Estrella de Diego, Rafael Doctor, Marina Núñez: conversation
“Marina Núñez”, catálog, Ed. Centro de Arte de Salamanca 2002.
Estrella: It was one day when I was visiting her studio, about ten years ago… I had seen something before, in Circuitos, but there I was aware of the work as a whole. I loved the fact that it was so well painted. That was something that irritated her, painting so well. Then I wondered why that was a problem and now, after seeing so much “slapdash” stuff by contemporary artists, I say how great, that someone does it well, good texture, good workmanship.
But Marina did not like painting so well, that was her main worry. She had works she liked better, which were more “feminist”, with sewn hairs, with no paint, and I said I found them quite kitsch. I went for painting and I was proved right in the end. The fact is that at the time I was greatly intrigued and fortunately I still am.
Rafa: I was struck by the classical fine workmanship, understanding painting, and that fine workmanship didn’t look out of date, it looked modern, although it was something hackneyed that should have repelled me somewhat. But not repulsion for the subject, something you had chosen, but insofar as it might look like realist, academic painting. How could a painting done like that have seemed like present day art to me? Because the feminist subject was not what attracted me most, it seemed like just one more turn of the screw.
Marina: The fact is that at the time you are talking about I knew nothing about feminism in art. Now I can’t believe so much ingenuity, but I started to use tablecloths in a totally intuitive way, because I saw them on display, hung up like that, in shop windows in Portugal. It was an aesthetic experience, mixed with the fact that I thought, as a support, they went with the still lifes and interiors I was painting. Then I began to think about how interesting it was to use feminine crafts. And after quite a few months inventing the wheel was when I found out that in the USA, since the 70s, everyone had been sewing hair, painting vaginas, using embroidered tablecloths, and I was astonished. And indeed it was a fundamental reason to stop making tablecloths. Not immediately, but…
Estrella: Your tablecloths were not what disturbed me, that weird painting saved them, it was the rest that worried me. You had a conflict there, but the good painting didn’t upset me so much.
Rafa: I’ve got rid of that complex about good workmanship, I’m in favour of an art which is pleasing to a larger audience; in favour of using, depending on the circumstances, processes which are more closely linked to academic tradition.
Estrella: The problem is that at one time it was thought that the only important thing was to have an idea. I’m a painter, or a sculptor, because I have an idea. But it’s not just that, in the end you have to do it, and do it well, you have to have control over the work itself, and that idea of craftsmanship as something expelled from life… A man who writes a text has to be a craftsman with words, a man who makes a television programme has to be a craftsman with editing images. I think society today is slapdash, a society of errors, and we have to recover some soundness, some rigour. The idea of craftsmanship as negative has sunk us. It’s not true that anyone can do anything.
Rafa: It’s clear that your work poses a problem of visualising the formal. Because of its structure, its brushstrokes, it makes us wonder about a thousand things about what we expect to see as modern, and what we don’t understand as modern. It’s ridiculous, because painting produced in that way is just one more language, but indeed when I’ve had to talk about your work, the subject always comes up: good workmanship.
Marina: And it always comes up as an accusation.
Rafa: Not necessarily, only manual good workmanship as something essential in your work. That direct contact with the brushstroke, which involves recovering that lost aura… Because there is nothing that has more aura than a brushstroke.
Marina: What happened at the beginning with that distress “painting well” caused me were two things: on the one hand, to perceive a hostile environment – the death of painting was already under way and I vaguely noted reactions, which I didn’t understand at the time, against that formal aspect. But the most important thing was that I didn’t like what people who were in favour of painting and good workmanship were saying and doing.
Since I was a student I’ve always known theoretically that a good idea was as important as good production and that one thing does not stand up without the other. But the truth is that in my environment in the Faculty, what I saw constantly was that only the workmanship was valued. I couldn’t stand artists who had a certain skill, but had absolutely nothing to say, or at least nothing that was of any interest to the contemporary world. That was why I felt the need to turn to the concept, and when someone told me how well I painted, it made me uneasy, I though that the implicit comment was: “and that’s all there is.” I didn’t think that had any merit, the interesting and difficult part was to think of ideas.
Then, in a rather more cultured way, I began to understand that in that anti-painting and anti-workmanship stance, which in certain aspects and reasons is understandable, there was a fetishism of form which I don’t share. It’s true that painting has been through a critical time, thanks to a certain kind of rather reactionary painting. But forms are not stable, they’re not immutable, they mean different things according to how they’re used and the context they’re set in. And since I’m quite clear about that now, I’ve got rid of my bad conscience.
Estrella: When the “anti-painting brigade” talk about Marina’s work, I tell them that Marina is painting even though she is a conceptual artist. Painting is a plus, because you’re working in a paradox. Even when you use photography, you’re still painting.
Marina: Of course, I’m sure I use the computer almost exactly as I use the brush.
Rafa: I’ve enjoyed seeing how you evolve in technique, how you use photocopies, photos, the computer when it suits you, mixing them without problems, self confidently, without losing sight of your goals, or rather: just because you don’t lose sight of them. But I don’t think you’re a conceptual artist, because you’re very narrative, and the two things seem to me in a way incompatible.
Estrella: I don’t think narrative painting can’t be conceptualising. When one says conceptual, for me it would be what is against a certain kind of tradition in which form takes precedence over the essential idea. There’s nobody more narrative than Cindy Sherman, and she’s absolutely conceptual. And I think that is Marina’s case.
Rafa: If conceptual means you’re interesting in telling ideas, and you’re not a painter who’s only interested in painting itself, and decoration, what I call the history of art to be hung over my sofa, then yes. But that there is a clear idea behind it does not mean it has to be conceptual. For me conceptual is a term with negative connotations. It refers to a more opaque art.
Marina: In other words, the legibility of the narrative would prevent it from being conceptual?
Estrella: I don’t agree with that incompatibility. I use the term in a very canonical sense, and of course in a positive one. I think that even “pure conceptual”, Joseph Kosuth with his “One and Three Hammers”, is telling a story. I believe the world can’t be explained without telling stories. As Lacan would say, we live in such an enormous void that it makes us invent the world. That’s why narrative is always present.
Rafa: And the conceptual.
Estrella: In the sense that every work involves a concept, yes. Of course Velázquez does conceptual painting, if we consider that behind it there’s a concept. But I don’t use the term like that, but as it is defined in art history. The conceptual as what would give pride of place to processes over products. As might happen in Marina’s case, although at first it might seem quite the opposite when looking at the paintings.
Marina: Hearing you talk about conceptual painting was like a salvation for me. It had come to seem like a contradiction in terms. I think there’s something very important in the idea of conceptual painting, that it’s an awareness of what the history of painting has been, an awareness that painting is dead, for example.
Estrella: I’m not very clear about the narrative in Marina’s painting either.
Marina: The truth is that I do think of the pictures like stills from a film, imagining what has happened before and what will happen afterwards. Although they don’t look like stills in an obvious way, as in the case of Sherman that we mentioned, they are far more static.
Estrella: But your narration is not syntagmatic. For me your painting is the essence of void. What it generates before and after are holes, the image is trapped in a break. It traps you because there’s something that’s never quite said, or seen, or becomes narrative in an obvious sense. If it is a narrative, it’s perverse, or it’s a very well told story, it’s in the best told stories that very few things are revealed, they’re the ones that cause distress.
Rafa: In the end I noticed your traps. As you use that impeccable workmanship and that narrative effect as pure seduction, to trap the spectator and thus be able to tell the story, to develop a concept and for people to listen to you. You don’t go straight to the final meaning, your path is more winding, or twisted. There’s a strategic use of sensuality, visual pleasure, beauty, with no complexes. And so you reach those people who want a work with a certain appearance, the ones that would go to the Claudio Coello galleries.
Marina: Those decisions were not conscious, but intuitive. But later I did rationalise to what extent that good workmanship and the legibility of the figuration suit me, to catch a non-expert audience. I want people who don’t understand modern art to allow themselves to be captured by a close, familiar aspect, which soothes them, to achieve what Estrella explains so well: to make the eye see something it wasn’t counting on, something disturbing which in theory it wasn’t expecting or wanting to see.
Estrella: And that has been a constant strategy. Because I believe that you are an artist of strategies, in the best sense of the word. That intuition business would last you about ten minutes. I think you know very well where you are, and where you want to go, both conceptually and formally.
Marina: Not at first, it was all very faltering. Like the first tablecloths, although there were explicitly feminist intentions, for example in the defence of craftsmanship, or of that genre which women were forced to before, flower pictures, the main subject had nothing to do with the genre, it was sinister. I painted middle class settings or classical still lifes, which looked familiar, in which strange, disquieting things happened.
Estrella: That is most interesting, seen retrospectively, because all of us who have reached the theory of genre, it’s because the canon has distressed us considerably. It is the anxiety the canon aroused in you, the need to confront it, to break with it, that led you to feminism. There are women who present themselves as feminists, who “know” the theories, but who really have never wondered what that imposed hegemonic gaze is.
Rafa: And then came the dead women, the mad women, the monsters…
Marina: Yes, it was a lucky moment when everything gelled, because I was finally handling clearer discourses and I could achieve more polished results.
Rafa: It’s curious how in those years many artists, musicians, film-makers were all fascinated by that sinister atmosphere, with a Romantic, Gothic air, and tried to reread deformity, sickness, the monster nearby, the hidden face…
Estrella: At the same time that Freud’s work on the sinister was rediscovered.
Rafa: In a way, it’s a return to the Middle Ages, with that enormous load of mystery, of darkness, that apogee of the magical…
Estrella: It’s our millennium referent, with the epidemics, the feeling of the end of the world… The Middle Ages are our cultural escape route. Not only for Romanticism. They’re like a great shelter because nobody knows exactly what happened.
Marina: In connection with that idea, which you’ve developed in some writings, of the reason that imposes its truth as a universal truth, and hides or sidelines the ones it has turned into monsters, how do you see the Middle Ages? Because if there’s a return to that subject now, and we are of the millennium, perhaps the Mediaeval monsters are being rediscovered.
Estrella: I don’t think that in the historical fiction we now call the Middle Ages people lived particularly with monstrosity, in the sense that the 17th century did, for example. There’s a Mediaeval tradition of hybrids, of monsters composed of man and woman or animal and man. But, for example, the gargoyles on cathedrals were not so much the monster as the devil, the representation of evil. And with that idea of the animal, monsters could also be the uncivilised, country people.
Marina: If at that time the monster represented what was to be avoided, the denial of the good and the beautiful, which were equivalent, I now believe that it was represented for quite different reasons. One is catharsis, to face up to fears instead of trying to dodge them, and another is subversion.
Rafa: The monster condemns the bad way in which it has been seen, in which it has been represented.
Marina: Yes. In my case, when I represent them, they are indeed a condemnation of certain feminist stereotypes. For example, the female body has been contemptuously associated with heterogeneity or instability… and so the monsters are a kind of tautology.
But it’s not a condemnation in the sense that it considers that at this stage we have to reject that association of the female body with monstrous characteristics. On the contrary, there is an attraction for anomaly, because if you represent it, it may cease to be the fringe. I think bringing into play more images or stereotypes about the body opens up a broader range of identifications and makes us used to the idea that the canonical body is an imposition. As Remo Bodei says, beauty can come to be seen as evil, because it excludes, and disguises what the world really is, and in that way the monstrous is “good”, it’s opposed to the violence of the canon.
Estrella: Indeed, the canonical body is a monster. If the monster is traditionally a thing composed of various parts that come from different places, the canon of Zeuxis, that body that brings together the most beautiful parts of the most beautiful women is a monster.
Rafa: And is the madman a monster too?
Marina: In metaphorical terms madness could be seen as a kind of distorted or non canonical thought, which does not fit in with the official kind. But it is a thorny subject, because mad people are not metaphors or political standard bearers, but people who are having a terrible time. If there’s one thing that I would like to make clear, it is that I never represent real monsters or mad people. I have absolutely no intention of speaking for others, supposing them to be incapable, as is quite rightly said, that is an indignity.
In the madness series, for example, I took up Charcot’s iconography because I wanted to talk about the representation of madness, of what it means culturally, not about the world of the mad. What he did with those people who were locked up and suffering, that exquisite theatricalisation, seems to me to be highly dangerous, fallacious.
Estrella: Or that film about the schizophrenic mathematician, Nash. The story that the mad are a privileged territory is a lie. Madness is a struggle to the death with horror. But it is a deformation that has been around since the Greeks. For them the melancholic, the first classified madman, lives in the territory of darkness. Darkness is the place of terror and at the same time the point of encounter with the gods. Hence the misunderstanding.
Marina: Madness as an illness has often been mixed up with “divine enthusiasm”, the madness of the gods or the ecstasy of poets.
Estrella: In that sense I do believe that Marina’s madwomen are “fibs”.
Rafa: She makes that quite clear by using the same model to represent them. That places them in a broad metaphorical terrain. Anyone who sees two or three knows that she’s not looking at a madwoman with a name.
Marina: And I try to do the same with the monsters. I take great care to make monsters unbelievable, with grotesque bodies, obscene, hybrid, unstable, but if possible that don’t look like anything real.
Estrella: Do you see the cyborgs in your line of monsters?
Marina: Undoubtedly. The science fiction iconography can be misleading, but they are aberrant bodies in regard to the canon for many reasons, because they are constructed artificially, because they are simulacra, because they are mixed, because they are not isolated but connected to their environment, because they can be cloned… they defy nature, originality, purity, autonomy… everything that is the subject of humanism.
Estrella: And how do you want us to see your work? We are telling you our impressions, but I don’t know what you would like to achieve.
Marina: It’s difficult to explain because it may sound pretentious and utopian, but it would be something like that the metaphors I propose should produce a change of attitude, probably a subtle and unconscious one, in the spectator. For example, if I represent a cyborg as a heterogeneous body, which incorporates otherness into it, it could be a metaphor for a world less paranoically hostile to difference than empathetic with it. Or it I represent a cyborg which is connected with its environment, it could be a metaphor for a world in which epistemology and ethics are thought more in terms of interaction than separation and dominion. And if they manage to be suggested, those worlds could be propitiated. In the end, it is a political aim.