“I want to build forms and shapes that make you stop and comprehend what’s in the painting; from a labor worker, to iconic symbols that will stay in our minds until we research what they are and what they mean.”
studioELL is thrilled to welcome Alfonso Fernandez as our June studioVISIT artist. A virtual visiting artist series, studioVISIT is a new program devoted to providing access into the artist’s studio featuring a discussion focused on practice.
Alfonso Fernandez is a painter born in Mexico City, currently living and working in Baltimore, Maryland. He earned an MFA from the Hoffberger School of Painting of the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) and a BFA in Painting and Printmaking from University of Minnesota, College of Liberal Arts.
Fernandez’s exhibitions include C. Grimaldis Gallery, MD; Talkin Family Art Gallery, Howard Community College, MD; Creative Alliance, MD; Stevens Square Center for the Arts, MN; Katzen Art Center, American University, WDC; among others. He was a recipient of The Patterson Residency Program, Creative Alliance at the Patterson, Baltimore, MD.
My paintings are social, psychological, and personal investigations in which I bring to light the idea that borders can be blurred and overlapped in order to reconsider the associative societal labels assigned to us. Since moving to Baltimore, my paintings have evolved in response to navigating a new and unfamiliar city, taking on abstraction in the wake of unrest, representations of societal memory, and figuration through the loss of identity. Each of these investigations are grounded in my experience of moving from Mexico to the United States and my efforts at balancing different cultures and languages, while handling the contested spaces of ethnicity and assimilation.
john ros / You’ve moved around a bit but seem to always make your practice the core of your life/day/space. What has kept you motivated to maintain this strong practice? How do you keep going in times of distraction or low motivation?
Alfonso Fernandez / Yes, John, I have been moving quite a bit in the last couple of years, and I always think that painting is the force that brought me to all these different places & communities around the USA. One of the things that keeps me motivated is the idea that painting brought me here and will bring me there to meet new challenges. Most importantly it helps me to discover how much I can still push my process even when the spaces are not ideal for painting. I think the other reason I keep pushing painting in these challenging times is because as artists, we offer another perspective for viewers to understand the world. In my case, I want the viewer to understand and slow down long enough to see what I have to offer in the paintings. So they can see what is really there, or maybe find themselves thinking about their own privilege, and their realities with what I have to present.
jr / You talk about slowing down. This is such an important aspect to how we experience the world — what we see and how we respond. What makes you slow down? And how might that translate itself into your practice?
AF / That is a good question, John, what makes me slow down, in part, is that I want to see reality for what it is. I am cognizant of it. For example, we hear the sound of a singing bird in the morning, but then we automatically tune it out and it becomes just a background for our own sound in our head. For me that has changed and instead, I DO sit down for a few seconds and start to listen to the reality instead of making it up in my head. For my practice, in painting, I want to build forms and shapes that make you stop and comprehend what’s in the painting; from a labor worker, to iconic symbols that will stay in our minds until we research what they are and what they mean. I think one big example of this would be in my painting Luna llena where we see two figures, a child and a statue. In order to understand this painting, you need to slow down and unfold the painting to see it for what it is.
jr / I imagine the morning songbird outside your window — and imagine you, sipping coffee, hearing the song. Allowing it to resonate. I think about how a song — that quiet morning experience — might become form or shape in your painting.
In viewing Luna Llena (2018) I see the song. There is a rhythm in the background, but of orchestral proportions. The soloist, maybe your songbird, flies above this contemplative child whose back appears to be at the statue. There is a resonating play with past and present here. Maybe even the possibility of future? Do you see these moments in time connected in the work as you make them? When they are done? How do they enter your practice?
AF / Yes, actually, they play with each other, a play between past and present, and it serves as the alarm being sounded. Because what I am portraying is the possibility within the relationship they could have in the future. To a certain extent, the relationships evolve. Within the symphony, let’s say, I am working with what is speaking to me, what the painting needs from me. When the pieces are done, I look back at the singular moments of the past while I was making them. I reflect on the movements and decisions that I made along the way, to portray the symphony that was playing in my mind at the time. In speaking about the future, I think of it more as a reality that we are experiencing. In a few words: the past and the future have been playing along with the delicate tones of life itself.
jr / Ideas come and go. We work on concepts and with materials, we exhaust them, forget them, come back to them. What recurring activity do you maintain throughout your practice? What is the tried and true activity that you can always rely on?
AF / I think in painting and teaching others the philosophy of being an artist (keep working), but most important to me is the philosophy of being a human. But for painting, quoting Frög in 1997: “Really, painting should be sexy. It should be sensual. These are things that will always escape the concept. I think painting is a resilient practice; if you look through the history of painting it doesn’t change so much, and we always see it in the present. It is still now.” So, I have a similar idea that painting is a resilient practice and that makes us more human, especially today, with all of the things happening around us. Even when painting isn’t in my life — or if and when I’m at a conceptual stage — I’m always thinking and imagining the surfaces that I do not yet have.
jr / I love that you say, “you think in painting” — this is something I regularly refer to when talking about how artists work in their studio. Painting involves so much — color, form, layer, etc. — can you help describe this way of thinking when you see things in the world around you?
AF / Yes, as I mentioned before, I see the world as shapes and forms etc., but most importantly, I try to see the meaning behind things. For example, when painting these iconic symbols of my own culture, I only see shapes and forms, so I do not get attached or biased in what I’m painting. And in doing this, I focus more on composition rather than the feelings I might get from the subject. Another way I see the world is with logic and not with emotions. I try really hard to find things that are interesting rather than beautiful.
jr / We are in a world of constant distraction and an inundation of information. It can be hard knowing how to slow down, especially for the younger artists who have grown up in a world of instant gratification and constant attention. How do you attempt to confront this in your practice — knowing that people are easily distracted? How do you help students and younger artists learn to slow the world around them?
AF / I think for me, it’s knowing the principles of design and Gestalt visual thinking, and how the world is designed — to give us fast satisfaction through their components. Or its ability to give us different meanings, that we do not see right away. Another factor is knowing the elements of art, and how they’ve been used in apps, such as Instagram, Snapchat etc. Knowing these, I can make the imagery show me (and you) the real truth. For me, it automatically slows me down, so I don’t rush to conclusions, but instead understand what is in front of me. One of the key things I teach my students is in seeing things the way they are, and why they are built the way they are built. For example, I teach my students not to see buildings, but to see them as shapes, to see abstract objects such as a pile of clothes becoming forms. In doing this, I help my students to deconstruct what they are really seeing, and why.
jr / I love the notions that there are underlying meanings to basic, functional things, such as apps, but also that there are obviously elements of art intertwined in their design. I think this is a helpful way to gain a deeper understanding of how something might be used as opposed to how it is used.
Contradiction comes to mind here a bit — and in some ways you are playing with these notions in how you ask others to think. There are elements — singular moments — that are tied to the whole — this interconnection is sometimes easier to pull apart to see how units perform, but deciphering any singular element from its whole can also become difficult. There is a beautiful abstraction in these thoughts. Do you notice this push-pull as you are making the work? How do you resolve it? When do you succumb to it?
AF / Simply put: the beauty is in the breakdown. It’s as deep as you (the audience) can personally go, but the invitation is there.
For my practice I do notice these kinds of pushes and pulls; as I’m making the work, I like to think I am the conductor of the symphony. I’m reading the 2D surface, but I’m also reading myself, my own performance and actions — each painting acts as a two-way mirror in that way. So, I try not only to resolve the painting, but to listen to my own narrative. Furthermore, I think compositional elements play a big role in my paintings, and they guide me to finish the narrative. And it gives the audience an opportunity to maybe see (or “hear”) their own composition.
jr / The idea of the two-way mirror is so poetic. A beautiful visual — which somehow again connects to film. In thinking about being present within a past and future space — have you ever thought about the process of painting as a film strip? I see this unfolding two ways — in action, seeing a painting morph over time, as in a sequence — and in approach, seeing each session bring you closer to the end, as in a pause. Does a sense of film or film-making ever come into your thought-process while you paint?
AF / I can see how you are relating it, but most of the time what I want to portray in the paintings is more of an unfolding reality, in how I see the world. I can see how my paintings can relate to a film strip, because I’m layering within every element. And I’m adding and subtracting, so in a way I’m creating those many plots for the viewer to unfold and follow. But at the end, the big reveal happens, and that is what I like about these paintings, that they have the ability to make people think.
jr / The way you discuss your work and how you get there is quite filmic. I see abstract forms, ambient sounds, a black and white screen full of color. There is something to this progressive way of thinking — as tied to the present — in the way you discuss the past and future. You mention time as tones and as culture. There is such a richness here. Have you studied film? Music? Other than as a place for impetus, momentum or ground, how else do these arts play into your practice and/or life?
AF / I have studied a little bit of film noir, as I have taught to the subject in my 2D design class for the past couple of years. I’m not a super expert, but I find noir so compelling, in translating it to the painting process, with its ambiguity and changing plots. It’s just like the painting strokes, as they are laid down on the canvas. I don’t always know what’s coming next. I became more accustomed to the idea of movies when I came to the USA, because when I was growing up in Mexico we mostly played outside. Some of these art forms are still very new to me, the storytelling, or the dialogue and the sensibilities are a bit different between television and cinema.
“So at a glance I want to show beauty in these paintings, and at the same time the cruelty and despair that my own people and culture are experiencing today.”
jr / Much of your work deals with the immigrant’s experience. And much of the newer work has brought in ancient cultural symbology. How do you see these images of the past and present unfolding a fuller story for the viewer? I can’t help but think of assimilation, and one’s fight to adopt a new culture while staying true to their roots. How has this helped develop your practice and/or shift the urgency of the images you create?
AF / It has been an experience for me, because most of the symbolism I’m using was introduced to me from my mom, when I was a kid in Mexico. But since we moved to the USA at an early stage of my life, it meant that some of these references I needed to research a lot. So, for me I’m taking the viewer with me on my journey, through my experience and my research. My hope is that the viewer can latch onto just one aspect of the painting, and then slow down and analyze it, in order to reach their own conclusions.
For me, changing from abstraction to my representational work has been a journey. I really wanted to show the way I see my own culture, but at the same time not shove it down anyone’s throat. Also, yes I want to stay close to my roots, but I have to remain objective with what’s happening around us today — Hispanic communities being hunted and scrutinized all over the place. So at a glance I want to show beauty in these paintings, and at the same time the cruelty and despair that my own people and culture are experiencing today.
jr / There is a sensitivity in the work and in you that feels both generous and vulnerable — emotional threads that typically run counter to a more logical or rational presentation. Are there times when you find emotion does come into the work? If your goal is to stay logical, how do you confront this?
Also, in representing Mexican and other Central and South American communities being marginalized, as they are scapegoated by many in power, how do you stay pragmatic?
AF / Yes, I think there will always be a contradiction between logic and emotions, because we are human, and we are designed to be that way. There is inherent contradiction there. Both logic and emotion are there, but sometimes the emotions win, and that is where the story telling in my paintings comes to life.
I would say that by giving the painting a lot of ambiguity, and in putting in those shapes and forms to be discovered by the viewer later, is how I stay pragmatic. It gives me a kind of power, in staying “quiet” or “ambiguous”. Perhaps it gives me more power.
jr / You say you’ve had to research many of the symbols you were taught as a kid. How has the symbolism taught by your mom in Mexico changed over time? Maybe more specifically, how have you noticed a change in your reactions to the ancient images and symbols — and their potential power — now that you’ve been in the States for almost twenty years?
AF / It has changed a lot, because when I was a kid, I thought those symbols were just drawings that my mom and grandmother were trying to show me for entertainment, but now as an adult I see that the symbols depict more. They represent the past and maybe the future of my culture. Now I use them as part of my heritage, and I use them to tell a story that represents me and the world that surrounds me. They feel contemporary to me. Also, those symbols are used as a timeline, and hold weight within the paintings. While I’m making them, each mark becomes history as well.
“I will always be caught in the middle, but for me right now, the quiet is more urgent, just like the birds outside my window.”
jr / I have struggled with this for some time — being poignant and urgent, but with an awareness of storytelling in a way that can be experienced by more than just like-minded folks. This goes to your point of not wanting to, “shove it down anyone’s throat.” We play with poetry and fiction all the time. But when certain issues are so urgent, how do you avoid being overstated?
AF / I don’t think I mean to say that the paintings are showing the truth, but more like a good film noir story, sometimes there are twists and turns, and MacGuffins. In the end, the truth can be more meaningful, because you have to work for it, and that is when I use logic and the compositional forms to help the viewer search for, and find the real plot. I’m writing the story that I’m telling on the painting — just like the symbols from ancient cultures — they have always been there, we just need to discover them and make sense of what we are seeing.
Sometimes, I do want to be more aggressive, in seeing the suffering and the horrible acts that have been committed when it comes to immigration reform. I am an immigrant, and I feel their pain, but I learned that thinking before acting is more productive. I think this relates back to pushing and pulling, emotions versus logic, and abstraction versus representational work. I will always be caught in the middle, but for me right now, the quiet is more urgent, just like the birds outside my window.
Six questions asked of all our guests.
What are you currently reading?
Gerhard Richter: A Life in Painting
What are you currently watching?
I do not have a TV, so I mostly use my computer to listen to podcasts like This American Life, etc.
What was the last meal you made?
Can you share a recipe?
2 cloves garlic; 3 serrano peppers; 2 ¼ pounds small green tomatillos, husks removed; 1 cup vegetable oil for frying; 9 corn tortillas; 3 cups water; 4 teaspoons chicken bouillon granules; ½ store-bought rotisserie chicken, meat removed and shredded; ¼ head iceberg lettuce, shredded; 1 cup cilantro leaves; 1 (8 ounce) container Mexican crema, crema fresca.
Whose studio have you visited recently that really excited you?
I have not visited any studios lately due to the COVID-19, unfortunately.
What have you seen recently (either art; performance; film, music; stage; etc.) that had a significant impact on you and your work?
The movie Roma from the director Alfonso Cuarón was impactful because it reminded me of my mom (in terms of time and space), as an Indigenous woman.
A sincere thanks to Alfonso from john ros and studioELL — thank you for the generosity you’ve shown in sharing your studio practice with us.
john ros is a Brooklyn-based, multi-disciplinary artist, professor and curator. They obtained an MFA from Brooklyn College, City University of New York, and a BFA from the State University of New York at Binghamton. john is the founder of studioELL where they currently serve as director and professor. They have over 15 years experience in higher education and 22 years experience curating exhibitions and developing community programming.
This interview was conducted over a series of emails which started with a few initial questions and led to a responsive conversation. The text has been edited slightly for this publication, including a slight shift in the order questions are presented.