Working in the vein of surrealism, Piero Passacantando's paintings are influenced by a wide range of historical sources, from the Italian late-medieval period to the Buddhist Thangka tradition.
Where are you from and where do you reside?
I was born in Rome, Italy. My father is from there, while my mother is from San Francisco, California. I lived in Italy until I was 18, then I moved to the US where I stayed semi-permanently until 2017. Since then I have been quite nomadic, spending extended periods of time in Morocco, Mexico, and Italy. I am currently in Porto Santo Stefano, Tuscany; it’s a very special place for me as I have been coming here since I was born, and I also spent the greater part of the pandemic in lockdown here. Then, in a few weeks, I am planning to go back to Mexico.
What necessities do you require when making your art (radio, specific paintbrushes)?
My work is quite diverse, so it really depends on the piece or series. Generally, I like to hear music in my studio, but recently I've liked working in silence. Music has a strong effect on how I paint, the speed of the brushstrokes, and how refined or raw something may end up. So it has been nice to spend long periods without that influence, just to switch things up.
Describe a typical day in the studio for you.
Despite how diverse my work is and how nomadic my life has been, my day is actually pretty standard. I usually arrive wherever I am producing (an actual studio, living room, cafe, or outdoors, etc.), have a hot beverage, and then start to work. I like to have at least 4 hours - 8 is better. It’s quite direct, like a desk job.
Lately, more specifically, my day goes like this:
Around 8am: wake up, drink a hot lemon water, maybe a little fast stretch/yoga/meditation, and start to work.
10pm: Coffee and a snack (I am really into fruit sandwiches lately). Work.
1pm-2:30pm: Yoga class
What is the most difficult part of the artistic process for you?
Good question! It can all be difficult at times (as it can be easy), but the hardest must be before the physical beginning: the moment when things are floating around in the mind/soul/heart and aren’t quite formed or certain. It can be a bit grueling, sometimes even psychologically heavy. At this part of the process, I can suffer from low self-esteem, melancholy or envy, and so on. Then once I start, it all dissipates quite quickly.
Also, the very end is super hard, after the work is finished: marketing, self-promoting, and selling (I’m honestly more of a maker). After an exhibition closes, I often get the infamous post-exhibition blues: self-doubt, negativity, and low energy.
Are there any aspects of your process that are left to chance?
Yes. Depending on the type of work, there are different levels. The very geometric and pattern-based pieces are completely planned out, so there is little left to chance. The "Faces" are half and half: there is a kind of general idea of how they will end up, but some aspects are based on chance because of the physical characteristics of watercolor. Both the surreal “Formless” works and the “Bathers” tend to have a very basic structural idea, but are mostly based on chance. They happen through a process rooted in surrealist automatic drawing techniques and a kind of feedback loop/conversation with the paintings. The “Waves” are fairly planned out, but allow for little surprises to happen in the process. Again, different levels. That is to say that chance is always happening too. An extra drip there, too much oil here, coffee spills, etc. The thing is how you adapt to them, if you let these chances show or if you “fix” them and how.
What themes or motifs are you consistently drawn to?
Color exploration is certainly central. Also the human form, love, sexuality, mystery, beauty, and exploration. I also think the idea of freedom is very important to me. Often it is not represented in a single piece, but rather in the trajectory of my art production as a whole - the relationships and departures between works. I like the idea that art making can be expansive, like traveling through space and time.
What tangible objects or intangible moments are you most interested in representing through your works?
I like to depict a kind of emotional spectrum that is difficult to articulate through words, and is perhaps best “discussed” through painting, which is a language in itself. This spectrum often emerges in the aesthetic process and can be felt during an aesthetic experience (i.e. watching a painting), an “I feel it when I see it” moment, sort of speak. A certain sense of mystery, a sense of beauty, suspension, love.
How has your work developed in the past few years, and how do you see it evolving in the future?
The way I see my work, more than in a linear development, is kind of in a network of ideas and methods. So at times, I explore older ideas with newer techniques. An abstract piece may suggest something to do in a “Face” next, or sometimes a song may suggest a shape for an abstract painting. A certain color combination may inspire a dish and so on.
As far as the future, as a general direction, I want to develop the depth and breadth of the spiritual aspects of my work, as well as introducing aspects rooted in eco-activism and how those two things are potentially interlinked.
The idea of freedom is very important to me. Often it is not represented in a single piece, but rather in the trajectory of my art production as a whole - the relationships and departures between works. I like the idea that art making can be expansive, like traveling through space and time.
How does your choice of material and color inform the final piece?
In my work, material informs the piece quite a lot. In the “Faces” for example, I use watercolor to give them a “lightness”, an airiness, whereas in the “Bathers”, a very strongly pigmented opaque acrylic is necessary to cover the underlayers. The colors very much define the emotional harmonics of the piece.
Where do you find your day-to-day inspiration?
I try to be very open to input, to be a kind of filter or antenna. I draw inspiration from:
Nature. I love to hike, and swim.
Spiritual practice, in particular meditation.
Psychedelics. I don’t take them while I work, but they have had an influence on my work.
Desire and sexuality
However, at the end of the day, I mainly sit down and work. Sometimes new and magical things happen, sometimes it is tough and things don’t work. Often the inspiration is in the method itself; in the action or process of making, one can find bits of information to then build on.
Are you influenced by any author or non-visual artist? Are you influenced by any artist that does something completely different than you?
I think that lately I've been very influenced by music and musicians (I also make music) and chefs (I also cook).
Are you formally trained? Did you go to art school?
Yes, I did my BFA at the Corcoran School of Art in Washington, D.C. and my MFA at California College of the Arts in San Francisco/Oakland, California. But interestingly enough in all these situations, I didn’t take a lot of painting classes. In undergrad, I focused more on photography, video and installation, and in graduate school on social practice. But I did paint during these periods as well; my practice has always been interdisciplinary. On a more formal training level in painting, I studied Thangka painting in Nepal thanks to a Fulbright Grant.
Do you remember the first work of art that captured your attention?
In a conscious way, in which I could identify something as “art”, It was probably a Kandinsky poster in our living room or some of my parent’s erotic comics that I had found. But in reality, thinking about it from a different perspective, it was probably the illustrations in children's books, cartoons, and movies. Those are all artworks after all.
In my work, material informs the piece quite a lot. The colors very much define the emotional harmonics of the piece.
Do you admire or draw inspiration from any of your peers who are also working now? Have you ever collaborated, or would you? How solitary is your art-making process?
I draw inspiration from peers all the time! Sometimes more directly, sometimes less; with social media (Instagram in particular) it is very easy to be aware of what many people are producing around the planet. Sometimes too much (but obviously this is a positive thing, one just has to fine-tune the internal filters). Painting-wise, I have done many collaborations throughout the years, most recently with artist Ari Ruiz Lang in Mexico. In addition, I have a whole part of my practice that is music making, and I just worked with Argentinian singer Gabi Soza to produce an album. My social practice work is very collaborative: from fermentation workshops to interactive paintings. I am also just about to release a cooking show called Psychodelic Kitchen created with my brother Arturo Passacantando and Carla Cifoni.
Regarding painting in particular, even if the image is created in solitude, from a certain perspective, every painting is collaborative: someone made the canvas or the stretchers or the paintbrushes or the pencils; and it gets displayed in a gallery, enjoyed by viewers, etc. The image itself is often a recombination, a remix of other images and other people’s works. Even the most solitary work, is really part of a larger network of interactions and relationships.
Is there any artwork on display in your home/studio? Whose is it?
At the moment I am at my family’s home and a lot of the work around is mine actually! There are a few pieces by my grandma who was a painter, some thrift shop paintings, and a Giacomo Balla trash can.
Is there something people would be surprised to learn about you?
I had a whole other career and day job as a software trainer. I learned lots of programs and even became a certified specialist in Excel. This led me to start a job as a trainer and instructional designer for a clinical and medical software company at a large hospital. There was a moment when I was staying at Flux Factory, a very communal DIY artist residency, getting up in the morning, wearing a suit, and then commuting to Long Island. But I have done all kinds of jobs; I was an assistant to a florist, to a cabinet maker, to a carpenter. I have been a line cook and sometimes a sous chef.
I love mushrooms and mushroom hunting and am a bit of an amateur mycologist. When I was living in New York I joined the New York Mycological Society and, when I moved to Rome, I joined Nuova Micologia. Another, perhaps less surprising but important fact, is I practice yoga almost every day.
What’s next for you?
More painting, more music, more cooking.
Published December 22, 2022.