American artist Michael diCanio speaks to Pothi from New York about the impact of Covid-19 on local art, and his thoughts on the resilience of the art community and individual artists amid this crisis
His art could be described as rife with subtle mythological, fantastical and religious iconography and Symbolism, sometimes arcane, sometimes nearly dystopic, rendered via oils on canvas and paper, gouache or graphite drawings, in unfazed strokes and/or unexpected colours. Michael diCanio, a 67-year-old artist residing in New York City, has had his extensive works displayed at locations like the Guggenheim Museum, Neuberger Museum and McNay Museum. A Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA) degree-holder from the prestigious Cooper Union School of Art, diCanio admits that NYC is a phenomenon that has integrally informed his art, having lived and worked there since 1972. “I would describe myself as a painter living and working in New York City in 2021, interested in the continuum of painting as I’ve inherited it. My city is a cosmopolis. There is a ‘now’ about life here, but what I mean is that I feel all of the past in the moment. My work is a response to this,” he professes to Abir Pothi from the US, in an interview via online communication.
Cognizant of the influence that the microcosms we inhabit wield, does diCanio also feel that the general social and political tumult that surrounds us all today seeps into the artistic expression of this generation of art? “Quite a bit. My only evidence is work and dialogue posted on social media, and as I hope I’ve made clear, I’m not interested in bad art that claims to be more important than it is because of a righteous socio-political message. I actually do like to see contemporary tumult find its way into our work, especially in that coded, allegorical way that our professors decrypt centuries later. But beauty, first. Especially in the worst of times,” he says.
The unprecedented advent and prolongation of the Covid-19 pandemic easily falls into the latter category. A global crisis that has affected nations separated by thousands of nautical miles alike, it is an event that binds us all, but has been experienced differently by every individual. Asked if it has altered his life in any way, the American artist candidly shares, “Remarkably little, I think. My life, like that of many painters, is quite circumscribed: A short commute to the studio, a workday in solitude, a midday coffee around the corner, etc. So, I lost the coffee. Not that I am oblivious to the fact of a raging pandemic, thousands of deaths, political upheaval and financial distress. I’ve paid the bills most of my adult life as a partner in a design and advertising firm that I founded, and this was certainly impacted by Covid — but the decline coincides with my imminent retirement, anyway. As a New Yorker, I felt as I always have in a time of crisis, a heightened sense of community, empathy. We are actually at our best in this. And of course, I embrace my wife and daughter a bit tighter every day.”
Is this ‘c’est la guerre’ stoicism reflected in local art circles as well? “My artistic community, so to speak, migrated discreetly to social media over the last decade, in any case. I can’t say I’ve made any overt reference to the pandemic in my work, nor do I see it in my peers’, beyond an occasional ‘self portrait with mask’ type thing. ‘Self Portrait With Mask’ got tired pretty early in the pandemic. So, I’ve continued with the imagery and routine I was invested in, and I see this in most others, too. I trust that my feelings about this time, whatever they are, are manifest in my work, in spite of myself,” he muses, adding, “I see the art industry, as you call it, emerging on the other side of this pandemic as obnoxious as ever. It would take a plague the magnitude of the Black Death to inculcate any degree of sobriety into the art world. For that cadre of serious people, who value the primacy of an encounter with a work that corresponds to their own depth of feeling, the tragedy of Covid provides an urgency to that connection that I hope we can keep.”
Responding to the same vein of questioning about how art institutions and public art may cope, he mulls, “Museums rightfully see ‘mass involvement in art’ as their charge, but this is often confused with providing entertainment. This dilemma is now exacerbated by what must be untenable operating budgets caused by their expansions. They would today sell the art to pay for its house. I hope museums can use the pandemic as an opportunity for a hard reset.”
This expectation going ahead of a “new normal”, as many are calling it, could even prompt a renaissance for art, a paradigm shift in which artists may need to seek changes to make themselves more relevant. But diCanio demurs. “I don’t think any extraordinary effort is needed to be ‘relevant’ to the events of one’s time, ever. I assert that the pursuit of the aesthetic values of painting as they have come down to us have always been enough. Art bends. Form has evolved to express the full gamut of our emotion and experience; it has made our transcendent experiences tangible, but also our darkest stuff,” he signs off.