April 13, 2011 · Print This Article
I don’t remember the first time I met Noé, but I do remember the first time I saw his work. He and Joseph Clayton Mills performed in a dark room while standing opposite one another. Noé had an accordian strapped to his back and he played, very softly, while Joseph moved closer and farther away. Depending on their distance from one another, something concealed in Joseph’s hand (perhaps a hearing aid?) changed pitch. That performance epitomizes what I’ve seen of Noé’s work. He is dedicated to creating an awareness around silence within a performative space. The manifestation of the body, as a tool for the range of sound is integral, as are the relationships between performative bodies. His ability to instill the necessary parameters for such an awarenes–particularly in collaborative settings–is, to me, remarkable. I wanted to ask him more about that, but felt like direct questions would somehow do away with the very thing I was trying to ask. Consequently I tried to ask around the idea of silence, in order to better understand the way Noé uses sound. Because sound requires space, that seemed a good place to start.
Caroline Picard: How do you think of space?
Noé Cuéllar: Space evokes potential, but also communicates very directly to my sense of placement. I think a sense of placement paves the way for the rest of the senses… it’s like a background sense made up by all the senses. I enjoy compound forms even when the individual pieces can still be recognized, in this case, space is the glue.
CP: It sounds like you think of space as something both sculptural (3-d figures) and linguistic (i.e. compound verbs). I appreciate the idea that space would be some experiential amalgam of those fields, even though I’m not quite sure how that would work. Is that what you mean? What do you mean by compound forms?
NC: Yeah, it’s like our sense of space is happening before we find out how we actually feel. I’m in a room now, but a second ago I was just fine without actively thinking how comfortable it is. I think of artistic expression as a compound form that always involves more than one thing.
CP: How do you use space as a medium for performance?
NC: The outcomes are quite unexpected when the sense of physical space is combined with the spatial sense of the actual sound. I think my work most often expresses rigidity and confines, but space is what can allow [the work] to be experienced with more spread – perhaps more than I would choose to imply in the work itself. I would say I focus primarily on sound, but with a sense of belonging in a space.
CP: I’d love to hear about some examples of how this has occurred in different pieces…
NC: Last year I composed Kilter, a piece for Jeb Bishop (trombone) with accordion, and two speakers inside boxes with hinges that would rattle. I had in mind pressure and magnetic repulsion, yet the site-specific performance gave it a more wide-ranging effect, even in a dark, gritty basement with a short ceiling.
I’ve also been working with Joseph Kramer as Coppice, making site-specific installations and site-variable compositions, recently at the Museum of Contemporary Art, where the space was so large we were able to prevent any of our sounds from becoming part of a whole “surround experience,” but remain dislocated and in motion, scattering the perception of their source.
CP: What, to you, is the relationship between the space inside of an instrument and the space around an instrument?
NC: The outside speaks for the inside.
CP: Can you talk a little bit about your collaboration with Joseph Clayton Mills? I was just thinking of the piece where you stood opposite one another and he kept opening and closing his hand, to change the frequency of buzz that magically manifested and grew stronger the closer you moved to one another. Then too, I think of more “traditional” pieces, where you sit down and perform for a definite period of time…
NC: Working with him is very factual, much in natural state. We share a fascination with the attributes of objects and mechanisms, their hidden sound character and emotional effect. It makes me think a lot about photography, which we also practice on our own. A lot of what we do together is often a simple gesture, “subtlemost” more than “minimalist.” I think we both find that simplicity very lasting.
CP: Will you talk a little bit about the way you use silence in your work?
NC: Silence is space but also glue. It’s an encouragement that is easy to miss. I like using silence as a way of pronouncing presence, or as a bearer of tension, or as a moment to coast on something that just happened. Silences can be essentially the same in different moments, but it is how it is accessed that makes it feel different. It carries the weight of the three tenses, it can be very prominent in itself, while also reflecting personal inner processes. It can even be felt even when sounds are present.
CP: Do you feel like you are interrupting silence? Or are silence and sound variations within the same medium?
NC: My listening is constantly active, therefore I wouldn’t say I interrupt silence with my sound work, but rather bring the sound more forward to emphasize the moment. Silence can be framed between those sounds, but in the end I feel like sound and silence are only evocations of a deeper level of silence – and of sound potential – more than what they simply sound like. The repercussions of focused listening tap on that depth, beyond the temporal.
CP: I know that you regularly collaborate with other performers as well; sometimes you do so in a more traditional improvisation venue (like The Green Mill, for instance) and at other times you seem to locate yourself more definitively within a contemporary art/performance oeuvre. How do you negotiate those different contexts? Does a venue change the work you do?
NC: Venues shape the work more than they change it. What feels right about performances in site-specific and gallery settings is that the audience-performer space is diffused, with more listening nodes available, and open to variation. The stage setting has the advantage of centering a performance as a clear message.
CP: Can you talk a little bit about transcription? Or, how you translate and document your temporal, acoustic sound on a static piece of paper?
NC: I’m interested in some precise musical qualities, but also variable, interpersonal, implicit qualities that happen in the process of working one-on-one with a performer. Transcription varies from one work to another; sometimes I don’t put anything on paper, or very little just for my own reminder. When working with performers I let them write their own parts over a skeleton score I make for them. We talk, try, sharpen, and write.
CP: Do you use that score as a kind of document? I’m thinking about John Cage’s “score’s'” for instance; do they look like that? Or are they more traditional pages of notes?
CP: Can you give me an example?
With Harrow/Dormant I wanted to figure out what my interpretation of a graphic score would be, and what it would be like to suggest sound from a more abstract visual departure. I combined drawings with directions to set a structure on which the performers can stay afloat their own decisions. Julia Miller has been interpreting it with incredible tact several times now, as part of a study for a larger project of hers… which is great because multiple iterations reveal how sensitive interpretation is to one’s standpoint.
(See this video)
CP: How do you think about sound when it is happening?
NC: Sound is a constant vibration that stimulates our impulse to imagine, stir remembrance of events that perhaps haven’t quite happened to us directly. It’s kind of way of keeping check of our experiential ability and our location. It’s a way to be present and also to be somewhere else, beyond our windows.
CP: You enact such precision in your work; I’m trying to understand how you think about that precision, and how you locate the “action” of your work in time and space…so somehow, sound becomes the vehicle for that action, right?
NC: I regard presence and intention very highly as a basis. In my mind those two things almost make sound all by themselves.
CP: But then what does that mean? For sound to be a vehicle? A vehicle for what?
NC: A vehicle for transportation…
CP: It’s also really interesting to think about intention—I’m not sure I understand what you mean by that…it sounds like you’re thinking of your mind as an auxiliary component—and extension of the instrument?
NC: My sister is a graphic designer, and browsed many art and design magazines when I was growing up. I have many vivid memories of her explaining contemporary artworks to me and she would talk a lot about intention. I remember there was an advertisement all white with only one small logo in the middle, and I asked her why they would waste so much space, and she pointed out that the blank space lead our eyes to the logo, that was the focus. That got me thinking about doing only what felt like enough. Insights like that built up very solidly, and I’m reminded of that particular one quite often. The intentional framework for a message.
Mr Hirst spent the evening playing snooker, but on being told the sale figures, he pronounced: “I think the market is bigger than anyone knows. I love art and this proves I’m not alone. And the future looks great for everyone.” (Economist, 2008).
1. FOR THE LOVE OF GOD
We arrived in Florence last February and stayed for about five days. It was cold and damp in the mid-50 degrees, reminding me of San Francisco. A friend we were visiting said the city was built on a swamp and we climbed up a hill to a Franciscan chapel where the original alabaster windows were still in place. Through the translucent stone, the light shone dark and brown and because it was colder inside than out, we didn’t stay long but climbed back down the hill to wander through the city once more. During those five days I felt a little like a pinball bouncing around a Renaissance amusement park. A classy Medieval Times with boar instead of mutton. Regardless of our haphazard path we inevitably ran into something famous: Dante’s church, for instance, or a squatting boar fountain—even those churches that hadn’t made it on the map still contained gravestones embedded in their walls or floor—some of these dating as far back as the first or second century. History was everywhere and it was bigger than us.
On the third day a bus passed with an advertisement for Damien Hirst’s bedazzled reminder of death. I burst out laughing.
The last thing I expected to see was Hirst’s glimmering, gaudy skull in a city that seems in constant worship of its past. Nevertheless, the city seemed to love it. There were banners and posters all over the place. Everywhere it said, “For the Love of God,” and why not?
The skull was on view in the Palazzo Vecchio—an old city hall, adjacent to a square full of fountains and sculptures and ice cream shops. Walking past the David replica, we bought tickets and wandered upstairs to the second floor. There, we entered a giant ballroom. The dimensions of the room itself were astounding—170×75 ft—not to mention the similarly massive tapestries on the walls, or the several larger-than-life sculptures that lined the room. While the tapestries themselves are phenomenal, they are nevertheless replacements for work never made by Michelangelo and Leonardo DaVinci; both had been commissioned to make work for the room and both, for various reasons (Da Vinci’s fresco allegedly melted when he tried to heat up the drying process with hot coals) were unfinished. In their stead, Giorgio Vasari’s war paintings hang with astonishing authority, depicting a series of Florentine victories in battle. They are massive, complete with impeccable detail. Horses so plump they are cherubic, with lords in armor on their backs, holding spears as shorter personalities–midgets and boys–hustle at their feet replenishing arrows and running swords or torches every which way. In these tapestries everything is in focus, each curious figure serving its own distinct purpose that nevertheless reinforces a greater compositional whole. There is no focal point, rather the harmony stems from the a series of active constellations.
But of course, the room boasts even more cultural capital. The ceiling is indescribable. It’s full of different panels of paintings and due to their detail it feels a little closer than it actually is. Additionally, larger-than life sculptures pepper the room.
Among those sculptures, six statues by Vincenzo de’Rossi depict the Labors of Hercules. As the story goes, Hercules was enraged (by Hera) to kill all of his children. After waking from his madness and discovering what he’d done, he went to the Oracle of Delphi to seek atonement. There he was set to 12 impossible tasks. These he accomplished. He is also attributed with making the world a safer place, in that he killed all of its monsters.
All of these works and figures depicted in the ball room were larger than life for the feats they captured, the size of their depiction and their (to me extreme) historical vantage.
Two ticket attendants stood in the far corner of this room. They clacked our tickets and pulled back a velvet rope so we could step behind them and passing through a very narrow, subsequent room I had the impression we were walking through an old fashioned toilet, or cloak room. Built-in benches lined the walls. Each surface of this wooden vestibule was also painted and close, so that I could have reached up to touch the ceiling with my hands. After no more than four strides, someone pulled back a velvet curtain. I could not make out this person’s face, only their white gloves. Beyond the curtain lay another small, light fast room no more than 8ft squared. In the center of this room Damien Hirst’s skull sat on a plinth encased in glass. Aside from the very small flashlight of the skull’s attendant, the diamonds were the only thing illuminated in (and illuminating) the small cloak-and-daggers space. We were permitted to walk once around the glittering mask—enough that I could enjoy the diamonds in the roof of the skull’s mouth, the curious third eye and the gritty unglittered teeth—before the same faceless attendant pulled back a second curtain and emphatically (as seen with the rigorous flash light motion) ejected us back into the grand ballroom.
A few weeks ago I found myself at the Lyric Opera House, on the third floor balcony watching Hercules; it was a pretty psychedelic experience. Tiny figures with massive voices paraded around a massive stage. Whereas in Italy I’d been small with respect to the work, here I could cover anyone’s head with my thumb.
The opera is not personal, it’s archetypal. The characters don’t have personalities so much as they have roles and musical motifs to enact. Except for their voices, they might as well be cardboard cut-outs. In this instance Hercules has returned from war. Peter Sellars took Handel’s four-hour opera and reduced it to 2 with one intermission. The libretto is full of repetitive phrases and the performers trilled through those like song birds. The set did not change shape; most of the stage contained a landscape of rock that no one walked upon with pillars and a pathway around it. Depending on the emotional tempo of the performers, the rocks gleamed in different colors. Sellars’ interpretation pulls out a story of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder; the repeating phrases underscore that intent, as each character is constantly reliving their experience. Hercules has returned from battle with the spoils of war–including a young woman who just watched him kill her father. Hercules may or may not be interested in her and his wife, Dejanira, cannot connect with her husband; she remains perplexed and frustrated that, after so much waiting, she would remain alienated in her husband’s presence. She is jealous of the young woman he brought back. They argue. She tries to win him back by dosing his coat with the blood of a centaur. The centaur told Dejanira that his blood was an aphrodisiac where it turns out to be an acidic poison. When Hercules puts the coat on, he burns alive.
While I don’t think about Hercules often, I think even less about his death. It seems that his death is the greatest problem, in a way. No one knew what to do with him once he had been admitted in Olympus. There is an awkward encounter between Hercules and Odysseus, for instance, when Odyseuss has to differentiate between Hercules the God and Hercules’ ghost.
- “And next I caught a glimpse of powerful Heracles—
- His ghost I mean: the man himself delights
- in the grand feasts of the deathless gods on high…
- Around him cries of the dead rang out like cries of birds
- scattering left and right in horror as on he came like night…”
Somehow these thoughts coalesced then. I started thinking about how one must be large when facing the death of heroes; how the import of these legacies is both essential and arbitrary. Hercules is part of a scaffold that makes meaning. Florence is an early pillar in that scaffold; its Renaissance established a criteria that is still resonating today–whether under Sellars’ directorial agenda (during which one can experience over and over and over again the death of Hercules), or in Hirsts’ work, where, it seems, the hero is dead and the market remains.
“The speech of an elder in the twilight of his life is not his history but his legacy; he speaks not to describe matter but to demonstrate meaning. He talks of his past for purposes of his future. This purpose is the prejudice of his memory. He remembers that which has been according to what could and should be, and by this measure sifts the accumulation of his memory: he rejects the irrelevant event, elaborates the significant detail, combines separate incidents of similar principle. Out of physical processes he creates a metaphysical processional. He transposes the chronology of his knowledge into a hierarchy of meanings. From the material circumstances of his experience he plots the adventure for the mind which is the myth,” (Divine Horsemen, Maya Deren).
The diamond: something that has been marketed to represent eternity, who’s value is based almost exclusively on market control. Until 1870, diamonds were rarely found in South American riverbeds. Thereafter they discovered huge diamond mines in South America. In order to protect the value of the diamond, these jewel harvesters had to band together to “perpetuate the illusion of scarcity” (Atlantic Magazine, Edward Jay Epstein,February 1982). This is where the value of Hirst’s skull comes from, which is interesting given his consistently unconventional use of auction houses as primary exhibit halls.
The focus of Hirst remains fast on the potentials of an immediate future. He has utilized the auction house as a kind of performance filled with its own intrigue. In one article, there was a mysterious Russian who participated by phone. Everyone is complicit in the staging of this wealth. “Sotheby’s was keen to build its own brand around a celebrity artist rather than the usual assortment of inanimate objects. The sale was marketed on YouTube and through the media around the world, part of a conscious effort to broaden international demand for the work. Sotheby’s filled its exhibition rooms with Hirsts. Never had so much of his art been seen in one place. Many art-world insiders saw the sale as an artistic event,” (Economist, 2010). And of course, like diamonds, the value of the work lies in the demand.
In some way, I want to posit the idea the emphasis is on the market because, contextualized by such predecessors, it is impossible to participate on their terms. If Hercules can die, what is there? I have heard that Hirst has a storeroom of corpses with which he can replace deteriorating sculptures. I have also heard, in response to the suffering market, he has considered opening his own museum, to house his own work. Those are unfounded rumors, but I like them. In the context of that great hall, Hirst’s skull struck me like a peep show at a carnival; it was gaudy and feeble and small. Titillating because of its impeccable surface of expense. A trashy sex kitten with black teeth: perhaps the perfect face for death. Yet here too, we’ve seen the market is not “bigger than anyone knows.” If anything the last couple of years have demonstrated real limits to capital.
I just wanted to call attention to this awesome web symposium inspired by Wassily Kandinsky’s book, On the Spiritual in Art. It looks amazing and people have already started posting their remarks. The announcement is as follows:
The year 2011 marks the centennial of the publication of Wassily Kandinsky’s classic text, On the Spiritual in Art. Inspired by this anniversary, this project seeks to explore the place of the spiritual in contemporary art and to propose a challenge to the current devaluation of the inner life that prevails within the art world in our market-driven era.
Beginning today – Wednesday, March 30th – a ten-day virtual symposium moderated by Taney Roniger and Eric Zechman will be held in this forum.
Our symposium participants are: Suzanne Anker, Laura Battle, Connie Beckley, Anney Bonney, Deirdre Boyle, Nathaniel Dorsky, Jeff Edwards, James Elkins, Max Gimblett, Tom Huhn, Atta Kim, Roger Lipsey, Enrique Martinez Celaya, Joseph Nechvatal, Daniel Siedell, Charlene Spretnak, David Levi Strauss, Alan Wanzenberg, and Pawel Wojtasik. For participant biographies and other project details, please visit our site: www.beyondkandinsky.net.
March 30th–April 1st: Session I: The Spiritual Then and Now
April 2nd–April 3rd: Session II: The Changing Shape of Art
April 4th-5th: Session III: Art and Its Audience
April 6th–April 7th: Session IV: The Artist in Society
April 8th: Conclusions
(And then I just thought I’d quote the very first post, since it seemed particularly interesting to me…)
Wednesday, March 30, 2011
A response to Session I questions
Posted by Max Gimblett at Wednesday, March 30, 2011
(1) How have our ideas about the spiritual changed with the dissolution of the Modernist dream, in which Kandinsky’s vision was so deeply embedded?
What dissolution?! The Modernist dream has deepened and magnified.
(2) How has the notion of transcendence changed? Is transcendence still viable in a largely secular, postmodern culture?
Yes. We know much more about the world’s cultures. For instance: the phenomenal growth of American Buddhism; our understanding and study of Indian Gurus; and the emergence of current Indian Art.
(3) What might account for the deep suspicion — or indeed denial — of the spiritual shared by many artists and intellectuals in our culture?
Postmodernism, cynicism, parody, materialism, suicide. These nihilistic tendencies choose academic study and ritual in an effort subvert our collective spiritual connectivity. Spirituality is perception and clear perception delivers the truth. Krishnamurti delivers the truth. My primary school model was “seek after truth.”
(4) How have attitudes toward nature, the material world, and the body changed since Kandinsky?
As art history moves forward artists have branched off into ever more specialized investigations into all things. New and old ideas are explored and enriched. Beauty is found and lost.
Jason Dunda’s work is impeccable. Each mark he lays down is precise, predetermined and, really, perfect. He paints wood grains, anthropomorphic hummocks, death chairs and wheelbarrows. Over the course of our friendship, I have remained intensely interested in his process, both as curator, as artist and publisher. In part my fascination stems from a sense that his work is a testament to the impossible. He paints towers that could not stand up, even if they appear to have structural integrity. Or, in another instance a fabricated tree made of smaller pieces of wood, appears to be trying to hang out with “real” trees; the fake tree obviously fails, yet it is also more interesting as a tree and diminishes the others which fade into the background. All of these pieces are made in gouache and a couple of years ago Jason told me he was going to start making giant, wall-length works. He was making them for a show in Dubai. He would ship them in giant, construction-site-sized tubes. It was all planned out. He was excited, I couldn’t wait to see how it worked and I realized as I went home there were so many impossible things in that equation: first off, you can hardly breathe on gouache without leaving a mark. Secondly, Dubai is a massive massive distance. Thirdly, the city itself sounds like a cartoon, a monument to human enterprise in impossible conditions: I’ve heard, for instance, it boasts a building with a ski hill. It’s all impossible and, for that reason, amazing. But all this strikes me as a perfect metaphor for what it means to create work in the first place. There is an idea that making work supplies a certain posterity. It is a vehicle to outlast one’s own lifespan. Despite the ageless popularity of this idea, the life of a painting is full of hazard. Historic works get lost on boats, burned in fires—you name it. It’s remarkable that anything stands the test of time. Dunda’s work faces off with that issue. His paintings are materialistically vulnerable, capable of reflecting our own existential fears. Thankfully, each one has a sense of humor about itself—what’s even more remarkable give the precision and time the work demands.
Caroline Picard: Can you talk a little bit about gouache? When and why did you start working with it as a primary medium? What is most difficult about it and how do those challenges complement your own artistic goals?
Jason Dunda: Gouache is a very opaque type of watercolour. It’s been used in the past in design and animation—any backgrounds in pre-digital age cartoons are probably painted with gouache. I began using it about five years ago to make some quick works on paper to help me compose my oil paintings. I ended up enjoying my experiments in gouache a little too much and my work on paper became the central focus of my studio practice. Gouache isn’t the most spontaneous medium—just like watercolour, once it’s down on the paper there’s no changing it so you have to be very confident and sure of what you’re doing when you’re working with it. The paint is also very matte and chalky—a quality I love—so if you lay it down too thick it cracks and/or dries very inconsistently and looks horrible. Basically, it’s a very delicate and precise material to work with. I often approach my work with a cautious delicacy and I really like to master a medium so I like the challenge.
CP: That leads me to another question about the way you make a piece. As I understand it, and partly because gouache so fussy, you plan out a painting before sitting down to paint it. Will you talk about what that process is like and how your foreseen vision matches its end result? How do you translate an idea into a visual structure? Does the idea occur visually in your mind’s eye? Or do you execute a kind of transcription, translating the idea into a visual language?
JD: Some days I feel there’s nothing but limitations. You can interchange ‘limitations’ with ‘structure,’ though, and in that sense it creates possibilities and propels my thinking and making. When I’m feeling particularly limited, though, I’ll declare to myself that my day in the studio is going to be different from the usual—I’ll spend the day with the expectation that I’ll have no usable material results and all I’ll do is experiment. I’ve recently gone back to oil painting partly for this reason. I can mess around and translate my ideas into a different set of materials. My new oil paintings are really terrible.
JD: I never go bigger than my apartment door. I learned that the hard way, seriously. Scale occurs to me most profoundly as the relationship between the viewer and the piece. There’s a sense of intimacy and humbleness in small works and a more aggressive, public presence in large scale works. I tend to go to the extremes of this spectrum. Gouache is a really difficult material to work with in large scale— the surface can be really inconsistent over larger areas—so there’s a particular challenge I like about large-scale gouache paintings. I love antagonizing the intended use of a material.
JD: I’ll certainly grant you that and I think you’ve got it absolutely right. The tangibility of an object is really different from the illusion of form and space in painting and that’s what led me to make the first and so far only object I’ve ever made for exhibition. It’s that trauma as you call it—that fight between the illusory and the tangible that I wanted to conjure up when I used a large-scale painting as a sort of backdrop for an object. I paired a painting of a dilapidated pulpit with a fancy wheelbarrow I custom built and had upholstered. I used the opposition of image and object to highlight certain elements of my ideas—the conflation of the utilitarian and the ceremonial and a parody of cultural structures.
JD: Surface and I get along very well. No matter the medium or imagery of the project, my work over the past several years relies upon a thorough consideration of surface. Because I’m a painting dork, I have to learn everything possible about the materials I’m working with. I have a tremendous amount of patience when experimenting with materials and it’s really important to me to show a certain amount of that mastery in the work I make. I also think that it’s really important to me use the materials in the wrong way but still make it look good. Most of my oil paintings look like they’re painted on some kind of plastic but it’s a concoction of walnut oil and wax. Similarly, my big gouache paintings involve a process of staining nine-foot tall pieces of paper in order to transform its colour and surface. I know when a surface is working when another painter can’t figure out how I’ve done it.
JD: Both, definitely. I think the busy work of planning, testing, and preparing when using gouache forces me to slow down and think a lot more while making. This can be a great thing or a very bad thing – I’ve felt stuck many times recently because the next move I need to make presents such a risk, but then again there’s something very satisfying about meticulously constructing an idea while I meticulously construct a piece. So yes, I want to get something different out of the process of painting but I’m not ready to quit gouache. Ideally, I’d like to get reacquainted with oil paint while continuing the trajectory of my gouache paintings. There’s something very interesting to me about working across media and showing the results together. Incidentally, I’ve done a couple of oil paintings recently and they’re really awful. It’s like I’ve never picked up a brush before and I really haven’t got a clue.
CP: Although this wasn’t my first thought in relating to your work, there was a certain point that I suddenly made a connection between your paintings and cartoons/comic books. Could you talk a little bit about that relationship?
JD: Wow, that’s a mouthful but you’ve hit the nail on the head. There’s a sense of detachment both in my work and in comics and cartoons. In comics it’s a result of these adolescent power fantasies (among other things) and in my work it’s an impulse to not be so heavy-handed in my politics. I’m not nearly informed enough to make specific social or political statements, so I’m not interested in resolving anything. Instead, I want to imply a narrative that embodies a particular and often fucked up set of social values. Hence the gallows that can double as a vaudeville stage set or a sentry tower with a quaint aluminum awning. I’ve always thought the images that I make in gouache are the evidence of some other civilization that exists parallel to our own—parallel universe narratives in sci-fi are also a current love of mine. In my world, though, instead of granting wild canines the ability to mail-order anvils I simply gussy up the instruments of control. Either way, it’s a happy place in which you don’t quite notice how desperate the situation is.
Jason Dunda has a show coming up with Laura Davis called “Lock the Doors.”
Opening reception, Saturday, April 2, 6-9pm
2153 W 21st Street
Recently I had the chance to ask Edra Soto a number of questions about how she approaches her practice. While I’ve been well aware of her work for some time, most of my encounters have taken place when I’ve visited a show or caught images on-line; in other words, I haven’t before had a chance to talk to her specifically about what she’s up to. As always, these weekly posts are welcome opportunities to do just that: to approach artists I admire and ask them things. For instance, I’ve noticed that Edra integrates an idea of performance in her work–whether painting figures on a stage or fabricating a real one, I always get the sense that she’s trying to call attention (and therefore engage?) the spectator. In order to do so, she must adopts a certain hybridity, making use of different mediums to activate a concept from multiple directions, thereby reflecting multiple perspectives. There are a number of questions this brought to mind and I was excited to pursue some of them.
CP: Can you tell me a little bit about your background? How did you come to Chicago and how does it contrast with the other places that you’ve lived?
ES: I’ve been interested in the arts since I was a girl. I love theatre and wanted to be an actress. I also love music and used to write songs and sing them accompanying myself on the piano. I focused on visual arts during the last part of my high school years and ended up at the Escuelade Artes Plasticas de Puerto Rico, which is located at one of the most beautiful landmarks of the island: San Felipe del Morro, a 16th century Spanish fort. The school has a ridiculously beautiful view. Those were the days! I completed a bachelor’s degree in visual arts and started a minor in education. After graduating, I won a fellowship to live and work in Paris for a year. I was 25, and that experience changed my life. I still think of the person I was then and how I thought Puerto Rico was the last place on earth. At that time, I was a painter in the commercial art scene of Puerto Rico. I had no idea about the financial aspect [of the art world], the types of people I needed to meet, what a curator was… I was selling paintings for $5,000 dollars and being interviewed for the local newspapers. The gallery that was representing me at the time also represented the premier artist of Puerto Rico, Arnaldo Roche. He was a graduate from SAIC (1984), and the gallery owner kept telling me, “You should go to the Art Institute”…so, I did. Again, it radically changed my perspective. I learned to understand American sarcasm and cynicism and I learned about the real me, the one I didn’t understand when I lived in Puerto Rico. I stopped painting because I needed to explore the part I had denied myself because I thought it was unimportant, irrelevant. I always had the need to make things that were not paintings, but didn’t understand their importance.
Caroline Picard: What does your studio process look like? Do you need different frames of mind to accommodate different spatial impulses? Or do you find your sculptural pieces come from the same place as your 2D work?
Edra Soto: I don’t have a romantic studio process at all. I start with ideas on paper. I write my ideas and organize the concepts of what I want to do and how I want it to read, which leads me to the conception of the artwork. In my last three solo shows I used the same process. Before The Chacon-Soto Show, The Greatest Companions series was an explosion of ideas. I struck on something that took me way too long to find. It was a prolific time and I think I did not edit enough. I was completely emotionally connected. Since then I have been conscious of having to edit my work more.
I tested myself again with Forever (part of Forever Vegetal at Roots and Culture). Forever incorporated some of the images I started during the production of the Chacon-Soto Show that I felt were pertinent, drawing from the energy of The Chacon-Soto exhibition, but aesthetically with a more organic and dark variation. I wanted to change the look of the materials, reduce the scale and make a collection that was a hybrid; organic, fragmented and strange. I was confident that’s what I needed to break from the emotional burst that The MCA exhibition provoked in me. I’ve never felt so sad about taking down a show.
Producing work in different formats and materials comes from a very honest place. More than 20 years ago I questioned my urges to work in other formats and mediums. Obviously, I don’t restrict myself now. As an artist, I am interested and attracted to many types of formats and ways of communicating an idea.
To answer your question more directly, yes, everything comes from the same place.
C.P: One of the things that I’ve always loved about your drawings is your use of the line. Often you build up very complex textual areas on top of loose washes. I’ve also noticed a reoccurring motif of hair in your work, (like the wookie, or the dog, or also these phenomenal female(?) figures with massive manes). Could you talk a little bit about that?
E.S: You are very perceptive! I don’t think anyone has asked this before. Yes, I love the delicate aspects of drawing and painting, and I do it for my personal pleasure. In painting, I went from figurative to abstract ways of expressing myself during my college years. I’m afraid my work might be a strange matrimony of my love for both styles. I do not question it so much. I do feel comfortable flowing around…it keeps things fun. The hair issue: yes, yes, yes, I love to paint hair so much! I used to love to paint water when I was in college. For a while now, it’s been hair. My love for animals in general is very real. It is just meant to happen, I guess!
CP: I’m also interested in “The Chacon-Soto Stage (la Tarima)”—partly because some of your paintings feel staged to me (as though the “action” of the work is presented as a finite visual occasion within a larger field—I suppose that goes back to my experience of heavily detailed portions occurring on simpler backgrounds, but also with some of your earlier work there seemed to be a very deliberate stage that was part of the painting). What interests me in particular about TCSS is the way you manifest a physical stage, appropriated from a television program, where suddenly what was once a 2-Dimensional experience, becomes contemporary and interactive….
ES: Most of the series of paintings I produced for the Chacon-Soto Show were culled from video stills of the Chacon Show that I watched on youtube. I selected hundreds of video clips, made prints, and used them to make the paintings. The colors, the retro look, were all very alluring and I just craved painting them. Painting them literally was not an option, but soon enough I started creating my own scenarios in those settings.
Nevertheless, I maintain clear goals as a conceptual artist to have my language and ways of communicating art to be relevant to contemporary life. My ideas about making spaces that became communal has always been a philosophical preoccupation as an artist. For instance: how to create a space of comfort for my audience? How to erase the boundaries between the audience as spectator and the audience as integral participator? The exhibition Homily at Ebersmoore gave me the opportunity to once again challenge myself into mastering my way of communicating, edit my ideas, and provide an installation with a variety of formats where the audience can decide when to keep a distance and when to get close.
CP: When you refer to yourself as a conceptual artist, I am struck by how you seem to contrast that with an earlier approach to art-making, wherein you were called and thought of yourself as a painter. How do you differentiate those gestures of painting for painting’s sake vs. conceptual work?
ES: I paint when I need to express an idea in painting, but I don’t dedicate my life exclusively to painting. For 8 years, before and after college, that’s all I did. Even at SAIC during the post-bac program, I painted. When I reached abstraction, I stared to think that I was done with painting, that I didn’t have anything else to say with it. I don’t think that anymore, but that’s how I stopped painting for a while. I started to paint again in 2008. For health reasons, I had to be in bed for a month and spent most of my time with my dog Foster. His loyalty inspired me and I developed my first series of paintings that was called ‘The Greatest Companions’, exhibited at Mutherland and Rowland Contemporary.
CP: In wanting to erase the boundaries between the audience and spectator and the audience as an integral participator—how do you make that distinction? (In particular with the way you hope people will interact with your work?) Also, where do you feel the tendency to be “spectator” in relation to art comes from?
ES: Scale generally provides the distinction. I will use the small scale of a painting and the very delicate details, for example, to provide a feeling of intimacy. Inversely, I will design a space (usually in sculpture format) where the spectator must introduce themselves physically to experience the space. Conceptual art can be challenging to a general audience. Because I come from a background where conceptual art was largely ignored, I think about the type of audience (and I include a younger me in that group) that might feel apprehensive about getting close to the artwork.
CP: You have a big project around the corner—Tell me about Dock6!
ES: Dock 6 is a collective of independent designers, furniture-makers and fabricators, including Dan Sullivan, my husband. They’ve been together since 2009 and have grown into what is now the Dock 6 Collective. They have an amazing workspace and have done open house events and collaborated with underground supper club Clandestino, curated by Vicki Fowler. For that event they fabricated a 50 foot modular dining table from salvageable material. Some of my work that Dan has fabricated for me has ended up being exhibited at their events. That’s how it occurred to me to propose to Dock 6 Collective the Design and Art Series. Aside from Dock 6 being an amazing space, this series will gather two communities, merging through this creative outlet. As curator, I am in charge of inviting the artists, and Dock 6 Collective invited architects and designers with whom to collaborate.
Among the artists featured are Kirsten Leenaars, who is currently working on a soap opera called On Our Way to Tomorrow, a companion of the ongoing exhibit Without You I’m Nothing at the Museum of Contemporary Art, curated by Tricia Van Eck.
Dan invited the Kujawa Architecture firm, who collaborated with Theaster Gates in the fabrication of his project for the Whitney Biennial. Their work is also reflected in the beautiful hotel rooms of Longman & Eagle.
This will be a one-night, one-day only event because it is being held at their workshop. We are incredibly excited to share this project with our artists, designers and architects communities in the hopes of generating more collaborative projects in the future. Our goal for now is to make this project happen twice per year.