Christian Camacho spoke with student Ruffin Gallery Assistant, Olivia Pettee, about his solo exhibition in the Ruffin Gallery, The Caterpillar Set. The show is on view until December 17, 2021.
Tell me about The Caterpillar Set, your exhibition at the Ruffin Gallery. What is the exhibition about?
The idea of “set” comes from the word “sunset”. Many of the works come from a piece let unfinished last year during the pandemic, which is when I started looking for leaves. I’m going to be showing these at Virginia, but right now they’re not mounted. It began with me looking for leaves that had been eaten by insects and worms and different small animals. When I found ones that I thought that I could use, which were like this one, I applied a small cellophane filter and I was using these to make these very small things and videos of the sun with the cellphone. I live very close to the western part of Monterrey so whereas I don’t really have a good sunrise due to the mountains and the pollution, I do see very good sunsets, so I started recording. I tried doing one with the moon but it wasn’t as good. So, these are small scale works that have to do with light and flatness. They’re almost sculpture-ish but also something you see from the front and side; it almost doesn’t exist. These ideas drove me into a set of works that deals with this number of curiosities and preoccupations, like an imagination of small stuff and materials or recycled materials. Even though a lot of people perhaps might not immediately see that my work deals with an imagination of painting or an interest in painting because sometimes it has to do with volume or its 3D, but I see it in terms of color and form and how we look at paintings on the wall or having a relationship to a window. All these things come together for a number of works which all share this repertoire of gestures like transparency, small scale, and small amounts of several materials. They are different shapes and sizes but they all share an alphabet of forms, and even colors I think. So it’s a show that came from these marks that caterpillars or other insects had made. I had originally called it the “caterpillar sounds” because in Spanish it sounded in a way that I liked but in English it sounded cheeky or something. So, I said a little set or works and I guess I can call it the caterpillar set, and I was okay with that so that’s the origin of the name. And that’s the idea behind the show really.
What can viewers expect to see at this exhibition?
It’s all a little bit shared. The paintings/maquettes or sculptures that are on the wall are the main aspect of it, but there is one piece which is in a sort of island in the middle. And That is going to be playing a video and small leaves are going to be shown in glass. I’m showing this very small projector to show the videos on loop and they are going to be projected on paper that is also in glass, and the whole thing is a small maquette in a way, so there is also that video, small scale sculpture thing going on which I think goes nicely with the rest. The video has a little bit of sound but it’s not really relevant. Those are the two things that can be expected at the show: the wall piece and this island of small-scale video work.
For something like the video work, what goes into that process? How do you collect these observations?
I think I’ve been curious about moving images in the small-scale for a while. I had a past work that was a show that had to do with works that I had dreamed about, and one of them had to do with a sunken cinema. I remember trying to make a prototype for this sunken cinema and I was projecting into an aquarium. With a regular projector it was too much; it was almost the size of the thing. So, in the end it became a very small piece. I realized that for a very small image it didn’t require a lot of water, so I ended up using just a jar of water and projecting inside it. That’s what I want from the moving image: just to be what is necessary and you have to come up close. I’m drawn close because I see small objects that I recognize, like is that a jar or is that a leaf? Is that something in “normal scale” but inside there is a still image. So I think looking for that difference of scale is what drew me into mixing real objects with very tiny images.
You have worked with a wide variety of materials and mediums such as brass, steel wire, chains, string, velcro, acrylic, oil, and digital media such as projectors and film video. How do you decide on which materials to use and in what combination?
To me it’s become like if I have cabinets in the studio with sets of ideas, you know like “things go well with something that is about the night,” and then I select things of course that are like the color black. My first ideas of the color black mostly have to do with what I wear with fabric or what I wear at night or things like that. It becomes an imagination of things that are very familiar to me, but for different contexts or aspects. I’m no expert; I do the things I do mostly by hand. I’m very in an artisanal way so to speak because I work with things that are pretty crafty or fragile. It’s pretty funny when I sent the pieces, because half of the show was in a box less than three kilograms. I thought it was going to be very heavy or something. It’s always like that you know, it’s just a combination of things that are at hand and also that I think makes sense to me. Even though I do have formal training with some materials, it is not usually what I employ. Like most of the traditions of painting, oil on canvas I use that a lot, that’s sometimes what I do, but it’s not really that I need to be an expert on things. If there’s a piece about a backpack, the backpack has to sort of unravel itself and show me the materials to use. But they are always small so there is nothing to worry about, like there is no expertise in anything. You just need a small amount of it. That’s what I always want, I don’t need a ton of fabric or I need foundry – these things scare me a lot. So I think that’s how I approach it.
I think that’s a very relatable feeling. Often the more you have to work with the harder it gets to come up with idea sometimes. Are there any specific texts which inform your work, or this exhibition in particular?
I think there’s always a number of things that I’m thinking about. One of my greatest influences for things that I am thinking about is a writer that wrote in Brazil in the last century. Her name is Clarice Lispector, and there specifically a text I really like called Agua Viva. I think that that always what I’m doing or whatever I’m thinking for the last 4 or 5 years that text always finds its way into my head again, even though I might be doing something very different. Of course, influences of artists that I might like, like artists who work in the small scale like Richard Tuttle or there’s another painter that’s painting in jute, very small scale works by Jennifer Lee. I also really like her work. Here in Mexico painter Lucia Vidales we talk a lot about color. Also, a friend of mine I always think about him – at some point he taught in Virginia – his name is Sachin Kaeley. He also works in the very small scale, and we have been friends since college. I also think about this world of maquettes and models, but maybe that’s just me being a fan of small things. Finally, I like to write a lot. I usually write about the work of my friends or things they ask me to help with, like publications. Three years ago I wrote a text but I never finalized the translation to English. It was about many things but mostly the difference between what it means for art or for my art to think about the light of the sun and the light of the moon. That’s something that I talk a lot about. There’s this very important quote, or part of a text, that was in one of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s notebooks. He said something like “sunlight is painting and moonlight is sculpture.” It has no context; it’s an anaphorism, and it’s just unconnected thought. But then I thought about that a lot, the places of light, the plenitude of light, of the sun, and how it applies to a reading of painting and a frontality of an experience and these more secret fragment things which centered in this quote by the moon and seeing things in fragments, like being scrupulous or moving around something at night when you have barely any light. I think that difference in which I want something very clear and unified ad then something in small pieces and in small pieces of things that are experiences of light to me. That has also influenced how I imagined, not really how I think things because it’s more than that, it’s a fantastic sort of environment.
Your work’s relationship with nature and light is evident. How did you get into working with smaller objects?
I think it was all because I have been trying to manage the time that I use to shift what I’m doing. I’m making these different works at the same time. I once tried to make a huge macquette from a lot of small ones.
Currently you are based in Monterrey. How do your surroundings in Monterrey influence your work?
Where I live is called Santa Catarina, and it’s a western end surrounded by mountains. In the front of my house is a park, and then the Mitras which is like a mountain line, and then we have something called Huazteca which is a very beautiful line of mountains crossed together with layers. I think I have been looking at the landscape a lot more even though Monterrey is not the cleanest city we do have a lot better skies and sunsets than in Mexico City where I used to live. Here it’s very open, we have a way lower density of population. It’s not as claustrophobic as Mexico City felt for me, so I think I’ve been letting a lot more color into my work, and trying new things like working with ambient lighting. Specifically an interest in color, which used to be there in ways that I still think were safer. It’s a bit less conscious and I like that, and I think it has to do with being here.
For this particular exhibition were there any challenges you faced? Was there anything in your process that stood out to you as you were going through it?
I teach at the University and we went back to a mixed system back to school. By mixed I mean some people are in zoom and some people are at the classroom. Planning for that was way more difficult than I expected. They told me a few months ago, but then it became super stressful because I was also finishing some other works. That might have been the greatest challenge.
How has teaching impacted your work as an artist?
I think that the number of different tools that I use, represent in the smaller scale, interests that other people have for their own practices. So, in a way I unconsciously created a small, very diverse toolkit of ways to approach different kinds of practices. For me no longer things like traditional or modern or contemporary get mixed in the vocabulary of things that I employ to find the tools that I need. So teaching has made me very conscious of that, and to think hat every aspect of anything that you push far enough it’s going to become a practice in itself. As a teacher I know I can’t take it that far, but the students can. The only thing I can do is make my own work but my own work can take it far in just a small amount. It has allowed me a very flexible approach. I think I can teach drawing and know what I’m doing, I think I can teach painting and know what I’m doing or I can teach theory and know what I’m doing – or think I know what I’m doing. I feel at home in several places, and I think that has helped me realize that the practice I have been making so far can help different aspects of artmaking.
What do you teach at the University of Monterrey?
This semester has been a bit crazy. I actually came to Monterrey to redesign the program, and then came the pandemic and a lot of things changed. But originally, we had one and now are shifted to another. This semester I have two painting courses, one for beginning painting students or first-years, and one for the upper years, which is like an advanced painting studio. I have another foundation course, but I don’t have any art students – I have engineering, fashion, architecture. I always tell them you have to do whatever you want to do, and it’s very confusing for some of these students. We’re having fun but I think they need a tighter set of tools. Sometimes I enjoy that, but sometimes I feel like I am telling them what to do. This is the first time we have a foundation course. Then I have another class which is Painting I, but it is not really the first year of painting. It’s more focused on color and light, and of course I’m really enjoying that one. It’s a very easy going and kind of practical course. Last semester I taught drawing.
What advice would you give on how to approach creation?
To me the most important aspects of this whole thing are first, imagination. There is imagination in everything. There’s an imagination of cups, of screens, of laptops, of lighters, of leaves, and of course there is an imagination of painting and sculpture and of art. To learn to detect that is the first thing that I would place as a priority. It’s like self-organizing and it has its own energy. It runs without the menace from people and without an interest from outside. To identify that, the energy that your imagination is using, would be the first thing. The second thing is that we tend to think creation when we’re in a visual environment is very akin to image making and consuming and I don’t think that’s true at all. We have to go out and experience the works and how they function and the operations that they make, and the materials that you like. They might come from everywhere. What I like might come from all these small glass objects I have around my studio. I don’t even know the name of this tree but I really like how it looks, so I’m not a botanist but trees are an important part of my imagination. That’s what I mean. I wouldn’t know that from looking at images of trees on Google. It seems like images are an important thing nowadays, but I would advise everyone not to trust the image, trust the imagination. There’s a lot of images that come from information, from algorithms and things like that. But we can use images that come from imagination, not information, and those are way stronger. They carry your genes, your energy, and your materiality, and that is easier said than done. It’s unparalleled. Once we have that, everything will follow and everything will work.
Click here to view the press release for the exhibition.