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Gonzalo Cienfuegos

Retrato del artista by Gonzalo       Cienfuegos

interview transcript

Date of Interview: Dec 01, 2002
Location: Chile
Topic: Interview with Gonzalo Cienfuegos
Interviewer: William Marrapodi and Isidora Correa

LatinArt:  While isolated from each other, the characters in your work continuously establish a relationship with the spectator by way of eye contact. There is a confrontational component in this similar to when we look into a mirror. There seems to be a fundamental question concerning reality involved in this. Could you explore this idea for us a bit further?

Gonzalo Cienfuegos:  I think, or I feel, that when I confront my paintings I am trying to understand myself. I am trying to resolve the mystery of life by putting something on canvas, or within an artistic situation... trying to get some answers and to understand what I am doing. I can answer most questions in a very rational way and that’s very common, but in the end I think I have no answers. I think when I started painting I couldn’t understand what was happening inside me and consequently I looked to artists, read their biographies and tried to identify myself with them. So I think that I have some kind of dialog with my characters, who are isolated, but who are directly engaged with me. I don’t want to tell a story of what is happening between them. What’s important is what is happening between them and myself.

I think that the space of the canvas, the space of art, is a space of liberty, a space where another virtual reality is happening different from real life. I like to develop characters, people... not exactly portraits of real people because my characters belong to my imagination, and as such I don’t use models, but I often remember gestures of people that I saw some place. Unconsciously I start is something that is very mysterious for me.

LatinArt:  I am interested in the part of your memory that remembers gestures or images and then your translation of this to the canvas. What part of your memory remembers? Is it a visual memory, or is it emotional?

Gonzalo Cienfuegos:  I think it’s mixed. I have an image memory. It began when I started collecting reproductions and books of art, architecture, design, art history, and music. In some way I lived in a romantic past. I wanted to place myself within the nineteenth century and I wanted to live like the bohemian artists of that time, in the ateliers. And you see that in my reflects how I used to feel in my youth. I remember the old masters, the images of Rembrandt and all the sumptuousness of the paintings. I love the art after Van Gogh and the American Expressionists, Action Painting, the Cobra rooted in Amsterdam; that shocked me. So, I live in two different states: one that is very polite and very traditional, and another with a power of expression that wants to go against everything. I think that is something I used to fight with, because I always wanted to find one way of doing things. But finally, I came to the conclusion that my realities are several and in that way I try to find a strategy to set all these worlds inside me.

LatinArt:  There is also a consistent theatricality in your work, where certain social classes of characters are presented as actors on a stage. How did the theater become a framework for your paintings?

Gonzalo Cienfuegos:  The scenery, the stage, and the canvas are a virtual stage where I can put many characters from different ages, from different stories. It’s like a comedy and I am the spectator. I want that imparted to the viewer. I was very impressed with the absurd theater of Ionesco, and of Anouilh and all the French dramatists. I was very interested in their kind of crossway that turns absolutely everything around. A sense of humor often appears to distract from what is happening at the moment, like when you are talking seriously and something humorous interrupts your linear thinking. That is something that I like very much, because the absurd sets up a clash amongst things that are absolutely oppositional.

LatinArt:  We can relate this to the use of nudity in your work.

Gonzalo Cienfuegos:  For me, two paintings impressed me very much: Manet’s Le Déjeuner sur l’Herbe and Valenzuela Puelma’s La Perla del Mercader. To see all those completely well dressed men in contrast with a naked woman really had an impact on me. To see that merchant with this beautiful girl has such a sense of "machismo". Those ideas of opposites, of contrasts, really interest me. Also looking at the history of art, you see it as a recurrent theme. I am simply contributing to the preservation of a tradition.

LatinArt:  Do you feel that this is a way to break the mechanized way in which we live in everyday life?

Gonzalo Cienfuegos:  Well, that’s exactly it. It’s like we are accustomed to living in a very mechanical way, but at the same time I am very aware of what is the craziness and sadness of life because when you are not conscious, when you cross the line...that’s your reality and that is the space of your liberty. I can put everything in this space and I can write and I can do whatever I want. But I am conscious in my house with my daughter and with my children and with my students. I have to be under control, because I think that schizophrenia is exactly when you are not able to recognize the figure and the background.

LatinArt:  That’s been my experience with it. (Laughter).... Yes, you have to deal with your personality in your everyday life.

Gonzalo Cienfuegos:  The mask that is personality; but you have to be conscious of the mask, and recognize that now I have the mask of being interviewed. (Laughter)

LatinArt:  Interesting, the angle about personality relates to a question that I have when exploring your work. There is something very clear to me about the character’s eyes in your work that is very right eye dominant. The "personality" eye as we might say. But, I don’t know if this is an illusion of a mirror reversal or if it is intentional.

Gonzalo Cienfuegos:  Yes...I think it’s maybe something physiological, because I have a problem with the two sides of my eyes. As a result I often use a mirror because I have to look away...and I find often problems with this. When I see my paintings in reproductions, for me they’re absolutely different from how I remember them. Not in the sense of composition...sometimes the characters have the eyes on the sides of their faces and look quite terrible. It’s very, very curious. And I have problems with my perception, specifically with my retina, so it is something very physiological. But, I have to respect this because that’s who I am...with my handicaps and my problems. Some people say that El Greco had astigmatism and that he saw the world his way. That’s interesting, because his problem makes him very original. So, it’s very curious when I see one of my paintings after ten, fifteen years. I am really very surprised because I find that what I’m looking at is really very strange while in other instances I do not have the distance to appreciate what I am really doing.

In the mirror you are not able to see the reality of yourself. Because in the mirror in your bathroom, you see more or less what you want to see! When in the media, or on a tape recorder, when something more objective represents you, many times you say "that’s not my voice", but it is your voice, "that’s not my image", but it is your image. And the worst part is I look terrible! (Laughter). What is reality? Real is real. You are yourself. You are a painting. "Did I really do that?" When you read a book or when you have a lot to say or create a great deal of work, it is very confusing because you try to remember each one, when you did it, and how did you feel in that moment...

LatinArt:  You said that "in the mirror we see what we want to see" because we control that perception, yet you have also said that when you begin working you never start with an idea because you want to be automatic and unconscious. When your work is complete, do you see more than you wanted to see?

Gonzalo Cienfuegos:  I think that I see less than people are able to see, but at the same time I see more. I see in my work what others may not see. It’s only for me. The time it took to create them belongs only to me.

LatinArt:  You have stated that your paintings are not hermetic, but that they are intended to go directly to the "feelings" and the "emotions" and to cause commotion (?/ a disturbance). Artistically, how do you reinforce that idea?

Gonzalo Cienfuegos:  I don’t like to express my thinking. It’s better when the spectator develops what is happening, because I think that the artist just offers the door, a way out, by letting you enter other worlds. I think that the most important thing is to make contact. You asked me how I do that in a technical way. I think that color is the first aspect that touches one emotionally... you do not have to wait to decode this. Do you feel good or do you feel bad? And that’s the point that I really like to start with, something that involves you in one second. And afterwards you will have to decode all the forms, the language, the crossroads of different branches of the history of my childhood, etc.

LatinArt:  A primary dilemma of Latin America has been the search for identity. As a Chilean, and given your personal origin, your specific background, family and education, how has this question of identity emerged in your work? And as a painter, how has this same question of identity determined your artistic "affiliations"?

Gonzalo Cienfuegos:  You asked how do I feel as a Latin American? I think that you must understand that the Haitian or the Ecuadorian are not exactly the same as the Argentinean or the Uruguayan or the people in Santiago. At the same time, Santiago is very different from Arica, which is very different from Punta Arenas. Santiago is very different from Las Condes, and Las Condes from Cerro Navía. So I think if I go directly to the point, I am from the Independent Republic of Las Condes. My story, or our story, belongs to European cultures mixed a little bit with the native cultures. But I think that my mix is more European and urban, because I don’t think I am from the countryside: I am one hundred percent urban. In Chile I started looking at reproductions of the masterpieces of art, and this I find is very kitsch because I developed my sense of culture within the culture of prints. Here in Chile we do not have many museums, and as a result my first trip to Europe, when I was 33 years old, was very interesting because I had fantasies about the actual work. Which is better the reproduction or the reality? This makes it very confusing: the approach to beauty and to what is beauty.

LatinArt:  You have also worked in architecture, sculpture, drawing, video, neon, and of course painting, and recently completed work on an enormous scale in your capacity as Director of Scenography for the Teatro Municipal’s (Municipal Theater of Santiago, Chile) production of Orpheus and Eurydice. How have these diverse forms of expression contributed toward broadening your artistic understanding?

Gonzalo Cienfuegos:  I think that media is just that: a media. If you see the history of art, Leonardo only created one work in his whole life, one idea. Picasso maybe did two or three. Many artists have been like this. I remember when I was a boy and studying piano; although I didn’t continue with it I was playing piano as Gonzalo Cienfuegos. The artist’s obsessions appear in any form of expression.

With Orpheus and Eurydice I was very surprised when they invited me to participate in the production, especially because it’s one of my favorite operas. It was a very enjoyable experience. It allowed me more liberty compared to other operas. The costuming, for example, didn’t require much research. It came from my imagination. And all the sketching and the drawings came very easy to me. What was amazing is to see it all done after the sketches.

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