In[t][f]eriorities, 2019. sculpture (basketry)
JOSÉ SANTIAGO PÉREZ combines coiling, one of the oldest human technologies, with the brand-spanking-newness of plastics, a material that will likely outlast human life on the planet. He thinks metaphorically about the relationship between the passive core and active element, while his color palate of pastels and neons evokes the "remembered colorscape of L.A. in the 80s and 90s." José holds an MA from San Francisco State University and a BA from University of California, Santa Cruz. He earned his MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. His work has been exhibited in group shows in San Francisco, Chicago, Philadelphia and Boston. His solo shows include Flirting with Infinitudes (2018) at Wedge Projects and Passsivities (2019) at Ignition Project Space, and he has curated two exhibitions at the Leather Archive & Museum (all Chicago). In 2020, he will present solo shows at Pique Gallery (Cincinnati) and Roman Susan (Chicago). José lives and works in Chicago.
OtherPeoplesPixels: In your statement, you say you work “between the language and methodologies of craft, sculpture and performance.” I’d like to hear more about what distinguishes those methodologies? What do you use from each discipline?
José Santiago Pérez: These methodologies are valuable for how they inform and reform my approach to the body, its encounter with materials, and its experience of time. The hows of the encounter and how those hows do and possibly mean. I understand craft, sculpture and performance as ways of orienting the body towards and away from certain points of reference, personal and shared histories, objects or scenarios, etc. The combination of these orienting approaches makes a unique headspace possible for me as an artist. Together they shape relation and duration. They offer phenomenological ways of approaching an encounter and the possibility of relating to heres, nows, thens, theres, whats, whos, others. . . lo ce sea. How to approach. How to encounter.
(Mint) Bights with Ornamental Edges,2018. Wall Hanging.
OPP: How do you relate to the languages of these disciplines?
JSP: I’m really interested in the mis/use of disciplinary language in my work. The ways disciplinary language makes and unmakes a knowing and known personhood. What one specialized discourse does—and how it does it—in a field where it doesn’t belong. The disciplinary attachments and entrenchments this trespassing and transposition might bring up for those of us that may be attached to disciplined entrenchments or trained to adhere to disciplined attachments.
This curiosity is partly rooted in trying to understand my experience of social life growing up in Los Angeles in the 80s and 90s as a non-belonger. I was marked brown in a white-oriented world, marked poor among privileged others, marked feminine in repressive masculine social spaces. A disorientation comes from being unable to enact the social scripts that organize relating, that make relating recognizable as relating correctly.
Today, i’m not as interested in laminating these circumstances or being attached to the difficult feelings around these circumstances. With the passage of time, I’ve become much more interested in the reparative joy and exuberant possibilities that may come from the mis/use of disciplinary languages. From one language trespassing into a field it does not belong. From the discursive formations that emerge from navigating a disciplinary space speaking a language foreign to it. What happens when craft-based processes are wrapped in the embodied, time-based language of performance, when a dramaturgy of sculpture is explored, when performance makes sculpture. . . algo así. . . ?
Re/Turn (Pipe), 2018. sculpture. variable
OPP: How do you think about color in general?
JSP: Growing up, our father used to work as a color mixer in a factory out in City of Industry. He mixed commercial color eight hours a day. Every day. For over twenty years. I grew up associating color with working class immigrant labor, with industry, work boots, sore bodies, sour dispositions and a bit of resignation. So i went monochrome for a few decades, to distance myself from that color story. . . and from being ‘de color’ laboring in color. A symptom of first-generation Salvadoran-American angst and internalized racism, I suppose. But. . . color is at the core of my family’s experience. It’s at my core. i’ve embraced and come to love and respect and understand it a little more. It’s taken time.
In[t][f]eriorities (detail), 2019. sculpture (basketry). Photo Credit: Karolis Usonis
OPP: What about your palate of pastels and neons, specifically?
JSP: My recent palate—pink, tangerine, baby blue, mint, and lavender—condenses the remembered colorscape of L.A. in the 80s and 90s. Sometimes i get homesick and need color therapy. It immediately brings to mind summer days spent on the cross-town bus to and from Santa Monica Beach; the fumy atmosphere around neon plastic, utilitarian commodities, like a neon pink fly swatter or a mint laundry hamper, in densely packed the swap meets; the tangerine colored Spanish revival house in East LA that blasted ranchera music on Sunday afternoons. Neon squiggles and minty palm tree motifs. The palate is cheap, kitschy, nostalgic, unnatural and a bit unsophisticated. It pairs nicely with my plastic materials, which are often accused of having the same qualities.
I also use this color palette to encode the work in other personal narratives that i choose to withhold from the viewer. Like the hanky code, the use of color in my work signals different kinds of combined and condensed relations, archetypes, orientations and fixations. Their meaning is legible to those in the know. In my work, the encoded content isn’t limited to forms of sexual relating. I explore a wide range of pleasures and pains that come from relating, of being in specific arrangements of relating, of being in relation. . . entwined in relation. Color, for me, is where the relational magic and medicine is housed in my work. And in following Long Valley Cache Creek Pomo basket weaving Mabel McKay (1907-1993). . . the magic and medicine is the content that is not talked about.
And it helps that these pastels and neons look really cute together!
Re/Coil (lavendar), 2018. sculpture (basketry). 7"d x 6"h
OPP: Coiled basketry is ubiquitous and unnoticed in contemporary life. I see it all the time, but most people haven’t thought deeply about the process.
JSP: Like textiles, coiled forms have been with us for thousands of years. Coiled baskets—as well as plated and twined baskets—have always been contemporary and have been companion-objects in domestic, social, agricultural, commercial, and spiritual life. They are helper objects. They extend the capacities of the body, the cupping of hands. They hold. They store. They keep. Cary. Gather. Collect. Process. In a sense, baskets have held human experience in their curved interiors. They’ve also been beautiful companions, and have been intentionally designed, patterned and embellished for aesthetic reasons. In some instances, the aesthetic, functional and spiritual are all woven into a basket and are intimately wrapped up together. Living, to quote Vietnamese filmmaker Trin T Minh-ha, is round.
And yet, the ubiquity of baskets, as you point out, renders them invisible. Disposable. Replaceable. Utilitarian. Ordinary. I mean, how often does our gaze linger on and wonder at a basket of chips at a taqueria? I’ve found that there is a tendency for basketry to be devalued and dismissed in the hierarchy of craft as contemporary art. Is it too crafty? Too caught up in an economy of the anthropological and ethnographic? Caught in a prison of function? Baskets exceed some boundaries, but don’t measure up in other ways. In short, basketry seems to be positioned as the lesser of the craft practices; a lesser of anything is always the condition for the elevation of another anything. That contingency of value interests me. It is a situatedness I am familiar with porque lo he vivido. Porque lo hemos vivido. By making plastic baskets, i foreground that economy of value.
Basket weavers, too, have historically been unnamed and unmarked, rendered unremarkable anonymities, like in many craft traditions. There are notable exceptions: Mabel McKay’s exquisite coiled baskets with innovations in beading and feather embellishment, Ed Rossbach’s plaited polyethylene baskets from the 1970s, John McQueen’s figurative and text-based baskets, and McArthur Genius Mary Jackson, who’s been coiling sweetgrass in the Lowcountry tradition for decades. But for the most part, basket weavers tend to go unnoticed in many instances.
Yesterday's Treasures, 2019. sculpture (basketry)
OPP: Let’s talk about the process of coiling. How is it a metaphor for human experience? Tell us about the relationship between the “passive core and the active element”?
JSP: The choreography of coiling involves the wrapping of a pliable and linear material around another fairly pliable linear material. Wrapping is a process i love because it brings my attention to the body and the cycle of breathing. . . the circulation of air. An air current that is drawn in and a line that exhaled outward. The outside becomes the inside, then turns inside out. Regardless of the materials used to coil, the process of coiling remains pretty constant: wrap, guide the work into a circular or ovoid shape and stitch the current coiled material to the preceding coil. I tend to use a figure 8 stitch. Coiling is always re/turning and repeating infinitely.
Wrapping and coiling, for me, also materialize the rhythm and interval between arrival and departure. This process enacts the conditions that make desire possible. Desire being the drive to re/turn the distance between the other that desires and the other that is desired. The interval between loss and return being desire. For me, wrapping and coiling touch and handle the promise of return, the satisfaction of desire. And also the frustrations and anxieties of unresolved desire.
When i first started reading about coiled basketry, i kept running into variations of the term “passive” and “active” to differentiate the two material components necessary to create a coiled form. At the time i was working in a sex museum and my workdays slid across the spectrum of sub/dom, bottom/top, etc. I immediately started thinking of the passive core and active element of coiled basketry in proximity to the terms of ‘passivo’ and ‘activo’, the passive/active positionalities in sex play. I’m really interested in wrapping that spectrum of positions and erotics around the language of basketry and am understanding coiled baskets as forms that are both orifices and protrusions of varying degrees, that are not necessarily anatomical, but evoke a kind of repetition of offering and receiving. Touching and being touched. Holding and being held. Objects materializing the encounter of touch, contact, and intimacy.
One of the things i explore in my work with traditional and abstracted baskets is the ways in which those two foundational elements—a passive core and an active element—are co-constituting. One makes the other possible and vice versa. Coiled form is only possible through the repetitive relation of passivity and activity. In some of my baskets, plastic sheeting is used as a passive core and colored plastic lacing is used as the active element. In the new series of abstract baskets i’m working on for my upcoming show at Roman Susan, those positions are inverted. They’re a bunch of lovely little inverts!
Testimonio, 07, 2019. coiled emergency blankets and plastic lacing.
OPP: You’ve recently begun working with emergency blankets as a coiling core. Talk to us about this material and why you choose it.
JSP: Oof. . . when the first images of immigrant children in Texan detention facilities began circulating last year, i was really shaken to the core by what was happening. I kept thinking about all my family members, neighbors, friends and lovers, who have crossed the Mexico-U.S. border in search of protection, opportunity, a chance to secure the possibilities for a sustainable life, a sense of sovereignty. If it weren’t for the fact that they came to the U.S. prior to these current immigration policies, they may have wound up in densely packed cages, separated from their kin. . . where the home and shelter of a trusted adult’s embrace is replaced with a metallic, crinkly and almost weightless rectangle of alien material. Alien material….
Eventually, media coverage cycles through and attention shifts focus. There is so much scandal and corruption to attend to with the current Administration that the detention crisis at the border becomes one of a continuous stream of unprecedented perversions of the fantasy of U.S. democracy. Like the ubiquity of baskets, the continued kidnapping of children and holding them as political hostages runs the risk of becoming invisible. Performance theorist Diana Taylor coined the term “percepticide” to describe the psychic impact of the Dirty War in Argentina on the general public. The horrors enacted by the military dictatorship eventually reached a saturation point, and the kidnappings and disappearances enacted on the streets of Buenos Aires in broad daylight were no longer registered by the general public. . . a kind of willful self-blinding.
I choose to work with the thin plastic sheeting treated with aluminum vapor we know as emergency blankets because its material properties record every fold, twist and gather. They become imprinted into its substance. Emergency blankets remember and record their interaction with the body. Recall those images of detention centers littered with crumbled silvery sheets. I’m employing it as a core for abstract coiled baskets because it materializes the condition of detained immigrants right now. At the core, i am an immigrant. And if we think far back enough. . . we’ll remember that the majority of us are held in that categorical basket, too.
Aytú, 2019. wall hanging
OPP: Aytú, Aynotú and Aysitú all collapse the rectangle and the grid and embrace the floppiness of plastics. This brings to mind the way the early American Fiber Artists embraced the material qualities of their work for formal innovation, but tried to sidestep the cultural meanings. But I think you are interested in both the materiality and the connotations of the materials. Can you talk about the connotations of plastic in general and of the specific plastics you choose?
JSP: Totally! Fiber artists like Arturo Sandoval were weaving and plaiting polymer-based materials like celluloid and mylar into wall hangings in the 60s and 70s, and Ed Rossbach made a plaited series of polyethylene baskets in the 70. And like you point out, formal concerns were foregrounded more than the cultural content of the materials themselves. I’m down with both.
A lot of what keeps me engaged with plastics is the semantic baggage they carry. In Aytú, Aynotú, and Aysitú, I’m particularly interested in the floppy, droopy and limp-wristedness of the black plastic grid used as a substrate (sub/straight!) for piled plastic. Plastic has memory, is infinitely shape-shifty and malleable. It’s quite passive at it’s core, subject to endless repetitions of the limp-wristed gesture evoked in the titles.
More generally, the language clinging to plastics since their development has been that of the supplement, of surrogacy, of the copy, of the not-quite, of utility. Plastics are the Other of nature. They exist in relation to massification, cheapness, consumption and disposability. Plastics are throw-aways. Plastics have meaning in relation to the cultural imaginary of value and class. I see a connection between the way plastics are often overlooked and devalued and the way certain kinds of bodies are mishandled and devalued. Some people are treated as disposable and worthless. I remember overhearing an adult conversation as a child. . . someone described the way they were treated by a bank teller as “así: como un plástico tirado en la calle.” She was treated like a piece of discarded plastic on the street because she was a working class immigrant woman with dark and presumed-indigenous features trying to cash per paycheck. That testimonio has clung to me.
I’m also interested in plastics as the materialization of time. Up until the mid 20th century, plastics were hailed for their longevity. Plastic was durable and promised to endure. And it does, in the sense that plastics will outlive us. But I’m also struck by the fact that the substance from which plastics are made—petroleum—is the fossilization of life that predates human existence. I’m filled with wonder and repulsion when i handle plastic. I’m touching prehistoric life. . . and one day, my body will become petroleum, perhaps. I’m interested in the fact that this processed material exceeds a human time scale. It re/places me, in a sense. Roland Barthe thought of plastic as the material trace of transformation. Material change unfolds in its own duration. Plastic is a matter of time.
With/Held (Aproxymate), 2017. Photo documentation of performance based sculpture.
OPP: With/Held (Aproxymate) (2017) is a “performance based sculpture.” Can you describe the performance?
JSP: The body is silent and motionless on the gallery floor under a 50’x12’ sheet of milky polyethylene. Two lengths of cotton clothesline, arm-knitted synthetic fabric strips of brown and sky blue, handmade rope of hunter green fabric, and a length of mauve fabric are installed throughout the space.
There is an extended stillness.
Slowly, after the plastic sheet has settled over the body and the temperature under the sheet has shifted, when condensation begins to form where breath meets polymer, the body begins to move and activate the plastic.
The slow and rhythmic movement of body and material continues for a duration until forms and volumes are discovered.
The process of relating motion and discovery continues.
At some point, the body comes into contact with rope and begins to use it to bind the plastic.
Contact with other materials occurs and they are enveloped and enfolded into the discovered relating.
Movement, re/shaping, and binding continue for an extended duration until all the materials in the space are incorporated together into a singular form.
There are two desecrate forms on the gallery floor.
There is an extended embrace.
To see more of José's work, please visit www.josesantiagoperez.com.