Yann Leto: ONE OF US
Exhibition: 3th September – 16th October, 2022
Conversation with Manuel Ocampo
You mention Freaks in your statement. What a movie! Do you feel yourself or your work have an affinity with the grotesque?
Yes! It’s a fantastic movie, although I only saw it once. I love just having a blurred memory of it. I’m concerned about changing my mind on it if I happen to watch it again. That movie inspired the title for this exhibition. Do you remember when they sing the song “gobble, she’s one of us, we accept her”… And yes again, I definitively love gore and grotesque movies, like Cannibal Holocaust, or Braindead. Much more interesting than a lot of movies of today!
It has been a while since I saw that movie. I need to watch it again. Do you think us artists are like those “freaks” in the movie? Are we misfits? Can we navigate both inside and outside of a group? Or have things changed for us? Art is a big business and we are pressured to belong to a certain narrative, to toe a certain ideological line in order to be validated, in order to survive.
What are your thoughts regarding art, or painting, and how it functions in our society today?
You surely have never felt pressured by it, Manuel! And that’s maybe why you are a freak but certainly not a misfit! Being a freak, in the best sense of the term, is an honor to me. It means that I’m free. I don’t accept any ideological line and don’t care about not being understood. If I want to say something social, political or romantic I just do it. I’m just not interested in hurting anyone’s feelings; as for the rest, my barometer is 99% open!
The art market is, above all, quite fickle, and molds a number of artists according to its commercial demand. It is a dangerous game as many of them have nothing or little to convey, and I consider painting a means of expression nourished by one’s personal experiences; it is an art that evolves with you, and I am not just referring to technically gained experience, but to life experience. Now, the art market is saturated with fresh graduates from great Schools of Fine Arts. Yet, inspiration is lacking, sincere and personal themes are lacking. Or it seems so to me.
As for my views on how the system works, if you look at the painting of the horse and the 3 clowns from the exhibit, in the middle of the wheat field on the background, you will spot a fourth clown desperately trying to catch up with the other three and so get on the horse; he runs towards them without giving it a thought, as if he were desperate. He doesn’t know if getting on it will really change anything or not, if he will be happier or not. This is clearly my vision of the mass and how a social system is built. Bringing people aimlessly together, guiding them in one and the same direction. Putting them on the same horse.
I’ve always been intrigued by your style of painting. I like how your figures seem to be in a constant flux. They don’t seem to be standing on solid ground, and the space they inhabit melds with the figures. The colors too aren’t relegated to their own space in the canvas. The paintings I like the most are the ones where the figures are disintegrating into space, like your boxers series. In this series some of the forms that represent a body part are undefined and are blob-like, as if they are weightless.
I want to add that the space in your paintings is claustrophobic even if only a single figure is depicted, due to the saturation of color and forms. The way you treat space and the way color is handled reminds me of places in the world where movement and color is a never ending sensory overload. Cities like Mumbai, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Tokyo, Manila, Mexico City, and even some areas of NYC and LA come to mind. Have you been to these places? Or how does a place or space influence your work?
Can you tell me how this approach to space, color and form came about? How long have you been living in Madrid?
In the series of paintings for “One of Us,” the disintegration of space is more on the cubist side. There is so much play with the depth of field, with light and dark – and yet, there is flatness to it as well, as if you were looking at a distorted mirror in a carnival fair.
The carnival fair mirror analogy seems to be apt because it looks like you’re dealing with psychological states in this series.
One particular piece struck me since I recognized Allen Ginsberg in the painting. Can you tell us about the painting “I Once Saw America?”
Yes! With the boxers, I definitively experimented with a new way of painting.
I began to develop a more expansive painting in terms of color, movement, light and noise rather than the concept in itself. Suddenly, I wanted to find a simpler structure, emptying the space and giving importance to what was happening.
I needed that change. I remember being crazed about your postcolonial paintings of the KKK in the 90’s when I discovered them, but I was deeply interested in your changes concerning the symbolic iconography by using just one color with an expressive brushstroke.
How came that you suddenly started using more expressive strokes in your artworks? Was it hard for you to take this step? Was it a logical step?
Regarding cities, Mexico or Los Angeles are very special to me. I have been lucky enough to be able to enjoy both for prolonged periods, and are places that take hold of me; they are where I need to be to renew my way of thinking and painting. Mexico is incredibly inspiring and the food, the Rivera murals, the load of colors and the smell of cilantro make me feel at ease. Los Angeles has this contained Chaos and this low sky with its low white architecture and those electrically-wired avenues that explode at your eyes every time you look at the sky! I painted landscapes of both cities several times, if not in almost all my paintings. They are places of contrasts and antagonisms that I find necessary to understand the world.
Unfortunately I don’t know Manila yet! But I will come visit you soon.
The definition of freak is interesting to me, for it portrays someone who lives on the margins, someone who lives within the system but is not overshadowed by it. When it comes to the Beat Generation, it is much more obvious for our society to realize their lack of social discipline: drugs, aimless travel, the way they dealt with sex in their poetry and how they took their experiences to the limit. However, there are more characters that catch my attention. For instance, Daniel Johnston. The songs come to him as a necessity, or he would die otherwise. This concept is the one that really matters to me. The artistic creation that does not even intend to be and that is the conveyor of the deepest and often stormiest emotions. In my case, I give an increasing importance to the act of painting. This is what makes me feel alive. I have a gradually deeper respect for painting.
The metaphoric comparison of the carnival fair reminds me of James Ensor. This painter is a clear reference to me. I love to use the metaphor of the mask like he did. That’s why my characters are ill formed, distorted clowns. They inhabit a parallel reality, which fractally depicts our own. My characters are trying to make a place in this complex society. I like to think of my painting as a pleasant and welcoming place for my characters to live in, however I am conscious that the psychological aspect is so charged sometimes that it can become overwhelming and oppressing.
I love being inspired by my own mistakes. My paintings are my mistakes! In the case of that painting by Ginsberg and his friends, we can go back to talking about freaks… freaks who do whatever they want: poetry, drugs, sex and art… what else could be asked for?
I really have more and more requirements about my own technique and the fact of painting and building. I have more respect for painting…perhaps because of my age.
Regarding the “KKK” paintings. I wanted to play around with the idea of making weird religious folk art. I wanted to render the type of images one would find in an old church of a strange cult, but they were eventually read as something political so I had to abandon the series. It was my fault because I was also swept up with how it was being read by curators and art writers. I didn’t have the wisdom or the intelligence to resist how my work was being framed. At the time — this was the early 1990s — if you came from a third world country, people would naturally expect your art to be based on your roots. People thought I was making Filipino political art about decolonization. I
changed my style because I didn’t want to be pigeonholed as a political artist. I’d rather be a folk artist, maybe a post-contemporary folk artist, hahahaha!
I still cling to the idea that my art comes from a thrift store aesthetic and not something that’s “contemporary.”
My change of style happened when I realized I was getting more interested and intrigued with the type of paintings that I found in flea markets made by hobbyists rather than in contemporary art galleries, no thanks to Jim Shaw’s thrift store painting catalog. I felt that these hobbyist painters had more freedom with their creativity than the ultra professionalism of artists in the contemporary art world. At that moment of realization I set out to be a dilettante artist by being comfortable navigating the margins. Hence my appropriated statement:
“I pursue no objectives, no systems, no tendency; I have no program, no style, no direction. I have no time for specialized concerns, working themes, or variations that lead to mastery. I steer clear of definitions. I don’t know what I want. I am inconsistent, non-committal, passive; I like the indefinite, the boundless; I like continual uncertainty. Other qualities may be conducive to achievement, publicity, success; but they are all outworn as ideologies, opinions, concepts, and names for things.” -Gerhard Richter
I’m glad you mentioned James Ensor because I was thinking about the figures in your paintings and how their features are mask-like. Some of the faces don’t fit their bodies. Sometimes the parts of the faces are ill defined, unfinished and are blob-like. Another artist that comes to mind when looking at your paintings is Francis Picabia’s monster painting series. Picabia will paint a face with 8 eyes, while you put a face on a shoe. (Now I want to explore more on Picabia and the Ensor analogy). Since I read your statement about your series “One of Us” I’ve been paying close attention to their faces and how when you paint people in groups, their faces are so dissimilar from one another. Usually when talking about a group becoming a tribe, we see they start to look very alike, following the rule that “you’re one of us because you look like us…” But in your depiction of groups you make sure that their individual characteristics still remain, or perhaps not, because they are all wearing masks…
I like what you say about getting inspired by your own mistakes. It seems that in that instance that you make a mistake, that’s when things open up and freedom sets in, and that’s exactly when the game or “inspiration” happens. It’s also a deeply philosophical statement…
In some cases that’s what sets you apart from painters mining the figurative vein. Because your work is predicated on mistakes. There are no formulas in that arena, there are no set standards or pre defined style. It’s chaos and you have to navigate through this demon-infested sludge of mistakes, however your paintings seem to have been made with an air of nonchalance, coolness, or sangfroid.
Oh man! The cats of Jim Shaw are just perfection! And“me too” seems a perfect statement response! I will start to use it as well!
By the time I discovered your work, I was studying Fine Arts in Bordeaux in the late 1990s. I remember I experienced a great disappointment in college. I realized that was not what I understood by painting, and I also had a big fight with a teacher who criticized my approach to art. I was in love with artists like Andreas Hofer and became a big passionate fan of Kippenberger’s works. I am no lying if I say this was the exact moment when I realized I wanted/needed to paint too. However I had no tools, and felt very disillusioned. A bunch of years passed and only in 2004, when I moved to Spain, the urge for painting emerged again.
Picabia is absolutely another reference for me in the multiplication of hands, legs and eyes. You never know who and what you are looking at exactly. “Le dresseur d’animaux” is probably my favorite painting of him. I couldn’t tell you why. It just talks to me.
I really appreciate your last comment about my work, for what you say is exactly what I want to convey. Improvisation and error are two essential elements in my painting process. Perhaps this is why the characters show such a strong personality. There is something pathetic and grotesque in each situation, but I am also interested in the viewer being able to delve into each one of the characters so that they can walk in their shoes, experiencing something good and poetic.
When I paint, I am very disciplined. However, when I start a new work, I progressively forget about all the rules until having broken them completely by the time I finish the painting. Breaking the rigid structures I set for myself at the beginning is essential to me. I could compare it to the preparation of an athlete before a competition. Everything is meticulously calculated but when the time comes, all kinds of jeopardizing feelings appear. Such expansive and violent this feeling can be that it may bring about a total overcoming of the individual whose ultimate goal is to win. There’s the great improvisation. To improvise to win, to reach maximum intensity.
By the way, I’m currently living in Rome. I forgot to tell you that I left Madrid six months ago. I’m painting these last series of paintings in the Spanish Academy in Rome. I was provided with a small studio but it has been a really inspiring place and time for sure.
Back to your paintings, I remember I was caught by one of them where you wrote: “The world is full of objects, more or less interesting, I do not wish to add anymore,”
That is such a strong feature of your work in general. Bottles, syringes, meat, hammers…
Are you more interested in objects rather than in people?
It’s great that you are in the Spanish Academy. I did a residency at the American Academy just up the street on Via Massini in the Gianicolo Hills in 1995. I made a few friends at the Spanish Academy. I would sometimes invite them for dinner and it would annoy the American scholars because the noise level would go up when the Spanish were there. We can talk more about this later!
Question: Why did the conceptual artist start a painting? Answer: Because he thinks it’s a good idea.
With regard to my painting “The world is full of objects, more or less interesting, I do not wish to add anymore” it is worth mentioning that the name is taken from conceptual artist Douglas Huebler. That statement was a crucial pronouncement in the forming of conceptual art. Huebler believed that art was no longer an object: it was an idea documented by means of language, photographs, or diagrams. For me using that text for my painting was in a way an ironic reference to that statement. The painting is that of a blob that devours everything. That’s what I think ideas are, when an idea takes a particular shape. The painting was in no way a criticism of Huebler’s work. It was just a way for me to imagine if that pronouncement could be translated into a painting (something the conceptualists were totally against against painting, that is)
That blob is one of us! is a superb painting and it exactly renders what I do when I’m not painting: feeding my head on images from social networks, as well as landscapes, weird objects and visual constructions, the shape of clouds… Everything I see nourishes me and comes in handy when I paint. I love to think about art embracing everything. That’s why on this show, apart from the paintings, I decided to create a psychiatric office with its decadent check-in desk and a big neon piece on the wall, a bowl with candies, worn out magazines and out of fashion furniture. The idea was to create a scene for the exhibition. It won’t be only paintings on a wall. But a whole concept put together. A show inside of a show
In some way, painting has always portrayed this historical, political and social violence through great paintings such as Le Radeau de la Meduse by Géricault or the powerful Guernica by Picasso, against which the critics and artists that make up our history of art have stood. It is clear that the act of painting can also be political. It is something that can be clearly perceived in the expressionist painting of Baselitz or in the austere and colorful canvases of Mondrian.
For this exhibition I have painted a diptych in which both scenes present violent situations. I hadn’t thought the action would unfold exactly this way. The dimension of the canvases may have influenced. This is how, in the first half of the diptych, the scene that unfolds does so in a peaceful, cultural space: a museum. Yet, the characters are desperate and furious. They writhe in a space that turns claustrophobic. I like to render the primitive, the animal of the individual my way. The other half of the diptych shows a hockey game. I am fascinated, especially in sports, by authorized violence, by limited and contained barbarism, as in bullfighting.
In reference to the question about whether I am more interested in objects or people:
I am interested in painting both, objects and people. But I haven’t really painted anything that comes close to the people in the way you paint them. Correct me if I am wrong, but I feel that in your paintings of people depict individuals with their own history, their own mental and emotional states. Even though your figures are often distorted they have a personality. They seem to be alive and they seem to be people that you can recognize in the real world.
As for me, I cannot distinguish objects from people. They are abstracted. I treat them as symbols, as icons. That is why I repeat the motifs: the cross, the hooded figure, the ham leg, the sausages, the devils, the vultures, the feces, and the tooth. I guess they are symbols with certain psychological weight but their meaning is only secondary to their ability to make you look.
A blob, yes, that’s what we are. We are shapeless and the forms that we take in are those of things that we encounter, things that we consciously or unconsciously gorge ourselves with. A more banal metaphor is that comparing us to sponges. We soak up things and squeeze or, better said, we vomit them out on canvas, and the result is what is left after the clean up: the stains, the still emerging forms, the waft of intestinal acids, etc.
Your work gives off an orgy of psychological interpretations. You are an observer of people and situations but you depict them in a rather absurd way as if they are all posing, and conscious about being looked at, thus performing for us, the viewers. In a way I feel like you are laughing at the whole human condition, a laughter of dark humor…just like Goya’s black paintings, but yours are lurid and kaleidoscopic rather than dark and menacing.
The psychiatric room is so appropriate not just for this series of paintings but also for the majority of your oeuvre. I can picture you as a mad doctor in a lab coat creating Frankensteinian, monstrous hybrids, chimerical…laughing while you paint. You are both doctor and patient – like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
I can see the violence in your work. You said in an interview that you “…want your paintings to be like a slap in the viewer’s face.” You aim to be violent in your work to shake things up…to wake people up, to give them an electric shock. Your paintings are telling the viewers to look! To look at what’s happening in the world around us through my art! I can imagine the painting having arms and grabbing the viewer by the collar and then slapping him silly.
Theodor Adorno once quipped (or wrote?) that Art is an uncommitted crime.
We keep hearing that “words are violence.” Salman Rushdie by writing the Satanic Verses got a fatwa on him and after 30 years he got stabbed. Art provokes people. It makes them do funny stuff, turns them into animals.
But also in contrast to what violence art can provoke, art is also healing. According to Joseph Beuys, art can transform society and change the world from a sick one to a healthy one.
Maybe you have a point when you talked about the need for violence in order to evolve. Look at how civil war has transformed countries. Especially, countries in Western Europe that have gone through horrible acts of violence towards it’s own people only to then evolve into fine examples of “liberal democracy,” and champions of human rights and freedom 🤔😬🙄 (skeptical emojis added)
In a way, it is a cleansing process. But I’m not one to advocate real violence, and in my opinion, neither are you (?)…The violence you speak of is the violence enacted on a painting, the act of painting, the metaphoric violence. How your paintings depict the anxieties and frustrations of the individual. I reckon you use art to analyze things…You’re saying that violence is always present, especially in art, in thinking about art, in wanting to poke the eye and to slap the viewer. For me that’s the function of your paintings.
Yes, I agree. Painting over the years was a showcase of what was happening in society and little by little painting has been used as a tool of protest. A way of waking up the world and violence suddenly became beauty. Personally, painting allows me to escape from a routine and, above all, it allows me to be at peace with myself…It goes beyond a market issue, etc., it is a personal and psychological matter. Violence shines in my themes thanks to my daily experience. Things that are so close and that seem shocking to me that can happen in your family environment, with your neighbors, people overwhelmed by the pandemic or the fact that purchasing power is quite low and people get violent. Something similar happened in France with the Gilets Jaunes, and a few years earlier with the revolts in the Parisian banlieues. Social violence exists, but it is a consequence of poorly managed political violence.
Thank you very much, Manuel! It was a pleasure to share this ideas and thoughts with you! I hope someday we can start a project together about what we really know to do well…Painting!