Finding Harmony in the Liminal
Trend Magazine, Winter 2014
On the floor of Paul Pascarella's barnlike studio just outside Arroyo Seco, New Mexico, is a series of postcard-sized vistas from a Sung dynasty scroll painting. Look closely at these pages he's torn from an old art book and you'll see the atmospheric mountains and fierce but strangely comical dragons that typify the period.
On one wall hangs a five-foot double portrait of "Gonzo" journalist Hunter S. Thompson, Hunter's World, a mixed-media piece he made soon after Thompson's 2005 suicide. Scattered about, on shelves and tabletops, are arti-facts of Native American culture—drums, rattles, feathers, and the like. On the far wall, commanding center stage, hangs a recent Pascarella triptych, a large-scale work with vaguely Asian visual references, rendered in vivid scarlet and gold hues with bits of exotic collage. It's a knockout piece, typical of the charged, lyrically gestural canvases he's been making lately, several of which were shown in his "New Moon" series at the David Richard Gallery in Santa Fe last spring.
It's clear from his surroundings that many influences have fed Pascarella's psyche and art, and now, in his vigorous seventh decade, he feels that it's all coming together. "When I came to Taos, I still didn't know what I was doing," he says. "I was in my forties when I got here, and by the time I was 50,1 would look at certain ideas, certain things, and I would have a clearer vision of what they were. Somehow the place was working on me without my knowing it."
A compact, athletic man with silver hair, Pascarella, 66, has been on a journey that's taken him a long way from his roots as a child of first-generation Polish and Italian immigrants in Emerson, New Jersey, into the army, through head trips with Thompson, to Hollywood, and finally to Northern New Mexico. In many ways it's an odyssey typical of those who came of age during die social and political upheavals of the 1960s, when quests for meaning led people into uncharted territories of experience and investigations into "alternative" cultures were almost de rigueur.
But despite growing up in a large and encouraging clan, the artist's origins were postwar prosaic. As a child, he discovered a talent for drawing and thought about going into art school after graduating from high school. Instead, he enlisted in the army. "It was my form of rebellion, but within three days I realized what a dreadful mistake I'd made," he recalls. At first slated to be in an airborne division, he wound up sorting mail in Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri.
Stuck in one of the dullest jobs on the base, he relieved the tedium with painting. One piece, a poster-sized mock reenlistment image with an Alfred E. Newman character—"grungy-looking, drunk, and widi hero medals"—caught the attention of a Green Beret, who borrowed it for the recruiting center to poke fun at "lifers," soldiers who reenlisted again and again.
A few days later, the Green Beret returned to offer Pascarella a job at the John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center, in Fort Bragg, North Carolina. Over the next two years, he designed brochures and "propaganda-type images" with some of the country's best commercial designers and illustrators.
Upon discharge, the 21-year-old Pascarella entered Parsons School of Design, where he focused less on fine art and more on photography and film. One project, in which he set a quasi-abstract sequence based on Molly Bloom's soliloquy in James Joyce's Dubliners to a Henry Mancini movie score, so impressed his professors that it earned him a teaching gig at Fordham. He turned it down.
In 1968, after graduating with a graphic design degree, a roman¬tic crisis propelled Pascarella to Aspen, Colorado, where he'd intended to just ski. Eventually he crossed paths with Thompson; they hit it off, and the two remained lifelong friends. "I could prob¬ably have used that as a more constructive time," Pascarella says of that period (spent largely between Aspen and Los Angeles). "I knew I wanted to make art, but I didn't really know what to do."
Ten years later, he moved to Los Angeles and found work as a design consultant and title designer. While working on the 1981 remake of The Postman Always Rings Twice, he got to know Bob Rafelson and Jack Nicholson. "I might have been decent at making movies, but I don't think I was ready."
While in L.A., Pascarella became intrigued by Native American traditions, particularly those of the Lakota, which he discovered via a medicine man who lived in the Valley. "There were these sweat lodges in suburban houses, and this old medicine man who came out to teach us," he recalls. "We would go up to South Dakota and Colorado and perform these ceremonies." Pascarella got into the rituals, and made drawings and videos of his experiences—especially those concerning the buffalo. "I got interested in the buffalo thing because I saw this buffalo skull in a restaurant, and I said, 'That's where America started going wrong, moving west with no regard for what was there.'"
The experience led Pascarella to a bigger choice in the mid-1980s. "1 decided, if I can't make movies here in Hollywood, I'll work on my paintings and be low-key somewhere and just paint and draw." The where was Santa Fe, specifically a borrowed garage studio in Tesuque. "All I had to do was paint during the day, and it was terrifying," he remembers. "I think it was the hardest thing I ever did. The community there was a gallery community, not an art community."
Within a short time, he longed to get out of the city and back in the country again and discovered Taos and its now-famous circle of L.A. emigres: Ron Davis, Ron Cooper, Ken Price, Larry Bell, and others. "When I came here, it was desert—and mountains. Colorado slaps you in the face with its beauty, its awesomeness, but there's more mystery here than in most places, and there are old spirits, the Native indigenous [images] left in the rocks. From here you can see the rest of America and just how messed up it is."
Pascarella still participates in Lakota ceremonies every year and has lately become deeply involved with qigong, an ancient Chinese practice that combines meditation, martial arts, and philosophy to cultivate a balance in mind and body. "I use my body when I paint— not literally, but my painting comes from my body," he explains. "I feel the body knows more about painting than the head. When it comes from your body, it's more honest. Which gets back to that Hunter's World painting—the honesty there came from letting go of my head."
Examining the scroll-painting reproduction on his studio floor, he notes, "The mist and water, clouds and fog—it's part of the mystery of the Tao. These dragons are not ferocious but elusive. You can see the Tao in this landscape. When your eyes focus on the dragon, this one is appearing somewhere else, and this one is in your periphery . . . they could blend into the fog and rock. It's what I try to do with my art. It's abstract but it's right on the border of that feeling of looking at clouds, where you see things in them. You see these figurative elements."
In looking from the 1,200-year-old scroll to the wholly abstract Pascarellas on the wall, the connection becomes clearer. Shapes move in and out of visibility, never quite coalescing into concrete images but finding a harmony that seems both Western and Asian. "All the influences are coming together now more than ever," he notes. "Tire Native American and the Asian—they're interwoven inside both me and my art. They give me a perspective I didn't have earlier in my life." And then, with a reflective critical eye, he adds, "This isn't it yet."