New York City-based Michael De Feo‘s career spans an impressive number of years and an even more impressive array of media. His paintings–drippy, abstract self-portraits painted on maps–are on exhibition alongside Alex McLeod‘s 3D renderings at Angell Gallery until August 29th. Although some may question why the summer group show at Angell had these two artists’ work shown together—they are rather distant from each other in style and media—for me they formed a nice, subtle link between geography, people, location, and home. Here De Feo talks about the links that exist between his street art and painting, and how everything started with blueprints.
You’ve had quite a prolific career in several different media—street art, painting, children’s books. What binds all of these formats together for you, especially since some of your themes, like maps and portraits, carry over through much of your work?
It's all done in the spirit of learning and exploring. Making connections and sharing.
Your paintings on exhibition at Angell Gallery are deconstructed/abstract self-portraits on maps. Where do you find the maps, and what is their significance in particular? What is the correlation between each map and subject?
Back in the early 1990s while studying at the School of Visual Arts I used to search through dumpsters for free paper—I couldn't afford much back then so I looked for materials everywhere. There was one dumpster on 17th and Broadway that always had large rolls of blueprint paper from a nearby architectural firm. The paper was perfect for painting upon and nice and thin for gluing onto walls. I also liked how my loose paintings were juxtaposed upon the structure and rigidity of the building designs. Equally interesting to me were how these paintings atop designs of New York City buildings were then reintroduced to the streets via my gluing of them up outdoors.
From the blueprints I moved to maps, a pretty natural next step. I've always loved looking at maps and learning about the design of our world. I began to seek them out everywhere, eBay is a big help. I favor antique maps for their softer colors, more human feel and gentle surface. New maps are too glossy and plastic to the touch. I love to travel and install my works around the globe and I figure if I can't yet physically get to a place, I can metaphorically do it by marking or painting on the maps.
I continue to paint on blueprints and maps and, as a matter of fact, I've installed some self portraits in the streets of Toronto that were created on both.
I really loved how in some cases, the maps were totally obscured by layers of paint, and the only evidence of the map beneath was the creases and folds of its surface. When do you know a work is finished?
The acrylic paints and pigments I use are home made by an artist in New York. The colors are very rich and the acrylic and urethane mediums are very versatile. They can be any range of finish from matte to high gloss and its viscosity can be completely controlled. These qualities changed the way I paint. By using rich, concentrated pigments I was able to push and pull the liquidity of the paint without compromising my control of color, opacity or transparency.
As for when a painting is finished? I like what Brice Marden once said, "When the painting really lives, has a right to exist on its own strengths and weaknesses, I consider it finished. When I have put all I can into it and it really breathes, I stop. There are times when a work has pulled ahead of me and goes on to become something new to me, something that I have never seen before; that is finishing in an exhilarating way."
Where does this process begin for you? Do you start with the surface or the subject?
I begin by mounting a single map or multiple maps to a canvas. For the single maps, I have a stretched canvas the same size, for others I'll tear the maps and overlap them to fit. I'll keep the map borders so that the framing quality or design is retained. This overlapping results in the creation of new geographies. Land masses and bodies of water mix and conjoin to create new places. I paint on top of the maps once they're mounted.
What about a particular surface draws you to paint on it?
It's in the spirit of collaborating with that surface—it's a dialog, a relationship. It's the same as working in the streets.
Street art has a spirit of intervention. In terms of production, is there an element of this in the work you show in galleries, or is it a different process altogether?
The works in the streets aren't as built up as the ones mounted on canvas. If I use too much paint on the paper pieces intended for the streets, they won't age or decompose in the gradual manner that I prefer. One of the most important aspects of working in the streets for me is allowing the work to wither away and disappear. Heavy application of acrylic would prevent that.