Mauricio Forero, Souths & Norths

Riverside Art Center, Riverside, Illinois

Expectations were running high by the time Mauricio Forero and I met to talk about Souths & Norths, his recent exhibition at the Riverside Arts Center. Souths & Norths was a Visualist Chicago’s Top V. Weekend Pick and RAC Executive Director Camille Silverman texted after the opening, “Best artist’s talk ever!” My interest in Mauricio’s art-making predates any news of this exhibition. Ever since seeing paintings and objects from past installations in his studio a few years ago, I’ve been scouting a chance to experience what he would do when given the space—and to talk with him about it.

Mauricio Forero, gallery talk at Riverside Arts Center

Lise:  The Freeark Gallery’s two rooms offer a structure for organizing shows. Let’s start with you giving background to the show as whole. From there we can go to specifics of what we’re looking at here in the gallery.

Mauricio:  Even though most of my work is not completely political, the background is political. In this case, my goal is to talk about the relation between the North and the South, not necessarily the geographic relation, but the political, cultural, historic ones. The title, Souths & Norths, inverts the notion that it’s always North and then South or the Western hemisphere and then the Eastern, standing for the undeveloped world.

I put my world, which is South America, on top and the North underneath. I am talking about how the North keeps looking at the South, how the developed world looks at the undeveloped, poor world. Most of the time, the idea is, “Americans are bad, they take advantage of their power.” My intention is to talk about the being South as responsible for the situation as the North.

Lise: Before we talk more politics, for readers who are new to your and your work, let’s hear about what came before your life here in the Midwest and, to be more precise, in Naperville, where you now live.

Self portrait as a Boy, 2004

Self-portrait as a Boy, 2004

Mauricio: When I left Bogotá, Colombia, I was 26. The situation was terrible with civil war between the far left and the far right. Corruption was really bad, but even worse were the drug cartels with leaders like Pablo Escobar Gaviria and the violence. There was little hope for young people, especially for artists. I really wanted to leave. I had to see other countries, other cultures. My first idea was to go to Europe. I went to three or four different embassies, and they all told me, “Sorry. No visa. You’re too young. You have no money.”

I didn’t even consider applying for a US visa because that one was the most difficult. But friends told me, “Just go, you have nothing to lose. You even might get one.” So, I went with photographs of my paintings, wearing jeans and Adidas tennis shoes. At the embassy, everyone looked at me, “Dude, don’t dress like that to apply for a visa.” I was very lucky and got a visa.

Lise: How did you get started in the US? Where did you stay when you arrived?

Mauricio: First, I went to Austin, Texas because my aunt lived there.

Lise: That’s a lucky place to land as a young artist, a place with a great music scene and large university.

Mauricio: It was fantastic. I was surrounded by people from everywhere. Latinos and Europeans and Americans. People from Africa and the Middle East. In the beginning, I was in love with the museums. I went to museums in LA, Dallas, New York, Miami. I could see to see all this art and artists that I couldn’t see in Colombia. No one, no artists, no exhibitions traveled to Colombia. And I was painting like crazy, and selling. That lasted for about eight years. Then I started questioning painting. Even though I was doing well and getting good reviews and making good money at it, I felt it wasn’t fitting my spirit. Painting wasn’t not what I craved.

On my own, I started reading about artists, art theory, and art history. I thought, “If it’s not painting, what really moves me? What else?” I was in a college town. The University of Texas had libraries, and I was going to them, reading about conceptual art and political art. I started making objects and then installations—not big ones, but anything that was not painting.

Lise: When you started questioning painting, what were your questions? I’ve heard artists talk about coming into art through a gift for drawing. Then they move on to painting, but become frustrated with it and need to try something else.

High Commando, 2012, pencil on paper.

Mauricio:  I started drawing young. By 17, I was so good at drawing that even before I finished high school, companies in Bogotá were hiring me as a freelance fashion illustrator. For a while I even worked for the Mayor of Bogotá. I was very happy. Then I went into painting quickly the art teachers in high school were saying, “You are also gifted in painting.” I was so much into painting that I painted 20 hours a day and started selling.

Lise: What sort of paintings were making back then?

Mauricio: Like many other kids, I was initially in love with Picasso. I emulated his different styles. Magritte and Max Ernst also really moved me.

Lise: Was figurative painting your interest from early on?

Mauricio: Figurative, yes. I was never into abstract. Then I started getting more into my own language, my own style. I believed I might be a good painter, but I thought no matter how much effort I put into being original, many people were doing something similar. That frustrated me. I was not so naïve to say, “I want to achieve 100% originality.” But as a painter, I knew that I would be just one among so many others. I had three exhibits in Fort Worth and Dallas that had good reviews. But I felt painting is not giving me the new language I am looking for. I left painting because I wanted to develop something which gives me a sense of independence from traditional media.

This change was difficult because I stopped making money from painting and had to work part-time jobs. It was depressing. At that time, I moved to Chicago and was happy to be in a much bigger place with big museums. But I was frustrated because I was making things that I really liked and thought were powerful, but I was not making any money.

Map face, 2011,

Lise: That’s the big risk an artist takes. In your case, you already knew you could make paintings that would sell and if you kept producing them, you’d probably keep selling them. You knew it was a style of art that people wanted to buy.

Mauricio: What you just said really gets at my frustration with painting. There’s a famous Colombian artist, Fernando Botero. I was probably 24 when he had a big exhibition in Bogotá. A young woman asked him, “What is the secret of your success?” He answered, “The secret of my success, the success of any artist, or painter in particular, is to have or to develop a style. If you develop a style, that’s it.” To me, that was a terrible answer, it sounded so commercial.

Lise: In this case, Botero defined success as coming up with a look or style for making work that commands a high price.

Mauricio: I thought, “This guy is big and was making a lot of money. His answer is so superficial. That’s not what I think art is. It should not be the goal of any artist.” When I talked about Botero with artists or friends in Columbia, they said, “Oh, you’re jealous because you’re a kid. No one knows you. He is so successful.” I disagreed and thought that I don’t want to be someone like that.

     Selva, 2012, acrylic and ink on wood.

Lise: Of course, most artists hope that someone will appreciate their work and want to pay for it. But it’s quite another thing to have to keep producing the same kind of work in order to sell it and define success in those terms. Botero’s outlook isn’t unusual. An MFA student recently told me she was working hard on developing her brand. At first, I wondered if she’s learning to think about herself like that in the MFA program. But in fact, talk about developing one’s personal brand is everywhere.

Mauricio: If you go to Instagram, Facebook, or other places online, you find the idea of the art industry. When so many people read those three words and ignore them or just carry on, something elemental is wrong. When art becomes an industry, it loses something essential. More than any other intellectual activity, art should be and has to be far from industry.

Lise: When you say industry, do you mean the idea of business, of commodification, of creating value for the owner?

Mauricio: Yes, totally. It’s the idea of business. It’s the idea that MFA programs now produce artists who will do anything they can to satisfy the art market. Unfortunately, the art market became another tool of neoliberalism. No surprise. We know that.

Lise: Your introduction of the term neoliberalism is an excellent way to bring us back to your opening comments about your interest in bringing politics into the art and inverting the North and South hierarchy. Neoliberalism is a term used to characterize contemporary political economy, one that’s been in place for a while.

Mauricio: We’ve been living in neoliberalism for at least for 30 years. When you talk about this, some people immediately think you are pretentious, you are trying to impress them. You have to use it because neoliberalism is the last stage, at least right now, of capitalism.

Lise: It’s a useful term for talking critically about the recent history and current state or formation of capitalism.

Mauricio: Neoliberalism is the current state or formation of capitalism, in which everything becomes an institution to serve the market. Profit is the number one goal no matter what you are doing or the size of the market. You even find poets focused on pleasing the market. It’s not about being political.

You have to worry because some things are important, sacred, almost religious. We have to hold on to these values. Art should be far away from just profit. Of course, I need to make money. But if my art is only about making profit, then I completely fail as an artist and as a person. Jeff Koons represents what I’m talking about. His importance is a disgrace, a tragedy. He has an army of employees working for him. I’m not condemning them. But we have to think about what is happening. It’s not just artists. People in general. The importance of art is looking into something and going deeply, putting 100% into it, saying this piece touches me for this and that reason.

Untitled

Lise: Our conversation so far provides one of many paths into going more deeply into Souths & Norths. Let’s start talking about Untitled, an installation that occupies the gallery’s rear room

Mauricio: When I came to the gallery to meet Bob Faust, the show’s curator, I thought this is my favorite of the two rooms. It has a door and is almost square, like a microcosmos within the gallery. This installation is the world of the market. I’m using elements common to Europeans, South Americans, Africans, Asians. It doesn’t matter who you are: you know what firewood is; you know the function of a pipe; you know what a pot is; you know what shelves are.

Lise: The items in the installation, their forms and functions are themselves completely familiar and comprehensible.

Mauricio: The pot is a universal human object. In Colombia or right now in Chile or Ecuador, when people are upset, they go out of their houses and bang on kitchen pots. As a child I asked my grandfather, who was a tailor, why people used pots like that. He told me, “They’re like a drum. It also implies needs, human needs.” This struck me as important, it says so much.

The market is a premise that the North and the South share, that the rich and the poor share. Whether you live in in a $2,000,000 mansion or in a tiny cardboard house, you’re going to have a pot. You’re going to have firewood or fuel to cook and warm yourself. This room is the world. The logs divide it in two, the South and the North. One side is the frugal part of the world, the South or Africa. This part of the room is nearly empty.

Lise: It’s very sparse. There are only a few pots.

Mauricio: This particular installation talks about immigrants. We have to take notice of what’s happening between the United States and Central America. Thousands of people are fleeing and denied entry to the US. The logs are the border, the wall that Trump talks about building. This installation shows the division between the rich and the poor with elements that we all share. It is about how we are losing our shared humanity. The immigrants are only asking for a chance.

Lise: They’re stuck at the border—waiting or turned away. Could you tell me about the decision to use these plastic-wrapped logs? They look like the ones we see stacked near supermarket doors.

Mauricio: When I showed friends photos of the installation, they said, “Take the plastic off the logs. You could use cord or wire to make your own wrapping. Make it artistic.” My response was, “No, this is the market. I bought these logs at Jewel. I want to use them as they are. It’s honest.”

Lise: Leaving the plastic on the logs aligns with your critique of overconsumption. A package of plastic wrapped logs is barely enough for one fire and it’s ridiculously expensive. And what about the insane amount of plastic that wraps each package, and the environmental impact of cutting down and burning trees?

Mauricio: They’re ridiculous and absurd. And they’re packaged perfectly. I have no idea how they do that. Thank you for noticing, because that’s another reason I’m not touching the plastic. There’s already so much waste. On this side of the room, you don’t have much. You don’t have enough food. You don’t have the means to get firewood or fuel to make your meal. The other side represents contemporary United States or Europe, where there’s abundance, there’s waste. There’s so much that we can’t even play with it all. The shelves are full of shiny pots. It’s the idea of production, making luxurious, beautiful stuff to serve the same humble needs as the side where there is next to nothing.

Lise: What about the black stands the pots are sitting on? Do they have a referent beyond their function?

Mauricio: I was looking at photographs of migrants from Honduras and Guatemala. They were traveling with cooking gear because they had to camp. Then I thought, “How do I represent the North’s greater power?” Here, camping is an adventure, it’s recreation. Camping is a necessary adventure for migrants. Both the rich and poor are in this world as an adventure. We don’t know how things are going to end. Think about 2008 when the US economy went downhill, and so many people lost their homes, their jobs, everything. The objects associated with camping represent the idea of adventure within capitalism.

Lise: As opposed to survival, which a camping stove might represent to someone else. It’s a sign of luxury to say, “I’m going to go rough it.”

Mauricio: Exactly. I couldn’t find a stove that was big enough so I decided to play with one and make it bigger. You’re not going to take this big one on a camping trip. I’m playing with the idea that here everything’s bigger and more luxurious.

Lise: And excessive. Think of RVs. There’s something beautiful about the stove, its form and blackness. You are making aesthetic decisions as well as political.

Mauricio: I wanted to play with two colors, grays or silvers and flat black. Another important element in my work is using stuff I find on the streets, or at Goodwill and garage sales. I go out the day before garbage pick-up looking for used wood, glass, and other stuff people throw away. The idea of buying new materials bothers me. The exception here is the firewood. All the other objects were from family, friends, or Goodwill.

Lise: Again, we’re back to excess as a cultural norm. The used pots look to like they have a lot of meals left to cook.

Mauricio: That is also part of the difference between the North and the South that I’m talking about. The utensils in my grandmother’s kitchen in Colombia were at least 40 years old. One of these pans is only two years old and was going to be given or thrown away.

Lise: It’s generational difference. Built to last was still a norm for my parents and grandparents. You use of pots is evocative on so many levels. I don’t know if it’s a subset of artists that I’m most curious about, or it’s the combination of being cash-strapped and environmentally conscious, but creative reuse of materials is more and more prevalent among artists. For some it comes from their fundamental sense that raw materials are already available, and it’s a challenge and responsibility to use them.

Mauricio: I have to make many trips looking for wood, but I find it if I look carefully. I believe the objects I make out of found materials have a poetic message. There’s a beautiful connection between the work and someone who was using its materials for other purposes. The satisfaction is awesome.

Lise: It’s both connection and continuity. Someone may be finished using an object, but its use isn’t necessarily finished. Use value is a fundamental economic principle. Unlike durable goods of decades past, in contemporary consumer capitalism, use value is made to be as short as possible through built-in obsolescence and shoddy design and materials. The way you and other artists use and bring new life to discarded objects and materials literally embodies your critique of neoliberalism and consumer capitalism.

Mauricio: In my neighborhood I find wood from tear-downs, small houses that are replaced by huge, environmentally unfriendly houses. I found a dumpster full of materials from an old house and thought, “These have history. I want to use them.” I told the demolition manager I am an artist and interested in the materials. I learned the house was built in the 1930s. We are facing an environmental catastrophe. Even if your work is not about the environment, you have to get close to reality. How can you make your art environmentally friendly?

NIXONKIS

Lise: Your comments speak to the artist’s engagement with daily life and the politics around it. No place on earth is untouched by climate change, much of it driven by overconsumption. Your work takes on big questions about contemporary life. Let’s go into the gallery’s front room, where you have one installation and four mixed media works on the walls, and see where they lead our conversation. The pots and stands, shelves and logs have an elemental feel; the rear room is eloquently sparse and minimal. The energy of this front room is as different as its sensory demands. The works are more vibrant and diverse in terms of color, form, materials. NIXONKIS, the installation filling the picture window, could attract the attention of preoccupied passersby. I’m curious about the scale that’s in the installation. Let’s start there.

Mauricio: That is an analytical balance, a scale for weighing small quantities. The closed compartment keeps out dust and moisture. This installation also is about North and South, and how people from Latin America keep looking at the North as the provider of knowledge. When I started reading about transmodernity and postcolonialism, I came across writers like Enrique Dussel. They ask, how can we become more authentic and more independent of the United States and Europe? I played around with that in this installation. The chairs are the past of South America or Africa looking and observing at the big source of knowledge—the scale being the North, its knowledge and technology.

Lise: Are the black objects muzzles, like for a dog?

Mauricio: Yes, they’re the element of control. It’s also the knowledge that the North shared with the South and how it gets confused. How we South Americans cannot always filter what comes from Europe or the United States, and we end up being copies of the North. The title NIXONKIS is Nixon and Kissinger. I play with a lot in this work.

Map of a Developed Country

Lise: The next work here is Map of a Developed Country. The unpainted plywood gives it a rustic or unfinished feel.

Mauricio: This piece is full of hope. The idea comes from Garcia Marquez, Cortázar, and other writers from South—the idea of imagining what you don’t know. Before I came to the US, like many other people, I had very fantastic ideas about the US. In this piece, I created an imaginary map of places that I don’t know. I ask, how can we get to that promised land? How will we live in this new world? How can we be together? And not as master and slave, boss and employee, commander and commanded? How can we compromise in order to create?

Lise: How did you start this piece?

Mauricio: I found a piece of plywood with disgusting brown fabric glued to it. My son said, “Dad, don’t touch it.” When I pulled on it, a liquid that smelled like coffee or tea ran across it making a shape that looked like a map of China or a continent. Then came the question, would the North and the South get together after an ecological or other kind of calamity? Could white, brown, yellow, black come together and say, “We’re going to a new place,” or “Let’s create a new world?” These are very optimistic pieces.

Lise: I see you use embroidery to make the images on Flag Not Flag. You mentioned that your grandfather was a tailor.

Flag Not Flag

Mauricio: Again, the reason for embroidery is that I don’t want to paint. I thought, “My grandparents taught me how to sew.” I made this entirely of needle and thread. In the two pieces, Flag Not Flag and Map of a Developed Country I talk about not simply saying, “The United States is this and this, taking advantage of South America. But what if?” Instead, I’m saying, “We, South Americans and Africans, we make big mistakes, too. We are responsible for them.” I prepared the map of Europe, United States, and Saudi Arabia. Many immigrants, after they get to Europe or the US from Colombia and other places, somehow forget where they came from. It’s a common phenomenon in which the person coming from the South puts that memory away. It’s one of the saddest things to happen.

Zurn is a famous brand for toilets and urinals. I used found materials to make this look like a bathroom. It is bathroom in which the Western hemisphere, its culture, is in crisis. The South has been banished. Not as a result of the crisis, but because of our own experience. We get here. We become happy and buy into a system, a culture that occupies our whole existence. We need to remember that we come from another place that is an essential part of us and to nourish that part with memories and knowledge. Asking “Colombia, South America, what is happening there,” makes us stronger and more interesting as people.

Zurn

Lise: It’s not only immigrants who rather not know about or are uninterested in their past. You can say that about Americans, too. I’m not sure how many people reflect on their origins and formative experiences during the hectic day-to-day life of many adults in America. Who has the leisure to do that? It may be interesting to see where they are on this later in their life. Artists and writers, on the other hand, engage in work that’s often driven by reflection on origins, experiences, and surroundings.

Mauricio: In a bar last month, I talked to someone from Iceland. The conversation was about Colombia and drug trafficking. Then I asked, “What about you? You’re from Iceland.” He said, “I just don’t want to talk about Iceland. It’s a depressing place.”

Lise: People have so many reasons—including trauma— for leaving a place and not wanting to remember it. But that’s different from not wanting to remember more generally. Not to mention the demands of surviving in the present and the emotional work required to revisit painful memories. Wherever they may be from, the experience of being an immigrant, of being a foreigner in a foreign land, is also a source of painful memories.

Disengagement from history and assumptions about time tie in with the hyper-capitalism and hyper-consumption that Souths & Norths investigates. It’s a system that gears us to looking to that next thing that we want to buy or experience. A desire we didn’t have five minutes ago is waiting around the corner to become a need. We live in a world that for the most part doesn’t value reflection on the past. Zurn allows for sustained reflection on sadness and loss.

Lise:  ULTRA-PRO is  intriguing. The mirror makes it flashier than other work in the show. Are those bullet holes in it? Did you make them?

Mauricio:  I made holes for the screws and then I hit them with a tiny hammer.

ULTRA-PRO

Lise:  The plexiglass heightens the work’s reflective quality. The whole work is bathroom-like, the tile, the mirror like on a medicine cabinet.

Mauricio: You can see the white American or European reflection of themselves. But also, it is the reflection of people of color, in my case from Colombia. Looking at the experience of moving into a new culture, a new continent, a new country and wondering what happened. It’s inverted and upside down, and this is where it might become political. I think, “Yes, we have issues in South America, but in the United States we do too.” Western culture has a lot of moral failures. I was very nervous when I was here at the opening because I knew that some people are Republicans, and I mentioned that Trump was an absolute reflection of how chaotic and messed up United States or Europe can be.

Lise: The oval with ULTRAPRO looks like a surfboard logo. Past lives in Hawaii and Australia give me an eye for the surfer aesthetic.

Mauricio: Again, I found a piece of wood on the streets, and I was trying to represent a United States that is vibrant, playful. I started making this piece after a week in LA. . With its colors, and how full of life, LA is better than New York when it comes to the galleries being cosmopolitan and politically involved in the art. That experience of seven days in LA, the photos I took, affected me. I was right at the ocean, watching  a guy surfing.

Talking about California, it’s so much a stamp of what the United States is, and Hollywood is probably its most famous image, at least in Colombia. The colors are California. The mirror is Hollywood, its movies with beautiful actors looking at their image in mirrors. For young people in Colombia, California is glamorous and cool. “Oh man, I’m going to go there. I want to have a bike and I want to…” This work is about what’s freeing—ocean free. Free ocean.

Perte Aren, 1998, gypsum plaster and tape on wood.

Lise McKean

Lise McKean is a writer, editor, and anthropologist based in Chicago.