As an artist, Carlos Estévez is equally at home in painting, drawing, sculpture, and installation art. His work is found in museums and private collections in Cuba, Europe, and the United States. This fall, exhibitions of his work open in three countries. We caught up with Estévez for a quick chat as he prepared for the shows. His interview inaugurates a new feature on Cuban Art News, “In Conversation / Charlando con.”
You have four solo shows coming up this fall in Europe and the U.S. Congratulations. Are all of them showing new work?
Yes, all of them are new work. Except the show in Milwaukee. That’s going to be a compilation of older work. The show in Paris and the one in Zurich are going to be completely new work. And New Orleans will be new work also.
How would you describe your current work?
Lately I’ve been working a lot on canvas and drawings. The drawings are good because I can see what I have in mind very quickly. Also the canvas, because it’s easier to show. I do installation and sculpture but it’s getting complicated. That takes a long time, and in practical terms, it’s difficult to store. I feel comfortable doing canvas and drawing mostly.
My work is a kind of documentation of my existential experience. All these works are my dreams and my life and my perspective of life.
What sort of imagery is turning up in the work these days? What sort of visual vocabulary are you exploring?
Art as a language is constantly in process. Right now it’s too soon to look at what I’m doing now. Because the show is going to be the moment where I’ll be able to stand in front of them all together and see what I’ve been doing. I think right now, it’s too soon to discover. For sure while I’m working in the creative process, I’m always discovering new elements which are connecting with ideas. But I have to look at it later when the show is done.
Tell us about the show at Latino Arts in Milwaukee. How is it different from your other shows this fall?
The show at Latino Arts is coming from a connection with a Cuban art show that was organized by Dr. Linda Howe. It’s a show about books and prints from Cuban artists, which was touring the United States—it was in New York at the Grolier Club. It was a very interesting show about Cuban books: how Cubans make books as an alternative to big, technical productions—very individual, handmade, very beautiful. It was a beautiful show and it was placed at Milwaukee Latino Art. They liked my work in the show and asked me to do a solo exhibition, and of course I was very pleased. Because it’s a Latino community there, I chose a compilation of my works—drawing, sculpture, paintings—a little bit of everything. I’m also going to give workshops for children, for students at the university, and for older people. I’m going to be doing different things there.
How would you describe where you are in your career, and in your development as an artist?
I always place myself as a person in this stage of my life. I don’t place myself as as an artist in my career. Because that’s too confusing. I don’t know what I’m doing, but I enjoy what I’m doing. So I don’t look at myself in any movement of art or any historical place in art. I leave that for historians or critics.
In the art you’re doing now, what are you finding most interesting? Most exciting?
Well, all the art processes are very exciting. It’s a lot of suffering also, because it’s like a giving birth. While you are conceiving, it’s a process of searching, a process of investigation, observation, and sometimes anguish when you don’t get anything clear in your mind to make your art. Sometimes it takes a long time to mature my ideas, to make them come true. So the whole process is really exciting. I do a lot of searching—readings, writings—to do my artwork. And one day in my mind one image apears, just appears, which is the incarnation of my ideas. Then comes the execution process, which is also very exciting. I become the worker—my own worker, whatever you call it—but it’s also very exciting. Then it’s done, and you have to start the process all over again.
Let’s turn back to the three gallery shows. How do you adapt to the spaces of the different galleries? How do you decide which works to show where?
The three shows are very important for me. I think for any artist, it’s a seduction—a very high seduction to be able to place your work in a space and show it to the public and get the feedback and the response. I know these three galleries. I worked with them before and I know the spaces. So I just do my work and I conceive one theme or one idea that is the connection point, and then I send a group of works for one gallery and another group for another gallery. This is premeditated—I decided, this was going to be this gallery, and that work is for the other.
For example, the gallery in Paris—I did a previous show, two or three years ago, and it was mostly work on paper. And now I wanted to show the public in Paris my work on canvas. So the Paris show is mostly work on canvas.
In Zurich, for practical reasons it’s mostly work on paper. It’s a small gallery, a small space—a very beautiful, intmate space. So that will be work on paper, and a few canvases. The gallery show in New Orleans is going to be mostly canvases.
Because my work is universal, I know it will work in different latitudes. It corresponds with my experience, with the things that I’ve been living lately. It’s very connected with my living experience.
It’s rather remarkable that you have new work to fill three shows. Has this been a particularly productive time for you, or do you usually produce this volume of work?
I do a lot of shows a year. I work a lot. This is my life, this is what I like to do. I think it’s amazing to be able to do what you like and you make your living out of what you do. I’m very happy. I know that as an artist I’m very lucky to do what I like and to make my living from what I do, so I work all the time. This is what I like to do in life. (laughs) This is the only thing I know how to do. And I enjoy it very much.
Most recently in the United States, I’ve been doing four to six shows a year. Solo shows, sometimes in galleries, sometimes at universities or museums. I try to take the opportunities. This is part of the artist’s mechanism. You have to do your work and you have to also push your work, besides what you’re doing in your studio. So I try to take the chances, the opportunities. I tell myself, don’t get lazy. I work all the time. I work every day of my life, and even when I am not working I’m working, because I’m thinking and taking ideas from life, from conversations, from experiences—from everywhere I go.
Your work is in some major private collections. Do you have any thoughts on that?
Well, I was expecting you to ask about collectors, especially about The Farber Collection. I know it works differently for different Cuban artists, but for me, it has been very important to be in that collection, because he [Howard Farber] collected the works that nobody would collect because in practical terms, they were too big, too heavy, too difficult to store. It’s a contradiction, but somehow the important work, the work that one day is going to be in a museum, the work that shows, in a very complex and profound way, my art—that’s the work that’s difficult to collect. He saved one of my most important works, the winged man. The title is Across the Universe, and it’s one of the first works I did when I got my degree from ISA, the higher institute of art. It’s a 200-pound, full-body carving in wood—a human figure, five meters wide. It’s a very, very big piece. The work was in Cuba and undergoing deterioration. He saved that work, so I’m very happy for that. And the other work was a five-meter-long drawing, both sides painted, on kraft paper, and he bought that one too. So I’m happy to have both those two important works together in his collection.
Do you have any advice for younger artists?
I don’t advise anyone. I believe in and respect individualities, and I know life and work work in different ways for everyone. But I can tell you what I appreciate in other artists—I appreciate the connection that people have with the work they do. I think that’s the key to success. I’m not talking about money or material success, I’m talking about the quality of the work.Whatever your work, if you’re connecting with it, it will be successful, at least in the creative part. In other words, you have to be happy. That’s what matters.
Carlos Estévez’s exhibitions this fall:
Efluvios. Latino Arts, Milwaukee. September 16 – October 14, 2011
New Works. Taylor Bercier Gallery, New Orleans. October 2011