Interview With Artist Santiago Cucullu

To gain deeper insight into the work included in the current exhibition New American Paintings: Midwest Edition, I interviewed participating artist Santiago Cucullu about his practice and the site-specific work Green Hell. The piece immediately speaks to its calculated contradictions as, at first glance, chaotic, almost violent spattering of green paint reveals rational, concentric rectangles of blank wall space. Dichotomies seem important to the Cucullu. As a process-based, nearly performative piece, Green Hell is a painting made in the gallery, as opposed to the artist’s studio. As a painting, it is painted directly on the wall, not on a traditional canvas. Even the title gives way to poles on a spectrum. “Green Hell” is the name of both a kitschy 1940s American horror movie as well as a song by the Misfits (though anarchistically punk, its kitschiness or campiness is arguably equal). Cucullu sees how the piece can speak to kitsch. It was made for the enjoyment not only of its beholders, but also for those who collaborated in its production. (Our staff had a lot of fun, as can be seen in the photos below – who wouldn’t have a good time throwing paint at their workspace?) It was a pleasure to speak to Mr. Cucullu on this specific work and his practice.

Santiago Cucullu, Green Hell, 2015. This is the second iteration of the piece, the first created via instructions at Labor Gallery in Mexico D.F, 2009.

Peter Guardalabene: There is a lot to talk about with this piece (Green Hell) alone, but I will try to keep it simple. My first notion was a kind of queer formalism; that the work is based on art historical and formalistic guidelines, but messy, maybe anachronistic or anarchistic. (The action of Jackson Pollock or Shozo Shimamoto blurred with the minimal rationality of Frank Stella.) These art historical figures can be recognized in Green Hell, which extends pure aestheticism into history as well as process. Do you see these elements as fitting, or is it more about communication of a “specific aesthetic notion” as you said in your notes on the piece?

Santiago Cucullu: Absolutely. This work is very dependent on the historical antecedents you site. I think something to point out is that the process involves a kind of excavation for the image to exist, in my view the elements of how the painting is then made place it both within a historical context that brings to mind associations outside of art. In particular that the work is existing in a particular place and time that is also occupied by the viewer.

Cucullu in action, casting the initial "paint bombs" onto the wall.

PG: On a non-art historical approach, or maybe in alternative art historical terms, the 1940 movie Green Hell and the Misfits song of the same name seem to be significant. However, the splatter of green paint and messiness of the process contrast with the rationality of concentric rectangles. I can see more of the punk/anarchy aesthetic in your Green Hell, but are punk and/or kitsch relevant here?

SC: I think there is an association with humor definitely, also to try and bring forward the place between control and natural forces. The process belies a balance that is then visible. My intention is to celebrate both the physical and esoteric properties of life. I think the Dionysian qualities found in punk are important in this case, as it uses a specific form as a strategy to push against an overlying layer of societal control.

Education and Outreach Director Faith Humphrey-Hill contributing to Green Hell.

PG: Green Hell does not conform to a traditional picture plane (unless the borders of the wall mark its territory); it spreads over the wall, beyond the seeming frames of rectangles. Previous work of yours like Fence By the Ladies Jail (2011) spread into more wall space, breaking the traditional rules of a picture in its place on the white walls of a gallery. Going off of Misfits and punk, I get a sense that these works speak more of a political language than an aesthetic one. Are pieces like Green Hell intended to be politically radical, or political at all? You have also said that, despite their adherence to the wall, you consider pieces like these to be permanent even after they have been painted over. Does this fit into each work’s politics? (SC note: In terms of chronology Green Hell predates Fence By the Ladies Jail.)

SC: The way both works are made speak to a political language. This is to underline the act of making art as being at it's core a political act. Traditionally paint bombs tend to be used in a reactive way. I wanted to see if I could use the same device but to try and use it as an element of affirmation. I think it's striking is that the political associations of vandalism and political action are tied to the form.

Chief Curator Staci Boris throwing a "paint bomb."

PG: Green Hell has much art and cultural history in it, but your portfolio is filled with references to personal and world histories as well. (I’m thinking specifically of Barricades from all D&D, Haiti, Prague that Fall, Fermin Salvochea (2003) at the 2004 Whitney Biennial.) How do you connect these different histories in your work?

SC: I think that the paint bomb works offer this connection. After I made Barricades from all D&D, Haiti, Prague that Fall, Fermin Salvochea for the Whitney Biennial, I started to realize that I was illustrating from events where my personal connection was mediated by someone else’s observations. I wanted to pull my own personal experience and the world that I immediately relate to into play. After this point any direct political and historical references are pushed through the scrim of something that I feel I have a direct relation to. An example is Fence By the Ladies Jail, the reference is to the prison system in the US, but my own experience of this is very limited, very much about the surface of the issue. Prisons and prisoner's rights in this country are exploited by the need for both private and public concerns of prison management to remain out of sight to function on the pervasive level that they do. However my own interaction is very cursory, I pass by this jail I allude to on the way to the studio, and the affordability of my studio is in part due to the proximity of the jail and the neighborhood it's in, Harambee, which is marginal but at the same time very dynamic.

The process is involved and ephemeral, but in the result is a permanent memory of collaborating and creating.

PG: The New American Paintings publication and exhibition has a specific set of criteria for included artists. As one of the included 40 artists, whose media varies, do you identify as a painter, or is that too specific a label? Also, the 113th edition focuses on artists based in the Midwest; do you think there is a “Midwest style?” And can the geography where an artist lives inform his/her/z’s work as much, or more, than multiple histories and identities?

SC: I definitely identify as a painter. In terms of a “Midwest style” it's hard to say. I think here in Milwaukee there is a tendency to be ironic or slightly goofy. This tends to bother me and makes me bristle, but at the same time, I can see these same qualities in some of my own work. I moved to the Midwest from the East Coast but some artists that I deeply admire, Roger Brown, Peter Barrickman, David Robbins, Peter Saul, Amanda Ross-Ho are amazing at exploiting elements of humor that are on one level slightly ironic, but overall are tempered with a deep sense of pathos while aligning themselves to direct personal experience.