Worlds of Exile

Artist in Conversation with Karen Grimson

 KG: -Your exhibition is titled “Worlds of Exile”, in reference to an edition of Ursula Le Guin's writings that groups together her ‘Planet of Exile’, from 1966, with two other titles.

MAE: -Yes, ‘Rocannon’s World’ and ‘City of Illusions’. That was the first book that I read by Ursula. I really liked the title, it kept ringing in my mind. At the time, as I was thinking of a title for the exhibition, I was also moving to Spain, and “Worlds of Exile” felt like something that brought together the subject matter in my work and my life experience at that moment.

KG: -Can you talk about your experience of difference as a foreigner , having left Argentina, and then producing this body of work in Spain? How did the experience of migration impact your work?

MAE: -There's always something about my life experience that gets into my work. In that sense, the context informed a lot of the decisions that I made back then. I did most of the works in Barcelona, which is where my wife and I first arrived, and it was a whole new experience to me. I felt like I didn't belong.  That feeling of alienation reminded me a lot to Planet of Exiles: being the stranger in a foreign world, trying to learn, to recognize the new territory. I decided to do portraits (I call them portraits, but that's something to discuss, I think), and landscapes, which were the two main subjects where I saw myself represented at that time. I was trying to recognize the territory I was in, and to recognize myself in this new situation. This experience was not only new but also very oppressing. We were preoccupied all the time with everyday things, like where were we going to live next month, and so on. I didn't have my friends, a network of people that I could rely on. The studio was somewhat of a safe space, a place where I could go to, and think of all these things. A lot of my practice is about being in the studio. To me, painting is a place where I can think, and this way, my life experience permeates my work. But, going back to your question, I guess I decided what to paint in relationship to my situation. The decision of making landscapes, which I had never painted at this scale before, and the three portraits had a lot to do with this feeling of strangeness and alienation.

KG: You speak about the studio as a shelter from alienation, and I think that this phenomenal trio of paintings (Inspiration, Contemplation, The Break) suggest a sequential order for three stages of painting. And they’re also self-referential in their allusion to your habits: painting, sipping mate, and smoking. Do you think of these works as self-portraits?

MAE:  In a way, yes. But portraits to me are a kind of abstract idea: these characters are more like avatars because they're not actually human. But yes, the actions that define the characters are very much self-referential. This is what I do in the studio.

KG: These scenes are rich in references, and fascinating in many ways. But I want to point out one detail in this trio: the close-up view of curtains on the vertical edges of each of these works, introducing the idea of the theatrical, the play within a play, the meta scene. The paintings suggest that these curtains have been pulled open, and that the scene is taking place on a stage within which someone else is creating another painting. The sense of theatricality is exacerbated by the characters, or avatars, in your paintings. How do you construct this layering of meanings and references in your work?

MAE: When I decided to do these portraits, I had the sketches of these three paintings and they didn't have the scenery, the staging. But then, I tried something new, and it just felt right. There's something about the illusion in painting that made it feel more real to have the characters on a stage. It is probably the same stage that the curtains open and close onto. The whole thing is about layering, that's the way I work. I like to spend a lot of time painting and looking at the painting, and in spending time in front of it, I come up with these ideas of adding different elements. This overlapping of reference creates the overall narrative. The stage is another layer and most of the objects that surround the characters, all of which come from memories, are as well. 

KG; I want to focus briefly on Contemplation because it implies another important convention: the gaze. A recurrent aspect of your work is its reference to historical paintings. In the case of Contemplation, I see an iconography that goes back to Raymond Monvoisin and Eugène Delacroix, two painters whose works capture a strong sense of exoticizing romanticism. Both Monvoisin and Delacroix were traveling artists at the time of the creation of the works you reference: Monvoisin was exploring South America, specifically Argentina and Chile; and Delacroix was painting his experiences of Morocco and Africa in general. Therefore, they were painting scenes from, and of, a foreign land, much like you were doing from Spain. Do you think this sense of a foreigner's perspective was at play in Contemplation, as well?

MAE: Yes, I get that feeling in every painting. I like the idea of being a foreigner to the painting; I like to feel I'm looking at something strange, from afar. the enitre exercise of painting is trying to recreate that foreign land or place that is hard to describe, or it's unknown. I don't feel that the exotic or the romantic take place in what I do, maybe just the romantic. Because these are images of landscapes from my own country, so they feel super familiar to me. Of course, I invented them, you cannot find that landscape anywhere, but I think most of my work is from memories, so I don't feel like the landscapes are exotic. They are foreign in the sense that I look at them as I look at what I want to paint: from afar, from a certain distance.

KG: So in the distance between yourself and your work, you establish your gaze.

MAE: Yes. It's all about trying to look at something that is sort of familiar, but unknown. To me, that's the most interesting thing about painting: trying to reach out into the void, and get something out of it.

KG:  It's interesting that we've seen Ursula Le Guin’s literary work permeate so strongly into the visual arts in recent years. Your exhibition is titled “Worlds of Exile”; I organized a show earlier this year called “Still There Are Seeds to Be Gathered”; and her writings were a major focal point in the Venice Biennale 2022.  In ‘Planet of Exile’, Le Guin writes about Rolery and Alterra's intercultural connection and incompatibilities[1], in a way that is brings to mind this idea you are describing about that distance between your gaze and your work.

MAE: -Yes, totally. As if the romance were between the medium and the artist, exactly.

KG: I'd like to discuss your landscapes, especially these two works in the exhibition that suggest a sense of belonging: the aerial view of Patagonia, and the imagined topography of World of Exile, which doesn't exist anywhere. How do you construct your landscape scenes? And what are you representing when you do so?

MAE: -In World of Exile I feel like what I painted is the Fitzroy. To me, landscape is the most interesting genre, even more so now that we have all the technology to look at our environment. The satellite view of Patagonia and the picture of Earth are both based on space photos. To me, landscapes are about the way we relate to our surroundings. I think of landscape as a relationship between humans and Earth. There's also the element of technology there mediating the gaze, for example, in the satellite view. There's something about those images that feels so strangely familiar that you can recognize it as Earth (or whatever part of Earth it may be), but it's sort of strange because you have never actually seen it this way directly. I’m interested in this kind of alienation produced by the mediation of technology in satellite landscapes. Landscapes based on an aerial perspective have none of the traditional elements that come to mind when you think of a landscape: a horizon, the vegetation, animals, the soil, water, clouds, and so forth. None of these elements are in these landscapes. And I like this contrast. I feel like the imagined landscapes are more familiar, more terrestrial, and talk about a different thing. It has more to do with the human scale of things, a literally down-to-earth view of the environment, and the other one is sort of an alienated view, and has to do with how technology perverts our relationship with the environment. Regarding the imagined element in the landscapes, I always like to imagine things, I don't like copying from reality, and in this sense it's a very romantic approach. I like to exacerbate things in the images I paint, like the distances and the scale of things.

KG: Speaking about scale, I would like to talk about Pandemic!, one of your more recent large format paintings  We've spoken about theatricality in painting, narrative, the sense of anachronism that is implied by the different temporalities that your paintings refer to. We could also agree that painting always implies an absence, which is a distance between the image you create and the object, or the scene, it represents. Can you speak about death, and what role it plays in your creative process?. But in works like Pandemic, there is an overwhelming sense of mortality: we see collapsed bodies at the edge of a river, which reference the famous painting by Juan Manuel Blanes (Un Episodio de la Fiebre Amarilla en Buenos Aires, 1871); and there is a detail of a cemetery tombstone that have your initials, ‘M.A.E’. Can you speak about death, and what role it plays in your creative process?

MAE:  I think that death conditions everything I do. Of course, one cannot experience death, but you can experience the idea of it. During the COVID pandemic, death was around the corner, it was a very traumatic experience. I kept thinking about it all the time. Actually, Blanes’ painting refers to the outburst of the yellow fever. I believe death is a thing I must address. I want to address death in my paintings because I feel it conditions us in everything we do: it’s the impulse behind everything we do, from missions to Mars, to starting families. You see all these things happening in the world, and to me, it is always about people trying to evade death. Talking about it -not confronting death because you cannot experience death- but going over it and walking through the idea of death, is an essential part of my work. It's a big part of my life also. Not that I'm scared of death all the time, but it’s one of the main reasons I do the things that I do. Most of my paintings from the pandemic onwards have an element of death. Death is lingering over there somewhere.

KG: -You paint death frequently, but you also paint survival: the survival of objects and technologies, obsolete, but still present.

MAE: -You could say death is the ultimate horizon. It's also in the landscapes themselves. That's the curious thing about technology: it feels like a way of evading death, prolonging life, by getting rid of horizons.

KG: So, a view like the one in ‘Earth’ painting might be the ultimate horizon.

MAE: Yes. Landscape, and death, as the shadow that follows us.

[1] “She the stranger, the foreigner of alien blood and mind did not share his power or his conscience, or his knowledge, or his exile. She shared nothing at all with him, but had met him and joined him wholly and immediately across the gulf of their great difference, as if it were that difference, the alienness between them that let them meet and that in joining them together, freed them.” Ursula Le Guin, Planet of Exile (editorial, 1966), page.