An Interview with Chicago Artist Vito Desalvo

Album cover- Duets For Confused Couples. 12 x 12. Colored pencil. 2022

By opening night the installation of Vito Desalvo’s rare public showing of his drawings was completed and the exhibition opened without a hitch. It will be showing, through December 31 at Greenkill Gallery in Kingston, NY. With the help of Mariah Karson, we were able to present his work in a manner that he found acceptable. My main task other than that was convincing him to attend the opening. After a great deal of bargaining, Vito not only showed up but was also surprisingly charitable in his conversations with guests. No one hurt, no foul. In the weeks following the opening, I was asked to interview Vito about his state of mind and thoughts about his work. Last Monday night after considerable liquid consumption, he responded to my inquiries. Our housemate Leo took the dogs—Tina, Louise, and Jack— out for an extended walk so we wouldn’t be distracted. Here are some excerpts of our chat, flaws and all.

Stan Klein: We did it. How does it feel?

Vito Desalvo: You mean emptying out my studio? Feels like I died. Nothing still here except plates of colorful leftover food and cigarette butts all over the floor, along with the stained walls that were hidden by my work.

SK: Want someone to clean the studio now? Sort of getting a new start?

VD: Are you nuts? Took me years to make it this comfortable. There are so few places where I can breathe easy and be myself. The studio is my world of one.

SK: How’s your health? You were having health problems lately.

VD: We are all getting old, well maybe not as much as that crank Leo. Look, the three of us will probably all be dead in the next ten years. They’ve stopped making parts for these bodies. All of ours will stop running eventually. (He paused for a moment.) It was nice to get the work out there. I was starting to talk to the pieces after I was finished with them. To have chats while I am making them is OK, but when the pieces are finished, we should be done with each other.

SK: Sounds like your relationships with people as well.

VD: It is all part of who you are. Being is the presence of your work. It is all a reflection and expression of what, where, and how one is thinking and feeling at the time. Sadly, most folks get all caught up with the shenanigans of societal constructs and obligations of their own making then lose track of their direct thought patterns. Despite my so-called bad habits, having a flow of inner dialogue and means to express it; keeps me healthy.

SK: Why so much drinking and smoking? Is it that necessary for your work?

VD: It is the best next alternative to death itself. Frankly, it helps distance me from others. I smell, wear old clothes, and am disinterested in most people. This frees me to observe, listen, and mull over what the world has to offer. I often think about folks interactions and their relationship with the spaces they occupy.

Album cover- Tedious Horn solos. 12 x 12 . Colored pencil. 2022

SK: It all sounds so cold. I know that you have had very few long-term “friends.” At some point did you just stop caring?

VD: Moth and light, my friend. Light attracts a moth. The moth tries in vain to capture the light. Over time the effort is killing. What interests me is why—and how—people and nature move forward seeking fulfillment and happiness. I’m more interested in the process than the effort itself.

SK: Well, let’s move on from this for now. Tell me about your ideas on composition, color, and the use of words in your work.

VD: I was left alone a lot when I was young. Both parents worked and my older siblings were off on their own. I was left with television, books, and radio. I began to view films as images worth studying and all three as vehicles for understanding how people spoke with one another and what their motivations might be. Their actions and reactions. Which I found fascinating. Color is a way of looking. When you’re always making notes of how people treat each other in the world, seeing behaviors in different lights, staying aware and observant becomes a second skin after a while…Man, I could use another drink right now.

Record album- Be Present 12 x 12 x 12 colored pencil

SK: One thing before I end this chat, tell me your thinking about making these record albums and hardcover books?

VD: Well we have been friends a long time. You probably understand my thinking but I can jump into more about it. The People in the Know series was my process of dealing with the increasing lack of ability of people to conduct themselves in social verbal communication

(I interrupt him at this time.) More it wasn’t the way you prefer to talk with people. I think it is called civility.

VD: No it is constant shading of truth. Tell me no. Not just some lame diversion.

SK: Let’s get back to the record albums. We just agree to disagree. (I sensed his anger building and just want his answers, not a debate.)

VD: You can be such a putz sometimes. The albums started as an exercise to work in a defined limited space. Trying to convey a fully realized image and plot of sorts within the size limits. It had to be a theme, a certain performer, and a motivation they are trying to sell to the public. My input deals with playing with the concept and pushing it to extremes. For the record starts out at some point being some sort of artistic statement. Many hands later it is a contrived financial vehicle to sell folks an alluring package. The germ of a true idea or concept has been packaged away, my job was to have fun with this construct and make myself laugh.

SK: The song titles on the back?

VD: That was a surprising fun part. Doing the drawing and chuckling to myself about potential titles.

SK: Do you think you will keep going on with making these albums? I saw where you had cd sized note cards of them made for sale.

VD: It is still a rich vein of ideas that I still want to explore. I am actually getting commissions to do covers for other people’s albums. Kinda nuts in a way. But seriously in the back of my head it is all a tribute to Cal Schenkel. He was the start of albums being an creative art form that barely touches on the reality of the music itself. He completed these projects with great humor, skill and fun. They were compact beautiful pieces of art in themselves. Always giving him thanks for inspiring me in art to begin with.

SK: A very nice person and truly gifted artist

VD: If my body cooperates, I hope to keep working. The world provides the ideas. When I can no longer find the means to express those thoughts in an effective means, I won’t have a reason to continue.

SK: Fair enough, I guess.

VD: Damn straight, Peabrain.

A SHARED PAST. 28 x 23. Color pencils. 2019

About Vito Desalvo

Vito was originally from Pittsburgh, PA, and went through art training at Carnegie Mellon University. He moved to Chicago in the late 1970s and has been creating artwork there ever since. While he has somewhat friendly relations with the local gallery world, he has chosen to go his own path in the past.

His current work is a series of record albums reflecting present societal interests. Each album includes a back cover of professional song titles and production notes. These works are displayed in wall-mounted bins.

His previous series was “International People in the Know,” an observation on interpersonal relations in today’s world. For these portraits he created fictitious faces as well as using the faces of real people in his life. The backgrounds of these pieces do not suggest clues as to place, identity, or the nature of the conversations his subjects might be having. The artist only offers the finality of an implied statement. In some of the pieces there is a lingering hint that the subjects understand the implications of their comments. In others there is only a sense of an innocent use of common phrases, not a grasp of the deeper implications of those phrases. Vito has made comments related to these pieces saying that all serious conversations eventually lead to a confirmed answer, “No.”

Vito Desalvo continues to live in Chicago and still speaks to people. Most have made vague, sometimes positive comments about him.

About Stan Klein

Sam is a longtime colleague of Vito Desalvo and sometimes they’re friends.

ONE MAN SUB. 53 x 32 color pencils 1989

Vito DeSalco:Solo Exhibition. Closes Dec. 31. Greenkill Gallery- 229 Greenkill Avenue, Kingston, New York, 12401,– for opening hours