It's the coldest week of winter, especially with shadows surrounding the Gowanus canal.
But Carolanna Parlato's studio is absolutely blinding - at opening the studio door, even before you see where it comes from, you are enveloped by the light emitted by paint splatters blooming on her floor. You can barely see the flooring underneath, as if standing on a cloud of color.
Indeed, Carolanna is a strong reminder that painting is not just painting things but painting with things - that thing being paint itself. Although it is soothing to look at rows and rows of prepackaged colors at Blick, each tube is in fact a product of meticulous mixing for both the right color and viscosity.
Q. Can you briefly introduce yourself?
Hi, I’m Carolanna Parlato, I’m a painter based in Brooklyn in the Gowanus area.
I lived in the Brooklyn area pretty much my entire life. My first studio in the late 80’s was in South Slope, and then after that I had a studio on President, I guess 3rd avenue and Nevins.
I have an MFA from the San Francisco Art Institute. My masters is actually in printmaking, which I think has had a lasting influence on my work.
Q. It’s interesting that you've been working here before it became a ~cool and artsy area~
I remember when my husband and I - my husband’s also an artist - came here from the Bay Area. We were walking around the canal and stumbled on the area and was like “wow this is great”. It wasn’t very built up at the time, it was pretty open. It was like a hidden gem.
Q. How has the city, and the specific places you’ve lived in, influenced you?
I’ve always lived near bodies of water. I’ve never lived anywhere where I can’t see water that day. Here with the Gowanus Canal, I see it on a daily basis. But I’ve also lived in the coastal area on the other side of the bridge. I’ve also lived in the Bay Area. I think there’s something about bodies of water that have influenced what I did.
Even aside from bodies of water, there was a time I was working in South Slope and the studio was partially outdoors. It was a very raw space in an industrial way, a candy factory at one point.
Q. Actually, a few of our artists work with cement and plaster. I always think they must be influenced by the environment they live in too.
For me, I worked with lithoscope for a while so I was trying to create rough edges like a lithoscope. At that time my work was influenced by chaos science.
Q. You mean like entropy?
More like a Butterfly Effect where one thing you do here affects the other thing, a movement of paint would also create a butterfly effect.
And I incorporated some drawings, very specific ones - there were these botanical drawings I got from the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens. That was kind of the start of my interest in stain, dispersions, and biomorhpic forms.
Q. And can you talk a bit about color?
My color choice is very intuitive.
I think I’ve been influenced over the years by my environment. For years I collected color samples from magazines. Over the years it’s become like a vocabulary, there are my go-to colors, or I can look at my floor for inspiration.
I usually like there to be some kind of contrast, dark and light in a way that doesn’t feel resolved. But I’ve repeated a lot of the same colors too. I think artists do that. We may have in us some kind of subjective choices.
Q. I also think the colors look very digital. Almost like from a TV screen.
I’ve been influenced by different pop artists. I do think that commercial advertising or TV have been big influences. I do draw in photoshop, so making color choices there probably affects some of what I do.
A lot of what you’re seeing is more of the effect of the material than the actual color.
I like that about color - that it has a “look” to it. I think part of the reason the colors look the way they do is because the material I use has a very glossy finish to it. It’s neither like acrylic or oil paint - it looks like a very contemporary medium.
Q. You’re well known for pouring paint instead of using a brush. How does the pouring technique change the way you interact with canvas?
I think I use my entire body when I make the pour.
I tilt the canvas, lift it, and also let the paint kind of slowly loose sometimes. I use these blocks of different heights so I can tilt different corners of the canvas at different heights. So it’s not just gravity. Instead of going wherever, it’s (paint) going where I tell them to go.
Q. So when in your career did you start using this pouring technique?
When I was making prints in California, primarily india ink (1) on paper, I was very interested in the dispersion of the ink and the fractal action that happens when it stains paper. I wanted to get the same effect on canvas, so I was trying to get a more absorbent ground.
Now you can purchase gesso (2) to make absorbent ground but when I was making those paintings, those commercial products weren't available, So I painted on wood with a plaster joint compound (3), I put some paint on and troweled (4) it. The joint compound is very absorbent so I could put in on the ground and let it dry in the sun then wash it down again, so it gets ghost images and stains as the compound absorbs the paint.
Q. Your experiments with materials seem very personal. It’s not like you can explain the formula to me. You just have to take the time to let your body get adjusted to the material.
Yes, Working in the studio is the way I found most of my materials. It’s a very organic process. A lot of trial and error. That’s the exciting part. It comes from a long time ago when I was doing printmaking, because a lot of the chemical reactions you get from printmaking are unpredictable.
Q. With a process that’s so instinctive and gestural, do you think you need to be in the right zone to start painting?
Yeah, I need to be rested. I wait. It takes time for setting up to make the pour.
I have to mix the pigments to get the right consistency, I have to strain it, I have it set up in different different sized cups so that I get different marks. All this has to be ready to go and sometimes I need a helper to hold things. All this has to be ready before I make a pour (especially) a large one.
Early on when I was doing the ink drawings I was very influenced by Chinese landscape paintings. I was working at the Brooklyn Museums at the time and spent a lot of time in the beautiful collection of Chinese Art. The screens, for example, merge different perspectives - looking at it you can see an aerial view and a side view at the same time. That’s not something I look at now but that kind of meditative state of mind still plays in.
Q. So you’ve never done realistic painting.
C: I took a few summer classes at Art Student League when I was at SVU so I did some figure painting and drawing - I did a lot of figure drawing. I did do all that basic stuff but never really did the whole thing -
Q. The greek statue busts and shapes and all that.
Oil paint was the thing to use when I was a student. Acrylics, late 80’s and early 90’s wasn’t as developed as it is now. Now that they’re constantly refining mediums, artists can do more things with different materials. Sometimes that punches up the color, sometimes it dulls it - but that’s why I use tests to see how painting mediums will produce effects.