July 22, 2011

Storytelling Through Art: An Interview with Narrative Painter Aldo Lira

Aldo Lira
By Olivia Kate Cerrone
With its roots dating back to antiquity, narrative painting served as an instinctive means of storytelling for artists to breathe life into the folklore and spirituality that hallmarked a people and their culture. This brilliant means of expression continues to engage artists to this day. Drawing from mythic stories and archetypical figures appearing in Southern Italian folklore, myths, literature, film and religion, narrative painter, Aldo Lira creates haunting, vivid dreamscapes that offer a fresh, exciting take on Southern Italian culture. Educated at the New York Academy of Art, the Art Students’ League of New York and with James Childs at the Drawing Academy of the Atlantic, Mr. Lira apprenticed under a wide range of Eastern European masters at Mark Kostabi’s Chelsea painting factory in New York City. Aldo Lira’s paintings have appeared in exhibitions throughout America and in Rosario and Sante Fe, Argentina. His vision is at once unique and daring, and one fascinating in terms of technical excellence and aesthetic beauty. I recently had the great privilege of interviewing Mr. Lira about his artistic life as a narrative painter and what his art brings to the Southern Italian cultural dialogue.

Visitation I

Olivia Kate Cerrone: In a profile written for the Pacific Art League, Judy Block reveals that your life as a painter emerged after an extensive and variegated career that included working for NBC studios to servicing an educational media group in Istanbul, where you lived for five years until a severe illness prompted an unexpected return to the States. During this period of recovery and essential transformation, you decided to pursue art. Why narrative painting specifically? What aspects, if any, from your former professional life in television and film influence the creative perspective that you bring to the canvas?

Aldo Lira: I’ve always thought of painting in terms of narrative painting. I appreciate other types of painting but I’ve always had a more deep-seated and visceral response to narrative work. That’s the short answer. The expanded answer is that I think we all have an innate and deep-seated response to narrative or stories. Some contemporary researchers – the psychologist Robert Ornstein among them - have found that earlier cultures relied much more heavily on the use of narrative and storytelling for transmitting information and values than it was previously believed they did. They did so because they knew it was the most effective way to do this. Some researchers of the traditional use of stories believe that stories affect us on a level that cannot really be reached in any other way. Regarding my work in the media, I think that the TV and film experience probably had the most impact on the way I compose an image. It sharpened my awareness of how a viewer perceives and experiences an image. I became more aware of how framing an image can influence whether a viewer experiences a more subjective identification with what they’re seeing on screen or whether they have a more objective or distanced response.

Chaos and Renewal (The Last Days and Beyond)

OKC: The imaginative brilliance of your work embodies a stunning and rather unique blend of Greco-Roman archetypes, contemporary flourishes, and spiritually-inspired myths with ominous, seemingly apocalyptic undertones. From your uncanny “Strange Gifts” series to the more dark, slightly macabre “Chaos and Renewal (The Last Days and Beyond),” your characters and their stories collectively exist in a timeless, paranormal universe. As a storyteller, how do you approach a painting? How do characters and their desires emerge for you?

AL: I’m extremely visually oriented and the place that I always begin is with the formal composition of a painting. I start with rough thumbnail sketches and try to get a sense of atmosphere or mood through these. Everything else is built up from here. In Chaos and Renewal, my approach had more to do with an attempt to deal with some very basic drives or impulses in life, such as the impulse that drives some of us toward chaos or destructive tendencies. In that painting, I wanted to give visual form to the idea that we have a choice to make in any situation There were, I feel, a lot of basic, but on some level, conflicting elements juxtaposed in that painting: destructive vs. constructive drives, masculine vs. feminine, decay vs. new growth. My technical painting skills at that time were still somewhat lacking, and it was a fairly large painting: 4.5 x 6 feet. If I were to repaint that today I would handle it differently. But a lot of people have responded to that painting and I think there is a certain unique kind of energy in it.

In more recent work, I’ve tried to base the narrative on elements that seem common to many paranormal experiences, including aspects of them that seem to defy the laws of physical reality as we accept them. UFO contactee stories often involve people being levitated for example. Often these events or experiences seem to occur in remote or out-of-the-way locations and so I usually have a rural or desolate sort of setting. It seems that reactions to these experiences are somewhere between awe and terror, maybe a kind of stupefied wonderment, and I try to depict some of these feelings or reactions with the characters in my paintings.

I really like your description of the characters in my paintings: that they “collectively exist in a timeless, paranormal universe.” Actually I’m convinced that we all exist in a paranormal universe, but are unaware of it most of the time. A renowned physicist observed that our five senses filter out far more information than they let in. There’s a lot happening all around us that we are normally completely unaware of. For example, there are theories such as that of parallel universes, where multiple universes co-exist, possibly within the same physical space but on differing wavelengths or vibrational levels so that they would ordinarily not impinge on one another. But leaks or breaks could occur and this would account for a lot of otherwise puzzling phenomena.

In the artist statement that I currently use, I state the following: My paintings depict encounters between the everyday world of human existence and that of the numinous or spiritual world that intersects with it.

View of Hudson River Valley with Figure and Paranormal Activity

OKC: How might, if at all, your Italian American background influence your ideas or even the physical execution of a painting? Have you ever drawn from Italian American family stories or Southern Italian folklore for inspiration or guidance?

AL: In terms of the physical execution of a painting and just the way that a painting “feels,” I think that genetics is definitely a factor to consider. I think that in my case it has more to do with the movement within and the basic geometry of the composition, as opposed to the method used to construct a painting. There was a definite tradition in the South, particularly during the Baroque period, of a bravura approach to executing a painting. This was in marked contrast to the step-by-step, carefully constructed paintings, more typical of Northern painters. There were a number of reasons for this, both cultural factors and issues having to do with the availability of materials. While I find the paintings of this era tremendously appealing, I have not always emulated this method used to realize them and have sometimes relied on a more process-oriented, constructed approach.

It would be hard not to be influenced by the Southern Italian heritage! I think the aspects of it that have had the most impact on my work have been folklore about the early saints and the miraculous events of their lives, and the old stories from classical mythology, many of which took place in Sicily. Some of these accounts read like modern-day encounters with occupants of UFOs.

This is something I’ve tussled with internally. At times I have paid a certain amount of homage to earlier painters from Southern Italy, primarily Naples, and Spain. These are two areas that have had a tremendous mutual impact during certain periods of history. I have also looked into traditional folklore and the mythology of the region and have tried to work some of this into my paintings, but I also find this hard to do because it tends to remove or distance the viewer from the contemporary experience. It’s like putting a kind of conceptual frame around the images, or viewing through a filter. As I’ve mentioned, there are many parallels between the earlier and the contemporary accounts but there are a lot of differences too, so I have really had to think how far I wanted to remove or historicize the experience for the viewer.

While on the topics of Southern Italy and the paranormal, I read an interesting excerpt from a book written by a prominent early 20th Century folklorist, Evans-Wentz. He stated that after many years research he came to the conclusion that there were a number of sacred sites throughout Europe that were being held in trust for what he termed a future “time of wonders.” He felt that the stories of supernatural or magical beings found throughout European folklore, called by many different names, were actually guardians of these sites. He claimed that Campania was one of these regions. If he was correct then it’s not surprising that so many events of a paranormal and even miraculous nature are said to have taken place there, from the early Greek mythology all the way to the present time.

Portrait of Kara in Landscape with Celestial Phenomena

OKC: On your website, you mention how light holds a very significant, almost spiritual place in your work, which is especially true for most, if not all, of your narrative paintings. One leaves with the impression that the presence of light, so often depicted as luminous bulbs and distant bursts of explosive energy, signifies something beyond the traditional, if not archetypical meaning of light in terms of goodness and sanctity. Could you speak to this?

AL: I feel that the light signifies an experience on a deeper and perhaps more transformative level, not necessarily good or bad in a conventional sense. An experience might initially seem negative, outside the ordinary range of experiences that a person is used to, perhaps threatening. In many of the accounts that I have drawn inspiration from there is definitely an element of the terrifying. But in many instances the result over time is that a person is transformed or altered in some fundamental way, and in the long run the effect is positive. This is an aspect that occurs in most accounts of a mystical, spiritual or paranormal nature but that makes a lot of people with a contemporary mindset uncomfortable. People interested in these things often seem to want to believe that it should all be sweetness and light. That may be a comforting thought to some people but it also ignores a lot of the available data. In any case I don’t feel that this parallels events that we experience in the more mundane aspects of our lives. We are very often “put through the wringer” and imagine that we are having bad luck, whether in a job or personal affairs. However when it’s over and we look back on it we realize how much we have grown as a result of the experience.

Strange Gifts I

OKC: Process factors deeply in the creation of your paintings. On your website, you provide a generous depiction of this complex two-step procedure, essentially a layering effect that begins as a monochromatic under-painting (sometimes described as a camaieu or grissaille, depending on the color used) that is imbued with brilliant color and glossy light through a series of velatura glazes (another, darker layer of transparent paint) and scumbles (a lighter, opaque or semi-opaque coat of paint). Does this style draw from the traditional workings of Renaissance masters or is it a more personal process, one derived from the many influences you have gleaned from apprenticing with an array of American, Bulgarian and Russian masters? How important is the technical discipline and concentration of following such a process involved with the resulting creative product?

AL: I did contract work for a Chelsea-based painter during the early 2000s. He came up with concepts and hired other people to realize the actual paintings. My co-workers there had been trained in the Eastern European academies that retained the teaching methods that had been dropped in the West in favor of Modernist-inspired approaches to painting. These guys were technically amazing painters and I learned a great deal working alongside them. The experience of working in a very fast-paced factory or commercial sort of painting environment was very unique. Getting paid to sit at an easel and paint-to-order for eight to ten hours a day really sharpens one’s technical abilities. I think that working for a year in that kind of situation was easily the equivalent of five years of sitting and painting in an academic environment.

In the past, I’ve experimented with a number of what are known as indirect painting processes. At one point several years ago I did a number of paintings using a polychrome under-painting, then went back to using the more usual monochrome under-painting. In recent months however I’ve done a couple of works using the polychrome under-painting approach again and have found that it now really appeals to me, and I feel that I will be using this more extensively in the future.

For me, the technical discipline and concentration of a strongly process-oriented approach is very important. I think that there are some things that, at least for me, cannot easily be achieved with the more direct, supposedly spontaneous approach that is more common today. Although I suppose it all depends on what a painter wants to achieve. When I was a student in college there was a period when I painted using a more direct, “loose” and painterly approach. However as narrative content became more important for me, I wanted to focus more attention on that and less on strong brushwork and other formal elements. Those elements are extremely important, but I didn’t want all of the attention to be on them.

Visitation III

OKC: What are your plans or hopes for artistic projects in the future?AL: Now that I’m living in upstate NY, I have more space, and as a result, I’m working on some larger paintings. I would like to push some of the themes in my paintings even further and I’m working out ways to do this. Some of these include a different use of color, and maybe the use of multiple, sequential paintings within one frame, diptychs or triptychs. I’ve also done some studies for works in which I would use the sequence of thesis, antithesis and conclusion that was used by the ancient painters and revived during the Baroque era. I think it may be a little harder to do this with the sensibilities of a contemporary audience but we’ll see.

OKC: Thank you so much for taking the time to share with us your experiences. Any last thoughts?

AL: I would like to say that I really appreciate what John Napoli is doing with Il Regno. There is a lot of forgotten history in the Southern Italian past, as there is in Southern Europe as a whole. After many centuries of being the wealthiest and most developed nations in Europe, beginning in the late 1600s, these nations went into a period of decline (which is very likely temporary since there have been previous periods of decline and recovery). There has been a lot of rewriting and revisionism of the history of the region, and the average person pretty much has their ideas of what happened from television and Hollywood--two sources which have, for the most part, presented inaccurate information. Historians specializing in various aspects of Mediterranean history know what really happened, and are aware of the debt owed to the region not just by contemporary Europeans and the West in general, but by the entire planet. In addition, John is presenting information on the contributions made by Southern Italians throughout US history. So, thank you John, and please keep up the fantastic work!

Photos courtesy of Aldo Lira
You can contact Olivia Kate Cerrone at olivia.cerrone@gmail.com