SAN SIMEON (continued)
This whole day of driving and hearing my own voice is creating havoc with my sense of reality. I just saw a fat duck pass my window and I thought it was one of Hilma's swans. Thomas didn't see the duck. He is moving on with the questions.
He: I would place Redon and Pinkham Ryder along similar lines, but what about Beuys?
I: Beuys is very important. There’s something unresolved about him, even whether he was a genius or a charlatan, which makes him even more interesting. I see something in his work that’s direct and profound and that continues to erode the art edifices that many try to build.
He: Couldn’t you say that he just defined a new type of décor?
I: I think there is no such thing as décor that’s charged and focused on life. Beuys’s work is a reminder of currents that run very deep in our psyche and our world.
He: Do you like any contemporary artists?
I: I’m most interested in the work of Serra, Tuttle, Richter, Freud, and the early work of Matthew Barney and Kiefer.
He: Why Richter?
I: Richter is the painter of nothing. I think he’s a conservative painter with a good mind, which is a rare combination. But he’s resigned to the fact that we can do nothing, that Utopianism is criminal. It’s not a strange position, really. Anyone with integrity can see that most of the art world is deceit, lies, posturing and lack of quality, so it’s easy to become a pessimist, especially as a painter. But some people in intellectual circles think that they have the inner track into the lack of signification of our life. But it isn’t so. A child that grows with misery and despair knows much more about the meaningless qualities of life than someone who learned it from books. A man or a woman who can’t find a job to feed their family knows it too, or someone who is besieged by illness. The difference is, I suppose, that intellectuals don’t want to overcome their condition. A meaningless world is, after all, their justification for not taking risks.
I see Thomas looking at me. There is no judgement in his eyes. Instead there's an odd mixture of admiration and compassion that makes me feel young, unfinished. Thomas’s beliefs are similar to mine, but he doesn’t feel any of my urgency or indignation. When we go to an exhibition together he looks at the bad art with amusement and never thinks about it again. I, on the other hand, act like something sacred is being hurt; as if greatness could be damaged by all the non-sense and mediocrity. I think of art as a legacy carelessly squandered. In the long run, his view is better, but mine is useful now.
I: The road for an artist that believes something meaningful is possible is hard and solitary. I wish Richter was on that road. He would be a beacon.
He: But isn’t this possibility denied by painting’s critical endgame? Painting as an anachronistic art, which refuses to lie down and die, doesn’t leave much room for a visionary artist.
I: Thomas, who believes this stuff? I haven’t met a great painter who abandoned painting because he or she believes what you are saying. From Taraboukin on, many have tried to label painting, categorically, as archaic and reactionary. If you believe them, then yes, you will have to approach painting with irony and apathy. But the arguments against painting are logically flawed and the rhetoric of its supporters is built around many easily trumped assumptions. I have tried to look at this situation carefully, and after much thought, I think that their motivation is fear, or maybe hatred. I just don’t know of what, yet.
He: Why did you say “early Kiefer”?
I: Kiefer’s early works are very interesting conceptually, very unfinished. Kiefer’s works from the seventies are extraordinary. In the more recent work it seems that he knows his work too well.
He: And Matthew Barney?
I: I was excited when Barney came on the scene because I felt there was something truly unique there. Now, I think he is a rococo version of himself in those early years.
He: How about the LA artists, like Mike Kelley, Paul McCarthy, Lari Pitman, Ed Ruscha and their respective schools, are you interested in them?
I: From that group I gravitate more towards Ruscha. There are other Los Angeles artists that are interesting like Robert Therien, Ed Kienholz, Robert Irwin and the minimalist John McCracken.
He: In general, you must feel a kinship with the minimalists. Your work seems to inherit many of their desires, like presence and scale as opposed to just image.
I: I was interested in the black paintings of Ad Reinhardt for a long time and the sculptures of Carl Andre and Richard Serra. Eventually, I grew tired of minimalism because I started to see reductionism as a gesture towards the work rather than a consequence of the work; it became decorative for me.
He: How about Tàpies?
I: I get a similar feeling from Tàpies that I get from Burri and Schwitters, which is that they are serious and refined but missing something.
He: When you came to this country, artists like Schnabel, Salle and Fischl were storming New York, and the Italians, Clemente, Paladino, Cucchi and Chia, were everywhere. Did you see their work then?
I: Not then. I saw them years later in San Francisco.
He: Some people have compared your work to Clemente, was he an influence?
I: No, Clemente is about something else; he is a sensualist. People say this kind of thing because they don’t look at the work.
The other artists you mentioned don’t interest me, except Schnabel, although he’s a loose cannon. He can put paint down well. I see a lot of borrowing from Beuys, Polke, Gaudi, Picabia and others but he’s very good at putting them together. I think his biggest problem is that he’s unwilling or incapable of editing. He sees himself as a Dionysian artist unwilling to weaken the “duende” by reflecting and thinking.
He: You are friends with Leon Golub, who is a very political artist. What do you think of his work?
I: I have great respect for Leon and his path and the way he has lived his life. I’m most interested in his recent work where he’s simultaneously grappling with broad political ideas and specific aspects of the human condition like aging and dying. Those works are luminous.
He: I see how some of the ideas that influence your work may have a political dimension, but it’s very subtle. Why have you rejected any overt political intention in your work?
I: Because art is different than politics, it works in different ways. I don’t like the consensus building that is inevitable in politics.
He: Felix Gonzalez Torres had a very similar history to you. He was born in Cuba, lived in Spain and Puerto Rico and came to the U.S. in the early eighties. Do you like his work?
I: I do, I find it very nostalgic and direct. His aesthetic sensibility is similar to many Cubans I know, especially gay Cubans.
He: How about the Cuban artists Wilfredo Lam and José Bedía?
I: Lam’s mixture of modernism and santería is very difficult for me to understand, although I instinctively like it. It seems to me that the goals of modernism are contrary to the spirit of santería, so his work sometimes comes across as an adaptation. Bedía tries to follow Lam but with a particular ability to manufacture a lot of work.
He: Let’s talk about other recent manufacturers. What’s your opinion of the Young British Artists?
I: They are irrelevant, which historically has been a frequent quality of a lot of British art. They should be called The New Victorians. Once we gain some distance from the current fashion, no one will care about the theatrics of a tank of water with a gynecological chair inside.
He: Do you find the environments of Juan Muñoz theatrical?
I: I like his environments. He has been accused of being a storyteller and a conservative sculptor but I think these critiques are shallow. There’s something philosophical about his works that I like.
He: We have discussed philosophy before but you are always careful to not reference anyone in particular. What philosophers are important to you?
I: Most of the time I don’t use references because it’s very difficult for me to tell what I thought myself and what I read somewhere. I have also been trying not to speak too much of philosophy because it’s easy to misunderstand ideas or apply them foolishly.
He: But you describe your own work as philosophical.
I: For lack of better terms. As a student, I was never interested in finding a style. I was looking for art that revealed something about the structure and meaning of things. The only goal that seemed worthwhile to me was to create a body of work that was a sound philosophical system not just work influenced by philosophy—a primary visual philosophy of metaphor where emotion and intellect are indistinguishable and at the service of clarity.
He: Of clarity about what?
I: About life.
What a mess I make of words.
I: Maybe in the past I shouldn’t have spoken about the influence of philosophy on my approaches.
He: I disagree. Many of your explanations have brought people to your work and I think that they appreciate hearing your point of view. A philosopher or artist that influenced you is more than a name. It’s a body of work that may offer new ways of approaching and thinking about your art.
I: You’re not impartial. But let me try to answer your question, anyway.
When I was a teenager I was trying to use philosophy as a manual for life. You see, I had rejected many of the conventions, religion and attitudes that surrounded me but they left a spiritual vacuum. I read to fill this empty space. I think I was looking for a replacement for God and someone who could tell me, clearly, what I was supposed to do.
I read the moral and Christian philosophers but Nietzsche, Kant, Kierkegaard, Hegel and Hume had the greatest impact. I was also interested in Jung, Fromm and Piaget and the political ideas of the Marxist thinkers. All of them were useful but, of course, they didn’t give me what I was looking for. In college I became very interested in Dewey and the clarity of his thought. He was very different in tone to the continental philosophers. Then came a period of interest in Zen and Buddhism and the ideas of Husserl, Ayn Rand and Ortega y Gasset. In the last decade I have become more distrustful of philosophy, or at least my understanding of it, but have continued considering the ideas of Schopenhauer, Heiddegger, Nietzsche and Wittgenstein.
He: What part of Wittgenstein?
I: I see a great schism between Wittgenstein the man and his public philosophy. I think his inner life was the product of a different and more private philosophical strain, which was always implied but never explicitly stated. It’s this other philosophical branch that excites me. It reminds me of you.
He: This brings something up that I think has been clear throughout our entire conversation. Namely, that you are assembling in your mind a large community of people that may or may not exist. The Wittgenstein that you admire, it seems, is your own fabrication.
I: My community is a loose web of some people I know, some that I have never met, some that are dead, and some artworks and concepts. This loose web gives me a space and creates certain demands.
He: Like what? What kind of demands?
I: The most important is not to compromise. Not to see art as a game.
He: You remind me of Ibsen’s character Brand, who is so conscious of the deceitful spirit of compromise. I appreciate the terrible demon that it can be, but isn’t isolation, perhaps, a more terrifying demon?
I: But I do have small communities that continue to be refuges for me. I understand each morning better because I grew up with the music of Serrat and Silvio Rodriguez, the poetry of Miguel Hernandez, Antonio Machado and Nicolas Guillén, and the sayings of my neighborhood. Even language and religion bring with them the sounds and the values of my family and the people I knew growing up.
My head is a big party and they are all coming in, Sancho, el Chapulín, Villo, Cui, Chus, Alberto, Daniel, La loca, los limbers, el guarapo, los chicharrones, Don Marcial Lafuente, Ana, Hildita, el via crusis, y las telenovelas. Everybody is having mollejitas, sandwichitos and Cuba Libres.
I: Part of me is always at home among Hispanic people but not all of me finds a home there. Whether I’m in the United States or in a Spanish country, I’m always two people, one happy to be there and one who’s a foreigner. Nothing new there, I think that’s the condition of most exiles.
He: Your migration and partial belonging to many cultures has greatly benefited your work. I also think that the financial struggles have shaped your outlook.
I: Certainly. Although in my case, I was lucky that until I was eight I was surrounded by very educated people who had a grand view of the world. Probably because of them, I assumed that the years of financial difficulty were transitory. Poverty is more bearable if you think it’s going to end.
We are passing above Jade Cove. My thoughts go to the houses at the bottom of the cliff and this road wandering through the hills. How long did it take someone to make this road? Is he or she sitting on a chair watching TV and thinking of this place? It would be nice to die knowing that you made a road. Thomas and I remain silent for so long that I think we have finished with the interview.
He: Do you think you and your work deserve respect?
I: I try to respect myself and my work, that’s what I can control.
He: Well, let’s talk about control. Issues of what can and can’t be controlled seem central to your work. In many of your pieces there is a sense of surrender, of trusting…of your vanishing from the work. Which is surprising, because I don’t see this same attitude in you or the artists you mentioned as influences.
I: I understand what you’re saying, but I disagree. Hartley, Ryder or Velazquez are great masters of paint and in this sense they control the material, but they have the rare gift of leaving works uncluttered, not only visually but spiritually as well. They can withdraw and trust the painting. As far as the attitudes that you see in my work compared to me as a person, it makes sense that they are different. In the work I can move out of the way. It’s not so easy in life.
He: Hearing you speak this way reminds me of your interest in Zen Buddhism.
I: Yes, Zen helped me find the silence that I needed and it transformed my personality and my work.
He: In what ways?
I: I found the courage to strip painting of all of the things I knew. I removed color, whatever would be considered skillful drawing, and any kind of ornamental compositions. Then, I re-built painting from the ground up, just for me. It was a very meditative and solitary process that redefined the way that I looked at art.
He: And yet, during this time you were incorporating kitsch into your work. Is this contradictory?
I: No, kitsch is a pointer to things that matter and it allows me to dismantle not only painting, but feeling itself. Myself and the people I knew growing up in the Caribbean had their feelings framed by kitsch and I had to start there.
He: What do you mean by that?
I try to think of a way of talking about the ceramic dogs in a basket, the harlequin crying, the Caridad del Cobre as a water fountain, the movie of the dwarf who dies, the novel María, a caravan of the Corolla Club de Bayamón following a wedding, the priest drinking the wine before everyone else, the whole congregation seeing him swallow, plastic flowers on the tombs of Loiza, beauty queens speaking through loudspeakers from the back of trucks, children holding hands as patio statues and toilets as garden pots.
But those thoughts can't be put into sentences.
Religion, colonialism, lack of education, television and politics confuse the working classes of Latin America and sentimentality drugs them.
He: Do you see your involvement with kitsch as purging the offensive object or re-establishing awareness by recharging it for the audience?
I: I think it is more effective to hover between both poles. The flickering between charge/no charge and meaning/no meaning, is a strong force. That flickering of meaning is maybe the only way left for recharging the sentimental and the kitsch.
He: Can someone make a political statement through art?
I: Sure, someone can make a statement but if they want to bring about political change they’ll be more effective as politicians. There’s an area where politics and the human experience overlap. Goya’s paintings of the Napoleonic wars remain significant because they speak of human suffering and oppression. But few people today care about the specific political issues of Napoleon or the monarchy.
He: How about “Guernica” or Nazi architecture or the music of Shostakovich? Are these not successful political artworks?
I: They’re great art with a political message but they are not great politics. “Guernica” is a great testimony of oppression, loss, violation and desperation but it didn’t change the course of the civil war or the course of any war. It’s not that art is powerless. It’s that the power of art is different from the power of politics.
Thomas nods his head and looks out the window. The sun is filtering through his hair as it blows in the wind.
I feel lucky to have a windshield to keep me at a distance from all the rocky marvel of this coast curving towards the horizon.
He: This coastline seems so concrete in comparison with the ideas that we have been discussing that it makes me wonder if the monumentality of nature make all art seem minor?
I: It could, and it often does.
Under a jacaranda tree a young man with a backpack is looking to catch a ride and Thomas asks me to pull over. He likes to meet strangers.
He: Where are you going?
Traveler: To Big Sur, sir.
He: It’s on our way. Hop in.
The traveler throws his green backpack in the bed of the truck and sits next to Thomas.
He: What’s your name?
He: My name is Thomas, and this is Enrique.
C: Pleased to meet you.
Charles is short and skinny, with a pleasant but removed demeanor. Droopy melancholic eyebrows betray his refined features and his dark eyes are animated and alive.
C: Where are you guys going?
He: To Santa Cruz to see a cow.
C: Are you farmers?
He: No. I grow avocados but I need the cow for milk and cheese. Enrique is an artist.
C: I’m an artist, too. I just graduated from Cal Arts. I’m going to meet a few friends to do a project at the beach. What kind of work do you do?
I: I make paintings, sculptures and photographs.
C: Enrique. What’s your last name?
I: Martínez Celaya.
C: Who do you show with?
I: In Los Angeles I show with G.
C: I’m in a group show in London right now and I’ll be doing a solo show in Chinatown in the summer. I used to paint a long time ago…when my father died. I made a dozen paintings about him but after a while I lost interest in painting. I worked with clothes as an undergraduate and recently I’ve been creating large wacky wall pieces using Hydrocal. I pour it over plastic on the floor and when it dries, I paint and glue the pieces to the wall.
Charles’s breath smells like snails. I know I am not interested in talking to him about his work but Thomas is asking more questions.
He: What’re you trying to do?
C: I want to make the viewer see this loopy and humorous construction and think of playing. The gallery or the collector can change the pieces and re-arrange what I have done; I want my pieces to be so simple that cats and dogs can understand them.
He: Where do your ideas come from?
C: When I got tired of painting I started to look for ready-made art. I bought sixties textiles and presented them as my work, because I was impressed with their blend of design and fun. I knew very early that I wanted my work to be very accessible, non-hierarchical. I was in London for three years and I started to work with fabrics. I used to go every week and buy used shirts from this funny guy near the Slade school. I explained that this was for art and he started to save the really fun colors for me. I piled them up in my studio because I didn’t know what I wanted to do with them. Then one day I stitched them together and draped them over the skylight. It was great—a thrift-store Turrell. I have shown these pieces a lot.
As I listen to Charles and Thomas carry on about art and fun, I am reminded of the difficulty of making art. The chances that this young artist will be a great artist are very small. The chances that I will be a great artist are also very small. It boils down to the fact that "almost" has no meaning in art.
He: Are there any artists who have influenced your work?
C: Andy Warhol has been the greatest influence on my work. He understood that a great Hollywood movie or a great work of any pop genre is as culturally rich and satisfying as a great painting—and as rare. Andy was the first court painter of the American democracy.
He: Perhaps what matters is not that he was a court painter but what kind of court painter he was. Court painters can be as different as Charles Lebrun, the painter to the court of Louis the XIV, and El Greco.
C: Andy was a conduit for a sort of collective American state of mind in which celebrity—the famous image of a person, the famous brand name—had completely replaced sacredness.
He: And what do you get out of doing this work?
C: What? I want my work to be what I would want to have by my side if I were trapped on a deserted island. My work has a lot to do with making something extraordinary out of mundane objects, the personal but anonymous nature of the clothes and the plaster is also important. They all have some kind of narrative but I’ll never know what that story is.
He: Charles, I think I understand where you are coming from, but, I’m sorry to say I have very little patience with it. You seem like a nice young man so it’s a waste not to take better advantage of your time. I don’t mean a waste for the world, but for you.
I have never heard Thomas speak to someone in this way. Charles is looking at him with surprise and the old man continues.
He: A meaningful life consists of a person struggling to make real, in the world he or she encounters at birth, the imaginary personage who constitutes his or her true self. The reason art matters is because it’s a testimony of this struggle. The hours of human existence are numbered, which makes life supremely urgent. There’s no time to waste. You are taking a desperate exit, as if there were no hope, when other exits do exist.
For a great number of people, and I suspect you are one of them, nothing seems to give them more pleasure than to expose the falsity of anyone who is making a big claim. This is understandable, because there’s a lot of pretension in the world. It seems more sincere to celebrate the quotidian, which often shines with the mysterious strength of modesty.
But this way of going through life has become a cliché and its offerings are fewer. Genuine quality is what we need. Risks have to be taken. I think that there is something very dangerous behind the celebration of the trivial. Today— maybe not fifty years ago, but today—your attitude strikes me as cowardly and unproductive. The lack of excellence we see is not a justification for irony, but a reason to pursue life with affirming passion and courage. Don’t retreat into the inconsequential.
Charles shrugs and responds to Thomas with childish defiance.
C: I refuse to tell another triumphant tale of a lone genius who beats the odds to win a place for himself in art history’s pantheon of masters. Instead, I want my work to be a pressure cooker filled to the brim with simmering mixtures of loopiness and excitement. I want to stand fiercely in the superficial because I know that what you’re talking about is nothing but a throwback to romanticism and metaphysics. I want my work to be fresh and to demonstrate that wild ideas make the world go round. You’re too old-fashioned. The ideas that you are talking about have run their course. I’m certainly not interested in feeding on the carcass of spiritual belief and I know that the surface is the only alternative. What you consider trivial is the most exciting venue for an artist today. All the questions about being, self and life have been asked a thousand times and the whole thing smells like mothballs. It’s silly to think that there’s something new that any of us can offer to this discussion. There’s nothing new under the sun.
He: No, everything under the sun is new each day.
Thomas looks at Charles and smiles but the young man is looking at the side of the road. The conversation is over. I am feeling the elation of a day by the side of the ocean. There is no Thomas and there is no Charles. I am riding in alone until I enter Big Sur.
Return to part 3.
Continue to part 5