By Jennifer Corr
Robert Carioscia is always up to a new project at his studio in Sag Harbor, whether it is a series of political paintings or mixed media work, one often leading to another, pertaining to a bigger picture.
A mixed media project that addresses what he calls the “gentrification of Sag Harbor” sparked an initiative to create whaling-related work, which he is currently displaying at the “Mailing Whaling” exhibition running through July 21 at the Sag Harbor Whaling and Historical Museum. That work is also based on Herman Melville’s novel “Moby-Dick.”
“A lot of my work has to do with history and social commentary,” Mr. Carioscia said during an interview in his studio. “I started out with doing social commentary paintings regarding the gentrification of Sag Harbor and commodification of the town and I was reading ‘Moby-Dick,’ which sort of tied in because that was a prosperous period.”
Much of Mr. Carioscia’s work is mixed media. In fact, his whaling prints incorporate prints of old money in the background, which can be seen by taking a closer look. His gentrification series had very similar attributes.
Mr. Carioscia began to notice the gentrification of Sag Harbor, a village known for its whaling history, when Chase Bank moved into the space at the corner of Main and Washington streets formerly occupied by Capital One bank, and prior to that was a branch of the local North Fork Bank. He noticed the same pattern of transition in his former Little Italy neighborhood in New York City, as well as in SoHo.
“These other boutique stores started moving in [to Sag Harbor] and mom-and-pop stores started leaving,” Mr. Carioscia said. “The old barber shop, the old dry cleaner—the laundromat is there, but that probably has to serve a much larger community, so they can probably survive.”
And though Mr. Carioscia is not native to Sag Harbor, he knows the area well because of time spent on the East End during the 1980s. He would later build a house in Sag Harbor, in 2001, but was only a part-time resident because he was still living in New York City.
Then came the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. In the aftermath, he began processing his experiences of the tragedy through art. He lived just 10 blocks from the World Trade Center and experienced the smoke and debris from the site blowing into his studio. He said the fires did not stop until December 2001 and that his neighborhood was abandoned, taking years to recover. He added that many people still haven’t recovered.
For some time, life after the attacks was filled with constant reminders. Mr. Carioscia said he saw posters of missing people for years and added that his local FDNY station, Engine 55, experienced a number of losses. “It just got you in the gut,” he said.
“It was very disturbing,” Mr. Carioscia said. “When someone drops a bomb in your neighborhood, it shakes you up. And you don’t really realize what kind of effect it has on you. It was such a shock to my system and working on those 9/11 paintings, which I called the ‘Series Circus Americana,’ because it ended up turning into a circus, was just my way of processing.”
He added that the “Series Circus Americana” was inspired by the way in which the Bush administration handled the aftermath of the September 11 attacks. Years later, Mr. Carioscia would find himself continuing the series, but this time satirizing the current administration from his home in Sag Harbor, where he moved permanently in 2012.
“I wasn’t going to do anything, because I had done that whole series that came out after 9/11 on the Bush administration, and there was a lot to parody there. But when Trump was elected, I was just, like a lot of people, in shock and awe for quite a few years,” Mr. Carioscia said. “And just watching this whole thing develop, I thought, ‘There’s nothing I can do with this guy. He’s a parody of a parody of a parody.’”
But now, his studio stores multiple works not only satirizing the president, but other current political figures as well. Those are just a few among an array of paintings and mixed media works depicting gentrification, or addressing climate change and other issues. Also among them are works that address the Cuban Missile Crisis, a childhood fear of Mr. Carioscia. When asked about those pieces, Mr. Carioscia perked up, asking, “Would you like to see them?”
“I was brought up in the city, and that was ground zero,” Mr. Carioscia said, walking toward the drawers. “The threat of being annihilated by a Russian missile was real.”
Mr. Carioscia described school “duck and cover” drills in which he and his classmates where would have to hide under their desks.
“It was a very scary thing,” Mr. Carioscia said, as he grabbed the work from the series. “And I had nightmares about it. So what I did was I kind of revisited it.”
One of the works he laid out on an easel included pictures of him as a child, placed in front of a classroom with missiles pointing toward him. He then placed the work back in the drawer.
Whether it’s experiencing the Cuban Missile Crisis as a child, living in Manhattan during September 11 and its aftermath, watching the current administration or documenting gentrification in his own neighborhood, Mr. Carioscia has always encapsulated his thoughts visually—and it shows by a visit to his studio.
Despite the traumatic nature of many of these events, when asked what his life has been like as an artist, he said “blessed.”
“I feel very fortunate.”
Mr. Carioscia’s whaling prints are on display as part of the “Whaling Mailing” exhibition at the Sag Harbor Whaling and Historical Museum (200 Main Street, Sag Harbor), which runs through July 21. He his work is also on display at the Long Island Museum in Stony Brook in “Face to Face: Artists Painting Artists,” an exhibition running through September 30.