BY ERIC HOPE
Originally Published in the Summer 2014 East City Art Quarterly Guide to the Visual Arts. For more information about East City Art’s quarterly print publication visit the guide’s home page HERE.
Delicately drawn pastoral landscapes are incised by raw pigment or awash with swaths of primary colors, all in an effort to discern the (in)visible worlds that surround us. For Alejandro Pintado, what is hidden beneath the canvas is just as important as what lies in plain sight. While new to the District, the artist has made a splash in his native Mexico in recent years, with exhibitions at four museums, including the prestigious Museo Nacionale de Arte in Mexico City. I recently sat down with the artist at his studio in the new Monroe Street Market development to learn more about his work.
Pintado’s workspace feels like a cross between a traditional artist’s studio and a physics lab. High ceilings, a roll-up garage door and concrete floor evoke an industrial feel, but the few canvases visible along the walls are almost overpowered by mechanical drawings, sketches of equations and photos of architectural spaces. Maquettes intended to test his latest concepts occupy the center of the room, while a rolling-cart of acrylics and other paint supplies sits just out of reach in the corner. It comes as no surprise that the artist is influenced by the world of science as much as the world of art, and that observation sparked our conversation.
The artist received his BFA in 1998 from the Escuela Nacional de Pintura in Mexico City and like many young people, Pintado wanted to experience life outside his native country. He applied to several MFA programs around the world, ultimately settling on the University of London’s Goldsmith’s Department of Art, where he ultimately received his degree in 2001. In discussing his time there, Pintado dwells not on the classroom environment, but on studio visits, where students had their work viewed and critiqued by their cohorts and other invited guests. The curriculum focused on conceptual approaches to art and one of the intriguing aspects of the College was that it accepted “non-traditional artists” with backgrounds in the sciences and medicine, encouraging students to view their work through multiple prisms. This multifaceted approach to art continues to inform his work over decade later. Pintado returned to Mexico in 2001, but has continued to spend time abroad in France, England and the United States, where he completed a prestigious Skowhegan residency in 2007.
Since graduating over a decade ago, Pintado has produced an impressive range of works that, while varied in their content, begin to coalesce around an overarching theme— how can we document and interpret that which is unobserved? While the pictorial, planar aspects of his work deal with what we could call the visual world – our perceptions of geography and space – Pintado’s true interest lies in trying to discern that which is not visible. One can think of these invisible forces both in scientific terms (such as earth’s electromagnetic fields or the light waves that bombard us) and philosophical terms (how we relate to the memory of place or interpret our visible environment through our own emotional lenses).
The way in which the artist approaches this theme has subtly shifted over time as he has progressed from two-dimensional canvases featuring compressed layers of information to full-on, three-dimensional work that straddles the lines between painting, sculpture and installation. One of his earliest bodies of work, Trying to Omit the Irrelevant dates back to 2004 at a time when his approach was more literal in tone and content. Take for instance Eighteen Carat, a piece featuring an almost pleinair-inspired scene of a rock quarry in the background, superimposed by a vinyl, digitized “painting” of a woman perusing a jewelry-shop window rendered in strong geographic lines. The result has not-so-subtle political and social tones as the viewer is forced to consider the implications of the stones’ journey. Similarly, Fruta, Shampoo, Verduras, Galletas addresses the same questions in a different order, as the viewer is forced to ponder the future half-life of grocery items once discarded. Here Pintado tells me he is interested in, “the subjective view of many people living the same experience,” acknowledging that interpretations will differ based on the observer’s history.
Pintado notes that once “you find a language… you want to play with that language.” In this instance, the “language” is the observation that time – our perception of its passage – colors our understanding of the world around us. This study of the “fourth dimension” drove his practice into the more conceptual dimensions that we can see play out in more recent years. Historical study has been a key component of Pintado’s thinking and he described an epiphany which occurred in a London antique shop in 2011 where he encountered an antique print (one of a series dating back to the seventeenth century) featuring a scene capturing the work of Lancelot “Capability” Brown (1716-1783), a pre-eminent British landscape architect that deeply influenced our modern understanding of quintessential English gardens. Pintado was intrigued by the notion that the way in which we comprehend our physical surroundings is just as much influenced by the passage of time as it is by our natural senses. The resulting work, Walking in Capability Brown’s Head, features a replica of the image on canvas incised with layers of pure color, reminding us that unseen psychic and physic forces are always acting upon us. Other works in the series feature actual antique prints acted upon in the same way.
Pintado’s more recent works continue in the same vein but turn the focus to his native heritage. Here the artist expands this appropriation into three dimensions with works inspired by the Mexican painter Jose Maria Velasco. Known for his paintings of sweeping vistas, Velasco inspired the Mexican peoples’ cultural understanding of their geography in much the same way that Thomas Cole and other Hudson River School painters affected ours. While continuing with both antique prints and hand-drawn reproductions, Pintado’s multiple lines and layers of color now leap from the canvas, latching onto gallery walls and crawling across the floor. This introduction of architectural features is certainly no accident and represents a more in-depth exploration of how architecture — a manmade concept – impacts our understanding of geographic space. His 2012 exhibition at the National Museum of Art in Mexico City even gave the artist carte blanche to manipulate its gallery dedicated to Velasco, allowing staged, architectural interventions to be layered over century-old paintings. Pintado likens these interventions to a graffiti artist approaching a brick wall. On one level it is transgressive and perhaps violating, but on a more conceptual level it can be viewed as an act of symbolic change, giving new meaning to the space it invades.
His largest work to date encapsulates many of these tools – graffiti, appropriation, architectural perception – in a massive (15 x 10 x 4 meters) sculptural installation that invaded the circular beaux arts courtyard of the Museo Nacional de San Carlos in Mexico City. The piece features an undulating canvas drawing that mimics the terrain it depicts, incised with bolts of primary color that rend the fabric and adhere to the building’s second story gallery. Titled Insicion al Romanticismo, the work both confronts the viewer with its physicality (you literally have to walk around it to reach the exit behind) and challenges perceptions of the surrounding architecture. The monumental size compounds a subtle sense of uncertainty, forcefully claiming the space for its own design.
Back in the studio Pintado is conducting research for a new body of work that continues to explore this theme of perception, but with more emphasis on how architecture influences the physics behind light waves. Structures as varied as the oculus of Rome’s Pantheon to modern solar farms in California’s Mojave Desert provide fodder for the artist as he attempts to artistically document how manmade structures shape and bend light. He notes intriguingly that these structures share a commonality in their circular shapes, even though they attempt to channel straight lines of energy. The maquettes in his studio begin to articulate his thinking, exhibiting both curved shapes and in some cases reflective surfaces or empty voids capable of channeling light. Pintado isn’t sure of the final outcome, but the inclusion of light sources, either directly or indirectly, would add a striking new element to the artist’s work.
Since moving to the DC, Pintado has begun to network with area artists and curators in an attempt to exhibit his work locally. His Washington debut will be at the Mexican Cultural Center later this summer to celebrate a new book featuring his works. With several museum and gallery exhibitions already under his belt, I asked him in closing if he had any advice for other artists seeking exhibition opportunities. “While a thorough conceptual understanding of your work and the ability to clearly articulate it is key, a strong proposal underscoring your relevance to the museum’s or gallery’s mission or platform is just as important.” There is sense of humility in that statement— wise advice whether one works in a studio or an office cubicle!