UP editor-in-chief T.K. Mills sat down with Long Island-born painter and musician Dean Pagano to talk influences, technique, and finding himself in the art scene in anticipation of his debut solo show on Wednesday 5/18. Get to know his work before hitting his show up at Sour Mouse this week!
This interview has been editing for clarity and concision.
TK Mills: When did you first start getting into art?
Dean Pagano: It’s always a hard question to answer because I feel like there’s different pivotal points with art. But, I’ve always been surrounded by art. My dad is and was an artist for as long as I could remember, and my bedroom was kind of his art studio, so I lived in an art studio 24/7. I feel like I’ve always had it inherently inside of me; the components of an artist, somebody that’s creative and not afraid to show it.
TK Mills: You grew up in Westchester?
Dean Pagano: No. I’m actually from Long Island, but I live in Westchester because I went to school in Dobbs Ferry. Then I eventually found a nice town called Tarrytown. It’s really quaint. It’s close to the city, but it’s really easy to be productive and focused.
TK Mills: When did you start exploring art as a more serious career objective?
Dean Pagano: I went to school for finance and I was completely turned off by corporate finance. I love business, I was always an entrepreneur. My first company was when I was 16 years old, I had a clothing company in high school. I’m one of those guys. I’ve always been kind of doing these one-off kinds of businesses and I started to get more and more abstract. Finally, I found myself running a sales team for a software startup and I just started reflecting on my life and thought, all right, you’re 22, just quit your job and go for it.
I was putting in that last brain cell every day like at midnight to make a painting and try to post it on Instagram and with that 1% of energy every day, 99% of my energy was going to this job I didn’t like. 1% of my energy was going to painting and then I started selling them. So then, I said, hey, what happens if I flip the script here…I started to put 99% of my energy into the art thing. I started thinking, I’m never going to have another chance like this in my life in terms of responsibilities; I don’t have children. I just turned 23.
Finally, I found myself running a sales team for a software startup and I just started reflecting on my life and thought, all right, you’re 22, just quit your job and go for it.
TK Mills: Did the pandemic play a part in your decision to make the jump into the arts?
Dean Pagano: Well, I think the pandemic led to a major shift in my perspective. A lot of things were put into perspective. I wouldn’t necessarily credit the pandemic with me making the shift into a painter, but I think that there’s a lot of lessons that I learned during the pandemic when I was ready to make the decision to take the first step of being a painter.
I was just thinking about time a lot. Time was a variable that was put into perspective, in terms of how precious it is, how delicate life is and I just don’t want to do anything that I don’t like to do anymore. I found myself at my desk job just thinking about art and music and it was almost like paralyzing to the actual tasks that I needed to do for work because I couldn’t think about anything else.
Time was a variable that was put into perspective, in terms of how precious it is, how delicate life is and I just don’t want to do anything that I don’t like to do anymore.
TK Mills: So, with your art, how has your style developed?
Dean Pagano: Getting into art was all about aesthetics. Art came and then the message followed, I suppose. In the beginning, I never really thought so much about how paintings are a form of communication, especially coming from a marketing background. It’s like the far left side of my marketing brain, where we’re just trying to basically spend money because we have the money to put a message in front of people. But then, with painting it was like an outlet for fun. It was just fun and I liked the way it looked in my apartment and my friends and family and early supporters bought pieces because they liked the way it looked. I think over the last few months, I see that as artists we have a huge responsibility. That responsibility is to be able to communicate things and you have a choice, as more people see your work, do you want to be a positive influence or be a negative influence.
TK Mills: How did that message evolve for you?
Dean Pagano: I think the message has evolved into being able to speak your mind within an over saturated society. I know that a lot of people or artists that are blatantly obvious about trying to be famous or whatever it is to make money. They have this celebrity status about them, like, “I’m a famous New York City artist.” I felt as though there’s so many people and so many things and there’s a constant overstimulation no matter where you go. The fact that we need apps for our mental health; that’s a juxtaposition if I ever heard one.
I felt as though there’s so many people and so many things and there’s a constant overstimulation no matter where you go. The fact that we need apps for our mental health; that’s a juxtaposition if I ever heard one.
It’s a crazy society and so, instead of working for a big brand, instead of working for some sort of company that I don’t really care about, I just decided I’m going to just let my brain run basically if people want to look at what my brain created, that’s cool. If people could get behind the deeper message in that, that’s also cool.
TK Mills: So, when you approach the canvas, I noticed that you have a bit more of an abstract feel. Is there ever something that you’re hoping to represent or do you just let your paintbrush flow?
Dean Pagano: So, I ran into a little bit of a creative block when I would work with a client and when I started to gain a little bit of momentum. I had people come and say, “hey, you know, can you make a piece for me, but can you make it a dinosaur and a basketball and have these words and this color..?”
These commissions completely stumped me as a creative and I realized the difference between them and making art in its purest form. The instances where I’d wake up and there is no money attached, there is no client attached, there are no feelings; it was simply just me and the canvas.
It just depended on the day. It depended on what I saw, what I was thinking, the music that I heard. There was just an infinite amount of variables that led into a piece.
TK Mills: It’s a way for you to still have that creative voice. To follow up to that question, who are some of your influences? Whether it’s an artist that you look up to or even some of the music that you tend to add to your rotation?
Dean Pagano: I have very specific influences. Visually, I think the obvious one is Jean-Michel. I think early on in my career, I’ve definitely had a lot of kickback because my style was so similar to his. That’s simply just because I resonate with him so much and that style of art. I love neo-expressionism, Julian Schnabel, de Kooning…Even expanding a little bit outside of neo-expressionism; Van Gogh.Impressionism; Da Vinci, like the masters.
Musically, huge musical influences, number one is John Frusciante of the Red Hot Chili Peppers. In terms of pure musicianship, I think he is one of the groups’ most under-appreciated members. His solo records are 99% of what I listen to. I love Thom Yorke of Radiohead. I think he’s also extremely ahead of his time. But, I also like anything different. I like jazz, Pearl Jam, Pink Floyd, Tame Impala…
TK Mills: Shifting gears a little bit, how does it feel as someone who is more entrepreneurial-minded, to take something very personal and put it up for sale?
Dean Pagano: It feels liberating. I can understand how people could have their reservations about putting their raw emotions on the line and having that be your product. It’s pretty intimidating and it’s a really intense feeling at times.
But, what I would say is that I’ve been on the other side of that. I’d been hiding behind this façade of trying to make money at a marketing agency and I don’t really care about that stuff.
I think I’ve been through too many of these facades of businesses and startups that I just kept thinking, how can I turn a business into just me? How can I be that? Art is such a good route to attain this. I think the next best thing would be to become a professional musician.
I make almost as much music as art, but I just found the arts a much more natural way to get my creations into the market.
TK Mills: What kind of music do you typically dabble in? Musically like to play guitar? Or beats…?
Dean Pagano: Well, I grew up playing the guitar, so classic six-string electric and acoustic. That transformed into obviously playing the bass. Then, just buying myself a little piano/drum machine to fill in the rest with melodies and drumbeats and stuff like that. You’ll have to see my studio space sometime because right now, it’s literally a 500 sq ft apartment split into one side messy with a painting area and canvas on the floor and on the walls.
TK Mills: How did you get to link up with Sour Mouse?
Dean Pagano: When I made the leap of becoming an artist as my job, I poured my heart and soul into everything that I did. So, basically, I dove off and I didn’t know anybody. I went to school for finance in a small business program, so everybody in my network is in some sort of marketing, accounting, finance. So, going into an art field or any creative field for that matter, where you’re just completely alone, I was like, all right, I guess step one is meeting people. So, as cliché as it sounds, I went on Instagram and I looked up #NYCArtist.
I just started looking at what’s going on, what are these people posting, where are they hanging out, who are these people? I just started connecting with a ton of them. I could tell you specifically what happened.
So, there’s an artist that you might know, Melissa Schainker, and she was one of the artists that I followed and started interacting with on social.She told me, “Hey, there’s a group show at the Blue Gallery in Midtown. Come to it.” I just showed up and there, I met a couple of key players. I met her, obviously. I met Peso Neto, who is showing a couple of pieces. I met Jake Henzo and J Scott Orr from B Scene Zine.
All I was doing was painting and so, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday – I just kept going to group shows; going to this and that. Then, that led into my relationship with Peso Neto starting to build and we started going around doing some street art. I don’t come from the street art world, but I was in his element being introduced to other people like Hektad and these other amazing street artists…
My calendar at that time was empty. All I was doing was painting and so, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday – I just kept going to group shows; going to this and that. Then, that led into my relationship with Peso Neto starting to build and we started going around doing some street art. I don’t come from the street art world, but I was n his element being introduced to other people like Hektad and these other amazing street artists…
Seeing like Freeman’s Alley, I was like…wow. I was doing stickers and a couple of different tags with the Molotow paint pens. Peso Neto is doing stickers and some paste as well. But, he was teaching me about the culture and explaining the difference between these different sub genres of street artists in New York, which we live amongst. If you don’t take the time to understand what everything means, the place that it’s coming from, then it’s just it’s arbitrary as a bench or an advertisement.
So, I started seeing all these awesome things and we were out to eat one day, and Peso Neto says, “Have you ever been to Sour Mouse?” And I was like, “No, I haven’t.” He’s like, “We’re trying to basically turn that into the hub for the Bushwick and Lower Manhattan guys.”
I was like, “Okay, like say no more.”
TK Mills: So in closing, is there anything that you want people to keep in mind going into your show? Is there a theme for the show or is it just kind of like, this is my work, this is who I am?
Dean Pagano: Yeah. I think for this show in particular, there’s no specific theme, which was really liberating to have the opportunity. Evan was just like “Go have fun.” In the last month or so, I banged out about 35 paintings. The theme is just me being me and having fun. I was just listening to music and having a good time.
TK Mills: Nice. And does the show have a name?
Dean Pagano: I don’t know if it ever got agreed on, but I have been calling it Recording and Chaos. My studio is just chaos; it just looks like a creative hub. There’s not an inch of unpainted space. It’s a crazy chaotic space. I’m new to this, so I’m so humbled to have been given an opportunity for my first ever show to be a solo show at this really cool venue with these really cool people.
My studio is just chaos; it just looks like a creative hub. There’s not an inch of unpainted space.
The pressure is on, but one of the things I found was that inside of you, no matter what kind of setting, whether you’re like a freshman in college or it’s your first day of school, you’re always asking yourself, will I be accepted? The pressure is on, but I think what I’d want people to experience coming to the show is that I come from a place where creating my art brings me the purest joy.
Dean Pagano’s solo show opens Wednesday May 18th at Sour Mouse, 110 Delancey St.