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Home Is Where The Art Is

Family and work are both important to Paul Rousso


He pirouettes around the room, dark eyes glowing, earring flashing, arms gesticulating. You'd think him a mad man, but no, his dance is well choreographed. To dramatize a statement -- "This is important work!" -- he slaps his hand on the table like the King of Siam declaring an edict. And then he leaps to grab, with both hands, a canvas from a pile on the floor, and wields it like a magic cape to reveal a stunning piece of conceptual legerdemain that he calls "Flat Depth!" And then he's holding his head in his hands, recounting how terrified he was buying a very large, very expensive printing machine that would enable him to take his work to a new level.

Paul Rousso is back.

With a vengeance.

Most award-winning art student at Myers Park High School, advertising designer for Bloomingdale's and Revlon, inventor of images still used in TV commercials today, Best Charlotte Artist of 1999, one of the first 40 Under 40 -- Rousso, 44, was going full throttle as a fine artist when he had cause to switch gears.

"My wife wanted to be a mother, which I love her for," he says simply. "So I got sat down and had it explained to me that it was time for me to be a man and a father. No more "It's all about me.' No more `round the clock eating, drinking, and sleeping art in my huge studio, knee deep in clippings and paint buckets. Because that's what it takes -- insanity, drive, passion, whatever you want to call it -- to be a successful artist.

"So I had to say, "It's been a great ride,' and go on a crash diet. Abstain. We bought a house in the suburbs with a garage big enough for me have a small studio in the corner and I started hustling to make a normal living and dropped off the face of the earth."

In the last four years, Rousso and his wife Joy have had two sons, Maxwell and Alec (named after his late father, Al Rousso), and he has indeed made a living as a commercial artist, which you can't be nowadays without a computer and some lessons in Photoshop.

"I was thinking in Photoshop before Photoshop existed," he says, referring to the layered, multi-faceted collages he's most famous for, as well as his incredible ability to pull hundreds of shards together to create, on paper, an illusion of the real world. "So I was doodling digitally one day -- hacking images to pieces and moving them around to see what happens, and then I took the print-out, held it up to the light, bent it all around, and there it was... art in space. I'd been making space in art, now I had art in space."

Rousso goes on to describe how he crumpled up the paper with the collage on it and then reproduced the whole little wad in paint on canvas. He created a work of art, in other words, out of a work of art. "And that's the key. It's about art, not me or my little life or my little neuroses or my little dreams -- never has been. Not that there's anything wrong with that," he grins.

This art-from-art concept is not new. While developing his own interpretation of it, Rousso was reminded of illustrious predecessors such as Rauschenburg, Thiebaud, Picasso and others. At one point, he wadded up an American flag a la Larry Rivers, and stuffed it in his scanner. The resultant print-out is so high res it looks like a photograph. But for his own paintings, he now creates collages on the computer and prints them out as underpaintings on large-size canvases. He takes the canvas to his studio to finish in acrylic paint. "It's the logical outcome, a state-of-the-art marriage of art and technology," he asserts. "You've heard of "Arts & Sciences'? I'm the man!"

The digital process saves Rousso time. Where before it might have taken him three months of fluid, non-stop activity to finish a work, it now might only be weeks or even days. "With the computer," he explains, "I can do things piecemeal -- if I have to leave the keyboard to change a diaper, the images stay fixed forever until I get back to them. Before, interruptions would kill me. Now, I can make anything I want. The machine will air brush anything I tell it to. It also makes it less solitary. Max and Alec can be playing beside me while I work. It eliminates a lot of tension."

The danger of using such technology to make art is multi-fold. For one, the artist is removed from sensory experiences -- such as the feel and smell of a newly sharpened pencil between the fingers -- that feed the creative force. For another, the resultant work may lack the spirit of the human who made it, which is somehow conveyed in the best art. Then there are the purists who consider the use of machinery to be cheating. No problem, says Rousso. "DaVinci, Vermeer, Eakins -- they all used cameras. All the machines and all the software in the world don't mean shit unless you can do it."

Like Rousso, artists have always struggled with doing what they love and what they're good at but which may not make them a living, and doing what people pay them well for even though it may compromise their ideals. You know, like movie stars who make popular, high-gross movies so they can act in a meaningful stage play that pays less. Or poets who teach so they can publish chapbooks and maybe become laureates. Rousso seems to have found a way to do both by legitimately describing himself as "a commercial fine artist" who creates corporate images, illustrations and innovative architectural site plans and elevations, while at the same time accepting commissions for murals for such places as the JCC and Harper's Restaurant.

Last spring, Tom Sasser, owner of Harper's and the Mimosa Grill, asked him if he'd be interested in having an exhibit in the Wachovia Atrium, in conjunction with a fine dining and wine tasting "happening" at Mimosa next door. That took care of the "art in space" pieces he'd just finished a couple weeks earlier.

Then it so happened that another gallery space became available uptown at the same time. So, in full keeping with the thread of duality that runs through his work, Rousso decided to have two exhibits. "Not often done," he says, "and certainly not without the help of an agent or gallery." The second show will contain his "art from art" paintings.

The duality thread extends to The Home That Rousso Built. Deep in the suburbs of Charlotte, old Roussos hang on the walls, new Roussos await framing on the floor, invitations to Rousso openings sit on the dining room table, Rousso's wife writes the press releases, and Rousso's au pair feeds Baby Rousso -- watching out of the corner of her eye the crazed man in the shadows who's wadding up papers and gurgling with pleasure.

"If abstaining from making art is what it cost me to be so happy," he beams, "it was worth it."

Paul Rousso's New Work Part 1 will be presented at the Wachovia Atrium, 301 S. Tryon Street, from September 12-13. A reception will be held from 6-10pm, with an artist presentation at 7pm. New Work Part 2 will be shown at 318 East Ninth Street (corner of 9th and Brevard) from Sept 19-Oct. 17, with a reception to be held September 19-20 from 6-10pm. The rest by appointment only. Space is limited for both shows, so R.S.V.P. to 704-543-1030.

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