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.
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.