John Descarfino- Pressing the Space of the Middle
“Spiritually I am wherever my spirit allows me to be, and that is not necessarily in the future.”
– Willem de Kooning
In Arnold van Gennep’s book Les rites de passage (The Rites of Passage, 1909) he writes about the three phases and the journey that was observed in cultures, from an anthropologist perspective. He described certain cultures had three distinct ritualistic behaviors in their actions and divided them in the following manner: preliminary, liminaire (liminality), and postliminaire (post-liminality). The stage of liminality, second state, involves a period of transition in which the space is no longer old but not yet new. This space is the place where most of, or the majority of work by John Descarfino stems from. It is a state where artists and other creative individuals like to work from and or wish to remain. The space in-between is where discovery lies.
Descarfino makes paintings, drawings, and works in oil/acrylic, graphite, and watercolors. In the years of familiarity with his work, I’ve seen it evolve in various ways. The work’s subject matter has changed, and his process and painterly concerns have evolved. In recent years Descarfino has shifted his subject matter and consideration for the figurative imagery and has moved fluidly between representation and abstraction. These shifts do not reflect concern in style but have more to do with inquiry and investigation within the paintings and the art-making process. When speaking to him about his work, he has hovered around a few fundamental interests that deal with presence, absence, the space of transition (or liminal) and the indexical mark. These concerns are the driving force for examination and serve as a vehicle to the formation of series and bodies of work.
In his catalog of works, John selects subject matter that he encounters in his day-to-day life. Descarfino paints innocuous subject matter which includes interior spaces, including homes, public areas such as classrooms and hotel rooms, basements, balconies, construction sites, windows, etc. His subjects aid the concern of transition or the intermediate. Things and places that are recognizable or mundane are re-examined to explore their boundaries or the notions that constitute a sense of place and by extension a definition of the self. The boundaries of the work expand more as the work evolves and perhaps the shift of subject matter occur when the inquiry reaches their limits.
In an early work titled “Waiter,” 1999, oil on canvas, 54″ x 40,” consists of an image with a man in a vest and bowtie writing on a pad of paper in a space that is suggested to be outdoor by the cast shadow. The moment captured is that where the ‘waiter’ is writing down the order. Waiters, in the best of circumstances, are emissaries, they have a job to serve the customer and represent the establishment. The location, perhaps a sidewalk café, is in a state of fluidity, it’s not inside nor is it entirely outside. The green color at the top of the painting suggests foliage which is curious in two ways. The green is that of an amorphous space and appears to be held in suspension or a temporary pause.
Upon closer examination, we notice the painting may have self-referential workings. The gray painted lines that describe the contours of the man’s head, arm and apron resemble that of the quick gestural mark making process when sketching. The sketch and the process of drawing can be seen as a type of diagram image. Like the green form, it is in a place of transforming. The yellow shape that is held suggests a No. 2B pencil which coincidently refers back to the drawing process and perhaps the waiter is a metaphor for the artist. The overall appearance of the painting is made to look like it is done with the casualness of a sketch. It is as if Descarfino is describing the drawing practice as a place of liminality. All these elements of subject matter, process, and form come together that reinforces where Descarfino’s concerns are- a moment that is commonplace presses the boundaries for the purpose to be reconsidered. What may be recognizable on the surface has a complexity beyond their appearances.
In recent works, John Descarfino has turned to windows as a metaphor for reflecting. Historically a painting’s surface or picture plane has often been considered an opening to look through. The idea of a window as something to look through can be debated in these works as you begin to dissect them. In his paintings, process and image collapse, and what is achieved are paintings of both image and object, we look through and look at these ‘windows.’ “Untitled,” 19″ x 16″, 2017, oil on linen, consist of a lighter blue and dark blue palette, with a faint red veil that floats atop of the overall image. The painting looks like it is a view through an opening. There are bands that could be read as sashes, and or frames that sit on the sides, top and bottom of the picture. Central in the image are diagonals that look like they can be muntins. The areas where they sit is ambiguous. They look as if they could be attached to the window frame and at the same time dislocated as if it a structure just beyond the window frame. As we keep looking, we see that the organization of the geometric ‘muntin’ are both to be perceived in the foreground and the background by the manner in which they are joined or connected to edges of the canvas. Space has been compressed. The red splotched scrim that hovers over the field of the image is somewhat equivocal. The passage of red is made with an actual window screen. Red oil paint has been applied to the screen and then pressed on the surface of the canvas. The gesture has a practical component to it, yet it is complex for the image and serves as an indexical mark/gesture. What Descarfino may be describing is the space between image and object may be one that at times blurred. The process and its material collapse with the subject matter. This may be like the experience one has looking through a window with a screen, we recognize but can’t fully see.
John Descarfino’s work lives in-between abstraction and representation but not for reasons on a comparison. The paintings are images to be looked at, scrutinize, analyze, slowly and quietly. They ask to consider the subject, its process, and materials so that one begins to question how does one experience the world around them, or better yet, about reflecting upon that which we encounter daily, to reconsider their context. It stretches the intellect to recognize the state of being is in transition, and as uncomfortable it may be, it may be the most compelling place for curiosity and discovery.