Looking for light
As an artist growing up in London, attracted to the Fauvist painters, I recognised early on that I needed more light. My big hero was Matisse. And so perhaps it wasn’t surprising -though unplanned – that I ended up going to Venezuela and lived in Ciudad Guayana in the south-east of the country for nearly two decades.
The Guayana region is often associated with romantic myths from the colonial era, such as Manoa, the city of gold. Another association is the equally romantic idealisation of nature in the Gran Sabana, with it’s table-top mountains (the Tepui) and their peculiar flora, and the Angel Falls, the highest in the world. And then a bit further down… the Amazon jungle. However the reality of Ciudad Guayana was very different.
Mega industrial city
Ciudad Guayana is the name given to the merging of two different towns, Puerto Ordaz and San Félix, on either side of the river Caroní. It was developed in the 50’s as part of a mega industrial programme, becoming a city today with approximately one million inhabitants; perhaps the only city in Venezuela with any real urban planning.
“Discoverie of the large, rich and bewtyfull empire”
Its position on the confluence of the Orinoco and the Caroní rivers marks the place where the Indian chief Topiawari had his camp, which Sir Walter Raleigh described in his Discoverie of the Large, Rich and Bewtiful Empyre of Guiana. The natural scenery is spectacular, I had never seen skies like these. The raw energy of the landscape is equaled only by the monumentality of the industrial area itself.
Focus on the industrial
In my first ten years there I was involved to a considerable extent in the cultural activities promoted by the state industries. These activities ranged from graphic design and scenery for concerts to hanging exhibitions and organising children workshops for Interalumina, a bauxite refinery. Spending days on end working in the industrial zone focused my attention on the industrial landscape and I produced a large body of work related to it.
Shifting gaze to the urban
My work initially was very figurative. Given the immensity, variety and novelty of everything I was looking at, I felt unable to do much more than simply record what I saw. It was like fieldwork: I went out on drawing expeditions and produced large ink and pastel drawings carried out on-site. After the birth of my eldest son Andros in 1988, I started spending less time on industrial sites and more time in the city. My gaze shifted from the industrial to the urban and gradually became more abstract.
Alphabet of symbols
By the time I had two children (Tomás was born in 1992) I found it more convenient to develop ideas in the studio rather than out of doors. With the passage of time, through the constant repetition of certain views or icons, I developed an abstraction of this urban and industrial landscape. Now I had an alphabet of symbols with which to rewrite the world. This culminated in projects such as the “Motorway Factory”, my ironic proposal for an industrial city. I discovered rubber as a medium. It has been a permanent ingredient ever since, and marks the beginning of my interest in interactive installations. The idea of the pieces being usable is very appealing.
The symbols synthesize a landscape, an era, an atmosphere for me. I could now make up my own stories or situations and interact creatively with the world around me. The result is I found a way to deal with the feminine figure which had given me so much trouble as a student. The one aspect of Matisse I had been unable to swallow was his objectification of women in the famous “Odalisque” paintings. Or at least I found it hard to identify with just left people out of the picture completely.
In the year 2000 I left my beloved Guayana for Caracas. The light isn’t so amazing but there are probably more opportunities for artists there. I still work to commission for industry (drawing dams in construction, petrol refineries and ports) and for other institutions such as banks or cultural institutions. Interacting with the people who work in these places is in itself an interesting offshoot and the resulting work is used for a variety of purposes.
Some of these commissioned projects have been fundamental to my becoming reconciled with this new landscape. One, for example, is a series of 360 degree views from the heliport on the top of a big bank taking in the surrounding cityscape, from the shanty towns to the modernist town centre and the imposing Avila mountain. Caracas is dominated by the Avila mountain wherever you are. It separates the city from the coast. The mountains contain and enclose the anarchic and chaotic city, but because it is so steep, is still pristine and wild.
These paintings are from a series begun in 2004 continuing up till the present day. The common theme running through this group is that they all begin as rubbings taken from my alphabet of symbols cut out in rubber and arranged into compositions on the floor. These outlines of fantastic landscapes or sceneries are embellished and enlivened with colour and textures fed by my love of Persian art and textiles, as well as the work of many artists that have been important references for me from Paul Klee to Philip Guston, Matisse to David Hockney.
The realist semi-documentary kind of urban landscape continues to be an important theme. Funnily enough, living in a concrete chaos, elements from nature suddenly start to become more important in contrast. The reflection of the Avila mountain in huge glass-fronted skyscrapers is another tongue-in-cheek way of reworking the most important icon in the Caracas landscape.
Redesigning Venus/Animation work in progress
An ecological story tells how Venus awakens to the shocking reality of an industrial city on the site of the Precolumbian village where she once lived, the very same place Walter Raleigh went looking for El Dorado. A tale of contamination and salvation with frogs and engineers, businessmen and mayors who discover that biodigestors and flying carpets could make all the difference. ==> animation
San Agustín del Sur
In 2009 a cable car was being built as a public transport system for the hillside barrio of San Agustín del Sur. I was commissioned to carry out a series of drawings of the construction work, but also began to assist community meetings because to draw from anywhere outside the building sites I needed to be accompanied by community members.
Art and ecology as social practice
Ever since arriving in Venezuela the social dimension of art practice has been an important part of what I do. From art workshops in industrial companies taking children to visit and portray their parents workplaces to working with a shanty-town community recuperating public spaces, it brings an important input and balance to everything I do. Since moving to Caracas we have had many workshops experimenting with digital animation, building with rubble, participative mural painting and, recently, upcycling a McDonald’s children’s park as well as meetings, talks and visits in the hillside barrios. Painting can be a solitary activity but social projects nurture studio work and vice versa. Drawing onsite bridges the two since one is working in public.
San Agustín del Sur Tourist Office
Since the construction of a cable-car system as public transport for a Caracas hillside shantytown in 2009, I have worked with local community groups, architecture students and kids around ideas for public spaces catering for local tourism there. This hilltop does have the most incredible views of the city, and the community is well known for its musical traditions. The San Agustín Tourism Office exhibition in 2015 was the perfect opportunity to showcase this work and continue mapping the city, discussing what we would like to make of it with more than 400 schoolchildren from the area over two months of interactive workshops in the Museum of Contemporary Art of Caracas. ==> video