It was Renoir who said that a work of art "must seize upon you, wrap you up in itself, and carry you away." Interviews with artists should have a similar effect. With "Artist's Statement," our weekly interview series with prominent and upcoming visual artists in San Francisco, SF Weekly speaks to the people behind the art you see in the galleries, in the museums, and in the streets.
Jeffrey Palladini depicts lots of people in his paintings, but you never see their full faces. Their bare skin? Yes. Their hair? Yes. Palladini's art asks viewers to guess at the mystery behind the figures, and his newest exhibit, "Surrender" (at Sandra Lee Gallery though May 31) continues this theme to a dizzying degree. In 2012, Asterisk SF magazine named Palladini one of San Francisco's top 20 artists. Palladini, 45, studied art at California State University, Long Beach, and now lives in Fairfax. He spoke to SF Weekly about the secret lives of the people he depicts, why getting older is a big motif in his work, and why sex and sensuality are missing from "Surrender."
Q: The title of your exhibition is "Surrender." What are the people you depict surrendering to?
A: The conceptual basis for the show is about an exploration of outside forces that are acting upon us -- so things that are outside our control that have an effect on our lives and our endeavors. As 21st-century humans, we have this common mythology about self-determination and about our own will being able to be exerted to get us to where we want to be. The advent of mounds of technology has only made it more so. But what we don't really take into account is that there's this whole universe of other factors that have as much to do with the outcome of our endeavors and who we are as [it does] our own decisions. So "Surrender" refers to that. It's not so much capitulation as it is acceptance that there are a lot of things that have an effect on us. It's learning to come to terms with that.
Q: How does 195 Kilometers An Hour relate to the theme? In the painting, a woman seems to be falling at a high rate of speed.
A: In its simplest form, that piece is about gravity -- about fundamental forces acting on us. She's falling, and 195 kilometers per hour is terminal velocity for a human body, so that's why it's titled that way. In its deeper meaning, it's truly the personification of that thematic basis of the show -- it's purely surrender. She's given herself up to that powerful force that is gravity. But it could also be extrapolated to include the passage of time or any major force outside our control, like chemistry or internal biology or aging. So it has a dual meaning. There's a literal translation and a deeper broad meaning.
Q: Your paintings rarely show people's faces. We don't see the face of the woman in 195 Kilometers An Hour. Are we to presume that she is going to meet her demise or was that an issue for you as you painted her?
A: It's not an issue for me. For me, the critical part is the falling. It's that suspension in mid-air and the loss of control. It's not really about what happens when she reaches the end of her descent. I'll leave that up to the viewer to decide, whether that's someone who's going to go "splat" or land in water, or she's dreaming that she's falling and her legs will jerk and she'll wake up. There are a lot of different interpretations, but it's not as important to me what it ends up being but it's about the act itself.
Q: Are you getting people looking at 195 Kilometers An Hour and giving you scenarios of what they imagined happened to her fall?
A: It's not like people come up to me and say, "Oh, my God -- what's happening to her?" But I do have people come up and bring their own story to it. Somebody said something about 9/11, referring to those iconic images of falling figures. Those certainly came to mind to me as I was sketching the figure for the painting. It wasn't my intention to mimic that but it reminded me of that - alarmingly - as I was completing the sketch.
Q: Without faces, your paintings carry no obvious emotion.
A: That's the thing. Without faces, there's no demonstrated emotion. I don't want you to see a face that's expressing physical pain or that's sad or is particularly happy or ecstatic. I don't want the emotion to be conveyed through facial expression. I want it to be conveyed through the dramatic composition, and the close cropping, and the body language, and the color temperature, and the viewers' own stories. It's too easy with figurative work to make it just this demonstrated emotion. I'd rather that people intuit it or that they feel it, and then they can build the story from there.
Q: Intuiting is good, though so much of our lives is about explaining ourselves -- whether it's on Twitter, Facebook, or in person with others. Your art is like a vacation from that template of explaining things. How deliberate is that?
A: That's a good question. I've never considered it in those terms before, but part of it is that so much of life is explained. We talk things to death. There's so much information and such an avalanche of data and information and empirical evidence and discussion. And what makes me happy making this work is it's simple and it's not all about information. It's not all laid out for you. In that way, it's very abstract. It's taking just the essence of a scene of figure and providing only the necessary information in order to convey an emotion and to encourage a viewer to plug himself into the story. I think that's probably one of the reasons this work has continued to turn me on. I get to create something that's a little quieter.
Q: To me, your work has the feel of a graphic novel, almost in the same universe as Adrian Tomine for the way it's so spare. Is there any graphic novel influence on your work?
A: It's not something I set out to do - to emulate graphic novels. My work has evolved over the last 10 years or so, and it's something I noticed early on. I recognized the graphic novel aesthetic in there. And I love that. I like that it's bold and simplified and graphic. And something about that format encourages narrative to be built around it. That's how we've grown up looking at these things - from comic books to even some kinds of advertising: Simple imagery that tells a bigger story.
Q: Your work also has the feel of noir -- the paintings are like scenes from a Hitchcock film or something from The Maltese Falcon.
A: The art critic Peter Frank wrote an essay about my work, about seven years ago, and it was all about cinema and how my work touches on those motifs. He mentioned the word "noir," too. I've always thought about trying to make noir paintings without actually making them directly emulate film noir. I love that film genre. I can definitely see some connections between my work and those films.
Q: On the other hand, your work can be comedic. I'm thinking of the "Surrender" work called Tuesday Ramen Special, which is a painting of man with chopsticks. You painted him over a TV screen with a running video showing a street scene outside a restaurant. Your diner is having lunch, and it's like we're witnessing a live event.
A: So much of this show is somber. It talks about issues like aging and the passage of time that are a little bit heavy. And this piece still deals with some of those issues, but I couldn't bear to give it a heavy title, and have him sit there with a cigarette in his hand. I wanted it to be a little bit more playful. That's why I have him with chop sticks in his hand. I took the video that's playing in the background of the piece at an Asian noodle place in San Anselmo looking out across the street with traffic going by. The painting didn't originally include the chop sticks, but I just couldn't resist (laughs).
Q: In the gallery work called So Slowly You Can't Even Feel It (Until You Do), cords hang down from the painting. Why the cords?
A: The painting deals with the passage of time and aging. There's this motif that I've gone back to several times in the past few years, with lines descending through the figure. But because I really wanted to convey the weight of time slipping by and then suddenly the realization of, "Oh my God - a decade has gone by," I needed more weight and I needed to bring it out of the painting's rectangle and into the viewer's space, so they could viscerally feel that weight. I wanted something to hang down that had a heavy visual look to it.
Q: A lot of your previous imagery gets into sex and sensuality. The work in "Surrender" avoids that subject. Why?
A: That's a good point. In a lot of my work over the past 10-12 years, there's been a lot of sensuality, a lot of eroticism and intimacy, interplay between couples that is definitely charged. These figures are solo in "Surrender." They're definitely alone in all of these pieces. I'm not sure why I did that. I think it's because I'm dealing with some of these heavier issues that I feel are solitary things. These are things we deal with alone. It wasn't really intentional. The work just evolved that way.
Q: Are you getting longtime fans with the "Surrender" exhibition saying, "Come on, Jeffrey - where are depictions of sex?"
A: Actually, no. I expected it. I've sold a lot of paintings of people in swimming pools, from my "Hotel" series. And I expected people to come in and say, "Where's all the water? What's going on?" It's a solo show. I saw it as an opportunity to spread my wings a little bit. And to delve a little bit deeper into a concept. And see it through from start to finish -- to build an entire body of new work for the show. It was exciting.