The Cultural Geometry of Piero Passacantando

Piero Passacantando at work in his studio with Dawa Tamang in Kathmandu (photo by Clarissa Bynum)

Now back at home in New York after a 10-month Fulbright residency in Kathmandu, CCA alumnus Piero Passacantando (MFA Social Practice 2009) is already planning his return to Nepal. During his time there, the Italian-American artist studied Thangka, a centuries-old traditional Himalayan art form that uses specific geometric guidelines in its compositions.

"My hope is that I can somehow continue my project. I originally went there to learn the technical and iconographic aspects of Thangka, but I became interested in the geometry and social production, the workshop system. The guys I worked with, Dawa and Sherab Tamang, were only 19 and 20 years old, and their level of skill was just astonishing." Passacantando was impressed by Kathmandu's artistic community, which was very different from that of San Francisco or New York. "The Thangka artists see it as labor, a job. They don't have the same underlying conceptual framework or discourse. The organization I worked with, Dharmadhatu Foundation, is a social enterprise that produces Thangkas to raise money for scholarships for rural children."

He relished the communal atmosphere of the artists' workshops. "The music, the chatting, all the artists collaborating, it's really fun. Western artists in the past and present such as Andy Warhol, Damien Hirst, and Jeff Koons have employed this system, and while I admire the efficiency of their operations and I like their work, I find the resulting artwork is ultimately cynical. Cynical work in the end begets more cynicism." In his own work, he wants to flip this. "I want to propose something constructive. At the risk of sounding utopian: something inspirational."

Many of his professors at CCA, where he emphasized social practice in his MFA studies, encouraged this. John Jota Leanos kindled an interest in social and political issues, while both Ted Purves and Amy Franceschini offered valuable examples of how to structure projects and push boundaries. Shaun O'Dell encouraged his multicultural studies and got him thinking about how different artistic cultures use geometry. "I consider myself a social person and I have social concerns. It's a drive of mine to want to work with people. Painting can absolutely expand into social realms."

The works that Passacantando produced during his Fulbright residency are classic geometric forms: concentric circles, interconnected squares and rings, and iterations of triangles. In preparation for his return trip he has been researching geometry, from medieval religious works to Renaissance masters, Arte Povera to Formalism. "I'm interested in the mathematical side of geometry," he says, "as well as its history as a discipline. I'm also doing some reading about string theory."

Passacantando and his wife (anthropologist Clarissa Bynum) struggled to adapt while they were in Nepal. "It was really intense. Environmentally, Kathmandu is very chaotic, due largely to the civil war that just ended. Living conditions were at times difficult, particularly in the city, but Nepal is generally beyond beautiful, the people we met were amazingly generous and kind, and we forged great friendships." To find a way to get back, he has been applying for grants at the Guggenheim, the Bronx Museum, and Creative Capital. Writing proposals has been rigorous, he says, but invaluable in helping him articulate his ideas. His wife, meanwhile, is applying for funding to continue research into the relationships between Nepalese migrant mothers and their children. Although Nepal comes first ("Here I have roots and a seed," he says), he has ideas for study in other countries with great traditions of geometric art, including India and Turkey.

Visit the artist's blog Two in Kathmandu for more on his experiences in Nepal.

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