Q+Art: Francesco Gattuso Explores Vulnerability with Candy-Colored Digital Paintings
Francesco Gattuso often surrounds himself with flowers. The Long Island-based artist crafts semi-autobiographical works that normalize male vulnerability with soft colors, flowers, and unicorns. With his candy-colored digital paintings, the multiracial Gattuso questions what it means to be vulnerable in a culture where minorities are exposed to persecution and hostility.
“As a multiracial person, I often feel like an imposter in the culture I was raised in, as if I’m falling through cracks, unable to fit into society’s boxes,” Gattuso writes in his artist statement. “This has led to isolation and confusion, for I cannot call myself anything, never truly participating in any one culture fully.” Appropriately, Gattuso’s work is filled with contradictions. In one work, the artist reclines, naked, on a bed of flowers; in the next, he’s a red-eyed demon feverishly praying to Cupid for love. “My digital paintings show a characterized version of myself, twisted and at times monstrous, a visual representation of my own internalized conflicts,” Gattuso notes.
Using Mediterranean mythology combined with fantasy and pop culture elements, Gattuso creates pastoral landscapes that feel slightly unhinged, like a Roman Bacchanalia. Ecstatic revelers lounge, naked and erect, on swaths of grass, while mischievous cherubs point their arrows at unsuspecting hearts. It seems like the party to end all parties—until you realize the mania bubbles up from a place of mental exhaustion. “While [being biracial] makes me unique and beautiful in my way, it is also tiresome and exhausting to always navigate this minefield of in-between spaces,” Gattuso admits.
Navigating these “in-between spaces”—a term Gattuso uses to describe stigmatized pockets of social identity—is a common practice for racial and sexual minorities. It’s so common there’s even a name for it: the minority stress theory. The model looks at chronically high levels of stress in members of stigmatized minority groups and the effect on their mental health. Gattuso and the model come to the same conclusion: Being forced to fit your identity to the world around you is its own kind of madness. Still, Gattuso chooses to render himself fully vulnerable—quite literally stripped naked in front of us—while the world screams at him to put on some pants.
In Today’s Q+Art Interview…
Francesco Gattuso discusses the power of vulnerability, the immersive world of Dungeons and Dragons, and his upcoming artist residency on the island of Crete.
Which books, art-related or otherwise, belong on every artist’s shelf?
Francesco Gattuso: In Praise of Shadows, written by Jun'ichirō Tanizaki. This book really taught me how to observe the world around me.
What are you trying to express with your art?
FG: I want to normalize vulnerability within my work and the strength of being vulnerable, especially for young men. We are conditioned at a young age to believe being vulnerable with our emotions is weak, and this poisonous message makes us toxic and, at times, hard to be around. It's been long overdue for that to end. Also, showing people, in general, there is beauty in struggle and hardship, and while you might feel alone, you're not. Others are fighting the same monsters as you, and when you find them and connect, it is easier to triumph.
Would you work for free in exchange for exposure?
FG: Depends on the platform. Is the work going to a good cause? Helping a person or community that is in need? Is it a fellow artist or friend? Any of those, I'd say no doubt. When it comes to large institutions, I no longer work for free.
What person has most influenced your work?
FG: I'm not sure if a single person has influenced my work. I could name artists and writers who make work in a similar vein or express overlapping interests, but in truth, it is my mom and one of my best friends, Edward Salas. He is also an amazing artist, and you should look him up. I have always been into weird and nerdy things since I was a kid, reading sci-fi, playing RPG fantasy games. All those things have always been a part of my life; I just never thought anyone would be interested in them. Or I'd get made fun of if people knew. These two people recognized what I'm interested in and encouraged me to follow what I love and say fuck everyone else.
What is your favorite guilty pleasure?
FG: Over-prepping and world-building for my Dungeons and Dragons campaign. This is hard to do the older I get, but when I do have the free time to do it, I get lost for hours. It's also one of the most rewarding things to look at your players’ faces as they discover something in a land of make-believe that you created just for them.
What do you consider your greatest artistic achievement?
FG: I'm a first-generation college student, and I went on to receive my MFA. For a long time, succeeding in higher education is something I never thought I could achieve.
What is the best advice you’ve ever received?
FG: Don't apologize to those who don't deserve one. Closed mouths don't get fed.
Is a formal arts education worth the money?
FG: Depends on the institution—most aren't. My advice to people who want to get an arts education is really sit down, take your time, and do the research. Try to go to get one for free, and no matter where you go, look at the artists who came out of these programs and the faculty they employ, ask what they can do for you? If you don't see these people opening any avenues for you, it is not worth your time. You get your education for yourself, not for anyone else; it is the appropriate place to be as selfish as you want.
What is one thing you would like to change about the art world?
FG: Most importantly, nepotism, but I don't think that will change any time soon. Secondly, the immediacy we have from social media has seeped into the way we make art. We need to acknowledge taking time can be good for your work and mental health.
How has the coronavirus pandemic affected your practice?
FG: The virus has provided me the space to become introspective within my work. Creating images that reflect lived events and personal reality. I've also put in a great amount of time in making digital paintings. With the rise of online exhibitions and NFTs and not leaving your house often, most people see art only from their phones. Instead of saying, "It is not the same as seeing it in person," I thought, why not create the work with the intention for it to be viewed from a screen in your hand?
How do you think the coronavirus pandemic will impact the art world in the long term?
FG: I think the virus has allowed us to see the relevance of digital work, and I feel that is going to stay. I also feel that people have been reaching out to other artists via social media more frequently now (at least I have), since it has been harder to meet people in person, making it more accessible to build community over long distances, which is great for people making art in rural settings.
What are you working on that you’re excited about right now?
FG: Something I'm really excited about is self-publishing a book in a few weeks. It will consist of an essay I wrote on love, and my digital paintings will accompany it. A few weeks after this, I will be attending a residency in Crete called Mudhouse. This is a place I've always wanted to go to, and after the events of this past year, I'm looking forward to new scenery.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. All photos published with permission of the artist.
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