Michelangelo Russo

The works in Michelangelo Russo's new exhibition, 'CARTONI', are the patient result of a year-long process of refinement. 'In 2003, I made a series called 'Wax',' Russo explained to me in his home studio in Preston. 'I had this vision of badly stitching together pieces of raw material, mainly canvas coffee bean bags. I wanted to paint them in a monochromatic way, but no techniques I knew were responding well to the materials.'

Russo’s search led him to encaustic painting, which mixes heated beeswax and Damar crystals with pigment, The technique was used in Roman occupied Egypt in the late first century BC by the Greek painters of the Fayum mummy portraits – death masks painted on small wood panels that were affixed to upper-class mummies; passports intended to grant the deceased safe passage to the kingdom of the afterlife. Even when viewing them in reproductions we can appreciate how beeswax is used, ingeniously, to endow a painting’s subject a little of the luminous translucence of human skin. The paintings suggest an early link in the evolutionary chain of wax-based human representation, a tradition that encompasses medieval funerary effigies through to waxworks museums like Madame Tussauds and up to the sophisticated medical prostheses that we have today.

Russo, who for years has been steadily moving away from figurative representation in his work, is self-taught in the encaustic method. ‘My first experiments were a big failure,’ he reflects. Undeterred, he kept at it, and the works in ‘Wax’ were ultimately successful enough to lead Russo to retire his oils and acrylics in favour of dedicating himself to the encaustic technique. He now offers encaustics classes from his studio: an invitingly open street-level space filled with records and books that fills with natural light on clear days.

Russo’s intent obviously differs greatly from the ancient painters, and the encaustic wax achieves different effects in his work. In some instances, it lends the surface of a work a lambent, almost lunar quality. In others – as is often the case with the new works in ‘CARTONI’ – it suggests the excretions of the natural world: tree sap, the calcified limestone drippings of caves, and of course, beeswax.

To create the new works, Russo has used all organic, sustainable materials. ‘This is important to me at this moment in history,’ he explains, ‘It is also intriguing to use something natural to produce something that is still visually valid.’ The works in ‘CARTONI’ are made using wood and salvaged cardboard. Russo does not plan a piece before beginning work. After deciding on a piece’s size (‘The most difficult step!’), Russo constructs a wood panel and frame. Rather than adornment, the frame provides essential structural support: it contains the cardboard. Once this is done, the remainder of a piece happens ‘almost automatically’ until the entire panel is filled. After, the encaustic paint is applied – it can take some time for a work to ‘tell’ Russo what colour ‘it wants to be’ –Russo’s brushstrokes are blowtorched away.

‘I let the accident I have in the studio suggest shapes,’ he says. ‘I feel I’m not the author of the piece. I’m just the middleman, facilitating the process. I try to let the material I’m using speak for itself, I always take great pleasure in revealing the beauty of something we use everyday, something we don’t stop and look at.’

Russo grew up in Campobasso, a Southern Italian city located roughly 150 kilometres north-east of Naples. He has been painting for most of his life. By age ten, he had his own easel and oils and was painting regularly at home. ‘But my mama, being Italian, was very focused on [having] a clean house, he says. ‘She didn’t like the smell, or the mess I was making. But, she had a painter friend she used to buy paintings from, and she asked him if I could work with him.’ So, by around the age of eleven, Russo was working in the atelier of his mother’s friend. The older painter found he so enjoyed Russo’s company that he decided to open his studio to other children, and by the time Russo was fourteen, the painter had upgraded to a larger studio and now welcomed up to fifteen young artists to share in the space.

For Russo, it was a formative experience of working if not quite with, then beside, other artists. Soon after his first solo exhibition – at age fifteen – in the late-1970s, Russo began playing in local bands. Having divided his late teens and twenties between Pescara and Rome to study architecture and graphic design, in 1990 he moved to East Berlin. The Wall had just fallen. ‘It was desolate, empty,’ says Russo. ‘There were still machine gun bullet holes in the walls, left over from the war.  You had a sense that you were living inside of history.’ In Berlin, Russo became involved with the city’s thriving music scene, and after moving to Australia in 1994, he began collaborating with Hugo Race and his band, The True Spirit. Twenty five years later, the pair have now collaborated across various bands and projects and toured Australia and Europe together at length.

‘When I play music, I never play like a musician,’ says Russo. ‘I play like a painter. I use the same tools as a musician, but I use them differently. I don’t play instruments, I use them to make sounds. It’s all spontaneous, instantaneous. The difference between making music and art is that [in music] you have someone else to confront what you’re doing, instead of making all the decisions alone.’

In ‘CARTON I’, Russo’s highly intuitive approach to his art has led to a body of work that encourages the viewer to momentarily step outside the visual cacophony of the smartphone world to privately encounter themselves. These are works that do not ask you to agree with anything, but rather, as Mark Rothko said, are paintings that ‘live by companionship, expanding and quickening in the eye of the sensitive observer.’ They provide a visually provocative focus in a sparsely decorated space, and offer an oasis of serenity in busier spheres.

‘That’s because there’s no perfection in them,’ Russo says. ‘Imperfection is stimulating and interesting. I can’t think of anything perfect in nature. These pieces reflect that.’

Michelangelo Russo, CARTONI: Containers Contained
13 – 24 August 2019
fortyfive downstairs, Melbourne


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