Saturday, October 27, 2012

Gary Mauro: Sculpted Verbs (1981)

            During the past ten years, Gary Mauro’s expressive talents have been revealed in a startling array of modes.  In the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, he painted abstract works on un-stretched canvas.  He cut up those paintings and reassembled them as abstract cloth sculptures.  Gradually the sculptures became figurative.  In the mid-70’s he executed a group of superb colored drawings, the Rock Series—tight compositions of isolated rocks and shards that evoked whole landscapes.  At the same time, he continued to explore the medium of fabric sculpture, and combined it with his unabashed love of the figure.  He recently did a series of large, abstract, mixed-media paintings and incorporated them into such diverse materials as coal dust from deserted mines near his boyhood home of Walsenburg, Colorado, and bits of steel collected from sunken ships in the Caribbean.      
        What is common to all his work is Mauro’s uplifting sense of rhythm.  And while Mauro continues to work in various mediums, his primary focus now is on the figurative bas-relief wall sculptures made of stitched and stuffed and minimally painted fabric.  ARTlines editor Stephen Parks interviewed Mauro last month in his Ranchos de Taos Studio.

How did you learn to use a sewing machine?
I was teaching art in a Denver high school in 1969, somebody donated a machine to the school and one of my students taught me how to use it.  There was a whole fabric art movement going on in the late ‘60s.  I wasn’t acutely aware of it, but it must have affected me because I was cutting up my abstract paintings and sewing them back together as non-functional quilts.  As I was doing that, I became intrigued with the potential of using the sewing machine as a drawing tool.  I liked the line quality, the way the line keeps popping out of the machine.

How did you get from non-functional quilts to sculpture?
I used to store those quilted paintings by rolling them up and standing them in a corner.  I began to regard them as sculptural because they stood there.  I made pant legs and sleeves as sculptural objects.

Like Claes Oldenburg?
No, more abstract than his. But they reminded me more and more of figures, especially a piece I did that was panty hose.

What happened to them?
I threw them all away.  They just didn’t work as a solution to the problem of making sculpture from fabric.  They looked like guts.  Then I hit on the idea of drawing with the stitches and building up a low relief with stuffing between layers of fabric.  It combined both interests – figure drawing, which was always the bottom line for me, and sculpture, which I was getting more and more interested in.  The first piece I did like that was based on the Three Graces.  It was wall-oriented sculpture rather than full-round, but I found I could still treat the full figure by doing the front and back views of the figures, rotating them across the horizontal plane.

You still do a lot of abstract paintings.  How do you relate your work in these two seemingly very different styles?
I feel the two are very close.  Both have an energized relief surface.  In some of the work, I get the surface with stitching, and in some I get it with collage.  I use the same gestures in the lines and strokes in the two types of work. Barbara Rose once asked Lucas Samaras what the connection was between his boxes with pins and needles in them, his large, sewn, fabric reconstructions, and his Polaroid photo transmutations.  “Oh, I’m not sure,” he said to her.  “It’s probably too early to tell.”  I feel some of that.
Figures and Shadows (detail), fabric relief, 5x6 feet.

Most of the figures in your work are female forms.
It may seem old-fashioned that I relate to figures like that, but . . . I certainly respond to them.  A woman, a curator from the Whitney Museum, once asked me why I didn’t do more male figures.  I couldn’t answer that for a few years until I realized that there was far more rapture in me in the female form than in the male. A lot of times, I don’t think of the figures as having gender.  Deep down, I’m dealing with pure form.  I did a commission for a man in Belen, Carlos Schidlowski, and when we started talking about it, he told me how much he loved horses and buffalo, Indians on horseback, and I said no, I didn’t want to get locked into any narrative content, I speculate in pure form.  He said, “Great, I speculate in pure money.”

What’s pure form?
I’m more concerned with the sculptural aspects of a shape, its pure form, than I am with the message, the associations of the shape.  It could be a buffalo or a woman’s body for all I care.  There’s a lot of modeling involved.  I use fabric like another artist might use clay.  I add and subtract to get down to the shape and form that is rhythmic, interactive.  It leads back to the idea of figure drawing that is other than flat.  I can have undulating surfaces that are both drawing and bas relief.

Earlier you used the word rapture.  Is that a key to the way you relate to your work?
I relate it to the feeling I get in a Gothic cathedral, the empathy of all that upward movement in architecture.  It’s charged.

There’s a classical, Italian Renaissance feel about your work.
It’s the way I learned to draw.  I remember in school I illustrated my own verbs.  If the teacher was talking about the verb to spit, I’d draw a picture of a man spitting.  And later, in art history classes, I’d always do quick drawings of the slides being shown, as a memory device. 

The sculptural pieces are still very active, very verby, in their vertical thrust . . .
There’s horizontal movement, too.  In the piece I’m doing now (a 24 –foot wall sculpture for a Denver office building), I use the same model for all the figures, but I rotate her and change the posture as she moves from right to left.  Each piece has an optimum rhythm and proportion, a pictorial kind of logic that determines how one line and shape relates to another, and to the whole.  And I’m finding as I do more commissions that the rhythm and proportion have to be right, not only within the individual piece, but within the space, too.  It has to fit with the shape and size of the room, the lighting, the environment of the whole building . . . There’s that added excitement to doing commission pieces, creating them for a space.

When did you do your first commission?
In 1975.  It was for a Los Angeles film maker, Paul Monash.  A few years later, I did one for another producer, Paul Heller, who made all the Bruce Lee movies.

And you were involved in the Art in Public Places program.
I did a large piece for the Bataan Memorial Building in Santa Fe, and one for the Mary Medina Human Services building in Taos.  The Santa Fe piece has imagery evocative of tense, muscled, working people.  The Taos piece is mostly animals – a bull, a charging horse, a flying bird.  Before I started on it, I interviewed the people who worked in the building, and they told me about all the people they dealt with, and the piece attempts to help them forget their problems, lift them up.  I tried to work from the condition of the people who would see it.  R.C. Gorman commissioned me to do a diptych that hangs over his pool, I did a commission last year in Hawaii . . .

Have any conflicts arisen between what you want to do with a piece, and what the commissioner of the piece wants you to do with it?
None.  So far, I’ve taken them an idea, and they’ve gone for it.  I couldn’t do it any other way.  I have to feel the piece has the art in it I have to get out of it.

In some of your abstract sculptural pieces, you used quite a bit of color.  The figurative ones are considerably more restrained.  Why is that?
The sewn, bas relief resembles a kind of marble.  As you begin to draw attention with color, it can compete with the relief, with the sculptural presence.  I draw graphite lines on muslin, and use an occasional accent of color—I love color—but I don’t put much of it in these pieces.  I use it in a draftsman’s sense.  The color describes the drawing and the sculpture.

The figures in the new work appear bolder, more frontal.
They seem to be pushing more now, demanding that they be more figurative, and less abstract in comparison to some of the earlier work.  I love the little nubs, the sculptural details of elbows and knees.  I ain’t just makin’ tits and ass.

What artists have been a strong influence on you?
Rodin.  I’ve always liked the visceral quality of his work, the action, the pathos, the anxiety of his figures.  I try to establish the same sort of charged, rotating, twisted point and counter-point in my figures.

Any contemporary artists?
Laddie Dill, especially, whose work gives the illusion of incredible weight but they’re actually quite light.  And I like Richard Serra . . . his solid sheets of hot rolled steel leaning against a building.  At times, that’s the effect I want my abstract paintings to have, a surface that looks like something else—steel, or a rock wall.  It’s exciting to make a painting not look like a painting.  And I’ve always loved de Kooning’s work.

Your drawing has the same sweeping, gestural quality.
I met him once.  I lived in the Bowery for a year, and one Sunday I went to East Hampton to go sailing.  It was a lousy day, and I was talking to a guy on the dock, I told him I was an artist, and he said, oh, we’ve got an artist here, his name’s de . . . dekoo, something like that.  So I found his place, and he was working away in a frenzy in his studio.  I didn’t want to interrupt him, so I waited for about an hour and he didn’t take a break, so I decided I had to knock or leave.  He came to the door with brushes dripping.  I said I was an artist from New Mexico and I just wanted to say hello, so he said “Five minutes.  Five minutes.  Come in,” in his Dutch accent.  It turned into an hour and a half.  There were his drawings of the Women Series all over the floor.  The ideas he shared with me, mostly about how he worked, were really exciting.  I asked if he worked from a model, and he said no, though he had in his early days.  “Gorky would model for me,” he said, “but I’d never model for him in return, so he quit that.”  And then one day he found this pair of overalls, all stiff with paint, leaning in a corner, and he grabbed them up and put them on a stool, and made a quick face out of plaster, and hung it up on the wall behind the thing, and all of a sudden it reminded him of himself.  And he also used to draw nudes from himself in the mirror.

He used himself for shapes for the Woman Series?
Yes.  And he told me how he painted on a day-to-day basis.  He’ll take a painting that he thinks is resolved, and do a verbatim tracing of one part of it that he was excited about, and transfer that part to a new canvas and use that as the launching pad for the next painting.  Once he had the figure, the image, whether it was from the thing in the corner, from himself, or from another painting, that was the given in the formula, then he was at the business of painting and no longer dealing with the figure.  I feel the same way with these figurative images.  I have established the given, and then go about the business of fabricating the sculptural-ness, the overall rhythm and picture.  I don’t worry about the given anymore.

Do you think of your art as being at all Southwestern?
I have friends doing Southwestern images—Red Loving, Bill Gersh, Richard Thompson, even Carl Johansen—and I’m beginning to think a school is being established, but I don’t feel related to it.  The Western imagery used to irk me.  I felt it was provincial, but I’m mellowing.  I’m coming to the conclusion that New York formalism is as provincial as horses and cowboys.  Gersh was back East recently, and as he said when he got back, in New York they know what they can sell, and Elaine Horwitch knows what she can sell.

You’re a drummer, and I’ve seen how well you can control a speed bag with your fists.  Is there a relationship?
I feel the same sort of rhythm in my hands—playing the drums, hitting the bag, and drawing. I have a good friend, Kester Smith, who’s a drummer for Taj Mahal.  He stayed with us for ten days once, drummed most of the time, and I did a series of watercolors based on his rhythms.  I titled them after stories he told us about the West Indies.  When he was a kid, he and his friends would catch birds, but the winner of the game was the guy who caught the bird with the most beautiful song.  Then he’d stand on the street, so proud, with his prized bird . . . That was his background in music.
--Stephen Parks, September 1981

(Gary Mauro exhibits at the Wildine Gallery, Albuquerque, and at his studio, P.O. Box 473, Ranchos de Taos, NM.)

Barsano, Hacking, and Goebel: Of Bachelors and Impressionism (1981)

Just getting to interview with our three subjects—Ron Barsano, Rod Goebel, and Rulon Hacking—was difficult.  The arrangements were made:  7 p.m. at Rod Goebel’s house just west of Arroyo Seco; Rulon would pick me up around 6:30, and Ron would meet all of us at Rod’s.  I picked up a six pack to facilitate the discussion, ease the tensions and inhibitions inherent in the perverse process of the interview situation.  6:30 came and went with no sign of Rulon.  At ten to seven I popped open a beer, lit a cigarette, and got on the phone—no Rulon.  7:10 and I’m sure he’s forgotten the whole thing.  I’m calling his home every 30 seconds or so and pacing.  In desperation I call a good friend of his.  The person on the other end speaks soothingly.  “He’s often late you know.  This is nothing.  He’ll be there.  Just relax.”  Ten minutes later, Rulon arrives.  I hop in the car and we head out of town.  “This damn car has been . . .” and before he can finish his sentence the car gives an insinuating cough and the engine dies.  “See?” he says as we coast off the road onto the shoulder. “Vapor-lock.  Gotta let it cool off for a few minutes.  Might as well have one of those beers there.”  We sit and drink.  I glance at Rulon who’s staring rapturously at the mountain bathed in the crimson gold of the sunset.  “God, look at that will you?”  I look.  That’s it!  That’s what these guys are doing, it occurs to me, trying to capture that in paint.  In a few minutes we are once again on our way, stop for more beer, and two miles down the road the engine is repeated.  It happens three more times, in fact, but we’re drinking and laughing and hardly care if we make it or not.
We do.  Rod Goebel’s house is tasteful, elegant, almost opulent by Taos standards.  “Let me give you the tour so we can get that out of the way,” he says.  It’s a solar house made of beer cans covered with adobe plaster, beautiful gardens in the back and surrounding the house.  His studio, separate from the living quarters, has a stirring view of the mountains.  There’s a large painting in progress on the easel (Summer Clouds over Pojoaque, subsequently finished and pictured here.)  We go back into the living room and the tape is rolling.
Ron Barsano, Fiesta, Taos Plaza, oil on canvas, 20x30 inches

Rulon Hacking:  Yeah, I’m heading to Phoenix tomorrow morning.  My sister had a baby boy and my parents will be there and I haven’t seen them for a while.
Rod Goebel:  Well, this is a good time of year to go.
RH:  (Laughter) Yeah, perfect.
RG:  119 degrees.  (Laughter)  And you’re getting vapor-lock at 85 degrees?  Great!
RH:  I’m going to borrow a car—a little more reliable.  I’m going to do some painting along the trailside down there.
RG:  Cactus.  Cactus is big . . . Cactus, yuccas.
RH:  I tried to paint one last year.  Well, several, but God, the bugs would drive me crazy.  Thorns everywhere. 
RG:  They know how to protect themselves.

AL:  Rod and Ron, you were both members of the Taos Six [other members were Robert Daughters, Walt Gonske, Julian Robles, and Ray Vinella] which formed in the mid-‘70s.  Would you tell us about that group?
RG:  It was just a group of artists who were all painting and doing good work and had the potential to be one of the big groups in the country—in the West, certainly.  It was gangbusters, really.  Had it stayed together, we’d be having shows today that would . . .
Ron Barsano:  With relatively no publicity we were involved in shows in the Philbrook Museum in Texas, the Maxwell Gallery in San Francisco.  The name caught on unbelievably.

AL:  Why did it break up?  Painterly disputes?
RG:  It’s very complicated.  It was nothing among the artists.  It was a matter of artists versus galleries.  The usual problem.
RB:  In any group there’s going to be problems.  We all knew that so we drew up by-laws.  One of them stated that any artist could show in any gallery he wanted to.  The only real commitment was we’d have two shows a year as a group.

(Telephone rings.  RG answers it.)

RG:  Hello. (Pause) Yes. (Pause.  Laughs.  To group at large) Wait.  Wait a minute.  This is a woman who’s writing a book called Who’s Who in New Mexico Bachelors.  (Much laughter from all.  RG into phone) There’s a bunch of us here, all artists, what would you like to know?  (Pause) Forty-five minute interview?  (Pause)  Who’s gonna buy a book on Who’s Who in . . . Well, what if I don’t like women?  (Laughter)  So what do you want?  Um.  Sure . . . (Continues talking into phone.)
RB:  (Continuing) So to get back to this.  Rod was dissatisfied with the gallery where we’d all been showing.  He wanted to pull out and we talked him out of it.  He decided a second time—I gotta pull out and I don’t want to talk to the guys because they’re going to talk me out of it again and I gotta get out of here – which I don’t blame him.  So he pulled out without saying anything, which really upset two of the members of the Taos Six.  They thought the gallery was doing a hell of a job for us.  Anyway, the whole thing blew up.  We tried to get back together, but it just never worked out.  The only bad thing about a group that’s promoted as the Taos Six is that everybody knows about the Taos Six, but they don’t know Barsano.  So I realized . . . I was kind of glad it broke up.

AL:  It allowed you to establish your own identity.
RB:  Right.  My own identity was more important to me than the Taos Six.  I wanted people to say, “Oh you’re Barsano.”
RG:  (Waving phone) Here you are, you’re next on the list.  (RG gives phone to RB, accompanied by much laughter.)
RB:  (Into phone) This is Ron Barsano, bachelor, what can I help you with?
RG:  She said someone else did a book like this in Texas, and it was a best seller.  They had a lot of pictures . . .

AL:  They’ll probably want a lot of pictures of your place.
RG:  I’m not sure I want this at all.

AL:  Let me change the direction a little bit.  Do you object to being called impressionists?

Rulon Hacking, Winter Brook, oil on canvas, 40x30 inches
RH:  It’s the best term that I can think of to cover that manner of painting, but there’s a kind of stigma attached to a school of painting that’s a century old.  When you say impressionist, people automatically think of Monet or whoever, rather than think of what impressionism is—the projecting of an impression of a scene, or a feeling, without having to do the whole . . .
RG:  The fact of the matter is that the impressionists were painting what was really going on out there in the real world, and they were the first ones to do this.  The public tends to think that impressionism is an artificial style or technique, whereas it’s really the most accurate means of representing the truth—the truth of light and form as it exists outside.  Monet was out there!  And so impressionism is far more realistic than what people think of as realism.  It is more realistic.

(RB interrupts, handing RH, bachelor number three, the phone.)

RH:  Hello.  Yes.
RG:  (To all)  Let’s wait until this is over.
RH:  (Into phone) Pardon?  R-U-L-O-N H-A-C-K-I-N-G . . . five foot ten . . . (much laughter) … Do I have to remain single for a whole year?  Well, I’m dating a lady but I don’t want to get married.  She wants to get married.  What?  All kinds of ladies . . . hmmm . . . Well it sounds really fun.  Kind of kinky though . . . Well, okay.  You know, I’m probably the wrong guy . . . Tomorrow?!  I’ll be in Arizona . . . I’ll let you know.  Cecile Spall? . . . 471-6748 . . .in Santa Fe . . .Right.  Bye. (Hangs up phone).

AL:  Is she herself single?
RH:  I don’t know.  She’s a graduate student in something.  They’re going to have this big party when the thing gets published and invite all these ladies and there’s going to be all the guys to autograph it.
RG:  That would be fun!

AL:  Sounds like the all day duck races in Deming.  (Laughter)
RH:  What were we talking about?  Impressionism, wasn’t it? (Laughter)

AL:  I was saying that you all are working in a traditional style or manner . . .
RH:  It’s about the only thing left that can’t be called contemporary.  Super-realism is now called contemporary, but it’s not new.

AL:  How did you happen to choose, individually, this style of painting?
RG:  One doesn’t necessarily choose a style of painting.  Some do, and those are the people who tend to be bad artists because they’re not . . . it’s not coming from within themselves.  But a realistic vein or mode has always been the thing that interested me.  It was natural to me.  Taos was the natural place to come because I grew up in Albuquerque.  The early Taos school was still here, the landscape is extraordinary, the mountains are totally unique.  Taos also has a far greater variety of things to paint than any other place I’ve seen.  In Santa Fe the landscape tends to be the same everywhere you are.  The magic is what attracted those earlier artists.  Interestingly enough, all the members of the Taos Six came out here about the same time—about ten years ago.  And since that time, other than yourself, Rulon, there have been very, very few other artists working in a realistic vein that have come here.
RH:  I can’t think of anybody . . . What’s his name?  He does really tight super-realism?
RG:  Bill Acheff.  But, of course, Bill is not painting the area.  That’s not the area—still lifes.  You could do a still life in San Bernardino.  Some other young artists have come since, but they haven’t stayed here for the most part.

AL:  Any good ones?
RG: (Silence)

AL:  Well, why did you choose this style, Ron?
RG:  When I was growing up in Chicago there was an illustrator who lived next door and I was friends with his son.  He always said that when we were old enough, we could go to the American Academy of Art and study under William Mosby.  I graduated from high school, my friend decided he wanted to be an actor, and I went to the American Academy and studied under William Mosby.  I was very naïve about fine art.  But immediately I knew that was what I was going to do.
RG:  Why was it, Ron, that you came to Taos?
RB:  I saw what happened to other artists who left school, started painting, and thought they were better than anyone else, and I saw how their quality and their success dropped to the point where if they worked in the arts at all, it was with some commercial studio.  I realized that you have to be open to new things, and to criticism from other artists.  I had heard about Taos, about Fechin, some of the American Academy students were out here, so I decided, I’m moving to Taos.  I didn’t like it, but decided to stay for a year.  Then I fell completely in love with the place for exactly the same reasons Rod gave.
RG:  Plus, don’t forget, there are also so many wonderful bachelors here. (Laughter)

AL:  Rulon, do you infuse feeling, emotion into a scene, or is it a particular feeling that the scene conveys to you . . .
RG:  (Interrupting) If you don’t put that in there, it’s not art.  Reproducing a landscape does not make art.  Only when you put your own spirit . . . It’s much more difficult to do something that’s realistic and at the same time show your emotional response to it, than it is to do an abstract sort of thing, which is all emotional response.  The viewer gets some emotional response from an abstract painting, if it’s successful, but if you’re doing a realistic painting, if that painting is good you also get the same emotional response from that work.  You’re painting not only what is there, but you’re painting what was in you.
RH:  The main component in any work is the idea, the underlying emotion that you try to project whether it’s from arbitrary symbols or known symbols, which is realism.

AL:  Is that a feeling you have to wait for, or are you able to conjure it?
RB:  You can’t conjure up the emotion, and you can’t wait for it or you’ll paint one or two paintings a year.  And I paint ten paintings a year so I’m close to that but not quite there. (Laughter) Your real goal is for someone to come up to a painting and say, “I’ve been there,” to get some kind of physical response, and not to have them say, “Well, this color will match my furniture.”
Rod Goebel, Clouds over Pojoaque, oil on canvas, 42x50 inches

RG:  You want some universal feeling to come through.  I think basically the reason why I work in realism is that it’s universally understood.
AL:  Do you find it difficult working against almost a cliché, in the sense that a hundred people have painted it already. 
RG:  It used to be that aspens were painted a lot.  Now try to find an aspen painting.  You can’t.  Certain subjects, because of their inherent beauty, are overdone, done by too many bad artists.  And that is unfortunate because there is nothing more glamorous to me than an aspen forest.  It’s unfortunate that that happens because everything is the subject of art and it can never be diminished no matter how many times it’s used, no matter what the trends are as to what people buy.  All that’s important is whether it’s a good painting.  What’s being painted isn’t all that important to the buying public.

AL:  Apropos of that, I was in the Variant Gallery recently looking at slides of your work, Rulon, and I came to one with an Indian figure and I remarked on it, and the gallery director said, “I wish he’d paint more of those.  If he did I’d sell them like crazy.  Fifty people wanted that painting.”  Does that put certain pressures on you?
RH:  I think we all feel that way don’t we?
RG:  There’s always a danger for any artist to become locked into any one subject because it limits his freedom and the true artist should have as much freedom as possible.  That should be the first and foremost thing.  Certainly an artist has to live, so you are aware of those considerations.  But I’ve always found, and I’m sure that Rulon and Ron would agree, that whenever you’re painting something that you are really most interested in, that’s the painting that sells.  Always.
RB:  I don’t know.  When I moved here aspen paintings were the hot thing to do.  I never did one until last year when I was up in Garcia Park and I saw this beautiful setting.  I painted it and it never sold.  (Laughter)

AL:  Somebody I knew once said that if they were going to do landscape paintings here they’d set their easel up in the junkyard.
RG:  That’s the easy way out.  That’s what you find in art schools, that sort of philosophy.  Even though you’re surrounded by beauty and inspiration, you’re not really an artist unless you do something totally different.  To search for something outside of yourself is to ignore the basic element of art, and that is your own humanity.  And to go to something else is false.  Whether it’s Picasso or Rembrandt, their humanity comes through their art.

AL:  Do you work more in the studio or in the field?
RH:  I used to work mostly outdoors, but in the last couple of years I’ve tried to work more from my imagination.  Occasionally I do a color or pencil sketch on the spot, but a lot of times I’ll just start from scratch, from an abstract form—make a few brush strokes and sit there and stare at it until I think about a scene that I remember and then try to recapture the whole thing.
RB:  I don’t do any work that way.  The subject matter is in front of me, but the painting, I’m happy to say, is usually nothing like the subject that’s in front of me.  Colors are different, values are different.
RG:  The problem with working realistically is that you still have to follow certain physical laws of nature.  The tendency, I know my tendency is to ignore that, to get lost in the excitement of the color and the paint and so on.  But there are certain confines you must work within.  Now painting a landscape is, in a way, much easier than painting a figure, because you can change the shape of a tree very easily.  You cannot change the shape of an arm.
RH:  All these things have to become second nature.  You can’t paint a masterpiece of realism or anything and be laboring over how the finger goes.  The eye can’t stop at a toe and be wondering if that’s right.  You have to feel it.

AL:  How long was it before you had that feeling?
RG:  Many years.  Because the best is based on exactly that – feeling.  And more often you sense or feel not when something is right, but when it’s wrong.  And the skill comes in saying, “Why is it wrong?  What will it take to make it right?”  And that feeling only comes from many, many years of doing it.

AL:  Do you enjoy talking to other artists?
RG:  No.
RH:  It’s hard.
RG:  Part of the reason I don’t is that whenever I have it’s always gone bad
RB:  The reason is that in Taos the realistic artists have their group of friends . . .
RG:  Well Taos is just like everywhere else.
RB:  No, no, I disagree.  If you lived in a place like New York City, in a building that housed every type of artist, you would get together with that group and it would be really stimulating.

AL:  Was the Taos Six like that?
RG:  No. It can be a very bad thing because when you get a close group of artists like that they tend to paint for their peers.  And they tend to want approval, especially when you’re working in an area that is so nebulous, where you don’t know what you’re doing, whether it’s good or bad.  So you want some kind of reinforcement and the danger is that you tend to paint to please them.  Any time you have an artist’s colony this happens.

--Thom Collins, September, 1981
(Rod Goebel exhibits at the Total Arts Gallery, Taos, the Peters Corporation, Santa Fe, and Trailside Galleries, Scottsdale.  Rulon Hacking is represented by the Variant Gallery, Taos, Pelham Gallery, Santa Fe, Carlson Gallery, Denver, and Trailside Galleries, Scottsdale.  Ron Barsano’s agent is Linda Hill, Box 2860, Taos.  He exhibits at his studio, and at the Wichita Gallery of Fine Art, Wichita, Kansas.  Paintings by both Barsano and Goebel have been selected for the Beijing Exhibit of American Western Art which travels to China in November.)

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