Modern art is hard. So hard.
A standing urinal is the most important piece in the movement; colors whipped in a million directions by various manners of locomotion is the benchmark of the culture. It’s genuinely difficult to understand how this concept of freeform imagination brought to life is a marketable art form, at least to the untrained eye. Which happens to be pretty much everyone. Even sitting in the Met is hard for a non-connoisseur; many of us regular-Joes have been in the position where we’re made to stare vacantly at some supposedly dynamic piece of work, and half heartedly agree as Ray-Ban rocking, parted hair art type next to us waxes out loud about how intrinsically soulful and chock-full of social commentary it is.
It’s so much easier, though, when artist is there to explain the piece. Take Mike Ciccone, a local artist who’s on the board of the Saugerties Art Tour. He’s a dude’s dude; a wide-eyed nice guy with a best-bro handshake. And he happens to be in modern art. His home, one of the first houses on the Glasco Turnpike on the way to Mt. Marion, has a dozen or so pieces on the front lawn next to his workhouse. They’re large interpretive statues. His studio is a cluttered, jet-silver mini hangar, filled to the brim with rocks and steel and iron. There are dozens of pieces—hundreds maybe—crafted out of these materials, and one even made out of fiberglass. My eye is immediately drawn to a six-hundred-pound stone with a face carved into it, dangling from a metal chain attached to a construction arch and placed on top of a steel drum. Two conclusions can be drawn from this studio; Michael Ciccone makes art like he eats and breaths, and one should never wear open-toed shoes in here.
Just about all of Ciccone’s pieces are created from salvaged scraps from demolition and construction jobs. Ciccone himself is a genuine blue-collar guy, having worked in demolition and construction for years. A few of the statues out front are made of steel chording, suspended in air and twisted into knots. There’s an I-Bar grafted from the Poughkeepsie-Highland bridge in the front yard. He describes his work as “3-D photographs of images in my head.”
A former Bard College student, Ciccone has been making statues since he was four years old. He has one from his childhood sitting in his workhouse, a three-piece, five-inch wood and Quikrete piece. He’s surrounded by pieces of art from every decade of his life. His work is always evolving, but his mature style is evident in the early pieces too. He believes an artist’s work should not be comprised of singular, unrelated statements, but share a common sensibility and purpose. “If you don’t have continuity, it ain’t worth a damn,” he says.
Networking, Ciccone says, is key in today’s art industry. Between the Internet and the prevalence of studios, patrons are bombarded by art, to the point that even exceptional work can become trivial and overlooked. “You have to work your ass off in networking,” Ciccone says, “a little less if you have the luxury of having a very visible yard where you can put out your pieces like I do.”
But it’s not all about moving pieces, he says, it’s the satisfaction of acknowledgement. “If you can catch somebody and make them stop and look for 30 seconds, you’ve got them,” he says, “You don’t even have to sell the piece. I used to say that if you had them looking for two minutes and thirty seconds you’ve got them, but I brought that down a little bit.”
Ciccone is looking forward to this year’s Artist’s Studio Tour, held in the middle of August. He lights up when he gets a chance to talk about the event and the people behind it. The tour’s organizers are “dedicated to getting grants and advertising. It’s amazing the caliber of professionalism I see on the tour.”
Ciccone is on the committee that judges whether or not an artist’s shop is worthy of being a stop on the tour. He chooses his words wisely; he doesn’t want to incite malcontent among those who don’t have their studio picked. It’s just the breaks of the game, he says. “One woman was trying to sell some paintings she painted 30 years ago out of her garage,” he says. And it’s not for lack of trying that he shuts prospective tour stops down, it’s the following modern art truism that puts it all in perspective – “What’s the difference between a urinal and a Duchamp? One’s art, one’s not,” he says, “It’s the matter of intent behind concept.”
Intent behind concept. Aha. It makes more sense now. To understand this kind of art one needs to respond to it, to be affected by it. Someone for whom this sensibility has not been developed could see two paintings of a million squiggling lines—one an abstract masterpiece, the other the creation of a Bronx Zoo chimp—and see no difference. But if you get it, you see the intention.
It’s all about soul and story. Ciccone knows that. It’s why he uses pieces of valley arcana hidden in time and dirt in his work; it helps him tell the story behind his pieces. On the back wall of his studio, there’s a chalkboard with all kinds of free-range thoughts, many half lost to wind and dirt. In the middle of all these little mottos, though, is written “Inhibition.” The word takes up a lot of space on the board, with the other words pushed to the fringes around it. Makes sense. The man has a yard full of Frankenstein’s monsters, hunks of history pushed together into 3-D brain doodles. A hundred specimens of whatever the hell Ciccone’s brain thought would be beautiful. Maybe that’s why all the other mottos keep their distance from “Inhibition” – because inhibition is the king of the studio, and inhibition is the cause for all of this work.
Ciccone is already psyched about a show at his neighborhood gallery: Doghouse, just off Glasco Turnpike. This show, scheduled for spring 2012, will also feature Saugerties painter Stever Crohn.
Check out Ciccone’s studio on the upcoming tour if you want to take a glimpse at some transfmogrified Hudson Valley history, and have a chat with him if you want to gain a little more perspective on modern art. Just wear sneakers.