The following are a collection of essays and quotes from respected fellow artists and writers about the exhibition.
“I visited the studio where the two painters are working together and was struck by the conceptual integrity and quality of execution I saw. The images in the proposal that present “virtual” representations of the installation don’t do justice to the actual works. I was especially struck by the paintings in which the two artists collaborated on the same canvases, passing them back and forth in stages. The proposal is ambitious.”
There’s nothing quite like living in a pandemic for shaking you up and forcing you to adjust your way of living and working. You might think the forced seclusion would produce the ideal situation for artists who require long stretches of uninterrupted time to create. But for two local artists, Michelle Gagliano and Beatrix Ost, all that studio alone-time was proving to be too much. So, beginning in November 2020 under the grim shadow of Covid-19, they embarked on a collaborative working process. Pushing back against the isolation, they found a new way of being productive that’s rewarding, inspiring and joyful.
Unlike most collaborations where artists work on parallel tracts, in this version, the artists work on top of each other, exchanging completed paintings for the other to add to. The idea of an artist letting go of a piece they have labored over to completion, offering it unconditionally to another to augment as they wish, reveals an extraordinary degree of trust. In the beginning, it was challenging for both Ost and Gagliano to step into the other’s paintings for fear of altering the original vision. It’s gotten easier as they’ve become more in tune to each other and have also begun to see and appreciate the fruits of their alliance.
Looking at the two artists’ work, you probably wouldn’t put them together. Gagliano produces shimmering atmospheric, largely abstract compositions, while Ost’s ornate narratives boast a complex iconography with a decidedly surrealist bent. Each artist brings something different that contributes to the whole. Beyond enhancing the work, these individual perspectives also reveal a different way of seeing and describing the world. As Gagliano puts it, “It’s like a collision of contemporary surrealism and abstraction.”
And then there are the women themselves. Ost lives within a highly curated world of style—her dress and environments are extraordinary testaments to beauty, unconventionality and chic. Gagliano is more retiring in dress and manner. The two also work at a different pace. Ost has a faster tempo, while Gagliano works more slowly. “It’s kind of interesting how we play into each other,” says Ost. “The result has the same strength. There’s no weakness. We’re both enormously strong and that is such joy. You never have the feeling, oh my God, today I overran her. No, it just feels fruitful.”
Indeed Gagliano and Ost have forged a potent bond during the course of their joint studio practice. And despite outward appearances, they share significant similarities. Both are serious artists who derive real sustenance from their practices. For each artist, painting is a lifeline, providing not only a living, but an identity and enormous psychic fulfillment.
In addition, Gagliano and Ost each have three sons, and they both revel in that maternal role. And finally, their temperaments are in sync. “We’re not dramatic people,” says Gagliano. “We’re very calm. And it’s so nice to be with someone where it’s really just about what we’re doing now in that present moment.”
The overriding theme of the work is nature as both a nurturing and destructive force. Both Ost and Gagliano grew up on large farms, Gagliano’s, a dairy farm in Upstate New York; Ost, a farm in Bavaria, which specialized in cabbages destined for sauerkraut. It was an experience that both say imbued a deep understanding of and respect for nature.
“My father didn’t have a weather channel,” says Ost. “He’d look up in the sky and see where the birds were. If the birds were very high up, he’d know there’d be good weather for a stretch and we could harvest the hay. If the birds were low in the sky, he knew bad weather was coming.”
“My grandfather knew from the snow when to tap the maple trees,” says Gagliano. “My grandmother cooked using a wood stove. She knew exactly which wood to use to modulate the fire to cook different foods. I tell my kids mine was an 1820s childhood.”
Not surprisingly, perhaps, is the preponderance of food imagery: fruit, vegetables, fish, etc., that’s used to convey nature’s abundance. Food is one of the important gifts of nature that sustains life, something these two “farm girls” would know. Ost, in particular, saw its importance first-hand as a young child: “After the war, the deprivation was terrible in Germany, but we had food. Back then it was the most valuable commodity. My father always felt to me like a king because he provided for all these people who came from Prussia to live with us in Bavaria.”
But nature is not just a sustainer, it can also be a destroyer, capable of unimaginable catastrophes. This bipolar view of nature is embodied in “The Gift of Wrath.” The painting shows nature proffering its bounty, but nature is presented as a wild-eyed, male fiend with bared fangs. The figure’s legs, though human in form, are comprised of animals and plants. His message is clear: this is what I have to offer, but don’t mess with me. Behind him on his left, a woman, representing the careless, hedonistic world watches him languidly as she puffs on a cigarette, or joint. Jagged threads of gold form an orb-shaped cage around the duo. The threads both exalt and contain them. And while those filaments confine them for now, they also look delicate enough that if nature wanted to, he could easily break them.
“Broken Promise” presents a corset rising out of a tissue lined box as if lifted by the ghostly fireflies that flit around it. Against a field of rich ultramarine blue, the corset shimmers in a way that echoes the buzzing insects’ wings. It hovers over what appears to be an older cast-off corset and assorted vegetables scattered on the ground. Long golden laces drape down to encircle the earth and vegetables below. “I thought it was interesting to bring the corset into the work,” says Ost. “It’s so very feminine, an article of women’s underwear. It’s also holding something together. Like the world, the earth needs to be held together by dignity, by service. Not abused.”
“Nature Nurture” is a series of four paintings that incorporate landscape and still life. These luxe and voluptė works have an appealing horizontal rhythm. The objects and topography seem to melt into one another in a manner that evokes Dali, while suggesting a oneness of everything. Tenuous veils of gold flow down from the top, introducing a subtle counterpoint to the horizontal movement.
In the “Dissected Presence” series, densely packed objects form a visually sumptuous allover effect. We see snatches of images emerging from the richly patterned surface—a face, fruits, leaves, an eye—all part of Ost’s rich visual lexicon. The works are shot through with diagonal shafts of gold added by Gagliano that create a pleasurable frisson of metallic glints, as well as the drama of dynamic movement. The shafts both embellish the work and also serve an important formal function, interrupting the illusion of space and introducing a distinctly modern device into the composition. The palette sets the tone for the work, affixing it temporally by season and mood.
Meant to depict “what we do with nature and what we do to nature,” the “Discovery Series: Symbiotic Tango,” which was begun by Gagliano and finished by Ost, is comprised of five series of nine paintings. Each series focuses on one of the five colors that make up the Olympic Games interlinked rings and represent the five continents: red, blue, green, yellow, and black. Ost and Gagliano use it to symbolize the earth as well as, global unity.
The focus shifts to surface in these works, with the richly layered medium creating an effect of controlled dynamism. The surface has an excavated quality. This initially suggests decrepitude, but in considering them, you realize the explosions of paint could also represent an emergence of some kind, along the lines of the Big Bang. Gagliano notes that while painting these she was inspired by the James River. The thrust and splash of paint evokes the river as it flows over rocks and laps the shore. These works boast hidden gems, remnants of humans that we must really have to look for to see. Some of these, like the tiny figure pushing against the egg and the randomness of their placement recall Hieronymous Bosch. There are also toothy snub-nosed fish, disembodied faces and what appears to be a severed green hand. “Where the abstract meets the surreal is very interesting to me,” says Ost. “The mind works like that. The mind understands the abstract and the surreal. It’s the ordinary eyes that want order.”
In this collaboration, the sum really is greater than its parts. What one ends up with is four different artists, or artistic styles. There’s Gagliano and Ost, of course. But there’s also Ost-Gagliano and Gagliano-Ost, since the two sets of collaborative work vary greatly depending on which artist goes first and which goes second. So while we see within these works recognizable stylistic landmarks identifying each artist, we also experience something that is altogether new.
The effects of their partnership have spilled over into the artists’ independent work. “With my personality,” says Ost. “I had never been drawn to abstraction as my artistic language. But, now I’m in it. I’m in Michelle’s abstract world. I can dive into it, I can look back and look forward, reeling in what I have been presented with.”
“It’s been completely expansive working with Beatrix’s narrative,” says Gagliano. “I never really studied surrealism. It was a blip in art history. But now, getting to know Beatrix’s life, and seeing how it extends to the canvas is so enriching. That’s why it was so hard for me to paint over her work—you could feel the story coming through her paintings.”
“I feel so driven to get going on what you brought to me. The energy is reminiscent of when I was a pupil at Oskar Kokoschka‘s School of Vision in Salzburg. He always pushed us. In watercolor class for example, the models did not sit still. We were expected to catch the movement. It’s a little bit how I feel now. With Michelle, it’s a whole wild world of abstract forms and I want to get in that world. They’re coming at me, they’re moving and I want to get into it.”
Working together means the experience of painting is augmented and different ways of painting are developed. Generally speaking, working as an artist can be a lonely pursuit, but in this case, the two artists are no longer operating in a solitary state, but have another stakeholder in the finished product to act as a sounding board throughout the process. This is obviously helpful in completing a piece by reinforcing the decisions and choices involved in its creation. But with two people involved, it’s also easier to appreciate a piece and derive pleasure from its creation because you have someone else experiencing the same reaction and reinforcing one’s own. “I get so much from her and she gets so much from me,” confirms Ost.
“It’s like dancing the Tango,” she continues. “Following and giving and then stepping back— constantly.”
“That’s a perfect analogy,” agrees Gagliano. “It’s like a love story,” she continues.
“Yes, it’s like a funny love story,” agrees Ost.