Vincent Valdez, Ricky Armendariz, Karen Mahaffy and Cathy Cunningham-Little produced strong bodies of work from their time spent in Berlin, Germany as part of the Blue Star Contemporary Art Museum‘s Berlin Residency Program.
Curator Anjelika Jansen splits her time between San Antonio and Berlin, and with her strong involvement with the arts, she visualized an exchange program between these two cities.
“At this juncture, Berlin is the biggest draw for contemporary artists in the world,” Jansen said.
She began working on her idea in 2010, and thanks to Bill Fitzgibbons, past director of Blue Star, and other sponsors, she was able to make the program happen. She met with the director of the Künstlerhaus Bethanien, a non-profit residency and exhibition center in Berlin, and talked him into accepting four artists per year instead of the traditional one artist per year.
“It’s a big opportunity for artists to spread their wings. At the Künstlerhaus Bethanien, they interact with 23 other international artists, doing studio walkthroughs and going to openings,” said Jansen. The opportunities that come from travel and the ability to see art that inspires them are some of the many reasons Jansen worked to procure these opportunities for San Antonio artists.
Karen Mahaffy: “One of the greatest gifts you get is time.”
“Travel will always give you an opportunity; it’s about de-contextualizing yourself,” Mahaffy said.
Mahaffy’s art reflects that experience, “not in a narrative self-portrait way,” but in the way of being in an entirely new place.
“One of the greatest gifts you get is time, to be in a place for that amount of time without a lot of external pressures, it’s really a gift, you don’t know how it’s going to come out,” she said. While in Berlin, Mahaffy spent her time collecting images, taking the time to slow down and notice her surroundings. Her three-channel digital video and animation, “Untitled (Berlin Shift)” incorporates the images she collected while living there.
“I’ve always been interested in patterns and their relation to beauty and our expectations of beauty,” said Mahaffy, adding that in many institutional spaces around the world, like China and Estonia, they can give a “false sense of decoration or opulence.”
Her visit to the Stasi prison in Berlin was a “pinnacle experience” where she said she found the prison covered with decorative wallpaper and linoleum. “The feeling was a little sinister because the patterns were so out of place,” said Mahaffy, who also noted details of “human erosion, like repetition, when behavior is repeated over time.”
On the streets of Berlin, Mahaffy noted the patterns in posters, cobbled streets, and how sidewalks were put together.
“They layer up and become these additional unexpected patterns, and then on top of that, you have the additional marks of interruption like graffiti, but in Berlin they are left, and honored in the same way as commercial or decorative information … it creates an unexpected level of contemplation.”
The digital loop is a dream-like meditation on these images. Mahaffy combines layer upon layer of brick walls, wallpaper patterns and silhouettes of wallpaper and wrought iron fences, from a grand house and the Jewish cemetery that she walked past everyday. The slow, measured movement of the animation and the patterns mimics the act of walking past them, or recalling them. “I wanted to slow it down and make some of those layers emerge for the viewer,” she said, who scanned the images, spray-painted, and then drew from the images. She then built this complex piece with the editing software, Premiere. The effect appears deceptively simple but, Mahaffy explained, “there’s actually no video at all; it’s all based on still images, it’s all animated or motion graphic pieces.”
Cathy Cunningham-Little: See what you want in them.
In her sculptural installations, Cunningham-Little creates a physical object out of an immaterial presence. Using dichroic glass and white LED light, Cunningham-Little makes multi-colored abstract patterns that change depending on the viewer’s perspective. She stresses that while her work may have been influenced by the music she listens to, or the places she visits, their abstract nature allows the viewer to see what they want in them.
For example, she realized after creating “Architectural Tectonic“ that the body of the light sculpture resembled the cathedral and spires from the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church, a 19th century structure that she visited in Berlin. The church was badly damaged in 1943 by a bombing raid, and the base of her light sculpture is reminiscent of the fins on the bombs from that era.
Some of her other pieces have bright, defined light, but in “Architectural Tectonic,” the light is mellowed and more widely distributed, creating more of a muted, glowing effect. Cunningham-Little also was inspired by the graffiti and her museum visits where she saw constructivist and abstract expressionist work.
Ricky Armendariz: “Germans live with their folklore.”
When discussing their residency experiences, all of the artists remarked on access to the incredible amount of museums, galleries and non-profit spaces.
“There were so many, you couldn’t see them all in sixty days … I found people who knew the scene, I would attach myself like a barnacle and follow them to the openings,” said Armendariz. “There’s such a creative energy with all of the different museums, food and cultures.”
Armendariz said he had to enter one gallery by going up a ladder and crawling through an open window.
While in Berlin, Armendariz observed how the “Germans live with their folklore.” But rather than appropriate their meanings, Armendariz created “remixes” of them, combining them with the oral histories of his own and other world cultures.
In “Coyotes (Phaeton, Remix),“ Armendariz describes the myth of Phaeton as someone who was “insecure with his skillset; he tries to go outside of those and fails. It’s about knowing who you are and what you want.”
This story is a lot like the experience of being displaced; set down in a new environment. In Berlin, he said, “you need to take charge, and advocate for your own needs.”
The Kunstlerhaus Bethanien purchased a two-handed router for Armendariz, and he made wood block prints that played with the mythology of the whale and bear. “I dreamed of stacked animals (musicians of Bremen, Remix)” is a further exploration of that theme.
The mythical subjects of his paintings are like stones to be turned over and over again in one’s mind, rethinking the implications of the narrative. Armendariz said he enjoys discovering how these stories are universal in nature, though the symbolism and meanings may change from culture to culture.
Vincent Valdez: “… like learning the alphabet.”
Valdez went to museums to study paintings.
“I would stay there all day by myself until my legs were about to give out. They were paintings that I had studied extensively in books, but I was blown away from seeing them in person. It was almost a religious experience, seeing the artist’s hand at work,” Valdez said.
At the Hamburger Banhof Museum and the Neue Nationalgallerie, he studied paintings that spanned the centuries, from Anthony Van Dyke and Hans Holbein to Sigmar Polke and Gerhard Richter.
The next day, Valdez said he would “go back to inquire closely to what they were doing as far as their technical abilities.” Taking in the specific ways the paint was applied “was like learning the alphabet.”
Valdez sought out artists he had always been influenced by, like Käthe Kollwitz, George Grosz and Christian Schad.
“These artists have such a knack for figurative portrait painting, but such a distorted vision of how they portray the figure,” Valdez said, who went to an entire museum, in a restored 19th century house, dedicated to the work of Käthe Kollwitz.
“It was hard to go back without reconsidering my own approach,” he said. “I was excited to get back to my studio because I wanted to see what came out after being exposed to all of those works. I felt a spark of energy in my studio that I haven’t felt in a very long time. It’s like I’m rediscovering my interests in creating all over again. I haven’t stopped. I’ve been producing twice as much as I have in the past because I’m overwhelmed with ideas and challenges.”
These influences are most evident in his current work in process, “Metanoia,” which is ancient Greek for “change of heart or change of mind.” This portrait of a man with tattoos on his face has a haunting depth and complexity. The work is unfinished and Valdez may continue the process of painting it while it hangs in the show.
“If you look closely at that portrait, you can see that I’m trying to relearn to teach myself how to paint—the build up of the pigment on the canvas, moving paint around, digging back into it, scarring it,” he said.
Valdez met the subject of his portrait, a local man from San Antonio, three and half years ago. He’s interested in the conflicts between the interior and exteriors of a person, what is “behind the mask.” Valdez explained that his subject is one of the most gentle soft spoken humble human beings he has ever met.
“I’m trying to make some sense of why a portrait of an individual matters anywhere,” Valdez said, referring to how his portrait subjects have often been local, Latino subjects. The Berlin experience has “forced me to consider how the rest of the world fits into these very specific subjects, how I recognize other places in the world, other beings, other moments in time. For me there has to be some kind of meeting in time and place. I’m not thinking on a local level, or only speaking about this current moment in American society. It’s on a bigger scale, that’s more universal.”
All of the artists in “Back from Berlin” stress how their artistic practice was altered by the experience of travel. “I don’t think I can really express fully in words the how this trip has really changed my path,” Valdez said. His fiancé, Adriana Corral, is currently in Berlin as one of the second cycle (2014-2015) of four artists selected for the residency.
*Featured.top image: 2013-2014 Berlin Residency Program participants (from left) Ricky Armendariz, Karen Mahaffy, Vincent Valdez and Cathy Cunningham-Little. Photo courtesy of Blue Star Contemporary Art Museum.