During the past ten years, Gary Mauro’s expressive talents have been revealed in a startling array of modes. In the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, he painted abstract works on un-stretched canvas. He cut up those paintings and reassembled them as abstract cloth sculptures. Gradually the sculptures became figurative. In the mid-70’s he executed a group of superb colored drawings, the Rock Series—tight compositions of isolated rocks and shards that evoked whole landscapes. At the same time, he continued to explore the medium of fabric sculpture, and combined it with his unabashed love of the figure. He recently did a series of large, abstract, mixed-media paintings and incorporated them into such diverse materials as coal dust from deserted mines near his boyhood home of Walsenburg, Colorado, and bits of steel collected from sunken ships in the Caribbean.What is common to all his work is Mauro’s uplifting sense of rhythm. And while Mauro continues to work in various mediums, his primary focus now is on the figurative bas-relief wall sculptures made of stitched and stuffed and minimally painted fabric. ARTlines editor Stephen Parks interviewed Mauro last month in his Ranchos de Taos Studio.
How did you learn to use a sewing machine?
I was teaching art in a Denver high school in 1969, somebody donated a machine to the school and one of my students taught me how to use it. There was a whole fabric art movement going on in the late ‘60s. I wasn’t acutely aware of it, but it must have affected me because I was cutting up my abstract paintings and sewing them back together as non-functional quilts. As I was doing that, I became intrigued with the potential of using the sewing machine as a drawing tool. I liked the line quality, the way the line keeps popping out of the machine.
How did you get from non-functional quilts to sculpture?
I used to store those quilted paintings by rolling them up and standing them in a corner. I began to regard them as sculptural because they stood there. I made pant legs and sleeves as sculptural objects.
Like Claes Oldenburg?
No, more abstract than his. But they reminded me more and more of figures, especially a piece I did that was panty hose.
What happened to them?
I threw them all away. They just didn’t work as a solution to the problem of making sculpture from fabric. They looked like guts. Then I hit on the idea of drawing with the stitches and building up a low relief with stuffing between layers of fabric. It combined both interests – figure drawing, which was always the bottom line for me, and sculpture, which I was getting more and more interested in. The first piece I did like that was based on the Three Graces. It was wall-oriented sculpture rather than full-round, but I found I could still treat the full figure by doing the front and back views of the figures, rotating them across the horizontal plane.
You still do a lot of abstract paintings. How do you relate your work in these two seemingly very different styles?
I feel the two are very close. Both have an energized relief surface. In some of the work, I get the surface with stitching, and in some I get it with collage. I use the same gestures in the lines and strokes in the two types of work. Barbara Rose once asked Lucas Samaras what the connection was between his boxes with pins and needles in them, his large, sewn, fabric reconstructions, and his Polaroid photo transmutations. “Oh, I’m not sure,” he said to her. “It’s probably too early to tell.” I feel some of that.
|Figures and Shadows (detail), fabric relief, 5x6 feet.
Most of the figures in your work are female forms.
It may seem old-fashioned that I relate to figures like that, but . . . I certainly respond to them. A woman, a curator from the Whitney Museum, once asked me why I didn’t do more male figures. I couldn’t answer that for a few years until I realized that there was far more rapture in me in the female form than in the male. A lot of times, I don’t think of the figures as having gender. Deep down, I’m dealing with pure form. I did a commission for a man in Belen, Carlos Schidlowski, and when we started talking about it, he told me how much he loved horses and buffalo, Indians on horseback, and I said no, I didn’t want to get locked into any narrative content, I speculate in pure form. He said, “Great, I speculate in pure money.”
What’s pure form?
I’m more concerned with the sculptural aspects of a shape, its pure form, than I am with the message, the associations of the shape. It could be a buffalo or a woman’s body for all I care. There’s a lot of modeling involved. I use fabric like another artist might use clay. I add and subtract to get down to the shape and form that is rhythmic, interactive. It leads back to the idea of figure drawing that is other than flat. I can have undulating surfaces that are both drawing and bas relief.
Earlier you used the word rapture. Is that a key to the way you relate to your work?
I relate it to the feeling I get in a Gothic cathedral, the empathy of all that upward movement in architecture. It’s charged.
There’s a classical, Italian Renaissance feel about your work.
It’s the way I learned to draw. I remember in school I illustrated my own verbs. If the teacher was talking about the verb to spit, I’d draw a picture of a man spitting. And later, in art history classes, I’d always do quick drawings of the slides being shown, as a memory device.
The sculptural pieces are still very active, very verby, in their vertical thrust . . .
There’s horizontal movement, too. In the piece I’m doing now (a 24 –foot wall sculpture for a Denver office building), I use the same model for all the figures, but I rotate her and change the posture as she moves from right to left. Each piece has an optimum rhythm and proportion, a pictorial kind of logic that determines how one line and shape relates to another, and to the whole. And I’m finding as I do more commissions that the rhythm and proportion have to be right, not only within the individual piece, but within the space, too. It has to fit with the shape and size of the room, the lighting, the environment of the whole building . . . There’s that added excitement to doing commission pieces, creating them for a space.
When did you do your first commission?
In 1975. It was for a Los Angeles film maker, Paul Monash. A few years later, I did one for another producer, Paul Heller, who made all the Bruce Lee movies.
And you were involved in the Art in Public Places program.I did a large piece for the Bataan Memorial Building in Santa Fe, and one for the Mary Medina Human Services building in Taos. The Santa Fe piece has imagery evocative of tense, muscled, working people. The Taos piece is mostly animals – a bull, a charging horse, a flying bird. Before I started on it, I interviewed the people who worked in the building, and they told me about all the people they dealt with, and the piece attempts to help them forget their problems, lift them up. I tried to work from the condition of the people who would see it. R.C. Gorman commissioned me to do a diptych that hangs over his pool, I did a commission last year in Hawaii . . .
Have any conflicts arisen between what you want to do with a piece, and what the commissioner of the piece wants you to do with it?
None. So far, I’ve taken them an idea, and they’ve gone for it. I couldn’t do it any other way. I have to feel the piece has the art in it I have to get out of it.
In some of your abstract sculptural pieces, you used quite a bit of color. The figurative ones are considerably more restrained. Why is that?
The sewn, bas relief resembles a kind of marble. As you begin to draw attention with color, it can compete with the relief, with the sculptural presence. I draw graphite lines on muslin, and use an occasional accent of color—I love color—but I don’t put much of it in these pieces. I use it in a draftsman’s sense. The color describes the drawing and the sculpture.
The figures in the new work appear bolder, more frontal.
They seem to be pushing more now, demanding that they be more figurative, and less abstract in comparison to some of the earlier work. I love the little nubs, the sculptural details of elbows and knees. I ain’t just makin’ tits and ass.
What artists have been a strong influence on you?
Rodin. I’ve always liked the visceral quality of his work, the action, the pathos, the anxiety of his figures. I try to establish the same sort of charged, rotating, twisted point and counter-point in my figures.
Any contemporary artists?
Laddie Dill, especially, whose work gives the illusion of incredible weight but they’re actually quite light. And I like Richard Serra . . . his solid sheets of hot rolled steel leaning against a building. At times, that’s the effect I want my abstract paintings to have, a surface that looks like something else—steel, or a rock wall. It’s exciting to make a painting not look like a painting. And I’ve always loved de Kooning’s work.
Your drawing has the same sweeping, gestural quality.
I met him once. I lived in the Bowery for a year, and one Sunday I went to East Hampton to go sailing. It was a lousy day, and I was talking to a guy on the dock, I told him I was an artist, and he said, oh, we’ve got an artist here, his name’s de . . . dekoo, something like that. So I found his place, and he was working away in a frenzy in his studio. I didn’t want to interrupt him, so I waited for about an hour and he didn’t take a break, so I decided I had to knock or leave. He came to the door with brushes dripping. I said I was an artist from New Mexico and I just wanted to say hello, so he said “Five minutes. Five minutes. Come in,” in his Dutch accent. It turned into an hour and a half. There were his drawings of the Women Series all over the floor. The ideas he shared with me, mostly about how he worked, were really exciting. I asked if he worked from a model, and he said no, though he had in his early days. “Gorky would model for me,” he said, “but I’d never model for him in return, so he quit that.” And then one day he found this pair of overalls, all stiff with paint, leaning in a corner, and he grabbed them up and put them on a stool, and made a quick face out of plaster, and hung it up on the wall behind the thing, and all of a sudden it reminded him of himself. And he also used to draw nudes from himself in the mirror.
He used himself for shapes for the Woman Series?
Yes. And he told me how he painted on a day-to-day basis. He’ll take a painting that he thinks is resolved, and do a verbatim tracing of one part of it that he was excited about, and transfer that part to a new canvas and use that as the launching pad for the next painting. Once he had the figure, the image, whether it was from the thing in the corner, from himself, or from another painting, that was the given in the formula, then he was at the business of painting and no longer dealing with the figure. I feel the same way with these figurative images. I have established the given, and then go about the business of fabricating the sculptural-ness, the overall rhythm and picture. I don’t worry about the given anymore.
Do you think of your art as being at all Southwestern?
I have friends doing Southwestern images—Red Loving, Bill Gersh, Richard Thompson, even Carl Johansen—and I’m beginning to think a school is being established, but I don’t feel related to it. The Western imagery used to irk me. I felt it was provincial, but I’m mellowing. I’m coming to the conclusion that New York formalism is as provincial as horses and cowboys. Gersh was back East recently, and as he said when he got back, in New York they know what they can sell, and Elaine Horwitch knows what she can sell.
You’re a drummer, and I’ve seen how well you can control a speed bag with your fists. Is there a relationship?
I feel the same sort of rhythm in my hands—playing the drums, hitting the bag, and drawing. I have a good friend, Kester Smith, who’s a drummer for Taj Mahal. He stayed with us for ten days once, drummed most of the time, and I did a series of watercolors based on his rhythms. I titled them after stories he told us about the West Indies. When he was a kid, he and his friends would catch birds, but the winner of the game was the guy who caught the bird with the most beautiful song. Then he’d stand on the street, so proud, with his prized bird . . . That was his background in music.
--Stephen Parks, September 1981
(Gary Mauro exhibits at the Wildine Gallery, Albuquerque, and at his studio, P.O. Box 473, Ranchos de Taos, NM.)