Talks with Leonhard Emmerling; 7 August 2009

Belief? What belief?

Leonhard Emmerling interviews Alberto Garcia-Alvarez about his practice, in a panel discussion in which P.Mule and Judy Milar also participated.

Leonhard Emmerling; Q: You moved to New Zealand from California; what made you move to Auckland? Or, what made you move to California in the first place? If any, what influence did this geographic move have on your practice?
Alberto Garcia-Alvarez; A: At the time of my move to California in 1960 I was in a turmoil of art activities: I had been exhibiting for years in Catalunya, had been commissioned to paint frescoes in churches and other public buildings, I had been travelling with scholarships through Italy, France and Spain and I was influenced by Velazquez, Miro and the First School of Abstract Expressionism of New York (among others). The motivation to go to the San Francisco area was my wife Marian. She was American. We had been married for two years and had one child at that time. The Sierras of California and the Pacific did impress me tremendously and I am sure did affect my art work in many ways. By the time of my arrival in NZ some 13 years later I was over 40. My mind and art ways were more settled and less apt to be influenced.

Q: In which ways did the Sierras of California and the Pacific influence your art? And did something similar happen to you after your arrival in New Zealand?
A: The Sierras of California – especially Death Valley- influenced the size of my paintings. I had been for years working in very large surfaces (muraIs) and I needed that continuity of space, without limits. I needed to be painting more than to observe distance. I guess that works by the American abstract expressionists reinforced in me that that feeling of freedom. In NZ I felt always like an outsider, without roots in the country. And so, as a reaction, I had to concentrate in nature; in what I was carrying in me – more than in the local culture.

Q: You seem to work in series, as if you’re exploring formal or painterly possibilities over time. However, your oeuvre as a whole is very hetero-geneous — very “tectonic” pieces opposed to very gestural works. What inspires you to make this shift from one “style” to the complete opposite?
A: I do not see styles in the work that I produced over the past sixty years. I move through experiences. I do not plan what to do or in what style to paint, I make my decisions while working. My paintings may seem to the observer as shifts from one possibility to another when in fact they are a process of learning, expressing, experimenting, confronting my mind and my visual needs. I feel that I am participating in a cultural ground; in a constant flux of transpersonal consciousness where I influence others as much as others influenced me over the years.

Q: If you don’t agree with the word “style”, would you however agree with the observation that there are explorations of certain formal possibilities – like in the paintings with cut-out triangles? And that there are opposite poles in your practice – gestural “non-form” and very controlled and clear “form”, for instance? And what exactly do you mean with “visual needs”?
A: Yes, in some paintings since the 1960s – when I was working on the hexagon series – I use the triangle, but not as exploration of formal possibilities. Frequently I cut triangles off after finishing a painting. I never thought about the reason but analyzing it I can see there could be many. One could be that very seldom I agree with the results of a painting and in a way I want to destroy the exuberance and freedom of the strokes made. Or the sadness of the blacks. I probably destroy the passion of nature by a controlled action. It could be a subconscious need to cover up or control anything that is chaotic (and may be good?) I can see the possibility of a subconscious gesture. In Spain we say: “Todas las cosas buenas son pecado o engordan – All good things are sin or make you fat.” And subsequently one tries to cover up or destroy. I may be using the triangle solely as a device to create antagonism in a painting, or purely as a contrast device. That could also be the reason for my shifting from one “style” to the complete opposite all of my life. The subject is open to many interpretations, and I can only guess. Regarding “visual needs” — the word describes what my eyes need to see in form, tone and colour in order to compensate; to create my harmony. Each one of us has an accumulation of visual experiences: studies of the human figure; composition and use of colour; light… I need to see things in a particular relation, order or disorder, in a particular mood of light, blacks and ochre. A happy white; a dramatic mess of incoherent gestures. Sadness or indifference.

Q: You have made many variations on the cross — what you call “crossings’, What place does faith or religion have in your practice?
A: What place has faith in my practice? Very little. Religion (the teachings and theology) may have some, I am not sure. I was a believer all my childhood and my culture is based on the Christian religion. Losing faith took many years for me; it was a slow process of changing my mind; of becoming more `solid’; more realistic about life. Losing the romance, the dream. Not a good thing! I have some nostalgic feelings — but only feelings. I have faith in me in a higher level of life where one could have more vision and understanding, and I look forward to reaching something of that. The ‘crossings’ structures – which started in the 1970s – had no religious content. In time those wooden works made some obscure reference to the symbol of the cross. I used religious themes for many mural paintings that I made in temples during the 1950s and 60s but never because of beliefs.

Q: Some artists mention you as the teacher who had the most influence — not only on their work but also their way of thinking. What is teaching for you? Do you consider teaching as part of your work and practice? “Social Sculpture”?
A: For me teaching is conveying some knowledge, enthusiasm and personal views on culture and history to the student. It is also helping students to develop expressive talent, personality and analytical opinion on many subjects. Teaching was never a component of my creative activity, but an activity closely related to it; talking about art and expressing my views has always been a way to clarifying my own concepts, ideas and attitude.

Q: You continue to have an artistic practice. Is it important to practice painting (or any art practice) on a daily or regular basis – like doing an “exerzitium”?
A: Practice is not only on your mind or intentions. It is action. Practice – going through – brings experience: interest, knowledge, energy and the possibility of making decisions. That activity of the body is an “exerzitium” that continuously opens new avenues and life. Body and mind are involved in any creative activity. Regular practice is essential in order to have an alert mind. Yes, I practice painting on a very regular basis.

Q: What does experience mean for you?
A: For me, experience is the actual knowledge and skill acquired living through an event or events; also the state or duration of engagement in a particular work. I see experience as of that period of time engagement and as the accumulation (or sedimentation) of knowledge. I have other thoughts about experience but I understand its meaning in the traditional interpretation of its root `experientia’ from ‘experiri’ = to try, to practice.

Q: The idea of exerzitium has something monastic. Do you see that daily exerzitium as a spiritual practice in any way?
A: Yes, I see daily exerzitium as a spiritual practice. Any routine can be a spiritual practice if one is conscious of one’s own intentions. But we need to define first what we mean by “spiritual.” For me to be spiritual is not necessarily to be religious or to have faith in any particular thing, but an attribute of human beings; a quality of conscience.

Commenting on Subjectivity:
A: Subjectivity: Pertaining to, or determined by, the mind, ego, or consciousness, as the subject of experience and knowledge. If this definition is valid, then all artists are subjective to some extent.

Commenting on Freedom; Independence; on social or political issues, fully or in part:
A: We know that “freedom” is an illusion; we are a product of our nature and our culture; we can’t refuse influences in the same way that we can’t refuse knowledge, since this is always an influence. We can nevertheless refuse to participate in what we determine is of no interest at the time to us; we may need time to evaluate our thoughts, or direction. Independence (freedom) may not be needed for ever or of everything. I think that the artist has more freedom as less is influenced by current social/political issues. And I do not mean freedom as a good thing necessarily.

Q: Is there a common ground on which the producer/author and the beholder can meet?
A: The beholder/viewer comes into a ground, the forum, where work is being exhibited. There is no meeting with the maker but with work displayed. It is the viewer that makes the move to go to see something and is comfronted with it . The viewer has to apply his/her own knowledge or culture to respond; to get something out of the experience.

Q: Is the idea of contingency itself nothing but a kind of belief?
A: Yes, a kind of attitude more than a belief, but it has its very strong foundations. A choice is not artitrary; it is guided by previous experiences, thoughts, influenses, preferences, and the help of the subsconscience, which is constantly active.