Like a valiant pirate who mischievously steals the vast wooden ship, Victor Grasso wittingly captures and seduces our wayward imagination with his grand naturalistic themes, majestic female muses, and dark realistic style.
Scrolling down my newsfeed, I stumble across Grasso’s stunning work that prompts me to three actions. Like. Follow. Share. I’m reminded of the pleasures in our social media age, and discovering great artists that would otherwise remain unknown to me. I’m mesmerized, post after post, by the progression of his latest creation “She Crab”. At first she is raw, like the shellfish caught at sea, now prepared and adorning her. Slowly, breathtakingly, the umber rawness transforms into an illuminated realness. A reality that can only be conveyed with a lens. But these are the meaningful, hyperreal brushstrokes of Grasso. Layers of oil paint in umber, ochre, cadmium red, Prussian blue, black and white, on a stretch of linen that collectively create an unforgettably surreal portrait. Chiaroscuro! Sfumato! This is the figurative world of Victor Grasso, where light opposes dark, and exotic underwater creatures are connected and entwined with mankind. It’s sublime and strange couture embracing the feminine form, and I’d seriously wear a collared crustacean or a cephalopod shawl.
Aphrodite ~ oil on linen (2013)
Google Victor Grasso, and in your search (beyond his extraordinary body of work), you’ll eventually discover a mysterious bearded man wearing dark aviator glasses, a navy plaid shirt with red pinstripes, and a motif navy bandana wrapped around his crown. He appears uber-cool and heroic with a hint of humor, much like the characters in his incredible paintings. Born in the coastal region of Cape May County (New Jersey), you get a clearer insight into Victor’s choice of subject matter. Growing up by the sea obviously influenced his young imagination. A rebellious teen frustrated with the painterly clichés of his Peninsula hometown, he yearned to reinvent the representation of an Atlantic Ocean that nestled near southern shores. And in a unique way that celebrates a marriage of Rockwell with Caravaggio. Painting, as his profession, is not only logical… it is kismet.
So, I’m blown away, swept to sea, by an artist that paints like one vividly dreams and visually sees. It’s truly a talent to be shared and treasured, most importantly hung on museum and gallery walls. In equal parts impressed and inspired, I was compelled to interview this mysteriously bearded man. And this is what I discovered about the artist, Victor Grasso.
Siren ~ oil on linen (2013)
ON WORK & ART
Your narratives, themes and muses are clearly inspired by the sea, nature, history and mythology, as evident in your last three solo exhibitions “The Naturalist” (2015), “The Sea Is Calling” (2014) and “Fable” (2013). Intriguingly, you refer to yourself as a “pigment raconteur” and your body of work as “a never-ending series”. Explain the differing anecdotes in these three collections, and how they intertwine or merge?
Let me wrap my head around this so I can make something up that sounds prophetic and deep. OK, got it. It’s all about sex. No, not really. With “Fable” I’ve always had a deep love for the fantastic, so the idea was to combine myths, legend and folklore with the sensuality of youthful beauty, a sense of childlike fascination, and a rich helping of psychological realism. I wanted to fuse elegance with darkness using stories I was obsessed with as a lad. The characters in the paintings span the gamut of religion, Greek myth, nursery rhymes, monster lore and a few real life icons whose stories have become legend. There were two sea-themed pieces, “Aphrodite” and “Siren”. I painted 12 pieces in this series, and when I finally painted the thirteenth, “Siren,” I think I found what I was looking for. I combined a natural element from the sea and a beautiful female figure. It wasn’t the first time I had done this but it was the first time it felt seamless. I was off and running with the sea theme after that, and so “The Sea Is Calling” came to fruition.
I’ve spent my life at the shore, so I guess it will always be a muse of mine. I wanted to show the ocean and all of its mysteries through deep narratives that connect to a darker notion of what the sea represents. Those paintings had a lot to do with form and void. I used the human form and sea life as the main composition in each piece and void, excluding any background and instead painting them all an abyss black, much like the backgrounds in the “Fable” paintings. I’m also fascinated with man’s relationship to wildlife, and his desire to collect what nature leaves behind. All of the paintings in “Fable” and “The Sea Is Calling” involve the same muse who I became fascinated with. So, yeah, I guess there’s a lot of obsession in my work. “The Naturalist” was a reference to the study of nature, fieldwork, the urge to collect, and the exploration of bold untouched territory. The exhibit continued with portraiture and form but revolved around the idea that I might be an early 19th century explorer documenting found objects through paint. I’ve always loved fauna, and I’m really drawn to the wild… so “The Naturalist” became a study in the human connection with nature.
Impressively, you’re a self-taught artist in hyperrealism, who has skillfully mastered the techniques of chiaroscuro and sfumato. Rembrandt, Caravaggio, Rockwell, are all your “well-known” artistic influences. Who are your “lesser-known” influences? What inspires you? And what do you do when inspiration goes MIA?
Thank you. I don’t consider myself a hyperrealist but I’ll take it. Yeah, I have the big guys that I love, lots more than the three you’ve mentioned. Some of the lesser-known guys who really get me sizzling are Eduard Charlemont. I grew up seeing his piece, “The Moorish Chief” at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. I could go there and never leave that piece for the duration, and it’s a pretty good sized museum. I love Gustave Doré. “The Enigma” is one of my favorite paintings, it’s in the Musée d’Orsay in Paris. I love that museum and seeing this piece in person. Got my juices flowing or wheels turning. Domenico Morelli’s “Temptation of St Anthony” grabbed me and wouldn’t let go. That one’s in the Galleria Nazionale D’Arte Moderna in Rome. As far as inspiration, that’s a constant. I’m always inspired by other artists, nature, women, and film. Film is a big one. When inspiration flees I tend to chase it, with a bottle of whisky, or beer, or wine. Or paint stripper.
In your latest painting “She Crab”, your regal muse wears a shellfish like couture armor. Amusingly, you adorn a woman’s clavicles with a crustacean. Explain the humor and symbolism in this work?
It’s a beautiful girl wearing a huge Dungeness crab as a choker. I think that’s pretty funny. I mean, who the hell does that? But she’s really a sort of Oceanid or sea nymph. Maybe she’s a sea queen, like Neptune’s wife, Salacia. Or maybe she’s the crab from the zodiac, Cancer, which I’ve heard represents the womb. Mainly I saw her as one of those figureheads on the bow of a ship. So there you go, blending mythology with the sea, full circle.
I’ve read you take a cinematic approach to your work. In your creative process, how much is intuitive? What is your philosophy on artistic style and the evolution of your art?
Film is a huge inspiration for me. I’ve worked on film as well and I love the process. But it all starts with an idea, right? And then the idea moves to pencil on paper, which then leads to production and finally the finished product. That’s how I approach a painting… starting with an idea, story, or concept, then a drawing in my sketchbook. I work from photos, life and imagination, whatever the piece calls for. I’m a big less-is-more fan as far as composition and I try to let a piece breathe and have a life of its own. Kinda like the way I am with my two kids, I suppose. I’m not sure I have a philosophy on style, there are so many ways to convey a message through paint and I appreciate so many types of art and artists that it would be impossible for me to declare what I think is right. For me, it’s a constant evolution. Trying to be looser, more comfortable, and always dig deeper. It’s never ending.
Describe your studio space? What’s your most treasured possession in that creative environment? And do you have any rituals, mantras, music or activities to get you in the “zone” or “pocket” as you’ve referred?
My studio is an old cinder block two-car garage that I converted into an oil-filled, smoke-infused mess. It’s great though. Block walls, exposed wood rafters and trusses, and concrete floor. It has high ceilings and an attic, surfboards and a big paddleboard hanging from the rafters. I have a desk and big drawing table where I render and frame drawings and there are usually studies and portraits laying around. I have an old wooden treasure chest, very pirate that my grandfather made for my dad, that’s probably my most treasured piece in the studio. My only ritual is to light a cigarette and plug the phone into the speakers for some tunes – some epic movie soundtracks, Black Sabbath, Johnny Cash, or The Shadows. Then I light another cigarette, mix a palette and get to it.
You switch from charcoals to oils to watercolors so seamlessly. The beachcombing octopus depicted in “The Naturalist” (2015) is a fine example of this seamless switch and such a clever concept (a vibrant cephalopod with its resourceful tentacles). Which is your preferred medium, and why? And is there reasoning or meaning in the objects found on the shore?
It’s important for me to be proficient in all the mediums that I can. There’s something special about all of them. Charcoals give moodiness and pencils are prime for drafting. I love watercolor and I am a huge Andrew Wyeth fan. His watercolors are mind blowing. I often drive to see his works in person at the Brandywine River Museum. Whenever I see a Wyeth, I want to break out my watercolors instantly. But most of my work is painted in oil. It is the most alive and creamy medium which really lends itself to painting flesh, and that’s what I paint, most of the time. As far as “The Naturalist” goes, I made the study while I was working on “The Naturalist” exhibit with the intention of putting it in the show. The story of the painting is very much the catalyst of “The Naturalist” show, an early 19th century explorer doing his thing on the coastal shores of New Jersey. The explorer had to be an octopus, because, octopi are my thing and it seemed like a perfect pick. To beach-comb with eight hands, you could collect quite a bit. And every good explorer needs an axe. My vision for the piece was always to do it in watercolor like a big Walton Ford of Audubon, but I just felt it didn’t fit with all the oil portraits of “The Naturalist”.
When do you know it is done, the exact moment a painting is ready to sign and come off the easel? Or rather, when to abandon a painting?
Well that’s the great da Vinci quote, “Art is never finished, only abandoned.” Dude nailed it. Who knows. What I can tell you is a painting has its own life and they are all different with their own hurdles to overcome in all of them.
Explain the intensity of a solo exhibition. How do you deal with opening night nerves? Describe the anticipated “red-dot-feeling”?
Well, I don’t miss deadlines. Painting is what I do, every day, so preparing for a solo is a lot of work but I am used to it. I think the main objective is to never accept it as work and look at as creating. There’s always the thought of “is anything going to sell?” but at this point there is a lot of business done with collectors before a show opens, so most of the time I know going in if I’m off to a good start.
Is your representation of Alice in Wonderland in the painting “Drink Me” (exhibited at The Noyes Museum of Art in 2012) your magnum opus?
No. I mean, it was pretty cool to be asked to be part of an Alice in Wonderland themed show by a museum and the piece was very special for me. It started my relationship with Bela, my muse throughout “Fable” and “The Sea Is Calling” as well as being quite a production to make the painting. I designed the dress she wears in the painting and had a seamstress make it for me. I set up photo shoots with multiple photographers and assistants and did a lot of controlled lighting so I could work from a high quality photo. It was one of those pieces that was very much like making a film. But with the evolution of my work I’ve moved on from all of that production to working more from life and studies. It’s Alice, so a lot of people related to the piece and it’s still my best selling print. As far as magnum opus, that’s not something for me to declare.
You’ve described painting as “the great unknown”. What do you know with certainty about your craft that you would share with aspiring artists?
Most importantly you have to make the art that you want to make, not what you think other people want to see. An artist may get away with fluff for a while, may even make money, but that work is fleeting. The work that I really make for myself, the pieces I paint with no expectation, are always the first to sell, and I try to make every piece like that. People can see truth, without sounding ridiculously sappy and poetic. Bullshit is transparent. Other than that, work constantly and see as much art as possible.
ON LIFE & LOVE
Your self portrait titled “Brave New World” (2015) shows reverence, boldness and charm. How do you see yourself? Which mythological characters or historical archetypes do you most resonate with, and why?
Well those are very lovely things to say about the piece, but if you only knew. I’m very shy, can be full of self-doubt, and painfully introverted. But I look at a self portrait like a role, like I’m playing a character. It’s still parts of me but it allows me to emphasize and maximize a story. With “Brave New World” I played the explorer, the wayfarer, the “naturalist”. Alone, still, and dark, who has discovered this new world. I’ve always related to the anti hero. The man who struggles within, you know, the bad guy with good intentions. I much prefer Brando to Wayne, Sitting Bull to Custer, and Wolverine to Captain America.
Paint us a picture of a day in the life of Victor Grasso? And how do you balance the solitude of an artist?
My usual daily bag is to wake up early, have coffee with the family and stress out over what I’m going to paint on said day. If it’s late spring or summer I walk to the beach and go for a paddle for an hour or drive to the other beach for a dawn patrol surf session. I usually pull something out for dinner because there is nothing worse than starving, and there is a wonderful brisket staring at you but you can’t eat it because it’s a giant meat ice cube. After my wife and I get the kids to school I hit the studio, plug the phone into the speakers for some tunes, and start to draw or paint until it’s dinner time. We always try to have dinner together as a family; it’s nice and can be ceremonious. After, if I’m feeling pressure I may paint some more but most likely I watch a movie and then hit the hay. The studio hours are very solitary but I need that. I’m so used to being alone while working I get tweaked out if someone comes in the studio. And if things aren’t going well and I’m getting stir crazy I’ll open a door. Fresh air always helps.
You’re an artist with a whimsical, childlike narrative. What favorite childhood story stands out in your memory?
“Where the Wild Things Are” has been by my bedside for my entire life. The book is deeply ingrained.
The muse is an integral aspect of an artist’s work. Who are your muses in life?
I have to have a connection with my muse. I have to trust them to be able to tell my story and understand what I’m trying to say. They have to get “it”. My beautiful wife, Alicia, is my first official muse. I’ve painted her a lot, she is super aware and understanding of my vision, an amazing model. Then there’s Bela. Bela has been working with me since she was fourteen years old. Our relationship started with “Drink Me” and carries on today. Bela is the muse in “She Crab”. She’s played so many characters for me and understands every idea I have. With minimal effort, she just melts into the concept. It’s a very special relationship to me.
Queen of Saint John’s Eve ~ oil on board (2014)
Essentially, the work of an artist forces us to see the world differently. How do you see the world differently?
I’ve been told I live in a fantasy world. Just making paintings for a living is like a fantasy, one of mine that came true. But it’s all very real, and so is the imagery I paint. I think life is full of quirkiness and odd things that most people don’t see. Call it wonder or imagination but life is much more beautiful when it’s bizarre. I want this world that I see but would never exist to others to become real and pull people in. That’s why I paint in a realist manner, I want to make this oddball world so real that the viewer feels it, believes it.
Interestingly, you’ve featured on the cover of a magazine with a mouthful of tentacles, as well as documented on film in an enlightening portrayal “Grasso: Beyond the Paint”. You seem as comfortable and confident in front of a camera as you are at an easel. How different is the creative process when you are the subject? How did it feel being the muse?
Whenever I’m the subject of someone else’s work I’m highly involved in the creation. It’s always very collaborative when I’m the muse. Maybe I’m too controlling or maybe I just love creating so much I can’t resist.
If you could explore the bottom of the ocean, what would you hope to find?
Oh, definitely a vampire squid from hell.
Clearly, you are obsessed by cephalopods. I’ve read that you love cooking. What’s your signature dish? Does it include shellfish?
Well, I could give you the fancy rhetoric of how octopus tentacles are an analogy for wishing I had eight arms to caress my lover into ultimate pleasure. But, I am a realist. I have always really liked the way an octopus is built and it’s just so visually unique. As a prop for a painting, you can twist it any way and make amazing compositions with it, so from a design standpoint it’s an amazing creature. I do love to cook and I do for the family every night. I cook everything, all four food groups and yes I always have at least one octopus in the freezer. It’s become a family staple. I grew up and still live by the beach so shellfish is common in my home but my signature dish is Beef Bascaiola. It’s chopped up filet mignon sautéed in a Marsala sauce with mushrooms and sundried tomatoes over pasta.
So, here’s the “free or not to free” question. When you post a nude painting on Facebook, do you censor the nipple?
Why would I censor a nipple?
Choke ~ oil on linen (2009)
An Offering ~ oil on board (2016)
What’s currently sitting on your easel? What’s likely to be your next story and exhibition? And what is the big dream?
Well, currently the easel is dawning a painting of a woman with gold coral emerging from her neck. I’m working on a sea-themed body of work right now based on the coastal region where I’m from and the human interaction with the local sea life.
It’s shaping up to be a very busy but incredible summer. First, I’m curating a group show that I will participate in as well at SOMA Gallery in my hometown of Cape May, New Jersey. The show is titled “Brine” and opens June 4th, 2016 and will feature an incredible roster of contemporary realist painters and sculptors from across the country. Artists like Adam Wallacavage, Bo Bartlett, Danny Galieote, Kris Lewis, and Ali Cavanaugh to name a few. Also opening on June 4th is a “Small Works” show I will be exhibiting in at Baker + Hesseldenz in Tucson, Arizona. Second, on August 13th my solo show “Anchorless” opens at SOMA Gallery in Cape May and runs until September 11. Third, I’ll be exhibiting at “Art Copenhagen” on August 26th in Denmark with Gallery Oxholm. This will be the first time I’m exhibiting in Europe so I’m pretty excited about that one.
“To sail across the sea and rule an island of monsters.”
“Brine” ~ June 4 ~ SOMA Gallery, Cape May, NJ
“Small Works” ~ June 4 ~ Baker + Hesseldenz, Tucson, AZ
“Anchorless” ~ August 13 ~ SOMA Gallery, Cape May, NJ
“Art Copenhagen” ~ August 26 ~ Gallery Oxholm, Copenhagen, DK