Published  07/08/2014

Wendy White: interview

Wendy White: interview

Wendy White: Madrid Me Mata
Arts + Leisure Gallery, New York City
16 July – 1 September 2014


Madrid Me Mata at Arts + Leisure is New York-based painter Wendy White’s homage to the Galería Moriarty in Madrid, which, since 2008, had given her three solo shows before it closed its doors this year. White, known for her paintings of enigmatic texts and sports iconography on dynamically structured canvases, has been quite busy.

She has work in two group exhibitions, Go With the Flowat the Hole Gallery in New York City and Fútbol: the Beautiful Gameat the Los Angeles County Museum. She regularly exhibits internationally at galleries, including Maruani and Mercier in Brussels, Andrew Rafacz in Chicago and Van Horn in Düsseldorf. Galería Moriarty remains dear to White, for it was through her dealings with Lola Moriarty and Borja Casani, and their unyielding creative support, that she discovered her artistic voice.

I met with White at Arts + Leisure, Freight + Volume Gallery’s modest project space in Manhattan’s Carnegie Hill. We spoke there for nearly an hour about her very personal exhibition, her dealings with Galería Moriarty, Spanish culture, her discovery of Moriarty and Casani’s role in the post-Franco counterculture movement, la Movida Madrileña, her affinity with soccer, the worldwide web and working with found digital imagery.

Kelly Robbins: How did you meet Lola and Borja?

Wendy White: They found me. They bought a painting of mine at the 2008 ARCO Madrid art fair, and later put it in a group show at the gallery. That began our relationship. I started working with them in about 2008 for a group show and had no idea that they had been pivotal figures in the Movida Madrileña movement. I just thought: “Who are these charismatic people? Why are they so cool?” The gallery was actually the meeting place for a lot of famous people who came out of that movement, including Pedro Almodóvar and Agatha Ruiz de la Prada, and they concocted a lot of their ideas in the gallery’s office.

KR: Can you talk about the impact they had on your work?

WW: My first show with them was the first time I hung my paintings an inch off the floor. The space was sub-street level, with a small set of stairs that led past the reception area and into a huge space with industrial columns and a massive skylight. The paintings had been directly on the floor in my studio, but in the gallery that didn’t work at all. Together, we decided to raise them an inch off the floor Suddenly, they were an extension of the architecture. It was a pivotal moment for me and it’s something that has affected everything I’ve done since.

KR: This room feels very personal and intimate, like the secret world of a teenager’s bedroom.

WW: I’ve never done an exhibition like this before. This was an amazing opportunity with Nick Lawrence [who established Freight + Volume] and Arts + Leisure to do something more personal. It’s my personal take on this movement and on my relationship with the gallery, and also a tribute to it having closed this year. Rather than it being just my work, it’s a combination of my work inserted into an ephemeral display of other things that were part of this movement. For example, posters of the Rock-Ola, a very important club in the 80s in Madrid, photographs of food that sort of represent me as a tourist in Madrid (because I wanted it to be clear that I wasn’t giving a history lesson, but more my personal experience), covers of La Luna de Madrid and Sur Exprés, important counter culture magazines during that movement and which Borja edited. The gallery had this multifaceted role during that movement. It was a bricks-and-mortar space where artists showed, but [Moriarty and Casani] also had this cultural effect that extended beyond the artists they showed.

KR: This sounds like a scene out of Roberto Bolaño’s novel The Savage Detectives.

WW: Yes. It was an extremely poetic moment, and I found it fascinating that they had been a part of the Movida. I could feel that spirit in my dealings with them, but they never told me who they were, or what they had been a part of, and it wasn’t really documented. I had to dig really deep.

KR: What’s it like to be an artist in Madrid?

WW: As an outsider, I don’t think I can really say. For me, with my dealings with them and going there for my exhibitions, it felt really vibrant, like the antithesis of New York. New York was about hedging your bets and measured commercial viability. Being a very experimental artist and working mostly large scale and site-specifically, Lola and Borja gave me this freedom: they were behind my weirdest stuff, my zaniest stuff. They just got it. I never had to explain anything. They just seemed to understand. Of course, when I’d dug deeper and realised what they’d come out of [La Movida Madrileña], it made perfect sense that they were attracted to my work in the first place, and supported the most out-there bodies of work I’d ever made.

KR: The arrangement of work in this room reminds me of your paintings.

WW: I rarely work small scale. Most of my work is really huge, between eight and 12 feet [2.4 and 3.6 metres]. I do a lot of multiple canvas paintings, so this sort of formal arrangement is something I do in my work elsewhere. I would say this is atypical of what I normally do, but the way I paint is very similar – the arrangement of text, gradations of colour, the idea of a shaped canvas, some kind of shape that transcends outside of the rectangular square, the shaped frames. These are all things that appear in other series. I made 12 tondos for the show. Everything else is collected images: film stills from Almodóvar that I’ve manipulated as the backdrop, a soccer team that was really pivotal coming out of that movement and that helped the general public get past that post-Franco moment of being paralysed, culturally.

I knew that I wanted to reference the Real Madrid and Barcelona football club logos somewhere in the show, and [she points to the logos on the wall] that’s the crown and the crest. Real Madrid is the crown and the Barcelona crest appears twice in the back. Real Madrid is associated with Franco. It really was the “royal” team. Barcelona is the team from Catalonia in northern Spain, where they speak a different language, so I wanted there to be a bit of a hint towards that famous football rivalry without being too overt, so those shapes are referenced here and there. It’s the first time I’ve ever done anything as explicit as a crown.

There are a lot of references to the sphere, to the circle, the inset. I thought of these as the best way to talk about memory – to have something that didn’t have any corners. Somehow it felt that taking the corners off things and how you remember things a little bit wrong …

KR: I’m curious about the text in the 12 tondos.

WW: Chupa Chupa is [based on Chupa Chups] a lollypop brand that was once a Spanish company – although it is now owned by an Italian firm – and whose logo was designed by Salvador Dalí in 1969. It’s a bit tangential to the exhibition, but I wanted there to be a couple of points where the dialogue went outside the movement and reflected Spain in general, so I incorporated the colours of the Spanish flag on another tondo. MCF is the Madrid Club de Fútbol. It’s a more geometric version of the Real Madrid logo. The 84 with the Real Madrid crown refers to 1984, a pivotal year for the Vulture Squad [as the team was nicknamed at that time]. Madrid Me Mata was made before I titled the show, but I always have a title track in my shows. Salir de Copas literally means “going out for drinks”, a phrase that is synonymous with the Movida. It seems such a simple phrase, but it actually has become something that is quoted everywhere. It was popularised by the Movida. Now, Madrileñans don’t think of going out for drinks as a casual thing. Obviously, it’s fun and casual, but it has a profound history because of the Movida.

KR: Would you say it’s culturally important?

WW: Yes, it’s culturally important. I’ve called it “productive partying”.

KR: I don’t know if we have that in New York.

WW: I don’t think we have it. We work too hard here. The whole “nightclub” vibe came out of la Movida. It’s when the Spanish gained their love of parting all night, which became a social space in which to exchange ideas. That’s probably the biggest residual of la Movida.

KR: The nightclub?

WW: Yeah, the nightclub, and the nightlife in general. A big part of Madrid’s history and culture is not to go home when it gets dark. There’s a little Rock-Ola painting, referencing the Rock-Ola nightclub, which showed all the great Movida bands.

KR: What bands have come out of la Movida?

WW: The most famous band really was Alaska. There are things that I don’t believe ever made it here. If you look at the list of famous Movida bands, they’re all unknown to the American audience, as far as I know. They’re a little bit performance and a lot of pageantry. It was a highly creative and strange time. It was the 80s, so there was a lot of great fashion influence in Madrid. New Order and Radio Futura are two bands that famously played at the Rock-Ola before it closed.

KR: Is this spray paint you’re working with?

WW: It’s not spray paint. I do use an airbrush, so it’s atomised paint, but I used textile inks. I come out of a textile background, actually. Sculptural and textile. That’s why I think I have a material sensibility in my painting. I don’t come from a traditional painting background. These are airbrushed, but with an ink that actually permeates the canvas, so there is an absorption.

KR: Is the text made with a brush?

WW: It’s made with a brush, but it’s the reverse. It’s made with a liquid resist, so it’s like a liquid masking fluid. In the case of this one [she points to the text of Salir de Copas], the black came first, and it was masked out with a rubber masking fluid and then the lighter colours on top, and then I rub it away with my hand to reveal the text, so it’s a brushstroke, but a detached one. A lot of times I’ll let the text trail off so that a fragmentation happens and it becomes less legible. You feel less inclined to read it.

KR: The quality is so crisp. It reads like gouache.

WW: Yeah, it really beautifully picks up every little fibre of the brush, just like paint would, except that you can really play with the order of the layers, so you end up with a painting that is much more challenging to figure out in one glance. You can create some pretty interesting effects, so it almost seems as if you’re wiping away the mirror to reveal the fog or something that’s being reflected.

KR: Are you making the shapes on your canvas with tape?

WW: I do a lot of either stencilling with the masking fluid, or cutting out my own stencils. I usually single use. I might use the same image, but never from the same size, never from the same stencil. Just one use, so that everyone is unique.

KR: The found images are printed on canvas?

WW: These are printed on vinyl, and I stretch them. I knew I wanted the ephemeral quality of these images to have a physical presence.

KR: How did you select the film stills from Almodóvar?

WW: They were chosen for their English subtitles because I wanted to hint at some of his themes. There is a lot of Spanish language in the show. I like the poetic quality of these stills, because once you get to them in the exhibition they take you out of the cerebral and into a more cinematic headspace. I also like them for their strong female characters, which reference Moriarty, who was an actress in a few Movida films.

I also selected them formally to take up a lot of space, so they could interact with the exhibition. I could hang things on top of them and they take on an interior role. For example, this [one] by the door, I worked in with the heater of the gallery. I chose it for its sense of interiority.

KR: Are these stills from the same film?

WW: Most of them are from All About My Motherand Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown.

KR: Who is the lady with the lemons on her head?

WW: This is an artist known as Ouka Leele, who was one of the most famous conceptual photographers during la Movida. She had her first show at Moriarty. This is her iconic image, Los Limones. It really captures this movement, which was zany, free, a little bit wrong, and coming out of a surrealist mind space. Also, eye contact was something I wanted in this show. I wanted to set up a dialogue between the most charismatic member of the football squad in 1984 and the subject of an iconic piece.

KR: What was his name?

WW: Emilio Butragueño. He was known as the Vulture. The whole [Real Madrid] team was called the Vulture Squad.

KR: What’s your relationship with Madrid like now?

WW: I’ve gone to Madrid three times for my solo shows, and spent a couple weeks there for each visit, so I’m still very much a tourist. There is an element of fun in the imagery. For example, I wanted there to be food in the show because it is such an important part of the cultural experience in Spain. I also wanted there to be hints toward a casual approach. It was a fun movement. It wasn’t neatly packaged. It wasn’t tidy. I wanted to include images that hinted at my being an outsider. It’s not my country. I’m really just a fan, a huge fan. I’ve done a lot of research, but I’m still merely a fan, so I hoped to insert modest imagery and things that I took that were very light to balance out the found.

KR: It’s an interesting extension of your work, which often seems to be grounded in your daily public life. These images of Madrid, both yours and found, seem to respond in a similar way.

WW: I hadn’t really thought about that because I have the whole Chinatown series and all of those works that are about places I see every day and streets I step on all the time. I felt really different approaching this because I didn’t have that day-to-day experience. I never felt as if I could tell the whole story. I felt as if I was only going to be scratching the surface. I didn’t live through this movement. In terms of people in my life, I’d say I know these people fairly peripherally compared with people I see all the time, but they were so special to me that I wanted to do it justice. I felt a lot of responsibility to keep it honest.

KR: Have you met other artists in Madrid?

WW: On occasion, but I’m not close with any artist there, and I would love to be. It’s bittersweet for me to do the show because the gallery closed, and I fear that I won’t have an immediate reason to go back there, so I have to figure that out. How do I keep this in my life and how do I keep these people in my life? They became really special to me. They really changed my work.

KR: What is your affinity with soccer?

WW: Sports in general has been a theme in my work for several years. Sports gear, the symbols of speed, the static logo, Adidas’s three stripes – symbols of speed that have been popularised by sports gear. I think my particular interest in soccer grew out of the headspace of sports in general and how it’s akin to the headspace of an artist: the singular discipline, going into your studio and plugging away at something that’s very difficult to describe, that moment of success or failure. Soccer, in particular, is fascinating because it’s aligned with national style. If you watched the World Cup, you could see how every country’s team has a specific style that comes out of that country’s history – their war history, their body language, their linguistics – and it all builds into this style of play on the field, and that correlation with gesture and the idea of a mark that symbolises movement or a style of painting became really fascinating to me. I’ve been working with soccer images as a way of exploring that connection.

KR: How do you begin your paintings? Do they begin with an idea? Or are you more involved with the physical experience of the work?

WW: A little bit of both. I often have ideas that carry from one series to the next. I usually have one painting in every show that gives way to the next body of work. I don’t know it at the time until the show happens and I see one as being a departure point for new work. I usually make a few paintings and then something starts to happen; something in the process, something new emerges, and then the idea solidifies in the exhibition and tightens from there. Then I work more in preparation for that sort of thematic gesture.

KR: Do you collect images?

WW: Yes, files and files of images. I think all artists have them now, these folders and folders of images. That’s another reason why I wanted to do this show, because the found image has a very different association than it used to – the ease of collecting images. I wouldn’t have been able to do a show like this pre-internet. I would have needed to go to Madrid and collect this stuff, because it’s not out there yet.

KR: It’s also cool that you’re downloading images you find on the Internet to create this direct visual experience, like you’re reversing the process.

WW: Yeah, I wanted the digital presence. I didn’t take out the online file that this came from [she points to the ephemera with its web address still in the corner]. They are some really pixelated images that were just what was available, and I felt that it was another facet of the responsibility that I felt toward using found images. I didn’t want to hide that an image came from somewhere, that I didn’t own it.

KR: Have you enjoyed this experience of creating this personal project?

WW: It’s been really liberating. Just doing a project outside a commercial gallery that I work with all the time, which was my last New York experience. It’s fun. It was challenging to put something together that was part history of a movement that I don’t think many people know about here, so the excitement of wanting to tell a bit of that story. Also, introducing a new series of work that is related to what I make, but very specific to the show was a really great opportunity. It was probably one of the most challenging things I’ve ever done. I felt so much responsibility to try to encapsulate the energy and not try to aestheticise.

When you make a painting about something, you’re translating something. The same thing occurred with the Chinatown series. They’d be about buildings that were amazing that I’d had a relationship with, and I would think: first of all, what’s the impetus to make a painting and why? What does it mean to make a painting about something that exists and is important in your life and that you have had an experience with and feel some sort of intellectual interest in? The same thing happened here. How could I pay tribute to a movement that was so zany? So it had to be wild. It had to be unhinged.


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