Lately, the things I need to make in the studio seem to choose me, rather than the other way around, probably because I've stopped trying to keep the influence of my own biography in check. After three decades of practice, I'm finally willing to let whatever it is I actually know and care about find form in my work. And, as I grow older, my ideas are increasingly rooted in my childhood. Central to my boyhood, and my work now, are themes of flight; environmental concern and adaptive re-use; community; and addiction and recovery. Although seemingly disparate, in much of my work these are intermingled, united by one more-or-less constant theme: transformation.
Underlying everything is the drive to simply share human experience in a way that elicits feelings of recognition and belonging -- an impulse behind much of the history of art. I want to create images and experiences that allow viewers to "identify," to feel our commonality, to know that they are not alone.
Much of my work has wings of one sort or another. As an "Air Force brat," I grew up surrounded by planes and pilots with clouds in their eyes, and eventually got my own "ticket." I can't glance out the window without studying the sky and wishing I were in it. I'm not alone in this: from Leonardo to Lindbergh to Lenny Kravitz, the desire to "fly away" has had a grip on our collective imagination for millennia. Now and then, I have the extraordinary luck to spend a few hours floating along on currents of warm air, the earth's surface slipping silently by, the mundane anxieties of daily life thousands of feet below the long, white wings of my glider. Back in the studio, I wish I could bring everyone I've ever met along in the tiny cockpit of my sailplane. Instead, I look for forms to describe the longing to enter the sky, to get us all aloft, even from within the confines of the gallery.
Alongside this boyhood fascination was an equally deep concern for the planet. In the mid-Seventies, having dropped-out of high school, the subsistence-level, values-driven, DIY lifestyles of my hippie friends in southern Maine left a deep impression. I identified with environmentalism, naturalism, progressive politics, and utopianist thinking from the moment I could say "Buckminster Fuller." Convinced that there's too much man-made stuff lying around already, I traded my LeFranc and Bourgeois oil paint for detritus I found abandoned on the streets of New York: lost gloves; crushed beer cans; old vinyl LP's; discarded shipping pallets. Many of these "found materials" have poignant associations for me, like broken NYC Police Line barriers, or empty liquor bottles, which resonate with my family's and my own history of addiction and recovery.
I try to practice a "simple alchemy," attempting to give these cast-off, "worthless" objects surprising new identities, to infuse their stories with new layers of meaning. The beauty that interests me most comes through the struggle to bring things from a place of loss, poverty, despair, into a new life -- to insist on the possibility of transformation. I want to take these humble, damaged, discarded things and find out what they are capable of -- what can be done with imagination, commitment, risk, labor -- with enough love. My work is an exploration of the possible, at the heart of which is hope.--Paul Villinski
In recent years my use of the butterfly as symbol and motif has migrated toward an interest in the creatures themselves. Through experiments rearing several species in the studio, I began to learn the rudiments of butterfly biology, guided by lepidopterist Dr. Rudi Mattoni. Over time, I developed an infrastructure called Butterfly Machine. It’s an attempt to create a systematized indoor environment for native species of Lepidoptera, supporting them through all stages of their lifecycles and maintaining small ongoing populations. What I have learned, through several years of tedious trial-and-error, is that our best efforts to create an artificial, indoor bio-system cannot begin to approach what occurs in the natural world. Human interventions, i.e., mass-rearing and other conservation efforts which attempt to save endangered species, are absurdly poor substitutes for undisturbed natural habitats. It is impossible to replicate or replace nature.
In Self-Portrait, I hope to suggest that the frailty of butterflies, and their utter dependence on appropriate habitat, mirrors our own tenuous condition. Yet we ignore our connection to nature -- in some fundamental way we have forgotten that we are animals. We mate, birth and rear offspring, feed, defecate, breathe and drink water exactly like other large mammals. Despite our clothing, cell phones, and credit cards, our needs are identical to all the other members of Kingdom Animalia. Our insistence that Homo sapiens’ highly evolved state sets us apart and grants us immunity is illusion, hubris. When we bulldoze the rainforest, liquefy glaciers, pump mountains of carbon into the sky, erase tens of thousands of species, we do this to ourselves. There is no separation -- we are the butterflies.
I am drawn to humble, yet evocative materials; in this case, crushed beer cans from the streets of New York - every one of them once raised to someone’s lips. My process of “recycling” them into images of butterflies is a quiet physical meditation, a yoga of tin snips and files and fingers. As the butterflies alight on the walls of my studio, they lead into an exploration of formal, painterly issues. Often, they want to gather into a certain shape, or fly off on a particular tangent, and I let them. They function both as marks in these abstract, three-dimensional “paintings,” and as actors in curious narratives. Some pieces develop a quirky, magic-realist quality, as if a strange child has trained the insects to perform some ritual dance we are not usually privy to. Finally, the butterflies operate symbolically, and I try to develop a conceptual unity between materials, process, and imagery: metamorphosing littered beer cans into flocks of butterflies mirrors the act of transformation and rebirth that butterflies symbolize across all cultures.
Butterflies seem impossible. How can these ridiculously delicate creatures, apparently blown about by the merest breath of wind, actually fly many thousands of miles to migrate? How is it that an innate, intergenerational GPS guides them year after year to the same tree? Are we more like them than we suspect, or could we be?
NOTES ON MY BACK PAGES:
The piece is made from my own record collection which spans three decades, from my childhood, through my brief stint as a college radio DJ, and through the demise of the vinyl LP, when CD’s took over. Pop music was a formative part of my life – in fact it’s kind of surprising that I became a visual artist rather than a musician.
The piece features many of the records that formed the “soundtrack” to my life – I felt it important to use albums that were markers of important events, and songs that were personal anthems. For instance, there is an early Joan Baez record called David’s Album that was actually in my parent’s small record collection when I was nine years old. (I took it with me when I left home.) Released in 1969, it is dedicated to her then husband, David Harris, who was imprisoned as a draft resistor. That same year my own father was in Vietnam, and that record was my introduction to the idea of conscientious objection, which became an important principle in my life. (When the Solomon amendment passed in 1983, I refused to register with Selective Service, and lost the government guaranteed student loan and BEOG college grant needed to complete my degree at Cooper Union. Cooper Union considered my plight and position, and offered me their own grant and loan instead. I’m quite sure Joan Baez would be amazed to know the effect of the seeds her record planted in young man, fourteen years after she made it.)
Another record, made in 1978 by Talking Heads features the song Artists Only, with the lyric “I don’t have to prove – that I am creative!” This was an art school anthem through the early 80’s and perfectly captured the zeitgeist of New York art students. Listening to that album over and over, I couldn’t guess that in 1984 I would wind-up living and painting in a loft “colonized” by two members of the band, where Talking Heads’ 1979 record, Fear of Music, was recorded. (When I took over the loft from Tina Weymouth and Chris Franz, I gave them a painting which now hangs in their recording studio in Connecticut. I live and work in the same loft today.) Many of the records in My Back Pages have personal stories attached to them, like these.
Some viewers get very involved with identifying the records in the piece. I suppose because there is a “generational” quality to the music included, people my age (late 40’s) have made comments like “I know this guy,” based on identifying with the selections. I find it amusing, however, when young people see the piece and are not sure what they are looking at, never really having seen vinyl LP’s before. I have been asked more than once “what that thing is,” referring to the turntable that is part of the piece.
I listen to each LP one last time before walking it over to the scroll saw. People ask if it is hard to cut up one’s beloved album collection, and, indeed it is -- it took me two days to get up the nerve to start cutting up Derek and the Dominos – but I believe these “obsolete” objects, rather than ending up in a landfill, now stand a far greater chance of floating off into the future in a meaningful way. To me, the piece is about the work and ideas of the musical artists I loved drifting out into the world, spreading its influence like seeds borne by the wind. It’s about the gift of this music and its ability to transform lives in small and large ways, in ways its creators can’t even guess at. So, implicitly, it’s about my hope that my own art might eventually have that sort of value to someone.
Finally, there’s also a kind of “tree” image created in the way the butterflies depart and fly off, which suggests to me a kind of tree of musical lineage, an image of artistic continuity and community.
NOTES ON AIR CHAIR:
The idea for Air Chair came to me while running. The route from my studio in Long Island City, NY usually takes me past two VA Hospitals located on Roosevelt Island. These are home to many disabled, wheelchair-bound men who often pass the time at the riverside, along my course. The irony of running for pleasure past dozens of men no longer able to walk is never lost on me. Seeing these men year after year started me thinking about wheelchairs, and I began to ponder what I would want, were I confined to a chair by disability or old age. I knew at once it would need to be capable of getting airborne. If I were to lose use of my legs, I would want to trade them for wings.< I thought about this image for several years, then one day while running past Goldwater Memorial VA Hospital, I spotted a discarded wheelchair in a dumpster, and I knew it was time to begin. I returned later that day in my van to get the wheelchair.
Working with a basic knowledge of aircraft construction that I have gleaned in my hobby as a glider pilot, I designed the Air Chair to be as convincing as possible. I want to raise the question of plausibility in the viewer’s mind: “Does this thing really fly?” Locating the piece in that curious “space between life and art” is a way to invite the viewer to suspend disbelief, to engage and enter the world of the sculpture. To that end, I added a realistic airframe around the chair: wings with traditional built-up construction of wooden ribs, covered in the same white Rayon used on real airplanes. A wingspan of roughly nineteen feet – larger than some actual aircraft. A trellis framework of nickel-plated, welded steel tubes is used for the fuselage, and the tail section has working rudder and elevator, activated by pedals and control stick. The wings are braced with stainless steel aircraft cable, and the underside of the wings is left uncovered to reveal the spindly skeleton of the structure. The construction refers to gliders and powered planes from the daring, pioneering days of flight.
Air Chair can be sited on the floor, and in fact, “taxied” around by someone seated in it, but it is really meant to be seen suspended in space, in a hopeful, ascending attitude.
I believe the meanings of the piece are quite direct and clear, and hardly need to be stated. As a glider pilot since 1998, I experience the intense beauty and profound release of silent, soaring flight, and wish I could share this with many. I understand perfectly why humankind has always dreamt of joining the birds in flight. As a sculptor, my hope in Air Chair was to begin with what is for most an image of earthly limitation – a wheelchair – and to “liberate” that image with the imagination – to send it soaring. I hope that viewers will engage their imaginations to take the controls of Air Chair.
Air Chair is my gift to the Vets at Roosevelt Island, and to all of us who believe that life’s challenges can be met with hope, imagination, determination, and grace.
ON GLOVE WORKS:
Lost gloves? The city is full of them. Having read this, you will see them everywhere. Do they stand in for the people who wore them? Instantly you wonder: whose was this - their sex and age and body type - their laugh? What work was done? You begin to construct entire identities, for the gloves are replete with memory, with personal history. They are almost the hands themselves, in ways even more telling. There is good reason for all the folkloric wisdom of hands: idle hands are... many hands make... like a hand and glove... if the glove fits...
Gloves from all ages, classes, occupations, races. Gloves from all walks. Here everyone wears gloves and loses them. Collected over the years and into artworks they make an informal census, a demographic of detritus. (The white, elbow-length, kidskin evening glove was found on the street outside the Plaza Hotel; most of the work gloves come from my industrial neighborhood.) They are easily anthropomorphized; some of them even have names emblazoned on the cuffs.
They have qualities we fear coming to know: carelessly left behind, forgotten or discarded, weathered, damaged, exhausted and worn through, run over by life, homeless. Lost and found. So I bring them into the studio and into pieces and give them homes, with the others.
They get jobs, too. In attempt to repair and transform they are interwoven and become new objects. Vessels and sacks: so the ability to hold is literally and metaphorically restored. Blankets (quilts? abstract painting?) and garments: where the warp and weft are manifold hands, combining into images of interdependence, warmth, protection, comfort - a human fabric. Wings (fingers become feathers): for the struggle against gravity, for ascendancy and flight in all senses.
Some of the pieces are constructed from found work gloves only. These have a patina of the work performed while worn. They are freighted with untold hours of labor. To this I add my own labor.
The gloves are collected from the streets daily. The pieces are obsessively handmade. Entwined. Handstitched. They are about handwork and restoration and connectedness. Once they lie melancholic, now they are hopeful.