Paul Pollaro and the Peso Principle
by Elizabeth Kirschner
Encountering a Paul Pollaro painting fully takes both moments and years. It causes a brain chill, a tingle down the spine and is a highly tactile experience. I know this because I live with a Paul Pollaro painting and recently made a pilgrimage to where he lives and works near South Berwick, ME so we could talk and look and think. We did all three.
Paul began by talking about growing up with an artist father who created complex collages out of old paintings, ship canvases, in essence geological time layers. Referred to as “physical skins” whose sources remained mysterious, Paul’s paintings, as well, have many deep epidermal layers, a primitivism and density evocative of hides.
He brought me down to his studio, a room off the basement whose door had to be wrenched open with a hammer as it was stuck shut with paint and solvent. I took a picture of his work shoes which were plastered with paint to the degree that they looked bronzed, like prized baby shoes.
I can think of no other painter who is as physical as Paul Pollaro is and he himself noted that he is both “an artist and an athlete” when working. Paul manipulates his materials—he walks through his paintings, presses boards into them, linen, too, will even flip a canvas over, walk on it again, anything to find a way to a new detail. Conscious decisions fail for him as he is visceral, in his depths. Beginning with the arbitrary, Paul then finds relationships between space, tempo, things he couldn’t conceive of while corralling and directing it all. This, according to Paul is very “Id,” decadent and inside the Super-Ego.
Yet there is a profound desire for consistency, for the viewer to have an experience akin to picking up a rock only to discover a salamander, slimy and alive, or to witnessing a birth, also slimy, alive, and yes, primitive. We all must become, or so Paul hopes, Pre-historic, a being seeing a Wooly Mammoth for the first time. He wants his paintings to be like a beast in the room, or a tree stump. Most of his canvases are large 8’ by 6’ walls and Paul claims that people see everything except what drives them as he works with figurative imagery no one seems to get.
In other words, Paul Pollaro creates an abstraction out of an abstraction taken from the figurative to the point where he risks losing his audience. For him, the love and drive exists in the most private places and those private places hold the soul of his enthralling canvases.
Hence we come to his notion of PESO with “P” standing for Particularity, “E” for Engagement (i.e., that slimy salamander under the rock,) “S” for Simultaneity, which contains both exertion and privacy and “O” for Otherness, which is a deeply embedded insistence on how complex we are, that we are what we don’t create simply because the things that shape us most—the monster, the beast—are things we do not choose because they are scary and far from benign. For Paul, it was his mother’s cancer and who among us would choose or will for one’s mother to have cancer? Therein, another concept comes into play, “The Success of Failure” as no one willing chooses failure, but it does comprise us, it even deepens and directs our lives.
Paul also touched upon Joseph Campbell’s idea of “The Aesthetic Experience.” He talked about how when the mind sees a tree, it can’t possibly process all of its elements—the wind, the light, the sheer volume and quantity of leaves—and so, the brain must generalize. Paul insists we can and do have the capacity for “The Aesthetic Experience,” to be inside the moment as it unfolds its finite infinity like a Jacob’s Ladder.
Paul himself described one such experience. He was on a tour with a Lamaze class when the guide suddenly pointed he wanted the group to see. Paul watched every head turn, each slightly differently in a strange, particular way in a single moment. To him, it was like looking at a bunch of Praying Mantises. I, too, saw those heads turn like nearly reptilian insects.
PESO. “The Aesthetic Experience.” Paul Pollaro wants his audience to look closely, to see how many granules there are in one inch of canvas. Multiply that inch till it creates an 8’ by 6’ wall. Think about the moment when the spark travels from the stick of its origin, how a grass bowl can be both grass and bowl, how an image can appear in primordial mud, the birth, the beast and tree stump, of making tools out of earth and water and you might begin to imagine the magnificent and complex magnitude that exists in one Paul Pollaro painting where to see is to be brought into heightened perceptibility so exquisite, it is nearly excruciating.
Paul Pollaro was born in Brooklyn, NY, received his MFA from Indiana University, has had many gallery affiliations and exhibitions, including one person shows at Aucociso Gallery in Portland, ME, Soprafina in Boston, MA and Nahcotta in Portsmouth, NH. Once a Maine resident he now lives and works in Rollingsford, NH.