Juan Carlos Llera

Date: 08/11/2005
Interviewed by Lynette Bosch
Filmed by Norma Gracia
Transcribed by Paul Symington
Edited by Jorge J. E. Gracia

The interviewwas filmed on the roof terrace of Juan Carlos Llera’s Apartment in Miami.

[Bosch]: “Juan Carlos Llera is a Cuban American and we will be discussing with him how that particular aspect of his identity is negotiated. When we think about what we’re trying to do here – which is to raise a variety of issues that have to do with artistic work, artistic expression, why artists create, what the creative process is – it’s important to understand that identity can be defined in many ways. So, Carlos, you and I have known each other for some years now; we’ve had many discussions on these topics; and I think maybe what we might do is start with the obvious Cuban American subject and then work from that to the more universal aspects of creative identity …”

[Llera]: “…the more abstract.”

[Bosch]: “Exactly. Just to fill in the background, tell us a little bit about how you began to think of yourself as an artist, when you came to this country, your connection to art, just give us a sense of your biographical origins.”

[Llera]: “Contrary to the idea that to become an artist is an act of the will, I think that much of it has to do with circumstances. It has to do with a number of factors that come together at a point in time, and for me it was no different; it’s no mystery, and no act of magic. It’s where life took me circumstantially. My father was an artist…”

[Bosch]: “That’s right, your father was an artist – how old were you when first began to think of yourself as coming to be, or as being, an artist?’”

[Llera]: “I didn’t know anything else. I opened my eyes and my father was painting, and much of my identity came from my father, emulating him, wanting to be like him. In this respect it was literally bred into me.”

[Bosch]: “How would you think of your artistic origins and the idea that you’re Cuban American? What does that mean to you? What does being a Cuban American mean to you?”

[Llera]: “In essence, although Cuba obviously has a very heavy Spanish influence, obviously, Cuba is in the Americas, so the conflict between, say, the New York school of art and Cuban American art doesn’t exist, for me. Also having been raised in this country as a Cuban American, I am able to fuse both sides, the Hispanic side and the Anglo.”

[Bosch]: “There’s not so much a high sense of balance that blends into a unit?”

[Llera]: “No. Yeah, exactly, it is a beautiful balance. It’s rather like two juxtaposing forces; I see it as a marriage of two cultures that work very well together.”

[Bosch]: “In terms of thinking about the themes that you pursue in your work, can you talk a little bit about how you started in terms of working style, what kinds of subjects interested you in the beginning, and how you see your development, because I know the work you’re doing now is very different from the work that you were doing at the beginning?”

[Llera]: “On the surface it is very different, but in essence it’s actually the same. I began to do photo-realism, then I did strict realism, but all of it had a heavy mystical, a spiritual end. I was attracted to Caravaggio, Monet, the Spanish School, and at the same time,--once again, going back to the Cuban American issue -- I was attracted to Motherwell, Barnet Newman, and -- having come from Emilio Falero, with whose work I’m sure you’re familiar – Mondrian and Vermeer. So, although on the surface the work appears to be physically very different, it’s not all.”

[Bosch]: “I’ve always been interested by the sort of spiritual/philosophical aspect that you pursue in your work and I wonder if you could talk about the search that you have undertaken and the goals that you had in this kind of metaphysical exploration into which you launched.”

[Llera]: “The goals are purely selfish, meaning that they amount to a search for personal freedom -- freedom from concepts, freedom from anything that will bind you, anything that will hold you down. In that respect, I have searched for nothing more than freedom: so, why not realism, abstract expressionism, San Juan de la Cruz, Santa Teresa? Why not?”

[Bosch]: “So when you look at these categories of representation, thinking, and being, do you do it thinking, ‘I’m an artist. I work with all of these concepts. I interweave all of these things into the visual product?’ Where do you situate yourself within this continuum of thought that you’re identifying as freedom, as spiritual, and as metaphysical? Where are you?”

[Llera]: “I’m just one big paradox like everybody else. To me, human existence is a paradox. So, in the new series of works that I’m doing, I define it as a creature having the knowledge and the foresight to know that one day it will come to an end, yet at the same time having the same genetic code or messages that any other creature has, that is to survive. How do you marry the two? To some people it’s an afterlife, to some people it’s the attempt to reconcile the fact that in a hundred years we’re just going to be bones. It’s all about meaning – I hope I answered the question.”

[Bosch]: “Yeah, you did. So what you’re essentially hoping to do in the work is to make something concrete…”

[Llera]: “…for myself. I’m looking for a marriage between abstraction and realism – in the case of Emilio Falero, between Vermeer and Mondrian – I’m trying to reconcile and find a common denominator.”

[Bosch]: “You’re looking really for kind of a material/spiritual balance.”

[Llera]: “Absolutely.”

[Bosch]: “A sort of unity.”

[Llera]: “Yes.”

[Bosch]: “How do you relate this to your identity as an artist – because, if you think about it, being an artist is being different from people who aren’t artists? You’re in a position where you’re almost a permanent exile.”

[Llera]: “Indeed.”

[Bosch]: “How do you think about it, or does it even play a role in your work, in your creative process?”

[Llera]: “It’s actually one of the driving forces, that very feeling, that very difference, an almost neurotic energy. Much of the creative process comes from sheer insecurity, sheer neurosis at times, and circumstances.”

[Bosch]: “Can you tell us a bit about the kinds of subjects that you represented as you moved from, let’s say, photo-realism to abstraction, and mention particular works if you wish? If you think about the time you began to produce work that you considered professional, at what moment did you say to yourself, ‘I’m part of this art world’? What were you doing, what were you working toward?”

[Llera]: “In professional terms?”

[Bosch]: “When did you start exhibiting? What were you exhibiting? What were the moments that were milestones for you?”

[Llera]: “I don’t believe I’ve ever really felt that way, although one of the pieces that I produced won a competition…”

[Bosch]: “…and that was a capstone…”

[Llera]: “…basically – the newspaper articles came out, and that launched me into a professional environment. Now, did that change anything else? No. It’s been like a tree that has been growing all the time.”

[Bosch]: “So, what were your first subjects?”

[Llera]: “The first group were collages. I was juxtaposing the delicate with brutal, I was juxtaposing this with that. Then I moved to a series that became religious, where I was juxtaposing the material by putting it into a different context. For example, I created a crucifixion of me, nailed onto three closet doors.”

[Bosch]: “When you put yourself into a work in that way, how did you – again, to go back to the idea of identity – identify with the work that you were making? Was it about you? Was it you watching? Was it about other people?”

[Llera]: “I think it’s always about me. I think it’s purely selfish in that respect.”

[Bosch]: “Was it based on things that were happening in your life? Or thoughts you were having? Things you were reading?”

[Llera]: “Delusions, yeah.”

[Bosch]: “I know you read tons and that you’re always injecting yourself into what you’re reading and what you’re thinking.”

[Llera]: “Exactly.”

[Bosch]: “So, it’s a piece of you that floats out there in individual form that has to do with what’s in your head at the moment, what you’re reading, what is stimulating you, and then it manifest as this work of art that is a piece of your thought process.”

[Llera]: “Absolutely, it becomes an extension of you.”

[Bosch]: “Would you identify yourself as being an emotional artist, an intellectual artist? Where is the gravity center? Where do you create from?”

[Llera]: “You mean, a rational artist versus a romantic?”

[Bosch]: “Yes, do you create from your guts? From your heart? From your head? Where does it come from?”

[Llera]: “I don’t know. I think the day realize where it comes from will be the day I stop working because it doesn’t come from any one place in that respect. It comes from a life force inside of me.”

[Bosch]: “It’s something that simply generates.”

[Llera]: “It generates and it has a life of its own and it does whatever it wants when it wants it. In this new series that I’m working on now, I began to explore the idea of some nudes, but the moment I began to work it became clear that there were going to be any nudes, but landscapes instead.”

[Bosch]: “Talk a little about how you make this new work, because I know that it’s a fairly complex technological process. Again, it reflects yet another aspect of your creativity and your identity as an artist – you’ve moved away from the standard of the artist as the guy with the paint brush pushing around paint on a canvas and have become a different kind of artist..”

[Llera]: “Having a great teacher like Emilio Falero means that it’s always about the work, it’s always about the expression. In this respect, it doesn’t matter what I utilize to create the work. I can utilize paint, I can utilize a video camera, I can utilize anything, it doesn’t really matter. But how did I choose to incorporate the digital medium into it? Because, first of all, I’m proficient at using it, I’ve been working on it for a long, long, long, long time, so it’s second nature to me, just like the paint. For me, the marriage of the two made complete sense. Once again, another marriage; bringing two things together.”

[Bosch]: “Again, it’s the reconciliation of two seeming opposites that’s where you’ve placed yourself as a Cuban American, as an artist, somebody who navigates tradition and innovation.”

[Llera]: “Completely. There are pieces that come out of, say, a German romantic. You sit there and say, ‘How does this come out in a digital medium?’”

[Bosch]: “How do you start? Take us through a particular specifically.”

[Llera]: “I begin a piece by creating an abstract on a piece of paper. And, at that point…”

[Bosch]: “…now, where does the abstract come from?”

[Llera]: “I paint it.”

[Bosch]: “So, at that point, you’re doing a traditional painting.”

[Llera]: “Yes. I could do the abstract or, alternatively, I could be photographing or drawing or painting something else. Then, all of a sudden, I see the abstract, I see it, I bring out the abstract – I digitize it, put it into a computer, I bring the other image into the computer – inside the computer I marry the two – I can print it back out, re-paint on that, if I want, re-digitize it, bring it back into the computer, paint on it again. I can go back and forth a million times.”

[Bosch]: “You’re navigating through these worlds of techne in the old sense of the technique of the actual hands-on and then in this new kind of removed technological world where you can manipulate anything you want, create things that don’t even exist.”

[Llera]: “I can create things utilizing this medium that would be futile to try to paint. It would take me six months and I’d never get what I’m after. So, there’s no point. How can – in an age where the internet and computers rule our life – there not be an expression of that medium?”

[Bosch]: “About the images that you’re creating now, you said that you were setting out to merge the material and the spiritual, the abstract and the representational, how do you think you’ve achieved that?”

[Llera]: “It’s a challenge. For example, in the series with the telephone poles, I think I was pretty successful in finding the solution – but that solution is different from the solution in the new series on which I’m working”

[Bosch]: “…and this very new series, tell us about it.”

[Llera]: “It has to do with impermanence, with the idea of time. That’s the blanket umbrella. Right now, you’ve caught me in the midst of it, so for this particular section which is going to be fifteen paintings, I haven’t found the right name.”

[Bosch]: “One of the things that has always struck me about you -- and we can talk about this again within this context of identity -- is how aware you are of these generations of artists – you talk about Emilio, your father, you are friends with Baruj Salinas, how do you see yourself within the continuum of Cuban art, Cuban American art? Is it a generational thing?”

[Llera]: “If I don’t see a conflict between Mondrian and Vermeer, how do you think I see myself?”

[Bosch]: “As being merged in the unity of…”

[Llera]: “…exactly. Just one more…”

[Bosch]: “…one more Cuban American, Cuban artist…”

[Llera]: “…just one more guy with a paintbrush.”

[Bosch]: “When you talk with Emilio and Baruj, and – obviously, being Cuban American -- when the experience of exile comes up, how do you see yourself as being similar and different in the way that they’re looking at it?”

[Llera]: “Than Emilio and Padura or Baruj?”

[Bosch]: “Because you’re younger than all of us, so your perception of everything is intrinsically different simply because of the general placement of who you are.”

[Llera]: “In the context of these other artists, how would I see myself? That’s not easy to answer because I think I just see myself as an individual. . . there will come other younger artists than me that will…”

[Bosch]: “…so, you’re simply a stage in what is happening? One of the things that always has struck me about you is the great friendship you have with Emilio and Baruj, but also with others; I’ve always thought about you and this integration within the group in this very personal way, but at the same time you’re part of a group that is drawn to Renaissance and Baroque art. I wonder if you could talk about what it is that draws you to the Renaissance and the Baroque? Because even in the this new work that you are doing now I see that influence. Tell us about your exposure to it, your initial interest in it, and how it gets incorporated into your work.”

[Llera]: “The tendency of any artist is to try and be innovative, and I studied art at a time where most of the professors I had had studied under the New York School. That was their training, and they would push abstract expressionism. That’s where they felt comfortable. Of course, being somewhat of an artist you choose to go the other way and you choose to explore something else. Plus, in the idea of being an exiled Cuban American, there is a fragmentation or a cutting off of a cultural identity in a certain sense. So, what do you go back to? You go back to the Hispanic, you go back to the icons, you go back to the visual icons in that respect.”

[Bosch]: “How do you relate that to the interest that you have in spirituality?”

[Llera]: “Like Kandinsky, I think all art is in essence spiritual. Ultimately, the well or spring from which art stems is the creator, whoever that is, or whatever that is. Art is the imitation of a creative process. In that respect, it becomes spiritual, it becomes good art, for all good art is spiritual – I’m going on a limb here, I just said it, I just said ‘all good art’…”

[Bosch]: “…value judgments!”

[Llera]: “…exactly! ‘All good art!’”

[Bosch]: “How politically incorrect of you!”

[Llera]: “All good art, in essence, transcends its surface. If art does not transcend the surface, it just sits there, it doesn’t talk about human existence, it doesn’t talk about what we’re doing here, it doesn’t talk about anything else. And this is, in essence, what’s all about. No matter who it is, whether it be Warhol, Motherwell, or Juan González. It’s not that you go after the spiritual, for even the most materialistic of artists who would love to give that up sometimes can’t”

[Bosch]: “So it comes after you.”

[Llera]: “It comes after you.”

[Bosch]: “And it grabs you, and then there you are.”

[Llera]: “You have no choice.”

[Bosch]: “You have to pursue it. I’ve always been impressed by how much you read and how much you think because if someone were to ask me to categorize you, I would think of you as being a very thoughtful artist in every sense of the word. Not that you illustrate your thought, but that you’re always reading, you’re always thinking and to me your work comes out of a very profound complex philosophical base. So, I’m wondering if you could talk about the kinds of interests that you have in terms of what you read, why you read it, and what you are reading at the moment? What’s made the biggest impact on you?”

[Llera]: “Philosophically? Lately I’ve been reading the same thing that I’ve been always reading, to tell you the truth: St. John of the Cross.”

[Bosch]: “You’re very Catholic in your reading taste.”

[Llera]: “Sometimes. For example, I’ll read the Dalai Lama”

[Bosch]: “What brings you to St. John of the Cross so repeatedly?”

[Llera]: “The language. The mysticism. It’s just very iconic in that respect.”

[Bosch]: “Does your interest in the Renaissance and the Baroque respond in anyway to the fact that you’re a Cuban Catholic? Do you think about this or is it just something that you gravitate to instinctively?”

[Llera]: “…it’s something I enjoy.”

[Bosch]: “So it fits into your general experience?”

[Llera]: “Yeah, in essence. I would definitely put it that way in a certain sense. Obviously, it’s a different time, it’s a different age, it’s a different language. Today I think you would find a different way to express it.”

[Bosch]: “Which is what you’re doing in this new series because especially the sense of time and space. When I think of St. John of the Cross I think of something that, if I were trying to give a visual form to it, it would have a sense of the ongoing, and this is what I see in the new work that you’re doing. The possibility within infinite space that connects to the larger universal. Is this part of what you’re trying to find and negotiate?”

[Llera]: “In essence, at least for the artist, art is somewhat selfish. This means that, for example, when I was reading Montaigne, another one of my philosophers (Marcel and Montaigne are my favorites), one of the things that struck me was that he juxtaposes two ideas of human knowledge. In the scientific method one becomes objective to your subject to a point where you understand your subject but you never experience it. When it comes to mystical models, as with St. John of the Cross’s, you’re not talking about understanding your subject, but merely experiencing it. These are two very different ways of knowing your subject or your object. St. John of the Cross absolutely has no understanding of God as a fact, this understanding of God is irrelevant and could probably be completely a hindrance to him experiencing God. So, once again, do you understand the color red?”

[Bosch]: “Of course not, you just recognize it, you experience it.”

[Llera]: “You experience an abstraction, you experience a beautiful sunset, the moon. You don’t understand beauty, you experience beauty. And thus, the connection between mystics – St. Theresa, St. John of the Cross – and art.”

[Bosch]: “One of the things that comes through in all of your work is this presentation of beauty at a time when so many artists are turning away from it. You always embrace it. Your work has always been gorgeous and at the same time it has the ability to walk through the material into the spiritual, take you into the sublime through the beauty of it. Are you an artist who consciously thinks about creating beauty or does the beauty just happen?”

[Llera]: “It just happens. Beauty is all around us and the mystical experience is all around us. Artists walk down the street and find an object and put it on display. How many people passed that object on the street and never saw its beauty? Well, you take it, you put into its context in a museum and all of a sudden you are experiencing beauty. But when I speak of beauty I’m speaking of it in a very broad sense.”

[Bosch]: “Right. Not the definition of something pretty or decorative but…”

[Llera]: “…not pleasurable. There’s a very big difference between something pleasurable and something beautiful. They’re two very different things. Something can be incredibly displeasurable and yet be incredibly beautiful. So, the idea of turning away from beauty, period, horrifies me as an artist.”

[Bosch]: “Let’s now look at some of your work.”

Bosch and Llera move another part of the terrace, where Llera begins to display some of his recent work.

[Llera]: “This is a very early work. It belongs to a group, it’s probably the first group that I exhibited publicly, back in 1991. In essence, what you’ve got is a foreground element and a background element. This is going to translate into today’s abstracts. And, so, in essence, although the work may look very different superficially, in essence, structurally it’s the same work.”

[Bosch]: “At this point, then, you’re concentrating on the abstract?”

[Llera]: “I’m merging the idea of the abstract with the figurative, whether it be on a photographic level – on any level.”

[Bosch]: “But you’re moving away from realism and you’re trying to figure out something in between – a kind of threshold between the representational and the abstract and how to give that form.”

[Llera]: “That’s exactly what it is, it’s a threshold. And the tension between the two is what makes it beautiful.”

[Bosch]: “Could you talk about the process of painting this?”

[Llera]: “Yeah, in this particular one, I did the abstract – digitized the abstract. I photographed the telephone poles, I merged the two, printed it out, painted on the print-out, re-digitized, printed it out on canvas, and now I’m in the midst of painting right on the piece.”

[Bosch]: “And then you will go through another digitizing process, or will this be it”

[Llera]: “This will be the end of it.”

[Bosch]: “So, the surface really itself gives you that balance between the traditional and the innovative and the material and the spiritual and then the spiritual and the metaphysical.”

[Llera]: “Absolutely. The interesting part with this particular piece is that it has something out of Motherwell or Rauschenberg, and yet at the same time some of the oil that is being applied to it has an almost Rembrandt quality.”

[Bosch]: “You can see the impasto.”

[Llera]: “You’re seeing it not only on an aesthetic level, but you’re also seeing it on a technical level as well. The thing with these groups is that I work them almost simultaneous. So I work on anywhere from ten to fifteen paintings all at once, and I go back and forth. As you can see, I’m still trying to work on the Rembrandt-like technique.”

[Bosch]: “And the chiaroscuro, you’re still dealing with the same issues”

[Llera]: “I’m still dealing with Caravaggio. It’s the exact same aesthetic and yet at the same time you’ve got Rauschenberg, you’ve got a number of artists.”

[Bosch]: “The iconography is still coming through…”

[Llera]: “…the entire series has to do with the crucifix.”

[Bosch]: “So you move right back: St. John of the Cross, coming through.”

[Llera]: “…through the telephone pole.”

[Bosch]: “Which is, again, the idea of Caravaggio, contemporary and historically sacred figures, because then and now there’s no difference. It’s fantastic. Gorgeous, just gorgeous. This is fabulous, this whole wash of white that comes through.”

[Llera]: “Thank you.”

[Bosch]: “This is like Chinese landscape painting. Now, when you think about printing them out on the canvas, how do you set the size of the canvas?

[Llera]: “Index.”

[Bosch]: “Is that like optional or is that built in or is that premeditated?”

[Llera]: “That’s completely optional. I’m having these done right now, they’re being printed up small and I’m going to be studying them small. They’re probably going to go into construction and then, later on, I’m going to print out certain pieces very large.”

[Bosch]: “I”m looking forward to seeing them. Thank you.

[Llera]: “My pleasure.”


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