John Avelluto

Due Facc', 2020, acrylic on Panel, 21 x 25.5 inches

Avelluto: The Profound and the Whimsical

My recent work engages my background as both an Italian American and native Brooklynite. This engagement via the lens of painting examines the tropes, both linguistic and visual, of these identities. Reflecting the qualities of the acrylic medium I explore the plasticity of these phenomena. As shifts in language occur during displacement or rubbing up against new cultural entities, so do the possibilities within abstraction. Drawing from disparate art historical traditions in tandem with pop culture references, I set out to play with, undermine, and confound Italian-American culture, toying with the existing linguistic and visual repertoire of vernacular references that all too often have gone underappreciated and unexamined in painting.

“His artwork can be seen as the ludic antics of the mythic circum-Mediterranean trickster Giufà, the hero/fool of oral narratives who, despite his simplicity, often overcomes quotidian adversities and in doing so imparts a critical life lesson,” notes Dr. Joseph Sciorra, director for Academic and Cultural Programs at the John D. Calandra institute at Queens College of the City University of New York. “Avelluto positions his art at a crossroads of what in Italian is referred to as contaminazione, those hybrid moments and places where ideas and idioms collide across ever-shifting borders to create innovative articulations. He revels in mash-ups of transliterated sounds, images, products, and ideas where Italy and the United States converge. Avelluto’s artistic renderings referencing Italian American iterations of cultural touchstones such as galama (calamari) and maloik (mal’occhio, evil eye)—deliberately spelled phonetically in nonstandard Italian—capture flashes of transcultural encounters to highlight the profound and the whimsical.”

Speaking more personally, I am first-generation. My dad was born in Mola di Bari and speaks an Arab-inflected dialect. My mother was conceived in Sicily and born here. I was born in Gravesend and live in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. I was not Italian enough for the Italians, but too Italian for the Americans.

I grew up in food. There were Sunday dinners at 3:00 in the afternoon downstairs at my maternal grandparents, with meals like pasta con sarde. My father worked at Il Cortile in Little Italy and then had his own restaurant in Port Chester. I worked there as a waiter to earn enough for grad school. Then I opened a small 20-person wine bar in Bay Ridge, which I had for nine years (juggling the bar, fatherhood, and painting). I love going to the Villabate Alba bakery on 18th Ave in Bensonhurst. The set up is gorgeous. Pristine. Looking at the cakes and cookies—the colors and transparencies—I thought, ‘This is a painterly idea if I ever saw one.'

The new work, Take the Cannoli, was inspired by the pastries from that place. The puppeteer icon was inspired by The Godfather, but the context is different. Who’s the puppeteer here? The artist. Or does that hand belong to curators and museums? That hand is ominous, looming. Who’s playing who?

I have an identity as an Italian American from Brooklyn. I draw from the culture, I embrace the mishmash, but I am not an “Italian American artist.” I may be painting Italian pastries and Maloiks now, but one day I may want to make blue abstract paintings.

Take the Cannoli, 2021, acrylic on panel, 24 x 19 inches

Maloik, 2017, acrylic paint films, 9 x 7 inches unframed

The artist in his other job, as Creative Director of The Red Hook WInery in Brooklyn

Photo: Michael Marfione