Saturday, October 20, 2012

Armond Lara: “I know about Lizards, Chicaras, and Barbed Wire Fences.”

In Armond Lara’s downtown Santa Fe studio is a long table covered with a jumble of junk and precious objects – elk’s teeth and heels from old shoes, an old Sioux dress, parts of pocket watches, glass beads, rusty nails, a shoe horn, playing cards, paper money.  “This is my palette,” Lara says.  “I’ve collected for a long time – in the streets, flea markets.  It’s a treasure hunt, and most of this stuff isn’t worth a thing –except that dress that I paid $4,000 for and then ripped up.  I look for interesting shapes.  I just start putting these things down on a piece of handmade paper, and then it’s a process of elimination to find a focal point for the piece.  Then I find other things to add that make the central object out of context.  What I want is surprise, surprise and strong composition, and to get that I need tension.  You never know what’s going to work, an old tie or a pacifier. 
A work in progress – an old black dress, stuffed to form a misshapen body, stuck with rusted spikes, and draped on one corner with chain – hangs in the studio.  “I was thinking about brujas when I started this piece about a year ago,” he says, “and it scared me so I stopped.  I was invited to show in this year’s Santa Fe Arts Festival, and this fits their New Mexico theme, so maybe I’ll finish it and show it there.  I don’t know what I’ll do with it next, maybe pour black paint on it, or roofing tar.”
Other new pieces on the walls include several examples of his mixed media Nomads series which features blankets and other objects in collage on canvas.  “The idea,” he recalls, “occurred to me while traveling around on airplanes last fall.  I felt like the Navajos walking so much, what they were doing versus what I was doing.  In half the series, I’m using blankets off the airlines.  American Airlines’ are good, Frontier’s aren’t bad – they’re a nice bright red and have the feeling of old Hudson Bay blankets.  I’ll use real Navajo blankets for the other half.  People put too much emphasis on how precious they are.  Many of them are gorgeous and priceless, and I wouldn’t use them, but many were made for the touristas, too.”
People begin to drift into Lara’s studio.  A young man arrives to wash his car, another trying to strike a deal to do his framing.  The telephone starts ringing off the wall, so we leave to continue the interview at Lara’s home.  It is a new, clean, Santa Fe-style adobe furnished with contemporary furniture and accented with tasteful and expensive-looking Indian artifacts and Oriental antiques.  Several works by R.C. Gorman are on the walls, along with a Picasso lithograph and Lara’s own work.  Glass and blond wood give the place an airy feel. A cage with his parrot, Jake, hangs in a corner of the kitchen.  Top-of-the-line liquors (Jack Daniels, Beefeaters, Grand Marnier, etc.) are grouped on the kitchen counter we sit around and drink a beer.  Lara is on the short side, big chested, and broadly handsome.  As many – perhaps most artists in New Mexico, he is fond of hats.  He is, as indicated in the following, aggressive but friendly.

Are you political at all, as an artist or otherwise?
No.  I worked for government agencies for so long that I’ve become very apolitical.  I even refuse to get involved in local campaigns.  Politics in New Mexico seems to be a way of life, everyone gets into it, but . . .  Oh, I guess I spent a lot of time trying to accomplish things culturally, through political channels, and found that after years and years . . . I guess that was the main thing – in spite of the progress that was being made, the majority of what was coming down was lip service.  I decided it was time to quit talking about it, and start doing it, and at that point I decided to make art professionally.
When was that?
I left working for government agencies in 1975, I think.  So it hasn’t been very long.  (Lara worked for Washington state and local governments, establishing arts commissions.) One of the biggest reasons I managed to stay there so long, for sure, was because I was a minority, and at that time the government needed minorities within the structure.  Anyway, I got thoroughly burned out on government policies and processes, red tape, and I decided “that’s enough.”  But it was a good start for me to get actively, professionally involved as an artist myself.  I don’t regret it, because it taught me a lot.  It taught me how to plan anything, including your career, you know, and more so, how to implement those plans.

What’s your feeling about the general climate in the country right now?
Political climates are always susceptible to change in a way that’s really good for the arts.  They’re always susceptible to change anyhow, based on the whims of the public.  There’s always a new trend.  It’s easy to foresee that, within a given period of time, this whole Southwest frenzy will move somewhere else.  It doesn’t worry me too much.   I think that when economic factors are really depressed, people who truly support the arts, true patrons, continue to do so even more.  What it really does is it manages to help the people who are serious about what they are doing, and who are capable, more than it hinders them.  For sure the people who are just playing around go by the wayside, and that’s good for the arts.  It’s a cleaning house.  Buyers think twice before they buy something.  They look for quality, and that happens in depressed times.  What was the question?

I’m trying to get your broader feelings about living in the United States in 1982.  We’re faced with fairly serious problems that go well beyond the economy . . . For the first time, maybe since the late ‘50s, a large number of people are concerned about us blowing ourselves away.  I’m getting away from the other thing, but . . .
I know you are . . . As I said before, I really am apolitical.  I’m also probably (long pause) . . . a fatalist.  All the suppression that’s been going on, the nuclear warfare, the possibility of it, I tend to ignore those things.  I think the day of the artist being a sounding board for the rest of the world has truly passed.  No one wants to see black eagles painted on walls anymore.  When I was 25 I did that, and even when I was 30 years old, because I was smack in the middle of government, but maybe because I spent so much time there and have an understanding of how it works, I tend to push it aside and not even worry about how to resolve these kinds of problems.  That sounds kind of callous and self-centered, but I do live in a very small world.  I literally set myself aside from all that in a world where the most important thing for me to do is pursue the art that I deal with and see how far I can push it.  It sounds cold and inhumane, I know, but I’ll tell you one thing – people who know how to live with the earth will still be here. Taos Pueblo will still be here. That’s one reason they don’t have running water up there, or a lot of things that we consider necessities.  I think they believe, and I believe, that people who don’t know how to deal with living a lifestyle that doesn’t include a lot of so-called progress, probably will be gone from the face of the earth in twenty or  thirty years.  But if that’s the way it’s supposed to be, that’s the way it’s supposed to be, and what can I say.  It’s awful hard on me to relate to people anymore.  It’s easier and easier to relate to things around me – trees and water.  Not water, because I don’t understand water.  You know I lived in Seattle for twenty years, and it was above me and below me, and I still don’t know how to swim.  Coming from a place like this (Lara is from Walsenburg, CO), it seems very logical to me that that’s the way it should be.  I meet a lot of people that have to live around water, that need whatever it gives them.  I get the same feeling from open space.

A while ago you mentioned that you needed to push yourself to accomplish personal and artistic breakthroughs . . .
That’s something I’ve always fantasized about—accomplishing something.  When I was very young, even when I was in my twenties, my main focal point has always been to accomplish something.  Until I got to the point where I was producing art, I had no idea what that would be.  None. But I felt if I’m going to be here, I might as well accomplish something.  Certainly working for government or in a machine shop – I spent ten years working in a machine shop – those two things were not fulfilling enough for me.  I didn’t see where I could make any major contribution to anything, much less myself.  In art, at first, I thought, “God, this is great.”  It was great for my ego and it enabled me to make somewhat of a decent living, and that was all fine, but it still took me four or five years before I thought maybe I can really accomplish something with this.  That became all-consuming for me.  It’s become something I do day and night, my whole world.  I must be boring to a lot of people, because that is my whole life.  It’s a drive that’s, at times, insane.  I spend six dollars to make eight. I buy a $4,000 dress to tear it up and put paint on it, right?  It doesn’t make sense anymore.  It is getting out of hand.  But it’s what I do and I don’t know what else to do.  (Pause ) I have a friend in Austin, Texas, who is a teacher, number one, and an artist, number two, and because he’s a teacher, he’s always been very human.  Recently I talked to him, and I’d read one of his books and it almost made me cry because it made me realize that I’m probably getting to be less and less of a human being, and more and more isolated.  What I’m doing to myself , pushing out a lot of people who are irrelevant to me, it’s like something that has to be done right now because that’s the direction I’m going into. 

And does that feel fatalistic?
I’ve always believed that I could do it if I applied myself.  But in the process of applying yourself you have to give up a hell of a lot.  Consequently, my family’s living in Seattle now, simply because I’m so involved in this business of running around and meeting people . . . It’s very time-consuming and emotionally involving , to a point where I realized that both my 3 year old daughter and my wife (he has two grown sons by a previous marriage) were probably better off in an environment they were both comfortable with, which is around water by the way, because they were both raised there and they really weren’t comfortable here in the desert.  I’m in communication with them every day and still care about them both very, very much, but it’s to a point where I can’t spend a lot of time  -- not can’t, I don’t want to spend a lot of time dealing with all the little details of everyday life.  And my bank account sort of proves that.  I have to hire an accountant to take care of my checkbooks.  They haven’t been brought up to date for months, simply because I ignore them.

You said that art is not a sounding board for politics, and I inferred that, especially in your own case, it’s more about a personal kind of expression.  Do you think that’s indicative of the tenor of the times, that this is the age of the individual and people are more concerned with personal concerns than national or cultural ones?
I think that’s true.  I studied with a man by the name of Pablo Higgins who was one of the last of the Mexican muralists.  And up until then, I was in awe of the gigantic murals that were made by Rivera and Siqueiros, and the more I got to know him, the more I realized that even as they were doing the murals, the people did not understand.  He told me this, that the people would come down and throw apples and stuff at them because, I don’t know why, they didn’t understand what they were doing.  At that point, I began to realize that (pause) that what happened was the government of Mexico really manipulated the artists at that time to make political statements for them, on their behalf.  That really irritated me.  For the government to manipulate the artist is really the opposite of what we thought it was.  We thought the artist was manipulating the government!  That wasn’t true at all.  I worked with a lot of so-called radical organizations, promoting their cultural backgrounds, and I found within a very short period that what they really wanted was for the artist to promote propaganda for them, you know.  That’s not right.  I think that at one time maybe that was important, but after talking to Higgins, I realized it was only worthwhile to him because it helped him pursue his career.  If I’m going to make a statement, it’s going to be my statement, not anybody else’s, and I think that’s what art should be about.
Red Dancer, mixed media screen, 24 feet long, collection RC Gorman

What is your statement?
Hell, I don’t know.  People ask me that every day.  My approach to art is not an intellectual one.  I don’t sit and think, I’m going to say this or I’m going to make an image of that.  I simply approach the materials and react to them.  Usually it’s most successful when I don’t have anything in mind, it’s totally clear.  What comes from that is things that I feel comfortable with, things that I know about, okay?  They’re things that come from the subconscious rather than the conscious.  A lot of the time what I’m doing, of course, is I’m saying, God, this really feels like this or that, and consequently I’ll derive a title from that.  But I never think about a title before that.

What are some of the things you know about?
I feel about this part of the world.  I feel a relationship about this world, the way of life, and this environment.  I believe in this environment, that’s what I know about.  I know about dry river beds and what they look like after there’s been a drought.  I know about chicaras, those little insects that come out every 14 years or whatever, the sound that they give and the way they split open.  I know about lizards, and barbed wire fences, and the color at dawn or sunset.  That’s what I know about, basically.

What about dresses?
 (laughter) Nothing!

How about parasols?
I know that they’re nice forms.  I saw a relationship in some of the beadwork that was put on the dresses in the ‘20s and the beadwork that my mother does, and I try to draw a relationship between those two things.  The parasol to me is simply a circular form, such a strong shape that I use it a lot.  It’s a shape that everybody can relate to.  People from all over, different backgrounds, come to me and say, “I know about this,” because it reminds them of, I don’t know, their mother’s cookies, or something in their personal life.  I look for relationships between shapes and colors and textures.  I don’t see dresses or parasols.  I think what they become are relics, artifacts.  I have a real affinity for relics, I always have, ever since I can remember.  I lived in a little town in Colorado that was right smack on the Santa Fe Trail.  We used to dig up the ground for a number of reasons – everything from looking for worms to burying something.   We’d find pieces of sabers and stuff like that.  Old things.  A lot of the things I do now – I’ll take new things and make them feel like relics.  That’s probably why I do collage a lot, because I like to haunt antique stores.  I see things there that people have hoarded, and to try and get those relics out of the drawers and up on the walls appeals to me.  The very idea of putting them behind Plexi-glass appeals to me because it adds another dimension to them and makes them feel like a relic.  I’ve painted in a lot of different manners in the process of learning – you learn about the old masters and you learn about the French Impressionists – and I’ve gone through all those periods.  And one day I was painting portraits in a very old world style, and all of a sudden I realized, what the hell am I doing?  This is the way the Flemish people painted.  I’ve been to Holland!  I don’t know anything about that way of life.  Why am I doing this?  At that point, fortunately, one of my professors, who happened to be Asian, told me, “You know, you’re right.  You should do what you know, and what you know seems to have a lot to do with texture.”  He showed me how to make paper that had texture to it.  His whole background was beautiful, fine, delicate rice papers with no texture.  He could relate to that, but I couldn’t, and it turned around for me at that point.  I think that’s what this whole country is about – Colorado, New Mexico, Texas, Arizona .  There’s a lot of texture involved, and maybe that’s why I don’t relate to water.  Water doesn’t seem to have any texture to it.  It’s simply a moving force.

What was it that you used to bury back in Walsenburg?
Oh God, I used to steal my sister’s precious objects, rhinestones and stuff, and I’d bury them.  And again it was the idea behind treasures and relics – I’d bury them because then they’d become that.  If we had a collection of bugs or rodents or whatever, and they happened to die because we left them in a jar with the lid sealed, then we’d bury them and do some sort of ritual or ceremony.  It seemed a very natural thing to do. 

In some of your work you’ve old bits of cavalry uniforms, brass buttons, insignias . . . Is there any political statement being made there?  Any reference to your own heritage?
I probably shouldn’t tell you this, but probably it’s true.  A lot of times I feel, although I try not to be actively involved in it . . . I’ll come to Taos and see Kit Carson all over the place, and it appalls me that people have made heroes out of people who massacre other people.  And so if I make political statements, I utilize those things to make them with, but I try not to do it in such a blatant manner that you’re hitting people over the head with them.  Because, after all, it might not be their opinion.  It’s only mine.  And also it’s important for me to do it in a way that works physically and is also aesthetically pleasing.  For a long time I thought, oh God, all I’m making is beautiful things, but then I realized there’s not a damned thing wrong with making beautiful things.  I mean, critics can call it decorative all they want if that’s all they want to see.  But for me this whole area is beautiful, so why should I make a statement about it that isn’t?

Skipping around a little bit . . . You mentioned career planning.  Do you have a plan . . .
 (Snickering softly) Oh God, yeah.  The very first year I came out here, 1974-75, I had a definite three-year plan made out for myself, and I went about implementing it.  And I found, to my own amazement, that within a year and a half I was where I expected to be in three years.  I let that ride for a year, and then I made another plan, a five year plan, always with very, very high goals, as high as I could possibly reach.  In the last year some incredible things have happened that had nothing to do with my plans at all, at least as far as my making them happen.  To a point where I can see that in a year’s time I’ll have to leave here again. So my plans now are tentatively to go to Europe and then come back into the States.  My thinking behind that is that the art establishment, whoever that is, has concentrated on American art for so long and for the last four years or so, they’ve been kind of floundering, not knowing what direction to go in.  Last year in New York, I started to get a whiff that something was going on.  I didn’t know what it was, but my last trip I spent a lot of time there and began to see the East Coast is looking toward Europe again for the first time since World War II.

The Italians, the Germans . . .
Mm hmm.  They’re looking for the new innovative stuff coming out of there, and probably rightfully so, you know, because what’s happening here, as I see it, is we have a few innovative people and everybody else copying them or doing take-offs on them.  There doesn’t seem to be any real big, new, exciting things going on.  For a while it was right here (gesturing at the floor), but the longer I stay here, the exciting stuff is a mere handful compared to the amount of it.  Anyway, I figured if I stay here too long I’d probably get boxed in.  Not that that would be a bad thing—this is home, I could live here forever – but career-wise it’s probably a good move to go to Europe.  The New York gallery I deal with (Tara Gallery) has arranged shows in Germany, France, and England, so it’s logical for me to produce it there rather than producing it here and taking it there.  It’s still tentative, but I’ve found that if I continue to think along one given path, I usually end up there.  We’ll see what happens.  The only thing that will stop me is me, if I get afraid of it, or too comfortable with being here, and that’s easy.  If I don’t get into the studio at 5 o’clock in the morning, my day gets wasted because there’s so much going on.  I’m my own worst enemy in that way because I cause my interruptions. Very early in the morning I don’t get side-tracked, I don’t side-track myself. I work till noon, then I can go cruise the plaza or whatever.

What’s your heritage?
My mother and her family are Navajo. My grandmother was kidnapped a number of times, I guess. My father came from Mexico during the revolution. His father was a politician who was sent there from Spain to help organize the government, and it was the wrong timing because they sent him just at the time the revolution manifested and they hung him. My father and his mother escaped into the United States and ended up in Colorado.

Did your mother and father have very different kinds of influences on you?
No. My mother had very little influence on me, and my father none. Maybe he did, I don’t know, he left when I was very young, about three years old. But the family allowed me to be myself.  Because my mother worked the majority of the time, she wasn’t there to say, no, don’t do this or that, and my father certainly wasn’t there to say, you should play baseball or punch somebody in the mouth if they call you a Mexican . . . that kind of influence never entered into my upbringing. My grandparents were probably the greatest influence because they were home all the time. I observed them. They taught me that if there was anything I wanted, I could make it. They were poor, but it was a way of life for them. They also allowed me to make my own mistakes. They didn’t tell me when to come home or what to do during the day, so consequently I spent a lot of time alone in the hills and I came home when I was hungry. I learned to go to sleep when I was tired, and get up when God liked. The first few years of my life I think my father’s background occupied a lot of my time, but I was able to let that go as a teenager, and not be preoccupied with Spanish heritage or Mexican heritage. I enjoyed it, I still do, but I don’t feel I have to live it. I don’t know how to explain it to you . . . People are surrounded by their families, and consequently they tend to lean in that direction and do what is expected of them. Probably the reason I left right away after high school was I have over 2,000 living relatives. To be involved in the middle of that, forget it.

Did you ever speak Navajo?
No. My grandparents spoke it but they never taught us. I don’t think they thought it was that relevant that we become what might be termed ‘educated.’ It was more relevant that we learn how to survive. My grandmother would start to weave a rug, and unless you went and watched her and really pumped her about what she was doing . . . It was up to you whether you wanted to learn or not. My grandfather was the same way. “If you want to learn, come here and I’ll teach you, but don’t interrupt me while I’m doing things.” If we wanted to learn, we did, but generally it was just observing that way of life. There was a lot of self-fulfillment in being able to take a piece of wood and make something out of it. That was as important to them as it is today for people to make a lot of money or drive a flashy car.

The photograph of you in the national ads the New York Gallery has been running, has some unusual features [see above]. The first is . . . Do you play the guitar. That little fingernail . . .
People ask me, “Is that a coke spoon?” (Laughter) Nobody believes me, but really what it is is a tool to pick up wet paper with.

What’s the mood in the picture – it’s not the public Armond Lara. Is this you?
What happened, I was sitting on a stool, and looking at the floor, at something I’d just finished, studying it, and that’s when the photographer walked in and shot it. I don’t take myself too seriously, most of the time I’m clownin’ around and making what might seem to be flippant statements, I don’t know. But when I’m working, it almost seems I’m in a fantasy land. I’m not here anymore. It’s not a place for anything but concentrating on what you’re doing.

Some interesting paradoxes have come up as we’ve talked – the fact that your work is spontaneous, and yet you have such a firm hold on planning your career, for example. There’s a strong feeling of the Southwest in much of your work, yet some elements in it are not are very genteel . . .
I met a beautiful lady one time, and she later told me, “You know, you’re a zebra,” and she hit it right on the nose because I think of myself sometimes as a contradiction. Planning versus spontaneity, for example – the way I think and the way I act aren’t always the same. But planning a career and creating the art are two different ball games. The only person I know who can run his career spontaneously is R. C. Gorman.

You mentioned earlier that you believe in brujas and lloronas. What’s a llorona?
There’s a folk tale out of New Mexico and Colorado that there was a woman who had lost her child, and I think she was also beheaded. At any rate, after she was buried, she would appear, and go around crying – that’s what llorona means, crying – looking for her child. To keep us in line at nighttime, they’d say the llorona was going to get us. I really think that behind most of these old stories there’s some element of truth. From time to time you hear a new llorona story. I really believe in those kinds of things. A lot of it has to do with living in a little tiny town where strange things happened all the time, and the parochial school had a lot to do with that, because they would take the children and mold their background with Christianity. When we came up with a story about llorona, they would counter with a similar kind of story. What it really did was make a bigger believer in the devil than it did in God. That’s a terrible thing to say! You take a ten-year-old kid and lay this kind of thing on him that he already knows something about, and you’re going to scare the hell out of him. I suppose if you could show him a miracle it might turn him the other way, but you don’t see too many of those. (Laughter) But such stories are very much a part of New Mexico and Colorado. They’re hard to get rid of. But working with them as art became very valid. It was something that I knew about. But I just began that piece and I had to back off because I realized I believed in it so much and could get into it so much that I was scaring myself half to death and could end up crazy. I’m not too careful about what I say about religious things, but for some reason that aspect of it, the brujas, the lloronas . . .

Bruja, work in progress
Did you ever have any direct experience with them?
Ya, I really did. At that time in Colorado – strange – there were balls of fire, actually fields of energy that went rolling down the railroad tracks. I imagine the tracks attracted that magnetic energy or whatever it was, so we’d see those and God, you see one of those in the middle of the night and it’ll make a believer in the devil out of you in a hurry. The ground used to swallow up hoses, straight down, swoop. You could watch them go down, there no way in hell you could hold on to them. Kitchen cabinets would fly open and dishes start flying around the house. This went on for a long time. My stepfather was a cop, right, and every time something would happen he‘d go check it out and I’d go with him, and you’d find people on their knees, praying to their santos, you know. It got so bad that finally they sent these guys down from the university, and they had a special name for that, I don’t remember what it was, something to explain these things that are unexplainable. I’ll give you a funny story here. You’re not going to believe this! This just happened a few months ago. It was five in the morning, I was on the verge of getting up, and I heard this thump. I get up, go outside and look around, and there was a little bird on the sidewalk, and I thought this bird flew into the window and knocked itself silly. I picked it up and brought it in the house, and I put it in a boxes. And I thought I’d watch this bird and see what happens. If it looks like it’s going to make it, then I’ll try and nurse it. I left it in the box, went to the studio and came back about noon, and the bird was just fine. Beautiful, one of those little black birds. I thought, maybe I’ll keep this around for Jake, right, but no way can I put it in the same cage because Jake [his parrot] will eat him. So I went out and I bought another cage and I hung the cage up and put the bird in it, and it was singing and just as happy as a lark, and so I locked the doors and left. I came home that night -- no bird. And I have never found that bird. It just disappeared. The door was locked, there was nobody here. Very strange, indeed. (Laughter) I can’t say it was a lost soul because this is a brand new house, no one else has ever lived here, but it could have been some kind of force, or someone trying to send me a message

--Stephen Parks, August 1982

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