Mason Saltarrelli

Mason Saltarrelli in dialogue with Steven Cox

Steven Cox: Can you tell me a little about yourself, your background, and how/when you first started working full-time as an artist?

Mason Saltarrelli: I’m originally from New Orleans, Louisiana. I started documenting jazz musicians there around the age of 12. That led to some trips to New York to visit Doc Cheatham. In August 1997 I moved to Manhattan to attend college. I studied photojournalism and have lived in New York ever since.

When I was younger I took a lot of New Orleans for granted. Now I love going back and paying attention to the details. The oak trees shatter the cement sidewalks and then other plants grow out of the openings in the sidewalk. You can walk down streets experiencing the way the tree’s roots have grown. Man placed the track down and nature made the bumps and hills, a collaborative roller coaster.  It’s a city nature still has a say in and I love that about it.

During 2016 I worked part-time in a foundry.  It was interesting to see and learn methods of creating sculpture. I made the bronze piece in my show Acoustic Tulips while I was working at the foundry. It is unique, made through the lost-wax casting process.  For so many years I’ve been making the figures out of clay. To finally make one into bronze right where it was produced was a special experience.

SC: Can you tell me about your current studio and working routine? Do you have any morning rituals or habits that contribute towards a productive day within the studio?

MS: My current studio is in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. I moved there in July 2016 from a studio I had been in for about seven years. During my last months in Sunset Park, Brooklyn I was preparing paper and organizing canvases. Surface preparation has always been a large part of my practice. Moving helped me focus specifically on mark making. Entering a space with a new light and different walls with a surplus of materials allowed me to step into a time to address certain ideas I had been mulling over in regards to color and shape.

My studio is within a larger shared space divided into four studios.  There’s a large wall of old windows throughout, so it gets really nice light in the daytime and is pretty cold in the winter. It’s a busy building during the day and pretty quiet at night. Often my routine will depend on if I’m ok with noise or if I prefer quietness. I don’t make my studio time a nine to five job.  Working when the time feels right is more important to me than logging a certain number of set hours. Keeping my space organized and clean is very important to my studio practice.

SC: Has there been a particular moment in time that is significant to you artistically? A specific artistic moment/memory that you will not forget, or one that gave you confidence, a specific opportunity, exhibition, etc…

MS: On August 6, 2011 a U. S. military helicopter was shot down by an rpg over the Wardak Province in Afghanistan. Thirty-eight people and one military working dog were on board. Thirty of the people were from America and eight were from Afghanistan. I was in Montauk and heard a report on the radio about it the following day while I was working on paper with gouache. I let my hand respond. That moment taught me about openness.

SC: The title of your recent solo exhibition at Turn Gallery in New York City was Acoustic Tulips. The title is interesting; perhaps you could shed some light on this exhibition title and the works that were on show…

MS: Once in a while I make lists of words for titles of work or future shows. Often it’s when I’m riding the subway or hear something interesting on the radio that spurs some thoughts to review at a later time. I sent an edited list of ideas to Annika Peterson and she called me with Acoustic Tulips. Those two words were on the list but not together.

The body of work in the show addresses a way of abstraction and portraiture. The seven paintings included are very much about what you do see, and also about what you do not see, but possibly feel. The title Acoustic Tulips was perfect to me because it is a literal way of describing some physical attribute which tulips effect me through that I cannot fully see or explain.

SC: A particularly appropriate definition of your work that I once read, which is rather beautiful, is to consider each work as an individual and personal spirit map. Each work seems to be composed in a way that suggests the exploration of a unique narrative. Would you say this is an accurate interpretation of your work?

MS: That idea is accurate for much of the work. I don’t consider them maps of my experiences, so I like the idea of them being open-ended narratives or individual spirit maps for the viewer to roam through.  I remember looking out of a plane window and seeing the resemblance between some of my work and aerial views. Sometimes they appear to me as portraits of energy.  Some are reactionary acknowledgments, like the piece I described from Montauk earlier. I try to let each piece determine which one it would like to be and then I go from there.

SC: Within Acoustic Tulips, you presented a singular 14” bronze sculpture titled ‘Opus 3’ which resembles something between a voodoo doll and a kachina doll. For me, this work owns a spiritual and tribal significance that interestingly reflects back to your paintings. Was the intention behind this sculptural work to highlight and relate to the spiritual practice of painting

MS: The Brooklyn Museum of Art has kachina dolls in its collection. One Sunday when I was there in 2005, I saw a postcard with a particular kachina pictured on it and bought two of them. One I wrote a note on and mailed to my parents. The other I kept, studied and continuously worked from. Eventually I began to make clay and paper objects from my drawings and paintings of the doll.

The sculptures definitely address ideas I have about spirit. I view them as a physical non-specific depiction of spirits. Initially I started to make them to have a break from painting. There is something grounding about making them. Going back to your previous question, maybe sometimes the paintings and drawings are depictions of the sculpture’s experience?  I knew I wanted seven paintings and one sculpture in the show.

Many years later I finally saw the kachina from the postcard in person at the museum. It was like meeting someone I thought I’d never see again but still thought about every day.

SC: I am interested to know how you plan your works. Do you begin with preparatory sketches of some form, or do you prefer to work in an improvised manner?

MS: I don’t make a sketch on the surface, but I do attempt to use intuition to make a mental drawing before I make a mark. So in a way there are two surfaces, one plane of intention and one of reality.

The lines, dots and forms that populate my work on canvas are similar to the works on paper or wood. Each material holds the mediums differently, but the idea through which each surface is addressed is very much alike. I may think of a painting on paper when I’m beginning a work on canvas, but I’m not looking to replicate, just to continue telling an abstracted story.  Time is important because I like to revisit work and add or subtract to or from it.

SC: Focusing on the titles of your paintings, I am interested in how you choose such titles: ‘Fires Near Frozen Landscapes’, 2017, ‘Singing Birds of Different Species’, 2016, and ‘Construction Of A New Port 2016. For you, what is the role of an artworks title? Also, do you feel that titles alter a works interpretation?

MS: All of the titles in Acoustic Tulips relate to aspects of the composer Antonio Vivaldi’s life.

Fires and Singing Birds relate to how Vivaldi depicted details of environment in his four violin concertos Four Seasons. Construction is inspired by Vivaldi’s meeting Emperor Charles VI in Trieste in 1728.

Yes. People will draw their own conclusions. Titling a work is an attempt at literalizing something that may not actually need to be made literal, so it can be tricky. Viewers will process work through their own experiences.  A title may contradict or diminish the viewer’s interpretation.  An appropriate title may add an additional layer to the mystery of a piece. I hope my titles still leave the work up to the observer’s own reasoning. I am the author of my work, but I’m not interested to be the narrator.

SC: I am also curious about the documentation of an artworks creation. How regularly do you document the progression of your paintings?

MS: Constantly. It’s very interesting to revisit work in its early stages through documentation. It’s an important way to look back and see a work growing into itself.  Maybe it shows me where I said too much, too little or just enough.

SC: The notion of preciousness and at what stage a painting becomes discarded in the studio is interesting to me. Do you have a tendency to destroy failed paintings? Furthermore, how would you define a failed painting?

MS: A failed painting is a work that tells too much of a story or keeps your eye from exploring freely. My aesthetic perceptions change over time, so that plays a roll in seeing and unseeing failure. I have saved older pieces that I considered discarding and later realized that they tell me about my life at that time. For that reason alone it can be interesting to save some “failed” work. Occasionally they show me a method I previously employed that I should revisit with new perspective. Sometimes I make a piece I am pleased with only to see after making the next work I have to go back and provide more or less information with the original one for it to achieve its potential. Paintings can really inform each other that way. By informing each other they have a chance to inform the person making them.

Many of my larger works on paper are seamed together with cuts of failed smaller works. It can be interesting to see what is a failure of a full piece strengthen another work by becoming parts of a new whole.

SC: What future exhibitions/projects do you have scheduled?

MS: In May/June I am included in the exhibition Oliver Twist, Chapter2 at Rental Gallery (rentalgallery.us) in East Hampton, NY. I’m organizing a group show Gumbo at MAW (maw.guru) opening July 7. Bill Saylor and I are working on a show for fall 2017 at Shrine (shrine.nyc).

SC: To what extent do you consider your city as being an influential factor in the shaping of your work? Do you feel that your surroundings have influenced you in one way or another?

MS: I think the energy of an artist’s location has a big effect on their practice. Consciously or subconsciously where a person is will effect how they see. What and how you see is going to help dictate what you want to say and in turn what marks you chose to make. I like to take materials with me when I travel to get bits of work done. I feel it helps me capture that time of being away from where I normally work.

Sometimes I will find an object on the ground that may relate to work I’ve made or that I would like to incorporate somehow into future work.  Around my previous studio I would often find bits of metal or stone that I liked having in the room for inspiration.

Yes, I definitely think my surroundings have a voice in my work. New Orleans instilled patience and a way of looking. My time in Montauk made me appreciate nature more. New York City reminds me of our universe and its energy. I am very thankful for the culmination of those experiences. It’s nice to think about those places when I’m working.

SC: In relation to social media and more specifically Instagram, what are your thoughts on this as a platform to engage with new audiences? Do you have a love/hate relationship with Instagram or other online social media platforms?

MS: I see Instagram as a self-edited photography magazine. It definitely creates new audiences and opens up opportunities for dialogue. I’ve discovered interesting work I may have not seen otherwise.

SC: What do you feel are the pros and cons of Instagram, and do you consider Instagram important for artists working today?

MS: It’s a good way for artists to share what they are working on or seeing outside of their personal workspace. Because it’s self-edited it’s a form of self-representation, which makes it a great tool for artists with out gallery support.

It can be deceiving. Some work benefits from the way it appears on an illuminated screen. No form of social media is a replacement for standing in front of an actual work of art. Social media is a positive as a conversation starter and a negative if it’s an overall experience substitute.

SC: Any last points or thoughts you would like to share?

MS: I don’t think so. Thank you, Steven.

Mason Saltarrelli

Images courtesy of Mason Saltarrelli & Turn Gallery