Entering the residency studio of multi-media artist Roberto Visani, you are surrounded by sculptural figures in various stages of completion. Thin and angular, they resemble the spectral sculptures of Giacometti, with upraised arms and hands.
The Brooklyn, New York-based artist primarily works in sculpture, his artwork examines the black body through the reinterpretation of historical artworks and artifacts.
In this residency, he gives a glimpse of his collected photos of African statues, gospel singers, men under arrest, and people dancing – all of them with their hands up, hence his title and inspiration.
“My creative work often involves a reinterpretation of historical artworks and artifacts,” he says. “Within these archival materials, I explore the anonymity that technology engenders and how our identity interfaces with it. In a more visceral sense, I make things. Physical, dimensional, figurative sculptures that move between representation and abstraction. Sculptures that explore a past present future technology and a past present future body.”
Roberto arrived at the beginning of July and will be in The Square New Wave studio space across from Starbucks through the end of August. There will be an open studio at the end of the residency on August 27th.
“I was excited to be invited to come down because I love South Florida. I did a residency year back in Miami, and my parents live on the west coast, so I can jump in the car on the weekends and see them,” he says.
“I’m primarily a sculptor. I do some photography work and drawing work as well, and I have a few different bodies of work that I make. The body of work that I’m focusing on here is called Hands Up.”
“It’s this very simplified gesture of raised arms. I started to explore that pose when I had seen some sculptures from Africa. This is in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I don’t take the photos, I source them online. The African wood carving collection of this is the first image I started that led me down this path.”
“So, I thought this is a really interesting gesture, but I soon started thinking about the United States and the context I live in and remember the protest after Michael Brown was killed. And then I started thinking about other contexts where that pose was used, like Mahalia Jackson singing gospel or in the black church. Like praying for rain, moments of protests, hands up moments of praise. OJ Simpson of course, with his hands up during the trial with the dried bloody gloves on, this very famous moment.”
Once Visani finds enough, he builds a visual library. Then he goes back and refers to them when making the sculptures. It’s a complex process as he uses a 3D computer program to sketch out the figures and the individual shapes that create them.
“Abstraction can be a way to play around with that specific gesture, and how these things connect with that experience. Because this pose has all these different meanings, I’ve been thinking about severely simplifying the figure and then how I can suggest different narratives that the figures might be embodying, like here, these figures, this one’s kneeling, these life size ones will be in a group.”
He makes the initial figure out of cut cardboard, numbered, and glued together, then covered with various exteriors – fiberglass, plaster – or cut into iron shapes and welded together.“I’ll have an open studio event on the 27th and most of the work that’s in progress now should be finished,” he says. “The software I use is for a virtual 3D space. So, it has a height, width, and a depth. And then I can turn the figure around on that space and zoom in. I can add points and lines and planes and just tweak it and start to pull edges and things like that. Amazing right? Once I think I have something that I like, I will cut it out with a laser cutter then I’ll fold it and glue it.”
“Once I build it, then I decide, well, maybe it needs to be bigger. Maybe it needs to be smaller. Maybe I decide I want three of these together. Or maybe the proportions aren’t right. I need to make these arms go out further or move this corner down to here. So, the cardboard is almost like a proof of concept.”
Material selection is a big part of his process.
“I sometimes use fiberglass cloth. It’s kind of nasty stuff. I cut the fiberglass cloth and I’ll paint it on top of there. You can see a little bit of it peeking out, that’s what that surface is. Metal casting is a way around the cracking that can happen with fiberglass. It retains the same surface quality but it’s durable.”
‘The event on the 27th, it’s not an exhibition, it’s an open studio, so I don’t feel the pressure to have things finished, but there are a few pieces that will be done. When the public comes in, they have a sense of this is his process. Like I can see how he gets from point A to point B.”
“As of right now, I’m not for certain, but I’m anticipating that most of them come back to Brooklyn, and then will be exhibited at some point. I don’t like to make work expressly for exhibitions because then I feel like I have this time pressure over my head, I’d rather just make work. And then it finishes when it finishes, you know?”
He says the work has a way of finding the light of day if it’s strong work.
“If it’s not strong work, then it’s probably better that it doesn’t find the light of day,” he adds. “Then it stays at the studio. But this is a very public residency where people come by all day, which is different for me.”
Roberto teaches two days a week in Brooklyn at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice where he is an Associate Professor of Art.
He’s enjoying the break in South Florida.
“I live in Brooklyn and so this is a breath of fresh air, you know, in that it’s not so congested. I’m a warm weather person, so the heat and humidity don’t really bother me. And honestly, I think it’s probably about this temperature in New York right now,” he laughs. “I go run in the morning down to the beach to see the sun come up. I’m just trying to take advantage of my time.”
Visani has exhibited at the New Museum of Contemporary Art, NY, The Studio Museum in Harlem, NY, The Bronx Museum, NY, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, SF, and Barbican Galleries, London. He is a NYFA Fellow in Sculpture and was a Fulbright Fellow to Ghana. His work has been reviewed by the New York Times, Art Forum, Art News, and Frieze.
Roberto Visani interprets “Hands Up” from surrender to praise