and strokes of the character than to the meaning of the word. I'm just trying to get some of my feelings out through it. Moving to a new place, a new culture, being unfamiliar with things, being overwhelmed or going into another unstable, scary, exciting situation. It's still the beginning stages of this process so we'll see where it leads.
KL: How do you go with artists' statements?
AR: Well, my approach is I always go with the statement after the fact. For me content follows the form. The image or idea comes and then I beat the hell out of it, I draw it, I make it, I draw it again, I paint it and then I sit down and write the artist's statement. And then I say, 'Oh, that's what it's about.' When I'm painting I'll have those voices in my head, 'What are you doing? Why are you doing it?' And maybe those will fester for a lot of artists. For me, I try to just shut them out during the process. Sometimes I'll do something the opposite of how somebody told me to do a painting. I'll do it wrong just to see what happens and then try and make a successful image in spite of that.
KL: Do you sell the related pieces individually or would you always want them to be kept together?
AR: No, it's not like they would come as a set. If someone would say, 'Oh, I like that more than that one,' they don't have to be together.
KL: The dioramas look so good lit up. Is your worst nightmare that a small child would get in here and be left alone with them for five minutes?
AR: A small child? No, my worst nightmare is that I'd wake up with someone about to stab me.
KL: Haha! You won't allow me to exaggerate?
AR: No, I work for a kid's art school and my boss keeps wanting to bring the students over to see the studio. And I think it could be a good idea, I don't think there's anything too inappropriate in this current work.
KL: So this is a study for the painting?
AR: Yeah, it's not a form I am used to painting, like the human figure. It's a completely new form that I need to get familiar with. So I try to use repetition, I just keep drawing it to get it into my head so when it's time to paint it I can go into it more freely. Since it is watercolour on paper, I can't really erase anything. With oils you can cover something up. So I do test runs.
KL: So how many do you usually do per artwork?
AR: That's the original doodle, then I made it into a 3D form and from that I’ve done a few paintings. It depends on how intricate the form is. So this one is a study for - oh, in that one you can recognise the character.
KL: Your secret is out! [Lo.Re.Li reserves the right to not reveal the secret to you, the reader] It's lovely in a pictographic language the ability to see and read simultaneously.
AR: Yeah, like chuanr串. It doesn't get any more perfect than chuanr.
KL: How did you get into doing the watercolours?
AR: I used to, for the oil paintings that I did, make watercolour colour studies. So I would be mixing the colours and I'd have a piece of paper for test strokes. So I had all of these pieces of paper with just strokes lined up and I thought it looked cool and I've always done doodles. I just wanted to put it out there so I started to doodle on top of the strokes and thought, this could be a new direction.
KL: Now the watercolour is not haphazard?
AR: Yeah, but for some reason the original one is still the best one, when I wasn't thinking about it. It just works for some reason. I did performance art for a while in Seoul and that's actually where all these strokes came from. I did a performance where I covered myself in brush strokes. So that's where the dioramas came from, wanting to use those for something.
KL: You covered yourself in brush strokes, how did you do that?
AR: Other people too. I put double-sided tape on all of the brush strokes so you just had to rip off the other side of the tape and then stick it on to me.
KL: Onto your skin or your clothes?
AR: Both actually.
KL: I can't imagine that would have been fun to remove.
AR: Not really, no.
KL: Do you think you'll do stuff like that in Beijing as well?
AR: No. I think a performance artist is a certain type of person with a certain type of personality. I was doing it because I had this one idea and I tried to do some more but they weren't as interesting so it seemed like a one-off thing to me. It also was really time-consuming. Cutting up all these strokes. To be honest, one of the reason I did so much performance was because, in Seoul, if you're a painter you have to pay to be in shows but, if you're a performance artist, you get paid.
Anthony Ragucci is an American artist based in Beijing. He has exhibited work across the United States and Korea as well as in Italy, Germany and Australia. Although his main mode of expression is painting and drawing, Anthony uses photography, sculpture, video, and performance as a way of expressing his thoughts and ideas. To see more visit http://johnnypaintbox.com/