A Conversation with Stephanie Gartanutti, Winner of the 2020 Surreal Salon 12
Every year, we get reports from Baton Rouge and the Baton Rouge Gallery for the annual Surreal Salon contest, exhibition and soiree. There has been an illustrious group of judges over the years (Ron English, Camille Rose Garcia, Shag and Craola), and this year's Surreal Salon was judged by the great Dan Quintana. The winner of this year's Surreal Salon 12 was the work Headstand by Philadelphia-based artist Stephanie Gartanutti, who works in woven steel and anodized/enameled metals and fashions them into distorted figures. We sat down with Gartanutti this week to discuss her process, history and working in such a unique medium.
Juxtapoz: Where did you grow up and where do you live now?
Stephanie Gartanutti: I grew up in the Philadelphia and South Jersey area. I spent most weekends and summers in Philly for art school, and I spent the rest of the time in South Jersey with my family. Now, I live in Philadelphia with my husband and daughter.
Can you remember the first time you were moved by a piece of art?
When I was little, I remember being mesmerized by the painting Sugar Schack by Ernie Barnes on the show "Good Times." I loved how expressive and exaggerated all of the bodies and faces are. Also on the show, it was JJ who painted it, which of course made JJ even more dynamite! When I was older I realized a lot of my anatomy and figures were influenced by that painting.
When you won Best in Show at the Surreal Salon 12 competition, you talked about how your work was a reflection of living with multiple sclerosis. Can you talk me through how these sculptures began taking shape, and maybe when you began feeling confident that something was happening that you liked? And maybe how they relate for you?
Less than a reflection, this work is more of a journal. I have a relapsing form of MS, which means the symptoms kind of come and go. Some stuff lasts for a couple of minutes, some last years. It’s like your body is always tingling or burning, and it’s worse when you’re still. So I try not to be still. My first attack rendered my right arm pretty useless for about three years. I was a painter lacking fine motors skills. I had been moving more towards sculpture and started making an armature with plans to cover it in some some other medium. Instead I just kept going with the wire. Each piece after that got more complex and I tried out new ideas, trying to combine some painterly aspects to the sculptures. The MS inevitably found its was into the sculpture, if my hands were hurting the hands on the sculpture would get bigger and bigger (sometimes smaller, it depends). The distortions are a catalog of whatever is going on with me at the moment. These sculptures can sometimes take years to complete causing the sculpture to change dramatically. Headstand (the next image seen below here) is a perfect example of this: she took over 5 years to create.
Who are these characters in your work?
They’re mostly me, even when they’re not. I have some work that’s based on mythological figures; they’re a little closer to what my paintings were like- steeped in bright Saturday morning cartoon colors. I watched a lot of TV as a kid.
We are all under various stages of shelter in place, denial, or whatever it may be, but how productive have you been during these past months?
This pandemic is awful, but I kind of love quarantine! My husband and I have always thought of our home as a working studio. Every morning I have woken up, walked in my sculpture room, and start working. In two months, I’ve done as much work as I normally complete in a year of regular life.
You work in this very specific medium, and the Surreal Salon is about so many different styles of art. What sort of inspirations and influences do you have outside of sculpture?
I am a huge fan of film and art that is over stylized and dramatic in both motion and characterization. I love movies like Triplets of Belleville, Mirror Mask, and Pan’s Labyrinth—the aesthetics of these films are like the holy grail of art for me. I have a million favorite painters and paintings but the most influential of all for me is Ernst Fuchs. I used to live in this great old building on North Broad street that was mainly occupied by art students. The basement to this building was huge, and filled with years of ex-tenant’s old stuff. It was a goldmine! It is also where I found the most amazing book of Ernst Fuchs' artwork. It was probably the biggest impact on my art to date.
What does Pop Surrealism and Low Brow Art mean to you?
If we’re talking about them as two different movements, Pop Surrealism makes me think of large eyed, big-headed, beatific and smooth children with bright California colors and a whimsical attitude. I was in awe of painters like Ron English and Mark Ryden. It was what I aspired to be as a painter. It doesn’t fit so well with my sculptures, though; I think I’m a little more of the Low Brow variety. I would characterize low-brow as grittier, DIY., informal materials and very Philly.
You went to SVA and University of the Arts in Philly. I'm curious how art school maybe shaped your practice, and in some ways, because you work in the arts as a curator, if these parts of your background have made you even more confident in speaking about your practice? Because your statement about your work was so well-said, and it feels like you have a great grasp on communicating your practice.
I didn’t graduate from either school. I went to SVA straight after high school, and I loved it. The school and NYC did so much to broaden my world view, and forced me to try and work at a higher level. Unfortunately, New York was just too expensive. I had like three or four jobs on top of full-time school. I was eventually lured back to Philly, to study at the University of the Arts. Being back in Philly made school seem less important—I wanted to do my own work. That’s when I was curating pop-up low-brow shows and started showing in local galleries. So, I left school again. I think having the time and the space to think and work more affordably helps me to communicate what I’m doing more than school did. School just gave me a window into other artists to advance my work.
What is the art community like in Philly at the moment?
Philly art is interesting in that it seems to be lurking in the oddest places. There’s lots of DIY and pop-up art shows, punk rock flea markets, and murals everywhere. Philly is the relaxed unkempt version of New York. We’re gritty and we like it that way.
What is coming up for you in the future?
I am currently showing with Arch Enemy Arts in Philadelphia—Headstand can be seen there now. I am also part of their Mythos Show this month. Beyond that, we’ll have to see how this pandemic plays out. Right now, I’m just trying to take advantage of the time given to me.