Here’s a sunlit studio in Rome’s Trastevere neighborhood that lends itself to invention. It was once the headquarters of the elusive Italian artist Gino De Dominicis, who faked his own death in 1969 by printing a poster with an obituary on it (he would live until 1998, at which time his real death was met with skepticism.)
Today, under the same sloped glass roof and next to an unruly monstera plant that has crawled over a railing and seems to hover in midair above an opening to the gallery space below, the American-born artist and designer F Taylor Colantonio is at work on a more innocent artistic sleight of hand. Wearing a respirator and coated in a layer of rainbow dust, he’s turning paper and glue into what feels like an entirely new kind of material. “I love thinking about the word ‘baroque’ as something that transcends architectural and artistic worlds and enters the world of human behavior.” In Rome, he says, “There’s this quality of fudging the truth and living in this myth.”
After graduating from the Rhode Island School of Design and working in Boston, Colantonio and his boyfriend, Tim Moore, joined an artist’s residency in Puglia in 2016. While there, they met a maestro of cartapesta—the Italian word for papier-mâché—a traditional medium still used to create lifelike statues of saints for religious processions. The maestro was inundated with work and needed help, so Colantonio and Moore worked for him in exchange for room and board, learning the techniques that turn paper, glue, chicken wire and boat paint into Madonnas and Saint Ritas that gleam like polished marble but are light enough to be carried through town. “The whole concept of cartapesta is to transform the paper, the poor material, into a luxurious material,” Colantonio says.
After their stint in Puglia, Colantonio and Moore decided to settle in Rome. The elevation of humble materials has been a constant thread in Colantonio’s studio practice ever since. He describes it as “delusions of grandeur,” but more of a playful elegance—a cheerful historical remix. The artist makes Neoclassical-inspired urns and vases out of coils of corded yarn, giving them a pleasingly floppy, tactile quality. His “magic carpets,” printed with geometric and botanical patterns, are clear plastic simulacra and completely transparent save for the soft fringed border.
Cartapesta, however, was something he struggled to incorporate into his practice until recently, after a happy accident involving glue and mineral pigment. “I realized that I could do things with this material that weren’t so obvious to me in the beginning,” he said.
Now, after months of experimentation, he’s shaping his custom recipe into mottled mirror frames topped with oversized amphorae, bulbous table lamps and delicate candle sconces, and polishing them to a glassy finish. The effect is, as he describes it, somewhere between “an otherworldly mineral” and “a petrified exotic fantasy wood”—like speckled maple viewed through a kaleidoscope, or Murano millefiori beads that have been pulverized and melted back together. “I want these things to look like they were discovered in a Venetian shipwreck,” he says.
The pieces, with their surreal proportions and alchemical materiality, signal a shift in Colantonio’s practice, which, until this point, he’d thought of in more precise, analytical terms. He imagines creating a functional design object as akin to writing an essay—every element clearly legible, every decision made for a reason. “Before, I was writing essays, and now I’m writing poems,” he explains. “I’m pushing myself to deal more in ambiguities.”