Mixed Media

Through a Canvas Darkly

Craig LaRotonda discusses his time at UB, his new gallery and the dichotomy of human nature

LaRotonda at his gallery in Buffalo, N.Y.

By Rebecca Rudell

The paintings of Craig LaRotonda (BFA ’92) seem as if they’re from another era. Some, with their elegant lines, luxurious colors and gold embellishments, evoke medieval illustrated manuscripts, magnified hundreds of times. Others call to mind early Renaissance church frescoes, crackled with age, coolly considering the evils of humankind. Still others portray futuristic, robot-homo sapiens hybrids. But all possess what the artist, 47, refers to as “grotesque beauty.”

LaRotonda’s work, which also includes sculpture, collage and illustration, is inspired by the human condition—love, war, relationships—as well as by more esoteric matters, like the nature of consciousness and our place in nature. “I have a melancholy perspective on mankind, as I believe we are destined to self-destruct,” he says. “Because although we are part of the animal kingdom, we fail to understand our place as equal inhabitants.”

“Soul of Fire,” 2015.

Primates frequently populate LaRotonda’s canvases, but they’re often portrayed as royalty, even gods. We share so many commonalities, he explains, both physically and socially, yet we treat them as inferiors and have endangered their very existence. “In many ways, they can teach us how to live in harmony with this planet,” he says. “My depictions of them are a reflection of my respect for them.”

LaRotonda’s artistic calling began when he was young. “All children create art in grade school,” he says. “I just never stopped.” He was encouraged by his parents to take art classes, which he did throughout grammar and high school, but it was at UB that he really flourished.

The artist has fond memories of Bethune Hall, a converted factory on Main St. that housed the art department in his day, as well as his instructors—in particular, Harvey Breverman, Kathy Howell, Walter Prochownik and Alan Cober, who was flown in from New York City weekly to teach at UB. “I learned the art and business of illustration, which is super valuable to me now, from Alan,” he recalls. “He taught us how to promote and market our work and how to speak to art directors, so when I got professional jobs, I knew where to go with it.”

“Divine Messenger,” 2013.

LaRotonda learned well. His illustrations have been published in The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Time Magazine and countless others. He has participated in numerous international shows, and has sold paintings and sculptures to celebrities such as Guillermo del Toro, Johnny Depp, Frances Bean Cobain and James Gunn. “The Ascension”—a triptych painted for his senior project at UB—appeared in a scene from the Oscar-award-winning film “Traffic.”

In 2016, LaRotonda and his wife, Maria Pabico, a graphic designer and digital fine artist, opened Revolution Gallery in Buffalo to create a home where “pop surrealist artists” (how he defines himself) can show their work. In addition to exhibitions that change monthly, the couple hosts live bands, yoga nights, wine tastings and more—all in an effort, LaRotonda says, to get people to “slow down, spend time with the art and reflect on it.” In the end, he believes, humans have as much capacity to be beautiful as they do to be monstrous, and art can help tip the balance.