Thursday, March 13, 2008

Art Space Talk: Caniglia

Caniglia is an American figurative painter and illustrator, primarily in fantasy and horror genres. He has done book and magazine illustration, conceptual artwork, book and album covers, and comic books, and his work is in several important public collections including the Joslyn Art Museum and Iowa State University. His art has also been shown at the Society of Illustrators' Museum of Illustration.

Caniglia studied traditional classical painting at Iowa State University, receiving a BFA in drawing, painting and printmaking in 1993. After graduation he studied at the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore, Maryland under well-known abstract expressionist Grace Hartigan, where he received his MFA in 1995.

Days of No Horizon by Caniglia

Brian Sherwin: Caniglia, during your academic years you studied drawing, painting, and printmaking. You studied at Iowa State University and the Maryland Institute College of Art. Can you discuss your academic years? I understand that you studied under Grace Hartigan...

Caniglia: My academic years were full of ups and downs and full of exploration. I think I found myself mostly on the downside of up. While I was at Iowa State I did some serious soul searching. I was young with a lot of people telling me that artist really couldn't survive in today's society.
My first two years of undergraduate school were tough, I felt like I was up against a wall. A few times I felt like I would just quit school but as I spent endless nights painting alone in my studio I felt my voice becoming stronger in my art. It was as if all my pain came out onto the canvas. It was very harsh and raw at the time. I found that perseverance was the key to my survival. If someone said no... I said yes...if they said I couldn't... I said I could and it really motivated me to find my place in the art world.

At that time in my life I really felt like breaking away from society. I was really bothered by this cookie cutter world we were living in. It seemed when ever I would show a painting at a show, people would turn away in disgust. I was only showing them a reflection of how society was treating each other. I guess sometimes the truth hurts and people just want to put on their candy coated blinders and march in lines like mindless zombies. So I just forged ahead with the help of some great teachers who believed in me.
Sometimes it only takes one great teacher and for me that was Brenda Jones at Iowa State. She is an incredible painter but she also is a rare teacher. She made me believe in myself more then any other teacher in my life and gave me a solid foundation to stand on. She was tough and made me really do my research on every style of art and the movements that brought us to where we are today. I not only painted all day and night but I also buried my self in art books from all the ages. She gave me clues and I found artist with my same pain and similar visions. The dead artist in books were as alive as any of the people I knew around me. They became my support as well. The old masters were my heroes and my brush was my key that unlocked new worlds in my mind.

It seems like sometimes academia can bottle a person into what they want and put a nice little stamp and label on them and turn them into their puppets. I was lucky to have teachers who didn't want me to follow their styles but my own. So I had a lot of freedom to search for my style. It was my last two years at Iowa State that I really dedicated myself to reading Vasari's journal on art. Giorgio Vasrari was a renaissance artist who kept incredible journals on the technical methods on the painters, architects, and sculptors of his time. I read the journals and taught myself old master techniques that I loved. I was slowly coming into a style with my raw energy, and emotional charged ideas.

In 1993 I was selected and given a full scholarship by Grace Hartigan to come study under her at the Maryland Institute College of Art. It was the most incredible two years of my artist growth in a school setting. Grace was brilliant. One of the best abstract expressionist to come out of the 1950's. She had learned and painted with Jackson Pollack and William De Kooning. Her stories were incredible and her insight into my work was like a director giving advice to an actor. She questioned my development and made me really refine what I wanted in life and art. Even though we had very different styles our message was the same. We painted life for what it, birth and death. She is such an inspiration and I still hear her voice in my head when I paint today. I really feel after looking back on that time that she subconsciously brought a lot of modern contemporary feel to my figurative work.
When a Dream Dies by Caniglia

BS: You have also noted the Old Masters-- including, Leonardo da Vinci and Caravaggio --as major influences. Can you discuss these influences and why the work of the Old Masters inspires you? Also, when I view your work I see a glimpse of Kathe Kollwitz staring back at me... which is a warming experience for me because I'm a huge admirer of her art... do you rank her as an influence?

C: As I mentioned Giorgio Vasari's journals were a huge influence but I guess what pulls me to the old masters is Leonardo da Vinci's old drawings created in brilliant burnt sienna tones on yellow paper in his notebooks. His studies hold so much inspiration. His inventions, science, animal, and human studies are amazing! It has always pulled at me emotionally. I love looking at them and to this day I study them like they are clues from the past to the hope of the future. I also was captivated by Caravaggio's technique of drama in art. His use of color and chiaroscuro... use of light and shadow. His work is very theatrical in a way almost as if I have just come upon a scene on the streets and I am witnessing it first hand. They are harsh and honest.

Wow you have great insight into my work. Kathe Kollwitz for me is the GREATEST ARTIST OF ALL TIME. I don't say that lightly. It is as if the world has forgotten her and turned its back on her. I mention her name to hundreds of people and no one knows who she is. It hurts because I just want to scream her name to everyone. She is my soul mate in art. I have never felt closer to anyones art then hers. Kathe's art has the power of sledge hammer, with weaving layers that are heart wrenching, tearful, tormenting, brilliant with subtle hints of love and hope if we are willing to search for it. I remember the first time I saw her work in my final years at Iowa State.I stumbled upon the drawing called "Woman with dead child". It blew my mind. I remember the shock and then the tears came. Yes a grown man crying over a drawing but it was much more for me. I had experienced many deaths in my life and when I saw this mother who was animal looking in a way holding her beautiful dead child you felt the pain. The pain that life is so precious that we must protect the children of the world. They are the seed of hope that we must save at all cost.

After reading more in depth on Kollwitz I found our lives have a lot of similarities. I really felt this universal string that connected in our messages. I had found someone who cared about the human condition as much as I did. It was the best connection I have ever found in art.

untitled by Caniglia

BS: Jeremy, you are interested in the borderline between reality and illusion. Your art seems to play off of psychological twists and turns... and the perception of your viewers. There is an energy about your work that pulls the viewer in-- forces them to face aspects of society-- and themselves --that they would normally turn from. What are the specific social implications of your work? Also, are you interested in psychology? When I view your work I think of the psychological theories of Carl Jung...

C: My work has always been about the human condition and the layers that are hidden beneath it. I show situations that most people don't want to even talk about . For instance suicide, rape, and street violence. Suicide is increasing in our modern society. It is an issue that needs to be addressed. Why are the youth in such despair that they feel they have no where to turn. I also feel for victims of rape who are preyed upon by the wolves of our society. I am also saddened by the street violence of the youth and gangs in the inner cities. So many lives lost for what? My work makes people see the issues they would like to sweep under the rug.

I will keep painting what I believe are issues that need to be brought to the attention of the masses. We who are oppressed love those who fight against oppression and thee oppressors. I really like to make society question its beliefs and how they treat others. I really want to make people socially accountable in their actions to others.

I am very interested in psychology and I read a lot. Carl Jung is amazing and has so many great ideas that I agree with. He really emphasized the importance of balance and harmony in our lives. He cautioned society on relying to heavy on logic and science and search for inner spirituality and appreciation for the unconscious realm. I try all of these things in my work.

I also love Joseph Campbell and his ideas of universal truths. I also feel Henry David Thoreau's book "Walden" has great insight into society and what is really important in this world. One quote that I love is when he said" There are none happy in the world but beings who enjoy freely a vast horizon".

BS: So, in a sense you create your own reality... you have stated that artists are capable of manipulating the viewer by the stroke of a brush. You have went on to say that you "paint to live" and that the canvas before you is your skin, the paints your blood, and your brush-- the key that unlocks your mind. Philosophically speaking, would you say that in a sense you manipulate yourself as well as the viewer? Would you say that is is the grand illusion of artistic creation?

C: Oh yes this is very true. I would say my views are manipulated and skewed as they drift onto the canvas. In many ways when I paint it is like a raw improvisation or like a musician who sits down to record with just an idea in mind and as he plays or as I paint the vision becomes more vivid and solid and the loop of creation takes you to a place you didn't know existed. This may sound weird but the best part of creation for me is the process of the unconscious loop as I am in the process and when it comes to an end and the painting is completed, I am saddened for the wings come off and I fall back into reality until the next paintings picks me up again to fly to a new world.

A Paler Shade of Being by Caniglia

BS: Jeremy, you have described yourself as a witness and storyteller. Can you go into further detail about that? Also, in your opinion what is the role of an artist in society?

C: When I say I am a witness I am talking of events that I have experienced in society in my life so far. For instance when I was in living in Baltimore coming home from my studio one night I was walking to my apartment and as I approached about a block away from it I was approached by a man walking at a very fast pace at me. I realized he was coming towards me very aggressive. I wanted to cross the street to get away but couldn't because the street traffic was going by to fast so I walked towards the man and when we met he put two guns in my face and said "give me your f''in money". A million thoughts went through my mind and I thought wow I am going to die right here shot in the face. I pulled out my wallet and gave it to him and as he lowered one gun to grab it I ran down the street. I was lucky he didn't shoot me. The sad part is cars drove by and no one helped. People didn't care. They were less then 3 feet away and no one would help. It made me sick.

I was mad because I almost died, I was mad because I had no money and the wallet I gave him was empty. I was super poor at that time in my life and I was sad that this man felt that he had to prey on the innocent in society to get his next fix. They did catch him and I went to court and they put him away but the whole experience was draining.

I have had friends commit suicide and die of drug overdoses. I have lost family members over the years and I have experienced great events like falling in love with my wife and the birth of my two children. I feel that all those experiences filter through me and come out in my art in many different forms. I feel it is my role as an artist to tell the stories that I have seen and witnessed so that others can relate to them. They can see the love, rebirth, death, despair and hope in my art. I don't feel every artist has to do this but I feel we must be true to ourselves when we create our work.

BS: Civilization brings with it clashes of religion and politics... that is the way it has always been. However, it would seem that our generation is experiencing this clash on a daily basis-- read a newspaper, watch the television --it is all around us. How is this conflict captured in your work?

C: I filter all of this into my art. This is yet another dark time in history. War, terrorism, disease, and poverty have engulfed the globe. It seems to me that peace or the concept of peace on earth, or even between neighbors at times seems like a lost idea. People always ask why a majority of my art centers on birth and death. I guess the answer would be it helps me understand the impermanence of life on this planet.

By bringing ego and materialism into perspective we will find truth and wisdom lying within those willing to listen. Our gift for generations to come can be realized through the seed of hope that we plant in our children. Someday the world will open its eyes and then I will close mine.

BS: So would you say that your art serves as a warning to contemporary society? Is there hope to be found in your images?

C: Yes my art is a type of warning. It shows worlds gone wrong in hopes that society will choose another path. I show people a glimpse of their own mortality in hopes they will love their life and go home and hug the person they love. I think people spend their whole lives searching for signs and angels...and all the time they were right in front of them. They are the faces of their lover, children, and family. They just need to be reminded what is really important. I feel my art does offer hope, it is subtle but it is hope.

BS: Jeremy, you have created book covers for several well-known mainstream authors... Stephen King and Ray Bradbury for example. You have also worked on a number of comic books. Are you working on any projects right now that you are able to talk about?

C: I just recently finished "Red Spikes" by Margo Lanagan for Random House and I am currently working with the British award writer Tim Lebbon on a new book that will come out this summer. I also had my artwork chosen by the Icelandic band Sigur Ros for their website Artist in residence recently which was a huge honor. They are my favorite band and they sent me a really beautiful signed book about the making of their new movie "Heima". I am also working with an film director who is doing a short film on a few of my paintings with a short surreal story that ties into my art, mind and life. It will probably come out early next year.
Deadsouls by Caniglia

BS: Your art can be found in the public art collections at Joslyn Art Museum and Iowa State University. Where else can our readers view your work in person? Are you represented by a gallery? Do you have any upcoming exhibits? Are you open to studio visits?

C: Currently I have a show going on this month in Los Angeles, california at Billy Shire's Gallery called "La Luz de Jesus" located at 4600 Hollywood Blvd. The opening was amazing and if you are in LA please check out the show. I also have a show in Omaha, Nebraska in April at the Bemis Center for Contemporary arts. In November I will be showing in Altoona, Pennsylvania. I will be showing a series of new oil paintings as well as giving a lecture on contemporary figurative painting.

I am not represented by any one gallery. I try to show my art in as many cities around the United States and the world as possible. I really believe the interaction between the artist and viewer is very important. I am open to studio visits but they must first write to my website to set up an appointment.

BS: Finally, when all is said an done... what is the message that you hope to leave with your art?

C: I hope people leave my work with the feeling that love transcend all ...even death. The greatest and most beautiful experiences we can have are the unknown and the mysterious. Where we come from or where we are going doesn't matter... If for that one brief moment you can open your heart, close your eyes and feel the truth that love is will live. I give no answers. The viewer will find the true answers only within themselves if they are willing to open their minds.

You can learn more about Caniglia by visiting his website-- You can read more of my interviews by visiting the following page--

Take care, Stay true

Brian Sherwin

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