Watching a sped-up YouTube video of the Duly Noted Painters work together on a canvas has the same meditative effect as watching a nature documentary where green leaves unfurl or glittering insects swarm. Artists Kurtis Ceppetelli and Matt Malone are clearly comfortable with each other as they riff off the other’s mark making, step back to look from afar, move back in with a stroke of inspiration, or add slight details. In the videos, the pair are always working on top of each other, but never at cross purposes.
There are some well-documented duos in the art world, like Gilbert & George, who they bring up on their blog, or Christo and Jeanne-Claude, whose 2008 exhibition at the Phillips Collection stays with Ceppetelli today. But painters typically work alone, and even when they do collaborate, simultaneous work isn’t the norm. The Duly Noted painters compare their method to jazz: “Jazz music has no starting, no end,” Ceppetelli explains. “No in between; they just follow each other.” Malone concurs, adding, “It’s like the guitar players playing in a jazz band or a jazz song, you know? There might be someone doing something in the background, and then it moves to someone else. He might be doing something at one time; I’m sitting there watching, and then I have the urge to come in and we’ll start working together on the piece, he’ll sit down, or vice versa, and then look at it from a back perspective and come back in.” Their usually large-scale paintings are nailed to a wall while they paint, making it easy to work side-by-side.
Of course, that was before the COVID-19 pandemic hit. The duo, who’ve worked together for nearly a decade, haven’t been able to create for weeks. In the age of social and physical distancing, Malone, 40, and Ceppetelli, 42, are now considering new ways to make their art. Previously, they set aside time weekly to work together, navigating Ceppetelli’s bartending schedule and Malone’s job in currency exchange. Now, bars are closed across the city and Ceppetelli hasn’t worked since St. Patrick’s Day. Malone can do his work from home, but they haven’t seen each other in person since mid-March.
Right now seems like the time to try something they’ve been thinking about for a while: collaborating remotely. They envision a system in which one half of the pair creates work and sends it to the other to finish. They’ve done it before, when their schedules were refusing to sync up, and they liked the end result. But it’s a big change. Duly Noted is built around their distinctive pairing. In a March interview, both Ceppetelli and Malone emphasized that their simultaneous collaboration was the key to their work, and that asking “who did what” was misunderstanding the project. “I mean, I could say, ‘Yeah, I drew that line.’ But Matt drew the rest of the line,” Ceppetelli said. “If he wasn’t there, it wouldn’t look like that at all.”
“That was, like, the key thing about our working process,” Malone says now. “And so not doing that made it seem like, ‘Well, we’ve told all these people this the whole time, and now we’re trying this,’ which isn’t a big deal, but in our minds that was like, ‘no, no, no.’”
Since they began working together a decade ago, they’ve made around 200 paintings, Ceppetelli estimates. Many have never been displayed in public. But the duo have had some major exhibitions of their work at home in D.C., where Ceppetelli has lived for the last 20 years and Malone for a bit longer than 10 years. Last year, they had shows at Foundry Gallery and Otis Street Arts Project, and they’ve been in the Watergate Gallery, Busboys & Poets, and the IA&A Hillyer. In 2016, they showed a series of works done in Cuba at Hillyer; the duo traveled to the country at the same time that Pope Francis visited in 2015 and incorporated its environmental and social world into a series of paintings. And they’re part of this month’s Foundry Gallery members’ show, with two pieces, “Street Pharmacy” and “My Dream Starts With You,” in the virtually available exhibition.
Ceppetelli and Malone first met 12 years ago while working as security guards at the Phillips Collection. At the time, Ceppetelli says, the Phillips essentially only hired artists. And according to Malone, it was a great job for one. “If you’re assigned to one room, you’re really getting an art education just by learning to look, and you spend a lot of time looking at paintings that people would normally just come in and look at for a minute or two, tops, and then leave,” he says. “And there were a lot of other artists there who we met, making work and helping get us shows and doing a bunch of other things. So it was a good community at that time.” But even that origin story’s got a sour note in the time of coronavirus: The Phillips has canceled all of its programming and faces an uncertain future.
For eight years, they worked in Malone’s place in the Brookland Artspace Lofts, which gave them high ceilings, community support, and a lot of room to hang up the large drop cloth canvases they work on. After Malone moved out two years ago, they alternated working in Ceppetelli’s place downtown and Malone’s basement in Brookland.
A mutual respect for each other’s work and a balance in technique made the collaboration fruitful, they say. “We weren’t scared to do whatever we wanted, and not sort of hurt the other person’s feelings or feel like we were disrupting each other’s individual work,” Malone says. “It’s like we realized that we were both working how we wanted to work to make a piece that’s not ours individually, but together as one.”
“As an artist, like, I’m always going to be doing stuff on my own because, like, that’s what artists do,” he adds. “I wouldn’t work with Kurtis if all he did was [Duly Noted] because, like, he wouldn’t be an artist if he’s not doing all these other things.”
Although they’ve been focusing their energy into the collaboration, the two have retained separate artistic practices in addition to Duly Noted. That’s serving them well as they stay home—Ceppetelli is experimenting with tattooing and making drawings of the view from his new apartment; Malone’s picking up different materials around his house to shake up his work. Their years of collaboration are showing up in interesting ways. In a recent sketch, “I used a lot of the ideals that Matt uses, how he breaks out space, how he makes the picture plane flatter,” Ceppetelli says. Malone caught himself doing the same: “I feel that sometimes I lack a little bit of clarity, and that detail could help, but I’ve always shied away from it. But now, in my mind, I tend to think of being a little bit more specific or putting in some detail, which Kurtis would always typically add,” he says.
On the subject of their visual influences, Ceppetelli didn’t mention specific artists.
“Ultimately, it’s like all that influence that you’ve ever learned,” he says, making it hard to pick out individual names. “That’s why when you sell a painting for $20,000, that’s your whole life of art,” he says. “Why is it worth that? Because I spent my whole fucking life traveling down this road.”
Malone agrees. “I have artists that I like, but I wouldn’t say that I’m attempting to paint like them in any way. I might be more interested in what their thoughts are on art in general, or, like, what they’re striving for … I’ve never encountered anyone doing it the same way that we’re doing it.”
That unique way of doing things is on hold, at least for now. Trying to figure out a new system comes with logistical concerns, too.
“I have a fear of going over something he’s done if he’s not there, if that makes sense, because I could put it back, but then there’s all the unknowns of not being with that person at that time, which I guess I’d have to get over it at a certain point,” Malone says.
“Well, that might work itself out as we go through it,” Ceppetelli replies. “Like, you might be less apprehensive to do it if I were to work something out of yours.” Malone nods at the thought of Ceppetelli erasing or going over his work—it’s normal for them to paint over each other or put back marks that have been covered when they’re next to each other.
Through the conversation, the pair seemed to warm up to the idea of working remotely. By the end, it seemed certain. “Having to stay indoors, we’ll definitely do that work where we pass it back and forth. And we’ll call it the pandemic series,” Ceppetelli says.