I met up with Ricky Aiello Jr. at a tea spot in Williamsburg, and the benefit of grabbing a table early was that I could observe him in his natural state as he approached the cafe. He sauntered up to the front door, all floppy haired and sporting a southwestern poncho, tattoos peeking out of everywhere possible and it was easy to see why some people have compared him to Johnny Depp. Especially at the epicenter of Williamsburg, where many TV shows leverage the neighborhood in an effort convey the artsy, angsty reality of young Millenials, I could be easily convinced that he just walked off a set. Or maybe jumped off a horse.
Perhaps this self-possessed style and ready to pose look is an homage to the acting roots of his father and grandfather (both successful fellows who you can look up on your own), but it’s certainly clear that this is a guy that likes to express himself visually in all facets of his life.
“I think creating a brand for yourself as an artist living in 2016 is pivotal. Self promotion through social media can change everything. I get up in the morning, I put on clothes, don’t do anything to my hair, talk a certain way, cook food, and play music. It’s what I do everyday and it just so happens that people are drawn to the personality behind the painting. So after I found that out I needed to keep putting it out there. I can’t even tell you how many creative opportunities I’ve gotten through Instagram.”
Keyed into the inextricable presence of social media in all facets of life, Ricky finds it integral to pay attention to cultivating a public style and an image that will help propel his work. He is wholly aware of and willing to engage in the necessities and benefits of a curated Instagram, Facebook and even Youtube presence (see www.youtube.com/braisedbywolves) and acknowledges the ambiguous boundaries that exist in those spaces. Instead of being a “painter” it is clear by his social media presence that he is also a “personality,” which is part of his strategy for moving work forward and gaining the resources he needs to keep doing what he loves.
Self Portrait Number VI, 2015
Ricky has a similar lifestyle profile to many multifaceted early 20-something artists in Brooklyn. He is playing in two bands, holding down a full-time job, and making art. I ask him if he defines himself as a “painter” which seems like an outdated term these days. His answer is appropriately all encompassing, and indicative of the artistic communities in which he is steeped, where boundaries are blurred and there’s a project around every corner:
“I would have to define myself in a more general term. Maybe something like ‘creator’? If I defined myself as a ‘painter’, I would assume people would think I painted walls for a living. Although that would probably be fun, it doesn’t exactly surface what I’m trying to convey.”
“Creator” is accurate, indicative of the collaborative communities of many artists who find new opportunities on a daily basis through the people and spaces they encounter. His work is ever evolving, full of explosive color, expansiveness, and energy. Using large canvasses and earthy southwestern color palates, he expresses his inner energy in the form of paintings like his Self Portrait Number VI.
“I painted that self portrait last summer. Man, that was a time I actually couldn’t put into words. It was as if I was living out of body, riding the season like a wave. I had cracked another part of my shell and stepped out of it, moving myself another inch closer to a world outside of my own. I felt like I was firing on all cylinders. Everything just kind of exploded. Less violent, more brilliant.”
Usually it’s a train of thought process that propels him to start his large scale abstract expressionist paintings. Hercules and The Twelve Labors (One through Six) was conceptualized after walking by a deli on his way to get a burrito and seeing the Ancient Greek Epsilon (or “backwards ‘E’”) in the word ‘Deli’ and his brain “just goes.” His brain went to the first Greek thing he could think of, Hercules, and it spiraled from there.
“I never really have an idea until something clicks. I can’t just like try and think of something to paint. Something pops into my head, I think about it some more, and it’s that ‘thought’ itself that keeps generating more content and I just go with the flow it from there. I like the flow, man.”
He was so excited that he never actually got that burrito.
Without formal training, Ricky taught himself pretty much everything he knows about painting, starting one particularly rough day when he was living in Arizona. He had just had his guitar smashed in an unfortunate run in with some roadside thugs who didn’t take too kindly to the look of his indie-folk bandmates. His girlfriend broke up with him the day before and he was in a state of understandable distress without his guitar to help release that inner turmoil. When he got home he noticed that his neighbors had left some random paints and a couple of old wooden doors on their front lawn and he coopted them for his own. He explains that, “For that year I just had to paint. When I started painting, it wasn’t even really a choice. Painting kind of chose me in a way.”
One of the defining characteristics of some of his pieces is the heavy influence of symbolism, names and words, like ‘Globetrotters’ and ‘Crazy Horse’ in Cowhand the Hero. He’s even made his own alphabet and incorporated that into a painting.
It’s difficult at first to determine whether his paintings have a core message of destruction or elation, and I am in fact surprised to hear from a painter that they are almost uniformly expressions of contendedness. It seems almost an act of courage, or at least sincere honesty, to commit to such an unequivocally positive expression of self.
One of the prominent symbols that could be left to interpretation are bones. This fascination with bones is elevated to a lighter level. Instead of being arbiters of death, bones are a way to understand humanity at its core and to represent connectedness:
“Bones are everywhere, man. Animals have them, we have them. Anything that’s living has bones, what’s more important than that, what would our organs be if we didn’t have an internal structure to protect them and keep them there? It’s all just symbolizing the structure within ourselves, within life.”
Given the inflection of his voice and his manner of speech, which is an extremely upbeat Southern California surfer vibe, rife with punny jokes and a wide-eyed excitement about anything new that comes across his path, it’s clear that this is a person who speaks his own language and speaks from the heart. On the canvas and off. Traditional modes of conversation and communication don’t necessarily apply to him, especially in terms of telling the world what he feels, and therefore he has created a language of colors on canvas that help him to communicate the “explosions” going on inside of him.
The volume of New York City is a source of inspiration for him as well, so it’s to be expected that these paintings are going to keep getting bigger. When he first moved here from Arizona, his style was “fueled” by the sound outside of his window in Queens of car horns honking, people screaming and talking because, “sound was just pouring through my windows and it just funneled right into my paintings. I grabbed it and I almost threw it at the canvas.”
Success for Ricky is defined by having enough resources to keep doing what he is doing and getting bigger and, yes, louder.
Community shows like Hatch provide key opportunities as well because, “You’re not always gonna roll into a high brow show with million dollar paintings, but you’ll walk into a really rad apartment show and that can change your outlook on everything.”
When talking about adding features like words to his paintings, he says, “It’s to up the volume a bit. I make them loud without words too, but it’s like, have you ever seen Spinal Tap?
Yes, turn it up to eleven.