As artists, we have to find the antidote to this darkness right now, to how everything feels so compressed rather than expanded.
Rubens Ghenov and Dona Nelson discuss the Philadelphia art scene, Portuguese vowels, and Fellini versus Cocteau.
After living in the Philadelphia area for sixteen years, I must finally be a native, because I get annoyed when I hear people compare Philadelphia to New York City in the 1970s. The artists who live in Philadelphia, a city defined by many different neighborhoods, know that it is a unique city. If an artist is independent and self-motivated, it’s a good place to make art. In a tiny teashop in Northern Liberties, near Fishtown, where many young artists live, I met with Rubens Ghenov. Rubens is a lively painter, teacher and friend, and the juror/curator, with me, of the Woodmere Museum’s 72nd Philadelphia Invitational Exhibition, In Front of Strangers, I Sing. Rubens, who is originally from Brazil, has an appetite for talk that is erudite, exuberant, and patient. Talking with Rubens makes me want to paint.
Dona Nelson In the recent review in the Philadelphia Inquirer, they called you an Argentine transplant. Where did they come up with that?
Rubens Ghenov I’m not quite sure. Brazil is a close neighbor to Argentina, but I recently did a lecture at Moore College of Art on a story with a character I invented based on Borges’s Sect of the Phoenix. She could’ve mixed up his Argentine with my Brazilian. I had a big laugh about that.
DN It’s hilarious. How many years was it before you came to Tyler [School of Art at Temple University in Philadelphia] for undergrad?
RG We came in ’89, and I started Tyler in ’94. It had not been very long, about five years.
DN What was the culture shock like?
RG At first, I didn’t want to come here. Brazil was in dire straits at the time due to inflation. My dad was an educator. He had degrees in philosophy, psychology, and pedagogy. They owned a school that they ultimately ended up having to sell, which is one of the reasons why we immigrated to America. My grandmother, who was from Romania, moved to Brazil at a very young age, and at one point in her life moved to America. She became a citizen, which enabled us to emigrate from Brazil legally. We first came to New York, which I think helped ease the culture shock a bit. New York is a lot like Sao Paolo, the city I came from.
DN All different people?
RG Yes, all different people—a megalopolis, cosmopolitan. When I came to Pennsylvania, to a little place called Quakertown, is when I experienced culture shock. That’s when it really affected me.
DN What was it like?
RG I didn’t like it at all. A lot of people in Brazil know they are never going to be rich. In Brazil, people are drawn to live in the present, right here, right now. Embedded in the American dream psyche is this notion of success deep in the future via that search for money.
DN Yes, it sounds like in comparison, America is more future-oriented. Did you make art before you came to Tyler?
RG I did.
DN What was your art like? How did your art change? The older I get, the more I’m like, “Why am I in education? This is the total opposite of art.”
RG That is the precise reason why you’re in education! We lived above a shoe store, and I used to paint in the back quarter of the building, near the trash. During that time I would paint these connected bodies, but I mostly did a lot of drawings. When I came to Tyler my first two years were really about delving into capital “P” Painting. Everything changed for me when I went to study abroad in Rome. It connected me back to Brazil through a whole different universe. That life was slow. The people enjoyed the quotidian activities of eating, talking, sitting at a park, having a drink after work, smoking a cigarette. People were affectionate with one another. In Rome, I really figured out that I am a storyteller. Prior to that, I was trying to figure out painting and the outcome was quite abstract. I always felt like there was a lack of a voice in there. My work now is more in tune with the work I did as a child. Storytelling, the narrative within the domestic space… There’s this immediate connection to my first notion of being human, present in _this_ present. And that connection is important because of the loss one suffers, I think, through immigration, which is a voluntary exile of sorts.
DN Where does this vocabulary come from?
RG It’s funny. I grew up skateboarding, and that culture was really deep into speaking via slang. In Brazil, we call each other by nicknames. Nobody knows anyone’s last name. You’re always riffing off what a person is wearing, or how tall a person is… There is a creative process about that kind of language— it’s not limited and since it’s intuitive and of the moment it stays fluid. Also being bilingual you become aware of translation and its inability to truly render sentiment and intention thoroughly.
DN When I look at your paintings, there is a very specific relationship to language.
RG In Portuguese, Brazilian Portuguese especially, vowels are so important. There is no trickery to it. For instance, the letter ‘a’ is pronounced ‘ah’ and it is ‘ah’ in every word, except when an accent is put upon it, then it changes. The visual significance of that letter ‘a’ has a function, a vocal notion—that is apparent throughout. Now that I’m bilingual, certain things don’t make sense—I have to translate them. The Russian poet Ilya Kaminski wrote an article on poet Paul Celan commenting on the fact that even though he was Romanian and Jewish, he chose to write in the mother tongue of the nation that killed his mother, in German. Kaminski says, “Translation however faithful is fiction.” Fiction then is not a shallow illusion but rather elements in transport, navigating through portals that are not quite fit for the trip. It speaks absurdly not for the sake of absurdity but because the fluidity of one language carries a different type of metabolism strange to the one that is now carrying its translation. Though one can translate the function of a word, the sentiment, the origin, the colloquial usage that is connected to it is obfuscated—miscalculated. It becomes a fictive artifice of that _reality_. They now possess different functions. DJ Krush in talking about Japanese hip-hop rhymes says that when you’re reading the lyrics the Japanese symbols can extend the meaning to a myriad of areas. Translation sometimes ends up becoming obstructed.
DN That’s why multi-lingual authors are sometimes such great writers. I’m reading this great short book by Nabokov called A Sinister Bend, and it’s about academia in Stalinist times. It’s extremely funny, and extremely brutal. Nabokov is one of the greatest in terms of the way he uses language.
RG There’s something about those Eastern Europeans—Dostoevsky is like that. Sometimes I read Crime and Punishment and I feel like that wallpaper suddenly has a ghost. When I first read it I really felt like I killed somebody. I put the book down for a while. I couldn’t read it. Another writer who has meant a lot to me and has become revelatory in thinking of language is Clarice Lispector. She’s Ukrainian, but moved to Brazil at a young age. You can smell Dostoyevsky in her, but filtered through a woman, then filtered through the Brazilian language. She is an amazing writer. Her diction is unbelievable. I gave one of her books to my painting students at Tyler.
DN How does Brazilian music relate to your work? At The Silent H [Ghenov’s 2012 solo show] you had the album on a shelf. It seemed a really important part of your thinking process relative to your paintings. I can’t listen to music and paint anymore, but you obviously feel a very strong connection between painting and music. What is that connection?
RG In Brazil, growing up, I listened to a lot of American and British music, including some punk rock. Brazilian music was always around, though. My parents didn’t play a lot of records when I was growing up. When I came to America, it took a while for me to grasp that I had lost something, that I was now living in a country where I had no connection to the past. It felt exilic. So I began revisiting the music I grew up not paying attention to and it ushered me back to Brazil, from which I felt disconnected. In the studio sometimes I play one song for an entire week and it becomes mantric.
DN Does it become related to certain colors or forms?
RG When I first started dealing with color I was simply taking them from the Brazilian scene. Recently I have been painting in green and pink, which are the colors of a very famous school of samba in Rio called Mangueira. Can you expound a bit more on not being able to listen to music anymore? When you leave the studio do you play music at home?
DN No, I really like silence. I don’t have a TV. I don’t listen to radio that much. I have to laugh when you talk about language, because we are coming from opposite ends in many ways. Languages were always extremely difficult for me when I was in high school. I took Spanish, Russian, and French, but they were extremely difficult for me. I also played music. My mom wanted to give all three of us girls violin lessons. I was the least musical person imaginable. I would go into my room to practice the violin, and then I would end up sword fighting with the bow, or pretending like I was playing the guitar. I was in the high school orchestra, and I was placed in a chair behind the curtain. Sometimes I would just raise my bow, and pretend. I had private violin lessons for years, and my violin teacher would say I was horrible. I don’t hear well, in terms of music. I just am not musical, and I always had trouble with languages in a related way.
RG Do you think that makes your other senses more sensitive?
DN Yes, I do. Paintings are tactile, and the tactile is not separate from the visual. I think my strongest sense is in my hands. It’s a spatial sense. You and I are opposite in many ways. That’s why it is so funny that we did this project together.
RG It was interesting I would say. During about 75 percent of the jurying, we were pretty much in agreement. At times, we would say yes, no and maybe at the same time, but at the last bit when we were going back and forth—that was great.
DN Yes, things that I may not have been interested in, I became so, because you were interested in them.
RG I felt the same way. Sometimes I would think to myself, “What does Dona see in this?” That’s the quality of the show; it’s such a slow read. Is it the scale? Is it the facture, the color, the compositions? Is it because this speaks back to that piece, and then all of them together relate in that space? You really turned me on to those things. It was interesting to hear you talk about the reasoning behind it, because then it gave me more of an idea as to how you even think about your own painting. Carrie Moyer wrote something really interesting about your work in the Brooklyn Rail about the show you had at Thomas Erben, called Brain Stain. She said that your process is about joining the visceral and the transcendental. I love that you’ve always dismissed the notions of low and high culture as hierarchies.
DN I wanted to do this project because we had so many applications. Sometimes I’ve thought—because I’m so disenchanted with academia, because it’s such a heavy boots bureaucracy—“Well, I am really interested in teaching, but I’ll probably end my days teaching art class at the local YMCA.” I do think categories of art, relative to ideas of quality, are very uninspiring.
RG They really are.
DN Everything seems corporate to me, these days especially. In my lifetime, it seems like everything has become corporate—academia is corporate, the museums are corporate, and the art world –– especially the Manhattan art world—feels very corporate. It really is quite alarming to me.
RG Do you think it is because it literally changed, or because your perspective changed?
DN It changed. You know how romantic people are about the ’70s in New York? I had lived in New York since the late ’60s, and I hate this romanticism, like a fly in amber kind of thing. The ’70s were the rise of the art world, as we know it. There’s good, and there’s bad. Of course, rents were much lower. It was a lot like Philadelphia is now, and there was a more open approach to art. Artists got together and had shows like they do here. It was also the beginning of the official so-called art world in Soho, with the big warehouse spaces, which was really different in the 1960s where the art world was centered in office buildings and town houses, uptown. In the 1970s, the warehouses spaces in Soho created a lot of the art, and the whole idea of having shows every two years. Real estate development in New York City had a huge impact on the development of art in America. The idea that you can make a profound statement with a pencil and a piece of paper that costs less than a penny, is a transgressive thing.
RG I totally agree. You talk about dream and memory sometimes, which is really important for me. My dad was a psychologist. He and I spoke about dreams quite often, but very quotidian, as well. It wasn’t like I was on the couch with a Freudian father. He would sometimes come up, and I would say, “Dad I had this dream. It was weird. The play mobiles scared the hell out of me.” So he would quietly sit down and slowly ask questions. If there was a line where Jung was at one extreme, and Fellini at the other, where do you think you would position yourself, in thinking about dreams, and/or memory?
DN Well, Jung has sort of set categories, right?
RG He does.
DN It seems old fashioned—Freud does too, right?
RG Even more so! I like Jung more than Freud.
DN I like the way Freud writes. He was a very good, clear writer. He’s good to read for writing practice. I would probably position myself with Fellini–definitely Fellini. You know, I love theNights of Cabiria. I just watched that the other night.
RG That is a show! It is unbelievable!
DN The spaces in Fellini are what is so amazing—the particular space in his films. InAmarcord…
RG I cry every time I watch that movie—out of laughter. You know those scenes in the dining room?
DN He really melds the visual and the physical, with space.
RG There is some poetry happening in that notion of high and low that some people would just be like, “What the hell is this?” Then there is the routine spaghetti meal where the family is talking about farts and sex, and they’re mashed together beautifully. Juliet of the Spirits; I love that film, too. In thinking about that question, I thought about Cocteau also instead of Fellini, but I think Cocteau is even closer to you.
DN Maybe he is. I show Cocteau’s Blood of a Poet all the time to my students. Blood of a Poetis the perfect film to show to art students because of Cocteau’s simple, imaginative props. Fellini has big crowd scenes, and there is so much going on. It’s the simplicity in Cocteau, and also a very extreme kind of emotionality, that he does not fight or apologize for, but embraces. There is so much anxiety in Blood of a Poet, when the guy is crawling along the wall, and looks through the peephole, and he sees the firing squad, executing a man. Also, the central character keeps shooting himself in the head, over and over again. Blood spurts in the form of a silk scarf. I have shown that film so many times. It’s very slow silent film. It’s hilarious, but profound. He’s not really a filmmaker of magnitude; he didn’t make a whole bunch of films. Cocteau is a very strange artist.
RG He totally is. There is a photograph of him with all those hands, also super great.
DN It’s also so kitschy. If you watch the last Cocteau film, Testament of Orpheus, where he revisits all his previous images. He takes it to extreme though, and it’s extremely kitschy. I am very interested in that–that balance. I’m interested in that line between good art and terrible art.
RG Do you think it’s because terrible art slips outside of what has been owned by academia, modernism…?
DN Yeah, absolutely. I love that about In Front of Strangers, I Sing; the mix of a trance-like drawing of a cat next to a deliberately conscious work about gender roles. That cat drawing is right next to the Marilyn Holsing. The two works address different bodies of knowledge. Every person has a different body of knowledge. Anyone who is interested in being an artist, can be an artist.
RG Do you think we think that way because we are artists, and we don’t know what it’s like to live outside of being an artist? I was telling some friends the other day that I can’t sleep if I haven’t painted, or I if haven’t done something that will stimulate me, like watching a film.
DN Your paintings are kind of fictional constructs. They’re there, before you in the room, but their physicality is of a cerebral sort. You tend to like art that’s like that—like Jacques Liu in our show, and also Matt Neff. That was my favorite part of jurying with you. Had I juried with another person I wouldn’t have been introduced to all of these new artists. It made me feel much more positively about art in Philadelphia.
RG That’s great. There’s a lot of work that intrigues me, so much so that we were more coincident than not, but I highly enjoyed the moments where we disagreed. Not due solely to the fact that it would create a better show but that it also allowed me peer into you.
There’s a lot of good things happening in Philly, but it really has a strange structure—I wish that Philly had a place like Chelsea where you can just get dropped off and spend seven hours on ten blocks.
DN Right now, Philadelphia doesn’t have much commercial or institutional support for art, but I think it will within a few years. There is a strong sense of place here.
Rubens Ghenov is an artist based in Philadelphia.
Dona Nelson is an artist and professor of painting and drawing at Tyler School of Art, Temple University, Philadelphia, where she has worked since 1991.
As artists, we have to find the antidote to this darkness right now, to how everything feels so compressed rather than expanded.