California: an interview with Frankie Carino

Arizona born, Los Angeles-based Frankie Carino has been carving out a name for himself as an artist tearing at the traditions of photography, disobeying its materials and testing its presentation techniques. Lively, young and high spirited, Frankie is having fun with the work he makes, though his playful attitude is not to be mistaken for insincerity. There is a thoughtful and engaged practice beneath his casual demeanour.

Photograph by Claire Dickinson

Photograph by Claire Dickinson

We are welcomed to Frankie’s Boyle Heights studio, a few miles south of Downtown LA, by his friendly canine studio assistant, aka Molly the dog. The space is a beautifully curated amalgamation of experiments; photographic papers chemically altered, projections set up with prints wrapped around tubular light fittings and blocks of concrete balancing finer more fragile materials. It is a total festival for the senses, which amplifies the beauty of natural surface textures and palettes.

Frankie’s art is rooted in the conventions and proficiencies of traditional photography, but somewhere along the line those traditions have been accepted and then disregarded. Experiencing Frankie’s finished pieces in the studio, as well as works in progress, really brings to the fore the materiality and physicality he instills in his photography. Undoubtedly photographic methods are present but they have been toyed with, teased, and physically and conceptually challenged. Encountering Frankie’s work inevitably leads to a reflection on the potential of photography and how we define it. He himself isn’t sure if he can call his work photography, and he shows little concern about labelling it as such.

With a somewhat traditional grounding in the medium of photography studied at art school, Frankie is astute in its institution and methodologies. “I went to school for photography and I also worked in a photo lab as a large format photographer, so I’m very much like a photo dork!” he says. It was during his time at the photo lab that Frankie became frustrated. “I was sitting there making really beautiful prints of really horrible pictures and I was so mad about it.” This resentment led to Frankie developing a system of using the materials of photography but in a way that rebelled against its established methods. Fortunately the lab was also a place he could get his hands on unwanted, out-of-date papers to experiment with as part of his revolt against the ‘ugly beautiful’ prints he was making for clients.

“That’s when I started putting the papers to use, I would put chemicals on it or throw dirt on it and hang it in a dark room upside down. It was free and all I needed was to do something to it, I was just experimenting.”

All the materials and equipment that define photography are there in Frankie’s work, but they merge in a skewed, almost agitated way, subverting our expectations of traditional photography as we know it. “Everything you need to make a normal photograph or a real print is there, but I’m trying to take them all out of whack and do it all wrong.” Frankie gets out a huge roll of darkroom paper explaining that he found it in Downtown LA, “It was ridiculous, I was walking back from a show at the MOCA and it was just on the sidewalk. You never see this, even if you looked for it on eBay or something, it’s pretty hard to come across. I was like, what’s going on? Have I just stolen someone’s art project?” He adds jokingly, “I figured I had to sabotage it because it was too close to mine. What’s this? Leaving paper out? That’s my thing!”

It’s no surprise Frankie questioned the positioning of a roll of paper in the middle of a downtown street. Playful curation has become as much a part of Frankie’s work as the materials involved. He tells us about his days during photography school where the routine would be to pick a project and then create a body of images; same size, same colour considerations, everything was about the series.

“I didn’t like to work that way and I didn’t think it was correct. I was like, how can I make it work together when it doesn’t seem to work together? So curation came into it, for example if I put one piece on the ground then what does that mean for the photograph? To tell my classmates it was OK and that maybe there was a better way to read it. And then it just kind of manifested. I always think I just wanted to be a sculptor.”

Striving to get to a point where there are no rules in his working practice, Frankie reflects on his mischievous yet seductive way of presenting his work.

“I feel like art doesn’t actually ever do what it aims to do. If you read an artists statement, what they’re thinking about doesn’t actually line up. To me it seems silly, I’d rather give it some other context and make a bunch of things that I feel somehow live together. So I’m thinking about these things and making all of this stuff and I think, let me just put them next to each other and then you guys deal with it. Whether it’s all pictures of say black and white trees, you’re gonna deal with it differently than I do. So instead of trying not to recognise that I like to push it.”

Despite the anarchistic use of photographic materials there are still very strong traditional photographic elements that thread through Frankie’s work.

Frankie talks a lot about the idea of trace and record, common ideas when considering the idea of capturing time in a still image. However, the way he approaches these themes differs from the norm. “It’s like a photograph is supposed to be a record. It doesn’t actually record the physical, I mean there’s the light that’s removed time-wise but it doesn’t actually convey any truth,” he says. The physical record therefore is what Frankie is interested in capturing.

“If I put this thing directly on this other thing, then that physical reaction or interaction leaves a trace and that trace acts as some sort of history. You know, like you can date the Grand Canyon because there are those different sedimentary layers.”

The idea of trace is not just light captured which seizes a moment in time; trace becomes a physical reality that can be touched and examined.

Photograph by Claire Dickinson

Photograph by Claire Dickinson

Recently Frankie’s practice of capturing moments in time has been realised in a quietly antagonistic and mischievous guise, via his Instagram feed @Canonfan. His stream of imagery is irregular, imperfect, sometimes even ugly. He posts the kind of images you might think he has taken by accident, but within them there is often something funny or visually interesting. Frankie takes issue with the silent restrictions that exist within the medium.

“There’s these unspoken social rules with Instagram, like you don’t post too much, you don’t post bad stuff, you don’t do that, and you don’t do this. So I just started to try and do whatever I wanted and it’s like, I actually think this photo that is really cropped and weird is really nice if you actually look at it. I think of it as a kind of diary or something. As I don’t really take photos as much for my work anymore Instagram has become a useful tool where I can fulfil that gap, it satisfies that voice.”

It has also been a useful platform for Frankie to influence the way in which people view things out in the real world.

“I think of it as a looking exercise. It’s starting to turn into this thing where I can control how people navigate the world, well not control – control is a strong word! I can mediate the way people navigate the world, I started to get text messages saying, ‘Frankie, I saw this thing and it was so Canonfan!’ or people would send me pictures and say, ‘This is so Canonfan!’ In turn my Instagram was making them see the world differently, that’s how it started. It was like, OK I can get people to look at cones; if I post a ton of pictures of cones, different parking cone structures, weird parking cone structures, then people will start to look at parking cones and see parking cones around the city that are weird. And they’ll be like, ‘Frankie!’ They never would have seen it if it wasn’t for this thing that I do,” he says with satisfaction.

Although Instagram is a bit of extra-curricular fun for Frankie it really does exist as an extension of what he is trying to achieve; it epitomises his whole idea about art. Through tactics of cropping into images, using grainy, difficult to decipher shots, framing trivial compositions of the banal and also filling up his followers’ feeds with dumps of images, he is drawing attention to the nature of looking. “If you can introduce certain visuals, ways of expanding the way of seeing the world and experiencing it, isn’t that what artists are supposed to do?” It also mirrors the way in which he has taken the established medium of photography, used its core materials and turned it on its head to create a new, alternative viewing experience. People tell him he’s weird but his response is to suggest they take time looking at the picture for more than a scroll – potentially a lot to ask of an Instagram audience. If they do invest a bit more time into viewing he says, “There might be a little word or a weird form to it. I like that. You learn how to think or view through my vantage point.”

In between trying to incite annoyance amongst Instagram users Frankie has been focusing on his self-initiated outdoor gallery project, Cudayh, a public art space that expands upon his ideas of presentation and challenging the ways in which we engage with art. Cudayh sits on an unassuming patch of dry dirt, tucked away in the hills of East LA at the foot of Elephant Hill. The collective contributing to the outdoor gallery is trying to get the area they use approved as a park to improve the local neighbourhood.

“We’re trying to make it a recognised public space, which would actually raise the property value for the people already there in the town. We’re joining the local political committee, it’s crazy to be a part of that.”

Photograph by Frankie Carino

Photograph by Frankie Carino

Since being in LA it is difficult to miss the noticeable level of engagement people have with local politics. Residents seem to be at least aware of, if not actively involved with, politics in the city. There is a genuine sense of social responsibility. “Yeah I think the radio is a big part of that”, Frankie agrees.

“In New York you don’t really listen to the radio so you don’t listen to the news unless you actively seek it out. Here you go to work and put the car radio on, so you’re kind of always being surrounded by local news. I don’t know; it’s my theory anyway. I have a lot of conversations where someone will be like, ‘I was listening to this thing on the radio’ or ‘Did you hear on the radio…?’ it’s how a lot of the political conversations seem to happen and people here want to talk about it. It’s also the culture; America is like five countries that have been called one. This is a different country to New York, or to the Mid West or the South East. To grow up in Arizona and come here it feels like I’m back to my home, people talk about ‘vibes’ here and I meet all different people who start talking to me about vibes. It’s the culture here.”

‘Vibes’ is definitely a big Californian word. For Frankie the vibe is epitomised by another heavily used local word, ‘chill’. In a definition that couldn’t be more Californian if he tried, and although it reads as a parody, Frankie says with complete and utter sincerity, “The overall vibe is chiller and slower, being late is ok. Being late is so ok here it’s crazy. Everything is so like, whatever.” This relaxed temperament is reflected throughout the entire breadth of LA’s creative culture. “A gallery dealer here will wear blue jeans and a T-shirt to an opening, whereas in New York when the dealer is just going to dinner it would be in a full-on suit. They both have their own pros and cons, but when I moved here I noticed that people are way more laid back in certain regards, fashion especially.”

In the recent past there was a general feeling amongst artists that New York regarded itself as elite to the rest of the US but Frankie feels this perception is changing, especially within his generation.

“Now people are like, ‘Oh shit this ship is sinking’. The conversation I have every week is, ‘Where are you from?’, ‘New York’, ‘Oh me too, where do you live?’, ‘When did you move here?’, ‘One year ago’, ‘A month ago’, ‘A week ago’. ‘Oh cool, yeah New York sucks’. I mean we all love New York but it’s happening so much.”

This disappointment with New York’s lack of support for young artists of course mainly revolves around the cost of living.

“The amount I pay now for my house, my house,” Frankie reiterates, “is what I was paying for a small apartment on an angle next to the highway, fifteen minutes from the train. Now I live in a house with a backyard, a big backyard, and a porch, it’s so pleasant. I have a nice studio, there’s work here. So inevitably people are like, ‘I can live in the cold in this shitty spot on an angle with cockroaches, or I can go to LA where I can be outside all the time, I can have breakfast on the porch every day of the year, have a tight spot, go surfing, eat any food I want, watch any movie’. It’s also a nice place to be a human. I cook dinner, I make my own coffee, and I walk the dog. In New York I’d leave at eight in the morning and would come home at three in the morning and probably be drunk. I never had anything, and it’s cool, but it’s not great for you.”

The living is easy in LA by comparison for Frankie and his peers, and when life is easy making work becomes a pleasure. “I’ve noticed that art work in LA is a lot more exciting because with that freedom people are making weird stuff that’s not as confined.” Frankie’s LA is a place of experimentation, of opportunity and of trying things out. There’s a palpable rejection amongst his peers of the notion that life has to be hard if you want to be an artist in this city. Frankie wonders if this rejection is a result of coming of age during the recession.

“I didn’t grow up with any fallacy of the American Dream, you know. Yeah there’s a thing of, you can work hard and get what you want, but it was never presented to me that having the nice car was going to bring happiness.”

The omnipresence of nature in LA also provides a daily reminder of how the natural world can provide perspective, space, time and health. It is inescapable. Happiness comes in the form of the natural world for those wishing to be connected to it, combine this with the communities and opportunities the city affords and a happy balance of work and life is achievable.

This is not to say that, despite its beauty, LA doesn’t also have its problems. It is a city that provides a regular and very real perspective of life for Frankie.

“You can’t lose site of reality here as you have to drive through super-impoverished areas but super-wealthy areas too. You see this whole spectrum and I think a lot about how that keeps me, hopefully, in touch with what’s going on.”

Despite the infiltration of the superficial and sometimes ugly culture of fame in LA’s history and contemporary culture, Frankie has found making work here as an artist to be a refreshing experience. On the West Coast he has enjoys a widely accepting audience where there is a generally uncomplicated engagement with art, something that seems to reflect the laid-back nature of people living in the city. This straightforward relationship with art permits a freedom in creativity, and for Frankie has allowed a liberating making experience where his playful attitude is given free reign. Ultimately this is why LA is a city of experimentation rather than a city of refinement.

“There’s an open attitude here which took me a while to get used to, where just liking is OK,” Frankie says. “You know, it’s not like, ‘Oh I like that, but it doesn’t mean anything’ and then it’s therefore disregarded, but people can say, ‘I really like that’ and that’s enough.”

In this context nothing is cut short before having the chance to grow. This Californian nature of encouragement is what has enabled Frankie to explore ideas. Strength is found in the freedom to experiment amongst a supportive and social community.

Photograph by Frankie Carino

Photograph by Frankie Carino


Frankie Carino was interviewed by Amy Moffat for her article in issue one of Junko, Junko California. This is an edited version of the original article. Issue two, Junko Iceland, will be out in spring 2017. Follow Junko on InstagramFacebook and Twitter.

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