Q and A (2015): Paul Laster

PL: I initially saw your work in shows at Robert Miller Gallery in New York in the early 2000s. Tell me a little about your solo exhibit there. Few artists were working with such large prints, least of all on vinyl, that was kind of revolutionary...

CB: The exhibit was in part the summary of the series Interventions in Nature, which the late curator Antonio Zaya called Photo Performance. It was a body of work that I had been possessed by for a long time and it was exceptional to see all the large prints on vinyl together in such an ideal exhibition space. The impressive high-resolution quality of those huge works was rare at that time as well as the printing in vinyl. It was thanks to this exhibit that I developed a special bond with Robert Miller as well as art dealer Walter Otero and collector Jennifer Johnson.

PL: How did you meet Miller?CB: Every time that I traveled to NYC as a young artist I visited the Robert Miller Gallery on East 57th Street. I enjoyed the artworks of almost every artist they exhibited. I didn’t meet Bob Miller until years later when our mutual friend, Marissa Boyescu, shared my artwork with him, introduced us, and we all spent a beautiful morning snorkeling together in Miami Beach. Bob and I quickly formed a great friendship. He was a genius and an outstanding editor. It was wonderfully organic that I would end up being represented by Bob’s gallery, and it was an enriching experience.

PL: The Cut-Out Army was an installation that stopped me dead in my tracks. It was exhibited in a big warehouse space in Wynwood, and the related large prints were at Art Basel Miami Beach in 2006, which was also when we first met. Who are the people in The Cut-Out Army?

CB: I’m glad that you enjoyed it. They are a collection of people that I related to in one way or another. They included members of my family and close friends as well as strangers.

PL: Where did you photograph them?CB: Most of the individuals were documented in their homes. Each subject was invited to select and use an object that they could relate to, or to which they were attached by memory. Both of those elements were part of my criteria.

PL: Why do so many of them look like space travelers?CB: I was playing with my partner and architect Alberto Latorre with a 1960’s plastic terrarium bubble for one of his projects when he placed it over his head. Spontaneity is important to me, and that moment triggered a connection to an image by photographer Bunny Yeager that I had come across years earlier and had kept for inspiration. It showed a bikini girl with a space bubble on her head in a very casual beach setting and it made a lot of sense to me. I grew up watching The Jetsons cartoon series, simultaneously surrounded by mid-century architecture in Puerto Rico. So, perhaps the space bubble alludes to the futurism-optimism of that era. It is also a shield, a mask, perhaps protecting and elevating people that I relate to or admire.

PL: What were you trying to represent in the installation?CB: For the most part, my artwork is created out of a visual need and it is best understood visually. The boundaries of the written word sometimes add or restrict the artwork, you never know. Maybe I was organizing like-minded people, which is something I respond to. When I walked the aisle of the installation, I was able to interact by seeing myself in each of the subjects as they stared back. The characters were warriors, gardeners, cooks, lovers, avatars, brides, representing a sort of celebration of the individual and their similarities. As a kid I was intrigued by the Terracotta Army of Xian, China and I collected literature about it. Eventually I was able to visit the archeological site, and it was very much present in my mind as I developed the installation.

PL: When I next saw you in Miami during ABMB in 2009, it was at your opening for the sculptural installation Portrait of a Garden and photographs from the Re-Collections and Lapidus Infinitus series. By then, representations of nature and found objects had taken on a dominant role in your work, and collage and assemblage had become important ways to convey your ideas. What was the point of departure for the sculptures?

CB: The images from Lapidus Infinitus were demanding to become more alive, so I listened to them and you can easily see their continuity in the Portrait of a Garden sculptures. I really enjoy constructing and assembling, so naturally I was experimenting in the studio on how to carry on the collage and assemblage concept three- dimensionally in a more formal way. One day, while driving in Los Angeles by a strip mall, I noticed a nursery and garden shop. The salesman had displayed many faux columns at random, each with an irrelevant faux sculpture on top. It was phenomenal and I thought it

was very “Lapidus,” , as in architect Morris Lapidus, who was a friend from the Imperfect Utopia days...

In any case, these faux columns in the strip mall inspired me, and I was just being a vehicle for the manifestation of Portrait of a Garden. I tend to be very curious and aware of the present, continuously contemplating what I see around me. The present is where everything happens, and art is everywhere, anywhere, all the time.

PL: What were you thinking about while assembling them?CB: I was wondering if the salesman at the Los Angeles nursery shop would be proud of the final installation that his display had triggered, but he was no longer there. After I finished assembling the installation, the elements and the memory attached to them became objects of worship, or maybe gifts for the gods. They appeared to be entrusted with magic, which was in part what I was trying to provoke.

PL: Why did you present them as monochromatic works in blue?CB: Blue Purple is the color that evil can’t cross, according to the Yoruba people and as described in Robert Farris Thompson’s book, Flash of the Spirit. The book was influential to me as an artist. I have used similar blue hues in previous works, specifically the Worshipping of my Ancestors installation in which I empowered my beloved grandmother’s personal objects with cobalt blue glitter.

PL: And why were the walls red?CB: Red was used to inject the room and the sculptures with life. Red is the color of blood, energy, desire, war, power. It is a very emotionally charged color and anything with emotion is alive.

PL: Were the photographs in the series Lapidus Infinitus made with conventional cut-and-paste collage methods or digitally derived?CB: Both. I admire the work of artist Neo Rauch and many of his paintings are perspective oriented and have a very collage-like quality, yet it does not compromise the real one plane surface of the painting, which I really enjoy. With my photo-collages I didn’t want to lose the one plane surface either. To accomplish that, some layers were created as cut-and-paste, then photographed and arranged digitally. Yet the print is developed with photographic process techniques.

PL: How many elements are at play in the prints?CB: I may add thousands of elements to one print before I am satisfied, as in many of the Re-Collections series artworks. I have built a unique collection of clip art images consisting of thousands of diverse elements archived in categories such as tree trunks, graffiti, African

masks, vintage postcards and personal items. Almost every object I have owned has now been transformed into clip art. It is quite a lot of work and very satisfying and rewarding.

PL: Why did you build this clip-art collection?CB: I like to archive things that move me and touch me in one way or

another. They are what I react to. It is a process of assembling all that I know.

PL: What are you trying to convey with this series? An energy? A spirit?CB: In a way, yes. The places I am from and the things that I am moved by are very alive to me. Cultura Viva. Poetry is a living thing to me, and I see my artworks as poems.

PL: The Amulet for Light series, which I first viewed in your open studio during ABMB in 2012, continues this form of collage in a more complex and intricate way. What are the objects and how did you manipulate them?CB: André Breton said that Wilfredo Lam had mastered the union of the objective world and the world of magic. The Amulet for Light series was inspired by Lam’s La Jungla (The Jungle), and explores issues of identity between Picasso, Breton, and Lam, which I have found fascinating. The objects are from a friend’s collection of silverthat is housed in an 18th century ranch in Texas. These reflective and metallic objects are then mirrored to create symmetry in the towering totems or amulets, resulting in tribal art shapes. I first played with the idea for the series during one of my regular visits to El Yunque rainforest in Puerto Rico.

I think that I continue to use visual references to primitivism in my artworks because, like nature, it is a source of energy that renews, and I can always return to it for more.

PL: What led to the choice of colors?CB: The initial expression was gold. But it was too tempting not to explore other palettes, given the emotional subject matter of identity and primitivism.

PL: The gold version seems especially significant since you have continued to use gold for other works; what does the usage of gold imply?CB: The color of gold has many connotations and it is very relevant today. Gold can be enthusiastic and optimistic. It implies wealth and

status in every country, culture and market in the world. Gold is also illuminating and, as with other works, I mostly use it to indicate “magical” properties, infused with an almost spiritual presence.

PL: During ABMB 2013 you premiered the first of your suspended collage sculptures, Appropriations From el Rio, As Time Goes By, which was commissioned. Observing it, I was captivated by the sheer number and variety of things hanging in it. What were you trying to capture?CB: I’m not sure if the correct word is “capture.” I was maybe transforming the Re-Collections photograph series to a three- dimensional composition, just as I was doing with the Lapidus Infinitus photographs that I translated into the sculptural assemblages. Alberto was the instigator and very instrumental in the production of this monumental work. It made sense to both of us that the Re-Collection series wanted to be expressed three-dimensionally. As with the Re- Collection series, Appropriations from el Rio grabs objects associated with memories and re-directs them. There is tension and history in the piece; it is about blending and mixing. This artwork is alive. It is almost a Deity, so yes, maybe I was trying to capture something...I can look at this artwork endlessly!

PL: Are the objects real or cast?CB: Most of the objects are real. Some of the elements are mass- produced. There are skateboards, trophies, African masks, real pearls, and a beauty queen crown. Many of the objects are notably familiar elements in my artwork. I had used the beauty queen crown in previous artworks, so it was only natural to appropriate it from my own realm and to position it in a new context. There are also Tequesta Indians artifacts from my personal collection. Many of the oars in the sculpture I found washed ashore a while back. They mostly belonged to Cubans rafters (balseros) trying to reach the US shores.PL: Why did you paint it black?CB: Many artworks dictate their destiny. This was no exception. It craved to be mostly jet black, the color of iron.

PL: In the spring of 2014, I made another studio visit, where I saw two works from the new Disposable Memories series in progress. Old jewelry, belt buckles, and 99-cent store kitsch come together to make a collective memory of Miami. Where did you gather all of this stuff? CB: Jewelry is so embedded with memory. So I asked friends to give me any jewelry-oriented objects that they no longer wished to possess. I also collected many pieces from thrift shops and jewelry stores. I arranged with employees so that I could acquire bags of

broken jewelry before anyone else could grab them. I had no clue there was such demand for broken jewelry.

PL: How is it assembled?CB: It is complicated. It involves a lot of physical pressure and containment, molds, and epoxy resin.

PL: What does it mean to you?CB: It all started as an attempt to collect the disposable memory attached to jewelry and to see if the jewelry pieces could transcend their physicality, even as they are no longer attached to someone. To me, these are were very charmed works. I try to give objects, in this case jewelry, the protagonism inherited in them, at times equal to people. I think they are gorgeous artworks to look at.

PL: I’ve seen your Art in Public Places commissions for the Miami International Airport on multiple occasions. What do the overall forms of the installations suggest and how did you comeup with the idea for the shapes of the individual elements that create each installation?CB: During that time I was a volunteer at an archeological site in Miami, and that experience heightened my interest in artifacts and objects. I was immersed in pre-Columbian and Taino culture, as well as African culture and art. I was also exploring issues of identity, communication, and history. The overall abstract and primitive/tribal forms, as well as the individual elements, were intended to challenge and intervene in the contemporary and sterile setting and architecture of the airport terminal. In other words, it is an attempt to engage the past with the present. Even devoid of much reference, the shapes became authoritative and enriched. I was recycling the past to make sense of the present.

PL: What’s the material?CB: Various stone types in the walls and laminated glass on the elevatos. The shapes were cut with a water jet.

PL: How long did you work on the commission?

CB: After I was awarded the commission I worked on the project for more than three years. Back then it was not very common to do this type of work, so production took a while. Installation was particularly time consuming, as each panel was very heavy and fragile. Alberto managed this commission while we collaborated simultaneously in

other site-specific work. I studied architecture as well as design, so this type of work is very fluid to me, as it allows expression in other fields that interest me.

PL: All of these works that I mentioned seem to be related to mining memories. How important are personal memories and collective memories to your work?CB: Memory in general is one of the common denominators in my artwork that is kind of effortless. In a way, my artwork is my own syncretic religion. The people and objects (my memories) are my offerings. It is the result of the syncretism of our times.

PL: Nature plays a big part in both your continuing Intervention series and in the Re-Collections works, which we previously discussed. When did that interest develop and what role does it play in your production? CB: If I had to choose between city and nature, nature has the upper hand for me. Puerto Rico is a very lush and green island and, thanks mostly to my father, I was immersed in all of its natural and enchanting splendors more or less since I was born. I embraced that experience and I believe that owning your heritage, your journey, leads to a universal voice. Since moving to Miami, I have been fortunate to be able to travel regularly to the rainforest in Puerto Rico, as well as to many other natural jewels worldwide. The Re-Collection series was conceived in El Yunque, and I look forward for further inspiration as we recently acquired some of the land that we have visited for decades. It is surrounded by dozens of waterfalls, wild orchids, huge plants, plenty of coquis and luciernagas.

In Miami, were I spend a lot of time as well, the natural light is so crisp it forces you to be in the present. That light is a gift from the heavens. Then there is the water, almost everywhere you go there is water. Sometimes with the perimeters of Miami being the Atlantic Ocean and the Everglades, this close presence of huge bodies of water can make you think that you live on an island. I thrive in the middle of all this water, alluding to it in some of my artworks.

Sometimes, I am moved by the clashes of urban life against backdrops of the natural world. Making collages that organize fractured information and re-examine the world around me is a natural method solution. When producing my artwork, all of nature comes into play. It is the source and you can always go back to it for more. I see my artwork as possessed by a kind of hopeful jungle.

PL: You’re not afraid to embrace concepts of kitsch and make something beautiful out of it. What’s your fascination with kitsch?CB: Memory can be linked to any object, including kitsch. Sometimes I

react to kitsch because it is part of that from which I have been made of too. I don’t like to discriminate much with the things that move me.

There is a certain democracy, human innocence, and celebratory qualities embedded in things kitsch, and that is attractive to me. It is an expression of human culture at a particular time and place.

Ponce de Leon’s Fountain of Youth, James Deering’s flamboyant Villa Vizcaya, Walt Disney World, plastic flamingos, the Fontainebleau and Eden Roc Hotels, Bunny Yeager’s photos of Betty Page, are ideas that Florida provoked, not necessarily all kitsch, but very Florida, and these have been assimilated in my artwork one way or another.

I enjoy re-interpreting kitsch, but the kitsch objects deserve the credit as provocateurs. After an object is injected with a personal or collective memory, it is empowered and to me it starts losing its material aspect as it is elevated to the pantheon of emotions. Kitsch objects are not immune to this process.

Architect Morris Lapidus was one of the first artists to give Miami a unique language, and it involved a thoughtful understanding of finding inspiration in kitsch. His work is now highly influential world- wide.

PL: How did you begin working in Miami in the 1980s? Can you describe that unique period on South Beach?CB: I will try to. I will start first with how I arrived to South Beach.

Just before finishing high school in 1983, I volunteered to help on a project that artist Christo was installing in Biscayne Bay, Surrounded Islands. The fuchsia pink color of the surrounded island and all the kitsch that it represented had a solid impact on me. Christo was staying I believed it was called the Leslie Hotel in the now well-known Ocean Drive in Miami Beach. Back then, Miami Beach was literally falling apart and plagued with crime. However, if you were attentive you could see the appeal and the shape of things to come. So when I went to visit Christo in Ocean Drive I was immediately mesmerized by Miami Beach, the Art Deco and Jetsonian architecture as well as the potential of a paradise in ruins.

I decided that after art school I would return to Miami Beach.I joined the Miami Beach Preservation League with Leonard Horowitz and Barbara Capitman and somehow I was shown pictures of Warhol walking the street of Miami Beach, which sparked my curiosity even more. Everything in Miami Beach was connecting or clashing when I returned from art school and that was appealing to me. I rented a studio space in Lincoln Road and called it Imperfect Utopia; the space used to be the old architecture studios of the great Art Deco architects, and it still had the original lighting. I worked from there day and night and I was welcomed into a blossoming South Florida Art Center.

Soon the underground scene was beginning to thrive, with creative forces finally bonding more and conflicting less: young visual artists, musicians, dancers, poets, gays and remarkable drag queens were mixing and sometimes collaborating with aging go-go dancers and switch board ladies. It was a remarkable period, as most people attracted to South Beach during this era were artists and creative people. We all seemed to be linked together with similar interests and a profound need to express the future. As it usually happens with special places, perhaps like Soho,the Village, Montmartre, etc, at their peak, we knew it was a unique moment. The momentum lasted for a phenomenal long while.

Eventually, NY artists and creative types, bohemian celebrities, the jet set, and models began to appear from all over the world and the merging continued to the collaged sounds of Frank Sinatra, Echo and the Bunnyman, and La Lupe. Then, just like other places, gentrification began...

PL: Another thread that runs through the work is history, your own personal history and the history of the places where you have lived, people that you’ve met, and places that you’ve visited. How did that develop and how does it get materialized in your creative process? CB: The experience of creating art in general can be as simple and as fulfilling as picking up seashells. I have waterfalls and seashells in my head all the time...For me it usually starts with collages in my mind that start forming an idea, and the idea usually tells me the medium.

The answer to how I develop an artwork threaded in the context of history and personal history is a bit more complex. I do embrace history and I get very enthusiastic about it.

First of all, when I look at the work of the many artists that I enjoy such as David Hockney, Nick Cave, Peter Doig, Felix Gonzales- Torres, Shinique Smith, Arnaldo Roche, Allora and Calzadilla, Alice Neel, Andy Warhol, Jeff Koons, Matisse, Tracey Emin, Neo Rauch, to name just few.... I can see a symbiotic relationship with personal history/art history and perhaps that is why I am attracted and inspired by their work. It is like the relationship between the pearl and the oyster.

I have also come to realize that all people have their own kind of exile. We have all been disconnected from something or some place at some time, and that is why maybe other countries cultures and their history inspired me with fantastic material. Sometimes I want to belong to all this cultures!

Photo albums and the history embedded in them has also influenced my artwork. Besides collecting art, I also collect photo

albums. From strangers. Yes, I like to look at other people birthday cakes, vacations, etc. But also photo albums were all that was left of my parents’ young life in Cuba. Growing up, I experience their past through these albums, as there was nothing tactile to account for their life prior to 1959, not even their humble wedding rings, which were left hidden in a Havana backyard.

Finally, when I was about 10 years old, and after two years of saving, I ordered by catalog a Canon AE-1 camera and began arranging my own photo albums. It was a lot of fun.

Somehow and quite suddenly we moved from San Juan to Miami, and again the only thing left (besides some basic clothing) were the photo albums, old ones and new ones.

The Re-Collections: Ornaments installation is an example of how personal history and albums help materialize my artwork. Decades ago, I started re-collecting vintage Christmas ornaments because my parents had to sell our own beautiful and generic Christmas ornaments to raise funds to move to the states. These modest ornaments were part of the few tangible history we had left, and I simply missed their beauty and the memories they contained. I began my collection by looking carefully at our Christmas photo albums in the hope that I could find in thrift shops the exact magical ornaments hanging from the skeletal, yet dreamlike trees in the faded photos. That “research” developed and materialized as the Re-Collections: Ornaments installation, now consisting of thousands of vintage glass Christmas ornaments. It has been a fantastic experience collecting them.

I enjoy when my artwork is experienced, particularly visually and through its history. I think it is like an entity existing in its own realm of mystery and beauty. We kind of guide each other in the present and into the future, looking forward with excitement to the next artwork.