BOLIVAR's paintings hover between abstraction and representation.
Influenced by abstract painters before him, he's enchanted by the
possibility of pure, unencumbered form: simple geometric shapes, flatness, expanses of color. But his carefully chosen titles make it impossible for a circle to just be a circle. Juan graduated with an MA in Fine Art from Goldsmiths College in 2003 and has had solo shows at Jacobs Island Gallery in London (2011), John Hansard Gallery in Southhampton (2008) and Lucy Mackintosh Gallery in Switzerland (2008). He has work in several upcoming group exhibitions in London: This-Here-Now at no format Gallery (November 2013), I'm Wanted Dead or Alive at Koleksiyon (December 2013) and Zero Tolerance at Lion & Lamb Gallery (January 2014). In February 2014, his solo show Boogie-Woogie will open at Tim Sheward Projects in London, where Juan lives and works.
OtherPeoplesPixels: The press release for your 2008 exhibition Geometry Wars states: "The phrase Geometry Wars
describes Bolivar's 'struggle with abstraction'—whether to subjugate
'the square', and present it as pure form or whether to animate it into
the world of figuration." Could you talk about your personal struggle
with abstraction? Have you resolved anything since 2008?
Juan Bolivar: Yes and no. Many years ago I made what I thought were 'serious' abstract paintings. My aim was for the viewer to see nothing but sublime voids and experience a non-referential, plastic reality. Whenever I exhibited these paintings, the viewer's immediate impulse was to try and make sense of what s/he saw, and often viewers offered their interpretations, ranging from being able to see a room or a face. But it always caused me frustration, as I insisted nothing was there to be seen.
I once read that Georges Braque had a similar experience when he unexpectedly saw the vision of a small squirrel in one of his paintings, and, try as he did, he could not prevent this small creature from coming back to his cubist work. Likewise, I yearn for the idea of 'pure' abstraction—recently I found myself mesmerized by Gerhard Richter's Grey (1974) and Ellsworth Kelly's Orange Relief with Green (1991) at Tate Modern—but, at the same time, I can't help mentally drawing a wall socket or a silly mustache onto works such as these.
In February 2014, I will have my second solo exhibition at Tim Sheward Projects in Bankside, London. I plan to accentuate these conflicting polarities by appropriating and subtly altering some famous abstract paintings I saw earlier this year in the show Inventing Abstraction, 1910–1925 at MoMA, not quite making fun of these works, but teasing them the way we only can with those people closest to us or whom we love the most.
OPP: From a viewer's perspective, what I see in the abstraction is affected by what I know and whether I've read the titles. Hoodie, for example, struck me as so funny—and strangely poignant—that I'm still laughing a little. Clearly, it's Kenny from South Park. But if you've never seen South Park,
perhaps it's a black circle on top of a grey circle and two white half
circles on top of a pointed oval. Other pieces have a Rohrshach effect,
At first, I saw this piece as way more abstract than some of the
others. Then when I read the title, the person jumped out at me, which
of course changed what I saw in The Great Suprematist. What's the funniest (or weirdest or most offensive) interpretation you've heard from a viewer about one of your pieces?
JB: Art is a contextualized activity. Its meaning is dependent on the viewer and the context in which it is seen. So, yes, everything you say is true and very pertinent to the interpretation of my work. In linguistic terms, the optimum reader of a text is the theoretical reader, who most understands the embedded references and context of a text. Paintings are the same, and, to some degree, my work investigates how interpretation is a contested territory with its own sliding scale of hierarchies from South Park to high modernism.
One of the strangest and most challenging comments I have had about my work was simply: "What is it?" I think it was from an electrician carrying some work in my studio. He didn't mean to ask, "what was this image of?" or "what did it represent?" but literally “what was the object before us in my studio?” After I explained that the large, grey mass in the corner of the room was a painting, he then asked, "what is it about?" I had to quickly compress all the information flashing inside my head as I had a small short-circuit of my own, and I simply replied that my paintings were about other paintings. He didn't seem satisfied with this answer, but I realized that, for better or worse, this idea of contextualized references was central to my practice.
Could you talk generally about how you use and respond to space in your
work? As you are painting, do you think of space in a purely
compositional way? When, if ever, does it take on metaphorical meaning?
JB: Some believe that time doesn't exist, so by default neither might space. The space, however, that painters deal with transcends this argument, and the reason is because they deal with pictorial space. Pictorial space isn't space at all really but more of a game. It is like the boundary of an American football field; one can only play this game within these lines. Outside these lines, the game disappears and does not exist. In the same way, pictorial space is a boundary governed by rules where artists play visual games.
The pictorial space most of us are familiar with in Western painting has been developed for many many years, first through religious iconography, then in the Quattrocento and finally during the High Renaissance. There is a wonderful book by the art historian John White titled The Birth and Rebirth of Pictorial Space, which charts its journey. As result of the pictorial space that we now take for granted, we are able to accept things such as perspective and view the edge of the canvas as if framed by an invisible window to the world. Both of these are very sophisticated notions and actually took many centuries to develop.
This type of pictorial space was shattered by Malevich's Black Square (1914) and turned upside down by Mondrian, Picasso, Joseph Albers, Pollock and many other artists including Hans Hofmann, who addressed the flatness of a painting and the painterly materiality of this reality. Our visual language now is highly complex and layered, to the point that Mickey Mouse's ears owe as much to Cubism as they do to geometric abstraction. These are the complex layers that underpin the pictorial space I am exploring.
OPP: The paintings in Law & Order,
your 2013 exhibition at Tim Sheward Projects in London, are titled
after classic rock and heavy metal bands from the late 1970s to the
early 90s—Rush and Deep Purple are two examples—and songs, such as The Final Countdown, Highway to Hell and Winds of Change.
Each painting also includes some visual reference to recognizable
abstract painters including Piet Mondrian and Josef Albers. Could you
talk about your intention behind the juxtaposition of these popular
music and fine art references?
JB: The paintings in Law & Order comprised of two groups: one group was of small works based on postcards purchased from MoMA and Tate Modern of seminal abstract works, and the second group—landscape in format—incorporated these seminal works, appropriating and twisting their meaning. The postcard series' works were titled after rock bands, and the color field landscapes after rock songs, highlighting the source relationship connection between the two.
Besides loved ones, friends and family and my quasi-spiritual beliefs, there have been two constant, guiding forces in my life: geometric abstraction and rock music. Hard as it may be to imagine, bands such as as AC/DC, Saxon, Journey and Rush have gotten me through tough times as much as Mondrian, Albers, Ellsworth Kelly and Peter Halley have. I have always wanted to somehow incorporate these two forces. At first, this seemed idiotic and juvenile. But I later realized that by combining these two aspects in a painting through titling and imagery, I am creating a symbiotic situation that qualifies my relationship to both, whilst at the same time challenging our expectations of these cultural hierarchies.
Bands like Deep Purple are quite well known, but Saxon, Tygers of Pangtang or Budgie, who are all from a similar period in British rock, are far less known. In the same way, Wyndham Lewis, Vanessa Bell or David Bomberg are less well known in the Western cannon, but are equally important to British abstraction. Whilst in New York earlier this year I saw an early Vorticist work by David Bomberg at MoMA, and I got goose pimples as if watching some rare early footage of Led Zeppelin's rendition of Dazed and Confused. I have come to accept that my relationship to abstraction is very nostalgic, just like my relationship to music.
OPP: Do you
have a favorite piece of your own work? Will you pick one and give us
the inside scoop on what it means to you and why you were thinking about
when painting it?
JB: I am a firm believer that the really good paintings have little quirks and are never perfect-perfect. The actress Jennifer Grey describes how following rhinoplasty surgery "she went in the operating room a celebrity and came out anonymous." It's hard to say why her acting career didn't flourish. What many people don't know is that in 1987, just a few weeks before the release of Dirty Dancing, she was involved in a very serious car accident. One can't help thinking this accident may have had an effect on her, but people often cite her post-rhinoplasty visage—her natural nose represented her individuality to the public—as the reason.
I have very few favorite works. I often feel a sense of dissatisfaction when I finish a piece. It is a paradox. If one is too pleased or enamored with a work, it usually means that it isn't very good, but it doesn't stop us from searching for that perfect moment the way a tennis player aims to hit the ball at the sweet spot of a tennis racket.
Two weeks before my Goldsmiths College show in 2003, I had finished a set of paintings that I had planned to exhibit. I was due to have one final tutorial, and I thought it would be a formality. Two hours later, after a lengthy discussion, the visiting tutor threw me a curve ball and announced that he thought this body of work wasn't at all finished and that there were some works that could also be taken out. I went into panic mode, but now I understand what he meant and I am immensely grateful for his intervention. With hindsight, I see that the group was too flat, too neat and trying to be too tasteful. Basically too boring. There was no tension.
He went away, and I looked at work I had made a year earlier too see where things had changed and gone flat. Out of nowhere came Bushman, one of my favorite works of all time. It's a silly and ridiculous painting, and at the same time it employs a very sophisticated language. But most of all, I am not really sure how it happened, and I don’t fully understand what makes it work. The painting was born out of adversity and a desire to surpass my expectations and—oddly enough—because I didn't really fully understanding my own work. It's difficult to recreate all of these circumstances and conditions, and I don't think that one can or should. But as I mentioned earlier, I have a solo show at Tim Sheward Projects in February 2014. So, as they say: Watch this space.
Featured Artist Interviews are conducted by Chicago-based interdisciplinary artist Stacia Yeapanis. When she’s not writing for OPP, Stacia explores the emotional and spiritual significance of repetition in her cross-stitch embroideries, remix video and collage 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 work is on view through September 2013 in Abstracting the Seam (Hyde Park Art Center, Chicago), and she has two upcoming solo exhibitions: I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For (Klemm Gallery, Adrian, Michigan) in November 2013 and Everything You Need Is Already Here (Heaven Gallery, Chicago) in January 2014.