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Interview with Alicia Paz

Last summer we met London based artist Alicia Paz. We talked about Chisenhale, local challenges and simplicity.

A pleasant place – we are at Chisenhale Art Studios next to the Chisenhale Gallery. How are the two arts organisations related to each other? 

Chisenhale Gallery and Chisenhale Dance Space are independent in their programming and administration of Chisenhale Art Studios, but they fall under the over-all umbrella of Chisenhale Art Place. The close proximity of the three organizations provides a great opportunity for dialog, collaboration and cross-influence. Several of the artists working in the Chisenhale studios in recent years have collaborated with dancers and choreographers, for example, including myself. The fascinating and important exhibitions held in Chisenhale Gallery, under the direction of Polly Staple, are inspirational of course not only to us, but also to the broader public.

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Studio view

Born in Mexico you spent lengthy periods in California and Paris before moving to London. Why London now? After living in Paris for ten years, I felt in 1999 a renewed "wanderlust" and a curiosity about the British art scene. Given my cultural baggage as half Mexican, half American, and having also lived in France, Britain seemed to me to be a good bridge between Europe and the Americas, and a place where I could freely explore a fluid cultural identity. I was also curious about their relationship to painting. The post-modernist trajectory, resulting in a kind of "end game" and the so-called "death of painting", somehow seemed to be a less rigid position or trend in the UK. Postmodernism relied in part on the premise that Modernism had exhausted all possibilities, which is of course a ridiculous idea. I had seen contemporary painting coming out of Britain that I admired, and was interested in spending some time there. At this point I was accepted as a resident artist at Delfina Studio Trust in Bermondsey, and after that I continued to embark on postgraduate courses at Goldsmiths College and Royal College of Art. One thing led to another, and I have now been settled with my family in London for 18 years. I still feel that the city re-invents itself continually, and that there is always something new to discover. The creative industries in London continue to be strong and dynamic. I am happy to work in this context also as an academic. Currently I teach painting as Associate Lecturer at the University of the Arts London, in the Wimbledon campus.

The artistic result is "an eclectic mixture of cultural influences" and styles. Somehow the works seem to be "self-made entities". To what extent are they self-made and influenced by local changes? Every place where I have lived has impacted me differently, and influenced my work. There is a kind of chemistry (or alchemy?) taking place between any individual, their personal story, and the place they find themselves in. A new environment can draw elements out from within an artist that she or he did not previously imagine. I am not sure what you mean by "self-made", but perhaps you refer to an organic quality? Since I moved to the UK, an interest in gothic atmospheres and references to nature has entered my practice. My works emerge through a process of incrementation, a kind of growth, where ornamentation and floral/plant motifs appear gradually, sometimes in excess, sometimes less so. The results can be aesthetic or grotesque, depending. The process is quite instinctive, as if the painting is telling me what to do.

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Alicia Paz

What about Mexico City, the beloved monster? Are you thinking of returning to your roots one day? I would love to live there again some day for a period of time. I don’t think I would settle there permanently again (although you never know), but it would be very interesting to return to my birth place at some point, as in a full circle. I feel my work is very connected to previous generations of Mexican artists, even to Anglo-Mexican surreal artists, such as Leonora Carrington. In regards to the current art scene there, with its strong conceptualism, social engagement and relational aesthetics, I would be curious to see how my work would react to such influences. Ultimately, though, it is the sensorial richness and complex physicality and chaos of Mexican life that would probably impact my work the most.

"Trees, monsters, kitsch, flowers, women and girls, masks, dresses, pattern, jewels, absence or restraint of hands, encasement, baubles, necklaces." This is all about masquerade, floating, appearance, surface, transcends and metamorphosis. It is not simple at all, is it? The words you use to describe my practice, these elements, are to me the props or the symbolic "furniture" with which I create a kind of make-believe theatre or fantastical world, where I can explore identity as something multiple and in flux. It is also very much a female identity, but one that juggles archetypal opposites of beauty and monstrosity, both in its external and internal (moral) sense. "Beauty" and "Beast" are one and the same person. Necklaces, lace, ribbons and jewels, are in some ways like weeds, plants, flowers, and ivy; they are things that can be draped, hung around something or someone, they might look beautiful, but they can also invade and connect elements in their continual growth, and hold strongly, even trap or strangle, like an over-grown wisteria, or a snake.

Work in progress

Work in progress (Magdeburg)

Your paintings force to move around to explore the assembly. How do you build up these worlds? I start with a sketch or simple maquette in small scale, but the idea really develops through the process of painting itself, without much preliminary visual planning. I do have lots of photos lying about in my studio, and books and small objects found in the street, like toys or gloves or a baby shoe. Sometimes if I am stuck in the process, I might look at a Hiroshige book on my studio shelf, or go see the Rococo rooms at the V&A museum, or photocopy some science-fiction comic-books in a library, in order to find inspiration to invent a scene or a heroine of sorts. The works often operate on the micro and macro levels, so that the viewer needs to see them up close and from a distance. I like to create paintings within paintings, like a mise en anime. Sometimes I adapt or appropriate existing imagery, sometimes I create my own, and usually my works have a hybrid feel involving various painting languages and materials, using a real mix of media. Collage, impasto, finely-painted details, clunky drippings in acrylic, spray-painted pochoirs, everything is possible. I use lo-brow materials such as glitter and pom-poms, to add a circus-like kitsch element, but this is interwoven with areas done in high-quality oil paint and pigments. My works on paper and assemblages (often masked portraits or monsters) are very textured, and have to be protected by a box-like glass frame. I think of them as a cabinet of curiosities, or like a jewel or tropical insect display. They have that kind of strange intricate busyness and lots of small details.

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Studio detail

They somehow resist the predicted death of painting. Like subjects try to, right? The so-called death of painting is nothing more than a testimony to the sophistication and high level of development of painting as an art form. The fact that it has had "many lives", and that it has been the vehicle of so many creative forces through history, (from cavemen to now) and has been inspired by myriad social and philosophical currents, makes painting a wonderful territory for self-reflection. With so much baggage, the medium can reflect on itself, as the Self or the Subject can, too. I like to think of an author, an artist, merging with her or his medium of expression, and this fusion can be a kind of existential metaphor.

There is a tree sculpture in Magdeburg – named "Island of Dolls" – a reference to the real one in the Lake Xochimilco in Mexico City? My public sculpture presents four-sided "tree" structure, (5.10 meters in height) inhabited by an assortment of female figures originating in different time periods. Ambiguous narratives and tongue-in-cheek fairy tales play hide-and-seek among the branches. The women are not meant to be particular individuals (although some are well-known) rather, they remain hinted at or anonymous within the sculpture. Through these portraits, certain archetypes can be explored, in a similar way to my paintings.  In the feminine landscape that emerges from the subconscious realm, psychological projections materialize and instinctively can take on beautiful, grotesque, humorous, or dramatic forms. Each character carries the potential for his or her own story, intertwining with those of other figures. The title came from a conversation with Mexican archeologist Elizabeth Baquedano, who told me of some Mayan legends involving heads in trees, and also of an "island of dolls" in the canals of Xochimilco, where a man has hung hundreds old, tired and dirty dolls on the trees of his little island. The story goes that his young daughter drowned, and a doll was found in the water. This was the beginning of a kind of cumulative process for him, maybe a way of mourning. My own tree is not as macabre as this description, but I liked the sound of the phrase, as something more oblique. Other references can be Julia Kristeva’s book on "Severed Heads", in which she studies the head as symbol and metaphor, and Billie Holiday’s song "Strange Fruit", against racism and oppression. But these elements that inspired me are combined with several others, and only whisper. The piece remains ambiguous.

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"Island of Dolls" in front of the Museum Magdeburg

What are you challenged by at the moment? I am developing a new series based on delftware tiles. The paintings will represent tiled walls and figures, exploring image as grid, incorporating interruptions and fragmentations, as well as pattern and repetition. Tiles, in so far as they can appear damaged, replaced, and restored, can be imperfect representations. It is the mix of functionality, decoration and imperfection in portrayal that interests me. I hope to create a strong group of paintings for my next solo show at Dukan Gallery at the Spinnerei in Leipzig, scheduled for September 2018.

What do you read? At present I read less theory but quite a bit of literature, both classic and contemporary fiction. At the moment I am reading "Germinal" by Zola. My next book is "A Confederacy of Dunces", by John Kennedy Toole, which is set in Louisiana.

Thank you Alicia!

Interview: Dajana Dorfmayr