Earlier this week, we dropped in on the installation of Yoan Capote: Palangre, an exhibition of recent paintings embedded with thousands of fish hooks. The show features two series: Isla, a series of seascapes, and the more abstract Palangre—the Spanish term for a trawl line hung with hundreds of fish hooks. Capote walked through the show with us, in a conversation that ranged from Romantic painters to Cubans’ relationship to the sea.

Yoan Capote, Isla (Pérdida), 2016
Courtesy Yoan Capote and Jack Shainman Gallery

You’ve been doing these fish hook paintings for a while. When did you start?

I think it was around 2006. I did the [first] major pieces in 2010. But the idea of working with fish hooks and making paintings of the sea—all of that was very old, from the time I was a student.

How would you describe these works? Are they paintings? Hanging sculptures?

Both. In this kind of works I combine knowledge and solutions of both painting and sculpture, and even printmaking. It’s painting when you get near and see the brush strokes and the oil paint, but from a distance it looks like a graphic image. I’m inspired by the graphic images of the sea that I do. Then, in certain moments as you get nearer, it’s like a sculpture.

Close-up detail of Yoan Capote, Isla (Pérdida), 2016
Courtesy Yoan Capote and Jack Shainman Gallery

The sensorial experience, in front of the metal elements, is important, since these series are inspired by the term “iron curtain.” For Cubans, the sea is a kind of wall.

This is your third show at Jack Shainman Gallery.

This is the show that I always wanted to make with Jack. The thing is, to make all the paintings needs a lot of time.

A view of the exhibition, with Isla (Preludio) in foreground at right
Photo: Cuban Art News

All the horizon lines are at the same height. It’s like each painting represents a moment in a day—a moment of light, and an emotional moment too. The sea is very connected to the emotions.

There are references here from symbolism and 19th-century painters and the way they try to relate the representation of landscape and nature itself with human psychological or emotional experience.In this series I go more deeply into art history, generally of the seascape. I see it connecting not only with the Cuban experience but with art history itself. Some of the paintings are inspired by Caspar David Friedrich and J. M. W. Turner.

Yoan Capote, Isla (After Böcklin), 2016
Courtesy Yoan Capote and Jack Shainman Gallery

The works have subtitles, always. This piece is named Isla (After Böcklin). Böcklin was a major Symbolist painter, who did an iconic work called Isle of the Dead. He actually did a lot of versions of that painting. It’s about bringing spirits to the Island of the Dead. A very mystical painting.

In my work, you see only the sea. It’s as if the spectator is situated on Böcklin’s island. All the death and drama are connected in symbolic ways, as an allegory of the Cuban experience—all the people who die [on the water]. The fish hooks are symbols of seduction and traps.

Yoan Capote, Isla (Futuro Luminoso), 2016
Courtesy Yoan Capote and Jack Shainman Gallery

There wasn’t much color in the earlier fish hook paintings, but it seems to be an important element here.

The previous ones were more about the experience of the object itself. I think the first ones were conceived more as sculptures. I realized that oil painting had other kinds of possibilities. Color itself has a lot of psychological possibilities.

Yoan Capote, Palangre (Rojo Permanente), 2016
Courtesy Yoan Capote and Jack Shainman Gallery

Like this one that’s almost abstract. I call it Palangre (Rojo Permanente) (Permanent Red). “Permanent Red” is the name of the color, but when I call it Permanent Red, it’s about the permanence of the blood and the permanence of the drama that is still in the water for Cubans.

It’s an all-over painting. What I like in this exhibition is that I could show some of the pieces from the Palangre series that move to abstraction. I recall Mondrian’s transition from figuration to abstraction: his deconstruction of the tree inspired me to explore the possibilities of going from classical representation of the sea to abstract solutions.

Yoan Capote, Isla (Crudo), 2016
Courtesy Yoan Capote and Jack Shainman Gallery

In this painting, I used no color. Just the fish hooks and the raw canvas, which I cut here [near the top]. I call it Isla (Crudo) (Raw). This is about the feeling of sadness, of the rawness, the destruction. Every piece transmits a different emotion.

Yoan Capote, Isla (El camino), 2016
Courtesy Yoan Capote and Jack Shainman Gallery

This is a seascape too, but it has a very different feeling. Even the fish hooks are different.

Each painting in this series has its own identity. This is the only one where I used the tin-plated fish hooks. Normally the fish hooks come tin-plated or nickel-plated in the store. So in this case, I was thinking they would represent the opposite—the light. It’s like light on the water. I call it Isla (El Camino)(The Way). The fish hooks are just marking the way that a lot of people take. And the risk. It’s like moonlight.

Yoan Capote, Palangre (Ultramar), 2016
Courtesy Yoan Capote and Jack Shainman Gallery

This one is more of an object, because here I’m moving the fish hooks around in a physical way.  It’s totally abstract. I call it Palangre (Ultramar). “Ultramar” is the color I use, but also the narrow shape of the panel is like the narrow passage marked by magnetic north, which also marks the narrow possibilities of Cuban migrants reaching their dream.

At the same time I like to experiment with the experience of a piece that’s abstract, too. If you put this piece in another context, in a group show, for example, many people would not associate it with a seascape. But when you see it in this show, you can feel it.

What about the large-scale painting on the next wall, Isla (Tierra Prometida)?

I have assistants for the process of placing the fish hooks. But the process of conceiving the artwork, designing the color, is very personal. And of course, this is something I like—the freedom that exists in painting, as opposed to the fish-hook process. That is a craft, and very obsessive. Here, you have a freedom—the painting itself—in opposition to the analytical part of the fish hooks, and the craft process.

Yoan Capote with Isla (Tierra Prometida), 2016
Photo: Cuban Art News

Another thing—when I work on this, I like the symbolical fact of working with people, with assistants. In this series specifically, when I work with people, the works are charged with a more social experience. This is a work about isolation, about being surrounded by water—about the border, about the limit, about the risk. This is a collective experience in Cuba.

So when I work with people, and they leave their energy in these works, together with my painting, it’s a collaboration that gives more social background to the work. More social meaning.

Has the process of making these paintings changed your way of working?

I don’t have a specific way of working. I just maintain different fronts of work. Right now, I’m making concrete sculptures in Cuba, and I’m making pieces in bronze. I’m preparing another exhibition, called Inside Poetry, about visual poetry. I have on my desk five agendas—it’s like being five or seven artists at the same time.

But when I go to this series, I do what a painter would do with it. I’m thinking like a painter. In another exhibition, I would be thinking more like a conceptual artist, so I would be working more with the process. But when you move inside the tradition of painting, you behave in a different way. In painting, the relation between the artwork and the artist is more direct, more intimate.

For me, every solo exhibition is like a new artwork. I consider it one piece. That’s why, if I have a solo show next year, I would consider it a new project. I like this challenge of moving from one place to the other.

Yoan Capote: Palangre opens tonight at the Jack Shainman Gallery space on West 24th Street, with a reception at 6 p.m. The show runs through March 11.