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.