Among the phenomena that Walter Benjamin addresses in his study on Baudelaire, the one related to the presence of the chiffonier in The Flowers of Evil seems particularly relevant when trying to understand modern art’s processes. By working with the ruins of merchandise, the chiffonier represents a possible melancholic synthesis of capitalism. Even Baudelaire, by looking for poetry lines amid the detritus of Parisian streets, might have functioned as a chiffonier himself.
Like Baudelaire, 20th-century painters composed assemblages with the discarded objects they gathered. Collage, assemblages, and readymades all respond to the poetic force of artists’ strategic investigation of trash in modern society. An important part of Dulce Gómez’s work is inscribed in this tradition. From very early on in her career, she has been working with the remainders of everyday objects extricated from their habitual contexts. Her painterly surfaces have ranged from the upholstery of old furniture to industrial tarp and plastic coverings, cardboard, and packing material. She also has used everyday objects like ink blotters and needles in unexpected ways that break away from their automatized use and produce allegories of time’s passage and the dynamics of light.
With these materials, Gómez makes assemblages and installations that are powerful syntheses of calculation and chance. In general, her work has been determined by a dialectical relationship between the programmed and the random, the deliberate and the unexpected. This is manifest even in her more traditionally painterly projects, such as her series Early in the Morning .
As a modern chiffonier, Gómez recycles and reorganizes the world upon its refuse. Her assemblages, paintings, and installations are made with a passion for integration that allows her to construct hybrid constellations, rhythmical series, and consistent chromatic bodies.
Rafael Castillo Zapata Looking at your first works up to the present, a couple of running threads become apparent. One relates to the idea of systems, of series, of continuity. Another has to do with the random, the unpredictable, the forms found in the process of exploring an imaginary world. How are these two threads part of your process?
Dulce Gómez I can visualize those threads more concretely now, because I had the opportunity to work in a different place than my normal work space in Caracas this past year during my residency at the Bronx Museum. I also participated in the Artist in the Marketplace program there, and was able to interact with other artists, curators, critics, and museum staff. In the Bronx, I saw clearly that I always start with that selfsame logic, where encountering materials at random is an integral part of the work. The more calculated part of the process—which is more rigorous because I’m more conscious of it—reveals itself in the finished piece.
RCZ Do those threads become manifest simultaneously the entire time or are there moments of creative experience in which one weighs more than the other?
DG They are always interacting. My work has a significant mood-related charge. I mean by this that even though I aspire to arrive at an image I have in mind when beginning a work, I also have to deal with a mood—one that I sometimes struggle with a little so that it doesn’t compete with or take away from the image. No doubt there are pieces among the number of mediums that I work with—painting, assemblage, and installation—in which the resolution of this struggle is fast. There are other pieces that take more time to execute and achieve via the dynamic between chance and system filtered through my feelings and emotions.
RCZ In this dialectic or game between project, calculation, and chance, I imagine that the moment of finding is fundamental for you. That is to say, the confluence between what you imagine the piece could be and the actual process of making it carries with it the possibility of discovery.
DG Precisely. I always begin with a proposition or a question, a process influenced by the constant psychoanalytic work I’ve been doing for the last 16 years, and which now makes up a part of my work. You might say that my creative practice is processed through analysis. This wasn’t a conscious decision; the systematic psychoanalysis gave me a structure—the strong and weak parts of my character are both connected with my work. I make relationships between materials and concepts, as well as associations with ideas and shapes the way they should be made, and I can do it quickly.
So even though I have a rational side that knows exactly what I’m looking for, I try to allow chance and experimentation to yield the unexpected. In the end, however, I have to choose and discriminate so that only the parts that interest me remain.
RCZ I’ve heard you talk about crucial moments in your development as an artist. Could you point out some of them by talking about specific pieces and explaining how they mark a point of inflection on your trajectory?
DG At the beginning of the ’90s I did a trilogy that began with a piece from ’94 entitled Dibujo en Rojo (Drawing in Red). It was made of two panels of raw wood 5 by 6.5 feet long, on which I arranged a row of droppers filled with red ink. The panels had been lying on the floor and when they were finally installed on the wall of the Museo Alejandro Otero in Caracas, the ink dripped out and down the boards. That piece has been shown three or four times, if I remember correctly, and every time all the droppers except those blocked up with solidified ink are refilled. Drawing in Red has a process that is still alive.
Autorretrato Anónimo (Anonymous Self-Portrait), from ’95, is a pattern cutter. On the wall of the Museo de Arte Contemporáneo I arranged the resulting series of linked paper chains, like chains of children’s paper dolls. The museum’s visitors could take a piece of the chain and put it into a paper shredder. During the three months the exhibit was up, visitors contributed to the installation by adding to the mound of shredded paper. A new, shapeless form was created, a process that turned the piece into a participatory event of collective creation. It has been exhibited on three different occasions and also contains a device that keeps its process alive. It’s as if it becomes new again each time.
The third piece is called Inmersión (Immersion), and is a series of ten Cibachrome prints that record the immersion of a table, made to scale, in a fish tank into which I had poured blue ink. The idea was to record the process of the ink slowly coloring the entirety of the fish tank’s interior—including the water and the table.
So, Immersion, Drawing in Red, and Anonymous Self-Portrait are three pieces that show my awareness of process, the live development of the ongoing piece, more obviously. After that I made pieces that were more fixed, like Nivel I (Level I): there are lines on the canvas, and above them there’s a level, like the ones that builders and architects use to make sure that everything is perfectly level. This piece isn’t mobile in time, but it does allude to the process of its own hanging by making visible the tool with which one verifies whether or not it has been hung properly.
RCZ Many of these pieces are arranged around a mechanical element outside of traditional mediums: droppers, a paper shredder, a fish tank, and a level. You could say this is related to the thread of systemization, control, and calculation, and to your interest in devices of mechanical articulation, since the works are not merely gestural.
DG Yes. Ten years ago I was less conscious of the moment in which a piece was open to those noncontrolled situations, though I’ve always been interested in the unexpected that might be as surprising for the spectator as it is for me. Though I’m still on that same search for a certain control over my materials and the elements with which I create, I have more distance today, and this allows me to make more pieces that begin spontaneously. In my latest work, calculation isn’t as present, I allow spontaneity to dictate the creative process. The last piece I did, Pins, is a continuation of that trilogy from the ’90s. It is based on the perforation of the head of a pin; I’m nailing the shadow, you could say. The shadow depends on the light, and the light is placed at a certain distance from the piece. First I nail a map pin into the surface. Then I nail the next map pin into the head of the shadow thrown by the first. Eventually I end up with a drawing, a final image. The piece is sustained by the play between the material quality of the physical map pin and the immateriality of its shadow.
RCZ And yet, in Pins, the idea of the series is dominant because the composed sequence is a chain where each trace is derived from the previous element. It constructs a kind of visual melody in which, yes, quite a lot of chance is involved, but it also involves a lot of control, even a geometric control of the scene you’re representing. I think those two approaches are unavoidable in your work. Perhaps the emphasis on the random nature of the gesture is more palpable in the slightly more expressionistic pieces, where the control isn’t so evident. But you also have a tendency to organize the final object rationally. It is a dialectic that produces important effects in your work—you made reference to the importance of your analysis, the exploration of the unconscious through the mediation of language. In your work there might also be an attempt to explore that “other” which exists in experience but doesn’t reveal itself at first glance. It seems to me that the practice of reading between the lines might have an effect on how you conceive of some works. One could say that it produces effects at the level of representation in your painting. I’m thinking about some of your works where you play a game with the visibility of the image and the superimposing of surfaces, where you attempt to invent transparency through devices like plastic, for example. Those visual games indicate another thread running through your work: the construction of visibility through the use of illusion or simulacrum.
DG Yes, there are works like Pintura Empacada (Packaged Painting), a piece in traditional media with spots of primary and secondary color painted randomly. The canvas was stretched over a frame and later covered with Bubble Wrap. This was really a kind of matrix because the plastic comes with those industrial-sized circles. I created a visual game between what I had painted behind randomly and the plastic matrix in front, tracing, copying, painting, and filling in the superimposed circles and bringing the two spaces into play with each other. This piece captures the game you mentioned between simulacrum and materiality; I don’t want to separate the materials from their own qualities, nor separate myself from the reality of the things I use. In my work, wood is wood and plastic is plastic. The displacement occurs in order to create a different dimension, a sense of illusion. In Packaged Painting, the plastic that is normally used to protect an artwork is used instead to generate a dynamic situation.
RCZ In pieces like Packaged Painting, the construction of the illusion of depth paradoxically comes to highlight the very fact of contact between two surfaces, one of which is transparent and, by being superimposed, creates the unexpected sensation of depth. It’s an ironic effect, even humorous and playful. There is a lighthearted element in your exploratory work, associated with the pleasure of experimenting with form and fantasy through chromatic and geometric associations. All this is filtered through a conceptual imagination made manifest in, for example, your titles, which in many instances are allusions of a double meaning that involve the viewer.
DG There is the series of paintings Reading, Negated, from ’97 in which I represented book jackets on shelves, alluding to eminently verbal constructions but at the same time negating the legibility of the language, which was covered by the closed body of the book. This group of paintings centers on a rejection of meaning that makes up a large part of modern art.
RCZ This also brings to mind that work of yours from ’97, Rémora (Hindrance), which has to do, though it’s not immediately apparent, with Anonymous Self-Portrait in the sense that the accumulation of material in the corner and the shredding of the piece convert identity into waste, a hindrance. Anonymous Self-Portrait and Hindrance are connected across a distance of time. One of the great charms of your oeuvre is that, over the course of your career, one can see self-evocations of your own work. A piece from ’97 implicitly cites a piece from ’92. I don’t think that it’s always a conscious proposition, this capacity of your work to evoke its own past in its new manifestations, but it does show that there is an important force of continuity, of stability within which your recurrent experimentalism exists. To generalize, you could argue that poetics are originally formed in experimentation and then become solidified over time. It’s as if you have consolidated a “Gomezian” poetics. (laughter)
DG It seems a little rash to call it that, though, in any case, I’m flattered. If I had to articulate a poetics, it would be that of doing the best possible work, so that an underlying conceptual and visual sensibility is forged over the course of my career.
Hindrance is made up of the calligraphic letters used to name houses in Caracas in the ’50s especially, but the tradition is still in practice today. The names allude to the social fabric by referring to family values and class. The paradox of something intimate being revealed on the façade attracted me to making this installation. The names could be combined or might come from saints or from anecdotes specific to the family that lives in the house. In my piece, I included names that related to my private imagination, names with a personal significance. When I created this installation I was invited to be a part of an exhibit called The Invention of Continuity. According to Luis Enrique Pérez Oramas, the curator, my installation fit one of the lines of investigation that he was proposing: the urban landscape. Also paradoxically, the exhibition presented that same symbolic displacement of the private to the public.
RCZ The idea of the residual, that which remains, has a lot to do with psychoanalysis and perhaps also with a certain surreal experience, that accumulation of unconscious things which are then placed in the space of the real in an unexpected way. In Hindrance the names suggest elements of domestic intimacy but are displayed on the exterior walls.
DG And in the open.
RCZ That’s a game that forms part of what might be called your conceptual knot, a very important aspect of your work and one from which, it seems to me, you moved away from in the 2006 pieces. These pieces return, in a very fresh and pleasurable way, to “painters’ painting.” They also highlight another thread that runs through your work: color and the plastic potential of pure chromatic associations.
DG Yes, well, there was something a little bit earlier too, a series of 12 paintings in ’92 called Muelles (Piers). I started with a space for contemplation in the lower corners of the paintings. These paintings were a profound ultramarine blue with a rectangular format, and had a surreal look. For a horizon, I used the defining potential of the color. In the series Temprano en la mañana (Early in the Morning), I returned again to this pictorial language, using color as the element that defines the form of the work, using chromatic combination and chance to execute each work in order to show the precision of the line and the continuity of the forms individually as well as together in an installation. I always try to suggest a pictorial plasticity in my conceptual work; paint dwells on the canvas and pushes you in a certain direction. At the same time, it’s a limiting medium. The piers didn’t represent real piers; they only existed in my imagination and hence their surreal quality. The paintings that I did 15 years later—Early in the Morning among them—are the same size as the piers from ’92. I mention sizes because I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I use those two sizes, 63 by 55 inches and 31.5 by 31.5 inches, in the majority of my work. Size is constant—
RCZ A mathematical constant.
DG Even Drawing in Red has those dimensions. The series Early in the Morning does contain elements of Surrealism inasmuch as its execution involved a pictorial automatism. Of course it’s understood that automatism was a big part of Surrealism, but so was gesture. These paintings are neither gestural nor geometric. There is an organic quality to the edges; the line of color delineates territories or spaces within the painting itself. As far as its execution, I didn’t have too clear an idea how it would turn out, I only knew that I needed spontaneity in order to rehearse my skills and the solidity of the freehand line. The paintings had an automatic element of rapid execution so that the pieces would be free of textures or gestures and could only be read through their forms and edges.
RCZ The title of this series calls to mind a very specific locus of enunciation, as well as an hour of the day and a particular light. What is the relationship between this series and the space and light of your city? Where did you create these pictures? Do they have something to do with your experience with the Monte Ávila that surrounds Caracas, a place you periodically visit? It’s a place that few cities in the world have the privilege of possessing. In the middle of all that concrete, vegetation penetrates the city. The huge mountain also acts as a kind of protective wall surrounding it.
DG From my studio I have a view of the volcano that sits in the southeast part of Caracas. It forms a part of my imagination because my studio is the house in which I was born and raised. As a child I explored the mountains with my father; we would hunt for mangos to make jelly. I have an emotional relationship with the act of hiking in the mountain, which, if I had my way, I would never stop doing. It’s interesting to think about the movement of hiking as meditation, too. Early in the Morning has two connections: one with my analysis, which is in the morning, and another with the clarity you experience upon waking, which allows you to make a decision. I wanted to have that moment of brightness present as I painted these works.
RCZ It’s a moment of strange lucidity.
DG Because it’s a suspended moment. This points to another feature of my work, which is the suspension of sense, the theme of doubt. The placing of the work in a circumstance of certain mobility, of a certain . . .
RCZ Ambiguity. There is your series Land(e)scape II that also relates with the landscape, but in a more abstract form. They seem to have been generated by a process similar to erasing the surface. The effects come close to calligraphy, an erased calligraphy. How many paintings are in that series?
DG Five. Land(e)scape was the title of my first solo show, in ’94. I made a rubber stamp of that invented word.
RCZ It’s a landscape, but at the same time—
DG Escape from the land. I wanted a title that could be read in Spanish and English and which would have a complete meaning in the two languages. I worked with ink from pens that I had taken apart. In the immaculate space of the white canvases, I released the ink, working by chance, automatically. Pen ink usually has a special plasticity: you put the point down and a kind of spreading drop appears. I started to play with those drops, seeing where they would go, and I made a kind of constellation of ink. Later, I created a more pictorial process in which I discriminated between what was a deliberate stain and what was accidental. I wanted to create a composition that, in the end, would have this duality. In Land(e)scape II, a series I made using paint, I made the same stains and erased them with water. After I washed them out, only veiled traces and impressions remained. It’s all about that process of unveiling and covering, removing and covering. I always put a stamp on each of these pieces to give them, you could say, the impression of something finished.
RCZ Let’s talk a little about influences. I immediately associate Land(e)scape with Cy Twombly.
DG There is a similarity there, an approximation, a closeness. There are artists I’ve liked since I started out, and to whom I still return: Cézanne, Pollock, Munch, and, more recently, Twombly. I was able to appreciate his work directly in ’93, when I made my first visit to New York. Julian Schnabel and Josh Smith are other artists I’m interested in. Venezuelans, too—Reverón, for example, has always fascinated me for the way his work sustains itself through the material. I’m impressed by the force of his white landscapes and how he made the jute and the pigment speak. He created landscapes with almost nothing. I also like Soto a lot: movement is another element that is also in my work. In fact, it was a happy coincidence when Anonymous Self-Portrait was shown in ’95 in front of a permanent mural of Soto’s, the Mural Caracas Progression 2. There is Soto, with his search for movement through kinetic art, and then me, in contrast, with the conceptual device of placing the creation/destruction of the work itself in the hands of the spectator. If we’re talking about influences, I should also say that there are many poets whose ability to evoke intimacy with words I’ve admired greatly: Rafael Cadenas, Yolanda Pantin, yourself, Rilke, Luis Enrique Pérez Oramas. My contact with Álvaro Sotillo and, in the last five years, a friendship with Arturo Herrera have also been influential.
RCZ You are also working on your thesis for a degree in visual arts. Its title immediately recalls Walter Benjamin: “An Impossible Flower.”* Could you talk a little about that exploration, about theoretical reflection on art? Why the figure of Benjamin?
DG My education was rather unconventional. I studied at the Escuela Cristóbal Rojas for three years in a program called the “experimental plan” with excellent professors: Nedo Ferrario, Eugenio Espinoza, Antonieta Sosa, and Santiago Pol, to name a few. But then I decided that it would be better for me to work at the library of the Museo de Arte Contemporáneo, in the research department, as I wanted to move out of my parents’ house. Years went by and then two years ago I decided that I wanted to formalize my education. I enrolled at the Instituto Armando Reverón to get a degree in visual arts. As for intellectual stimulus, I was lucky to take your seminar “Odradek” with keen and diverse participants and amid the extremely complicated situation our country currently faces: the political polarization that has even reached the museums and the ever-rising inflation in the past two years. Thanks to your extracurricular seminar, we were able talk about our opinions on Situationism, the avant-garde, and the return of revolt. It didn’t have anything to do with academic studies. It was a fortunate situation, a profound one. I remember once, right after the screening of a Debord film, during one of these very casual conversations, you asked out of nowhere and in a loud voice how, to quote Benjamin, “in the land of technology,” we can’t appreciate reality more, given that in reality there are so many obstacles impeding our vision. And here you alluded to the impossible flower.
RCZ Right, in the land of technology, reality has become an impossible flower.
DG Exactly. That inquiry or question resonated for me. After my residence at the Bronx Museum this year, I started to think concretely about what I was really interested in. What Benjamin said is still valid. It stimulated me to read him and other related texts. The “Odradek” project, which only lasted two months, led me to more references, more works of criticism, magazine articles, artists’ writings. And it made me think about other philosophers I had read on my own, Deleuze for example. I read Proust and Signs because I was interested in everything having to do with the idea of the word, with the study of language and linguistic signs as elements inherent in conceptual art, but all of it as an autodidact. My library is pretty unusual because it’s organized according to the pure pleasure of reading books. The two philosophers I’ve been thinking about lately are Nietzsche and Benjamin. And, of course, the works of Freud because my analysis has been the most rigorous formal experience I have ever had. It’s helped me to better articulate my thinking when I discuss my work. Art is so complex, in part, because of its subjective baggage.
RCZ So how do you answer that implied question of Benjamin’s? Is it true that “in the land of technology, reality has become an impossible flower,” or have you arrived at another conclusion?
DG On the subject of mediation, there is a certain nostalgia or melancholia, given that mediation prevents you to access something more real than that which you perceive through it. I might disagree with this; I’d like to think that there is a mediation generated in the unconscious, one that is also physical and biological and doesn’t have anything to do with intellectual constructs and therefore isn’t mediated by the printed word. That’s what I arrived at when I reflected on mediation and the reception of my work during my stay in New York. My thinking before had been intuitive and naïve, very innocent.
RCZ You thought you could approach it phenomenologically.
RCZ Do you still think that?
DG I don’t know. I’m going to take your seminar “The Situationist Unconscious” again, to see if I can reach some new insight. I still think there are things that happen in a dynamic dimension that are simultaneously conscious and unconscious. In my experience with analysis, I’ve been able to confirm that what is called unconscious is actually systematic, that it isn’t separated from the conscious mind. The unconscious is forged in the simplest acts of our daily lives without us even noticing it. In my art, I try to capture the ephemeral moment that lies between what I think and what I feel. A lot has been said about reality, it’s a subject that can be pretty barren at this point. Yet I do think that there is a form of reality allowing us to appreciate things as they are.
RCZ Let’s hope it’s a reality that’s real!
*What Benjamin calls “die blaue Blume” in the original German of “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” and become an “orchid” in Harry Zohn’s English translation.
Translated from the Spanish by Clinton Krute.
A poet, collage artist, and essayist, Rafael Castillo Zapata teaches literary theory at the Universidad Central de Venezuela. His most recent poetry book is Estancias (Stanzas). He has written catalogue essays on emerging artists for such Caracas-based alternative spaces as La Carnicería and Alternativa. His current research focuses on Latin America avant-garde movements of the ’60 and ’70s.