By Deb A.
Agave Magazine couldn't be prouder to have Tony Luciani on board as our 2014 Artist-in-Residence. His indisputable talent and knack for telling stories on canvas as well as over the phone made him the perfect addition to the team. Tony's series of vignettes about his works was one of our most popular blogs, and that was only the half of it. So, to round out the year, here's part two of our journey through some of Tony's favourite pieces.
Walls on Walls series: Contemplation
The spark for this recent series of paintings was a dream. The impression I had was vague, but I could make out a massive, immovable structure, like a wall blacking out the sky. I didn't know what material it was made of, but I knew it was covered with graffiti, although the words, scribbles, posters and other visuals on it were obscure. There was also someone in front of it. I didn't know if the person was male or female, young or old, standing or sitting, but I saw that he or she was also covered with symbolic markings.
Soon afterwards, I met a young woman whose body was tattooed from head to toe. As a complete stranger, and having never posed for an artist before, she hesitatingly accepted my invitation when I told her of this dream. A few days later in my studio, after I'd set up a large piece of cardboard to be the imaginary wall, she began to strike poses, none of which seemed quite right. During her first rest break, I asked what her body decorations meant, and she began, in a halting voice, to tell me of a dark, tortured past of mental and physical abuse.
"My body was taken away from me," she said quietly. "I get a new tattoo every time my thoughts go back there. They protect me."
At that point, I saw the massive wall reappear before me and I now knew its significance. The wall represents the psychological menace that can appear behind even the most innocuous situation. Then, in my mind, the figure from my dream emerged, looking calm and relaxed against the intimidating background. I asked the model if she meditated at all, and she assumed a lotus position with her back against the makeshift backdrop. She instantly became insouciant and inwardly focused, her armour of tattoos protecting her from her surrounding darkness.
After Contemplation was completed, I realised that my personal wall was challenging me to go even deeper than the painting had allowed. I had chosen subtlety and implication over harshness. I had tried to force it out of the canvas, but always retreated back to safety. My struggle with this impasse was immense. The Walls on Walls series grew out of this dilemma.
Contemplation was selected as a finalist for the Kingston Prize in 2011-2012.
Restrictions series: Walkerton Jail
After my Walls on Walls series about psychological barriers that people have in their lives, I thought about the feeling of being boxed in, or restrained. I decided to use small spaces as a metaphor for such feelings. Walkerton Jail is the first painting depicting the claustrophobia of confinement.
I was given permission to visit the old Walkerton Jail just after its inmates were transferred to other institutions, making way for the facility's permanent closure. It smelled of bleach when I arrived. I spent a large part of a day on my own, roaming the empty cells and hallways that not a week before were filled above capacity with prisoners. I locked myself within a cell for an hour to try to get a brief sense of what actual imprisonment is like.
In the painting process, I also wanted to capture the aspect of lapsed time, rather than just the present. In order to do so, I splattered images and scribbled graffiti beneath several different layers of paint on the textured walls in the canvas. These are forever hidden and forever lost. Only I know what is under there.
Madonna and Mannequin
A woman stands in front of a lush green curtain, holding a mannequin in a tender embrace, with hands that are strong and gentle. The illumination is like a halo, but the light creates a shadow around this performance artist, whose expression is at once grieving and giving. Her sadness speaks of compromise and insecurity, but her veined hands are full of agency, determination, and desire. Madonna and Mannequin is about the synergy between who we are and what we aspire to be. It's about the assimilation of flesh and plastic, the goal of perfection, and the ideal of celebrating the resulting creation.
The venue spotlights the career choice of actor on centre stage and the storefront window display with articulated doll. Unable to hide, and with nothing to conceal, the performer is subject to the onlooking audience/viewer with intimidation and fear, but also with the resolve of attention. This life consists of sexual tension and sexual identity, of preference and desire.
The surfaces in the painting dramatise the complexity of the relationship between performance and being. Her tattooed skin breathes, informed by light and shadow, softness and coherence, artlessness and artifice. She does not feel beautiful; she hides behind the idealised female form. The mannequin is her shield; we can feel it cold and artificial against her flesh and strain to see more of what is so yielding and complex and human about her. We are creatures of the observed, and as such need to present ourselves with truth and without shame. The glorification of others, however, much like our own self-pitied realities, comes with the dependency of just being.
Madonna and Mannequin was selected as a finalist for the Kingston Prize in 2012-2013.
Rob 'n' Les
With the anticipation of the arrival of our firstborn, I wanted to create a work reflective of this exciting occasion. A few days into the drawing of a very pregnant Leslie, a tiny robin fell from its nest and into our backyard. To protect it from our cat, we put it in a cage. Day after day we fed it and let it explore the property under our supervision. Our dog, Florence, was very gentle with it, even letting the robin sit on her back. The bird became stronger and able to fly further each day. One afternoon, my wife and I went into the house for a few minutes while the robin perched safely, or so we assumed, on our garage roof. When we came back out, the tiny bird lay dead on our lawn, completely soaked, our dog beside it, nudging it with her nose and licking it. We never found out what happened, but Leslie was so saddened she refused to go into the backyard for days afterward.
A day earlier I had done a sketch of the robin while it sat resting on our fence. In homage to the bird, and life in general, I decided to include it in my drawing of Leslie and Emily-to-be. It is about the cycle of living and dying, birth and death, and an expectant mother emotionally connected to both.
No Looking Back series: Elia
The intention of this series of charcoal drawings was to explore internal quietness, without viewer intimidation. These large-scale portraits can seem daunting, but with the model's eyes closed and not staring back, a sense of immediate connection is established.
Elia is only the second portrait of my mom that I've ever done. There was always that 'I'll do it tomorrow' scenario. With her reaching 91 years old, I felt a need to capture this moment of contemplation, reflection and feeling.
Her face tells a story of a person full of family history, hard challenges, and little regrets about the outcome. Her facial lines are soft and many, indicating interlocking pathways of compassion and of a diversified lifestyle. I hope I captured her likeness and everything beautiful underneath.
With the modern demise of 'ma & pa' shops, swooped aside by huge corporation box-stores and the convenience of online shopping, I wanted to grasp onto a glimmer of what we used to have. Living in a small town where small business is having a difficult time staying viable, I decided to document a few of the local independent spaces that are still hanging in there.
This barbershop is a closet-sized, single-chair, one-woman-run business in my town. The clientele mostly consists of older men with little hair left, but with an abundance of stories to tell.
In my work, I love introducing the imagined to reality. The shop is real, but the 'tools of the trade' and some of the surrounding materials are not. They are completely made-up resemblances of what they should be. Even the fellow in the chair is a fabricated character.
Pere Lachaise Cemetery, resting place for Oscar Wilde, Edith Piaf, Frederic Chopin, Jim Morrison and so many other famous people, is situated in the heart of Paris. When my daughter was there a few years ago, she sent me a couple of cellphone snaps of her trip. To me, this registered as a small village with its tombs and pathways. The moss rooftops and weathered mortar 'houses' only exaggerated my initial thought. Then, a second later, it hit me: this was the Pere Lachaise Cemetery. It was then that I imagined the likes of Eugene Delacroix, Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, Camille Pissarro, and others drinking wine, painting together, and talking art. It was a magical vision. Mercure Hotel, a contemporary building which lies just across the street from one of the cemetery walls, became a reference point for the inhabitants of Pere Lachaise. We are all visitors, tenants, renters in this life. Nothing is forever, but sharing a few transparent pints with Georges Seurat and Amedeo Modigliani would be fleetingly endless.
Il Born Laberinto
In Barcelona, Spain for the opening of 'Figurativas 13' at the European Museum of Modern Art (MEAM), which included my painting, Wonder Woman, I fell in love with the old neighbourhoods of the city. The winding maze of narrow streets, constant echoing of murmuring voices heard when no-one else is in sight, medieval buildings and gothic churches seemingly around every corner was stunningly magical. Did I mention the dozens of tiny bars serving tapas and cava at all hours?
I wandered. I got lost. I wandered even further. I didn't care. I was mesmerised. I was in awe.
This work was an attempt to play with a myriad of recollections of these tiny streets in the Il Born neighbourhood where I stayed. Patterned laundry flowing down from above with balconies filled with colourful flowers, and the light doing the flamenco dance within the courtyards as the sun peeked through at high noon. I remembered the terracotta plastered walls, the cast-iron railings, and the narrow strip of sky framed by the six-storey buildings, like an upside-down river.
My painting was created from a good place in my head. My small-town Ontario studio was transformed to where I wanted to be. For the time I painted Il Born Laberinto at my easel, I was wandering the neighbourhood and happily getting lost again.
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