Erin: What are you curious about?
Natale: So many things. I’m an avid reader of non-fiction and most of the topics that interest me touch on the sciences and other efforts to make sense of the world, such as psychology and sociology. I’m also fascinated with other cultures. What it always seems to boil down to is an interest in understanding the various ways different people understand the same things.
Erin: Describe your art and describe your process.
Natale: My work is methodical, graphic, and process-driven. Regardless of the medium or the series, I always find myself establishing some set of rules and then seeing where they lead. Sometimes I set up formulas to compare unrelated things. That’s what I do when creating my Minerals pieces, which compare people to minerals in a way that refers to the reductive nature of stereotyping. The Minerals paintings show lots of faces of famous personalities in the background and each one represents a mineral property, such as hardness (Clint Eastwood) or softness (the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man). Those faces are hand-sketched with markers, made into repeat patterns on a computer, and then transferred to the linen via acrylic transfer. The graphic shapes in the center of each canvas are accurate diagrams of a mineral’s crystal form. It’s all grounded in scientific fact, but the fun part is mapping those human archetypes onto the rigid terminology of science. Obviously that makes for some absurd (and funny) comparisons.
Other times, I devise an essentially visual set of rules like the ones I use when creating my Drawings in 3D. These pieces each have their beginnings in 2D sketches that I make by putting down random marks and then assessing what “rules” have been established by those marks. It’s like solving a puzzle when I turn the marks into a finished composition. I turn the sketches into sculptures by cutting, painting, and drawing on thermal plastic which is then attached to wood panels with adhesives or brass hardware.
Erin: Having studied graphic and fashion design, your road to becoming a visual artist has been a long and winding path. Can you tell us about your journey and how these experiences inform your art today?
Natale: I wanted to study fine art, but was encouraged instead to find an “applied art” to stake my life on. As it turned out, graphic design was a great field for me since it played to my tendency to rigor and attention to detail. It also was great timing when I found that my five years of experience doing graphic design for the web were hard to come by in Europe in 2000. Thanks to that, I was able to immigrate to France on a skilled worker visa and I stayed for almost a decade.
In 2006, I had the opportunity to learn yet another applied art: fashion design. I went back to school in Paris and studied at the alma mater of Yves Saint Laurent and Issey Miyake. I was also incredibly lucky to work for a year in haute couture for a young prize-winning designer, Felipe Oliveira Baptista, and to do a brief but exhilarating internship at Chanel. Oliveira Baptista’s collections were sculptural and graphic, and I had a hand (literally) in creating many of the pieces that were worn on the runway. At Chanel, I bore witness to the creative process of the premier d’atelier who skillfully interpreted the sketches of Karl Lagerfeld. He was a master at turning a series of minimal lines into precisely the piece of wearable art that Mr. Lagerfeld had in mind. I think both of these experiences left imprints on me and they still inform my visual vocabulary and my process.
The fields of design and art are inextricable for me. In a sense, I don’t think I could have come to my current practice any other way. When I moved to New York from France, I taught fashion at FIT and later joined Christie’s as a senior designer. It was only after spending a couple of years working at Christie’s and seeing so many amazing artworks every day that I finally found the courage to leave design and pursue my career as a fine artist.
Erin: You explained that your Minerals series involves comparing mineral properties to celebrity figures in a way that confronts our desire to stereotype other people. What was the driving force behind the creation of this work and what did it reveal?
Natale: I was raised in Texas and wasn’t really aware of the world outside of my hometown until I met someone in high school who had studied in Greece for a semester. That was the first inkling I had that I, too, could see the world. It was a revelation that fueled an interest in cultures different from my own and, ultimately, a decade in France and three years in Japan. Ironically, in studying other cultures, what you really discover is your own. It’s only when you see that there are other ways of thinking that you recognize your own prejudices.
This series, which is not yet finished, is mostly about mocking the absurdity of stereotyping while also pointing out my own failures to overcome the temptation to stereotype. The series currently comprises two segments which address an American and a Japanese audience. Since I recently became a French citizen, I feel it is my duty to round it out with a third segment for a French audience.
Erin: Your newest work, Drawings in 3D is a big departure from the Minerals work. What were your motivations for this change of direction?
Natale: Visually, the Drawings in 3D seem like a big departure from the Minerals. But the underlying preoccupation with patterns and human nature is still there.
For the Minerals, my visual starting point was the stark beauty of the black and white crystal diagrams I came upon in a science book. What graphic designer can resist a bold, hard-edged shape that’s conveying data in such a beautiful way? From there, I dived into the data and found a story to tell: the story of how rigid, calculating categorization betrays us when we apply it inappropriately to human beings.
With the Drawings in 3D, I’m interested in how the human brain latches onto perceived patterns and creates meaning where there is none. Some scholars call this “patternicity.” Since most of these artworks begin with a completely random mark, it’s just the repetition of that mark that confers some semblance of meaning to the final composition. They are like Rorschach tests: the viewer’s understanding of the work is of their own making. My titles indicate my own take on the resulting compositions and are given only after the rules have been duly followed and the artworks reveal themselves to me. A lot like the phenomenon of stereotyping, patternicity depends on the brain making false equivalencies.
Erin: Tell us about your daily sketch practice and what it does for you.
Natale: It’s a meditation. I do crossword puzzles, too, and my sketch journal is like a crossword puzzle without words. The initial mark can be inspired by anything I see, feel or even hear. The stitching on a stranger’s jacket, a blind swipe of the pen on the page, a repeated checkmark mimicking the rhythm of a song… all of them are valid starting points. And all of them provide rules from which to complete the composition.
Erin: You returned last year from three years living abroad in Japan. How did this experience pose limitations to or inspire your work?
Natale: Initially, my focus was on interpreting the Minerals series to address a Japanese audience. Thanks to a research residency at Tokyo Arts and Space (formerly Tokyo Wonder Site), I was able to perform a survey that was essentially a crash course in Japanese pop culture. Having so little prior knowledge of the culture and its language made everything seem new and exciting. I produced a small segment of the Minerals series using my Japanese research, but soon found myself craving a new medium to reflect my new circumstances. I also discovered that in Japan, people buy fewer large paintings than they do in the US. Living spaces are famously small in Tokyo, but less known is the fact that most landlords don’t allow tenants to put nails in their walls. My small Drawings in 3D function both as wall sculptures and as objects that can sit on shelves or tables.
Erin: You work in a space in Gowanus, Brooklyn that has many other artists studios. How does community play a role in your creativity?
Natale: After spending three years away from my Brooklyn artist community, I am even more grateful for them. The creative energy and professionalism of my studiomates really bolster my resolve to push myself every day. I’m an introvert, but I definitely thrive on those regular bursts of contact with other people.
Erin: What is the most important thing you learned and from whom?
Natale: Dogma is destructive. I’ve learned it from a cast of characters, past and present, near and far.
Erin: If you had a superpower what would it be?
Natale: The superpower I would like to have would be blindness to what people think of me.