Speaking in Tongues: Art in Moods, Tenses, and Translations

Paul D’Agostino, “Floor Translations 1: The Man With Crappy Arms and Legs” (2012–13), installation view at Pocket Utopia. Sequence of seven serialized drawings, numbered on verso: charcoal and ink on buff-colored wove paper, each 9 x 12 inches; sculpture: acrylic and polymer medium on resin, wire, wood, shellac, dimensions variable. (All images courtesy Pocket Utopia)

It’s safe to say that Twilit Ensembles, Paul D’Agostino’s solo show at Pocket Utopia, is one of the more disorienting, even vertiginous exhibitions around. There are pairs of process-driven, not-quite-identical abstract paintings; mixed-media collages that evoke the Art informel and Affichiste strains of postwar European art; and groupings of resin sculptures and high-contrast charcoal drawings whose gargoyle-like characters and hallucinatory narratives are derived from the paint stains on D’Agostino’s studio floor.

One of the prime movers of the Bushwick scene, D’Agostino is, in alphabetical order, an artist, critic, curator, editor, essayist, fiction writer, linguist, poet, professor of Italian language and literature, and translator. The intensely programmed exhibitions at his apartment salon, Centotto, have presented the work of scores of artists – including, full disclosure, mine – in an atmosphere of congenial exchange and mutual support.

Although I’ve known D’Agostino for a couple of years and have collaborated with him on several projects, we’ve rarely had the opportunity discuss his visual art in detail; Twilit Ensembles, with its multifarious components, presented a chance to correct that.

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Thomas Micchelli: Your show at Pocket Utopia is composed of selections from several series, all under the general title Twilit Ensembles.

The term “series,” however, gives the wrong impression, in that it conveys a convergence of thematic content within a stylistically unified arc. Willem de Kooning’s Women may have broken with the non-referential works he was doing at the time, but they are still identifiable as having been made by the same hand that painted “Excavation” (1950).

It would perhaps be going too far to say that the various series in Twilit Ensembles look as if different artists had created them, but at first glance their concepts and techniques do appear to diverge dramatically.

Paul D’Agostino, "Floor Translations, Sculpture 4: Herr Doktor Zweizähne and the Foundation" (2013). Detail of head of Herr Doktor Zweizähne:  acrylic and polymer medium on resin, wire, wood, shellac, dimensions variable. Click to enlarge.
Paul D’Agostino, “Floor Translations, Sculpture 4: Herr Doktor Zweizähne and the Foundation” (2013). Detail of head of Herr Doktor Zweizähne: acrylic and polymer medium on resin, wire, wood, shellac, dimensions variable. (Click to enlarge)

Paul D’Agostino: I wouldn’t define “series” quite so strictly, so I use that term to refer to my various bodies of work without the slightest qualm. I often work in such a manner because that approach furnishes a mode, or indeed a mood of thought while working, and what tends to happen is that one series leads me to a point where a new one seems to be emerging. Points of ramification become ones of divergence, and I soon find myself working on a new series.

For me, this sense of divergence solidifies upon granting the new series a proper title; it gives me the parameters of words within which to work. I understand that might sound absurd.

At the same time, I guess it doesn’t strike me as absurd at all that you imagine various artists behind my work. I’ve heard that on occasion — more than just occasionally, admittedly — and it doesn’t bother me at all. That’s how I work, that’s how I think. My artwork is typically rooted in aspects of language, translation and narrative, and since I very regularly write in and communicate with friends and colleagues in a half dozen or so different tongues, maybe the ‘various artists at work’ idea makes a lot of sense. A variety of channels or channelings, or voices or vocalities. Or whatever. Maybe I’m simply annoying.

If it helps your argument, of late I’ve been doing loads of mostly charcoal drawings of animals. Occasionally flowers, but my focus has been a weird gamut of fauna. A couple months ago, all in one long night in the studio, I did renderings of some probably hilarious tree frogs and one maybe adorable bullfrog, then followed them immediately with a suite of vicious vipers — fangs everywhere, all strike and thrash and hiss — while listening to two radios at once. One was tuned to the Knicks game, the other was playing Lite FM. So you see, this all makes perfect sense.


As for the title of the show, Twilit Ensembles, I came to that because it embraces all the series in one way or another, and because the past participle of the verbal form of “twilight” is a wonderful word. In a way, if only because it changes the quotidian sense of “twilight” by fixing it in the past tense, “twilit” seems to emphasize the curious mixed meanings of “twilight,” which can vary among “double light,” “half light,” and “between light” in Old English, German, and Dutch roots. The senses of “fading” or “faint” are also fitting here.

The drawings in Floor Translations are pretty clearly double-lit, or half-lit, given the stark contrasts between the negative space images and their deep charcoal beds; the Nocturne paintings are not just titularly relatable but also “twilit” as paired works; the collages in the ongoing Futuro anteriore / Future Perfect series always pertain to a sense of a downfall or decline “that will have already come to pass,” thus a sort of twilight of time, or of our time.

TM: But underneath, each series is grounded in process, chance and surrealism. What sets one apart from the other is the sharply delineated intentionality that sets each series in motion.

This is clearly demonstrated in the Nocturnes, which are diptychs that emerged out of a type of mirroring: you set up two canvases or other surfaces side by side, and whatever intervention was made on one had to be duplicated on the other. This resulted not in identical paintings, but in siblings whose surfaces bear the scars, so to speak, of the same upbringing.

It’s a little more difficult to get a handle on the Ahnung keiner Ahnung and Futuro anteriore series. Each seems to be a similar dance between chance and intent, but the parsing out of which comes first is less clear.

This is especially the case with the former [roughly translated as “I have no idea”], because there is only one selection from the series in the show, eliminating the possibility of a comparison with similar works.

Subtitled “Les fugues des oiseaux” (“The flight of the birds”) (2012), it is also a diptych of sorts, composed of two abstract swirls of bright green, blue, yellow and red acrylic, interspersed with strokes of charcoal over collaged elements.

PD: Well, sometimes the intentionality sharpens as a series grows. Grounded in process, yes, often. Chance and surrealism, sometimes. Yet really, again, the ground lying beneath those various groundings is very often a word or sequence of words.

For example, I developed a series called Polytype Monoprints because I very much enjoyed arriving at that term for the process itself; it is at once a rather precise expression to describe how I make them and how they exist as works, but it is also a somewhat problematic term of reference, and I love that it’s problematic or, at the very least, begs questions.

Paul D’Agostino, "Ahnung keiner Ahnung 9: Les fugues des oiseaux" (2012). Acrylic, charcoal and painting ground with collaged elements on panel, 14 x 20 inches.
Paul D’Agostino, “Ahnung keiner Ahnung 9: Les fugues des oiseaux” (2012). Acrylic, charcoal, and painting ground with collaged elements on panel, 14 x 20 inches.

In fact, it was that process that led to Ahnung keiner Ahnung 9: Les fugues des oiseaux, both its creation and its inclusion in the show.

To begin with, the Ahnung keiner Ahnung series came out of a series called Keine Ahnung, which means “no idea” most simply, but the word Ahnung also carries the meaning of “notion,” which is an interesting distinction. The series consists mostly of gestural gesso or acrylic smears that are then formalized into mixed media drawings, by and large, departing from whatever form I single out.

While working in the “mode” of that series, I started getting into more involved painting, collage and assemblage elements, so I decided that a new body of work was underway. I used Ahnung keiner Ahnung, to convey that a “notion” of the Keine Ahnung pieces was still at play. This might seem a semantic convenience, but what it means for me while I’m working is that more materials and steps will be involved, for instance. My solo show at Norte Maar last year included a number of works from both of those series along with some from the Polytype Monoprints series.

So anyway, this particular Ahnung keiner Ahnung piece is an interesting skeleton key in Twilit Ensembles, as it ties the newer body of Nocturne paintings to the paintings and polytype monoprints I showed last year.

While working on the ninth Ahnung keiner Ahnung, the grayscale collage I’d been mapping out seemed to need an element of vibrancy. The next day, after completing a small set of polytype monoprints, I had some paints left on the palette and began messing around using the circular cover of a container of gesso as a brush on some musical scores I had lying around to use for collage.

I got some results I rather liked, then I realized that a couple of the music sheets provided just the right movement and radiance to enliven the assembly of elements for the Ahnung keiner Ahnung piece. The gesso cover is right there, stuck to the surface; it’s visible which side of it I held while using it as a tool, and which of the two painted sides got the last stroke.

So that piece came out of the polytype monoprints quite directly, and it was that process — however simple in this case — of making simultaneous paintings linked through inputs and gestures that led to the Nocturnes series, which are crafted out of a reiterative, as opposed to merely duplicatory, process. I began them the very next night while listening to Chopin’s nocturnes. The NBA season hadn’t started yet, and it wasn’t a Lite FM kind of night.

Also, that piece was first shown in Paris at Salon Zürcher last fall, and Austin [Thomas, director of Pocket Utopia] wanted to show it again in my solo show here. And so there it is, coincidentally or not, and rather keystone-like no matter what. Its placement in the back of the space as a sort of suturing or juncture between the two long walls gives its centrifugal movement and other fugue-like references additional meaning.

Paul D’Agostino, "Futuro anteriore X: L'ultimo ammonimento del messaggero non sarà stato comunicato in tempo. (Future Perfect X: The messenger's last warning will not have been communicated in time.)" (2013). Mixed media drawing and collage on paper, 24 x 18 inches. Click to enlarge.
Paul D’Agostino, “Futuro anteriore X: L’ultimo ammonimento de messaggero non sarà stato comunicato in tempo. (Future Perfect X: The messenger’s last warning will not have been communicated in time.)” (2013). Mixed media drawing and collage on paper, 24 x 18 inches. (Click to enlarge)

TM: The Futuro anteriore pieces (2012–13) seem like straight-ahead mixed-media collages, but the titles imply a hidden narrative (e.g., “The messenger’s last warning will not have been communicated in time.”) It is my impression that the titling in your work follows the completion of the image, but here I’m not so sure.

PD: Sometimes, sort of, not really. I start those collages via various ideas of traces that we will have left behind — visual, meta-verbal, residual, ethereal — in our trappings, our creations, our endeavors; I then mix drawings and collage elements together to attempt to convey such things or matters.

The titles come somewhat before, then solidify after. In the “messenger” piece, I had done a sketch of a Mercury figure dropping a slip of paper and wanted to incorporate it into a collage. In that case, a sketch determined a title, which then determined the elements for the collage. In a way, the sketch itself contained a silent utterance in the future perfect tense; teasing it out made it vocal.

I should not get into how stimulating I find different verbal moods and tenses. Think, though, about the point at which we developed a communicative necessity to convey a completed action in the future. None of it is certain, but we use the certainty of past participles to talk about it. Extraordinary. In fact, it is exactly extra-ordinary.


Paul D’Agostino, "Floor Translations 1: The Man With Crappy Arms and Legs" (2012-2013). Sequence of seven serialized drawings, numbered on verso: charcoal and ink on buff-colored wove paper,  each 9 x 12 inches; sculpture: acrylic and polymer medium on resin, wire, wood, shellac, dimensions variable. (Installation view).
Paul D’Agostino, “Floor Translations 1: The Man With Crappy Arms and Legs” (2012–13), installation view. Sequence of seven serialized drawings, numbered on verso: charcoal and ink on buff-colored wove paper, each 9 x 12 inches; sculpture: acrylic and polymer medium on resin, wire, wood, shellac, dimensions variable.

TM: There are five Floor Translations on view, clipped to lengths of string like clothes on a line. Each grouping includes a sculpture, most often of a head, mounted on a wire attached to a wooden base drilled into the wall.

The questions that the Floor Translations provoke would apply to the other series, I believe, though perhaps not in such a pointed way. What I find most intriguing about them is that they seem to be the result of several stages of free association, a fugue state that starts with staring at the stains on the floor — something we all do without a hint of creative follow-up — and leads to a compilation of images and a stream-of-consciousness narrative.

The interlocking of image and text is so complete that each slice of narrative (“The ganglioplast gave the junkfish a few pieces of her mind”) comes across as a natural confluence, until one steps back and thinks, “Why a ganglioplast? Why a junkfish? What processes could have brought about such a bizarre invention as the Man with Crappy Arms and Legs or the mask of Herr Doktor Zweizähne?”

That is to say, the Translations do not feel arbitrary despite their murky origins and disparate trajectories. If anything, they feel of a piece — not only with each other, but also with an abstract work like “Nocturne 9: Fonti silvestri” (“Sylvan Sources”) (2013), in which the charcoal sediments in the lower halves of the canvases exhibit a corresponding material density.

Paul D’Agostino, "Nocturne 9: Fonti silvestri (Sylvan Sources)" (2013). Diptych, acrylic and charcoal on canvas, each 30 x 20 inches.
Paul D’Agostino, “Nocturne 9: Fonti silvestri (Sylvan Sources)” (2013). Diptych, acrylic, and charcoal on canvas, each 30 x 20 inches.

PD: The Floor Translations series pertains to signification and objectification. I begin with the painted “accidents,” or splotches, I come across, mostly in the studio, then look at them until I figure out what kind of identity I want to attribute to them. I don’t trace them, nor do I make rubbings. I give them more respect than that by doing observational contour drawings of them, as if they’re the subjects in a figure-drawing or still-life drawing session. I hover above them and draw them, changing the scale a bit here and there, sometimes incorporating surrounding splotches.

I then redraw that onto the buff-colored paper, and the first drawing becomes that on which the “meaningless” stain is “translated” from a floor marking into an identity, so its name is given and the story begins. The first drawing is the most faithful to the original splotch in its contours, though it passes from positive-space painted folly into negative-space charcoal drawing. I then continue to explore the form over a sequence of drawings that change scale, orientation and, at times, mood, until I feel that the character’s story is, at least in brief, told.

The sculptures that accompany each set of drawings then become the 3-dimensional translation of so much identity-granting via naming and storytelling. The sculptures are often heads or busts, because they are to some extent the sculptural form that is granted to historical figures. These figures, once absolutely meaningless, now have a history. So the black resin sculptures not only fill in the voided, identity-laden areas of the charcoal drawings, but they also return to this idea of respect for the meaningless form, for it now has its very own name and its very own history — and a minor form of memorial statuary.

The sculptures also seemed an irresistible way to continue the procedural logic of the idea of visual translation, commonplace or dead horse though it might already have been.

The Nocturne paintings intervene between and among the Floor Translations. I was working on both bodies of work concurrently last fall and through the winter, so the Nocturne paintings I turned to for the show were the more landscape-oriented among them, hence “La Grotta (The Grotto),” “Fonti silvestri,” and “Figure nella radura (Figures in the Glade).” They are atmospheric, umbrageous, sylvan. They’re the places out of which curious and fable-like stories, call them fairy tales, might emerge. In Twilit Ensembles, then, they’re the settings. The Floor Translations drawings dangle from strings, their “narrative threads.”

The works are twilit, or twilight-tending, and they’re in sets and series. And the series radiate differentiably out of a keystone work. And themes of a darker sort intermingle with muse-like forms and forms of potential amusement. Hence Twilit Ensembles.

That probably seems like another of my long-windedly useless explanations for something as simple as a show or a couple words. It’s actually the short version.

At any rate, for Lite FM, tune your radio to 106.7. Depending on the time of day or night, you might need to expunge the last thing you heard. Nearby at 105.9 is WQXR, where the likes of Bach, Schubert and Brahms, et al., will serve as acoustic correctives.

For Knicks games, tune to ESPN New York, 98.7. If they don’t make it deep into the playoffs this year, then it will have been directly attributable to injuries rather than a lack of …

Oh, never mind.

Paul D’Agostino: “Twilit Ensemblescontinues at Pocket Utopia (191 Henry Street, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through April 21.

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