Interview with Joseph Gerard Sabatino | Art as a Labor of the Body and Mind
Today, we collectively see the artist as a singular, creative genius. In Renaissance Italy, contemporaries saw the artist as laborer, a tradesman. Joseph Gerard Sabatino, a contemporary artist of Italian-American descent based in Paterson, New Jersey, is a combination for our modern and historic interpretation of the artist. Joseph has a distinctive viewpoint and aesthetic but utilizes the materials and techniques of industrial fabrication. Labor, both his own and a historic connection to it, fuels his creativity and art-making process.
- You started out as a photographer and became a multimedia artist. Describe that transition for us.
Although I was not formally schooled in sculpture, I was always interested in exploring materiality and constructive acts. While pursuing my undergraduate studies in photography, I constantly experimented with my own projects separate from university curriculum.
An immense transition occurred while I was studying abroad in Florence, Italy in 1999. As an artist, the experience opened up a whole new world to me, physically, mentally, and emotionally. Constant exposure to the classics merged with research of contemporary artists such as Duane Michaels and Francesca Woodman. I was desensitized by such immense beauty that I chose to seek the hidden, the grotesque, the unnoticed parts of public and private realms.
When I returned from Florence the secondary phase of the transition occurred. As the final course for my degree in photography, we documented old fortifications on the New York/New Jersey waterways. The professor said to use the facilities as our stage. I took that advice and shaped works in places that others could not access. I brought objects and materials to the caverns to create decadent atmospheres. I recall in particular using old twine, rope, and string and floated web-like structures throughout the environment. Every class participant was in awe of the room, what became of it, and how the natural light and casted shadows reacted. I realized I could no longer make photography my medium of choice. It was the actual experience and response of others that made the work – not the mere documentation of its form captured in a two-dimensional plane. I told the entire class on our final critique that I will no longer be shooting after this course.
- Can you talk a little more about your affinity towards sculpture and also the role of drawing in your work?
One of the reasons why I abandoned photography was because I truly wanted to make my physical presence part of the process. I learned how to see through photography, and I am able to create sculpture differently with that knowledge and exposure. Drawing always jolted my blood and stimulated my brain in very specific ways – in fact, they’re very similar to the primal tendencies that also exist in sculpture. I love it when highly simple acts and objects make the body, mind, and eyes become one.
- Location, and particularly its history, is an important source of inspiration for you. I am specifically thinking about your installation called Memoria Nascosta: A Resting Place That Lives at the Museo Regionale della Bonifica di Ca’ Vendramin in Veneto, Italy in 2015. Can you tell us how the history of the building as a dewatering facility influenced your choice of materials and placement in this work?
I was working with the curator, Melania Ruggini, remotely for a year in advance. The building’s history, skeletal-like structure and brute industrialism immediately drew me in. Only after my arrival did I truly appreciate the building’s full force and the eerie fusion of a church-like environment. I walked inside frantically through the darkened, cold, rigid elements. I smelt the blood of the steel, engine oil and its past, its static setting. The natural light penetrated and pierced differently throughout the day.
The rich history of the area, its people, the laborious fight to survive the treacherous geography prone to flooding, and its controlled waterways were inspiring. I felt compelled to use specific materials known only to that exact area. Influenced by hardships of manual labor, I wanted to produce a contemporary art experience to a region and audience that may not otherwise have the opportunity.
I incorporated symbolic and literal elements to the work. A visitor’s first impression upon entering was the sight of hundreds of hand filled, burlap sacks approximately two feet high across the front of the room. Pebbles and sand were gathered from the exterior of the building and then brought into the space one by one. We purchased hundreds of yards of natural rope in varying thicknesses and assembled wooden ladders throughout the netlike, woven pattern in specific sections. The natural rice of the region, “Riso del Delta del Po,” was donated by a local producer in amounts I did not think were humanly possible. The daily work was tying rope knots and filling sacks of burlap while climbing and relocating several two and a half story high, solid, wooden ladders. The arduous work made me feel connected to the people of the past and left me with blisters, burn marks, and physical exhaustion.
- Do you see yourself doing more installations like this in the future? What types of spaces provide artistic inspiration for you?
Absolutely. I refuse to do anything unless it’s equal to or greater in magnitude to the installation I did in Italy. Spaces that typically have a unique energy of their own, a rich history, and most importantly an ability to attract my interest are key. I can imagine working on Ellis Island, a meatpacking factory, or even that old fortification where I worked years ago.
- What is generally the impetus for a new work?
I am in a constant state of voyeurism due to the instinctual training I learned years ago while studying photography. I always document my surroundings, but instead of capturing moments of frozen time imprinted on a surface, I create a mental snapshot and take notes of things that pull me in. I channel the inanimate spirit of objects and situations by showing their relevance and seemingly static state.
- Your parents emigrated from Italy. Do you feel that your connection to your heritage has influenced your art?
I cannot escape the immense influence of my personal heritage. Like many others, the struggle of family members was real as they emigrated to a new land seeking better living arrangements and adapted to new traditions. My parents both came from a long line of farmers. My father came to the US as a machinist and worked in a factory, barely speaking the language until his retirement. My mother was originally a music teacher in Italy, arrived in the U.S. to work in a bakery, and then took on a job as a bank teller where she slowly was promoted to a more stable lifestyle.
The various movements of artistic significance, the overall culture, and the architecture of Italy equally fuels my interest and plays a crucial role in my personal and creative development. Sadly, it took a good portion of my life to accept and embrace the traditions of my upbringing. As a child, I wanted to fit in and avoided seeming different from “normal kids” in the neighborhood. Try to escape that when you have hanging carcasses being cured from steel hooks and militia-like lined and ripening tomatoes on the entirety of your basement floor! Ironically, materials and substances that I once detested became the visual aid that transcended my ideas.
- Was there any resistance in your family when you decided to become an artist?
Of course, there was major resistance and hesitation from my family, especially my father. Remember, they left everything so they could have a better future and hoped for greater opportunities. Here I am repaying that gratitude by choosing the most non-traditional and seemingly unattainable career to migrant parents. Strangely there was a slow shift in the support of my family and even my father after I sold my first piece in a local art show. My father actually reached out to family members in Italy to let them know. It’s a completely different story today. At the ripe age of 80, my father assists me with installations, sculpture, packing things for transit, and rearranging things in the studio. He even keeps his eye out for materials and supplies that might be of use to me.
- Shana Beth Mason in Artvoices in 2014 described the materials you use in your art as “pointedly unattractive”. She went on to say, “substances that ordinarily evoke sensations of dread, unease, dysfunction and even horror may be found in [your] tightly-wound objects and drawings.” Do you have this same relationship to the materials?
In my world, what one sees is not what one gets. I rely on basic, daily materials to evoke sensations of all sorts; from cerebral to optical to physical. One of my most influential photography professors, Klaus Schnitzer, said it best years ago,”you have to make a print so good that somebody wants to lick it!” I apply that mentality to every work I create. If a viewer does not have the sudden urge to touch or lick my work, I failed.
With regard to Shana’s comments, the materials are simply tools to gain the viewer’s attention. Can they be raw, yes, are they gross, yes, do people sometimes cringe when the full scope of an object becomes revealed…definitely! By intentionally exposing intimate, fleshy intestinal sheathes packed with contents, the layering begins. If one leaves with some type of connection, sentimental moment, or affected response of any sort, then bravo!
- Your art consists of materials that are typically utilitarian or commercial and you manipulate these materials to make artwork that is often poignant, nostalgic, and/or beautiful. For many years, you produced art in the workshop of an industrial fabricator. Can you describe some of the work that came from that relationship?
The relationship, built over years of collaboration, only validates the foundation of my work. I did not learn welding or sculpture from a formal training program or university. Instead, I gravitated towards hard-working, blue-collar men and women who chose to work based on their love of the trade. The fabrication shop housed guillotine-like pneumatic steel tools, oversized gadgetries, and an unending pulse of electricity that fueled turn-of-the-century machinery. The immediate scent of grease and charred smoke constantly filled the air. The luxury to order supplies and have it delivered on site was priceless, too.
I cannot count how many works were influenced by the techniques, accessibility, and camaraderie of the shop. Manipulated sheets of steel made weathered mausoleum panels, solid bent metal made trees, and custom steel triangles were prepared for the production of a kite that will defy nature and aimlessly hover above. The facility was and still is, the bone marrow of my creative developments.
- Many of the themes inherent in your work come together in your sculptural desserts. Can you describe some of the processes and materials you use to make these sculptures that entice the viewer to eat them?
Depending on the particular series, the technique varies from work to work. For example, the untitled waffle cones started with an experimentation at first done by hand with the use of thin, gauged, steel wire and lightweight cement. After contemplating the results, I felt the visual outcome was not optimal and took a more direct approach to achieve the proper aesthetic. Welcome to the mass-produced Carvel Ice Cream chain during the peak of the summer! I purchased a dozen mini and large waffle and sugar cones. I wrapped the shells with a heavy duty aluminum foil to reinforce the molds when filled with liquefied, industrial cement. I added my own batch of pigment for a subtle shift in tonality. Each form is titled by the corresponding number of the actual code engraved by the manufacture on the side of the cone’s skin.
Scoops of viscous cement were dragged through with a traditional ice cream scooper to create mounds then placed inside the cone. The wire was oxidized, cut into tiny pieces, and individually placed with a tweezer on the mounds to emulate blackened Jimmy sprinkles. Industrial, mastic tile glue was funneled through a baker’s bag to create whipped cream. Each cherry was hand-rolled and slowly solidified. Layers of liquid asphalt and a custom batch of pigmented wax act as the final coating – a Magic Shell’s chocolate syrup.
- You have mentioned that food is so basic and universal that can be seen as mundane, but in fact, food can also elicit feelings such as desire, temptation, and loss. Can you expand on that?
I feel we abuse the role of food with their typical associations and overall accessibility and overindulgences, especially in the United States. Big boxed stores provide ultra size packaging and mega quantities that claim to be the best quality conceivable under strict guidelines, but are they truly fresh? Is this type of selection as a process enjoyable? Food is a basic, daily act; we consume, we survive, we release. The monotonous cycle continues, and we forget how essential food is as nourishment, a form of pleasure, and intimate collectiveness.
As an example, let’s take the term, “comfort foods.” How can a single memory of chicken soup or scent of morning toast evoke such fond, warm thoughts of the past? Let’s now take the complete opposite perspective and imagine the aroma of something being baked but replace it with the recollection of fear or a traumatic event. Whether dark or light in theme, juvenile or brash, stimuli of the ordinary can automatically trigger an awareness to any particular, nostalgic act. Especially those present and innate during childhood. While experiencing constant luxuries of all sorts, instant desires, text messaging, and synchronized data sharing, we must also examine the costs of basic human interactions that are often overlooked and neglected. At a time and place where the world seems to exist virtually at a speed similar to light, it should equally be our concern to recall simplicity through the eyes of a child and reveal reality’s hidden sensibilities.
- What are some of your favorite foods, and if we haven’t already seen them in sculptural form can we expect to see them in the future?
Now that’s a very challenging question to answer, especially coming from an Italian-American palette! Fresh, homemade bread with the perfect balance of air and texture can work wonders if added to any meal. Of course complemented by the most exotic, aged pecorino with a drizzle of Tuscan honey. The poor person’s rich food!
I recently finalized an oversized slice of cake titled Not German, Not Chocolate. I have been trying to find the best approach to an ongoing work, Short Stacks, which will either be one or two separate, varied sized stacks of oxidized, quarter inch thick, steel pancakes with small cuts of melted butter and smothered in drips of liquid tar. Yummy, buon appetito!?
- Do you go to the studio every day?
My schedule is sporadic and my day to day tasks shift week to week. At times, I go daily. Other times, I go every other day. Sometimes, I do not go for weeks. Even if I am not in the studio, my brain is in a constant, active state of pulling sources and making mental notes. I have no regrets when I’m not there, because I do not solely work out of the studio. Going back to my roots, I love working outside, in shops, and working in any friend’s industrial location. I rein in all resources, no matter where or how challenging, to manifest the work.
- Can you talk more about your artistic process?
I don’t have a set, exact process. Sometimes I like to focus and concentrate on one particular work, and other times I like to frantically pace from one room to another, from one piece to another. I will go from working directly off the wall, to the floor, to a hanging element in one sweep. I appreciate and honor the movement like a raging, untamed mammal.
- An artist is a radical voice in our culture. Do you carry this burden?
Every artist makes constant, daily sacrifices that are apparent from day one. There is a willingness to share and expose any subject, whether it’s internalized then regurgitated or externalized after the reinterpretation. The “burden” is more of a realization for me, a way to connect things and present them in new ways that were initially unlikely. I will end it in the words of a true brother, one who impacted my life, creative process, and overall artistic progressions: “We are strangers with no rights in other domains unless we can bring a quality attention span to them. Art is the poetic image of what man had felt the universe to be and how he slowly became familiar with different layers of materials and different layers of situations.” Frederick Sommer, photographer, 1982.
Cover Photo © Joseph Gerard Sabatino. 2018. Courtesy the Artist and Peer Platform for Art
Interview by Caroline Rush and Olga Henkin | Peer Platform for Art