THRIVE: A student-centered initiative featuring interviews with SCAD alumni who earned a BFA, MFA or MA in painting and are currently working in the professional field. Engaging students’ intellects and imaginations with on-going conversations between students currently enrolled at SCAD and the global SCAD alumni network.
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Woven With Metaphor: Unraveling the Multifaceted Works of Xavier Robles De Medina
By D. Hoefer
Xavier Robles De Medina (b. Paramaribo, Suriname, 1990) makes narrative paintings and drawings speaking to global conditions of displacement; he also engages sculpture, video, performance and animation. The work shows a strong undercurrent of the process-driven pursuit of mastery. His explorations of materials and concepts are punctuated by fastidiously detailed works. In 2012, Xavier graduated from Savannah College of Art and Design, in Savannah, GA, with BFA’s in Painting and Animation. He is an award-winning artist, featured on the cover of Strathmore 300 series canvas pads in 2011, as well as the recipient of the Canson Award in 2010. Xavier’s work has been exhibited in galleries in Savannah, Cambridge, Chicago, New York, and Amsterdam. He has been featured in a host of publications—you may have seen his work on the cover of SCAD promotion catalogues. In 2014, Xavier was a guest speaker at the Academie voor Hoger Kunst – en Cultuuronderwijs, in Paramaribo, Suriname. Currently, he is represented by Catinca Tabacaru Gallery in NY, and he is an artist in residence at WOW, Amsterdam, where he lives and works.
D: I wanted to begin by addressing your extensive participation in gallery shows and competitions during your undergrad. You exhibited very cohesive and personal bodies of work. Were you approaching coursework as raw material, which you shaped according to your needs and used to build upon the bedrock of an underlying concept, or was there a more fluid synthesis of school and work?
X: I had a fairly good idea of the type of artist I was and wanted to be, and the artists I looked up to as role models. By the time I decided to major in painting, I understood how to emphasize my technical strengths through images and ideas that resonated with me. Most of the painting classes at SCAD are quite technical anyway.
Regarding projects and assignments- I only ever considered the deadline, and perhaps the general format. My priority was to create a cohesive body of work and everything I made was with this greater intention.
D: Correct me if I’m wrong, but I’m assuming your two solo shows were the highlights of your exhibiting experiences in Savannah. Can you describe the shows?
X: I agree with you. My first solo show, Atelo, included drawings, paintings and a film, all incorporating motifs from classicism to discuss contemporary issues surrounding idealization. The second show i included a series of abstract works with strong sculptural tendencies and several watercolors informed by anatomy, and micro perspectives of skin tissue. There was also an emphasis on a kind of lyrical shadow play, between the abstract forms and the transparent paintings.
D: The shift from the body of work represented in Atelo to the work exhibited in i appeared very dramatic. Did it feel that way making it? What prompted the radically different approach to making art and how did the first show inform the second? Forgive the buckshot of questions, it’s just fascinating to see an artist successively exhibit such seemingly divergent, yet cultivated bodies of work.
X: There actually was quite a bit of time between the works in those shows. With Atelo I had developed a body of work over the span of three years, and finished everything (except the film) four months prior to the exhibition. Around late 2011 I started thinking and reading a lot more about abstraction. I also started working on my animation thesis around that time, an experimental film combining pop music video tropes with a performative self-portraiture I had been exploring already. Thinking about it now, I see that the film is a portrayal of a relationship in my head between representation and abstraction.
Making the film helped me organize my thoughts surrounding these concepts, and how they were already symbiotic to me. I started making paintings and sculptures based on the concept art I had made for the film, which was largely a series of repeat pattern-esque drawings based on human cell anatomy. Then the show happened, and I graduated; I still had to finish up in the Fall, but in the meantime I went to New York and did some internships. I spent a lot of time at the Met, studying Byzantine ornamentation, and when I went back to school to finish up the last quarter, I locked myself in the studio and focused on that second show.
Making those works just felt like a continuation of an abstract, organic, and linear vocabulary I had already been developing for a year. Also it was very similar to the first show in its celebration of symmetry, lyricism, and classical form.
D: Can you describe your experience with said internships over the summer of 2012?
X: I had planned to do a studio internship with this really cool residency program. Ultimately, it fell through and I just improvised and found two other internships, one as a gallery assistant at the Dumbo Arts Center, and the other one was a studio apprenticeship with Ryan Brennan, who’s now become a very good friend. What I gained that summer was a general impression of Brooklyn, how it was changing, and what it might be like to work in the art world.
D: A few blocks from the DAC, is Tabacaru Gallery, which currently represents you. Did you first connect with Tabacaru during your internship at the DAC?
X: I met Catinca a year later, when I decided to move to New York after graduation. I was looking for jobs/internships online and stumbled across her call for gallery/PA interns. I liked the internship description and her bio was very intriguing, so I contacted her.
D: How did the internship unfold into representation with the gallery?
X: During the internship we got to know each other quite well and became friends. We stayed in touch and met up for gallery openings every so often. She also showed one of my pieces at an exhibition she curated in Chicago. Then, right before I left New York, she came by the studio and invited me to join the program. I really feel deeply grateful and lucky; it’s only been a year but awesome so far.
D: On your page within Tabacaru’s website, there are graphite drawings, gypsum-cement and urethane sculptures, and an abstract painting, entitled Fifteen Forgotten. There are streams of concomitant formal qualities running through all these pieces. Can you elaborate on that and how the concept of this work developed over years the work was made?
X: It’s a combination of looking out and being observant of the world and aspects of it that seem peculiar or somehow draw parallels to unexpected things; and looking in, trying to honor a specific sensitivity I have for materials, techniques, and form. Creating “Fifteen Forgotten” might have been the most formalistic process I’ve ever engaged in. I learned about a particular organic line I make intuitively that fades in and out of a fog. A year later I was living in Bed-Stuy, which is covered in hair-product advertisements; I recognized the lyricism of my own marks in those ads. Its dynamism and drama reminded me of Renaissance and Baroque paintings, and somehow there’s also a spontaneous brushiness to them that reminds me of abstract expressionist gestures. All of these allusions are attractive to me so I started re-arranging these hair ads, to be abstract fields of lyrical flowing forms and lines. I’ve done quite a few drawings and sculptures informed by this hair picture puzzling, and plan on doing more, it always surprises me.
D: Can you describe the process of translating the “hair picture puzzling” drawings and the three dimensional renderings?
I just go through tons and tons of beauty/hair magazines looking for the most dynamic hair pictures. Then I cut 1 x 1 inch swatches of my favorite parts; when I’ve assembled a fair amount of these swatches I start puzzling and rearranging them along a gridded picture plane in which every square has to be filled with a hair swatch that synchronizes with the swatches around it. After a lot of editing, and re-arranging, I’ll decide that I like a collage and embark on a drawing, or relief, and I’m planning paintings, in which I try to solidify and smooth out the pixel-like collage so that the form reads clearly. The drawings especially are very accurate to the collages; I start on a grid and go through the entire collage copying every square inch, then I’ll render and smooth the drawing out in the end.
D: In She Sells Sea Shells, a diptych, the organic composition is quite a divergence from the rectilinear work. What informed this shift?
X: She Sells Sea Shells is drawn from a detail in one of the drawings. It just stood out as an isolated form to me and seemed to kind of circle back in on itself. I felt it would be a good opportunity to explore something I had already wanted to do which was to make a simpler form unconstrained by the stretcher bars. I had already made a cement piece, and a urethane piece, but was thinking about showing the tension between these two materials in the same work. That’s why I decided to present this particular form as a twin.
D: I’m also interested in the spectrum of titles, from where did these originate?
X: She Sells Sea Shells is onomatopoeic to the form. Visually the organic S curve continually runs through the work. Especially as a diptych, it’s like a tongue twister, just relentlessly rhyming. It also literally looks like two shells.
The first cement piece is called “Bump ‘N Grind” because of the material… grinding… cement! Also, the piece in my mind is similar to an R&B song, rhythmic and sensual, but in a highly orchestrated, calculated kind of way. Also the forms are bumpy.
A Freeze is Coming is taken from a line in Batman & Robin, before Arnold Schwarzenegger strikes he belts out corny puns. One of his lines is: “This is gonna be a cold winter… A freeze is coming!!” I had been looking at Batman merchandise objects; I love the Batmobile and how it’s ever-evolving and morphing, kind of like the history of painting. Also, the relief nature of it recalls the frieze tradition, and I like how the weight of the pun and its allusions change from one context to the other.
D: In your developing work, a flood of associations come to mind–photography, history, violence, indigenous culture. The body of work as a whole is a collage of imagery–an abstract field of connotations flowing to surface only to weave their way back under other connections. It’s the conceptual extension of the hair picture puzzling. I’m really excited to hear what you have to say about this work—if you are ready to talk about it.
X: The paintings are based on film stills captured during the flooding of villages in the early 60’s in Brokopondo, Suriname, during the construction of a huge water reservoir, which drowned an entire part of Surinamese history and culture. The communities were relocated to camps that completely flouted their way of life. It’s very interesting to me, firstly because it happened in Suriname, and also because this notion of displacement (of people) is an intensely pressing phenomenon in the world right now. There’s also a viscerally engaging and more open, abstract nature to these paintings; I hope the viewer who might initially simply respond to the formal elements and the way it’s painted, may look into it further and have the contextual information enrich his/her experience of the work, and vice versa.
D: I remember sharing workspace with you in Alexander Hall and you were constantly listening to music, and would speak ardently about your musical selection. I gathered that music is very important to your process, how do you feel about this assessment?
X: I wouldn’t concretely say music plays a role in my process. Culture, and art are central to my life and I try to enjoy as much of it as I can. I love learning about processes, motivations and contexts so that extends to pop music, which I am deeply interested in because I enjoy listening to it when it’s well crafted. Also because I think it holds important anthropological clues for understanding an overarching contemporary attitude. I’m grateful for the time I spent in college just absorbing films, and music, and all kinds of design. Having friends in other disciplines, and learning about all their approaches, has made me more inventive and sensitive both craft and concept-wise. It’s helped me position myself, to more specifically recognize the ideas and processes relevant to me.
Perhaps music does inform a general attitude in my decision-making. If I recognize a specific element that’s trending in my music selection, I can sometimes relate a technique or theme to it and it makes me more confident. For instance in my paintings now I use my feather brush a lot to make everything smoother and generally hazier and ambiguous. Somehow I think that could be informed by a sound treatment I’m attracted to that’s kind of ambient, densely layered, and reverb-y. This is really just speculation on my part though.
It’s hard to say so generally what inspires me, perhaps I already answered this question. But to be honest, I love structurally going to work and getting shit done. Setting goals, and working hard to meet them, just really makes me happy.
After the interview, Xavier was nominated for the Prix de Rome, awarded once every two years to a talented visual artist under the age of forty. It is the oldest and most generous prize for artists and architects in the Netherlands. For more information on Xavier, and to see more of his works, visit xavierroblesdemedina.com or check out his page on Catinca Tabacaru Gallery’s site, catincatabacaru.com.
D. Hoefer (b. Bronx, NY) makes installation and performance art predicated on the systematic degeneration of nature and indigenous humanity, with the intention of regenerating a dimension of unrestrained growth. Hoefer lives and works between Marshall, NC and Savannah, GA. For more information visit, dhoeferstudios.com.
ARTICLE #1 ********************************************************************************************
Crash and Burn, or Do Something With It: A Conversation with SCAD Alumnus William Ruller
By Madeleine Peck Wagner
William Ruller received his MFA in Painting from SCAD, Savannah, GA in 2013. Directly after school, he went to Eugene Contemporary Art’s artist residency, Public Process 5 in Eugene, Oregon. Ruller, whose works are an investigation and meditation on industry, decay, and nostalgia, said that for him, the residency was an important part of moving away from the feedback of students and faculty and into the realm of personal responsibility.
Materially, Ruller primarily uses paper, oil pigment, and clay. His works are often large scale, edging towards the monolithic, as he notes in his thesis “I wanted something that looked like I had actually just dragged it out of the earth, or peeled it off a wall.” Atmospheric, with subtle shifts in color and texture, the new works were displayed with a thin self of detritus just below them. The effect is one of accumulation and preservation, serving to reinforce the ruined yet compassionate aspect of his work.
Below is the edited transcript of a conversation with Ruller about his residency, and his work. Like him, the conversation is straightforward and devoid of extraneous flourishes—almost monastic.
MPW: The residency you had was in Eugene, Oregon. Can you talk about how you got the residency, and why it was important for you to do this, just as you finished your graduate degree?
Ruller: I got the residency by applying for it. The application process was rather simple. You just had to come up with a proposal and send in some images, if they liked what they saw they went with it. As far as its importance, I would have to say that getting out of the confines of the school was important to me. As a grad student, I think you can become very dependent on feedback from student and faculty. So for me I wanted to be forced into a situation that made me make work under pressure, this wasn’t for a grade it was real, and to see if I would crash and burn or do something with it.
MPW: You are a highly productive artist. Can you talk about your strategy for working at the residency…How did you prepare, what did you bring?
Ruller: I produced the base layers of the painting in Savannah because I didn’t want to walk in blind with no real sense of where the work should go. And I had a lot of drawings and notes about ideas of what the end result should be. Doing this allowed me to walk in the door and start working that day. I had my paint and some brushes shipped, so they were there when I got there. I think you should be prepared to work. You are allotted this amount of time to make something and to squander that is just a waste.
MPW: In your thesis you talk about sludge and glory; youth and homecoming; failure and monastic immersion. Can you talk about these ideas in relation to the work you produced while in Eugene?
Ruller: In the Eugene Residency you are alone to do something with the space, so the monastic aspect was fully there. I was alone in the space every morning at 8 a.m. and left at 5 p.m. The aspects of youth and homecoming didn’t play any real role in the work I did there. I was more interested in the juxtaposition of Eugene and its neighboring town Springfield and how industry had collapsed and killed Springfield, whereas Eugene thrived. This idea was connected to my thesis work but for the residency became much more site specific.
MPW: Can you talk a little more about the Eugene, Springfield connection/disconnect?
Ruller: The city of Springfield was, from what I assume, the more blue-collar area. Most of the logging mills and other factories use to be there, like most places in the 1980’s after the economic downturn it all dried up and moved overseas leaving empty buildings and an economic roof on most of the households. Eugene, on the other hand, due to the University of Oregon stayed this middle-upper class area, coffee shops, boutiques and whatnot. Where literally Springfield has nothing but strip clubs. Visually the places are also very different Eugene is very green and seemingly happy, Springfield, on the other hand, is just grey even on a sunny day its just sad, like a cloud of melancholy just hangs over it.
MPW: Building off the above topics, your practice involves several steps and specific materials used in a specific manner…Can you talk about how you set up a temporary workspace while your process might be seen to be grounded in the need for specific things, you also talk a lot about risk-taking in the work itself…how does this translate in a new space?
Ruller: My materials are for the most part pretty easy to come across. I can find clay and oil paint mostly anywhere. I didn’t have access to a ceramics studio, so I altered the clay by hand as opposed to a wheel, which is usually what I do. The process itself changed a little but not by much. I had a space, paint and something to paint on, so I didn’t really need anything else. The work, on the other hand, I wanted to be my work and in the way I make it but not the outcome that I usually have. I felt that being in a new space gave me a certain freedom to just change a little. I started building structures in the work ground it more into actual landscape. Where as before I feel I always painted a landscape of a memory. Which to me was so exciting and different that I haven’t changed since. I don’t know if that answered your question or not.
MPW: You mentioned building structures into the work, is this an organic evolution, or something you put off until after grad school?
Ruller: Grad School was amazing for me. I had 24 hour access to a studio, so I was able to work through ideas that I feel I had been sitting on for years but didn’t really understand were there. With the idea of waiting until I was done or almost done to investigate structures within my work really was more out of the change of place. Working within an environment that becomes home or a place you feel okay with sometimes—and I think its true in my case—becomes safe. I need something or someplace that makes me feel not at home to push me to get something started. Which is why I chose SCAD, the south to me was the best place to feel uncomfortable. So I think I waited for the time to be right to make a shift.
MPW: What did you take away from the experience that was most resonant for you? What was the most unexpected aspect of it?
Ruller: The most important thing I took away from the residency was realizing how much I could actually produce. Besides doing the work for the residency, I did a wood firing of some work along with producing a bunch of work for some people up in Portland. Having these deadlines while also being very critical about the work gave me a real understanding of what was possible. And it sounds very corny but it’s very true. You can make work that you fully believe in and then present it in the manner that you and I want to emphasize you, want it. This gets you to think not just about the work in the studio but what it will be once its, given out to the world. Gaining a real understanding about myself artistically to me is the most important thing that I got out of the residency.
MPW: So, where are you now, and what are you doing?
Ruller: At the moment I am in Santa Fe working for a glass company dealing with their kilns and selling glass to rich middle-age folk who need a hobby. I am still working; I have a studio off my apartment, and I paint pretty regularly. Career wise, I am just pushing along. I lost my representation I had in Portland but have been doing group shows and whatnot.
The need and desire to make work outside of the structure of school is an eventuality that every student must face. Largely, it is a solitary problem requiring a solitary solution. The idea of a residency-as-solution is elegant and smart, shifting the focus away from the classroom model, yet still within a supportive, intellectually curious, and challenging environment. It is that balance, between curiosity and productivity that is so supported in school, that must be propagated in the wider world. In fact, that is the charge and duty of the artist: to always find a way.
Madeleine Peck-Wagner (United States, 1977) received an BFA from Clark University and is currently a candidate for an MFA at the Savannah College of Art and Design. Her practice focuses on drawing, and currently she an assistant editor for the SCAD Painting Department’s blog and digital publishing platforms including THRIVE: A student-centered initiative featuring interviews with SCAD alumni.