Francesca Pastine

Artist, San Francisco // February 2013
Yes, the physicality of my work is an essential aspect. I want the shapes, textures, and movement to be readily accessible to a viewer— I’d like them to be able to engage with that element of my work.

Whether she’s cutting into the pages of Artforum with an X-Acto knife or sculpting masks out of The New York Times financial pages, Francesca’s work is a meditation on materiality and our cultural influences. In her utilization of printed media she brings forward such topical issues as economic crises and art trends, but her physical manipulations ask the viewer to take the information on differently and to engage with what’s newsworthy or current not just intellectually, but also viscerally and aesthetically.

When we arrived at Francesca’s home studio in the Mission District, she was working on a few different projects, one of them being her Market Gauge Mask series— which are rough-hewn masks made by folding, pinching and tearing the financial pages from The New York Times and that are then layered with silver and copper leaf. In visiting Francesca it became apparent just how connected to the labor of her process she is. She is so hands-on, so driven by movement and the need to touch and tweak, and wants to be as physically connected to her work as possible. Her approach certainly seems more rooted in bodily instinct than intellectual analysis.

As I wondered around her studio looking and this and that, I kept returning to her masks— drawn in by their eerie and raw form and the rampant associative thinking they elicited. I couldn’t help it, my brain was abuzz with all kinds of phrases, visions, and memories, but the word ‘ruin’ kept popping in my head… financial ruin, ruins of the dead, undisclosed and undiscovered ruins, emotional ruin… on and on the word ‘ruin’ bumped and rambled about in my head. And then I remembered the sonnet Ozymandias by Percy Bysshe Shelley:

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
`My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away”.

The story of the ruined statue of a once great king in Shelley’s poem makes a powerful statement about human hubris and the inevitable passage of time, and in many ways I think Francesca’s work, particularly her Market Gauge Mask series, expresses similar concerns about our history and legacies, our present and future time, and our palpable fragility.

How would you describe your subject matter or the content of your work?
I re-contextualize and subvert icons of cultural production using the folk tradition of paper cutting or other hands-on processes. I have been using printed media such as Artforum Magazine and The New York Times in order to conflate socio-economic and political conditions with my lived experience.

I began my Artforum Excavation series as an unsolicited collaboration with the magazine and the cover artist. I have done several separate series using The New York Times as a medium. In my Mutual Funds Spider Web series I cut spider webs into the stock report pages of the Times. The pages metamorphosed into webs that reflect the tenuousness of financial networks. The fragile and transient quality of the page coupled with the spidery numbers act to heighten the precariousness of capital flows and market manipulations.

At my recent six-month Kala 2011 Fellowship Award residency, I decided to continue working with The New York Times financial pages. I was challenged to come up with a digital process that would continue my tradition of creating art that reflects the trace of my hand in the making of the work. For my Market Gauge Mask series, I crudely folded, bent, ripped at and tore through the pages to fashion masks in an expressive gesture. I then photographed the masks using a 4 x 5 view camera to create large-scale photographs. I especially like using the view camera since that process is more hands-on and time consuming. It also gives the images a formal and contemplative style. I then manipulated the images through Photoshop. I wanted the masks in the photos to look mysterious and murky, as in old documents of an archeological dig from an earlier era. My intention was to create an immediate emotional response and then have the masks slowly reveal themselves as artifacts of present-day financial systems.

I also created masks, or totems, that stand alone as 3D sculptures. To live as sculpture, the masks demanded a very different approach in their making. The silver and copper leaf lend more weight to the sculpture and the sculpted faces are less detailed. I believe the prints and the sculptures function quite differently, however, seen together, they create a more expansive reading of my theme.

You have said: I like to think of my work as falling somewhere between drawing, sculpture, and collage. What mediums do you work with?
I studied painting and photography, but more and more my work is beginning to look like sculpture. When I work with Artforum magazines, it feels like I’m making a drawing with my X-acto knife, but they take on volume and form like sculpture. I apply graphite to The New York Times so that they can fall under the rubric of drawing, but I now find myself sculpting the pages.

To keep my hand and eye connection, and also to engage with color and painting, I began making watercolors of photographs I take of homeless peoples’ carts, cardboard beds, and the cocooned homeless people themselves sleeping in blankets on the sidewalk. My Artforum manipulations map out a tangle of associations, unique contradictions, and paradoxes through curious juxtapositions very much like the way a collage functions.
I’m always working on varied projects that utilize different mediums , but I don’t see them as departures, rather they seem like outcomes of the same line of inquiry— often one thing leads into the next and so on.

The physical work of your hands— the folding, cutting, bending, manipulating — seems very important to you. Do you want your work to readily reveal the presence of the hand and the often time-intensive process?
Yes, the physicality of my work is an essential aspect. I want the shapes, textures, and movements to be readily accessible to a viewer— I’d like them to be able to engage with that element of my work. I think my background as a dancer has influenced my relationship to my own body and I recognize that I like to be very physically engaged with my work.

Do you see your work as autobiographical at all? Does personal history work its way into your practice?
I never start off to do autobiographical work. However, my work is the culmination of my genetic and historical background. I never consciously say “I am going to do work about my wayward youth,” or “I am going to do work about when I had cancer.” My experiences, both positive and negative, my ability to transcend hardships, my arts education, movies, books, my experience as a dancer, all inform my work in oblique ways without necessarily coming to the forefront in a conscious way. For example, I like using a particular cover of Artforum Magazine that features the dance choreography of Michael Clark. Recently I used a Trisha Brown cover. It’s interesting in retrospect that I chose the two covers featuring dance of all the possible covers I could have used.

I also grew up in the 60s and 70s and was informed by the large social movements of that time: the feminist movement, civil rights and the anti-war movements. So, very early on, I developed a strong political consciousness. I don’t necessary do “political” art, but my beliefs and convictions are reflected in my choice of subjects and concepts.

Do you have a day job? What is it? What does it mean to you?
I teach part time and enjoy my relationship with both the students and colleagues. I’ve been teaching on and off for a long time— since 1996, at different places like SFAI, CCA, Diablo Valley College, and CCSF Continuing Education. It’s been very rewarding (and at times challenging) to experience various locations and demographics.

What are you presently inspired by— are there particular things you are reading, listening to or looking at to fuel your work?
I’m interested in the external world and how we perceive it through our relationship with printed media, received images, and common, everyday objects. I read The New York Times daily. I also read Harper’s Magazine and The New Yorker. I am also intrigued by the imperfections that give life and breath to objects. Even though I respond to work that is obsessive, tactile, and process oriented, the work must have a strong merging of content and material to speak to me.

At the moment, I am completely inspired by the African and Pacific Rim collection at the de Young Museum. Contemporary artists that keep me inspired are Paul Thek, Dieter Roth, Louise Bourgeois, and Bruce Conner. I also respond to the emotional beauty brought to everyday objects in the paintings of Jean-Baptiste-Simeon Chardin, and the social content and ambition in the paintings of Ferdinand Victor Eugène Delacroix. I saw a huge Gianlorenzo Bernini exhibit in Rome two years ago and was impressed at how he could breath life into stone. I also recently saw his work in clay at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. It was amazing to see the hand wrought, quickly dashed off clay pieces and realize that his flawless marble sculpture could only come into fruition through the hands-on sensuality and gesture that he used to create the clay sculpture. It was a peak moment.

Other fantastic exhibits that have moved me is The Art and Fashion of Elsa Scahiaparelli at the Philadelphia Museum of Art— the way she merged material and form was eye opening. And, more recently, I saw the work of Polish artist, Alina Szapocznikow (who was doing powerful feminist work using unconventional material and often a pop art sensibility), at the Hammer Museum. I saw an exhibit by Rosemarie Trockle at the Berkeley Art Museum some years ago, and that completely transformed the way I look at art. This year, I got to see a large Trockle retrospective at the New Museum (another peak experience).

The grit and graffiti in my Mission District neighborhood is a daily inspiration. I like to take photos of the rich textures and accumulations of urban detritus that can be found on my daily wanderings.

I like to read fiction and I’m not especially sure how it feeds into my work, except that I appreciate the artistry and craft of writing. I discovered the work of J.M. Coetzee this year and read Disgrace and Diary of a Bad Year. I also recently read The Street of Crocodiles by Bruno Schulz after seeing the titular Brothers Quay film. I tend to pick an author and read his books, so recently I’ve read David Wallace Foster, Martin Amis, and Roberto Bolaño. This year, I was also reading some Jewish literature by Herzog and Saul Bellow and Elie Wiesel. My all time favorite books are There Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston, The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann, and Portrait of a Lady, by Henry James.

Ultimately, I react to art work— Asian, Greek, African, European, American, both ancient and contemporary, literature, movies and music -that expresses an authentic response to a moment in time through the confluence of materials, concept and attentiveness.

Is there something you are currently working on, or are excited about starting that you can tell us about?
I am excited with expanding my scope of materials vis-à-vis the Artforums and will begin to experiment with plaster and larger sculptural forms that will incorporate both cutting into the magazines and carving out of plaster (btw: this is something really really new).

What risks have you taken in your work, and what has been at stake?
I think my interest in using unconventional materials in work has put me at risk. Throughout my career, I have pushed the way materials can be used to create art. For example, newspapers turn yellow. It was a challenge to come up with a way to present the Artforum magazines as well as the mask sculptures.

Do you intend your work to challenge the viewer?
If you mean as in the Avant-Garde which was developed to shock the bourgeoisie, no. Shock art has been completely co-opted by the establishment. I make what I make and hope that it invites the viewer to make certain associations with what they see and their own experience. My belief is that art is created through the interaction between artist and viewer, as in the simple equation of art object + viewer = art.

How do you navigate the art world?
I started showing in a gallery right after graduate school. I never felt comfortable there and, ultimately, I think it was too soon to be showing. It did exert pressure on me to become professional, and that was good. After seven years showing in a commercial gallery I came to the realization that there are many ways to exist as an artist. I began to show in non-profit spaces. This transformation was good for my head since the focus in these spaces is more about the work and less about commodity.

Leaving the gallery gave me the space to open up my practice to experimentation and failure, both of which are essential for my artistic practice. It also gave me time to find a gallery which works form me both aesthetically and temperamentally.

Are you involved in any upcoming shows or events? Where and when?
An upcoming group exhibition at Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art called Rebound: Dissections and Excavations in Book Art.

HEARTFELT, a group exhibition at Vancouver Print Room, Vancouver, BC Canada. February 14th to March 15th.

I’ll be teaching an Introduction to Water Color class at Kala Art Institute & working with water based media (with a bend to contemporary practice) at CCSF this spring.

Where can people see your work?
Eleanor Harwood Gallery, San Francisco.
Pentimenti Gallery, Philadelphia.