- Mister Sister | paolo arao | acrylic, colored pencil, sewn cotton and canvas | 2018
When artist Paolo Arao sees color, he hears music. Call it synesthesia, but it probably relates more to his former life as a classical pianist. As a Navy brat, Arao's family moved from the Philippines, where he was born, to Hawaii, then Florida, eventually settling in Virginia. "Growing up and knowing I would only live in a certain place for a specific amount of time, it was hard for me to make friends," Arao says. "So, I spent many hours just playing piano." With a scholarship to Virginia Commonwealth University, Arao was on track to become a performer and composer. However, his curiosity for visual art blossomed in college, and he made the switch to a BFA in painting. "I was drawn to geometric abstraction because I saw some similarities with music," he says. "Structure and color and form and rhythm—I was able to see it through the lens of music with harmonies and dissonances."
Yet finding a way to harmoniously represent his queer identity fostered an even deeper curiosity. After graduation and a residency at the Vermont Studio Center, Arao moved to Brooklyn. Initially without a studio and limited space to paint, he began sketching self-portraits and homoerotic drawings with charcoal. He was offered a showcase, and dove into an unexpected decade-long career as a charcoal artist. "I was getting pigeon-holed making these gay drawings, and I wanted to get back into painting. I was trying to think of ways to represent my queer identity without depicting the body. But how can you do that through abstraction?"
Enter Mister Sister, the marriage of sewn textiles, acrylic, and colored pencil that graces this month's cover. It's not obvious there are queer motivations upon initial viewing, though the title—coincidentally sharing the name of one of Vermont's first gay bars, and where the painting was made during Arao's second residency at the Vermont Studio Center earlier this year—provides a helpful layer. Here, along with the other paintings he'll be exhibiting at Beacon's Mother Gallery mid-July, Arao explores the paradoxes of both queer formalism and geometric abstraction.
While much of his work is based on the rigidity of the grid, Arao plays around these restrictions. By using textiles, he softens the geometry; by stretching the canvas, he distorts it; by finding odd color combinations, he goes along with—and against—the system. Arao's profoundly intimate creations are echoed by their small size, appropriately inviting the viewer to take one step closer and examine these complicated relationships beyond formalizations. "I like seeing how certain colors aggravate each other, and addressing that—and my own personal—tension. It's like going back to music with dissonant and harmonic tones. I see these colors and textiles trying to create balance out of imbalance."
"Good Vibrations," featuring works by Paolo Arao, Angela Heisch, and Ryan Reggiani will be exhibited from July 14 through August 18 at Mother Gallery in Beacon, with an opening reception on July 14 from 6-10pm. (845) 236-6039.