JAVIER CARMONA’s photographs read like stills from motion pictures, hinting at the process of their own production. He directs and performs with actors in scripted scenes in rented apartments in far-away countries. In recent projects, he performs the character of Xavier, whose navigation of romantic relationships is an exploration of language, gesture and intimacy, both between humans and in relation to the cultural specificity of geographic locations. Javier earned his BFA from The School of The Art Institute of Chicago in 1994 and his MFA in Photography from The University of New Mexico in 1997. He has exhibited extensively throughout the United States, Mexico and Italy, and his work was most recently seen in Front and Center, the culminating show for the Center Program Residency at Hyde Park Art Center. In 2016, Javier will have solo exhibitions at Galería de Arte Contemporáneo, Secretaría de la Economía in Mexico City and The Photo-Four Gallery at South Suburban College in South Holland, Illinois. In March 2016, he will present Making a Scene: Towards an Actor’s Method for Still Photography at the National Conference of the Society for Photographic Education. Javier teaches at Dominican University in River Forest, Illinois and lives in Chicago.
OtherPeoplesPixels: Could you expand on your notion of an "epic picture?"
It’s my reaction to the limitations placed on photographs by defining
them as categories. There’s a part of me that loathes talking about
pictures in terms of portrait, still life, landscape. Curators seem
insistent on cataloging an image as a way of assigning its meaning. I
don’t know how to answer the question, “Are these portraits?” I can’t
bring myself to teach that way. I don’t get it.
address the picture as a temporal phenomenon; an epic picture negotiates
a narrative not bound by time. The still photograph is decontextualized
time, even though we think of it as originating from a linear sensation
of it. I anchor the still picture in a dialogue with the moving image.
In cinema, the methodology of fusing the external world with the
rehearsed intentions of a performed action is so much more of an
accepted circumstance. My work brings that audience expectation of
cinema to the still photograph.
Years ago, in my dissertation, I paraphrased Brecht’s idea of the Epic Theatre and began using the phrase Epic Photography; the epic picture is one which looks for a renewed, human expression of the actual and resistant world. In this sense, our phones take pictures, but they’re often obstacles to our tangible surroundings. I’ll take the sensual and the social over the virtual.
But let me be clear: it is possible to make an epic picture with a cell phone. Epic is not about scale or file size. I'm for any device that engenders contact with the external place. I'm more critical of our self-hypnosis with gadgets; our debilitated social behavior because of them. My principle camera these days is my Samsung Galaxy Note. It's the biggest cell phone they make, but still discreet. It makes the initial mark, like location scouting."
OPP: Are your characters archetypes or individuals?
The key word is character. Even when I perform in front of the camera, I
play someone named Xavier. That simple letter change—from Xavier to
Javier—allows me a conceptual distance. I can embrace an affectation
other than my own.
So many of the recent projects, like In the Arena, have started with scripts in which the actors play characters. I’ve noticed my impulse to give them X names: Xoraida, Xenobia, Ximena, Xan, Xochitl. The X finds variable pronunciation; perhaps an extension of a mutable identity. It’s the mathematical unknown. It serves to exoticize these characters for an audience. Perhaps the characters approach the archetypes of audience expectation—an ethnically ambiguous visage we could call Latin.
OPP: As the viewer, I feel a sense of
longing that I also read in the characters. I'm longing for the rest of
the story—all the parts between the captured moments. . . the moments I
don't get to see—and they seem to be longing for connection or
belonging. I am drawn in by the intimacy and vulnerability in the images
themselves. What roles do intimacy and vulnerability play in the
process of making the images?
JC: I tell myself to
make straight forward pictures about what I don’t understand. That
requires risk and yes, I hope, emotional vulnerability. I want the
characters to examine what they don’t know about each other and the
circumstances of their surroundings. The scenarios are largely written
that way. It’s important the characters suddenly realize they are not
where they once were, that they’re on an indifferent street in Mexico
City or an arresting intersection in Rome.
I had a long habit of going to Mexico to photograph, but a handful of years ago, I began renting furnished apartments to extend my stay there as long as it was sustainable. I wanted to have a resident’s intimate knowledge of the place I had been born, but only knew in brief, albeit regular intervals throughout my life. Even before I knew to articulate it, I longed to create a cinematic illusion of what that other reality might be. So the Xavier character emerged as one negotiating a romantic relationship. The series, Mexican Cinema evolved into something I called The Enamorates / Los Enamorados. I thought of Xavier’s female foils as extensions of this intimate knowledge. To know Ximena, was to broach the immediate circumstance. Do the female characters become embodiments of ideals? Maybe initially, but only as a starting point.
Love Streams-an Italian Play, my ongoing work in Italy, initially came from an opportunity to teach in Florence during the summer. There emerged a parallel search for this intimacy you’re perceiving. In this case, it was a culture that resembled my own, but different enough to pose the obstacle of language toward understanding. I liked the prospect of being a chameleon there, of being mistaken for an Italian. On the streets, I would be asked for directions as if I were a resident; inevitably this informed the Xavier character. In Italian there is no letter J. So it was easier to be Xavier.
In Italy, I really began to think mostly in gestures and
physical actions. I am still hoping to get that idea right: how two
people might learn to negotiate emotion, despite communication.
The in-between moments you describe are the ones in which I think photography works best—when it resists explanation and revels in ambiguity. There’s more to be learned by ambiguity than a straightforward recitation. While I have been shooting these scripted scenarios to eventually also be a proper short film, I fear the ambiguity of the still may be lost once the image begins to move and explain itself.
JC: I'm often told, "These photographs should be films," implying this narrative speculation is not the purview of the still. I disagree. That longing you're describing, is much more indelible in a still that isn't replaced by the next moving frame. Photographs resist explanation as much as the external world resists providing the answers.
But ultimately the "resistant world" deposits the rehearsed
gesture "on location," inviting an interaction with elements out of
one's control, making credible what is enacted in the process. It's what I see in Cassavetes or French New Wave films made
on streets, without permission and probably why they were my central
OPP: You occasionally use subtitles, sometimes in English and sometimes in Spanish. Where does the text come from? Do you think about audience when deciding which language to use?
JC: The text is pulled directly from the scripted scenes. The sequence of stills which make up In the Arena,
highlights the physical gestures being performed. In the film version
I’m editing, I’ll likely have the entire narrative subtitled regardless.
Very likely the text will fluctuate in language and waiver in the
accuracy of its translation. It would become a second dialogue over the
I don’t mind that the subtitles or even the titles for the images go untranslated for what is initially an English-speaking audience. If they’re interested, they’ll use the universal translator on their phones. Otherwise, it’s another layer of ambiguity. Is it mischievous to give untranslated Spanish or Italian titles to works seen mostly by an American audience? Hopefully it makes them self-conscious of their role as an audience. To me it broadens the definition of what should be a mainstream experience of art viewing. It’s asking the audience to consider more information as part of who they are.
OPP: Language and translation is just one part of
comprehending work that bridges multiple cultures. You've exhibited
throughout the United States and extensively in Mexico City. Is your
work understood differently in Mexico versus the U.S.?
JC: Is the work understood differently in Mexico? Oh gods,
yes! And that’s so refreshing. Having those actual conversations with
different audiences is the heart of the dialogue the work is looking to
engage. As if the work itself provides the pretext to interact socially
with people I’d like to know further. Despite my Mexican birth or
fluency in Spanish, Mexicans regard me as an American artist, with the
accompanying exoticism. I’m intrigued by how I’m perceived in these
different places. It feeds the character. When I started going there as a
young artist, gaining social acceptance in my country of origin was an
unspoken motivation; exhibiting work was a way to do that. Now I go find
a community I miss enormously.
In the States, many art people go straight to gender in this work and are often unwilling to allow me the conceit of playing a fictional character. I showed Mexican Cinema to a book publisher, who felt the work was mostly about surrounding myself with beautiful women and dismissed it outright. I’m still baffled by that. I couldn’t get her to engage with the importance of location in the evolving narrative. Was she culturally intolerant or offended by a perceived sexism?
I tend to not have the work explain all these references, for fear of
becoming didactic. Ambiguity is king. But it comes at a cost when the
audience isn’t aware of the cultural baggage you’ve arrived with.
I exhibited a few stills from In the Arena in Mexico City
recently. They got it. They were eager to have a conversation about the
telenovela and how it affects the Mexican expression of emotion. There’s
an acting school in Mexico City that teaches a melodrama class called
Bofetada y Lagrima, which focuses on the slap and crying for the camera.
I think a discussion of that in an American context would be
OPP: What about specific geographical references that American audiences might not get, such as the Paseo de la Reforma in Mexico City? How does this location add another layer of meaning in The Reforma Rehearsals, Part I and II (2013)?
JC: The Paseo de la Reforma is Mexico City’s principle artery. It’s one of the busiest—maybe ten lanes in some stretches—stitching together the many monuments of the city’s identity. To have a film, where an actor, walks as slowly as possible in real time against the current of the fastest traffic, is akin to reclaiming an individual presence in this vast city. It takes her nearly 15 minutes to cross 50 feet in the volatile context of chance occurrence. That’s epic, as I’d like to think of it; the gesture is not bound by time.
JC: Belonging? That works. . . You know, you're reminding me that I've rarely felt comfortable in a room full of people where everybody looks and sounds the same. I've always felt more at ease in heterogeneous surroundings. And that alien feeling happens in Mexico, too.
At the same time, I've had an instinct to understand by infiltration. My interest in language and gesture allows me to be a chameleon. Making pictures and now studying acting exists in this context. I loved that I've been confused for an Italian or someone of Middle Eastern descent. It sets up the challenge to find a way to belong. To learn how they greet or love.
Featured Artist Interviews are conducted by Chicago-based, interdisciplinary artist Stacia Yeapanis. When she’s not writing for OPP, Stacia explores the relationship between repetition, desire and impermanence in cross-stitch embroideries, remix video, collage and impermanent installations. She is an instructor in the Department of Fiber and Material Studies at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where received her MFA in 2006, and was a 2012-2013 Mentor-in-Residence at BOLT in Chicago. Her solo exhibitions include I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For (2013) at Klemm Gallery, Siena Heights University (Adrian, Michigan), Everything You Need is Already Here (2014) at Heaven Gallery (Chicago) and When Things Fall Apart, a durational, collage installation in the Annex Gallery at Lillstreet Art Center (Chicago). Form Unbound, a two-person show, also featuring the work of Aimée Beaubien, runs through December 19, 2015 at Dominican University's O’Connor Art Gallery (River Forest, IL).