Andy Piedilato: Body of Water

Sep 19, 2016 4:35PM

Andy Piedilato did not set out to paint shipwrecks or glaciers, though his formal training began in medical illustration. The subject matter of his work has changed dramatically since then, yet something of the scientific method remains in his paintings in the way he systematically breaks down an elaborate unknown. Like all investigations, his begins with a question, and if such thoughts could be given words they might be, “How do I make something different from what I’ve made before?”   

Piedilato’s early works were essentially abstract, concerning forms that resembled hills, wheels, and rolling tectonic plates colliding and slipping past one another in indeterminate space. These compositions were born of an initial gesture, applied directly to the canvas by hand, becoming more chaotic and complex as they progressed. The problem with working this way is that procedural memory guides us back to motions we are adept at performing, and eventually, marks intended to be random will start to follow a pattern.

How does one fight this tendency? Piedilato’s answer was to return to figuration as a means of tackling formal issues, just as Willem de Kooning did in the '60s or Caroll Dunham did in the '80s. The paintings in this exhibition begin with persistently modified sketches that provide critical space from the organic, reactionary choices on which earlier works were founded. Meanwhile, the artist has allowed himself to play up the recognizable forms emerging from the picture plane, suggesting a newfound willingness to incorporate human narrative. A ship's mast reads as bone, rope as tendon, and the sea as flesh. Permitting the laws of nature to dictate light, shadow and depth resulted in compositions that are at once more refined and more unusual—a prime example, if ever there was one, that truth is stranger than fiction.

It is fitting that these seascapes should inspire awe and make us feel small. The scale of these works is impressive, yet we regularly encounter architectural features of a similar size that do not impose themselves in quite the same way. Rather, their impact lies in the sense that the artist has worked furiously to capture every detail of a rapidly unfolding drama with no time to address the occasional splatter. In the midst of sudden trauma, like a free fall, our brains record minutia more acutely and experience a dilation of time. There is beauty and serenity in these moments that is closer to the mood these paintings evoke than the feeling of terror or confusion one might expect. 

The dynamic subject matter of this work belies a slow, painstaking masking process, which Piedilato uses to create a rich, multi-layered surface that gives and takes. Even at a distance, the eye discerns subtle differences in depth, as brush marks build upon and efface what has come before. At close range, the work achieves a sculptural quality. Slick, frothy white, not yet dry before let loose of its confines, spills over dusty hues of sage and slate that look to have been stamped in with a dry brush. A Cartesian plane laid bare by this net of masking tape underpinnings traces the undulating surfaces of waves and hull. Like Mark Bradford’s use of graphic information to map time and place, Piedilato employs a geometry that obfuscates meaning even as it seems to describe the workings of a complex system. Here we have neither sense of scale nor geographic reference to reveal the gravity of damage or the distance from shore.

—Dulce Shultz