Kevin D. Murphy
Archaeology seems the most apt metaphor for Vincent Pomilio's procedure as an artist. Like an archaeologist, he begins with a grid and uses that structure to guide his process of discovery. As primordial as many of the forms he paints and draws seem to be, Pomilio is actually engaging in archaeology of the present, the recent past, and his own personal history.
Pomilio says that his paintings "start like Abstract Expressionism" then "get like needlepoint." He begins with a broadly-painted grid, which he subsequently obliterates as he superimposes on it a multitude of carefully drawn and painted elements, tiny in scale and each one a miniature world of its own. While from a distance the grid provides a structure for many of his works-never visible, although apparent-up close each section of a painting like "Anything More or Less" takes on a unique character in the larger assemblage. Every passage in the painting has its own logic, its special aesthetic. It's as though the artist has excavated each section of the grid, to reveal a fragment of something larger. But here the archaeological metaphor perhaps ceases to be so useful, for Pomilio's process does not seem solely subtractive. It is also additive. Even though he does not actually collage elements onto the canvas, he builds up layers of paint as he obscures the grid below, and carefully creates patches of color (like a skilled needleworker) which seem to sit on the painting's surface.
The fact that Vincent Pomilio can liken his works to both gestural paintings and needlework at the same time, reveals both the breadth and depth of his sources of inspiration. He talks about textiles, fashion, and architecture as important influences. In all of those fields, the best works are those in which creativity works within an overall format that's given at the outset. Thus a great textile designer produces yard goods (for instance) that can be accommodated on a standard loom, a creative fashion designer invents new ways of treating the conventional elements of a man's or woman's wardrobe, and an outstanding architect fits his building to the grid of the city. Pomilio is, in fact, inspired by t he warp and weft of the city's streets, filled with façades that are themselves grids of walls and openings, constructed of networks of concrete and brick. Pomilio's paintings respond to the smallest intertwinings of materials at the same time that they gesture to the larger framework of the street grid of Manhattan, where he works.
The city's history is one object of Pomilio's archaeological exercise. He speaks of 9/11 as a transformative event, especially because the studio he then occupied in Lower Manhattan provided a bird's-eye view of the wreckage that was daily hauled from Ground Zero by barge to New Jersey and beyond. The painting "Between the River and the Sky #2" is described by the artist as a "Rosetta Stone" which offers a key to the interpretation of many elements of his current work, quite a few of which contain elements that recall the destruction of 9/11, as well as the subsequent, ongoing reconstruction. More loosely composed than the grid paintings, "Between the River and the Sky" is composed of three broad areas suggesting a river, a sky and the intermediate zone inhabited by the observer. From the sky rain down a variety of objects, their seeming randomness recalling the aftermath of the attack on the World Trade Center when New Yorkers found all kinds of things falling from the air: a singed piece of stationary from20a downtown law firm in a back yard in Brooklyn, or unidentifiable airplane engine parts on a Manhattan street. Paintings such as "Building Boom" use the grid to suggest the reconstruction of New York since 9/11.
In the wake of the attack, the process of looking took on a particular urgency as the perpetrators, or their collaborators, were pursued. The widely-discussed losses of priv acy that this vigilance (if not to say paranoia) brought about seem to be invoked in a number of Pomilio's works. For instance, his paintings "Surveillant" and "Illegal Spying" assert the coercive function of vision, while the drawings in the series "They're Looking Back" can be read as superimposing the eye on the city, recalling the way that 9/11 made residents aware of being looked at and evaluated by the "authorities" and by each other. But looking takes on a brighter meaning in others of Pomilio's works, as in the drawing "Leafpeepers" or in the painting "The Pope in Turkey" in which the common Turkish glass talisman, the "evil eye", is multiplied across the canvas. Despite the name, the talisman actually functions to ward off evil and hence bring good luck. Here, looking is a good thing.
Much of Pomilio's work relates to his deep connection to New York City, but in recent years he has developed a passion for the Hudson River Valley where he paints during the summer. In his creekside studio he embarks on a major painting project every year, as his "Tagkanic Creek" pictures testify. They are the largest of his recent works but they share certain qualities with his other paintings, and with his drawings. They are similarly constructed of dripped and loosely-painted patches of color, as well as with carefully delineated moments. Here, however, the symphony of visual elements is not a metaphor for the fall and rise of the city, but rather for the passage of the seasons that bring their varied atmospheric effects, for the changing colors of the landscape-from the deep greens of the Hudson Valley in the summer to the brilliant colors of its fall foliage-and even for the waters of the creek itself, rushing past Pomilio's summer studio in a torrent after the spring rains or quietly trickling by after the summer drought. With their surfaces built up of paint and wax, these epic pictures suggest something paradoxical: an archaeology of ephemeral nature. If it took 9/11 to show us how the most impressive engineering and architectural achievements of the age could be reduced in a matter of hours to piles of rubble and flotsam and jetsam blown by the wind, that fragility has always been palpable in nature. Vincent Pomilio unearths fragments-products of both natural proce sses and human actions-holds them up to our gaze to reveal the beauty of each one, then reassembles them again on the canvas. In so doing, he gives them monumental form that invites our own process of investigation.
Kevin D. Murphy is John Rewald Professor and Executive Officer in the Ph.D. Program in Art History at the CUNY Graduate Center, as well as a contributing editor to Art New England. He has published widely on nineteenth-century and contemporary art and architecture, in scholarly journals as well as popular publications including The Magazine Antiques. He is also the author of a number of books including, most recently, The Houses of Greenwich Village published by Abrams earlier this year.