(A Conversation with Raúl Cordero)
(Pubilshed in the monograph “RAÚL CORDERO”. Turner Books. 2010)
Omar-Pascual Castillo (OP): You were painting the day we met, and here you are today, still painting. Inevitably, my first question is: why do you paint, Raúl?
Raúl Cordero (RC): Because of how I am, the most organic way I can express myself is through painting. My first training was in painting, although afterwards I also studied design; but I never stopped painting. Never.
Even when I was very interested in the art of “new media”, and although I spent almost ten years researching and working very hard in that area, I frequently kept up the link, the reci procity, with painting. I produced a lot of works, but in the end, that process whereby the artist is more “a man attached to a telephone” than a creative being, exhausted me. Indeed, a time came when the only part of the process I really enjoyed was editing the video, and significantly that is the part that has lasted.
In my case, my intense, obsessive relationship with the painting medium, that possibility to construct and deconstruct that one enjoys when one is painting, gives me a rapport and implies, because of my origins and the way I have developed, a closeness that makes it, effectively, my choice; the space in which I feel fully identified.
Paint smells, gets you dirty, generates a sensorial contact and a privacy which I value greatly compared with the atmosphere involved, for example, in an installation: assistants, assemblers, technicians, electricians… a lot of “noise” going on in the background; and a lot of extra-creative matters that shape and amend your artistic ideal. The piece Perfect Woman dealt with that, with what happens when, to realise that ideal, you have to make your way through a whole lot of people.
OP: And that is not the case with painting…
RC: In painting you have your skill and a surface. Perhaps one day you do not have the right colour or a cloth of the right size, and that affects you. To give you a very specific but very expressive example: the size of my paintings has been determined by the size of the access to my studio; but this is nothing compared to the power of influence of extra-artistic considerations in new media productions.
OP: Does this happen even in the case of the new “expanded painting”, which can break its own frame and transcend it, in other words, which does not begin with a pre-established space to define itself, but determines that space itself? Perhaps these are not trends that interest you…
RC: Actually, everything interests me. It’s just that I have chosen to return only to painting because I didn’t like the idea that I might be doing art that was too smart, like so much of what is done at the moment, which is based on an attitude that only results in the “intelli gent surprise”, colourful ingenuity, subjugation to the artist’s brilliance.
OP: Yes, and in most cases there is no such intelligence, just a fleeting little joke.
Spontaneously, without thinking too much, with which artists do you feel most closely identified?
RC: For me an artist who changed the way art was seen —and therefore the way it was done— was John Baldessari. After an in-depth investigation of his work, I later had to move away from it, as I wanted to make less smart art, because ultimately, Baldessari’s work is indeed born and emerges with all the appeal of a strange intelligence, but it is the product of an intelligence that is also dreadful; it is always a hard slap of intelligence and creativity.
Today, I try to make work that is more sensorially connected with me. And thanks to that I have noticed that people receive it more through the senses than in a merely rational manner.
OP: This might also have to do with your use of images: the way you use them is changing. The ones you recreate in your paintings are increasingly blended, mixed, seeking indefinition.
RC: To be honest, I don’t really care about the image I paint, but the result I can get from it. Image as a starting point, as a term of significance in itself, is not something that has ever interested me.
However, I did realise that for viewers the concept of “understanding the use of image” is sometimes very significant. I realised this when I was using images from American movies, a common source of working material. What concerned me were the narrative issues in cinema. This was my immediate reference because I was living in Cuba full time, and ninety five percent of the movies we see here are made in the US. From my exploration of the temporal planes with respect to painting, I had become interested in cinema, and as a medium that is in beige it can sometimes condition and even impose this characteristic on painting when it permeates it. However, what people saw, especially the US public, was a “fascination with American culture”. That was what the first critics said when I began showing my work in the US; they talked about my supposed fascination with the media and with Hollywood.
Nothing could have been further from my inner reality. This led me to voluntarily distance myself from these images, and use other things, just to stop having to listen to that commonplace drill that had nothing to do with my intentions.
OP: At any rate, you haven’t stopped using or refer ring to moving images, whether in video, cinema or television.
RC: True… but I have stopped using trivial actor and actress images and icons which, because they are recognised, redirect reception, for someone looking at my work, towards what those icons might or might not mean personally.
OP: Now, in contrast—to set a time frame, let’s say in the last five years—your work has started to feature images of art history, especially paintings. If we continue with this simplistic logic, the conclusion would be that your ultimate fascination is with painting.
RC: I think I have always been fascinated by painting. I remember a girl who knew me very well always used to say, as a way of making fun of me, that the only time she had ever seen me cry was in front of a painting in a museum in Europe.
OP: What painting was it?
RC: I don’t remember.
OP: And what is the role of music in all this? You paint with music, you make music as a DJ…
RC: I live with music. Music is something which has also always been essential in my life. Perhaps it is also very organic for me.
OP: Do you think that the sampler mentality changed the way you paint?
RC: I was sampling images and kinds of visual items to make my art before I ever did it with music, before becoming a DJ; because for me that facet appeared at the beginning of the nineties, when I started to explore the world of DJs, even working professionally as one in New York.
However, long before that, without knowing what ‘sampling’ actually meant, I was doing the same thing in my painting; in other words, I was cutting and pasting, adding and juxtaposing images, textures, signs.
OP: Would you say from a “collage mentality”?
RC: It was the way I processed what was around me. For me everything is made up of fragments that I pasted or continue to paste together, while I edit them. I have always had that mentality in my work, very close to the idea of editing, of mon tage (in the audiovisual production sense of the term).
OP: Painting is that too: editing, juxtaposing…
RC: I think that painting, at this stage, maintains ‘something’ that for me is the great luxury of art: its mystery. And I think this will be increasingly true, in the case of painting, because people are less equipped to see it; they have less time and peace of mind and they are more fascinated or enslaved visually by this bombardment we get through the mobile phone, Internet, video games, television, everything around us today.
OP: “The universe of screens”, as José Luis Brea would put it. A short time ago I referred to this in a text on painting, coincidentally.
RC: These days, who has ten minutes to spend looking at a painting? It seems like an eternity but, if you think about it, ten minutes in a day is nothing; a day in a life is nothing. Why can’t you grant that importance to a painting? Very few people in the world now do. A painting is a map, it is the residue left by a physical and mental activity placed on a surface, and that is how painters see painting. It differs from how most people see it, because the public in general try to “understand the painting”, to “understand what it represents”. But they are wrong; there is nothing to “understand”, but rather to enjoy, to stop and feel.
OP: The public does not understand that, above all, it is a presence, it is something that is there.
RC: It is also the record of some days, hours, minutes in a person’s life; it is the residue that is left of an activity, intense or otherwise; but this is a different way of looking at it. People try to understand rather than thinking simply that it is a series of fluids, liquids and pastes, placed in a special way on a cloth, paper, surface, support, generally flat.
OP: The problem is in trying to read it, is that the mistake?
RC: The mistake is to superimpose considerations that are purely textual onto a phenomenon that is visual and sensorial. People do not try to imagine whether the artist was left-handed, right-handed, tall or short, as though the artist and his experience were not important, as though the importance lay in what they might understand or imagine based on what is before their eyes…That’s crazy, isn’t it?
OP: I think mainly what we should do in front of a painting is to enjoy it; as Eugenio d’Ors said “breathe it in”, “take its pulse”, never read it.
RC: Or maybe understand it, but in a very different way, a less rational way. What is important is to look at painting from a non-textual, non-narrative standpoint… painting does not “tell” anything. Painting suggests, denotes, insinuates; proposes, but does not narrate.
OP: Which does not mean you are not interested in “intelligent art”… and I mean this returning to the idea of textual work. Because for as long as I have known you, you have been using texts in your work, as an integral part of the works themselves and/or as a title, and these trigger “feints”—as we would say in sports—or “evasive strategies”, in more discursive terms; or they announce “possible clues” which perhaps are not going anywhere either. Sometimes they are only words, like deceitful puns, or like subversive plays on words to divert the viewer towards a useless interpretation of the textual, when he should be concentrating on the painting, not on reading it.
RC: The fact is I quite often use these texts or words as a joke, a way of generating more confusion in the face of the prejudiced approach (on the part of the viewer we talked of earlier, who is pretentiously “trained”) to the painting itself. When I decided only to paint, I also decided to mix my two previous approaches in art: on the one hand a very conceptual approach to making art, and on the other hand an approach where the most important thing is to enjoy my work. And I enjoy art most when I am painting, and in the way I want to paint. That is how I began the pieces in the Expenditure series, where I used a device—a heart rate monitor—to measure how many calories I used up as I painted any image and in any way. The titles of the series were determined by the number of calories and the percentage of fat which I burned up as I made each piece. I added an accompanying video to document this idea of producing art. It wasn’t even questionable, because the viewers would stand before paintings they liked because of how they were made, and they would later see a conceptual statement which “they could understand”, and whose reliability they never questioned. Well, they went no further than the “conceptual statement”; they did not appreciate the painting, they didn’t even understand it.
OP: Of course, if they did not conclude that the ‘conceptual statement’ is merely a ruse to distract us, a pretext for you to be able to capriciously paint whatever you feel like, however you feel like, they understood nothing; but you got away unscathed.
RC: If by that you mean that I had fun with the creative act or the act of painting, then yes, I got away unscathed, since no one has ever questioned what I was doing by painting this or that particular thing under certain “conceptual statements”. And I certainly have painted some atrocities that were truly aberrant for the supposed and intelligent artistic avant-garde, such as still lifes and landscapes. Thanks to that ruse, as you call it, I have been able to do kitsch, outmoded or twee stuff. However, the mainstream did not see it that way because I superimposed the “conceptual statement”. And that, I insist, I enjoy very much.
OP: It’s almost as if the “conceptual statement” somehow sanctified them, removed their banality, don’t you think?
RC: Not even that. The thing is that the “conceptual statement” is as far as they go. They are not able to look any further. It is as if someone told them: “Listen, you know, there is an artist who makes a lot of paintings over there”—without even mentioning what sort of paintings they are—“and while he paints he uses a heart rate monitor to measure how many calories and how much fat he burns, and the title of these paintings are the calories and percentages of fat he used up… in numbers placed on the paintings themselves. Clever, isn’t it?” They do not even ask what it was I painted or what medium I used: oil, acrylic…
Another example of this is the series where I started making paintings that used as a reference the size of the “master” or “famous” works in the history of art; or simply, in some cases, works by artists I like. In all of these I painted what I felt like painting, and the title of the painting was only the almost taxonomic reference to the size of the painting that supposedly inspired it. This is another strategy, you might call it cynical, to divert people’s attention towards the egomania of the system…
OP: I would say endogamy…
RC: It makes no difference—maybe both [laughter]. Once again, they lose all notion of how to approach these pieces. They just read them, they don’t look at them. I have never in my entire life been asked why I painted that, why that image and not any other, or why that reference to the size of that famous work X and not another one; in other words, they go no further than the title, which, once again, is a success. They say “Wow! How clever!” And I am freer to paint whatever I want and no one will question me. Perhaps this is because representation is in crisis, and it is not important. Or what is represented is not what is important in the case of this painting, and perhaps they notice that, they discover it. I hope so.
OP: Of course the habits of representation have changed. The twentieth century saw unimaginable progress in this connection; today we know what blood is like, what the cosmos is like, particles, cells, bacteria, sperm. We have a vision of almost everything around us, a standpoint from the microscopic to the macroscopic, and this has changed the visual limits of representation as a dogma. In fact, I think it is the block on which they decapitate it and take away its priority.
OP: The spectrum is too broad within this new “vision of what is real”.
RC: Furthermore, for this canonical vision of representation to be effective, people would have to live in a different tempo from what is experienced today.
OP: I think playfulness has always shaped you, the “sense of play” has always been present throughout your work, from the earliest to the most recent; and this has not been discussed in either comments or opinions on your work. What do you think?
RC: I don’t know why it is not mentioned. As I have been saying, for me the most important thing is to have fun while I work. And I need to have fun from start to finish: as soon as I have an idea about a work, and right through to the end, when I can no longer control what will happen when a viewer sees it. Until that time I need to imagine it as something fun, not in the comical-satirical sense, but, simply, as something which is neither tragic nor dramatic. Perhaps because it is a random, arbitrary moment, a little capricious, of manipulating what is before your eyes, in which, if by chance you aim to appreciate what you are seeing—as is the case in my work—in a “serious and transcendental manner”, you are not going anywhere.
OP: Or you fall into the trap of your own painting. And that did happen to me, as I told you, with your last personal exhibition: Hendrickje, at the Servando Gallery in Havana [November 2009], where if you, as a viewer, look at each of these paintings independently and then you see the aerial photograph of all of them together making the puzzle of the image of Rembrandt’s work by which you were inspired, the vision you obtain of the work changes radically.
And that is a new characteristic of your work. It is generating a painting that needs supplementary additions, as though completing it with something outside it.
RC: Yes, and this is because there are almost no pure things left in life today, and painting can be no exception to the impurity; indeed, thanks to it painting stays alive. To be honest, I don’t make “pure painting”… Fifty percent of the initial production process of these paintings is done by computer, camera, video, photography, editing processes… if you take away all that apparatus to try and find what it is I paint, I couldn’t do them. Because it is not enough to know how to paint in order to achieve that kind of result; this is not a kind of painting in which you find the image by drawing but rather it emerges from a process that is purely technological, and that has a lot to do with the nature and accessibility of the digital era.
OP: And is this where you link up with the new media again?
RC: Well, the fact is that everything is “new media”. I don’t think it is possible to conceive of art today away from new media; almost all contemporary artists work with images that they produce from a computer with a variety of image processing programs, although then they project it and at the precise moment of making the painting they change it. The new media are interacting with everything we do daily. Not only an artist, but any person today who doesn’t have a computer or access to a computer, could be considered old-fashioned, almost a cavedweller. Computers are now as much a part of our daily lives as getting dressed.
OP: Kevin Power wrote of you: “He is post most! In other words, post-ideology, post-Biennale, post-Cuban art boom, post ISA (although he has taught in this institution), post ethical responsibility for the achievements and failures of the Cuban system etc.” What do you think of that?
RC: I would ask, what does not being “post-all that” mean? What would I have to do to take responsibility in this regard? Would I have to make work that is “literally Cuban”, in other words, work with oars, boats, maps of the islands of Cuba, Cuban flags, with pioneers or with images of heroes? Or would I have to converse with this political system and contribute even more to the idea that is held abroad of a supposed Cuban art? Or would I have to work solely based on the idea that people have of that “product of Cuban art”? If you think about it, it is a labelled, standard, monolithic, stereotyped, more or less invariable invention; like a phenomenon that someone thought up one day and that afterwards almost all the artists of the island have tried to tap into as an identifying characteristic. Would that be a responsible attitude? Towards what? That would be to give the world—disguised as art—what the world wants to receive from Cuba, because (as you may have noticed) most Cuban art is art for export… it is not for Cuba.
OP: No, no, no, there’s no question about that, and it is not only for export! The vast majority is actually produced outside Cuba, exhibited outside Cuba, published outside Cuba, and marketed outside Cuba.
RC: If meeting the world’s demand for “what is Cuban” under an artistic stereotype means being responsible about being Cuban or not, look, I would rather be a “post-almost everything”, and Kevin is right. I really think that art must go beyond these clichés. Art is not a “something” that converses with society in this literal way; because in reality it has been amply proven throughout history that a work of art will not change the course of society, and nor can it have a responsible influence on any phenomenon of real life, above and beyond the purely emotional and intimate experience of a person as a subject. It is a phenomenon of the psyche, and the more dependent art is on a specific reality, the more it will lose its charm and, inevitably, it will become much more ephemeral. Just think: what degree of liberty does such literal art afford the spectator?
The only way I can be really honest when it comes to creating is by not having to think about any of these questions. I am already Cuban. I can do nothing else now!
OP: Of all the “posts” attributed to you by Kevin, I do agree that you are definitely a “post-modern artist”. And if we combine post and neo, I had the luxury of exhibit ing your work in 2005 in the project Barrocos y Neobarrocos. El infierno de lo bello, in the city of Salamanca—where your work was on show for the second time and where, incidentally, you were the only Cuban. In fact, you were included in that macro-exhibition because I see you as a perfect exponent of “linguistic promiscuity and the neo-Baroque genre”. But what if you were suddenly asked: what does it mean for you to have an avant-garde attitude in the twenty-first century?
RC: First of all, I would say that the term avant-garde grates with me a little. But if an avant-garde were possible it would currently have to have twenty five standard-bearers or ground-breakers. I do not know if it is avant-garde or not, but what I do know is that when you stop in front of a painting by Peter Doig, you perceive what you are seeing as “something very special”, something that is very different to whatever else there is. For me, for example, the avant-garde—since you insist on using that term—might be a painter like Luc Tuymans, or like Alex Katz, an artist who has always been so far outside the established orbit, so ahead of what you could see in his beginnings, that years have had to elapse before his talent and greatness have been recognised, and who was and is a giant artist, much more than the great figures that overlooked him then; but these were the greatest hits of a decade, while he kept on doing what he still does, like Lucian Freud, for example. Or careers as strongly criticised as that of Julian Schnabel or David Salle, who are nevertheless artists who maintain the spirit of surprise.
You can go right now to the next edition of Art Basel and you will find a good deal of work with something of a prefabricated, industrial reek to it, the same as a lot of art production, but if you come across a painting by Eric Fischer you will see it is unique. Perhaps this has to do with my own taste.
OP: To go back to the beginning, I don’t know if this is an unconscious thing, but most of the artists you have mentioned are painters.
RC: The thing is that painting is three-quarters of the history of art, and it has, has had and will have such glorious results that, against that fact, no one can rebel. Similarly, everything that has come after it has existed as a contrast and reference to it.
Painting is the only branch of human activity that is born as a method of autonomous expression for spiritual representation; and that has generated its own industry, since everything used in painting is only used to paint: I mean oil paint, spatulas, brushes, frames, impregnations, varnishes, etc. All other media were invented for other purposes, and were then re-used by man as art, such as the camera, the video camera, projectors or televisions. Even the first sculptures were made with cutting tools (axes), and chiselling tools (hammers) that were initially made for other purposes, not to make sculpture.
You can come from an “ultra-digital” context, entirely “super-computerised” and “post-industrial”, but if you spend a few minutes in the Louvre or the Prado you’ll still be surprised, because you realise that there has been and still is a human virtue that is totally capricious, that moves you, and that you cannot overlook.
NOTE: The authors wish to clarify that the opinions expressed in this interview are restricted to the circumstances of that day, but that perhaps now, or (who knows?) maybe tomorrow, these opinions may change considerably, because nothing is permanent, and certainly not words.
16 January 2010
Traducción de Katherine B. Angus