“My intent is to directly face that which our culture subconsciously fears and loathes”
AT: Where are you from and how/why did you start engaging with art?
CG: I am Italian, but I was born in Jeddah, in Saudi Arabia, in 1991. My parents were working there as diplomats. I grew up in Mexico, in the United States, in Italy and then later studied in the U.K. and in France. My first memories of engaging with art classes are from preschool in Mexico City: our art teacher taught us about Frida Kahlo and I also remember the incredible skeletons and paraphernalia used to celebrate Dia de Los Muertos. My grandmother taught me to draw sunflowers with colored markers on paper, and I remember loving drawing and wanting to do it all the time since then.
AT: When did it become serious?
CG: It was always serious, because I enjoyed it. And pleasure is serious. But when we began applying to universities during high school, our art teacher showed us Phaidon’s first edition of Vitamin P (now there are three!). It was a beautiful book on contemporary painters from around the world, with texts about their work. After seeing images of Pia Fries and Katharina Grosse’s work I realized I could be one for real. That’s when I resolved to join the party.
AT: Are there any persons who have been significant in your breakthrough as an artist?
CG: A large ecosystem of people have supported me along the way and have contributed to where I am now, from my circle of artist friends (very important for when you are in crisis) to my family (who supported me financially) to the journalists, gallerists, curators and writers that believed in my work and were brave enough to take the first steps to show it publicly before I had any credibility. Everyone is very much interconnected. It’s misleading to think that visibility and recognition come from the artist’s work alone. The artist does not exude and attract success like a solitary, magnificent magnet.
AT: What is your first approach to the work? How would you describe your practice?
CG: I have ideas quite suddenly. They can come from anywhere: from a lived experience, from a poem or text, or from another painting or artwork. I then sketch it. I keep drawing it over and over again, until it starts gaining momentum and transforming into something deeper. Sometimes a work of art stays a small drawing, sometimes I need to transfer it to a huge wall painting, or an installation. After years of looking at performance and installations, I would describe my practice at the moment as based on making images through painting and drawing. These are very much about bodies and emotions, and how they intertwine with our understanding of love and Eros.
“Breathing you, Feeling you”, 2021 , 180×300 cm
AT: What do you aim to reach with your work?
CG: My intent is to directly face that which our culture subconsciously fears and loathes. I work a lot with what has historically been labeled as “feminine”: bold color, strong emotions, symbols, the erotic. Sometimes I purposely use symbols that are almost clichés, like butterflies or hearts. In Western intellectual culture and art-history, many cultural phenomena have shown that there is a lurking fear and disgust of color. David Batchelor wrote a book about it which he called “Chromophobia”, which I highly recommend. Underneath this disgust of color lie subconscious forms of sexism. As far back as the 1500’s in Italy, color has been relegated to the feminine and the superficial. Il Discorso saw Italian schools of painting trying to separate line from color. Color was thought of as feminine, and therefore dangerous and irrational, as it could result in strong emotions in the spectators. Instead, lines were thought of as noble, rational, masculine. Further down the line, the West began to react against pop art and pop culture, rejecting narration, color and figuration to explore minimalism. As a student I felt there was a pervasive sense of hierarchy that put formalism and minimalist color palettes at the top of this hierarchy, imbuing the objects that reflected these historical movements with gravitas. On the other end were figurative painters with their “colorful” work: dismissed as superficial, less serious. Of course this is nonsense, since there is no objective way to attribute these qualities to their subsequent forms. But I find it interesting to continue to subvert these lasting value judgements. Also, I don’t know anything as serious as our own emotions. So if color is related to emotion….
AT: What are your favourite tools and materials for working?
CG: Fluidity and liquids appeal to me a lot: I find bodies of water beautiful and maybe that is what attracts me to water as the main diluter of color in my work. My favorite materials are water and pigments. Even when I draw, I am naturally drawn to water-soluble colored pencils . When I am using pure pigments and diluting them to spread them over a surface, this direct relationship to color triggers something very raw, full of pleasure. It puts me in a state of intense concentration, it’s blissful. Water dilutes gouache, water colors, and acrylics too, and when it spills and stains and evaporates it leaves interesting, uncontrolled traces that leave shapes and patterns in its wake.
AT: What do you feel while you work? Do you usually think about the final outcome beforehand?
CG: I try as much as possible to work within pleasure. Even if I am in physical or emotional pain, I think it’s important to get pleasure from what I paint because I believe others will feel what I felt in front of my work. The history and iconography of Western painting is steeped in so much violence and aggression: I think subverting this is powerful. I don’t often know what the final outcome is. I’m always quite surprised. As I’m painting, the colors and the composition will develop organically, as I choose to work with intuition. If everything is going well, I feel like something transcendent is happening, as though I am not really making decisions. It’s a feeling of very intense concentration, but it’s quite light. Time behaves differently, it’s meditative. Sometimes there is an element of anxiety and fear that I might mess something up. I usually overcome that fear quite quickly and enjoy the lack of control.
AT: How do you understand that a work is finished?
CG: I feel it. It’s when everything is balanced (or perfectly imbalanced). If I need confirmation, I show it to a couple of artist friends. Based on their reactions I might adjust some parts of the painting.
Body Confusion (Corpse Pose), 2019, Mixed media on canvas, 65×135 cm
Vomitare l’anima, 2019, Mixed media on canvas, 31×44 cm
AT: Where does the inspiration for the work come from?
CG: I am very inspired by writers and poets such as Chris Kraus, Claudia Rankine, Emily Dickinson, Maggie Nelson (the list could go on and on). Recently I read texts by Audre Lorde and Adrienne Maree Brown on the power of the erotic and the politics of pleasure. Culture is a system of knowledge and attitudes shared by large groups of people. I could say that on one level, my work is a response to many cultural issues that I see as problematic. I specifically want to address emotional repression, sexuality, sexism, and our relationship to our bodies. I focus on my lived experience because, like the writers I have mentioned, I believe that when we share our personal truths as honestly as possible through story-telling, it creates a magnetic capacity for empathy with spectators. Honesty is powerful, it’s like magic. It is during this emotional exchange of empathy that healing, comfort, and traumatic experiences can be released . Through self-narrative you also avoid the shortfalls of mis-representing experiences of people beyond yourself, which is why self-portraiture and self-fiction are important starting points for me. In my work I paint and draw bodies of woman-like figures crossing all sorts of emotional and physical states. They are likened to pregnancy, illness and ecstasy, but of course, due to the imaginary and symbolic nature of my work, there is space for interpretation.
AT: Are there any artists who influenced your works? Why?
CG: So many! From historical artists like Giotto di Bondone (the way he simplified his figures and the gorgeous color palettes) to my good friend Christine Safa, there are so many incredible artists that influence how I think and work. I think one of the most significant influences was Francesco Clemente. During my studies in 2016 I took a semester out to be an assistant in his studio in New York. Watching how he worked–how he organised his time, what he drew inspiration from and how his rhythm was at once assiduous but relaxed–was the most tangible, realistic contact I had yet had with what it meant to make art every day. Francesco had huge libraries of poetry that he regularly read from and used to trigger a body of work.
AT: How important is the role of social media for you?
CG: It’s a tool, it depends what you make of it. We must never forget it’s virtual and doesn’t replace the experience of meeting a human or seeing a show or a painting in person. But I am grateful that social media exists. Thanks to instagram, for example, several curators and gallerists reached out to me directly.
Due Farfalle, 2020, Mixed media on canvas, 200×110 cm / photo courtesy of Exo Exo
Spilling cup (infinite), 2020, Pigments and acrylic on canvas, 24×19 cm
AT: As an artist, what is your point of view about the contemporary art system?
CG: Oh la la. Loaded and vast question. There are many systems within “the contemporary art system” you evoke. All I can say is, systems are made by people. People can change the system. So if a system is rotten and unprofessional, it’s up to the people participating in it to change it. It infuriates me when people are dishonest, manipulative and have terrible communication. So I try extremely hard to be the opposite of those things and hope I attract people with the same values.
AT: What do you find to be the most challenging or daunting thing about pursuing art? What is the most rewarding part of working as an artist?
CG: The daunting part is realizing that you are essentially running your own business, but very little help is given to you in art school to teach you how to declare your own taxes, how to price your work, how to behave with the gallerists you collaborate with. It’s so disempowering on behalf of educational institutions to sanctify the making of artworks and to pretend there isn’t an entire economical machine around and behind the art world. Artists need to live on money too! We need to be paid and treated professionally. It’s mind boggling that I was essentially only taught about making the work, and nothing else. The most rewarding part: somebody telling you they are touched and understand what you’ve made. You feel seen and you feel you somehow created a dialogue: this is precious in a moment of so much bla bla bla, and so much misunderstanding on a global scale.
AT: What do you do besides art?
CG: I teach drawing and painting to autistic teenagers in a psychiatric ward. Wait…maybe that counts as art too. It’s extremely challenging but can be very rewarding. You have to forget about yourself and think of how to offer moments of concentration and pleasure to minds and bodies that connect to sensation in completely different ways than yours. It’s during these classes that I see the direct effect of concentrating on images and colors has a therapeutic effect on the body. And that sharing moments of collective creativity is soothing and produces joy. Otherwise I’m your basic bitch. I like swimming and sunshine and show me the way to your closest mozzarella di bufala, please.
AT: What are your goals and expectations for the future?
CG: To stay concentrated (distraction = interrupting the flow of painting), to see the sea more. I am going to a four month residency in Hamburg next week so maybe that will help with both. I try not to have too many expectations, just new ideas for new works.
Lasciare Entrare, Lasciare Andare | Installation view at Studiolo Project, Milano (2020)
Cecilia Granara, of Italian nationality, was born in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, in 1991. She is a painter and writer, drawing on self-fiction, poetry, and feminist and religious iconography. She is interested in cultural attitudes to sexuality, relationship to bodies and the use of color as a vehicle for emotions. She studied at Central St. Martin’s School of Art and Design in London, Hunter College in New York City, and at the Ecole Nationale Superieure des Beaux Arts in Paris. Solo shows include “Quatre Coeurs” at Exo Exo, Paris and “Lasciare Entrare, Lasciare Andare” at Studiolo Project, Milan. Her work is represented by Exo Exo (Paris).