Artist Brian Arditi Pays Homage to Nature, His Greatest Muse

Christopher Karr

 

Millennia ago, visual art required more labor, not to mention an appetite for the meticulous. Cave-dwelling painters didn’t have the luxury of an art supply store. They resorted to nature’s offerings. These determined artists of prehistory found ways to preserve pigments and paint with them. In fact, it was the appearance of certain inimitable natural colors that inspired them to create in the first place. The invigorating search for pigments was once a crucial part of the painter’s process.

 

Brian Arditi, an artist from Yonkers, New York, still believes in this process and uses it to create striking artwork. Arditi wants to infuse the future of visual art with the power of its primitive past.

 

“I want to be as close as possible to what art started as, but with a modern twist,” he said when I visited his studio this month.

 

He pulls pigments from natural sources like flowers, rocks, dirt, soil, clay, crystals — anything earth-produced that has a distinct color. He dyes a thick lacquer with the pigment, and then uses the solution to paint. “I want my art to be simple and accessible. I want art for the masses because that’s where art began. It has since turned into pretense and facade. The earth was the original canvas.”

 

His website, FlowersAsPaint.com, offers an extensive portfolio of his work. Some pieces look like depictions of cellular and amoeba-like formations; others summon the colossal vastness of space; others are more earthbound, including a preserved branch or lacquered flower. Arditi creates dizzying designs that resemble close-ups of petri dishes (Plinko, Puddles, Luminescent) or what could be the skin of a starfish (The Speed of Light). His tight, intimate depictions of nature in the abstract have such depth and dimension that they appear to be in motion.

 

“All the artwork I make with organic pigments is alive,” Arditi said as he led me to a large room adjacent to the studio. “When I start off on a painting, I only have a general idea. I’m open for it to turn out totally differently than I ever imagined. I want to develop a type of art where I can say, ‘Hand, go,’ and the hand goes and when it’s done, it looks like a cloud. It’s like muscle memory for sports players. You have to do it enough. There’s a rhythm behind it.”

Several of Arditi’s paintings were plastic-wrapped and leaning against the wall in stacks. He showed me an early work that he quickly critiqued.

 

“This looks like a cartoon because it’s flat. I don’t use my shadows properly,” he said. “But I like the fact that it reminds me of a comic strip.”

 

Butler No. 2 is an acrylic that depicts a figure seated on the commode, reading a newspaper section labeled “MAKING MONEY.” To his left is the arm of a butler, extended through a window, a roll of toilet paper hanging from his fingers. Such a painting suggests the sensibility of a sly liberal satirist who uses caricatures to gently stab at the 1 percent. Arditi said he always wanted to create a series out of the butler paintings, “but I got distracted with the whole flowers thing.”

 

This is an example of the artist downplaying his own enthusiasm. When he speaks of his experience on one June morning in 2007, he sounds less like a man distracted than a man who’s been converted. He speaks like a proselyte overjoyed by a newfound euphoria for nature. As he walked through the park that morning, he happened to glance down and notice the blooms beneath his feet. “I’m trampling all of these beautiful little flowers,” he said. “They were about 3 or 4 inches tall, and the actual flower was about the size of a quarter. They’re buttercup-yellow and they’ve got a ton of petals on them — maybe 40 petals each.”

This trampling prompted an imaginative epiphany. “Realizing that there are colors in nature that you can’t get out of a tube came from that moment,” a discovery that set into motion a nonstop series of experiments with pigment preservation.

 

“It started with me doing it like a grandmother would do it: drying them out in books and just waiting to see what happens. A few weeks later I go back to them and they were like mummies. Just flattened versions of their alive selves.” He began by applying the natural pigments directly, imbedding the flowers into a small canvas before the acrylic dried.

 

Arditi’s process evolved rapidly as he showed his work and gathered suggestions from his family, a major source of encouragement and guidance. During a showing at a store-room gallery in Bronxville, New York, two years ago, Arditi’s brother, an engineer, asked if it was possible to solidify the flowers without flattening them.

 

“I’m like a kid,” Arditi said. “If you give me a cool idea, I’ll go with it and explore it to the nth degree.” Then his father, also an engineer, suggested using a desiccant to preserve the flowers. So Arditi ground up silica gel (the mineral placed in small packets with merchandise to remove moisture) and began burying flowers. “It’s like sand,” he said. “It’s so fine that it leaves no room for moisture. If you leave it there for a certain amount of time, you end up with a dried and semi-rigid flower that looks the way it did when you put it in the container. That was like a breakthrough.”

 

His method requires a scientist’s perseverance, a microbiologist’s attention to detail, and an artistic determination to seek out solutions to newly presented problems. “Nine out of 10 people — maybe 10 out of 10 — will tell you flowers don’t make good pigment because the pigment isn’t concentrated enough. It disperses and fades quickly. So I had to figure out a way to reverse that problem, or at least drastically slow it down. That’s the inorganic part. The coating that I use is a preservative, a protectant, and a shape-keeper. What I’m doing is taking the flesh of the flower and giving it a skeleton so it can last.” The coating, or lacquer, is a solution that he says took three years of trial-and-error to perfect.

In his studio, he showed me a light-green rock. It’s the shade of asparagus and the size of a lumpy softball. “I found that in Montana on the way to Glacier National Park,” he said. “There were droves of these. Droves.” He also presented a magenta-colored rock from the same place. “It was like looking at a rainbow of rock. You talk about the earth having its own palate. It was right there for you.” Every color? “The only one I didn’t find was blue. Blue is probably the hardest natural pigment to come across.”

 

His studio is a well-packed rectangle of tables and tools. Arditi directed me to a walk-in closet filled with the air-tight plastic containers that hold the precious pigments and flowers entombed in silica. He’s collected red dirt from New Mexico and an ocher-tinted soil from Lake Tahoe that’s so dry it crumbles under the slightest pressure. He’s traveled some 17,000 miles in the past few years, collecting hard-to-find pigments. He flew home from his most recent trip with 150 pounds of rocks and soil.

 

Arditi was eager to use the green rock from Montana, so I was able to see how he takes the color from a rock. While a flower requires patience and delicacy (“There are a lot of times I have to operate with tweezers”), a rock seems more resistant to giving up its pigment. First, he cracks the rock into small chips and slivers. Then, the small fragments are ground into finer granules. The finely chopped little chunks are then sifted and, eventually, combined with the lacquer to make paint.

 

I watched as Arditi painted a depiction of the sky on the glass of a detached window. “In the thousands of pictures I came home with from these trips, there must be 2,000 pictures of just skies,” he said. “The way they move, the tremendousness of them, the different types of clouds. It just fascinates me. What do you see best through a window but the sky?” On the window glass, he’s painting the kind of multi-colored sunset sky you might see in Arizona. “I love the skies. I sound like a total pothead artist, right?

 

He chuckles at his own child-like amazement with nature, but there’s a certain intensity that Arditi wears on his sleeve. It’s a joyful, unapologetic intensity. Several times he spoke of the expansiveness of the sky, or the vastness of the universe, or the intricate design of the most microscopic organisms.

 

“The first time I saw the Milky Way I was in the Grand Canyon, and it blew my mind,” he said. “I watched shooting stars for two-and-a-half hours, one every 10 seconds. It was religious.” For Arditi, nature is the greatest muse.

 

Author Bio:

Christopher Karr is a contributing writer at Highbrow Magazine.

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