Stephen Romano (extreme left) with Joe Coleman and friends at the opening reception of ‘Opus Hypnogogia’.
So what makes art dealers select the pieces that they do? Commercial instinct? A certain aesthetic?
In many spheres, art is simply, all about the money. Money for investment, money to launder and money to translate into status. However, there must be some collectors who are in it for more than just financial gain or its associative power, or am I a deluded idealist, destined to starve in an attic rather than ‘get real’.
I have noticed that there are collectors of both art and antiquities that gravitate towards the indefinable, not the object itself but the feel of the object. I do it myself with bones and found items, opening myself up to what is contained rather than the container.
I talked once to a very urbane, very important antiquities dealer about this after I’d wandered through a 4 story Georgian house that contained just a fraction of his collection.
I presented my own experiences to him of going for the feel rather than the outward appearance, and he said he did the same.
In the antiques trade it is called having ‘the eye’, the ability to see beyond.
However, in art as with antiquities there are those who are in it purely for financial gain, and there are those that walk in their world for love, but balance their collecting with a professionalism that communicates their passion and makes its perpetuation possible.
I’ve come across reference to Stephen Romano’s Gallery and the artists exhibited there on various occasions. Although there was an eclecticism in the work shown, there was also a continuing thread of power and spirituality in all the work displayed.
While I was in New York we had tried to meet up to talk further but circumstances thwarted us. Thus I’d initially tried to interview Stephen in a more formal manner via e mail, but I can get over excitable and avalanche people with words and as someone who likes to think before he replies (unlike hyper reactive me) we decided to have a more relaxed approach so we conversed over a meandering face book message thread.
I’ve removed many of my interruptions and comments from the following, as they interfered with the flow of the discussion.
Where are you from originally?
Montreal I guess, hard to draw a line where the story begins, so perhaps best to say Canada.
How long has art been part of your journey?
I’ve been drawing since I was 2. I had an aunt who was a successful Canadian abstract artist, she would bring me books on Durer, Bosch, Rembrandt and Dali. She encouraged me, enriched me. I always knew that I was going to be an artist, there was never any doubt.
She sounds a gift of a woman!
I struggled through high school as an outsider, I was in bands and stuff.
As a singer or a musician?
Singer…just always trying to find my place.
I could never get that ‘school-days are the best days of your life’ rubbish…
I was banging my head against the wall and then found the works of Anton LaVey when I was 13 or 14 which was a shot in the arm for my morale, and a huge affirmation for me.
Then later I went to community college and met ‘a master’ Ray Robinson who introduced me to deeper stuff, Castaneda, Shree Rajneesh and de Chardin.
Anyway, all the while the goal was to become a practising artist, which I did well into my 30’s. Then I hit my endgame, I was making black squares, essentially filled with rhetoric. So I went off into the world of art dealing. I just disengaged my passion for making art altogether.
Was the art you were creating spiritual?
The art? No more like Ad Reinhardt and Gerhard Mertz. ThinkArt!
Wow- was that change of directions difficult or just a transference of creativity?
Totally hard. Like a withdrawal from heroin. It was in my blood but I was tired of living a marginalized life, somehow art dealing was more empowering, so I apprenticed with a few major people, learned the ropes and the game and ten years later I was a private art dealer, doing well.
So what did these major people teach you?
Presentation is everything.
Know your facts all the way down the line.
Life is once, show up for it.
Always have the artist’s integrity at the forefront.
Don’t try to sell your friendship, sell the work.
Only present works you would want for yourself.
You love what you do?
Sure of course. It’s all I think about, that’s how I got to here.
Or is it just a job?
It’s not a job at all. I don’t even remotely think in that way. I had a job once, it was awful.
So what presses your buttons? From what I have seen of the art that you gravitate towards, there is a real mysticism and power in what you’re attracted to?
I have a background in contemporary but also Outsider and folk art, vernacular art. To me the whole thing is about, self-perpetuation and expanding your boundaries. Going through dark waters to find one truer light. An awakening, otherwise we are just specimens of a species that procreates and produces fertiliser. What sets us up from the other animals basically is our ability to perpetuate our intellect into the realms of the esoteric, the spiritual, the meta.
Now I would argue apes and dolphins and whales and others have the ability to do that as well and are as soulful as we are, more actually. The highest order of sentient beings is not actually man but as a generalised self-referential concept, let’s just start with that.
So…here’s my pitch.
Given the vastness of space, that we live in a universe that has no known boundary, the concept of the scale of spatial infinity is one that does JUST fit into our brains. I’m talking about the actual known cosmic space, not internal universe and the vastness of the breadth of time. That… what is it…12 billion years since the big bang theory, and we aren’t even sure of that any more. Time will flow infinitely into the future regardless of whether we survive as a species or not.
So we live for a very brief time, in a very microcosmic space.
O yes, life is so very, very short.
Given that realisation, one would be likely to succumb to despair and the hopelessness of our existence yeah?
Depends on who you are
Yeah, yeah, but I mean the average person or the general population, not the exceptions.
So what is the purpose? Well in my experience and that’s all I’m talking about anyway, what sustains me out of that angst is the need for self-actualisation, the perpetuation of the spiritual, contact with the higher order.
And that to me is achieved through culture, specifically the visual arts. I consider the visual arts to be the jewel in the crown of our cultural achievements, I mean you don’t go to The Met to go shopping, you go for self-enrichment. I mean you COULD I guess, but you’d be missing the point. So there we are face to face with a great art work, having a primary experience with the real thing, not the JPEG. And we are so humbled that for 5 seconds we manage to turn off our internal dialogue lose our self-importance and be in the NOW and somehow through this experience we get a sense, maybe on an intuitive level I don’t know, that our potential as a species is so much greater. It is what de Chardin would call a ‘Biophilic’ moment as opposed to say, looking at something that dumb’s down our perceptual senses which I would call a ‘necrophilic’ moment, one that embraces the death of the psyche.
Sure, or Andy Warhol, or Jeff Koons not that I dislike them particularly, for me, and here’s where it gets beautiful, for me the TRUE artist has a shamanistic role to perpetuate the sense of hope and optimism and love and unity in our culture. To reintroduce and re inject the sense of magic, THAT is the true artist to me, not the showman.
Agreed but in my mind to also guide through the hopes and fears and taboos.
The ones who want fame and money and to be irreverent, again I don’t hate those guys I just don’t take them seriously. The true artist, they are the ones who will perpetuate a culture of good will, who will unlock our greater potential those are the artists that I love.
You’re walking a fine line here between the worlds. Visible/Invisible, corporate/counter-culture
O well, the true warrior, let me find the exact quote, it’s magnificent.
‘The art of the true warrior is to balance the terror of being alive, with the wonder of being alive’ Carlos Castaneda
Perfect! I stagger continuously between the two…
The great art is nothing more than that IMHO
The true artist…the work they make, is in itself not a representation of secondary experience. That art doesn’t interest me, it is primary experience in and of itself. An act of magic; the artist takes a strand, socially, politically and spiritually.
Okay, so if you perceive the true artist to be a shaman, what is the role of the curator and the art dealer?
The presenter, nothing more (or less hahaha)
Surely if you think in those terms, you see yourself as going from being a shaman to a presenter which isn’t perhaps emotionally affirming, though perhaps more materially so?
That’s difficult to comment on, and sometimes there is an itch under my skin to return to art making, like heading into an electromagnetic storm, but my sense of self-preservation redirects me!
O creating is a bloody descent, no two ways about it- when I stopped using drugs/drinking, my artistic process was terrifying as it was such an emotional and spiritual rock and roll of a journey, that often threatened my sobriety.
I’ve been clean and sober for 28 years.
Wow…only 20 years for me! So was getting sober part of your reason for changing your creative direction?
I guess…or part of it.
At this point Stephen and I went off on various tangents before he took me on a journey of some of the art that has passed through his hands, ‘a quick tour’ as he says. An incredibly intense quick tour as all the work affected me, whether I liked the specific piece or not, and although he recently shut his Gallery he seems to be incredibly busy for the next year or so, with various art related activities at a level way beyond my ken.
However, Stephen does talk of the Gallery ‘being an ecosystem of artists, enthusiasts, collectors, writers and of course what goes on the walls’ and ‘the plays within plays that occur within the exhibition space’ and he obviously genuinely loved his Brooklyn Gallery, although is philosophical about its shutting.
Somehow, I can’t see Stephen Romano not having his own Gallery to work magic in, for very long.
Anonymous Spirit Photo, mid Western American, c 1880.
Wolfgang Grasse ‘Merry Go Round’ 2000
William Mortenson ‘Preparation for the Sabboth’ c 1930, manipulated photograph.