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Not Quite a Still Life

Recent paintings by Joseph Radoccia at Betty's Restaurant

I have been waitressing for several years, through undergraduate school, graduate school, a professional career as a curator, and most recently just because I enjoy my co-workers so much. It provides quick gratification—nothing beats walking out of work with a full pocket of cash. In the past, the money might not even make it home. Dealing with the public can be grueling, but it can also be completely delightful. Some people share their smiles, stories, and generosity; others see a target with an apron.

One thing that stands out to me as a waitress 50 or so years after the first McDonald’s is that the expectation of speed has reached epidemic proportions. I see a lot of people in such a hurried frenzy I wonder if they could be diagnosed with some kind haste-waste disorder. They can’t slow down, even while sitting motionless in a restaurant. One of the first things they do is place their phones or laptops on the table, just in case they get updated, emailed, or texted. I don’t think this disorder is confined to restaurants either; I think that we suffer collectively from a failure to notice the environments we inhabit, and that while preoccupied with the technology that offers to “make life easier,” we just get busier trying to keep up.

When waitressing, however, I don’t expect people to care about what I think. I do wish they’d slow down a bit and recognize all they have. And at Betty’s, they should enjoy their meal and take a look at the art.

Seriously, I am asking that for the next few weeks while you are at Betty’s, please slow down and look around at the beautiful paintings from the Cut Flowers series by Joseph Radoccia. Put your cell phones and laptops in your bag, chew your food a little more slowly than usual, and just be missing in action for an hour or so.

The phrase “still life” may not be quite apt for these subjects, as cut flowers undulate slowly over time, but that is precisely what makes these paintings special. Radoccia paints not only the form but the movement of these flowers. Rather than still lifes, these are documents of motion and time, recorded in the gradual, slight divergence of form and color that distinguishes the works. That skillfully rendered divergence evokes a certain gauziness of light that perfectly befits the subject. Hard lines adhere, then peel away. In places, the plants seem to fade into nothingness, or to echo themselves, lending an ethereal, half-remembered quality. In Snapdragons, for instance, it’s hard to know if you’re seeing three flowers or a single one painted at three intervals of time, fading as it decays.

Radoccia’s command of light is well demonstrated in how different these delicate indoor scenes look from his previous series of still lifes, featuring fruit and fabrics which vibrated with the bold hues of Madagascar. In fact, one of the works from the current series (Jar of Purple Flowers) is from that period, a “transitional” work joining this series with the last, standing as a reminder of that contrast. These purple flowers hold their form. They exist in a jar in a room with a window, while the flowers in the rest of the series sit naked upon fields of raw color and texture, suggesting possibly a sky or shadows on a wall. I imagine these flowers are in a room waiting, where only lovers meet.

And again there is the motion, the twisting and writhing. There is a sense of the small tragedy of cut flowers, that they are already perishing when purchased, and it’s no accident. “I find that I become very moved by the fact they are living as I paint them, and dying as I paint them,” Radoccia told me. “Odd sounding, but I feel as if I am engaged with these little beings at such a crucial time in their lives.”

Radoccia is not just a fine painter but a skilled observer of detail. As a result, each painting is imbued with the character of the flowers themselves. Straw Flowers is a wild piece, thrashing with chaotic detail. Lily seems fantastical, an alien plant on another world with a background of cloudy abstraction. Red Dahlias is exquisite with its bursting red passion almost tattooed on a fleshy yellow background.

These are not the snapshots that the “still life” label suggests. They express the passage of time and the relentless progress of growth and decay in a way that no photograph can, reaffirming the relevance of painting in the digital age. You can’t make these pictures with an iPhone. They are slow. They are real. All of them are worth a 10-minute stare.

Oh, and Betty’s is looking more beautiful than ever, with a new expansion, including a full bar. So come down, slow down…and tip your servers.

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