Juan Camilo Guzman - Questioning Messages
Colombian artist Juan Camilo Guzman creates art and installations that challenge the very notion of what it means to create art and install art. His unique style of message invites an examination of the underlying themes of art and art business.
When did you realize you wanted to be an artist?
I think everyone can be an artist, and somehow I always wanted to be an artist or a writer because I never stopped “making” in my intimacy. But it was not a life plan to make art, it happened later, actually close to the end of my BFA, when I considered becoming a “professional artist”.
I went to art school because I was interested in Art History and Theory, alongside Philosophy and Literature, but it happened to be an interdisciplinary program, so during the first few years I took all the studio classes that I wasn’t crazy about such as the theoretical classes. Later on that started to shift, and I began to have more fun making than writing. I guess I discovered the privilege (and fiction) of being an artist. And then it was this very specific class about painting (Artista, obra y espacio) where I made my first “Advertisement Painting”. That really made me change my mind about making (or re-arranging) things as a real possibility. I never stopped writing or having fun creating, and they are both essential parts of my process. I guess the purpose and the “final product” is what changed.
Who/what is the single greatest influence in your art?
As I just mentioned, I am very interested in the theory and history of art and life. Dada is probably my largest influence, then Fluxus, 1960s Pop like Claes Oldenburg or Andy Warhol, then Joseph Kosuth, Bruce Nauman, Piero Manzoni, Richard Prince, Santiago Sierra, Andrea Fraser, Félix González Torres, Cildo Meireles, Kay Rosen (who I have the pleasure to work with at school), Larry Johnson, Wolfgang Tillmans, Paul McCarthy, Barbara Kruger, John Baldessari, Martin Kippenberger, Mike Kelley, Ken Lum, Juan Camilo Guzmán, Jeff Koons, and Nancy Dwyer, all in combination with the Baroque, Neoclassicism and, of course, Fragonard.
I am also always “alert”. I like to go to museums, shopping malls, and other cultural places. I collect digital images and physical objects all the time with apparently no purpose. I get great influences if not direct content from all the stuff I collect.
What was the first piece of art that you ever sold and how did it make you feel?
Hmmm, it wasn’t that long ago. To sell my art is not a big priority for me, sometimes I don’t want to sell it because I see a lot of the pieces as parts of a bigger conversation or a performance that I might re-use later. Even if I make individual pieces I think the majority work better together - I incline to think in terms of installation. I believe that the context determines the work, in my case the institutional frame is what validates all I do, and since I am not attached to any specific medium, not everything can be (easily) sold. In my case the idea is the most important thing, and then the medium becomes the vehicle, so a lot of my art is not commercial at all. That said, I am very interested in painting, but I also see it as the most fetishized of the commodities, and that helps. So to sell my work doesn’t make me feel anything different than acknowledging that when the piece gets a price tag, it becomes an extension of my work that doesn’t necessarily belong to it anymore. I feel successful when I can adjust or mess with people’s frame of references. Sometimes to sell a piece proves it and gives me satisfaction.
How has being a Latin American artist, coming from a different culture and values, influenced your art in the U.S.?
I might have to extend a little bit here. As [a] student I received an almost completely Eurocentric private education in my home country of Colombia. The only classes including a Latin American context were a Colombian art history class, one Latin American art history class and a Gabriel Garcia Marquez seminar. Later I started to question the educational model I was part of. From where am I speaking? What can I say? What of all these things I say are really mine? Is there a way to get knowledge outside the monopoly of knowledge? I began to sense that everything that has not been chosen as knowledge is simply unavailable – not even unacceptable – just unarticulated.
I believe that there is another kind of knowledge that is developing in this region of exclusion, but it is nothing I have access to. When I moved to the United States for an MFA, I found the illusion that I was closer to this other kind of knowledge. At school I found another system to navigate, with the privilege other people from my country do not have. Having access to the same kind of “knowledge” I had before in one of the two official languages of “modern knowledge” (English). I also suddenly had the advantage (or the apparent disadvantage) of being read as “the other”, so my position in the big picture immediately changed. I had previously thought about “the other” as someone “primitive” or even exotic. The other is an outsider, sometimes a monster, who has to be controlled. That binary classifications are always instituted by the establishment, extended right back to colonial regimes in Latin American countries, and relative to indigenous and slave populations, and probably by me too. I see my art as Philosophical propositions; I am interested in proposing ways to getting to things.
In this complex situation that is neo-colonialism, I do not know if I am the oppressor or the oppressed, and being an outsider added another layer of distortion. This ethical position is marked by a certain ambiguity. All I know for sure is that we are talking about a social construction that emerges from fear and hate.
Removed from my country and studying at SAIC, I entered a state of irony, in which I did not know if I was seeing everything clearly, though I could see more. I developed the sense that my outsider position gave me unique insight. I grasped, for example, that one can identify many ways of seeing and of being seen, and that there is a way to use one’s “otherness” to one’s advantage. These are the main philosophical questions in which I base my art practice - which is more about a mood or an attitude than specific narratives. I am interested in the discussion of “surface” as distinct from some “deeper” or “personal” art form. And this only became possible being in the United States, so I think that situation not [only] influenced my art, but made it possible.
What do you see as major flaws within the art world and how does your art address these flaws?
In the art world we are in a paradox. As I write in my statement: The very notion of art is determined by decisions you don’t make, this becomes more evident if you are not from the Northern Hemisphere, the limitations to make decolonized decisions in the art field, show us that there is no way to alter the system or to be outside the system. And once assimilated the impossibility to make truly decolonized art, for the fact that there is always an expectation you can not control. I think about three fields as the only ones available for a Latin American artist to move between: Folklorism, Literal Political Content, and an International Style or a Global Aesthetic.
So what is Latin American art then? Is it art made in Latin America? Is it art referring specifically to a Latin American context? Is it art made by someone that was born there? And it does the iconography or the subject of the work not matter? Why are we talking about Latin America as if it were something unified and homogeneous? Those all are important questions in my work, and I guess it is easier to classify it as an appendix for official Art History. But there is not much we can do about it; it is their history, they write it, and choose the rules. But it is important to acknowledge that someone reducing a complex reality in his or her own terms is always colonized, due to a position of power. In my art I explore all these complex matters not to get answers, but to indirectly highlight their deep entanglement with social relations of power and exploitation, and also to look for a way to be really subversive within an institutional setting and to challenge established conventions.
There is always a discourse of power behind the work. As an artist it is necessary for me to understand what is my place and what are the possibilities (and impossibilities) within the institutional system of production, or in the contemporary economic system. We understand our condition in external terms, so it is a problem of representation - we are using the representational terms of “the conqueror”. As a Latin American artist, I’m interested in images and how they are a construction in cosmetics instead of aesthetics, in the nature of all of these issues as images.
For example, I’m not going to talk about hunger, because I cannot and the people who live their lives struggling to survive can’t either - they perceive themselves through a very complex production of images about their own reality. I don’t have the tools and I don’t want to victimize anyone. In this case, I’m more interested in the images of “hunger” we have in the general imagination. There is a double distance to distort a distorted reality. And I want to work with the surface, the very superficial as I said before. Because I think it is impossible to represent hunger in terms colonization can not reduce, it would be an attempt to represent the non-representable, a question Hollywood never faced. Acknowledging that this condition can not be changed, not because we do not want to, but because we are broken – we are sick. We can only use the media of representation that are available, and to use and question the media of representation one is already making a political decision. What are the possibilities of the medium? It is hard to capture a subject through image, to show the content of the representation but the tools of representation itself.
What is your favorite and least favorite color?
It varies, I really like pink, and white and gold is my favorite combination, I tend to like bright and shiny colors. I don’t like browns, beiges, or any earthy pallet. That is actually the reason why I use acrylic paint instead of oil paint, because oil comes from the earth while acrylics are pure plastic.
What is your favorite tool?
Is money a tool to buy things? Haha, my favorite artistic practice is appropriation for sure. But if you mean a physical tool, I guess a pen (not a pencil), since drawing is my habit and a huge part of my process.
What part of art do you love / hate?
I really love that art is a space where you can be “irresponsible” and politically incorrect.
I guess I don’t like some people that are competitive and take themselves too serious, but I am not sure if I would like it to be different… because I enjoy diversity and that space to have an antagonistic position.
I also find huge limitations of the art world’s identity politics, relational aesthetics, social practices, artistic activism, or however you want to call it, that lies precisely in the fact that it overlooks contradictions. The social and cultural positions that we occupy as cultural producers are far more complicated and determine a lot of changes we just can’t enact.
For that and many other reasons, I see a clear impossibility to make art that can truly contribute to a tangible political change, so I tend to hate the “kinds” of art I mentioned before.
If you could see your artwork displayed in any venue in the world where would that be and why?
I am not going to lie; I want to end up in a major museum.