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Ismael de Anda

interview transcript

Date of Interview: Jan 02, 2012
Location: USA
Topic: Interview with Ismael de Anda III
Interviewer: Rita Gonzalez

LatinArt:  We’re sitting on your swing sculpture in Mt. Washington, California, so let’s begin with why you suggested having the interview here.

Ismael de Anda:  Lazaro is an alternative sculpture, inspired by a glider-swing that my grandfather had on his farm in southwestern Texas. Recreated from memory, it relates to the transient existence and memory of my grandfather’s property on the banks of the Rio Grande/Rio Bravo River, at the U.S./Mexico border, and the desert landscape that surrounded it, representing a playful, secure place of shelter, or stability, but simultaneously having been created from the impermanent, fluctuating mirage of family memories and past history.

LatinArt:  How have you been informed by Chicano/Mexican-American Artists? You mention a lot of things that you resonate with are concepts of the handmade and of the rasquache.

Ismael de Anda:  I was influenced by fellow art students at the University of Texas, El Paso. I also had the opportunity to work for sculptor, Luis Jimenez. Growing up in El Paso, Texas, and Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, I would visit shops in Juarez run by skilled craftspeople. They would handcraft leather, blow glass, etc. Observing all these skills impacted me at an early age, including shops that had fields of piñatas. One time, I heard someone say that Mexican craftsmanship was substandard because the pop piñatas didn’t look like their original icons; piñatas of Spider-man were recognizable, but looked somewhat different, so this inspired me to develop this concept of the mutant, a species of unexpected evolution, in my work. I prefer the term mutation versus the neater term hybrid. I feel that mutants are considered ruder.

LatinArt:  I think of the work of Celia Alvarez Muñoz in relationship to yours because she’s also dealing with border consciousness, a couple generations older than you, but very influenced by American suburban experience, but the very particular experience of Texas in proximity to Mexico and its culture, and distilling all of that through sculpture and through many works that involve text and bi-lingualism. I feel there are certain connections with your work and hers, but I wanted you talk as well about your own kind of generational vantage point.

Ismael de Anda:  Both my parents were the first in their families to get college degrees. My father would tell stories of frustration, growing up with Spanish and English, but feeling inadequate in both languages. Later, the Chicano Movement declared Spanglish to be its own form of poetic expression. The use of text in some of my works is a celebration of my father’s subsequent “mastery” of these individual languages, but also partially disrespects language by reducing it to simply another art material, playing with its specific and arbitrary tendencies, which also function within memory. My use of text is also a manifestation of storytelling, inspired by my family’s multiple and conflicting oral histories. Often the way I use text is sculptural. When the text is placed on an object, the object’s size, form, and surface area, dictate the format of the story and the amount of information that can be revealed and released.

LatinArt:  So you have used found materials and clothing as well to imbed different stories?

Ismael de Anda:  I re-designed two men’s dress jackets for an exhibit called Intersection, where artists were paired with local small businesses. I was paired with Playclothes, a vintage clothing store. One jacket was 1970’s style, with a big lapel, the other jacket was meant to be from the 1980’s. The seventies style jacket was related to the first suit I wore when I made my first communion, and the second one was a 1980s-style jacket inspired by the first suit I chose to attend a wedding that I went to as a teen.

I hired a sewer to embroider these jackets with text and images of my stepfather’s memories of coming to the United States, leading him to later find success in the U.S. as an owner of a chain of dry cleaning businesses. These new jackets’ fabric was canvas, as a means of transforming traditional painting materials. I was interested in the idea that these artworks could continue to be worn, extending the life and memories surrounding these objects.

LatinArt:  And you did a Rock concert jersey as well, with a kind of Heavy Metal look?

Ismael de Anda:  For the design of faux souvenir, rock concert jerseys, I created a fictional heavy metal band called Expectiva. On the back of these red and black, rock concert jerseys, in place of the usual listing of a band’s tour dates, there’s a printed story that describes the experience of my first rock concert. The name Expectiva evokes the expectations leading up to and during the concert, which were possibly more exciting or memorable than hearing the actual band, with the ultimate award of the status being the souvenir concert T-shirt.

I gave some of those rock jerseys to some friends before their travels in Europe, and they sent me back pictures of themselves wearing the jerseys at Documenta, in Kassel, Germany, so it was a nice way to feel that these ephemeral artworks were integrated into that event! While in Germany, my friends rented a room from the lead singer of a German punk band. They gave him one of the shirts. I like this idea of an actual punk band singer wearing a T-shirt for a fake heavy metal band on stage somewhere!

LatinArt:  The filmmaker and artist Willie Varela, who is also from El Paso, talked about growing up and living and continuing to live there and how information kind of trickles in. I wonder when you first became interested in art. How were these things trickling in and how were you getting access?

Ismael de Anda:  I always remember drawing. My first year at the University of Texas, El Paso, I made my first trip to New York. It was a life-changing experience for me. There was this German Refigured Painting exhibition at the Guggenheim. I saw paintings by Kiefer, Polke, Richter, for the first time. While further investigating German artists, I also became familiar with Joseph Beuys. Also, at this time the Chinati Foundation in Marfa was growing. Along with my experience of Juarez, these were fantastic supplemental events allowing me to gain some perspective on the passages of my experiences in El Paso.

LatinArt:  You have spoken about your idea of the mutant. Is that how in some ways you are trying to recast issues of identity in your work--by using the metaphor of mutation?

Ismael de Anda:  My first name is a Spanish version of an Arabic and Hebrew name, I went to a college in Texas, with Bhutanese architecture on the U.S./Mexico border, where Ciudad Juarez, Mexico and El Paso, Texas were once one city. Through my work I try to emulate or retain some of the potential and unexpected energy of this experience.

LatinArt:  Going back to this notion of mutation, I wanted you to talk more about that installation that you did with the wall painting, Two-headed Ceramic Beast, 2009.

Ismael de Anda:  Two-headed Ceramic Beast, is a creature of multiple attentions. Ceramic is a traditional Mexican art medium, fragile but when broken, its shards can be very sharp. The beast is painted with neon colors, which might be welcoming or repulsive to the viewer. While traveling in Japan, I witnessed how many other cultures also share these composite creatures.

LatinArt:  Is the invention of these new creatures, a playing out of some of those ideas of the mutant, or is it a larger freedom that you are allowing yourself, to work diversely both with real memory and history from where you grew up, but also through highly imaginative science fiction or fantasy?

Ismael de Anda:   Maybe the best way to describe it is as a pleasurable form of vomiting or pleasurable disgust or nausea, in response to the mutant. Again, like the piñatas, people look at those and say that Mexican craftsmanship is possibly inaccurate because Bart Simpson somehow looks weird or transformed, but that mutated piñata is authentic unto itself and this kind of blend or mixture is full of its own nuances, all those things are what I consider the mutant. I’m interested in this and so my works and installations are an attempt to let these mixtures exist as a force of their own.

LatinArt:  Brazilian modernists call that “anthropophagy,” which is about cannibalism but also about consuming different parts and in particular in anthropophagy consuming parts of the colonizer and consuming/absorbing some of the things that would make one stronger and spitting out or refusing vomiting other things, so maybe there’s a little bit of an element of that?

Ismael de Anda:  Yes. I think it’s important to acknowledge the stuff you are spitting out, acknowledging the value of mutating kitsch, stereotypes, the “ugly”. When I did the series of re-envisioned Jim Beam bottles, it was a partial critique, embrace, and reflection of certain kitschy “art objects” in our home, a re-assessment of growing up within a culture of alcohol and bars as entertainment instead of “art” venues.

LatinArt:  And you said these bottles were also part of a limited edition and you considered them as influential art works or an art collection.

Ismael de Anda:  Jim Beam commissioned Western and wildlife genre artists to do a series of relief paintings on their whiskey bottles. My parents collected these bottles. After the bottle was empty, it would be displayed in our home. These “art objects” were a weird artistic influence. I re-designed the images on the bottles by super-imposing imagery that pertained to my updated personal genres and “memory-scapes”. These new images included my first car, a maroon Chevy Nova painted in Juarez, the Mexican actor Tin Tan superimposed over the pre-existing image of a hunting dog, a BMX rider, Gene Rodenberry, and an image of Luis Jimenez’s sculpture, Vaquero, placed over an image by Frederic Remington.

LatinArt:  There are different interests in your work, some of which are drawn from the terrain of actual life experience and invocations of domestic architecture, settings or landscape (border landscape) and then there are things that allow you to play in more broad imaginative ways with things like mythical beings. I’m interested in the way that they coexist, I think that you could push that even further.

Ismael de Anda:  When I was younger, part of me couldn’t wait to leave the desert. When I would visit my grandparents’ farm, it was out in the middle of nowhere, there were no toys, no TV reception, I think it did kind of train me to have to be imaginative, while at the same time a lot of legends and actual creatures of the desert can be far-fetched.

As I got older, time one of my first contemporary art experiences was when the Chinati Foundation was being developed in Marfa, Texas, near my grandparent’s farm. That was an interesting experience for me because part of me was excited for the experience of new art, and at the same time, part of me was protective of that area because I felt that was part of my familial heritage, but I realized that I’m part of both realms…

LatinArt:  Protective and open

Ismael de Anda:  Yes.

LatinArt:  What kind of impact do you think Marfa and its attention and connections now to artists and the art quote unquote art world? What kind of impact, do you think, that’s had in El Paso? Also, do you think, there is more of an interest now more platforms for contemporary art because of it?

Ismael de Anda:  El Paso has always been an international crossroads, the growth of the art scene in nearby Marfa has brought more people from around the globe to the region, putting more people in contact with the unique historic culture and people of west Texas. Now that we are in the 21st century, artists like Donald Judd and the potential for larger global, geographic cultural knowledge, via the internet, has influenced new generations to explore issues of contemporary art. In El Paso the Rubin Center, the El Paso Museum of Art, and La Estacion de Arte Contemporáneo, in Chihuahua, Mexico, have been presenting their own fantastic contemporary exhibitions.

We’ve been discussing how the region impacted me. Moving to the Los Angeles area, to attend CalArts gave me the perspective of distance to re-imagine my past history there. CalArts has its history of influential California conceptual art. While at CalArts, I had a critique of my work with some faculty members who are considered pioneer conceptual artists. The critique didn’t go well, however I realized that I had a different interpretation of what the tenets for conceptual art had been. For some, conceptual art is more diagrammatic. When I first heard about conceptual art, I developed a different possible definition, a “poetic conceptualism”, influenced by being raised between English and Spanish. My interpretation of conceptual art made me think about the Spanish language and how Spanish is metaphorical. I liked how art could be about an idea. I related it to how in the Spanish language a certain phrase can point to an overall scenario or an overall kind of thought or experience. For me that’s what I thought conceptual art could be, a gesture or suggestion indexing a further deeper, idea. Often, I felt that when considering and discussing ideas in English, that English description was more in search of perhaps concrete specificity but yet somehow still missing the mark. The metaphorical aspects of perhaps romance languages such as Spanish, reference a specific yet expansive situation also allowing for word play and alternative meanings similar to the works of Duchamp and Magritte. I understand that this also possible in English, but through the blending of my own linguistic upbringing, I started thinking about how culturally people may receive artwork based on a certain linguistic socialization. That’s a reason that I began including this sculptural form of text. As an art educator, I appreciate on-going educational theories of “multiple intelligences”: people possibly have a primary tendency when reading or learning experience, such as visual learners, aural, kineaesthic, textual, etc., but also that a primary tendency may shift to another one depending on the experience. By presenting multiple points of entry into my work, I am interested in providing the viewer with a point of contact that may still unravel into further new considerations.

LatinArt:  Can it swing back and forth?

Ismael de Anda:  Yes!

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