Interview with Luisa Rabbia
By Elisa Muscatelli
February 9, 2023
ELISA MUSCATELLI – How would you describe your art practice to a first-time audience in a few words?
LUISA RABBIA – For those who approach my work for the first time, I would mostly ask them to look at it and feel it, because, since my approach to the canvas is emotional, I hope it reaches the viewer on the same level. Having said that, if the conversation then extends, I would talk about things that are important to me. My work reflects on our position in the world, on the relationship between each other, with the world around us, from the micro to the macro, hence on the experience of the individual and how that extends and involves others. The surface of my paintings are covered with fingermarks which I apply into wet gesso while preparing the canvas. You should not imagine the fingerprint as a form in which you can read the lines of the finger itself, but just as a trace, as an imprint within the material. It is, in fact, quite thick. Over these multitude of traces I later interact by applying layers of paint, scratching, adding and removing, in a process in itself reminiscent of the experience of life, since life itself is a process of addition and subtraction. These fingerprints evoke fossils, it is as if I am drawing on traces that although they are mine, are also metaphorically others’.
EM – You have explored different media and drawing has become your favorite medium since the 2000s, when you moved to New York. Was it coincidence or did the American climate influence your preference on the expressive medium?
LR – It was not a rational approach, I can tell you, I almost never approach anything in the studio rationally, so certainly starting to draw, and especially making drawing the central practice within my research, was not a rational choice. Drawing has always been important to me, but while in Europe it was still secondary and in support of the sculptures I was making at the time. When I moved to the United States it became central to my practice, maybe also for economical reasons, because with drawing you can accomplish so much starting from materials that are really affordable. With a pencil you can create a world, going from a small drawing to a big one, extending on the wall or over different surfaces and media, like papier-mâché, ceramics and video. Drawing is a medium that has grown with me as the work has evolved over the years. Above all, however, drawing, for me, became a necessary choice indeed on a psychological level. Being in such a big city, where I didn’t speak the language but I was surrounded by a multitude of visual languages … drawing was undoubtedly what belonged to me the most, it was what could tell the most about who I was. Drawing was a way to find myself. Something happens in the approach of the surface through a line, in the relationship between gesture and mental state, that seems to suit my artistic approach. Even when I work on canvas now, I don’t use brushes much but for the most part I spread the colors with my fingers and scratch them with sharp tools. I am constantly looking for a contact with the surface. Perhaps it is my need to leave a mark. The brush, unless I just hold it and use the wood of the brush, does not seem to put me in that proper mental and psychological state to forget everything else and simply connect with the work.
EM – Looking at your works, it is impossible not to notice that blue takes a priority position. How did this dialogue of yours with color come about, and how has its vibration towards you changed over time?
I started using blue when I moved to the United States, quite casually, in the sense that at the time, to roundup financially and manage to support myself in this expensive city, I had to work as a waitress. Between orders, very often, I found myself with a blue pen in my hands and I used it to draw on the order book. I drew mostly what I was sensitive to at the time i.e. situations I saw on the subway or at least how I perceived them. The subjects of my works were very often homeless people, and the color blue, I realized, charged the image both on a mental and emotional level. Over the years I continued to explore the potential of this color, first with ballpoint pen, then with pencils. From drawing on paper I extended to the surface of papier-mâché sculptures and over time the color blue began to take on other meanings and change hues: there was the deep blue of veins when my work became more abstract and I represented inner landscapes, it became a blue of a skin when I was not interested in representing skin color, it became the blue of the ink used to take the biometrics when the fingerprint became part of my work. At the beginning, I was interested in the fact that there was no information about who had applied the mark; that it suggested an identity without telling the ethnicity or the gender. Later the blue of the fingerprint became a blue of galaxies, a blue of particles … and to this day, my work retains the mood of the color blue. Blue has a deep mood, it takes us inside the human soul. Lately, it is very often buried by many other colors but sometimes it reappears when I scratch the surface and comes out what was there before.
LR – When you first talked to me you said you would rather film yourself together with your paintings in the studio in New York, I’m curious about your relationship with the work, as if it’s an agamic generation. There is always an agamic generation in a process of creation, I think, inevitably, even when the artist decides not to touch the work directly with their own hand but simply in the choice of materials, subjects or even when the work is commissioned from someone else, there is already a personal information that contaminates the finished work. But I think you asked that question, though, because on the surface of my paintings there is so much of me, there are fingerprints, there are the lines that I leave, because even within the painting, with these lines that subtract, somehow I continue to draw. Drawing is a trace and speaks of the psychology of the person who makes the line … Therefore, yes, beyond the subjects themselves, which already inevitably speak of my interests and my person, the execution of the work itself is definitely an expression of myself. However, I am not the focus of my interest, in the sense that while I am also discovering myself in the process of execution, what I am interested in is to reflect on my relationship to the other and, from the singular to the collective, on our position in the world and how we connect with others. But on the other hand how do we go toward the other without first exploring ourselves? How do we understand our surrounding without understanding ourselves? So for me to “fertilize” an artwork is important because it requires that I expose myself, and also that I take responsibility. To think about responsibility is a positive thing for me because the fact that I can and that I have the ability to act and to make choices in everyday life gives me a sense of freedom, makes me feel that I can change things, and this applies both within the format of the canvas and throughout my life.
EM – Are there any references, artistic or otherwise, that have been important in the development of your artistic and personal career?
LR – Among my important artistic references there is definitely Louise Bourgeois, whom I discovered in my twenties. She is an artist who still moves me and I still look to, because of the way she represents the human body, whether abstract or figurative, independently by the medium she used, even painting. I recently saw an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of her early paintings which I found extraordinary. In recent years, two artists who have become very important to me are Leon Golub and Edvard Munch. Both of them interest me technically very much but while Golub also inspires me for the way he elaborated his political subjects, Munch speaks to me through his attention for the human condition. When I think of their pictorial approach, although they are clearly different, I think of their common interest for a surface that was an expression of life itself, so a surface that was not pristine and perfect, but a lived one. Golub achieved this by brutally scraping away paint after painting it. Munch was not known to me to scrape, however, he would put his canvases in the open air exposing them to the weather so as to expose them to life itself. In fact, today, many of his paintings are very aged compared actually to the relatively short amount of time that has passed, however, precisely because he was interested in them being alive, alive as we are alive. And among other artists, Mark Rothko inevitably, because if you are interested in the human soul you cannot help but be sensitive to his work. Another artist is Agnes Martin, who clearly is formally very different from me, but I am very sensitive to her writings, and for that reason I feel very, very close to her. The spiritual side of my work is inspired by Agnes Martin, Agnes Pelton, and Georgia O’Keeffe. Then there is another artist who every time I see her exhibitions makes me feel small like this [Rabbia holds up two fingers two inches apart], and that is Marisa Merz.