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You are here:Hampton Photo Arts arrow Hamptons Artists arrow Joe Chierchio Paints Figures From America’s Working Past
Joe Chierchio Paints Figures From America’s Working Past

by Elizabeth Fasolino

Ferry by Joe Chierchio
"Ferry" by Joe Chierchio
Joe Chierchio was born in the shadow of the Brooklyn Navy Yard in December of 1940. The manufacture of ships for the Lend-Lease program to aid Britain and France in their war against the Axis went into high gear at the yard the following year. More than 70,000 workers kept production going 24 hours a day, building cruisers, destroyers, battleships, and aircraft carriers in dry dock and lowering them into the Hudson on enormous shipways. Mr. Chierchio’s father and five uncles worked in the yard and, after the war, in businesses around the docks.

In 1966, as the docks were decommissioned by the military, Mr. Chierchio became the first of four siblings to take a job outside the neighborhood. He found work in the “bullpen” of a Madison Avenue advertising firm. There, for the next 30 years, he created campaigns for everything from new foods to pantyhose. Now retired from the ad game, he spends weekends at his house in Water Mill and has reinvented himself as a full-time artist whose work celebrates his love of the vanished era of the New York City of his youth.

Mr. Chierchio’s narrative compositions recall the murals of the American Realist painters who were funded by the Works Progress Administration during the Great Depression. They will be shown at the Gallery in Sag Harbor, with an opening reception on Saturday evening from 5 to 8.

Mr. Chierchio, a lean, athletic man who stays fit through a regimen of brisk walking and tennis, talked about his work in an interview at his studio and apartment on the Upper East Side of Manhattan recently. “I’m a nostalgia freak,” he said. “I do nostalgia with a contemporary twist. And when I do my drawings I relive my past. It’s like Woody Allen and ‘Radio Days.’ ”

Forty works on paper make up his new show at the Gallery, which is titled “East End — New York — Europe: Our Lives and Times.”

 “I’m fascinated with the heroic Italians and Irish who built this city,” he said. “I always enjoyed telling stories, and by the time I was eight years old I loved drawing. My mother was an amateur artist, and she would say to me ,’Joe, you have talent, you have to go to school and develop it.’”

At 12, Mr. Chierchio began taking classes at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, and then applied to the School of Industrial Arts (which became the School of Art and Design) on 79th and Third Avenue in Manhattan. “You had to take a test,” he said. “Everyone had to draw a picture of the inside of a supermarket, which always stayed with me because when I became an art director I worked on all those products I had drawn for the test.”

Taking the subway into Manhattan every day from the time he was 14 opened new horizons for Mr. Chierchio. “It was the 1950’s,” he said. “We talked art in cafes in the Village. It was Kerouac and the Beats, and Sinatra’s voice was still great. He was one of my heroes.”

Immediately after graduating from high school Mr. Chierchio was hired as a general dogsbody at an advertising agency. “Back then,” he said, “you went two ways: fine art, and you starved, or design, illustration, and photography.” By the time he was 25 he was an art director, and for the next 30 years worked at Grey Advertising, Bates Worldwide, Saatchi & Saatchi, and Young & Rubicam.

“My dad didn’t quite understand it,” he said. “He wanted me to be a plumber, like him. But when I got a $28,000 job in 1965, he said, ‘You’re getting that much money for drawing?’ Then he started seeing my commercials on the air. One time in the 1970’s I had ads for Canon, L’eggs pantyhose, and General Mills, all in Life magazine in one week.”

“One of my first clients was Wilkinson Blades,” Mr. Chierchio said. “The blades were made in London, and hard to find. One day, we got a letter from Edward G. Robinson, who got them in a test market. We’re all at a meeting, it was ‘65, and he writes this letter saying he loved the shave, but couldn’t find the blades anywhere. We gave him a call and asked to shoot him for the ad campaign. We did him as a tough guy.”

Mr. Chierchio said that his work both in advertising and as an artist always paid homage to his love of film, specifically noir thrillers, and even more particularly those starring Humphrey Bogart or Alan Ladd.

“I always preferred telling a story, creating moments that people remember,” he said. “I was also very influenced by Norman Rockwell. And Edward Hopper, but his work is slightly on the lonely side. I don’t like to depict loneliness. A lot of his people are on their own. I like moodiness, but not somber. It has to have heart and soul.”

For many years, after a day spent brainstorming with colleagues and pitching clients, his creative outlet was sculpture. “It was difficult for me when I left work at night,” he said. “It was very demanding, and I was married to my work, but in the 1970’s I began taking classes in stone carving at the School of Visual Arts. I love working with form. Even in my drawings I have a lot of form.”

The shift from three-dimensional work to drawing began in about 1990 when one of his nephews, Chris Chierchio, who owns a plumbing business, approached him for some “art” to hang in his office.

“I did a couple guys for him in sepia tones,” Mr. Chierchio said. “It’s hard to draw a story about a broken water main. But I like to invent moments, like Van Gogh: I don’t paint what I see, I paint what I do. I see one little thing and from that I make a whole story. So I did a series of men with defined muscles, carrying heavy pipes, tools, and materials. ‘Uncle Joe,’ my nephew said to me in good Brooklynese, ‘I didn’t know it would be this good.’”

Recently Mr. Chierchio has worked exclusively with colored pencils, and his work has become about the inner lives and daily routines of working men and women, in both agricultural and industrial settings. He eschews true Social Realism, opting instead for his own highly stylized vernacular, full of swirling skies and roiling waters, with imaginative foreshortening and whimsical perspectives that compress large areas into compositions dense with detail and hidden clues that offer historical and dramatic context.

His figurative representation is not typical of paintings done for traditional living rooms, dining rooms, or hallways. His men and women recall the vigorous figures that were commissioned to decorate post offices and railway stations during the Great Depression. Many of them evoke the blocky Stalinist-era Soviet Constructivism that showed men and women laboring for a brighter future.

“My women are on the strong side,” Mr. Chierchio said. “Michelangelo depicted them muscular, too. I guess it comes from working in sculpture, which is hard to sell. People don’t understand it — it’s sophisticated.”

Mr. Chierchio recalled a 1995 show of his sculpture at the now-defunct Ann Harper Gallery in Amagansett: “I had to schlep these 500-pound stone carvings out, and none sold. It was very time consuming. I always say talent is talent. If you can sculpt, you can paint or sketch.”

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