Carole d’Inverno’s paintings can read as a coded language – idiosyncratic and universal at the same time. Her preparatory work involves meticulous research, specifically on historical aspects of a place and its inhabitants; yet her paintings seem to come together in a highly intuitive and fluid process. Throughout our conversations over recent years we have exchanged ideas about art and life. In this interview with Art Spiel, she shares some notions on the impetus of her work, process, and plans.
AS: You were born in Europe and currently reside in Brooklyn. What can you share about some experiences that you see as pivotal to your art?
Carole d’Inverno: There are pivotal moments in both my interest in art and history.
I was born in Belgium (1956) of Italian parents. We went back to Italy when I was 5. I lived there till 13, then back to Belgium. Europe is chuck- full of old stuff, so you can’t avoid being dazzled, but for me, and a lot of young people my age, none of it made sense. We were the post WWII generation. We rejected all of it. How can you defend the European civilization that brought us the war and its horrors?
But I was obsessed with finding out, make sense of it. When I was 17 I got a smuggled copy of “Mein Kampf” (it was illegal to possess one). I read that along with “Treblinka” by Steiner. I didn’t sleep for weeks after that. My father was drafted in the Italian fascist army, but he refused to go (he hated the fascists). So, during the war he hid, anywhere he could. He survived, and never talked about the war or what he went through. Most adults didn’t want to talk about it. But on sunny days he would take me to army cemeteries, or memorials of the war (there are so many scattered across Europe) – his way of expressing his sorrow I guess. I was a child…and scared…all those neatly arranged white crosses on green grass.
Alongside that, I was always doing art. When I was 12, I went on a school trip where I got to walk up the Campanile di Giotto in Florence. Each window framing looking out told a different story. I was mesmerized. Then we went to Paestum. We all ran out of the bus, screaming, playing. It was at sunset. I was running towards the temples, and I remember stopping hard on my tracks. The sun was setting behind the temples, forming that negative amphora space (we had been drilled at school on that). The temples were aglow and I started literally shaking, thinking, “if that’s beauty, someday, I want to be part of it”.
So I kind of had the Dr. Jekyll and Mister Hyde upbringing.
AS: Is it safe to say that you focus on painting, or at least that painting is central in your work? What drew you to painting?
Carole d’Inverno: Definitely drawn to painting the most – I always have been into it. As a kid, I liked gouaches more than pencils. I am also a klutz- I can’t make straight lines, or do precise work.
AS: You have a deep interest in American history. What prompted that and how is it reflected in your work?
Carole d’Inverno: I got here when I was 23. I didn’t speak or write English, but also, had no understanding of how things worked, no clues of the culture. So I made the choice to learn the history, out of necessity.
I made “Call it Out” after the white supremacists march on Charlottesville. It took a while to jell down to its simplest most direct expression of loathing.
“19 and half ” refers to women’s history. During the settling of the west, the army established forts. They figured out that for each 19 and half soldiers, a washerwoman was required. There are photos of these women. So there is an apron in the painting and 19 and half circles. It all came out at once.
AS: You say that as an artist you strive to transform and codify historical information into visual abstractions. Can you elaborate on that?
Carole d’Inverno: When I read any type of info, a specific shape forms in my head. I try and grab onto that, before it goes all baroque on me, and I start adding more descriptive things. Because I work in series, each subject has its own vocabulary. Because information is processed in my mind in shapes, each series has its own shapes that are related to one another by the subject matter.
AS: You are very engaged with music and literature. Color seems to play an important role in your work. Do you see a link between them in your paintings – if so, in what ways?
Carole d’Inverno: I grew up with musicians and I am married to one, but in my studio I never listen to music, or anything. I just like silence when I work. But music is a vocabulary also, so I love going to hear live music. What I hear, is usually translated into architecture. The better the music, the more complex the architecture my mind sees.
Words and sentences form shapes in my head, so I go with that first. That’s the anchor. Colors come after. The struggle for me is nailing down that composition to its barest, most solid state. When it comes out, that’s when I really know what the actual impulse was about- what trigger created that shape. Everything flows from there. And because that composition is directly related to a fact in history, the mood of the piece comes from that. The colors are there to help me accentuate the facts and my emotional response to them.
AS: You say that in preparation for a new series you research the history of a place extensively. Can you tell me about your process from gathering info to what you call “visual coded language”?
Carole d’Inverno: Ahead of producing the work, I study as much as I feel I need, to kick start the work. I get a bunch of books – anything goes: the geology and terrain, the history of early inhabitants, the settlers, the economy of the area. The research usually includes looking at old photographs, lithographs, images of flora and fauna, maps. While I study, I jot down information in sketch books.
These sketch books will be the basis of the studio work. They are the mother lore. This is where the initial shapes appear, and start talking to one another. Some will appear while sleeping and wake me up. They are just pencil sketches for the most part. I also write down sayings and phrases and pin them up on my studio walls, along with maps.
AS: You work in series. How do you start a series?
Carole d’Inverno: I try and get a show in a place I haven’t studied yet. Next year, I will be working on the history of Ohio, and Florida. So, basically I try and apply to places that are interested in history and art, and if they let me, I plunge in.
AS: You have a science education and from our conversations, clearly interested in science. Do you think this enters your codification methodology?
Carole d’Inverno: I am sure it’s in there somewhere! I think of a simple thing like : H2O is H-O-H and is water -all 3 are codes. They are not actual water. So I think part of codifying is a bit of the science background, but it’s also a way to put order to the emotion/reactions I have in learning a particular fact. History is hard to process, putting some order to it helps.
AS: You are also politically engaged and may I say, an activist to a degree? Do you think that aspect is reflected in your work?
Carole d’Inverno: I wouldn’t call myself an activist, that implies action. But history is made of politics, so it is in the work. After I research a subject, I intuitively let the work come out, so what I actually paint is what I am interest in, or what I emotionally react to. And usually the pieces are about women, minorities, climate. That’s what interests me I couldn’t care less about the guy on the white horse.
AS: Your titles always surprise me – how do you come up with them?
Carole d’Inverno: They seem to percolate up as I paint, or I wake up with them. Again, trying to get to the essence.
AS: Tell me about your new Scroll series (genesis, how you see it relation to your other work).
Carole d’Inverno: The very first one was about 8 years ago. I was stuck. -didn’t know what to paint. So I forced myself to just draw on a long piece of paper, thin lines. It slowed me down and I was able to reconnect with myself. Now they are just part of the process. I don’t see them as separate. Just sometime I feel the need to make these long scrolls but they are also based on all I am learning.
AS: What are you working on now?
Carole d’Inverno: I just started buying books on Ohio, Key West, and Florida. Next year will be busy. I have a solo show at the Massillon Art and History Museum, on the history there. I will be in residence at both The Studio at Key West, and the Maitland Art Museum. I’ll be studying those areas also.