There’s a painting in Clark Filio’s recent solo exhibition Betrayal/Vengeance at Kimberly Klark gallery that shows a close-up, cropped portrait of Frodo, played by Elijah Wood in Peter Jackson’s third chapter of his epic Lord of the Ring’s trilogy, The Return of the King. It’s the moment where Frodo stands in the cavern of Mount Doom; dramatically lit by the volcanic fires below, his face is twisted into a grimace of pained distress as he attempts to reconcile his own desires for the ring of power and his heartfelt yearning to destroy the ring and save Middle Earth. It is a moment of contemplation -- to cast the ring into the flames below or to betray his quest and keep it for himself. The drama in this moment is overwhelming, and it’s selection for the theme of this particular show is obvious. But the power behind this particular work, and to a greater degree Filio’s paintings generally, is the multiple levels on which this piece operates and the myriad questions, references, and interpretations it allows. Besides the literal interpretation of the context of the scene, the painting engages with humor, popular culture, and melodrama. The image of Frodo doubles as a portrait of Elijah Wood, the actor playing this role, and the image transcends any attempt at pinpointing any one thing that it’s about. It’s about the internal pain and conflict of Frodo’s character and the loss of innocence he is forced to endure, it is an homage to the Lord of the Rings, a landmark fantasy epic, it is about the translation of a moment in a novel into a still in a film into an oil painting, it is about the melodrama of a fantastical, unreal world and story that is encapsulated in an image of pure pain and struggle in Frodo’s face...
Unpacking this piece lends itself to understanding Filio’s own practice and artistic sensibilities of image making. Filio makes figurative paintings that portray scifi/fantasy scenes sourced either from stills of TV shows, videogames, and films, or are constructed from Filio’s own imagination but stylized and informed by these same elements. But his selection of imagery, his attention to color and stroke, and his honest interest in both the imagery and the material practice allow his work to transcend simply referencing a thing or being read as a potentially sourced image, and instead allow Filio’s paintings to raise larger and more existential questions regarding contemporary life and reality.
Clark Filio was born and raised in Cincinnati, OH and currently lives and works in Brooklyn, NY. Filio earned his degree in painting from Massachusetts College of Art and Design and apprenticed under Rick Berry, a renowned scifi/fantasy illustrator based in Alewife, MA. Filio’s recent solo show at Kimberly Klark this past year was his first solo exhibition in New York, and received write-ups in The Village Voice and Artnews Magazine.
What is your background with art and, more specifically, how has your work developed into what’s included in this solo show?
I grew up in Cincinnati, OH and I was obsessed with anime and videogames as a kid. I started drawing a lot -- I remember in 4th grade making drawings of Megaman and Sonic the Hedgehog and kept that up for a while. I think I decided in middle school that I wanted to make cartoons and comics, so I started trying to learn how to do that. When I got to high school, I was part of a lot of web forums and Internet communities that were art and artist subforums on forums for videogames that I was playing. Dark Ages of Camelot was a big one and I’d post and share artwork through that.
At that point I had gotten some advice from one of the forums that if I wanted to become an illustrator or a comic artist, it would be in my best interest to learn how to figure draw, so I started taking figure drawing lessons at the Art Academy of Cincinnati. My teacher was this woman Marlene Steele, who is a really awesome, regional Ohio painter and she makes a lot of portraits and urban landscapes. She introduced me to the idea of being an artist in a more general sense rather than an illustrator, but I was still a little hellbent on making Magic cards. I worked with her through high school; she was a great teacher and in between sessions at the Art Academy she would host people at her studio. My plan was just to grind on that and I wasn’t planning on going to college. I had a tablet and I was learning how to digitally paint -- again with the help from all these Internet forums. But my high school girlfriend was going to college in Massachusetts, so I decided very last minute that I didn’t want to stay in Cincinnati alone so I moved to Boston and enrolled at the Art Institute in Boston. I dropped out a year later because it was really too expensive and I felt like I wasn’t getting a lot out of it. I just felt grumpy about the whole thing.
I ended up staying in Boston and worked a bunch of different jobs -- I was a bike messenger for a while, I worked at Chipotle...About a year later I found this man Rick Berry, an illustrator and painter who lives in Arlington, Massachusetts. I heard he did apprenticeship-style teaching, so I got in touch with him and worked with him for about six months in his studio. Rick Berry is one of the legends of the 80s and 90s fantasy and scifi illustration community. He did the cover for William Gibson’s Neuromancer, he’d done a lot of Magic cards, he’d done Stephen King book covers -- he just had this huge career and an enormous studio. At that time I was still on the fence about whether I wanted to do videogame art or try painting. By that point, my personal practice of image making was something that I’d been doing my whole life and I had never totally distinguished it from illustration. When I was working with him, I sort of solidified that what I was trying to do and what I wanted to do was to have a studio practice as an artist.
I worked with Rick and I also had my own studio as well, I was renting a space in a warehouse in Alewife, MA. He has a method of painting that is very specific to his own style. He paints on board and he prepares his surface with like five layers of matte medium, which he’ll shave down with a razor blade so it’s as slick as mylar. Then he just paints really wet and super loose and uses a rag a lot so he’s able to wipe paint away. It’s all improvisational; he starts scribbling and then he’ll wait to see an image, sometimes this made it so his work can seem repetitive, like a lot of the same sort of motifs and figures emerge from his scribbles, but he manages to keep it fresh most of the time.
After working with Rick, I worked on my own for a while and then went back to school a couple years later to Mass Art. I graduated December 2014 and then moved here. It was an easy move because I already had a big community that was living in New York, and I would visit often while I lived in Boston. That’s the abbreviated history.
Looking at the subject matter of your paintings now, you blend sourced imagery with images from your own imagination that present fantasy or scifi subjects and portraits. Thinking about your work from when you were studying with Rick Barry to going to school to moving here, how has your subject matter developed?
For a long time in school I was making really awful paintings that were like portraits, figures, a lot of landscape genre scenes, but all kind of about nothing. I was really into Giorgione and Manet -- I was making paintings of like a wooded creek with some people bathing in it, which is just really bland historical genre painting. I felt a little pushed to do that kind of thing, for good reason, because there was a big focus on making paintings that had some kind of dialogue with the historical narrative, that was a common thing in school. So I was making paintings that kind of looked like dioramas that would go in a natural history museum. I made a painting of two cavemen that were on a rock in front of a big sky, but they were like hot cavemen, and it was supposed to be a joke about how white people envision themselves as being the first people even though that’s obviously not true...so the painting was of these hot, white cavemen with like a spear. The paintings weren't really good, but it was the first time that I had really made big paintings so I was learning a lot about that. I remember making paintings of swimmers, a lot of bathers.
I actually got to work with a lot of really cool people in art school, I totally lucked out. I worked with this woman Colleen Asper, who was a guest teacher and is really awesome. She helped me out a lot and was a good teacher because she knew how to critique what I was making without telling me what I should do instead. A good friend of hers, who I also got to work with, was this guy Ted Mineo, who is a really awesome painter. I also got to work with Noel Ignatiev, and we become close. He’s not an artist, he’s a Marxist academic, but he has an incredible imagination.
Towards the end of my time at Mass Art I was getting mad at all the meaningless paintings that I was making, so I started painting the same stuff that I’d always painted before. I did fan art and scifi and fantasy works. And then people started responding to it and I felt better about it. When I first moved to Brooklyn, my studio was in my apartment and I was making a lot of fantasy paintings. I don’t remember all of them, but I know I made some paintings from the Final Fantasy movie Spirits Within.
These current paintings are really fun to make and I feel like they’re straightforward visually, but they’re also actually about something. There’s usually a narrative. This show is called Betrayal and Vengeance, so all these stories have those themes in them. It’s definitely more exciting to think about painting in that way in the studio than about some formal problem or something like that. I don’t want to make the same painting over and over again. This is a really good way to never do that.
I’m interested in how you approach narrative and tie that into the specific selected image. Even if you have zero idea of the context, they still convey similar effects in how they can be interpreted. How do you approach image selection and what is your thought process regarding subject and composition?
I think that the most generous way of looking at any of my paintings is to figure out the narrative if there is a narrative going on, go look at the source material, and then think about what that means and what that image is actually depicting. I don’t expect anybody to do that, so sometimes the paintings seem esoteric if you don’t recognize the context, but I think most of the time people do recognize that it’s from something. At that point, it’s then just functioning like any other painting and you can go back to a more basic way of look at the art -- what is the mood? Are the eyes looking up or down? -- all these more rudimentary ways of reading paintings.
I’m making a painting in the studio now that could be really cool. It’s this really kind of sexy image that’s from an anime from the 90s called Tank Police. It’s a painting of these two characters the Puma Twins. They’re really wild; they’re A.I., “lovebots”, so they’re androids and they’re also criminals. They ended up getting defeated by the Tank Police, but the fandom for this anime loved them so much that they ended up being brought back in the second season as good guys. There’s a small part of the show where they have to reconcile the fact that these villains are now going to be joining the Tank Police as protagonists, and the chief character basically explains that because they’re robots they don’t actually have free will, so because of that they’re not responsible for their own actions and we can’t hold them accountable for all those things that they did wrong. I’m really into A.I. and the questions around it, the kind of existential problems that A.I. fiction forces on us, and it usually does it accidentally, because A.I. in pop culture is mostly just a plot device to showcase spectacular violence or nudity. The show also has this larger narrative that’s about equipping police officers with nuclear weapons so they can eliminate crime once and for all. It’s really goofy, and obviously the fandom for these two characters is because they’re hot, so there’s an erotic component to it. So the painting is about all of those things -- it’s about the emergent militarization of police officers, it’s about A.I., it’s maybe a cautionary tale to how eventually we’re going to become slaves to A.I. because the robots are really hot or something...I don’t know. And if you don’t know any of that stuff, it’s a painting of two, 80s cat women in a room and you’d be left to wonder what they’re doing there. She’s kind of gesturing, she has her hand out with claws, so there’s an aggressive gesture, and the other figure has her back to you and she’s flexing. There’s all these weird gestural motifs and I don’t really know what the read of the painting would be that way, but I try to think about it and hope that there’s some kind of cocktail of interesting ideas just in the image itself outside of the narrative too. That’s why I still do the paintings that aren’t sourced from anything. I feel like if I keep making those paintings then I’ll better understand what the referential paintings are doing when you don’t get the reference.
Do you create your own specific or personal narratives for those non-referential paintings?
No, I read them a bunch of different ways. It changes a lot when I’m making a painting too. They’re very improvisational. Very rarely do I draw them out. I’m just thinking about a kind of mood. They’re more like abstract paintings than anything else. They’re more about a sort of light moment that I want to make a painting about, or a movement, or a gesture, but I don’t have in my head who they are or any story behind them.
What is your work process for the paintings sourced from specific references and images?
Usually I take stills from a film or I’ll google the source material and find an image that I like, and then I’ll just paint it from my phone. Eventually I’ll abandon the image and try to work on it just from memory, and then go back to the image later sporadically throughout the process. It’s a very normal way of making these kinds of paintings. Sometimes I have to invent a little, or will make a composite of a bunch of different materials, but it all kind of works the same way. Or sometimes I’ll bring it into photoshop and will play around with the aspect ratio or where the frame cuts someone or something off. I make the paintings fast, like in a day or an afternoon. But I’m sitting on a lot of the images and that’s the longer term process. I’ll just have a bunch of images that I’m hanging onto and just thinking about. This painting of Frodo -- I had a few different images of Frodo. It takes a little while thinking about the image and then doing other activities like working, going on a bike ride, playing video games, and then thinking about the painting again. The thought process is kind of about trying to measure what I’m responding to with the image itself. And sometimes that’s just really impulsive. With this Rihanna painting -- I knew that I wanted to go to the studio and make a painting, but I didn’t know what of. I was going through my notes about painting ideas that I had, and I had another picture of Rihanna that I had been hanging onto for a while from a music video, but I didn’t really like it. Then I remembered having seen that movie Battleship and wondering if there were any good stills of her from that. There were a bunch of great, hi-res photographs from the production, which is what I ended up using. I don’t even think it’s a still from the movie.
How do you approach thinking about irony, honesty, and humor?
Humor is there. I don’t think any grown adult should make paintings about wizards and stuff without realizing that it is a joke in some way. But irony and honesty wasn’t something that I was really thinking about on my own, but a lot of other people would bring it up to me in the context of my work because my work seems really sincere and not like a joke about kitsch or something like that, and that’s true. I would say that I believe in the images and I like them. So it’s confusing for some people, how sincere they are given how the subjects might be really funny.
I think it kind of has to do with like a level of integrity that I want the paintings to have given how I see the politics of painting. I think before a painting can have a life of its own and be about whatever it wants to be about, the practice around it has to reconcile the main political gesture of making paintings, which is a bourgeois profession. Like it’s not real work, it’s something most people just do for fun, and we’re out here trying to turn it into a living, and as a profession it’s very invested in class society to function. It’s a very selfish pursuit. So for me, this puts an order on my practice to make paintings that at the very least can satisfy something outside of what they can do for me, and this let’s me be very realistic about what they are capable of actually doing. So I make paintings that people can have their own relationship with, that don’t come with some kind of esoteric program or lofty unrealistic political baggage, but can still work on some kind of level beyond like a display of skill or decoration.
A lot of artists become really delusional about this and it’s painful to watch. Like the Dana Schutz thing with Emmett Till, one of the cringiest things about that to me is that not only did she, and the Whitney people, not see that it was going to become such a problem, but that they literally were also expecting it to win them some kind of points politically. Like that’s what they mean when they say “challenging” and “difficult” work, they equate the work to actual political struggle, and then they would see success of the work as actual political justice. And people could tell, and that’s a big part about why it was so offensive, they actually thought that it would work, that people might even praise that painting for being like “brave” or something, it’s ridiculous.
How do you think about your work balancing fan art with fine art and the distinction between the two?
I want people to like them and it has to do with this political thing that I’m talking about where I think it’s important to cast a large net for who might like these paintings. I want people to be able to understand them and, more importantly, I want people to be able to like these paintings who might not normally be invested in whatever the hell is happening in the artworld. So the fan art quality is a way to do it. It’s fun to do. When we were hanging the show, people were just walking by and saw the Rihanna painting through the window and wanted to come in and talk about it. That is so sick. I didn’t think very many people had seen that movie, and just dudes from the neighborhood wanted to talk about it. I feel I get the most out of that kind of attention, one time I sent a picture to a friend of mine of this character from Diablo II that I had made a painting of, but my friend had changed his number. The person with the old number was like, wrong number man but very cool Paladin.
Beyond the physical mark-making and formal aspects of the painting, the image itself carries these whole other connotations and socio-cultural references. The Rihanna painting is a Rihanna painting, that is then balanced with the narrative of the film, her characterization, etc., but it’s not about that moment or scene in the movie, it’s about her. How are you thinking about that?
Exactly, and that’s the best case scenario for me when the paintings are working on multiple levels. I love thinking about culture in those kinds of contexts. Everyone loves Rihanna. At the same time, it’s equally about this melodramatic grander narrative of ideas of vengeance and betrayal and that’s what’s been really motivating for me is to try to open up what I think the paintings can be and what they can do, but like as an exercise. I can’t front like they are larger than they are, but I do want to see how far it is that they can go. It’s a funny to claim that these goofy paintings of these various scenes and people is worthy of a title like a Dostoevsky novel. And that’s kind of the premise of the larger actual joke -- that there are actual people who would have a show that would be a pile of dirt with like a candle burning in the corner of a room and they’ll call their show ‘Betrayal and Vengeance’...it’s like, what do you mean? What do you mean?
How are you trying to navigate your own practice within the art world that you’re so critical of?
The thing that keeps me going is that I actually do have a lot of fun making the paintings; it’s something that I’ve been doing for a long time and is an energizing and fun activity to do. I don’t think these ideas are unpopular. But it can be really disappointing sometimes, and there’s no certainty that it’s going to work out. I feel good about it though. I don’t feel alone at all. There’s definitely people who are dealing with it more seriously than I am too.
Can you talk about the formal aspects of your paintings and how you conceptualize the works in that regard?
I think the works in the show are all pretty standard compositions, but I have weird compositions in the studio. The formal qualities would be about drawing, form, and light. I try to think about the light conditions of the space pretty hard. Those are all the kinds of things that get me excited about making a painting. But that all changes for me week to week, like one day I’ll try to make a really dark, chiaroscuro painting and the next week I’ll try a sort of flood-light kind of painting.
The longer-term project formally is just trying to make the paint itself look good and nice. When I get jealous of another painter it’s usually because of some kind of quality that their paint application has. I try to stay experimental with how I’m making marks and mixing paint and making color palettes. The decision is sort of when to leave something squiggly and sloppy vs. when to refine it. And that’s usually impulsive. But trying to figure out how to consistently make the paint look good is an important thing.
What are you working on right now and what direction are you taking the work?
I’m thinking about the next cycle of paintings as working all together around themes of transformation or corruption. I have the Puma Twins, who start as villains and then become fan-favorite good guys. I’m also getting materials to make two paintings that I think will be one of the first times that I make a before and after where the two paintings are narratively linked about the video game Soul Calibur. In the game there’s a character named Siegfried who is a German knight and in Soul Calibur 2 he becomes the character Nightmare and basically gets corrupted by this evil weapon. The story is crazy, but he was a knight and his father raised him and taught him how to sword fight, and then he goes off to the Crusades. When he returns, there’s a peasant revolution, so sick, during which Siegfried accidentally kills his father. They meet each other on opposing sides and don’t recognize one another because of their helmets. He kills his dad and then goes crazy and convinces himself that he never did it. Then he becomes Nightmare because this magical cursed weapon seizes upon his malignant personality that refuses to admit to killing his father and turns him into a monster. So I’m going to make some paintings about that, which is fun because there's like Freudian motifs but it’s also really campy. And I think there’s also going to be some A.I. sci-fi paintings about the military industrial complex.