Beautiful, brilliant and brimming with enough energy to keep going another 28 000 years. In many ways, the works of Brooklyn-based Rachael Tarravechia are the perfect distillation of what we love most about New York. This becomes even more apparent in the context of the New York Isn’t F*cking Dead exhibition, at the Tchotchke Gallery, which shows what it says on the tin. However, this is but one facet of Rachael Tarravechia. Today, we chat with the artist about living in New York, bedazzling paintings, and collecting precious rocks.
To start, what is it like living in Brooklyn in New York? Does it fit the stereotype?
It does align with the stereotype, honestly. My favourite part of living in Brooklyn, though, is the ability to be in the thick of things and feel the big city experience, but also being able to slow things down and experience tranquillity. For example, there’s a really nice, quiet cemetery and park by my studio, and when I walk through that area sometimes I forget where I am.
Looking back, how much of your life would you say you’ve spent painting? Would you say that you’ve ‘mastered it’ yet?
I was definitely more into sketching growing up, and through high school. The type of work I was making while developing a love for art aligned much more with illustration, and I’d say I didn’t really start painting until college when I declared that as my major. I definitely haven’t mastered it, and I don’t think I ever will. There’s so much to learn—so many ways to grow.
During your student years, you’ve worked as a studio assistant for artists such as Lauren Clay, William Ruller, and Takashi Murakami. How has this experience impacted your work?
Lauren Clay was the first artist I worked for after graduating and moving to New York, and I couldn’t have had a better experience. It was inspiring to see how a successful, female, New York-based artist was able to balance all the aspects needed in a studio practice. This experience, plus working at Kaikai Kiki for Takashi Murakami, taught me a lot about discipline. My craftsmanship, range of skills, and confidence as an artist definitely grew.
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In another interview, you mentioned drawing some inspiration from the late, great Alice Neel. How would you describe her impact on the New York art scene?
I think she helped by opening up the art scene to people who may have previously felt uninvited, or intimidated. Alice Neel painted all types of people from every area of New York, and was so masterful at telling their story through figure painting. Her understanding of psychology makes her work very intimate, and I believe a lot of artists strive for that today.
Your work investigates, among other things, our relationship with luxury fashion. How has your own relationship with it evolved over time? Was your so-called ‘Louboutin Fund’ you mentioned in previous interviews ever spent on Louboutins?
My relationship with luxury fashion has waxed and waned. I used to be completely infatuated with it, then grew tired and wary, but am again starting to admire it more and more. I just recently bought a Hyein Seo blazer and Marni boots (both second hand) and am obsessed with the quality of the pieces. Not surprisingly though, my Louboutin fund never quite reached the mark before I started spending the money on other clothing.
When asked to describe iconic New York fashion, many people think of something from the minds of screenwriter Darren Star and costume designer Patricia Field, the creators of Sex and the City and Emily in Paris. How do you feel about their stories, characters, and style?
I’ve never watched either of those shows, so I don’t have an opinion. When I watch television or film it’s usually something in the horror genre.
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Your artworks incorporate pink, glitter, and rhinestones – beautiful things that can often be under-valued for being ‘too girly’ or ‘cutesy’. Was this a conscious choice and were you ever apprehensive about sticking with it?
Definitely a conscious choice. With a lot of the narratives I tell in these pieces, I want the viewer to feel like there’s something off—or like there’s a darker theme beneath the pink and embellishments. For example, when something is too ideal looking, it becomes suspicious. It took me a while to find the right balance, though. But I’m really happy with how all the pieces in the show turned out.
Critics often argue that the difference between a bold masterpiece and a hot mess is intentionality and harmony. How do you achieve a sense of harmony in such intricate, bold works?
I spend a lot of time planning out the composition of the piece, and making sure that’s visually balanced. A lot of times this will dictate where I add rhinestones and glitter, because adding those sorts of elements to a less “busy” area of the painting can help create harmony. While working I’m constantly stepping back to the opposite side of the studio to view the piece at a distance so I can get a feeling of the entirety, since I do tend to focus on small areas at a time.
One of your first rhinestone sculptures was created from a pile of LaCroix cans that seemed ‘too pretty to recycle’. Nowadays, there seems to be this trend of things being ‘too pretty’ – ‘too pretty to refuse’, ‘too pretty to use’, and definitely ‘too pretty to get rid of’. Why do you think that is and what do we do about it?
Having “pretty” objects around you is so comforting! I’ve always been sentimental with things I’ve owned or found (like keeping rocks I’ve found on hikes because it was a fun day and I don’t want to forget it). I’m all in for maximalism, and honestly feel like more people should lean into it. Like you mentioned before with creating an artwork; critics say you need intentionality and harmony—it’s like organised, curated chaos.
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Speaking of rhinestones, was there a unique learning curve to working with them? You clearly know what you’re doing, but I can’t help wondering if one stone ever decided to fall off at the worst possible moment just to spite you?
For sure! I had to learn about different types of glue, how glue reacts to different surfaces, what tools are best to use so I don’t have to pick up each rhinestone with my nails and get mild carpal tunnel in the process. I haven’t had that happen yet - touch wood, but I have realised that one perk of using tiny rhinestones versus larger ones is that when a tiny one does fall off it isn’t even noticeable.
One of the major themes of the New York Isn’t F*cking Dead exhibition seems to be tenacity. Where do you find the tenacity and motivation to keep evolving and learning new things?
Focusing on my own work and seeing where it was, versus where it is now, is really helpful for getting myself excited to start a new painting. It’s really easy to start comparing yourself to other artists and feeling like you’re way behind them, but that doesn’t help you at all.
The exhibition features two artists – you and Anthony Eslick. How does it feel that there’s just you and one other person?
It’s really exciting! I think it creates a really interesting dialogue between the works. I’m also a huge fan of his work so that’s always a bonus!
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Do you see art as something solitary or something shared?
Art draws from culture and the human experience, so I think in that sense it’s definitely something shared. I’ve realised that the more specific something is, people can often identify with it better. I understand the reluctance of sharing your work. There are times when I feel very vulnerable and self-conscious about sharing my paintings.
Finally, what would you say to someone who believed ‘New York is dead’ or that it’s ‘just not the same as it used to be’?
I probably would only say, “I don’t think so” because I’m shy, but I think people who believe ‘New York is dead’ don’t truly understand the energy of the city. The creativity and resilience of our great city is palpable, and I know so many people who have grown and felt emboldened over the past year to pursue new careers and hobbies they may have previously been putting off. That, in my opinion, is what New York can do for a person.
New York isn't F*cking Dead. Courtesy of Tchotchke Gallery, New York. Featuring Anthony Eslick and Rachael Tarravechia
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