Interview: Michael Ciervo

by Jonathan Santoro


After Now is a group exhibition currently on view at Rosenwald Wolf Gallery at UArts. The show is part of a series of exhibitions centering on Philadelphia artists and stands as a preliminary support for gallery director Sid Sach’s magnum opus Invisible City. Like RWG’s preceding exhibition Circa 1995, the show represents an epoch, but in this case the timeline and historical narrative are not yet fixed and the show is consequently less of a survey of “who’s who” than a grouping of six young artists concerned with the mediation of image. With each artist utilizing appropriative strategies, the show sits as a cohesive unit and propels the viewer into a cross-disciplinary exhibition that concerns itself with amalgamations of vintage prints, austere surfaces, and the disintegration of image. Michael Ciervo punctuates the space of After Now with three works, each painting a seeming outlier because of its hand-rendered nature, but integral to the show since they offer a warmth and playfulness that move beyond the muse as object. I wanted to learn more about his practice, process and content, so I met up with Michael and asked him a series of questions.



Jonathan Santoro: When I see your paintings I am reminded of Pliny the Elder’s tale of Zeuxis and Parrhasius. Roughly stated, the story involves a rendering competition between two artists and although both artists have mastered their craft, it’s the manipulation of the viewer’s expectations that surpasses the flat footed limitations of trompe l’oeil. The paintings you contributed to After Now and the show I curated with your work last year, Chewing the Scenery, take such care in rendering digital pixels and other distortions that take place as an image is enlarged or poorly printed. I find this especially interesting within the context of After Now since the illusory elements of your works are even more pronounced by being in such close proximity to other artworks directly using print. Are you interested in visual deception and games? How does the act of rendering inform your work and the context of your imagery?

Michael Ciervo: Sure. Representational painting is inherently illusory. I think those are elements that keep the labor of painting more engaging and this is part of the overall general pleasure of painting, for me – to make things feel real, or as real as I’m able. To hold an adherence to the image whether it is of low quality or not. Not because of a responsibility to that image or its origins but as a point of departure. There is reward in replication, but that is not the objective. It may inform context in the sense that I tend to create problems that feel too difficult for me to solve, just visually speaking. In the end it’s trying to make something that is believable but within its own circumstances. And to that end, it sets up the framework on which to build. All painting is visual games. Controlling the way the viewer’s eyes move around the painting or creating the illusion of space or non-space by manipulating tone and value and mass and scale. Or finding the most subtle way of completely changing the dynamic or believability of a painting. There are limits to all of this, and I think it’s equally interesting to exploit that.

Untitled (Fear of Men)”
Image courtesy of Studio LHOOQ

JS: In the show at RWG, your work “Untitled (Fear of Men)” depicts an image of a window with Slash Magazine’s iconic logo curiously sitting on top. I find it interesting that you push this image to the center of the canvas by using a broad painted border. It spells out the artificial construction of the image, much like the use of graphic text over the central image does. Could you explain how you generally go about settling on visual sources and how you orchestrate these images on your canvases?

MC: I spend a lot of time researching on the internet, used books, youtube, stock images, etcetera. My desktop is completely littered with these things. I usually have 5-10 running compositions that I go back to over the course of a few months or sometimes years and add things and edit. From there, I’ll generally discard most of the compositions and end up with one or two that make sense or more importantly can function as a painting. I prefer to look at these things as being collage derived as it is a fundamentally active process of adding images, cutting things out, manipulating scale.  Sometimes the accretion is careless and the accidents are much more interesting than any prior motive I may have had in structuring the image — so I’ll go with it. If something is off center, fine. If I accidentally erase an element that partially obscures its original intention or changes its narrative completely, even better.

I find I’m more attracted to the image when it doesn’t feel like my own typical, self reflective, intuitive response. I think that a necessary quality in picture making, or at least something I try and consider – is whether the image can function in a timeless fashion or more specifically as timeless within the parameters of this generation and its historical scope, or lack thereof. It’s difficult to not get allured by what is trend or not trend or where the cultural disposition for certain types of symbols lies. So I try and take a step back and think about my motives and the overall vibe of the image and at least approach it with some level of restraint.

JS: The way in which you depict composites of gifs., advertisements and digital detritus ties you to strategies utilized by Pop and Pictures Generation artists. For you, how do these approaches find their relevance in a time of such prodigious image consumption and the consequential high demand on artist production?

MC: I’m not sure that they are entirely relevant. Yes, we’re born into a ubiquity of media and of course it’s overwhelming – or it’s expected to be. But I don’t know that I really think about it in those terms, it just sort of exists on the periphery. At least in relation to how I make my work. These are un-identifiable images. There’s no direct reaction to image consumption and there’s no desire for me rebirth these sources in a way that affords them a new value, though there is an obvious re-presentation. It’s more about utilizing them to an advantage. Sourcing from an archive.

I am constantly reminded that the way I work is counter to what is expected – in terms of high demand on artist production – it’s a contrived and lengthy process that doesn’t yield much result and so I’m always looking for ways to be more efficient, which is a necessity but often feels unnatural to me.  The kind of engagement that I want is often related to the amount of labor that goes into the work.

Image courtesy of Studio LHOOQ

JS: With a painting like “Christine,” graphic tear marks flatten the image plane. This changes the tone of the work dramatically since it is at once an art historical wink to an artist like Fontana and also a generalized graphic indicating a sort of cartoonish violence. What’s your relationship to abstraction?

MC: Well the images are fundamentally abstracted in the sense that they’re going through a dilution that is evidenced in how I build up the image through paint, which is often faulty or sometimes clumsy. But in that image, specifically, the black marks function in two ways.  One, as you’ve noted, is as rips in the surface, or blood, or tears – a spatial interruption that’s difficult to discern or is unsettling. And subsequently, as shadow marks of a face, or the ghost of a face, a blank expression turned sideways. This is coupled with an image that, to me, is a portrait of longing and intimacy and isolation. So I think, in the end, the point is to try and have some kind of polarity in how the images function. Abstraction, or abstracted elements, is just a device in which to shift the paradigm of whatever narrative is being suggested – to make things more confusing or to show some kind of duality.

JS: Sometimes when I make an object, I feel partially distanced at first, but as I work with it over a period of time in the studio, I understand it differently and can often recognize that the object as emblematic of some kind of insecurity or dark motivation that I am feeling. You continually use a visual vocabulary of fragmented images of leather gloves and focused observations on women’s hair. Although these “models” provide you an opportunity to demonstrate your technical proficiency in painting texture, they are so serial in your work that I wonder if they are stand-ins for something more. Do you ever feel that you discover something of “yourself” within in these images?

MC: Yes, of course. I have a propensity for a certain kind of image that I’m drawn to. Certain objects or instances always work formally in a painting and it’s difficult to not fall into the trap of utilizing them because they’re attractive and serve a certain predictive function. Memories, or re-enforced ideas, of people and experiences. Reinforced memories of dreams. I think, in general, you appoint value to or are seduced by objects that may be ingrained deep in your memory that are symbols of experiences or desires you may have had. Which can sometimes feel like innocuous props or moments but hold weight in your emotional memory.

I’m not that interested in finding why or where exactly that originates. And I don’t feel as though I have a responsibility to be honest with that.  I’d rather have it exist somewhere outside myself. Also in engaging in making an image over time – to engage in long, extended viewing or interaction – you, by default, attribute some kind of affective gravity to the images or image parts, whether it be romantic, or familial, or sexual, or political. And those vignettes end up recurring over and over.  In the end there is a silent or static moment that I hope carries some kind of emotional resonance, no matter how ambiguous that may be.

JS: Are there any contemporary artists that you see your work being in conversation with?

MC: There’s so much art in the world and I do find parallels, often. Likely its generational and how people of our generation decipher our experiences or motivations. A lot of my friends share artists we like and I’m not entirely sure where that comes from. Maybe because we grew up on the same album covers and read the same art magazines and its filtered its way into this. Some artists I will always love, or return to often are: Victor Man, John Baldessari, RH Quaytman.  But as with anything, I feel like I’m always going back and forth and learning new things or applying new lessons to my work as it relates to where I am now. Lately, I’m really excited by artists like Laeh Glenn, Willa Nasatir, Anne Neukamp, Oliver Osborne. I think conversation implies that there is a steady exchange of influence and I haven’t really found that or at least a direct consistent source. But on a base level, especially in developing friendships with the artists in this show, I’ve developed new conversations and a renewed interest in what is happening locally – and that’s exciting.


Jonathan Santoro is an artist living and working in Philadelphia, PA. He has exhibited with Lord Ludd, Vox Populi, The Rosenwald-Wolf Gallery, The Woodmere Art Museum, Bodega and has an upcoming show at High Tide this June. He also co-hosted If You Leave: A Panel Discussion on Artist Retention in Philadelphia for the St.Claire’s Home School seminar series and co-curated the exhibition Chewing the Scenery at Crane Arts this past March. You can find his work at:


Michael Ciervo received a Certificate in Painting for the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in 2008. His works are in the collections of the Woodmere Art Museum and the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts.