“An army of fantastical and very resilient witches”: A Conversation with Luca de Gaetano about Art, Magic, and Alterity” — curated by Kristina Marie Darling

Luca De Gaetano was born in Milan in 1976. Parallel to his studies he always pursues his strong passion toward art, drawing and painting. After graduating in architecture from the Politecnico of Milan he deals with a variety of architectural projects working in residential, hospitality and redevelopment of industrial areas between Milan, the UAE, London and Paris. In 2009, thanks to a scholarship he embarked on his artistic career, attending the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, focusing on drawing and painting. In 2011 he joined the MFA in Painting at Boston University, studying with John Walker, graduating in 2013 with the prestigious Kahn Award. His artistic language is predominantly based on drawing and painting, focusing on the figure, portraiture and narrative paintings. Since 2013 He teaches regularly drawing and painting at Boston University in Boston and Venice and at Montserrat College of Art and Design in Beverly, MA. Luca moves to Brooklyn, NY, where he paints in his studio alongside being a teaching artist for Studio In A School, in NY. He moved back to Milan in 2021 to open a new painting studio and to keep teaching for BU in Venice, for Accademia Novalia in Alba and for Iowa State University in Rome. His work has been shown in Europe and the US, with one person and group shows in Venice, Paris and Boston. Currently he lives and works between Milan, Venice and New York.

Kristina Marie Darling:  The last time we talked, you were working on a series of paintings, which you called the “witch series.” Tell our readers about this project. How did it begin? What drew you to witches as an artistic subject?

Luca de Gaetano: Yes, an army fantastical and very resilient witches!!! Since our last meeting this sereis developed into a full body of work, that it is currently on view in Venice at 10 & Zero Uno Gallery, founded by Chiara Boscolo who chose to curate this show to open the new venue of her gallery and with the contribution of Giada Pellicari who wrote a critical essay for this exhibition.

If I try to figure where this all started, a first note must be made about the fact that a certain taste and drive towards magic has been always present in my family.

Since my childhood, things were often presented to me not for what they were ias a matter of fact, but rather wrapped with evocative words and through tales, mantled with exaggeration and sensuality.

The “witch sereis” came to me spontaneously, as something that had been inside me steaming and waiting to be seen. It started with some random sketches of warrior-like women – campy, colourful and glamorous – messing around refrigerators and other machine-looking relicts, often scattered in Arcadic watery landscapes.

Meanwhile, as I was adjusting to my new studio space in downtown Milan, Italy (which is also my hometown) I started listening to the podcast Streghe (Witches) by feminist and Italian witch and activist Sofia Righetti. While drawing and paining I followed the stream of this very interesting podcast, in which a variety of guests speakers talk about their practice in witchcraft and activism, queer and LGTBQ+ issues, religion, politics and more. Listening to the different voices presented

– an expert tarot reader, followed by a priestess of Avalon or a crip-witch presenting about this topic, for instance – made me wonder if perhaps the figures that I was drawing were not strictly confined by gender, nor by a single body, being rather the materialisation of something magic.

the first oil painting that I created for this sereis is titled Strega Protettrice I the river will light up your resources and it features a blue-wigged, androgynous and busty figure in a yellow and ripped bikini, standing in front of a refrigerator with their arms wide open, as to admonish and to protect. Inside of the refrigerators we can find prehistoric Venuses, a Yellow cat playing, but also sea  plants and mushrooms, veggies and glass ampoules. I did not know what I was painting and why these objects were falling out of by brush-tips, but I enjoyed the process and decided to trust my inner voice. As this first painting came to an end I immediately felt compelled to paint more and    so the witch series all started.

KMD: What is the relationship between art and divination, creativity and conjuring for you as a creative practitioner?

LDG: I believe in the magical power of craft and therefore in the possibility, through the artistic and manual work, of soaking an artwork with the spirit and the energies of the artist who made it.

A picture is not only the visual result of a visual intention, but also the blue-print and the melting pot of all the interaction between the artist and the work of art. In this sense I think I could compare the process of painting with that of a conjuring: from darkness to clarity – becoming a clairvoyant, or at least trusting to be moving in that direction – is a way of empowering the medium of paint and the process of painting. Through this process I believe that I am operating both as an individual and in direct connection with other spirits and energies. For instance, I believe that as painter I am directly connected with the “family tree” of the masters that I feel connected to deeply. In this sense I keep conjuring them in my work and by doing so, I open the work to a “doing” that goes beyond myself. In this perspective some of the witches in my recent paintings may as well become alive and cast their spell from the surface of my canvases.

I think of divination in a similar way: I don’t paint with the specific goal of picturing the future, but I trust that perhaps, by opening my process to a broader and subtler realm,  I also allow the images  I create to mirror other dimensions and possible futures, to be open and parallel in comparison to my here-and-now, and therefor much vaster.

KMD: You are also quite a gifted Tarot practitioner. Can you speak to the parallels between creating art and practicing Tarot?

LDG: Thank you for saying that! I consider myself an eternal beginner, feeling small and groping in the darkness. My tendency at feeling disoriented pushed me since the early age to observe the world around me in a symbolic way, looking for crumbles of light that could help me figure out my way, symbols we could say, and magic. I met my first deck of Tarot when I was about ten years old. It was waiting for me at my fathers’s home. My father – despite his materialistic approach to business – certainly believed in magic and he was openly engaging in esoteric readings: I remember a red and blue box containing a classic Camoin edition of the Tarot de Marseille deck, laying on a chest at his place and I remember also the day I decided to open it.

The drawings of the Major and Minor Arcana depicted in primary colors were then standing in  front of me and it seemed to me that they were inviting me in. Since then I have been consistently studying the symbols of the tarot – Reading books on the subjects but also just studying directly several historic decks –  and equally constantly devoting myself to drawing and painting from it  and from my imagination.

I believe that both the tarots and my imagination, utilise symbols and archetypes to engage in conversations and to manifest some inner powers. My obsession with the human form and with the body stretches beyond the human and tends to connect the human, the vegetal and the purely symbolic in permeable ways that generate genderless and boundary-less character and universes.

This approach is close to the “way of the tarot” that aims to illuminate and to interpret life in open- ended ways and beyond our material limitations.

In 2012 and then again more recently I engaged in painting and in drawing specific cards of the tarot and I was surprised to notice that variations on each Arcana seem to come spontaneously to me and that they were “asking me” to use a certain color or to drw a certain attribute as I was painting them. Tarot-reading and painting seemed so connected then.

KMD: Relatedly, how do intuition and the unconscious mind inform your process in both arenas?

LDG: Intuition operates at various levels in my work: from a certain idea – a green witch harvesting in  the wilderness, for example as in Strega mistica I – the ingredient I was looking for was already there, currently in my show – I may draw a first line and after that initiatory act is set, I tend to  allow a degree of hold to that line, a form of self-individuation that the work of art develops for itself. Often this process allow a certain character to surface and to appear. Under many of the characters in my paintings I could find specific subjects from my current life, my brother for example, my mother or my former husband. My unconscious mind somehow takes the lead and reveal itself. In parallel I may have a narrative in my head, or a specific idea of setting for the scene and I may have sources of reference to look at around me, or be reading a specific text about the subject, or listening to a podcast while drawing from it. All these influences help  creating a circular process in which intuition is activated to bring unexpected and magic elements to the composition. This happens as well during a session of tarot reading, as the figures and symbols unfold form the deck at the presence of the consultant. The triangular flow of energy between cards, consultant and myself can tap into a broader and more powerful source, allowing me to trust my intuition and to read the symbols with intention and meaning.

During these processes I believe that in a certain way I cease to be fully present, somehow I recede from myself, undoing myself to allow a collective and subconscious energy to reveal itself. It is very important for me to underline that I don’t have any preconceived agenda or interest in what is revealed and that I strictly refuse any dark use of these processes. I simply open myself to the unknown, with my best intentions and supported my unconditional love.

KMD: This series celebrates the beauty of the feminine in such a powerful way. Why did you choose to focus on celebrating and empowering the female form in these works?

LDG: It makes me very happy to hear that my paintings passed on you this celebration of the feminine, as it is crucial to my work and for my life.

My personal history and my family are starred with powerful and resourceful women that   protected and supported the family across generations. They did so while willingly or unwillingly finding themselves close to the dark side of life, but surviving it and infusing my life with strength, love and compassion. The female form has been in my work since I started making art as a child, drawing from my personal experiences as well as from mythology, literature, theater and movies. As I developed my work, I realised that often my female heroines morphed into more androgynous beings, genderless and somehow marked by the signs and bruises that life impressed on them.

I believe that my characters not only celebrate the feminine but also the parts of ourselves that at some point inlife felt excluded or diminished by the constraint and the norms prescribed by the various forms of power that put pressure on us from the outside. My witches are survivors and they had to earn their powers along their path: some are more warriors-like, others are compassionate teachers while some are removed from the material plane and operates almost as spirits. They are wise and they hold a storng sense of humor.

In thema ny forms they take within my canvases I hope they can go beyond the rigid boundaries of gender history and use their wisdom and grace to bring messages of joy, playfulness and freedom as well.

KMD: What other projects do you have in the works? What else can we look forward to?

LDG: The witch series naturally evolved into more paintings, in which animals and plants take over the scene, morphing into hybrid beings that are half-human and half animal or plant. Cats are the main focus so far and as I experiment with their scale and attitudes on paper and canvas I feel extremely excited and open to my process and curios to see where it will lead.

Portraiture is a constant stream in my studio with a strong focus on family, friends and people that are around me physically.

Finally, I am also working at designing a full deck of tarots in collaboration with a well-known curator that supports and harvests the work of your artists across the globe...

But for now this is still top secret!