Fine Art Today caught up with ascending artist David Bonagurio for a chat about his drawings, inspirations, vision, and so much more.
Fine Art Today: We’ll start generically: Tell us a little about your creative process. What inspires you, and once it hits, how do you approach the page? Do you always start a piece the same way, even if the sources of inspiration are different? How do you know when a piece is completed — is it that sense of fulfillment or that a particular experience/idea is re-achieved?
David Bonagurio: Generically, it begins with curiosity. I’ll come across something interesting, and if it sticks with me long enough, it will pull me down several different rabbit holes of “hows” and “whys.” I’ve never been a person able to let something drop after the first explanation. I have to build a conceptual understanding that I can find personally satisfying or I’ll lose sleep. My work helps me to do that.
And, yes, that is typically how it happens regardless of the source of inspiration. My imagery comes from a kind of edited stream-of-consciousness consideration of the concept. I take mental note of all the imagery that surfaces in my mind while reading or thinking about a particular subject. Later on, I try to piece them together into a legible, interesting metaphor.
I do a series of thumbnails to decide on scale, proportion, cropping, and to just see if what I’ve thought up will still make sense once I see it in front of me, outside of mind. Often, it does not. If it does, I build a panel for the specific piece and dive in.
Pinpointing the time to stop is something I am objectively bad at. I’ll declare a piece finished, on average, maybe seven times before I really set it aside. You get a flash of that sense of fulfillment only to have that same work, the next day, turn your stomach with all the glaring mistakes and poor decisions you just couldn’t notice the day before. Something is out of place or handled wrongly, to the point where it throws the experience too far from where you want it to be.
It used to really bother me to go back to something I had thought was finished, but now I’ve come to enjoy it. It’s an opportunity to nail down that legitimate feeling of fulfillment. You know a piece is finished when you can walk by it again and again, and you don’t lose that feeling of fulfillment.
Fine Art Today: Could you dive into the process of a specific work that will be featured in the article? Perhaps you could recall when/where/how you were moved to create it and the process involved in its realization?
David Bonagurio: I have a daughter, Lily. I have always been very interested in all the questions of consciousness, so a child has felt like an intimate concert of a mind switching on. In early childhood, children experience mental progressions that are so profound that they almost see and experience things for the first time, several times. I’ve watched Lily revisit objects and situations with increasing clarity, punctuated by sudden bursts of understanding.
I wanted to make something that reflected that eruption of consciousness. That’s what this piece was originally supposed to represent. It still does, but when I let my guard down and Lily ran by with a stray piece of conté crayon and made one big scribble across the bottom, it shattered the voyeurism of a concert. It was just funny. She made the piece more accurate. She had been shaping the way I had been working since before she was born. I had gone back to a smaller scale so I could move around the house more easily and help my pregnant wife, then to help look after a newborn. I put the oils aside to lessen the risk of poisoning anyone.
So when she finally scribbled across the bottom of that drawing she had just made the final jump to actually making marks on my work. Her first target was a piece about her, no less. It was just too perfect, so I let her keep doing it.
Fine Art Today: Do you ever create ulterior narratives in your paintings? By this I mean, are they ever revealed metaphorically or symbolically through, say, your use of light, surface technique, etc.?
David Bonagurio: Yes, definitely. One of the reasons that I really enjoy graphite is the way that it interacts with light. Depending upon how finely I sand a panel, I can get different levels of reflection. When a panel is sanded very smooth and burnished with graphite, it can be like looking in a mirror in a dark room. You see a ghost image of yourself intermingling with the image that I’ve made. I believe it reinforces the feeling that these pieces are about you in some way.
Fine Art Today: What are your primary goals in painting, and what do you hope your audiences take from your works?
David Bonagurio: That everything has layers. That there are more intricacies in everything, including ourselves, than we acknowledge. Nothing in our experience should be considered mundane. It’s possible to look at everything in life the way that we look at a mountain or the moon. Everyday experience is awe-inspiring, romantic, and mysterious.
Fine Art Today: Many of your works feature the figure; talk to me a little about your attraction to it. There are, obviously, infinite ways in which the body can express different concepts, ideas, traditions, and connections, but is there something specific that draws you to the human form?
David Bonagurio: As you’ve stated, it is an extremely expressive and flexible symbol. It is the most immediately recognizable and relatable form for anyone because we all have a body and we all project something of ourselves into what is familiar. The human form might be the most direct way to convince a viewer that this conversation I’m having concerns them.
It’s almost a cheap trick, in that sense. I’ve tried to get away from it but I keep coming back. So, as a tool, it is just so wonderfully functional. For me, as the one making the work, it does the same thing. It works as a conceptual anchor, reminding me to keep myself in the piece. Anytime I work with the figure, it feels like I’m working on myself.
Fine Art Today: What artists have influenced you and your work the most? Is it purely conceptual, or aesthetic? Both?
David Bonagurio: There have been so many. When you enjoy art and also make art, you can’t help but be influenced by work that you admire. There’s no point in trying to be 100 percent original. It’s kind of the way the human mind works; if you’re not standing on the shoulders of giants, you’re blind.
That being said, let me tell you about comic strips. Other than watching my mother paint, what first brought an interest in art was probably the Sunday funny pages. More specifically, it was Calvin and Hobbes by Bill Watterson. His style was beautiful and his writing had a great influence on the way I thought as a child. I think it’s good for kids to read things that are just above their heads. You understand most of it but know there’s something else barely out of reach. It makes you want to think more deeply about everything, because it’s been proven to you that the effort is worth it.
The first contemporary painter who had a great influence on my work (and whose influence is still easily seen) is Sophie Jodoin. She’s a French Canadian painter who, I believe, lives in Montreal. In her work, I saw what the technique of reductive drawing could do for me. Phil Hale is an exceptionally talented painter whose figures are about as expressive as it gets. His brushwork is every bit as efficient as John Singer Sargent, and his use of color hurts my heart. I’ve long strived to gain even a bit of that beautiful sense of expression in my work. Michaël Borremans has definitely been a conceptual influence. There seems to be intent lending to the central concept behind every decision in his imagery. I began to use a good deal of segmentation in my work after seeing his.
I could really go on and on.
Fine Art Today: What has your journey to becoming a professional artist been like? Were you always interested in art?
David Bonagurio: I have always been interested in art but never took it very seriously until my late teens. My mother is a painter, so it has always been around, but she is also a nurse. My father is an engineer. Neither of my siblings had more than a passing interest. But I discovered what a useful outlet it is and began to see how important it was to society, historically and contemporarily. When decided to actually sit down and focus, I discovered that I had a decent hand. I went to school, getting my bachelor’s in drawing from the Minneapolis College of Art and Design.
During my final year, I interned for a local artist, Edward Lentsch. After I graduated, Ed hired me on full-time as his everything assistant. I cleaned his studio, watched his kids, built his stretchers, and drove his work all over the country in a Sprinter Van. Ed made large-scale gestural abstraction pieces. Think Antonio Tápies crossed with Anselm Kiefer. From Ed, I learned that a drawing or painting didn’t have to be limited in the way it was made. You don’t need to adhere to tradition. You should find your own way of using materials that suits your needs best. From Ed, I also learned how much goddamned hustle it takes to sell your work. That side of things, I’m still working on. I’m not much of a natural salesman.
I lived in Baltimore, Maryland, for a year and did a post-bachelor’s at MICA before moving to Syracuse, New York, for graduate school. Graduate school allowed me the time to find my focus and figure out what I should be making. Now I live in Utica, New York, which is about an hour east of Syracuse. I’ve been teaching on and off when I get the opportunity and have been working at the Wellin Museum of Art, in preparations. My studio has been picking up steam again since our daughter has been getting older. My recent work has been getting some attention, which is nice. If I can keep that going, I can continue being a “professional artist.”
Fine Art Today: Finally, where are David and his art in five years? How do you see your career and artwork evolving in the future, and what are some things you seek to achieve?
David Bonagurio: This is tough. Career-wise, I hope I’m still in a position where I don’t have to second-guess what I’m making. That’s really all I ask for. Now, if I come up with an idea that I know will take maybe a month to complete one piece or I’m not sure if it is something that will work out the way I would like, I can still do it without too much hesitation.
That might be a not-so-veiled way of saying that I hope my work is still selling in five years so I can keep making ambitious things and taking the types of chances that really do move the work forward. I really don’t know the type of work I’ll be making in the future. All I know is, right now, I have a focus that will keep me busy for some time. Lastly, I would like to get my work seen by as many people as I can. Not because I think I’m so important, or my message is so unique, but I need to contribute to the direction of discourse I believe is needed. Be the change, right?
To learn more, visit David Bonagurio.
This article was written by Andrew Webster and originally featured in 2017 in Fine Art Today, a weekly e-newsletter from Fine Art Connoisseur magazine. To start receiving Fine Art Today for free, click here.