In this town, there are so many creeping roses, trumpet vines and irises that beauty seems incidental, quaint, common. Every door that we see is enchanting, every chimney homey and every yard charming. In Carmel-by-the-Sea spiritual salvation must come through loveliness.
This time of day the town is quiet and a dog crosses the street unnoticed. At first I think he is wandering, but now I see that he is on his way somewhere. Maybe to lie under the shade of a great oak if he has an owner, or if he doesn’t, to the dumpster of a restaurant for a feast.
The road weaves through the town and leads us to the beach. It’s a windy afternoon and the ocean is choppy and solitary except for a pelican gliding over the waves in search of a slow fish. In the distance I can see a stalled sailboat.
A stalled boat and all this wind.
As we pass a purple Victorian house covered by scaffolding Thomas resumes our conversation.
He: You have designed and built several of your studios and the construction is important to you. I have seen you, after finishing, write high on a wall the phrase “keep your actions faithful.” Would you tell more about this?
I: I enjoy building, giving form to my ideas of living and working. “Keep your actions faithful” is a Buddhist idea. It prompts thoughts, words and actions to be faithful to one another. I always write that on each studio.
He: Does it work?
I: It is good to be reminded.
He: Do you spend a lot of time in the studio?
I: I miss it when I’m not there. Some days I go for fourteen hours, some days a lot less. I used to feel the need to work eighteen to twenty hours a day.
He: What has changed?
I: The solitary time in the studio is important, but other things and other people freshen things up.
He: Do you allow many people to visit the studio?
I: I try to keep it more selective than I used to.
I: I used to expect a great deal from visitors that I didn’t know. It is better to know who is visiting and why. I think I’m a lot more careful with the things I value than I used to be.
He: I never understood the tradition of visitors in the studios of artists. It seems to me that a studio is a private, even sacred, place.
I: I think that there’s value in sharing what I am doing with some people and these exchanges give a lot of meaning to my life. But I can see how it can be questionable. In some cases, artists have commercialized the studio and the creation process to a great degree making, the studio into a factory. Jeff Koons, for example, has followed Warhol’s idea that the best art is business to its natural conclusion.
He: But you have an assistant.
I: I have two. But they don’t make my work.
He: What do they do?
I: A studio requires a lot of attention for things that are not the making of art. Also, my working process is lengthy and involved so it’s useful to have help in some of the preparations of surfaces and substances. However, my work doesn’t have a formula that I can convey to an assistant to make it. Through each work I come to terms with something or understand something. I would never relinquish that responsibility and fulfillment to anyone. For me, the making of artwork has nothing to do with production or satisfying market needs.
He: But when you were an apprentice, didn’t you work on your master’s paintings?
I: No, I didn’t. But even if I had, there’s a great distinction between contributing a part and doing the whole work, like in Koons’s case.
He: Well, the argument has been made that art has nothing to do with the way it’s made, so however an artist arrives at a great painting is of no consequence.
I: I’m not convinced. Art demands reactions from the artist to the physical object. Even highly conceptual pieces demand interaction. Ideas are forms of the mind but artworks are not. An artist has to react to the work he’s creating which often means re-directing his ideas.
He: Why can’t an artist be like a movie director, orchestrating the workers and being sensitive to whatever is happening?
I: The interactions that I’m describing often apply to the smallest decisions. It’s hard as a director to see those. Sometimes I paint differently because I sense the way the painting is moving against a certain surface. It’s impossible to translate that to a director. Also, there’s more to a painting, or a sculpture, or even a photograph, than what meets the eye.
He: You are making that claim even for photographs?
I: Photographs sometimes say “what you see is not what is” or “what you see is not all there is.”
At the light, two overweight weekend rebels on shiny choppers pull in front of our truck. Both have tight leather jackets, trimmed goatees and ride their bikes like easy chairs. A minute later, a third biker with no backrest or goatee attempts to join them, riding a hog the color of sea foam. He is trying to make eye contact with the rebels but they never turn to acknowledge him, so he stays behind, defeated and anxiously scratching his thigh, until the light changes.
He: Enrique, your arguments are a camouflage. You put aside the mystical, but that’s what you really rely on. Am I wrong?
I: You’re probably right. To make an artwork requires measurable things like discipline, ideas and some skill but also requires other things that come from the inside as well as from mid-air. Those things that seem to come from mid-air can be given many different names. Mystical is not a good name because it leads to the wrong associations.
He: I didn’t understand your approach at first, but it’s starting to make sense now. Your understanding of the world, which then influences your work, depends on intellectual inquiry mixed with a form of mysticism that I haven’t quite figured out yet.
I: I wouldn’t use those words and I’m not sure what words would be better, but I think the essence of what you are saying is right. There are certain parts of experience and forms of knowledge for which intellectual inquiry is the best approach. Reasoning, science and philosophy are much more effective than art at explaining much of the world. It makes sense to use them to process most of the experiences we encounter. But where they don’t work then other ways, like art, may be better.
He: A great deal of effort has been spent insisting that everything must be done as art or within the art context. Greatness exists outside of the arts. I don’t need to see something in a museum to notice it. In fact, I find it easier to appreciate the wonder of the world outside of the artificial white cube of a gallery.
I: Neither do I, but it’s easy to see why artists wanted to liberate art from rules that control what can and cannot be in a museum. It’s not dumb to say everything can be art. On the other hand, what’s to be gained by calling something art? The world is a very interesting place and doesn’t need to be in a museum to become special. I think that’s what you are saying.
He: Yes. I don’t need to see that dress cramped inside an art institution or a painting to admire it.
Thomas says this as he points at a black woman wearing a pink dress. The dress is the color of light passing through a thin slice of ham. I too marvel at the dress as it moves down the sidewalk. We will never hold that in a painting.
I: The pretty, the clever, the pedagogical and the funny are superfluous in art. They exist more intensely elsewhere.
He: Why do you think that others like to approach art seeking these qualities?
I go back to the woman. But she has turned the corner. Later on today she will walk into a church and she will sing and clap and look up at heaven. And her dress will be there. And it will be a fresh spring of pink marmalade. And its sweetness will splash her little boy who this morning did not want to go to church. And he will smile.
Thomas’s question is a valid one. But instead of answering it, I imagine myself working at the pink lady’s church parking cars. But after I park a few, I start to feel that I must get back to my life.
What would I have done in the pink lady’s world if I had stayed? I don’t wear pink dresses, I don’t clap, and I don’t go to church.
I: They must see art differently. It’s easier to make an artwork that’s comical or clever or pretty than one that’s more ambitious. More fundamental.
He: But if I want to make a funny work and all I want is for people to laugh, couldn’t I do that?
I: You could, and at times, humor may suggest something very profound. Most of the time, though, artwork doesn’t compare with other humorous life experiences or with entertainment. I have never seen an artwork as funny as Peter Sellers. In which case there is no need for the artwork—art shouldn’t be something that you can get better elsewhere.
He: It seems that your search for authenticity in artwork puts great demands upon the process of creation. I think that I’m starting to understand why you destroy or paint over paintings. Do your paintings fail because they aim high but don’t quite make it, or because they arrive safely but weren’t ambitious enough?
I: I’m not sure I can answer that accurately. I’m interested in paintings that are ambitious and this leads to a lot of failures. Making a true painting is difficult.
He: A true painting?
I: An authentic and moving work.
He: I think I know what you mean. Careful! There’s something in the road.
I see it. It is an injured dog, a German Shepherd. I also see the vultures with their purple heads gliding above.
We stop the car and run towards the panting lump. He has blood coming from his mouth. His tail lies a few inches away, held by a thin tendon, and his legs are trembling and covered with urine and intestines. His light-brown eye is full of fear and fixed on us, vulnerable. I ask Thomas what we should do, but he doesn’t answer. Instead, he raises the dog in his arms and takes him under a tree by the side of the road. He places the wounded animal softly on the grass and with a quick jerk of his left hand, snaps the dog’s neck. As the beast’s whimpering becomes silent, a rush of wind stirs the leaves above the still gray fur.
I stand several feet away watching Thomas look at the dog. A few minutes later, he comes back to the truck and cleans himself with a handkerchief. We drive in silence until the hills give way to the plains of the central coast.
Everything seems unimportant, our interview, my work, the past. A flock of small white birds flies past our truck and Thomas makes some bird sounds but they don’t stop.
Now he is writing some notes on his pad and I compliment his handwriting.
At the Carmel River Bridge we find the questions again.
He: Why are parts of your works rendered with delicacy and precision while other sections are handled roughly?
I: It seems right.
He: You don’t know why?
I: I don’t. Not anything that’s profound.
He: I am often surprised at how little we know about the qualities that most define who we are.
He: A critic called you a master of textures, what do you think of this title?
I: I rarely think of textures. If I do, it’s often to make something smooth. The texture that people see in my work is a result of my preoccupation with materials.
He: How did you become interested in a material like tar?
I: I’ve always been concerned with the interaction between the solid and the evanescent. In the specific case of tar, I like its massiveness and transparency. It’s also a material burdened by history.
He: Does that history matter to you?
I: It does. Tar is part of a group of materials like honey, excrement, saliva, blood, dirt, wood, wax, oil, vomit, feathers and hair that have a human and historical charge. It’s in this oblique way that culture appears in my work, or more specifically, the building blocks of culture. The relics of thousands of years of humans interacting with nature and dreaming of ways in and out of the relationship. Those who claim that universality is a cultural impossibility should realize that most human beings share many basic experiences, objects and emotions.
He: Alchemists also investigated materials that they considered charged. Your use of unusual materials and odd powders mixed in with your waxes and oils seems to me a form of alchemy.
I: The whole process of working with liquids, or solids suspended in liquids to smear on a surface, or solids that take shapes, is strange. And then, the idea that this stained surface or shaped mass will record or produce something that was not in the materials to begin with, is irrational. It’s a faith. This combination of irrationality and method also reminds me of alchemy.
I watch as Thomas writes a few more notes before he responds.
He: And like an artist, the alchemist endeavored with love to defeat the properties of darkness, looking for a great crack in the fabric of the world…looking for the philosopher’s stone capable of healing all sicknesses. I know that you will be hesitant to make such a claim but go with me for a minute…isn’t that what you are trying to do?
I: I don’t think that you’ll find many artists willing to admit to that. I certainly won’t, it would make every one of my works a failure.
He looks at me with surprise and writes another note. I am curious about these notes.
He: What do you consider your works?
I: A body of work can be many things. It can be a series of related pieces or it can be a series of ideas and actions pursued in very different media. A common misunderstanding is to assume that a group or a series should always be based on additive qualities. I’m also interested in groupings that have subtractive qualities, where one piece undermines the other and uncovers hidden assumptions. A body of work can include any combination of painting, sculpture, prints, drawings, photographs, poems, writings, performances, talks, and even living. There’s great variation in the duration of a series. I have completed a body of work in a few days and others have taken me over five years. Sometimes, I may be thinking about more than one body of work at the same time.
He: I also know that you work on a few pieces at the same time. Is it useful to have one artwork as a reference for the other?
I: When I start a body of work I depend on some interaction between all the pieces to clarify my ideas. These pieces may include visual artworks, as well as poems and philosophical writings. The visual works happen at the same time as the writings. For the most part, the writings are only for me but they’re central to making the work because they help me understand what the work is about. I also read in the early stages of a new body of work. Towards the end of a series, I don’t like to have any influences, so I do not read.
He: Are your poems a separate body of work?
I: No. It’s easier to understand that when the poems and the visual works are presented together in the same space. But even when they appear separate, they’re part of the same project.
He: Are there any particular writers you’re currently thinking about or who influence your work?
I: The list is very long. Right now Paul Celan, Miguel Hernandez, Marina Tsvetayeva, José Saramago, Ceslaw Milosz and Jorge Luis Borges are the ones who interest me the most.
He: I think I understand why you respond to these writers. But sometimes you confuse me, like the time you told me how much you like the poetics of Engels’s “The Conditions of the Working Class in England.” I wouldn’t have imagined that you were interested in Engels, especially as a poet. I don’t even know if he would have liked being called a poet, he tried to be extremely factual and detailed in his observations rather than poetic.
I: I meant poetic not as in flowery but as in a work where the language resonates with truth.
Thomas is looking at me with a puzzled expression. I know he understands very clearly what I am saying. Perhaps he thinks that I don’t know what I’m talking about.
Return to part 5
Continue to part 7