Here is a partial list of Paul Rizzo’s obsessions, in no particular order, based on a visual inventory of the works in progress (all his works are almost always “in progress”) currently displayed around his studio at the Provincetown Commons:
Iced coffee. Kermit the Frog. Gay erotica, particularly magazines from the 1970s and ’80s. Old houses. Tube socks. Plaid shirts. To-do lists. Judy Garland, Joan Crawford, and films from Hollywood’s golden age. Making out. Cheese and crackers. Provincetown. Red hearts. Rainbows. (And that’s just what’s on the walls; there’s no telling what lurks in the boxes and buckets of material scattered and stacked around his workspace.)
All artists reveal something of themselves in their work, but Rizzo’s art is uncommonly personal: while some painters paint what they see, Rizzo paints who he is. His new show at Four Eleven Gallery, “35 (Rainbows in the Dark),” continues in the strong autobiographical vein that has characterized his practice since he moved to Provincetown 10 years ago. (The title refers to both his current age and the prevalence of rainbows in his work, though he admits “there might be more or less than 35 actual rainbows in the show; I haven’t counted.”) But it also reveals a more mature and technically accomplished side than he’s shown in the past.
Rizzo’s peripatetic approach extends to the variety of formats in which he works. While most of the pieces in his new show are paintings on canvas, there are also drawings on paper, mixed-media collages on panel, and decorated found objects. He says his side job at Ruthie’s Boutique on Bradford Street has been a prolific source of material: cut up fragments from a floral print blanket are collaged into several paintings, and he’s been reworking a Bicentennial-themed commemorative serving plate from its inventory into … something else. (Like much of his art, it will likely end up being more about experimentation and process than a finished object.) Every component of Rizzo’s work has a story behind it, down to the smallest scrap of paper or piece of string.
Of all the objects in Rizzo’s appealingly cluttered universe, his sketchbooks offer the most insight into his artistic process. Some are so full of layered ephemera that they bulge open like paper accordions instead of lying flat. All are offered for public perusal whenever he exhibits his work.
Despite the open invitation, thumbing through them feels almost illicit, like snooping into someone’s private diaries. The pages contain everything from sketched self-portraits and beefcake pin-ups to shopping lists, ticket stubs, and affirmations like “Trying to Manifest a Live/Work Art Studio.” (It apparently worked, at least partially: Rizzo says he’s found a new place to make art when his residency at the Commons ends later this month. He’s still working on the housing part.)
That spirit of unfiltered sharing also permeates the paintings and drawings that explicitly address Rizzo’s reckoning with his own mental health. Overwhelmed by Everything is rendered in shadowed drop caps against a pulsating bullseye of bright colors. Another painting broadcasts I Come On Too Strong amidst an agitated field of irregularly shaped daubs of blue paint, like a cloudy sky about to break into a storm.
Rizzo describes such work as “art therapy,” which has become a form of self-care. “I’ve always had attention deficit disorder, and it’s made organizing things and following through with projects really difficult for me,” he says. “So, writing down my insecurities, or making my calendars or to-do lists into art, are ways of both calming myself and putting things into some kind of order so I can keep track of them.”
But another set of themes emerges in his newer works: what it means to live in Provincetown, and his personal relationship with and affection for its built environment. Many of his “dream houses,” as Rizzo calls them, are based on photographs of buildings that catch his eye. (He points to a drawing of a cottage at the intersection of Commercial Street and the minuscule Mermaid Avenue in the far East End as a current favorite.) While he has been making and showing his house drawings for years, they have a particular prominence in his current show. The strongest ones, like The Martin House Meets Mermaid Lane, combine studies of different buildings on the same canvas, interspersed with floral studies, landscape fragments, and patches of texture and pattern.
The buildings are keenly observed, down to the texture of their shutters and patterns of their brickwork. Rizzo’s command of line in these details can be traced to an architectural drawing class in high school, which he barely passed. “My teacher was kind enough to give me a C, even though I never could draw straight lines or use a T-square,” he says. “Instead, I kept drawing all these fantasy buildings with lots of curves in them, ones that would be impossible to build in real life.”
Many of the houses Rizzo depicts are instantly recognizable, like the fanciful Second Empire mansard roof of 220 Commercial St., or the more prosaic façade of 112 Commercial St. where it bends at Tremont Street. But he often adjusts their actual locations and spatial relationships to one another to create a sort of Provincetown of the imagination. Some are even hybrid structures combining elements from different houses. The views may not exist in reality, but they’re somehow more evocative of a personal lived experience than mere “reality” could ever be.
That tension between the real and the imaginary gives Rizzo’s house drawings a particularly potent charm. Their dream quality isn’t aspirational in the real estate sense. Instead, it’s descriptive of how all of us build our own “dream houses” and internal geographies through experience and memory, filtered through nostalgia.
One of Rizzo’s most emblematic works is I’m Always Chasing Rainbows, using an additional word for emphasis. It’s the perfect summary of his world view: colorful, a little naughty, ultimately optimistic, and inspired by something that beautifully remains a little out of reach.
36 (Rainbows in the Dark)
The event: An exhibition of new work by Paul Rizzo
The time: Through Sept. 29
The place: Four Eleven Gallery, 411 Commercial St., Provincetown
The cost: Free