Brooklyn-based artist Tony Toscani's is are the most accurate depiction of our times. The lethargy permeating through every character, the weighed down bulging bodies, the addiction to screens combined with his vivid figurative style act as a mirror, or lend a sense of recognition to the people around us in the world today, at the very least.
Tony was kind of enough to take me through this journey as an artist, mental health, tackling the burden of technology, and finding the core of who we are as humans through art:
How did art become your path? Tell me about the journey.
It certainly didn’t happen all at once. My path was more consecutive, and it felt as though I was ascending a staircase of maturity. I did doodle and draw on the walls as a child, but I attribute that act as a built-in impulse for all youngsters. But the first time I really felt a pull towards art was in skateboarding. It would be the first time I really saw shapes and architecture differently. My imagination began to repurpose staircases and ledges into complex patterns in which I could perform on top of. So I was always transfiguring the world around me.
From this, I ascended to punk music, which became a very visceral experience. The ledges and staircases transformed into atmospheric sounds and lyrics that informed me like a teacher. It taught me to question everything around me and never take in anything to be an absolute truth. It ignited the spark that would eventually become the will to persevere when facing an impossible challenge.
Then came the first time I tried to paint. This was during the first term of my undergraduate career at a time in which I had thought I reached the peak of my maturity. In that moment, however, I realised I was quite mistaken and it was in fact only a prelude to what would become a lifelong challenge. It was as if I had encountered an impossible beast that would continuously knock me from off of the top of my precipice. It has been this way ever since.
You have an MFA from The School of Visual Arts. New York. Could you share your experience of studying art formally?
The School of Visual Arts was both a good and bad experience for me. The good part about it was the freedom; I have never been part of an institution that held the freedom of creativity with such high regard. During my two years there, I never felt that my own creative process was at stake or being restricted.
I also met my future partner, Adehla Lee there, and developed a close and personally friendship with the artist Jake Berthot, both of whom continue to influence me professionally and philosophically. I consider them to be my most cherished relationships.
The bad experience came from witnessing firsthand the conformity within the art world and its market. Since the School of Visual Arts was in the heart of New York’s art world, I got to see and experience much of its doings up, close and personal. The pulse of that heart seemed to circulate around convention and insider allegiance. Artists and galleries tended to exclude anyone not in line with their contemporary credence which in effect prevented many great artists from having a chance to display all their hard work just because they or their work looked different.
Can you talk about how you developed this style and over-sizedness in your work? Also, are you keen to explore other styles/mediums?
For now, I feel as though there is still so much to be discovered or improved upon within my own work, so I do not feel as though I am ready to take on another medium as of yet. However, that being said, I am open to it and wouldn’t mind the challenge. I am also interested in working with a fabricator who knows how to work with PVC or resin so that I can re-appropriate one or more of my figures into sculpture.
In terms of my technique, I honestly do not know exactly how I ended up with my kind of style other than through patience and perseverance. I have made a lot of bad work and have experimented a considerable amount to finally get to the point of where I am at now. But I do not necessarily think I am making work that is anywhere near the best of my abilities. I have a long way to go if I am to find a technique that is truly satisfying. I have only seen slight glimpses here and there of what is possible, but like you said, I can only hope that I am on the right path.
On the other hand, I do plan out a lot of the compositions. I exaggerate the figure’s proportions to symbolise our own pensive burdens and the effect that it has on us. The figures are caught in a world filled with contrasts and at times, become cartoonish or unrecognisable. They are even colossal, towering over their environment uncomfortably. We can’t help but recognise all the times that we have been in those same situations - stuck in places we do not belong or quite understand. This is true for all people.
The lights and darks are highly contrasted because I feel we are all always struggling to balance ourselves between literacy and ignorance, what is right from what is wrong, happiness and sadness, love and hate… This is because with all emotions comes the burden of their exact opposite. It is a duality that cannot exist without the other. Simply put, there has never been nor will there ever be a person who is completely bathed in light from which there is no shadow.
Why are you so drawn to the recurring theme of boredom and lethargy?
It is a little bit complicated, but I have always been fascinated by the interactions between people. What body language we use and how we communicate or how we deal with our surroundings. But more importantly, how we deal with those same situations when we are left alone. For when we are alone, our true nature is revealed.
We are very simple creatures. That is to say, we eat, sleep, love, fear, and crave. But we deal with a wide range of complexities that are too abstract for us to understand or confront easily. We manage self-control, regulate resources, and negotiate conflicts. And this burden intensifies as technology and awareness continuous to grow, especially when it conflicts with our own intrinsic morals or desires. But in order to become more proficient, it is our duty to take on this burden and learn from it so that we can grow harmoniously.
However, the stress of this burden can be quite taxing on our ego and can even drive us to the point of bingeing on television or social media just so that we can forget about it and distract ourselves easily. In doing so, lethargy itself turns into a defence mechanism whenever our anxiety becomes too much for us to handle. And what I realised is that melancholy is built into the very core of our nature. And that is especially true of us today, and essentially what I try to express in my paintings.
Does Brooklyn and the youth you see around you play a role in your choice of characterisation?
To be honest, I didn’t really think so. I just felt that the people in my paintings were a reflection of the times that we are in.
But this question made me think a bit more, and I do think it has affected the work quite a bit. I think all the interactions and observations I have had within my close proximity sparks certain personal beliefs and makes me question or observe my environment with more scrutiny. That is to say, a simple subway from point a to point b frequently becomes an anthropological study. I constantly see passengers flipping through their phones from one app to the next to no end or avail. And I can only assume that this routine becomes somewhat monotonous for them to the point of exhaustion. The fatigue on their faces and limbs become almost cartoonish or full of weight. I think this translates itself into my works.
Also, from time to time, I see a person whose gesture or pose fascinates me. Or even when I attend an art opening which feels claustrophobic or absurd, it triggers a certain amount of melancholic exhaustion that resonates well within me.
I read an article that describes your work as a "modern portrait of melancholia". Are you personally doing okay in life in terms of mental health and emotional balance?
Personally, I deal with the same emotions and hardships that everyone has to deal with. I am no different in terms of mental health. I do feel the most comfortable when I am painting or in my studio. So I guess it is a form of therapy. It certainly fulfils my soul. I would simply go mad if I were not able to paint.
However, I do feel that as a society, we suffer a great burden on our shoulders and do not receive the help we deserve. This in turn creates tension and weariness, something that cannot be fixed easily. And I think this pain converts itself into a feeling of loneliness or melancholy. We are the cause and effect of our own misery.
Tell me a bit about your studio, the things you have lying around, whether it's messy or clean?
I tend to keep my studio fairly clean. I can’t help but get paint all over everything, but it is pretty well organised. I also tend to keep my paintbrushes spotless and clean them thoroughly after every use. I love my paintbrushes. It pains me sometimes to see how some artists tend to treat their brushes. They are very beautiful tools and have such a timeless elegance and every single one of them has their own unique purpose and function. I mean, there is something truly special in an object whose design has not changed for over a thousand years. Every time I paint, I feel as though I am having a conversation with someone from a thousand years ago. That is why I feel like painting will never die out.
I also have transcriptions of my older works and works by my favourite artists hanging on the walls. Other than that, I have musical instruments and a little workstation where I create electronic ambient music. Using synthesizers and certain effect pedals, I create gentle sounding ambient soundscapes that loop over and over while I paint. It creates the perfect environment for concentrating.
Who are some of the painters/people in your life who inspire you?
The person who inspires me the most is the artist Adehla Lee. She is my partner and also my best friend, but more importantly, an incredibly important artist who constantly challenges what can possibly be done with painting and with art in general. She always follows what she believes in and tries creating something beyond her own limitations. It is inspiring to see its affect take form to the point of complete invention. In fact, the paintings are so complex and complicated that it would require a lifetime it seems to fully recognise and deconstruct the entirety of a single painting. Every colour choice and concept has some specific reasoning behind it. And every painting is executed this way. She is true innovator. I would highly recommend checking out her work.
What are you currently working on?
Attached is one painting I have been working on that I think is just about finished. Unfortunately, I do not have any other images of works in progress. But attached are some images of drawings that will become paintings soon enough. My process starts with drawings such as these:
Thank you, Tony. I think this is one of my favourite interviews ever.
Go follow Tony's incredible work on Instagram, in case you don't already.