The World Beneath Our Feet
David Galloway, contributing editor, Art in America

The “Man­holes” project that Ralph Bran­cac­cio has pur­sued for nearly two decades is remark­ably rich in social, aes­thetic and his­toric asso­ci­a­tions. A mere descrip­tion of the work­ing process, for which a relief-pat­terned man­hole cover serves as a print­ing plate, hardly does jus­tice to the artist’s achieve­ments. This begins with the recog­ni­tion of a kind of street-lan­guage that prompts his imag­i­na­tion, much as logos and bill­boards and tabloids fed the fan­tasies of the early Pop artists. Fre­quently, Bran­cac­cio does not repro­duce the entire matrix but selects details from this found source, ren­der­ing them in dif­fer­ent col­ors and thus cre­at­ing a “unique” piece.

It is this process of recog­ni­tion, selec­tion and arrange­ment that dis­tin­guishes Bran­cac­cio from other image-mak­ers reg­u­larly viewed in the streets of big cities: of car­i­ca­tur­ists and side­walk por­traitists and copy­ists spe­cial­ized in chalked enlarge­ments of Da Vinci and Michelan­gelo mas­ter­pieces. In the sense of diversely inter­act­ing with passers-by, these image-mak­ers all have some­thing in com­mon, and Bran­cac­cio has had his own share of gen­er­ous, curi­ous and hos­tile responses from those who pause to watch him in action. The episodes he recounts bear more than pass­ing resem­blance to those expe­ri­enced by Keith Har­ing when chalk­ing images on the black-papered adver­tis­ing pan­els in the New York sub­way.

Plac­ing Bran­cac­cio in the tra­di­tion of street art and even per­for­mance art, how­ever, obscures other, more sub­tle impli­ca­tions. First of all, the man­hole cover itself can be seen as a sym­bol of the urban­iza­tion that dra­mat­i­cally accel­er­ated in the mid-19th cen­tury. Though under­ground sewage sys­tems were not unknown to many ancient cul­tures, indus­trial soci­eties were par­tic­u­larly needy of such ser­vices, and they pos­sessed the mate­ri­als to real­ize them on a grand scale. A series of epi­demics in the mid-19th cen­tury gave added impulse to the con­struc­tion of urban drainage sys­tems.

At the same time, new tech­nolo­gies made it fea­si­ble to mass-pro­duce cast-iron parts that became essen­tial com­po­nents of the con­struc­tion trades and of expand­ing rail­road net­works. With the aid of such pre­fab­ri­cated ele­ments, archi­tects like Gus­tav Eif­fel reached for the stars, while oth­ers plumbed the depths. Plainly, a par­tic­u­larly robust cover was needed for the shoul­der-wide shafts that work­ers required for descend­ing into a sewage sys­tem, par­tic­u­larly when sit­u­ated on a heav­ily traf­ficked street. The sheer weight also helped safe­guard the shafts against intrud­ers. Although there was noth­ing in these prac­ti­cal con­sid­er­a­tions to dic­tate any form of dec­o­ra­tion, the mold­ing process itself encour­aged the addi­tion of graphic ele­ments to the cast-iron disc: names of cities or of main­te­nance com­pa­nies, but also the inclu­sion of dec­o­ra­tive ele­ments entirely lack­ing in util­ity. What we see here is a clas­sic exam­ple of man’s appar­ently time­less desire to embell­ish his envi­ron­ment. The ori­gins of these early designs - flow­ers and geo­met­ric pat­terns, heraldic-look­ing devices, abstract flour­ishes - can no longer be traced. Most of the his­toric exam­ples were the prod­uct of an anony­mous craftsman’s fancy. Today, no doubt, there is some com­plex bureau­cracy that super­vises and doc­u­ments the pro­duc­tion of designs, but for the passers-by the results remain anony­mous.

With his bright re-imag­ing of the man­hole cov­ers, Ralph Bran­cac­cio calls our atten­tion to the world beneath a pedestrian’s feet and thus helps sen­si­tize us to the entire cityscape. Fur­ther­more, he has per­formed this alchemy through­out the world - from New York to Budapest, Hiroshima, to Lon­don, Istan­bul, Shang­hai and Tokyo. We should not be mis­led by the banal­ity of his means, which spring from grand tra­di­tion of the com­mon­place. Pre­cisely forty years ago, in the accom­pa­ny­ing cat­a­logue to his his­toric “Store Days” exhi­bi­tion, Claes Old­en­burg wrote:

I am for an art that is polit­i­cal-erot­i­cal-mys­ti­cal, that does some­thing other than sit on its ass in a museum…
I am for an art that comes up in fogs from sewer-holes in win­ter…
I am for the art of under­wear and the art of taxi­cabs. I am for the art of ice-cream cones dropped on con­crete.”

In the self-taught, peri­patetic artist Ralph Bran­cac­cio, Old­en­burg has found a par­tic­u­larly gifted and inge­nious dis­ci­ple.

Published by Schlebrugge, Editor 2007
By David Galloway

Reflec­tions on the Pro­duc­tion, Dis­sem­i­na­tions and Recep­tion of the Work of Art in Con­tem­po­rary Soci­ety, Together with Spec­u­la­tions Per­tain­ing to the Dis­ap­pear­ance of the Light Bulb in Nimes and the Hith­erto Unher­alded Ubiq­ui­tous­ness of the Man­hole.

Ralph’s Man­holes

The post­mod­ern world has spawned a new kind of nomad in the artist who reg­u­larly jets between stu­dios in New York and Berlin, art fairs in Madrid and Vienna, bien­ni­als in Istan­bul and Lyon. Yet the Paris-based Amer­i­can artist Ralph Bran­cac­cio offers a unique exam­ple of the cre­ative vagabond. Almost con­stantly under way with paper, paints and roller, he makes use of a kind of print­ing plate that most pedes­tri­ans take for granted: the man­hole cover. The relief-pat­terns incised in these com­mon­place urban arti­facts range from the geo­met­ric to the flo­ral, often incor­po­rat­ing the names or logos of cities util­ity com­pa­nies or main­te­nance firms. The vari­a­tions are seem­ingly end­less, though from Shang­hai to Brook­lyn these util­i­tar­ian devices have more than a lit­tle in com­mon. (We dis­pense, for the moment, with the intrigu­ing ques­tion of why most man­holes are round - a ques­tion once famously asked of appli­cants for employ­ment with Microsoft. There are var­i­ous the­o­ret­i­cal answers, but the most per­sua­sive is, sim­ply that a round cover can­not acci­den­tally fall into a round hole.) First of all, man­holes sym­bol­ize a process of urban­iza­tion in which rev­o­lu­tion­ary ser­vices like street­lights and sewage sys­tems her­alded a new age of enlight­en­ment. Sec­ondly, they seem to have appealed to a pri­mary cre­ative instinct in the crafts­men who lent them form. These anony­mous artists were not con­tent to pro­duce merely a func­tional, pro­tec­tive “lid” for the shaft descend­ing into the watery under­world, but sub­jected it to a process of cre­ative design. Rec­og­niz­ing the exis­tence of this richly mod­u­lated, inter­na­tional form lan­guage, Ralph Bran­cac­cio resolved to pay homage to its anony­mous cre­ators. Set­ting to work in his curb­side ate­lier, he may apply paint to selected details of the man­hole cover or high­light ele­ments with dif­fer­ent col­ors, then press paper against this “tem­plate” to form a unique print. The results are doc­u­ments of a par­tic­u­lar cul­ture a par­tic­u­lar time, but the yare also and unmis­tak­ably “Bran­cac­cio.” For those who have encoun­tered these bright, witty mono­prints, the man­hole cover will never be the same. There are, quite sim­ply, artists whose idiom changes the way we see our day-to-day envi­ron­ment: Dan Flavin’s neon tubes, David Hockney’s swim­ming pools and Daniel Buren’s stripes have long since exerted such an impact. In sen­si­tiz­ing us to the art beneath our feet, Ralph Bran­cac­cio is thus in the best of com­pany.

Ralph Brancaccio: Urban Archaeologist
Leo F. Hobaica, Jr., Assistant Dean, Film/Video; California Institute of the Arts

Mr. Bran­cac­cio weath­ers the inclement, the dan­ger of impact, and the occa­sion­ally annoy­ing insight of the passer-by to cre­ate these play­ful images. Out­side the for­mal­ity of stu­dio space, in the cen­ter of urban hubs, he seeks his artis­tic direc­tion where street­light meets neon sig­nage, and foot traf­fic meets bicy­cle treads. He cleans a bit and brushes away some of the dirt; he decides the effi­cacy of the image, the entire process lulled by the audi­ble land­scape that any street can pro­vide. His edit­ing is per­haps lim­ited to the moment cer­tainly the weather - and most assuredly the flow of traf­fic. But once clear, he prints like any artist inter­ested in the mono­type: water-based ink, qual­ity paper, bray­ers and brushes, rags for clean-up. It is easy to imag­ine him in mid-side­walk, impa­tient to see what actu­ally comes to appear on the paper as he lifts the paper from its plate.

Here, the sense of the human hand, human indus­try, and per­sonal aes­thetic vision replace the flash of what one might call dig­i­tal rut, the rut of images machine made. The ease of Ralph Brancaccio’s sig­nage--cir­cles, tri­an­gles, squares, stars, fat lin­ear ele­ments, in vibrant col­ors-chal­lenges the hur­ried blur of the mass pro­duced. Yet, these uncom­pli­cated forms find them­selves buried in the veloc­ity of our pos­si­bly com­pli­cated days, unless we stop for a moment to see. Ralph Bran­cac­cio seeks, and asks us to look at, the places we avoid in our hur­ried pace. We step on, jump over and ignore these cast tops that secure the tun­nels under our feet; these hum­ble grates, ever present, are rarely noticed. He is urban arche­ol­ogy.

These images are col­lab­o­ra­tive as well, for this artist looks towards the hands of other arti­sans for inspi­ra­tion. Lead by the impulse of taste, he res­cues images, selects and des­e­lects por­tions of this and that, and re-imag­ines pos­si­bil­i­ties. (With con­cern for the beauty of these use­ful punc­tu­a­tions of pub­lic space, one won­ders what the orig­i­nal craftsper­son would think of this form of homage.) Through these images, Ralph Bran­cac­cio beck­ons as an artist inter­ested in the sim­ple, the direct, the humor­ous, and the human scale. Just as the streets are for every­one, these are for every­one too.