Marcella Colavecchio keeps a hairdryer in her art studio. When she paints, she paints fast — and her acrylics need to keep up. Art is like a diary entry, she says, it can’t just wait around while things dry. In “Censored,” a virtual show now on view through the online women-centered venue Roaring Artist Gallery, Colavecchio rips open the diary with all new work: colorful, figural, and a touch radical.
The show’s large-scale nudes are reminiscent of the British artist Jenny Saville’s paintings: imperfect and unapologetic female figures that confront our cultural pathology of casual misogyny. Marcella tells me she often uses her own body as the model. As both author and subject, the work becomes a reclamation of the self.
“Censored” features 29 paintings: cropped bodies and contraindicated colors. A realness that doesn’t need anyone’s approval. The 12-part series, “Monochrome,” captures a trans model in full-frontal contrapposto. Her “Low Threshold” paintings blend classical figuration with bright-colored beauty. And the large-scale neon nude, “Is This Showing Too Much Skin,” commands like a matador.
Our recent conversation about her new show, and everything leading up to it, made one thing perfectly clear: Marcella isn’t waiting for the paint to dry.
Barbara Purcell: You moved to Austin a few years back from the Northeast. What brought you to this city?
Marcella Colavecchio: There isn’t really a contemporary art scene where I’m from in Connecticut; people prefer sailboat paintings and landscapes for their homes. My previous job used to bring me to Austin, and the first time I flew down here, something clicked. The city felt so fresh and inviting for my type of weird.
BP: I read somewhere that you attended the Lyme Academy for Fine Arts while still in high school, and studied with a noted Yale art professor/portraitist. What was it like having such a unique opportunity at that age?
MC: Lyme Academy offered a program for high schoolers who were serious about art. It was taught by Deane Keller, who was known as the “Father of Human Anatomy.” He would give a lecture at the beginning of each 8-hour studio day, and then we’d get to work. He wrote the “Draftsman Handbook” which contained all his secrets for drawing the human figure. It was basically his life’s work and only students at Lyme received a copy. It’s really hard to find now, even on Amazon. Keller taught the program for two years — my junior and senior year — before passing away in his 90s. I learned everything I know about the human body from him, I never took another anatomy class. After that it was all self study, lots of trial and error.
BP: Given your strong foundation in drawing, did you consider going to art school?
MC: I couldn’t afford it. My parents emigrated here from Italy, and worked really hard to make ends meet. I went to a state school near where we lived in Stamford and I got a full-time job. I would come home at night and paint, but it was all work that felt very lost because I was lost. My parents admired my interest in drawing the figure — they always loved Italian renaissance art — but I was their only child, and they wanted me to have a family and be successful. I ended up settling down with someone who shared their views. I was doing everything to make everyone else happy, but I wasn’t happy. When I turned 30, I had a mid-life crisis. I asked myself: what am I ever going to be remembered for? So I made huge changes in my life. My parents really respect that I’ve gotten this far. My dad was also an artist when he was young, an abstract painter, but when he and my mom moved to America, he let that all go. Now he’s patiently waiting for retirement so he can get back to it.
BP: Your colors are addictive! How did you start using such a wild palette?
MC: I’ve always been fascinated by cinematic and stage lighting. My high school redid its auditorium my senior year, and they gave all the old lighting to our art department. I used to create very dramatic stage lighting for my skeleton practices. It was unique and a little haunting, so I started to light my paintings that same way. I’ve more recently discovered different lighting techniques through 1970s horror movies like “Suspiria.” So now I’m using color gels on my models while shooting. It has such an incredible effect, the different combinations of pinks and greens or oranges. Being in Austin, I love neon. I’ll be in the car with my partner, stopped at a light, and start looking at the red shining on his face. That’s a moment everyone experiences, but they never really take the time to capture it — how that artificial light interacts with us.
BP: Besides Dario Argento, who made that film “Suspiria,” who are some of your other influences? I feel like your large-scale female nudes channel Jenny Saville’s paintings…
MC: Yes, I love her. David Spriggs as well; he paints thousands of sheets of transparencies to create an overall light-box effect. He constructs these beautiful worlds and black holes, experiences that you can stand in front of and just get lost in. I also love Nat Bowen, a resin artist also from the UK. She creates these fragments of color in these little boxes. Her aesthetic, the way she thinks about color, is really similar to mine.
BP: The body language in your work is very striking: the hands tend to be very expressive while the face is often hidden. What inspires these poses?
MC: I like to sit down with my models. If I’m going to paint them in a way that feels authentic I need to connect with them first. With “Monochrome,” I spoke with Gal for two hours about her transition. She had just come out two days prior, and so I caught her in this really powerful moment. I didn’t want to take the concept of being transgender and paint it in a way that’s not real to people who are transgender. I made breast implants for our shoot, and when she put them on she said she felt whole. She was also exuding this runway model feel, which I wanted to capture. I always use the photograph as a reference, to make sure all the proportions are correct. Then I’ll crop the photo for whatever part of the body I’m focusing on, usually the torso area. I photographed Gal in Austin, but painted the series in Connecticut, four each week, over the span of three weeks. They’re all 12×24 inches — a lot more manageable than my large-scale paintings — but it was wintertime in the Northeast, so I could only paint between 8am and 3pm, before the sun went down. Even though I use artificial light for photography, I need natural light when I’m painting, to see how the color is being applied to the canvas, especially since I put the full background color down on the canvas first.
BP: Your titles tend to highlight the conflicting messages which surround women: “You’re Too Skinny,” “You’re Too Fat,” “Leave Something to the Imagination.” Are these internalized messages or obnoxious comments?
MC: These are all things I’ve said to myself when looking in the mirror. I struggled with my body positivity growing up. When I began modeling for myself it was the most healing way to accept myself. A lot of women battle with these feelings. Take my European heritage: if you’re going to the grocery store in Italy, you need to dress to the nines. It’s very common for families in that culture to tell women how they should look or how much they should weigh. If you gain five pounds your mom will tell you, you won’t find a husband!
BP: The nudes in “Censored” are anything but. What’s the meaning behind the title?
MC: As a figurative painter, I’ve struggled with my work getting censored on social media. Instagram is where all the galleries are, but I can’t even use their Shop feature. Dontdelete.art is an online movement for figurative artists and photographers; the organization will promote your work on their platform. We’re adapting to a virtual world right now, but that world has more restrictions. Even a Picasso got censored!
BP: You’ve talked about the power of the female gaze—as opposed to the traditional male gaze — when painting female figures. How does that perspective apply to your male models?
MC: As far as males, I’m very detached from nudes. I’ve been drawing and painting nudes since I was 16 years old. I focus through the female gaze rather than on what the model looks like. How can I turn it into something powerful for women, who’ve had to tailor themselves to the gaze of men? For instance, I wanted to touch on rape culture with my “Men Can’t Help Themselves” series in “Censored.” I actually used my partner Dan as the model. I wanted to send a strong message by having a male figure covering his face and genitals. There are three paintings in this particular series—the male model on either side of the female figure. She’s very powerful in the center, expressing herself, saying here I am, this is who I am.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
“Censored” is on view at Roaring Artist Gallery through Feb 28.