Victor Grasso is a Jersey Shore artist, born and raised. But he doesn’t paint sunset portraits or pretty pictures of empty beach chairs.
No, here’s how Grasso describes his next show, The Nemo Project, which will debut August 4 at the SOMA New Art Gallery in Cape May: “It’s loosely based on Jules Vern, and they’re all self portraits,” says Graoss.
“It’s as if Ed Wood decided he was going to paint himself instead of Bela Lugosi — except not wearing women’s underwear.” In “The Presentation of Leviathan,” he paints himself as five different people, all examining a captured octopus.
It’s a dark but not exactly nightmarish series, featuring Grasso with a wild beard reaching his chest, a look he sported all winter. That was gone by the time we talked on an early summer day. Instead, he sported an Iron Maiden t-shirt and a black bandana, and drank herbal tea on the back deck of the West Cape May home he shares with his wife, Alicia (his high school sweetheart), and their 16-month-old daughter, Gray.
He paints in his garage, with the windows blocked. The space is, of course, paint splattered. Paintings in different parts of production fill the room, from a painting in the Nemo Series he just photographed to a different work ready to be framed for a hotel. He recently quit smoking, and if it sticks, says he’ll be adding a motorcycle to the bikes parked on the far end of his studio.
“The vision [for the Nemo Project] popped into my head one day, and I had a huge beard,” he said. “But there’s no reason why Captain Nemo wouldn’t shave.”
Grasso grew up in Sea Isle. After high school, he worked for an Atlantic City mural company, then he painted murals on his own.
“I was always working on stuff in my free time,” he said. “I was painting constantly.”
He started showing his own work, which he described as “murals in fine art,” in Ocean City. In 2006, he started doing covers for the color issues of Exit Zero, which is a local publishing company in Cape May that prints a weekly black and white newspaper but does three glossy color issues a summer. Even when the recession hit, his paintings kept selling — from his 2008 show in Cape May, 13 of 18 pieces sold opening night.
You can see his work around the Jersey Shore — in the Chalfonte Hotel, the Ocean Club in Cape May, the Princeton in Avalon, and on those summer issues of Exit Zero. There, he paints scenes of Cape May life, always using residents for models: the harried Lobster House waitress, the lifeguard, the surfer butting heads with the beach tag checker, the fisherman. They’ve been compared to the work of Norman Rockwell — a much different style than the work he’s putting into his show.
“I didn’t set out for things to be Norman Rockwell-like, but if people are going to compare me to the greatest American illustrator who ever lived, that’s okay with me,” he said. And he doesn’t think it clashes with his other work. “You can be recognized by how you do something,” he said. “Ridley Scott can do Alien and then Black Hawk Down. Two very different movies, but it’s still Ridley Scott.”
For now, he’s preparing for his August show, and another one that will take place at the Noyes Museum of art in Oceanville in 2013. He’s been working to secure a show in Philadelphia, though so far he’s been told that his paintings are too expensive for most of the city’s galleries.
And, on that day, he waited for his in-laws to drop off his daughter Gray. She has her father’s dark coloring, and tucks into his shoulder when she comes home. No more painting on that day.