I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
In many ways, our collective state of being is reflected in art before it becomes widely acknowledged. As artists, we are simultaneously social, political, and economic analysts attempting to define the world we live in through our art’s criticality. Many of us uproot ourselves from our homelands in order to develop acuity through the physical distance from our origins.
Juan Uslé is one such artist. He came to New York from Spain more than two decades ago, and like many artists living and working here, has developed a singular way of painting that transcends cultural identity. His work is expansive, while keenly conscious of the fractured and contradictory aspects of the way our world is ordered. We’re allowed to experience this complexity through the prism of his highly sensual and thoughtful paintings.
Uslé is a humanist who attempts to reconcile the differences between the poetic and the practical aspects of living in a more and more merciless, stressful, and non-reflexive world. His paintings call attention to the experiential, to make us conscious of time and space; through touch and mellifluous surface, we’re reminded of the importance of our sensory capacity.
Juan and I first met in his studio on Broadway, and then at my studio. In between, we continued our conversation via email, talking about his student days in the dawn of post-Franco Spain, his views about painting, and what it means to paint abstractly today. Juan is an erudite speaker in Spanish, so he modified some of his responses in Spanish. Mónica de la Torre kindly translated them into English.
Shirley Kaneda I seem to remember that your first show in New York was at John Good Gallery in 1988?
Juan Uslé My first solo show was in 1988, yes, but it was at Farideh Cadot Gallery. For a couple of years, she had a space in SoHo. I had met her shortly after moving to New York at an opening or party with other Spanish artists who’d been living here for a while.
SK Yes, I remember her gallery, but the first show I saw of yours was at John Good’s. Why did you come to New York in the first place?
JU I came here for a few days in 1985. I’d been invited to participate in a show at the ICA Boston that was part of a series of exhibitions with emerging European artists organized by David Joselit and David Ross. Dan Cameron, who was very involved in Spanish art at the time, told me I had to come, because it was a very interesting program. The other Spanish artist in the show was the sculptor Evaristo Bellotti.
At first I had trouble getting a visa, because even though we’d happily gotten over the dictatorship, there were still “administrative residues” that generated unpleasant surprises. In the end, I was able to travel. I passed through New York and, as it tends to happen, that was enough for me to decide that this was the city I’d like to live in. I was able to return in 1987 thanks to a Fulbright grant.
SK Where were you living in ’85?
JU I’ve always lived in the north of Spain, with the exception of four wonderful years I spent in Valencia studying fine arts at the Polytechnic University there. Before moving to New York, I split my time between teaching at the University of Santander and making art in an old mill turned into a studio in the valley of the River Miera.
During my first years as a student, Spain was a country in gray camouflage—a country with a lot of energy and potential, but a repressed one trying to wake up from the heavy slumber of the dictatorship. The transition from a degraded Francoist regime to the establishment of a democracy was exceedingly intense to experience. As a student, I remember feeling caught between two powerful forces: my passion for painting and my ideological duties. As a citizen and student I felt obligated to actively participate in changing outmoded systems in the school’s programs—which were alien to avant-garde movements—and in the country’s political system. We wanted a democracy in sync with the European context. In the middle of these was painting, always waiting.
SK When was it that Franco died, 1980?
JU 1975. I laugh because I sometimes get the decades confused, thinking that certain things happened yesterday, and not thirty or forty years ago. El Caimán (The Alligator), as we called him, wouldn’t die. He was intubated and on life support for many months, and the period while he was agonizing had become unbearable. Franco’s supporters thought they had it all under control, but the youth, leftist militants, and a substantial portion of the population couldn’t wait any longer to wake up from that giant nightmare.
He died on November 20th. I remember that day very well; it was a particularly radiant day in Valencia and one of the happiest days of my life.
SK Yes, I can imagine. Dictatorship didn’t survive against populist uprising in Spain, and it was good it got out from under when it did. Other uprisings haven’t been as successful recently.
JU We all gathered at the university’s entrance. As accomplices, we wanted to share our enthusiasm and hope. It was very special for us to assemble there. We were relieved and felt lighter and younger. We even looked different, though we were all in our usual somewhat dirty, quirky garb. I had a beard and a very long raincoat, a “socialist raincoat.” My father had used it on his wedding or something.
SK Not to change the subject, but the history of painting in Spain is very long and very important, so I can imagine that at the academy there would be, as you said, an old-fashioned or very academic way of teaching and learning how to paint. I wonder for younger artists such as yourself at the time, especially coming out of Fascism, how much of that history were you involved in? It’s impossible to discredit somebody like Velázquez, Zurbarán, or even Miró—
JU I’m always slightly confused when I encounter the English phrases “the Spanish school of painting” or “the Spanish Academy.” There’s a popular saying that warns one, when it comes to sheep, “not to confuse churras with merinas.” They’re both sheep, but very different. (laughter) That’s exactly the great contradiction we faced as art students: great Spanish art and the Academy are two very different things. Was it even worth trying to paint like Velázquez or Zurbarán in the second half of the twentieth century? What should schools be teaching? Can you imagine, Shirley, a science university where they teach techniques pertaining to practices from the sixteenth or seventeenth centuries? Velázquez’s paintings are magnificent, I adore Zurbarán, El Greco, etcetera, not to mention Goya, whose greatness is so huge it doesn’t fit in this comment. We wanted to be in the present, but Spain lay dormant, outside of time. The past cannot be imposed as the sole truth, the one and only gaze.
I’m not opposed to any pedagogical method or painting language, as long as it’s oriented toward attaining precise goals and makes it possible for an individual voice to erupt. At the university in Valencia, professors and programs in the art department were fixated on reproducing a completely anodyne teaching system. Schools and art were in a kind of limbo then. They were ossified by the system’s own immobility. Teaching methods and techniques lead to a bland and meaningless “academic mimesis” that few were able to avoid. On the other hand, many of the art students happily identified with a bohemian and frivolous attitude that was equally dated—they were in a different limbo, no doubt.
SK How did you decide to be an artist in the first place? What was the impetus?
JU My relationship to art was always natural, but it didn’t develop smoothly. Some of my earliest happy memories are of drawing, sometimes with my brother, sometimes on my own, in that humble house in which we grew up, outside of Santander. It was right next to an enormous convent where the Trinitarians of Suesa nuns were cloistered. We grew up in the country, near the Cubas River, and we often used to play alone, since my parents were almost always busy, working as gardeners for the nuns. Back home, at night, I remember the magic of seeing my father’s pencil glide on Kraft paper when tracing the shapes of different local birds. In grade school, the few times we officially set out to draw, my drawings seemed to garner some recognition. When I was nine, we moved to the city—to Santander—and the story kept repeating itself. The teacher would call my parents in, but he might as well have been talking to a wall: fine arts, talent were words that my parents didn’t understand. Due to their very humble origins, they probably feared that pursuing studies in Madrid, Barcelona, or Valencia entailed incurring expenses they could not afford. Since then, and for many years, drawing became an equally habitual and painful activity for me.
SK Painful? Drawing should be pleasurable, especially as a kid. But becoming an artist before and at that time was pretty much an option for the upper class only, so your parents must have been concerned that you might be heading toward a life of instability.
JU Suddenly it became almost forbidden to draw at home. Clandestine too. Although they never radically said, “Never draw again!” I could sense discomfort and rejection in their glances and comments. I’d secretly draw, but if I heard someone approaching, I’d hastily hide the drawing.
SK But you somehow found a way to persist and got into art school in Valencia.
JU Yes. Valencia was a much larger city; it had many more possibilities than Santander, more flavor. Its presence and historical weight were breathable. When I moved there, I had traded the North of Spain for the South, and I felt charged with a great energy and liberated from my family’s shadow. Everything seemed new and stimulating; I could breathe better and deeper. Many years later, when visiting New York for the first time, I had that sensation again. Walking down streets felt like déjà vu—it wasn’t because of the buildings or the landscape, but because of that sense of relief and freedom to be able to use time for something different than imprisoning routines. Moving altered my imagination; it disrupted it. I recognize that in me, the idea of beauty—deep, mysterious, ingrained—follows the trail of the North. In the Southeast I discovered another one, more pleasurable and sensorial: the idea of the South.
The four years I spent in Valencia were thrilling and full of activity. It was easy to get by there, since it was very inexpensive. There still is a great artisanal tradition there too. I wanted to learn and know everything. I had lots to do besides juggling multiple jobs to get by and cover my tuition. To go to a screening at a film club or to a political lecture was much more important than eating. I kept my expenses as low as possible. There were great cultural programs and film series featuring experimental and classic films, and this was no small thing, compared to the mediocrity of my art school. Cage, Penderecki, Warhol, Jonas Mekas were now part of my imagination, alongside Godard, Resnais, Pasolini, Antonioni, and Herzog.
On my second year, thanks to a fellowship, I was able to rent a small studio that I shared with Vicky [Victoria Civera] in a ruin of a building at the intersection of Fabián y Fuero streets. A lot of gatherings and debate sessions—concerning both politics and art—took place there. It was 1974 and 1975 and the universities, and Spanish society at large, were in a state of ebullience. We were trying to make art in a nonacademic, nonofficial way. We were constantly going to demonstrations and organizing performances and interventions in the city’s streets and plazas, and sometimes within the university’s walls. We spent much more time doing this than attending boring classes. After extremely long days, I would find consolation when coming back home: I’d find myself again in my studio and would paint. My best memories go hand-in-hand with my effort to immerse myself in the language of painting.
SK Do all your paintings start with a general premise? For example, you’ve said that your paintings address the notion of “silence” and that your body acted as a way of being conscious of the temporal, which was an impetus for you.
JU I can’t generalize; I make different types of paintings. For many years I’ve tried to remain open and be as free as possible when it comes to a work’s premise, the process of making it, and my own encounter with images. There’s a recurring notion in all my work: the wish not to force things but instead to wait and “listen,” to be on alert so I can become attuned to and understand what I’m making.
As for the second part of your question, yes, I see silence in relation to a wide group of dark, almost black paintings whose generic title is Soñé que Revelabas (I Dreamt that You Revealed) [S.Q.R.]. I usually paint these at night. I intentionally seek silence, because it’s a fundamental part of the process and execution of the paintings. When making them, I follow my heartbeat’s rhythm, synchronizing the brushstrokes with it. I experience a sort of cleansing, as well as an identification and projection, since there’s a bit of self-portraiture in the works, which are cartographies of sorts, mapping the psychological, the organic, and the scientific.
At first I worked on these paintings once in a while only, since to make them I need to be in a special mood, as well as have a particular attitude to and relationship with my surroundings. The process is emotional and physical; silence and the body are the protagonists, but what I do is far from being informal or loose. I begin listening and recognizing silence, meditating until I hear the blood circulating, and then start following the beats, making marks, one by one, line by line, emptying myself until the entire surface of the canvas is covered. It doesn’t matter how long I work; there’s a passage from the initial silence to its physical recognition and the performance of a ritual reaching for a deeper silence, where time just disappears.
SK It’s interesting that your process is very performative. It’s different from how Pollock “danced” around his paintings, but you are obviously conscious of your body and its relationship to the painting. I can imagine that you will need to do this when there is the least amount of outside stimuli. Your brushstrokes don’t seem random, but they’re not completely controlled either. They are rhythmic in that your paintings employ repetition and consist of continuous marks that seem to start and stop, that function as a pattern. What do these marks represent to you, or what would you like the viewer to experience through these marks?
JU The marks are just a residue of the process of making, of the repetitive motion of advancing and stopping. It’s the constant rhythm following my heartbeat. This is quite literal, specifically in the large dark paintings in the series S.Q.R., where the marks are ordered in rows. They also become a pattern, a guide, even in the smaller works. They function like chain links or bricks—they’re connected, unitary elements that make the trajectory of a proposition readable, triggering a pictorial experience. In contrast, when the paintings become more complex, more rhizomatic, it becomes difficult to know if they’re finished or not; the chain links there function as echoes, as murmurs emitted from a process-based plane inviting the viewer to plunge into the image’s different temporalities.
SK Is space important for you? Sometimes your works seem to have a figure-ground relationship in which there are forms on top of a space that functions clearly as ground—and then there are more complex spaces where locating certain elements becomes difficult.
JU Of course, space is very important and, in general, functions as an active and complex ingredient—both perceptually and psychologically. In some of my works, layers are superimposed with images that are almost the central protagonists. But you could also say that some works have an atmospheric quality, a certain ambiguity, even though they might start with grids and almost geometrically divided space. In general, my use of geometry “trembles,” this makes the space in the paintings become increasingly mutable. I seek density and surprise, but sometimes I arrive at density or complexity through different paths, through the process-based simplicity of black or gray marks, as in the S.Q.R. paintings, or through the complex grids, spaces, and juxtaposed gestural marks of my interminable Rhizomes.
I have no interest in seeing the surface as antagonistic to the idea of virtual space. I also don’t reject plurality or the presence of illusory spaces. I titled a 1995 painting A Años Luz (Light Years Away) because its space seemed to multiply indefinitely, and I named one of my small Namaste paintings Digital Blue. Overall, I try to interpret space as a part of a whole in a state of metamorphosis. It’s usually challenging to identify fixed spaces in my paintings, partly due to the fragmentary use of multiple spaces within the same surface. I like that this quality might manifest itself syntactically when the viewer approaches certain works that look one way from afar, but then morph when the viewer contemplates them slowly, unraveling their morphology.
SK I’ve always been interested in this idea of the relationship of parts to the whole and not sacrificing the parts for the sake of unity. It seems that many abstract painters today are dealing with this in different ways. The idea of a non-specific space in which so many types of relationships could coexist. Metaphorically speaking, I’ve always thought that this is what constitutes the real, in the sense that this is life, as opposed to the ideal of unification or singularity. More and more, we are aware of this reality, as the world reveals itself. Arbitrary borders are challenged as we seek to empower ourselves in so many different ways—not always successfully, but we are designed not to give up. What are your influences?
JU The influences are many: the building across the street, literature, music, stories, movies, poetry… film has always motivated me. It helped open my vision and think of other images. The same goes for poetry and dreams. Painting and the history of the image are always there. My temperament is somewhat Whitman-esque, and my thinking is empirical—lived experience is very important. In fact, powerful childhood events continue to churn and move images inside me. One of the things that impressed me the most as a child was the experience of finding myself, unexpectedly, before an actual painting of a bald nun holding her heart in her hands. This was at the convent next door, where my parents worked as gardeners. It was tremendous. Even now, so many years later, when looking at a painting, I try to access that enigmatic and powerful gaze.
A list of my influences would be long and very unfair too, since painting in itself is already a planet, a world that is turning, revealing to us what we’d overlooked before. Even though this might seem like a difficult combination, I was always seduced by the Morandi plus Picabia equation. Once I moved to New York, the paintings of Albert Pinkham Ryder and Forrest Bess were some of the most special discoveries. I didn’t know their work before, even though their names had been mentioned in reviews of my work. When I see their paintings, I feel close to my first encounter with art. Not to mention Velázquez, whom I refer to repeatedly in the titles of some of my works: Fragmentos de Felipe IV, Lazos de la Infanta. Or Vermeer, Rembrandt, Giotto, Mantegna, Tintoretto, Titian, Goya, Guston, Zurbarán, or de Kooning—painting is permanently reinventing itself! I want to go see the Polke retrospective at MoMA. He had that magnificent show at the Brooklyn Museum. His paintings always seemed very generous to me. He was generous too, when he saw my paintings at Documenta 9.
SK The Morandi and Picabia combination certainly does sound weird. They almost seem contradictory, as the former is so quietly intense and the latter is full of irony, particularly with his late works. I like them both myself, though I would not put them together—but it makes sense in relation to your work. Your work has both a quiet intensity and a playfulness. I can’t wait to see the Polke retrospective at MoMA too. About your black paintings, what does black represent to you? Are they nocturnal? Or more specifically emotional, like melancholy?
JU Black is a color itself and the sum of all colors. To me, even the most opaque of blacks is transparent. Like night or dreams, black in paintings always hides a memory, mystery, depth. It’s the other side, the hidden dimension, and a certain light. My first images were black and white, and so were the television programs and films I saw at seven or eight. The nun painting I saw at the convent was also black and white. There is not one black but three thousand—as many as there are whites—in the cultures of Alaska and Japan. I always feel good at dusk, when daylight starts fading and the most visible reality gives way to another one in which colors start to lose intensity and become closely linked to the imagination.
In the Kunstmuseum Bonn I’ve been able to see thirty-two of my black paintings—the S.Q.R.series—again. Even though when making them, essentially I thought I was doing the same painting over and over, in Bonn I’ve been able to reread their differences and subtleties. But most important, I have been forced to acknowledge the impossibility of black. The show is titled Dunkles Licht (Dark light), and it deals with the idea of night, sleep, dreams, and the transition of blacks—from their utmost depth to their becoming light. With this exhibition I’ve also had emotional re-encounters with my interior delights and traumas. Painting is a very important medium in this sense. It helps me to understand and interiorize; it allows me to see things grow with both distance and the intensity of immersion.
SK How has your work changed or evolved in the last twenty years?
JU A lot has happened in the last twenty years. My language opened up a lot when I moved here. It has expanded, it’s become more mixed, but it also has gone backward in order to charge and influence themes and obsessions that have always been there.
I came to New York because I always admired American art’s insouciance and the lack of prejudice. Spain weighed on me a lot at the time. I was becoming visible and was starting to show abroad, and I felt a lot of pressure. There were a lot of expectations as to what was happening in Spain—too much buzz and enthusiasm. To be more focused, I needed some distance. At the beginning, I tried to protect myself from New York City’s dazzle by cowering under the issues that I’d been dealing with before coming. That first phase was one of deep darkness that some of my critics saw as “amnesic” and as an “oblivion of images.” Afterward, I immersed myself in a more liquid and adventurous approach to painting. I progressively got rid of references to my childhood and personal myths.
After a critical period, in the summer of 1989, in which I had back problems and made a trip to Nepal, I began painting again, rehearsing new strategies. That’s how the Namaste paintings came into being. The new plan was to start each small, identically sized painting, from scratch. I was trying to learn to listen, and to treat each work with the utmost respect, as if each one had an individual soul. I was following the words of a young Nepalese man. I’d asked him if the word namaste meant the same for them as our generic hello! Smilingly, he corrected me and said, “No, it’s exactly the opposite. When I say ‘Namaste,’ I am addressing what is, in essence, different in you from everyone else.”
When I returned to New York I understood the depth of his answer. The phrase accompanied me insistently. I decided then to try out a new adventure, attempting to listen to each painting’s distinct, unique voice. Each painting I started had to be different from the one I’d just finished. I’d change the palette and the approach, being careful not to force things, and favored freshness, allowing the canvas to guide me. That’s how my ongoing conversation with painting began. Then I started to apply this basic idea of seeking difference, as opposed to a recognizable style, to works in other formats. That’s when other series, all non-chronological—Celibataires, Urban Grammar, Aeolus, S.Q.R., Rhizomes, Mantis, etcetera—emerged.
SK What do you think about the role of the viewer?
JU The power of painting, and of the strange, is enormous—but the role of the spectator’s attitude and disposition is equally important. It’s not easy to look at a painting. Our minds and bodies need to actively participate in the experience of contemplating a work, it demands your total attention and a particular kind of effort—it’s almost a commitment. I don’t think too many people are willing or prepared to try to empty themselves out in order to dissect a painting. It’s certainly easier to get swayed by the pull and banality of the mass media’s images, or to read didactic wall texts designed to help us “understand” things. You read about something and fall for it, which is another form of consumption. And to consume is the easiest option.
SK American critics such as Dave Hickey have, since the ’60s, embraced populism, i.e. Warhol and Pop art. Now aesthetics is more about taste than beauty. This might have to do with how the taste of the masses or the ascending middle class in a sense dominates what gets made and shown. How do you feel about taste and/or aesthetics?
JU Taste and aesthetics are adjustable, changeable notions—they’re bound to be manipulated. But the very notion of art is in crisis too, and it is constantly shifting. It has gone through serious critiques and periods of redefinition, from the historic avant-gardes in the early twentieth century, to the ideological debates and social crises of the ’60s and ’70s, and the more recent pulverization of socialist and communist utopias.
More and more, contemporary art resembles a many-headed monster. It has at least two very prominent heads threatening each other constantly: the cultural market (museums and institutions, mainly) and the commercial market. Fortunately, besides the art that’s being promoted, there’s also the art that’s being made, which sometimes contributes to art’s regeneration and growth, only not in the direction everyone expects. Who would have thought, back in the days of the minimalist hegemony of the late ’60s and ’70s, that thirty years later a building like Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum Bilbao would become the ultimate aesthetic icon of the twentieth century? A phrase by Peter Schjeldahl comes to mind. It’s something like, “Willem de Kooning was the best pure painter of the twentieth century. We don’t know if that will mean anything in the twenty-first century.”
SK What matters in painting, I think, is how any craft or way of painting, conventionally good or bad, achieves a point of view or an aesthetic that is particular. Now, since there is no dominant discourse or formalist theory, whatever a painter makes is judged on whether there is something unusual—even if it uses known historical trends and modes but does so in a way that breathes new life into them or makes us see them in a different light. I think painting, unlike other mediums, has a tremendous history that can’t be ignored. The painter always has to work with this history even if it’s about emptying out that history. Would you agree?
JU I understand that your question refers to what I call a voice, or an invitation to a peculiar view—some works have that, and it seems timeless. No matter how many times you might see that work, you always find the thread that you’re never done unraveling. For me, painting’s legitimacy depends on that voice—that prevailing, inexhaustible quality, much more than on its circumstantial use value, technical factors, material conditions, its social or historical context, and those sorts of attributes which are so important to those who need to organize things. For me a pictorial gaze avoids those eschatologies.
Why are there works that are so difficult to define and pin down, works that every time we approach seem unrepeatable and different? Painting is difficult because it implies a whole experience. We can’t enjoy the adventure of entering a painting through an unexpected fissure, or of perceiving its subtleties, if we approach it with the sad intention to illustrate an idea or justify a thesis. Unfortunately this is a very contemporary attitude—it’s the collecting baseball cards mentality. We’ve fallen into the corrupt notion of consuming art easily and quickly, and our experience of art lacks contemplation.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee