I love making portraits more than anything. The conversations that lead to the photos are as important to me as the photos ...
Grace Roselli is as complex and varied as the artwork and photography she produces.
Tall ceilings, large paintings and photography from her latest series – Naked Bike, a well-worn 1967 Triumph Tiger, and two, large, affectionate pooches – Laayoune, a Dogo Argentino, and Mokey, a Bull Mastiff/American Bulldog mix … They all dominate Roselli’s Brooklyn-based work/home space, a mixture of calm confidence, gritty styling and in-your-face imagery, not unlike Roselli herself.
The Bay Ridge, Brooklyn-born, Rhode Island School of Design graduate sways between fiery passion and calm introspection as she describes the culmination of her love of motorcycles and her ambition to create a meaningful conversation on how women and the female form are portrayed in society … the essence of the Naked Bike project, and a theme that has followed Roselli her entire artistic career.
“There’s a rich history of women’s bodies, nude and clothed, portrayed in art. Much of this historical portrayal has ranged from the casually misogynistic to outright sexism,” says Roselli, herself, a mother of two teenage girls. “After a still ongoing struggle for awareness and rights, many women are now controlling, owning and celebrating the narrative of their bodies. The Naked Bike project is a performance of that narrative, the language and agency of the body combined with a machine traditionally associated not just with men, but sexuality, rebellion and freedom.”
The series includes powerful studio shot and outdoor images of women and their bikes, with those profiled either dressed in full protective leathers in striking poses ... or nude, seemingly melding with their machines. Both convey confidence and strength … some poke fun at beauty norms, some have an element of calmness ... And there’s even a few that express pure joy: a mother and her baby, a café racer enthusiast and her Pomeranian, a socialite satirically crouched and caressing her Ninja. Looking at the collection as a whole, the images blend together … clothed or unclothed.
The many faces of Grace Roselli — Rahoul Ghose
There’s a rich history of women’s bodies, nude and clothed, portrayed in art. Much of this historical portrayal has ranged from the casually misogynistic to outright sexism,” says Roselli, herself, a mother of two teenage girls. “After a still ongoing struggle for awareness and rights, many women are now controlling, owning and celebrating the narrative of their bodies. The Naked Bike project is a performance of that narrative, the language and agency of the body combined with a machine traditionally associated not just with men, but sexuality, rebellion and freedom.
NAKED BIKE: THE ORIGINS
It's a concept Roselli first focused her artistic energy on in the mid-90s, when she was invited to be part of an art show curated by Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt at the National Arts Club in Gramercy Park.
A male artist friend and Dumbo neighbor had been designing motorcycle tanks in the shape of the female derrière, for riders to crouch up against, Roselli says, adding she challenged the artist to create a companion piece reflecting the male anatomy for a woman rider. Both were mounted on bikes.
Those unusual rides, together with video shot at local bike events asking riders what gender they thought their bike was, became the centerpiece of a visual arts installment tackling identity and gender politics of the day.
Roselli, the tank artist and a third performance artist – a six-foot, black, gay woman, posed on the two bikes in a variety of orders and positions, asking of onlookers ‘what did each situation imply?’
Fast forward more than two decades and a colorful collection of used bikes, and Roselli found herself coming full circle thanks in no small part to her membership in New York’s Miss-Fires women’s motorcycle club.
“They really were the inspiration for bringing this back just because they were women with bikes,” she says. “(Then) it started going off in all these different tangents.”
There was society’s impression of women on bikes, and, even more interesting, the interaction between the women themselves.
“Women don’t naturally support one another," Roselli says. "Female competition is a really strange animal. You sort of have to admit it’s there and then lean into it … and women have to learn consciously not to fall into it.”
The interactions between members of the club regarding hierarchy and administration issues compelled Roselli to revisit some of the themes in the original Naked Bike piece.
The first shoot, an experiment really, was done at the MotorGrrl community garage in Williamsburg, and featured several members of the Miss-Fires.
“I brought lights over there … and just sort of figured it out,” Roselli says, adding it was the first time she had met many of the club’s members.
She also played off the reflective qualities of Mylar surfaces and put her Photoshop post production talents to use.
It’s a common theme in Roselli’s life, with the artist being self-taught in many avenues of her life … riding, photography, even lighting setup.
“When I started riding in the ‘80s I took a few lessons, but really I taught myself, like I was coming out of left field … I’d been riding in the city and back then I didn’t see too many other lone women riding motorcycles. We were sort of like unicorns, especially around here. Photography I’m self-taught too.”
Grace Roselli in her Williamsburg studio — Rahoul Ghose
When I started riding in the ‘80s I took a few lessons, but really I taught myself, like I was coming out of left field … I’d been riding in the city and back then I didn’t see too many other lone women riding motorcycles. We were sort of like unicorns, especially around here. Photography I’m self-taught too.
THE PHILOSOPHY OF THE SHOOT
Shooting with a Canon 5D Mark iii, Roselli, explored various types of movement with several of her subjects and their bikes, rebelling against traditional poses and what they represented.
“This is not a documentary; I am not a documentary photographer/artist … it’s more metaphor. I deal with myth, archetypes, icons,” Roselli says. “I set up a world and I’m isolating them … it’s almost like the body is a place for me … and for women the personal is political. It’s more about what I want to say, not necessarily true to the person (I’m shooting) because I’m editing too.
“I don’t image this girl who I had screaming and jumping around necessarily thinks of herself as a 'mouth' even though she wears a helmet with teeth,” says Roselli, who also concedes with a smile that she may ultimately be finding characteristics in her subjects that were originally there but hidden.
Even the concept of the helmet covering a rider’s face plays a role in Naked Bike and other projects Roselli is working on.
“What happens when you shield your face? What happens to the idea of female? … our voices still come through loud and proud. Every single one of these women was completely different … had a different sort of vibe to them.”
Naked Bike is an ongoing project, one which Roselli hopes will continue to challenge her. She has already shot in a variety of locations indoors and outdoors with only her personal budget restricting her efforts and creativity.
“Anyone who wants to be in my project, if I have the time and space and I’m shooting, they’re more than welcome. At this point people are approaching me about it. Don’t really have to put out an open call. But I want to deal with everyone that comes in the door … I work with chaos and spontaneity … that’s part of the characters in this … people come in and I have to find their energy. With the paintings it’s a little different because you have to spend more time with one image. It’s more about making it an archetype. I consider exactly what I’m putting on that painting first … you’re creating something with your hands, so really it’s a performance of the body.”
While Roselli’s preeminent medium has always been painting, that craft has been tied to photography from the beginning, with the artist preferring to create her own references to paint from.
“I’ve always done photography as I’ve always wanted to make my own world … and it’s always been people … the psychology of that. I don’t like using other people’s pictures … I want to take my own. I don’t like people posing for me in real life either… I’d rather take my time and play.”
Roselli has had gallery showings for both her painting and photography but in the past year stepped away from the former due a lack of inspiration.
With the personal success of Naked Bike, however she’s now returning to the painting fold.
“I need to make something. It’s a performance for me … I love painting, I love the medium, I love the smell of it. Garages, oil paint … I think that’s the attraction with the bikes too.”
I’m a sponge … everything around me I use … not music so much. I tend to listen to books. I love science fiction. I like the idea of what Margaret Atwood does or Ursula Le Guin … Octavia Butler … they use science fiction to go to another world, to put a lens back on society. It’s not really all that unreal.
Roselli embarked on her riding adventure almost three decades ago, trading off her commute over the Brooklyn Bridge on roller-skates for a more convenient two-wheeled ride: a ’78 Honda CX500. These days she has a 650 Kawasaki Ninja for city riding and a 2013 flat black Ducati Hyperstrada “for flying,” and has hopes of a cross-country two-wheeled adventure this summer.
In addition to her longstanding love of motorcycles, influences on Roselli’s artwork and photography are very much book centered, with the well-read rider steering deftly between more classic literary gems and the science fiction genre.
“I’m a sponge … everything around me I use … not music so much. I tend to listen to books. I love science fiction. I like the idea of what Margaret Atwood does or Ursula Le Guin … Octavia Butler … they use science fiction to go to another world, to put a lens back on society. It’s not really all that unreal.”
On the more literary side her two latest reads (or listens, as the case may be) were Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad and Haruki Murakami’s Kafka On the Shore.
“Really, I just love stories … that’s what influences me the most.”
The parallels between Roselli’s sci fi interests and her personal work are immediately apparent when she talks about the message she hopes her images convey about women in society, She's focusing her own 'lens' on the issues
she takes personally.
“I’ve never thought of myself as a rebel, ever. I’ve always just had my own logic that I’ve followed. I’m not a leader … or a follower. I’m an artist and an observer. If any sort of rebellion comes out, it’s because I want to say stuff about what’s around me. I think the personal is political, so inherently there’s that in my work. It speaks for itself. This is my expression, how I can add to that dialogue. All of it tends to be contentious ... all of my work maybe rides on an edge, some of it more so than others.”
Naked Bike even taught Roselli a few things about her own preconceived ideas regarding a woman's body when one subject, Melissa, walked in.
“(She) was more like a queen, very voluptuous, riding a cherry red Ducati 1200 Monster. I did’t want to have a passive women laying on the bike … but she just fit … the bike was so female with its curves. For me it was a revolution too … we can be passive and still own ourselves. And the femininity of the motorcycle … since then I haven’t been able to look at a motorcycle and think male at all … They’re all so female.
“That’s why I love shooting … I love when stuff starts happening and I have to react. I’m not good at making things up … I need it to happen, but I’ll recognize it when it does ... it will be something I couldn’t have made up. Then I create something from that.”
Another series Roselli is putting together pairs the NY cityscape with riders, mostly women.
"Instead of getting the sweeping twisties vista (you often see in photos), you’re getting New York, you’re getting graffiti, you’re getting the Gowanus Canal …. and that’s all gorgeous too.
“As an artist it’s all coming though my voice … hopefully it becomes something other people can share in or get something out of,” Roselli says. “Naked Bike is more of a performance piece and this is just the visual manifestation of that … you perform gender when you’re on the bike.”
Grace Roselli in her Williamsburg studio — Rahoul Ghose
I’ve never thought of myself as a rebel, ever. I’ve always just had my own logic that I’ve followed. I’m not a leader … or a follower. I’m an artist and an observer. If any sort of rebellion comes out, it’s because I want to say stuff about what’s around me. I think the personal is political, so inherently there’s that in my work. It speaks for itself. This is my expression, how I can add to that dialogue. All of it tends to be contentious ... all of my work maybe rides on an edge, some of it more so than others.
HITTING THE MAINSTREAM
In the past two months, Naked Bike has started to get press attention … an article on Motorcycle News (MCN), and a Jalopnik piece by the Miss-Fire’s own Corinna Mantlo. There's also a small gallery at the Manhatten-based Speigel restaurant.
Next up, the Naked Bike project will be profiled in the newly launched women’s motorcycle fashion publication Modern Moto Magazine in May, and will see its first full public unveiling April 28 (7–11 PM) at Brooklyn‘s MotorGrrl in ‘A Night of Motorcycles and Art,’ a combined art event with fellow moto photographer Susana Rico.
Roselli says she will likely suspend her photos from wires above the bikes so that there is some physical movement of the images. She may even bring along a painting or two, though her full compliment of large canvases will be displayed in a gallery setting at a later date. Rico will be debuting a tintype collection of photos dubbed ‘Viragos.’
For more on Roselli you can see a gallery of her work here on NYC Motorcyclist. Or visit her online at: