Reinterpreting the Classics

Armed with an impressive expertise of modern and postmodern art, painter Vincent Desiderio encouraged students and art lovers to reimagine and reinterpret the works of classic artists.

The painter spoke to a crowd of over 40 people on Wednesday, March 9 in LC 102. His visit to campus was part of the New Paltz Student Art Alliance’s visiting artist lecture series, which will continue through the end of the semester.

Desiderio, who lives and works in Westchester County, New York, offered the audience a glimpse into his career trajectory. He studied fine art at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, which he attributed to the beginning of his evolution as a painter. At first, he had no interest in representational painting, preferring instead to work with abstract shapes and forms. But his interests changed over time, he said.

He began to look outside the harsh, hyper-critical world of art criticism and into the realm of pre-modern art, which had remained relatively out of the art zeitgeist. He sought new interpretations of old works, searching for resources he could tap into in his own artistic practice.

Desiderio’s strategy of choice? A practice he calls “constructive misreading.”

According to Desiderio, constructive misreading refutes the notion that there is a singular, established interpretation of a work of art. Just as life has no absolutes, paintings are multi-faceted, he said. Constructive misreading challenges artists and art lovers to consider older works in new and foreign contexts.

“Even art from the past changes in the context of time,” he said. “Art is in this constant state of mobility.”

Desiderio said he taught himself most of his technical skills, and as a result, he found himself employing different techniques instinctively. As his painting career advanced, Desiderio began to question art as an institution. He didn’t want to be swept into the flurry of the art world, which he believed had been co-opted for financial means. He began painting new works, including a series of large triptychs.

At this point in his life and career, Desiderio and his wife had begun their family. His son Sam, only a toddler at the time, suffered a devastating stroke, which Desiderio said threw a wrench into his life and work.

“It was terrifying for me and my little boy,” Desiderio said.

To cope, Desiderio began painting his son in odd poses and disconcerting situations, which confused and frustrated his gallery manager. One of his paintings in particular, titled “Savant,” featured Desiderio’s father asleep next to his naked son. The curator of Desiderio’s gallery was convinced that the painting wouldn’t sell and thought it was horrible. Much to the gallerist’s surprise, the painting sold in the gallery within a week.

As Desiderio grappled with his son’s disabilities, he worried that he was exploiting his son’s illness for his own artistic gain. His son told him that he didn’t want to pose for his father’s paintings anymore, and once again, Desiderio’s art took a twist.

Desiderio’s more recent work features inventive, elaborate triptychs and scenes on life-size canvases. Though his style and subject matter has changed over his life, Desiderio has maintained the artistic same goals: abstraction and inscrutability, what he says are the true markers of successful art.