Distilled Life

Bars have always been gathering places, social hubs filled with liquid courage. Walk into any local watering hole to discover all there is to know about a community, from stories told from bar-stool patrons to the labels of liquor bottles on display. This culture has created a symbiotic relationship between the patron and alcohol itself.

Now on view through February 12, Sara Nightingale Gallery in Sag Harbor is showcasing works by East Hampton artist Carl Scorza in “Cocktail Hour.” What began as a career painting plein air landscapes has transformed into a new focus, where he depicts bar culture.

How did your work transition from plein air to bar culture?

There was no real hook but I spent a lot of time in the scene with friends. I’ve always found it a social environment, an attractive environment that was accommodating. It became part of my life. I’ve always worked from my own personal experience.

How long have you worked on this particular style?

It happens in dribs and drabs. The first painting I made of an arrangement of liquor bottles was in 1998 or 1999, when I had my studio in the World Trade Center. I was part of a group of artists painting plein air. Then my studio era ended and I wanted to do something with a lot of vertical lines. So, I set up all the liquor bottles I had and it looked like all of the buildings. It wasn’t until about three or four years ago that I returned to it.

Did the Financial District bars, which can be iconic, influence you at all?

It’s hard to say. I spent time in New York, time out east, and I’d meet up with friends in those kind of places. Bars are a reflection of the group of people that patronize them. Some bars will have more selections of beer, others will have more selections of wine, or gin. It’s a reflection of the community, so there’s a contextual nature to the bar. That’s why I include the labels of the bottles; it speaks to the singular nature.

Do these bottles have personalities in your mind?

They definitely do. Goslings Dark Rum has a black seal juggling a bar. Every artist is juggling light, composition, geometry, etc. So, it’s like the components of a collage. It’s a metaphor in the bottle, the label. Absolut Vodka has the name; it has something definitive. There’s no relationship to the content of the bottle but the wording is a declarative statement, part of the abstract vocabulary. The wording in a painting implies that. Another one is Maker’s Mark with the artificial red wax seal that just stands out so demonstratively that it’s a pleasure to insert somewhere in composition. It has that red in it.

The bottles are a personification of elements that don’t necessarily relate to that component but they relate with how they behave on the picture plane.

Do you paint from real life, photographs, or memory?

All of the above. Drawing is a thinking process and I still do a lot of it. Actually, I’d photograph the drawings and then merge them with photographs from bars. Then, they all get merged together in a collage. Drawing other paintings, cut up sections of photographs, it all becomes this collage of work of 15 to 20 images in my studio. And I’m working from my wall and arranging them on a canvas. It’s complicated.

What goes through your mind when you’re at the bar of a restaurant, or a regular bar?

Something happens. The language changes. The bottles are a certain way, the drinks, people’s faces. It becomes a glittering moment of a source of inspiration.

What is your drink of choice to paint?

I like picking the ingredients of a margarita. There’s two different bottles, there’s a line, a salt shaker, it tells a story. There are a lot of elements. I like painting that one. Then I’ll feel like having one.

Sara Nightingale Gallery is located at 26 Main Street in Sag Harbor. Learn more at www.saranightingale.com.

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