I'll never forget one particular day I was drawing with a group of friends when I was in my late 20s/early 30s; I was in a tiny office space of a Holiday Inn, in Pittsburgh, PA, circa 2007/8. I drew a poorly rendered doodle of a cartoon "nerd" (the candy, not the stereotype of a person) and my older, wiser friend said "wow Jacob I can't believe you just unlocked that." What I believe he was referring to (or what I choose to believe he was referring to) was the ability of a person to tap into some well of shared visual vernacular hidden within one’s mind, and to then reinterpret this shared vernacular, within one's own distinct voice: to take something from one's memories, and make it their own.
Rafael and Quintessa are masters of "unlocking" the memories trapped inside certain specific visual vernaculars I hope to point to in this writing- in a way that blurs the personal and the referential.
The internet makes it harder to "unlock" visual vernacular in a personal way, because one can simply use google to search the entire history of image making, and "copy and paste" this aesthetic into one's art. I have no problem with copying and pasting, I do it all the time, but Rafael and Quintessa do something different than copying and pasting: they “unlock” visual vernacular from inside of themselves, and they do it in a very slow way- a way that is counter to the kind of work flow that the internet encourages.
The specific online image archive that most directly relates to Rafael and Quintessa's work would be Deviant Art: the undisputed ground-zero for image uploads of junior high and high-school angst-art, fan art, and poetry. If you want to learn how young people begin to learn about creative freedom: spend time on Deviant Art. A lot of art on Deviant Art could fit into the category of "personal" or "diaristic": it works under the premise that by "letting it all out" onto the page, that one has processed their daily life's struggles. One shouldn't overly judge or critique this safe space, in order to be more emotionally free to express one's inner journey. Maybe the most dominant movement of contemporary art today (in terms of the amount of people making it) is "art therapy."
Rafael and Quintessa have begun to unlock the vernacular codes of "art therapy," hidden inside their own minds. There is even a diary entry written on one of Quintessa's paintings, that ends with the haunting phrase: "I passed the painting in the dark hall. I turned away from it- afraid to look directly at it. Everything looks so eerie at night but it was already too late. The curse had begun." The thing about art as therapy within an amateur or vernacular context, is that it is often created with the intention of emotional release, but is at a certain point often forgotten about (if one is taught by society to not value one's creativity, because one’s creativity does not make one money). Thus there is a sad feeling to most works of found, lost, or discarded art therapy: a second sad layer of sadness on top of whatever sadness the artist may be already working through. Another thing that happens with art therapy is the boredom that sets in after a few minutes of "trying your hardest to express yourself": one begins to doodle on the margins, or gives up on the project entirely. In Rafael and Quintessa's work there is a lot of reference to this mental space in between the doodle and the existential cry for help. In that same diary entry mentioned above, Quintessa writes: “She smirked through black lips- the left side of the canvas was left completely blank. I wanted to leave room for the psychological space of the picture. I gave her a scar over her left eye. I sewed it shut with a few strokes of my brush.”
For me this mental space is one of the more resonant aspects of their work, because it is a mental space that many of us occupy on a daily basis: we move fluidly from boredom to panic, from inspiration to giving up, and back again. We feel like we are being pulled apart from edge to edge by some unseen force (as seen in one of Rafael's paintings) and then we laugh that we even felt that way. To summarize: being able to laugh at one's self seems key to Rafael and Quintessa's creative process.
I didn't discuss much of the specific works in this show at Et Al Gallery yet, except for the diary entry. Rafael and Quintessa sent me images, and they are all amazing. The newest types of works I have not seen before are the photographs: which to me have the same delicate balance between moodiness and meaninglessness that many of their drawings and paintings have. A tiny monkey toy sits on top of a pill jar with a candle lit next to it. Characters, and how we learn to emote through characters, is a recurring theme in a lot of Rafael's art.
Reflecting on all of this stuff, after having looked at all the images one more time: I think awkwardness is the pathway towards the emotions that exist inside this art. Or maybe it's the other way around: maybe the emotions are the path, and the awkwardness is the destination. I don’t really know the answer, but I can say with confidence that I trust Rafael and Quintessa to take me down whatever mental pathway they think is important, as we unlock together whatever trapped or hidden images they have found on their journey of self-discovery.