Alberto Rey

Date: 05/21/2005
Interviewed by Jorge J. E. Gracia
Filmed by Norma Gracia
Transcribed by Paul Symington
Edited by Jorge J. E. Gracia

The interview took place at Alberto Rey’s studio and in the Erie Museum of Art. The Erie Museum was having an exhibit of Rey’s piscatorial and Icelandic paintings at the time.

[Gracia]: “Alberto Rey works in Fredonia, New York. He’s a Cuban American who emigrated to the US in 1965, at the age of 5, after having left Cuba in 1960, when he was three years old. In this interview we are particularly concerned to hear about himself and his work. It is a long road that Alberto has traveled – many styles, many periods of development – and we are just going to get a hint of this complex history. Most important of all, we are interested in how he sees himself, how he conceives of his art, and how he came to be the artist he is. So, let’s begin with two questions: How did you become an artist? And, when did you know that this is what you wanted to do?”

[Rey]: “I started doing art when I was in high school – let me give you a little background. I left Cuba when I was three, moved to Mexico for two years, and then Miami, and I ended up spending most of my adolescent life in a small coal mining town in western Pennsylvania. The idea of making a living doing art seemed ridiculous. At the time I made art because I enjoyed it, but I never really thought of it as a career choice. My parents didn’t think it was a good idea either, so I went into college to study biology in the hopes of one day becoming an oceanographer. I also enrolled in some art courses and, much to my parents’ dismay, I switched from biology to art. I went to a couple of different schools and concentrated my efforts in making a career out of illustration. I soon realized that I wanted more control over my work and switched to fine arts. That’s where I’m at now. It wasn’t an easy road to get here. I often wondered if I had made the right decision because trying to make a living as an artist was very difficult, but since I had no other options or a safety net to fall back on, I continued to work through those difficult times. I am now as a professor at the State University of New York at Fredonia.”

[Gracia]: “In going back to the period when you were an adolescent and you were discovering yourself, and then in college when your parents weren’t particularly thrilled about your plans, did they put up an active opposition to your ideas?”

[Rey]: “Before I went to college I was offered a scholarship at West Point Military Academy. After realizing that I did no want to spend my life in the military I dropped out. This was a difficult pill for my father to swallow. I had dropped out of West Point and then switched from biology to art. My father and I did not speak to each other for two years. My parents were always worried that I wouldn’t find any employment. My father has two doctorates, my uncle is a doctor, my other uncle is a dentist, so the idea of being an artist did not sit well with them. A few years after graduating from college, I was in my mid-twenties without a full-time job that could support me or a family for the rest of our lives. This was something that they found problematic. My aunt and uncle, however, encouraged me. I remember them telling me that when they came from Cuba, they needed to find employment right away because they needed to support their children. Their jobs were not what they had wanted, but they weren’t in a position where they had other options. They didn’t have the luxury of deciding what they wanted to do. They said that I was not in the same position, so I should do what I wanted with my life. They were pretty much the only relatives who felt that way. That was important to me at the time.”

[Gracia]: “How has that situation changed with the years? Obviously you are a successful artist, you have a large volume of work, you have experimented with all sorts of things, you have a position at Fredonia, you are very well regarded there, so you have achieved substantial distinction. Has this made any difference or did it make any difference as things were going along?”

[Rey]: “There’s always been an instinctive fear of failing in me. Since I didn’t have much support from my family and since money was always tight and something that we never had a lot of, the idea of failing was never a possibility. I worked very hard and kept looking ahead, trying to think of things that I could do to improve my professional standing. That’s something that I’ve never really been able to stop and don’t plan on stopping. There’s always more to do and more to accomplish. While some of that fear has subsided, the work ethic has become a way of life. I think it’s helped me to accomplish what I’ve accomplished. I do realize, however, that there is more that needs done.”

[Gracia]: “How about your family? Has your family at some point changed their view?”

[Rey]: “Yes, I think the change began when I went to grad school with an assistantship. I didn’t have to pay for anything. At that point, they realized that perhaps there was some worth in what I was doing. They saw that there was some financial value in it and consequently art seemed more like a viable career. I don’t want you to get the wrong impression of my parents. They have always been very loving and caring, but they were very concerned about the decisions I had made. I realized early on that they would not be able to understand what I was doing or why I was doing or how important it was to me. When I got a job – a full-time tenured job – they were finally able to relax and began to enjoy my accomplishments.”

[Gracia]: “In your career, let’s say up to this point, have there been any markers, any major things that shifted, changed, or affected you dramatically? Was there anything that actually made you decide, ‘This is what I want to do?’”

[Rey]: “There are markers but, for the most part, they are not necessarily major ones. Along the way, as my skills as a painter have improved, I’ve been able to tie my intellectual and aesthetic concerns with the painting. I’ve found a sense of fulfillment that I haven’t been able to find in anything else. There’s times when I’ve left the studio, after twelve hours of painting, and I’ve felt that, although exhausted, this is what I should be doing my entire life and there is a sense of satisfaction that everything is coming together – everything, intellectually, aesthetically, technically. There’s a sense of euphoria when that happens. It is a sense of confirmation that this is what I should be doing. It is not always a wonderful experience, however. Whenever I start a new project there is always some concern that I’m not going to be able to do as well as I want. I always try to make each painting better than the previous one. It can be a bit stressful at the beginning or when things are not going well with the painting. It haunts me until the issue is resolved in the work. Over the years, I have recognized that this is just part of the process and I have accepted it. There are also enough of those wonderful moments that keep me moving forward.”

[Gracia]: “You have now reached a point where you see things coming together; there is coherence in the work, you like it, you see that you are doing something that interests you and is both worthwhile and important. So, how do you see this work in the contemporary artistic scene? What is it that ties you to that scene? Are there things that separate you from it? How do you see your contribution, as it were, your role in the artistic world today?"

[Rey]: "I think working artists who are aware of what’s happening socially and or artistically in their world and are producing work that address those issues are creating work that is reflective of contemporary society and consequently is contemporary art. When I start any project, I first think about the work as something that is personally significant and then in terms of how it fits into what I had done before (so that it’s not redundant), how it fits into everything that I know about art history, contemporary art, and how it reflects what’s going on in society. As a member of a social group, sometimes I need to analyze why it is important to me. These factors don’t rule what I do, but they are important. Often, the impulse or passion to make the work is so strong that other considerations take second place. My work has very little to do with what’s “popular” in contemporary art. There’s so much happening at any given time in art that you really don’t have to worry about what is mainstream. There’s always a market. There’s always some venues or alternative spaces that are willing to exhibit or support a direction in art that is reflective of what is happening in society.”

[Gracia]: "When you reflect on your work, what do you think is the major contribution or contributions that you have made? There is a great deal of continuity in the things that you do. At the same time, there are major changes – for example, now you’re beginning to get into videos. And the paintings have changed dramatically, in style and subject matter, from time to time. So, the question is: Is there some important contribution throughout all this, or is there something in one of these areas that you find has been your most important contribution?”

[Rey]: “One of the things that I’ve always tried to do with the work is to describe the indescribable. I try the work go beyond the image or images I have represented in the painting. Whether it is a painting or a video, the work hopefully will go beyond the obvious. I try to capture, for lack of a better word, a sense of emotion or spirituality. I know those word are over used but they come close to describing the indescribable. I try to create work that connects with a viewer in a subtle, seductive, and poignant manner. It’s not necessarily about what it is you’re describing in the work, but more about how you’re describing it or how you’re painting it. It’s important to me that the work is somewhat accessible. When people look at one of my paintings, it is important that there be some thing about the work that helps them connect with it. Although I’m aware of what’s happening and has happened in art history and in contemporary art, it’s not something that I’m overly concerned with because, too often, if you worry about that then you’re not intimately relating yourself to the work. The most important thing is to find something that you’re passionate about and that you can intellectually tie into. Then the work seems to automatically become better – I don’t think you can make good work unless you are intellectually and emotionally connected to it. There have been times when I have made major changes in my work and I have consequently alienated past supporters of it. For example, I was doing a lot of work with Cuba and American popular culture and then I felt that it was time to move on to explore other directions that were intellectually and aesthetically interesting to me. I stopped what I had been doing and started incorporating elements that dealt with biology, nature, and fish. This was very different from my previous work and it was also a direction that has not acquired much respect in contemporary art. As a result, I alienated a lot of my past supporters, galleries, and museums. But this wasn’t a surprise. I found a different network and now some galleries and museums are interested in the new work. Some can see how it relates to the older work. In the end, you have to be willing to make these changes if needed and accept the consequences that come with them. Luckily I am in a position that I can do it more easily than others who depend on art sales to support themselves. I can take these steps that might not seem as good career moves. You have to be confident and willing to make these kinds of changes to keep your work valid."

[Gracia]: “You don’t have to worry where the bacon is coming from – it’s coming, so you’re free to explore every avenue.”

[Rey]: “Right. So if it’s a complete failure it’s still something…”

[Gracia]: “…that you explored.”

[Rey]: “Yes.”

[Gracia]: “When you are involved in these creative processes which sometimes lead you to different paths, is the primary motivation here some idea you have? Is it some emotion? Is it the materials that you use? How do these things work together?”

[Rey]: “Many of the projects come about without me realizing that it’s going to happen. Sometimes as part of the research for a project, I come across something that I never would have expected to find and a whole series of works comes out of it. A project or series of work can also occur after I’ve done all the research, I finished a series of paintings, I feel confident with what I’ve learned and then it’s time to move on to learn something else and consequently that affects what the next body of work will be. A good example of this is the Balsa Series, of which these two paintings here are examples (‘Las Balsas IX’ and ‘Balsas Artifacts: Cross and String’). I was doing research at the University of Miami’s Cuban Archives Center and at the archives in the Key West Library. While exploring the area, I came across the Cuban Refugee Center which is on Stock Island, I believe. I’d heard of it before. I was very moved by the collection of balsas or rafts that were falling apart in the backyard. These were the remnants of attempts by Cubans to leave Cuba. Inside the refugee center was a collection of watches, compasses, small statues of the Caridad de Cobre and many other objects that were either donated by the Cubans who had successfully made the trip or found inside the deserted remains of rafts found in the open waters between Cuba and the Keys. At the time I was there, the collection wasn’t well taken care of but that wasn’t their main job. The Center provided support and emergency health services to the new immigrants. The Center has now become a modest museum of sorts and some of the rafts have been housed in a plane hanger outside of Miami. The first time I was there, the rafts were just falling apart because some were made with tar, styrofoam and rope. I was so moved by the sight of rafts and the need to document decaying remains of the vessels that I knew I had to do a series of paintings about them. I’d already heard of artists doing paintings and constructions of balsas for exhibitions, but I still wanted to do something different and emotional that captured what I felt that day. So as soon as I returned back to New York, I started the Balsa Series. I started them on plaster. It was important to me that they were shown with this dark interior so that they became almost like altar pieces and that they had their own housing. By creating this housing, these pieces could be exhibited in any space, gallery or museum and they would have their own environment in which they would rest. By doing so, I didn’t have to worry about whether the paintings would be in a bright interior or on different colored walls that would change the environment in which the paintings were viewed. It also is done so that it seems like the balsas are floating on the background. They’re done in a very devotional manner, almost like retablos or devotos, which were paintings done, for the most part, by non-artists – devotional pieces – for saints, wishing for help or thanking them for their assistance. The thought that of these everyday people creating these visual prayers to God or saints was a very important thing, tying together everyday experiences with a sense of spirituality. That’s what I wanted to do with the work. I wanted to make it very spiritual, very devotional, without saying a great deal – putting a highlight on the piece, darkening up everything else – so that the absence of information would create a sense of silence when the work was exhibited and that, hopefully, would portray some of the emotional elements in the work. The other paintings concern the artifacts found inside the balsas. These were the objects that people who were leaving their country and their families had decided to bring with them. It became important for me to figure out the objects people would decide to bring with them. If I’m going to leave, what would I take with me? I could only take a handful of things from a country in which I grew up. What would I take? These objects were obviously significant to them so I thought it would be important to document what people would take to a different country when they were making this voyage. A lot of them would not survive.”

[Gracia]: “…there is a personal story here.”

[Rey]: “Yes, it happened many years before I did the Balsa Series, Many of my relatives had come to the United States from Cuba on rafts. One of them was my grandmother who didn’t survive the trip. So, it was something pretty important to me. It started me thinking about the whole idea of looking into Cuba and my culture, because, as I noticed that my relatives were passing away, I also noticed that my connection to that culture was also going with them. I thought it was time that I started to investigate the Cuban heritage that I had shunned away from for most of my life because I was spending most of time trying to assimilate myself to American culture. Being Cuban wasn’t that important. When my grandmother died, and later a few other relatives, I became much more involved in trying to find out about my culture – about the music, the religion, my family – and in doing so, my life became much more fulfilling. When I started to incorporate all this into my American culture, my work became more unified and I felt like I was finding my connection and perspective on the two cultures. So, I was working out that sense of identity through the work and through the research. Five years ago, I stopped doing work that was specifically about Cuba, because I felt that the void I had been experiencing was finally filled when I returned to Cuba for first time after leaving there as a child . It was time to move on intellectually and emotionally. Like many things in my life, I find that what I do is cyclical. Throughout my career, I have repeatedly moved between realistic and abstract painting. As I have gotten older, the cycles have become longer between each of these changes. With the patience that age brings I have been able to concentrate more effort on the complexities of the subject matter that I did not or could not see when I was younger. Within this technical and aesthetic cycle, the interest in Cuba, that I had put aside, is now returning in the biological paintings of Cuba. The nature, the landscape, the fish, and the other elements of the country are working their way back into some of the new series of paintings and videos.”

[Gracia]: “This raises the question of identity that people are so concerned about these days in this country and in every country where there are groups of immigrants or minorities. Certain questions come up such as, for example, how do you feel when people describe you as a Cuban-American painter or artist? What do you think about this? Are you a Cuban-American painter, and in what sense are you and in what sense are you not? How comfortable are you with this kind of description? It’s something that you’d use yourself?”

[Rey]: “I think one needs to see the reality in the whole issue. First of all, I am Cuban-American. I’m a painter. When I was doing work about Cuba and identity, it’s hard to be upset when some people put you in a category that is reflective of your ethnicity and the work’s subject matter. Ideally, as an artist, I want my work to be viewed universally. Because these problems aren’t specific to only this culture and to this situation, it’s something that’s found in many cultures and with many individuals. I hope that this issue and the way I’m portraying it is universal and that different people can get something from the work. Hopefully, the feelings and emotions that I was talking about come through in the paintings. I hope that other people who aren’t Cuban, who don’t feel alienated, who haven’t had the experience that I’ve had, can still can relate to them. That’s ideal. I want the work to be more than just in a category that’s considered Cuban-American. But, in reality, I can understand how it’s put in that category. I hope that the work has a quality that transcends that type of classification. But, it would be unrealistic to feel slighted if it did not – and I’m not sure I am slighted. After all, I’m Cuban-American and I’m proud of that and the work is about that, so if it’s put in that category so be it.”

[Gracia]: “Look, you take the balsas series, for example, the point that I think that you were making very well is that, although it is about some particular events, some objects that actually exist that were the result of some experience that a group of people who happen to be Cuban experienced, the message – artistic, aesthetic or whatever – it’s not really Cuban or anything like that. It’s a message about people who are leaving a country and going to another and being subjected to all of these kinds of experiences.”

[Rey]: “Yes, I think the issues are universal. But I think there’s always a need to categorize things in neat little groups and that’s just what happens.”

[Gracia]: “Type-casting usually happens.”

[Rey]: “Yes…”

[Gracia]: “And, how do you feel with respect to other Latinos or Hispanics?”

[Rey]: “I always feel connected to them, especially other Cubans, no matter where they’re from or what generation they might be from. Because I feel like you’re going through, or have gone through, similar situations so there’s that connection but that does not mean, however, that I automatically have affinity toward all of their work. Just because they’re Cuban American doesn’t necessarily mean that I’m always going to feel connected to the work.”

[Gracia]: “Now let’s shift a little and talk about your technique. Many of your paintings are made in the way the balsa series is made (more on the technique later, at the Erie Museum of Art). How did you come to it? Why did you pick it up?”

[Rey]: “I started by doing abstract work and actually shunned away from anything that was traditional, anything that had to do with painting, or using paint. I even used flour dough for some pieces. I used paraffin wax for others. The whole idea for using these mediums was that my work, at the time, had nothing to do with the tradition of painting. It was more about creating a certain texture or feeling and since there was no connection to the history of painting, I didn’t want that relation in the work. I didn’t feel that using paint was important. Then I started to do more realistic work and turned to issues dealing with Cuba, and I wanted it the work to be very devotional. I wanted to incorporate the history of painting and how devotional work had been created in the past and so I started to incorporate the idea of using plaster as it had been used in frescos and the sense of connection it had to history. Then I began using traditional oil mediums to, again, make another connection to art history, and then again I used realism as another form of connection to the past. When I started using plaster, I wanted to come up with a process that was more reflective of our contemporary experience – something we have in our lives. So, I came up with a process that is less time consuming and more archival than frescos traditionally were. I’ve been using a MDO board which is a type of plywood. It has a lot of resins and alternating wood grain that keeps it from warping. Over the MDO, I put canvas, and then on top of the canvas, I add plaster – which is actually a form of plaster with some wood putty – and then that is mixed in with resin glues so that the paintings are much more likely to survive shipping and other circumstances that paintings go through in a professional career . The plaster and resin mixture does not absorb moisture like a fresco usually would. So, these elements help make the paintings much more likely to survive through many years of shipping and storage. I’ve been selective as to what I use to reflect a connection to the past and present in the work.”

[Gracia]: “In the fish paintings, you put a shine on top. But that’s not present either in the balsa paintings or the memory paintings and it’s not in the landscapes either. What was the motivation for that?”

[Rey]: “All the paintings have varnishes, but some have matte varnishes. Sometimes when you put a gloss varnish on a painting, you create a barrier. The gloss varnish can become a kind of glass panel between yourself and the painting, and that reflective quality can sometimes create an emotional or aesthetic separation between you and the work. Sometimes it’s not even something that you consciously notice but it’s there. But when it’s a matte finish, and the works are small, intimate paintings – or even large canvases, large landscapes – you can actually come in close contact with the work. You don’t have to worry about the light being reflected or how the lights are positioned in the gallery’s space. You’ll be able to connect immediately with the work and not have hot spots and reflections found in gloss varnished paintings, that could distract you from the work. The matte varnish does a better job of conveying what the somber monochromatic paintings are about. With the more colorful fish paintings, that wasn’t as much of a concern because there are also benefits to gloss varnishes. One of the benefits is that it brings out all the color in the dark areas. By using matte varnish, you don’t get that richness in color that you do with a gloss varnish. The fish paintings are a different series, I wanted to create a separation between the two. They’re talking about different things so I thought that it was appropriate to use gloss varnish on those paintings.”

[Gracia]: “In general do you favor darker colors? Some paintings are extremely dark – monochromatic almost: such as ‘Viñales’, ‘El Morro’, and ‘Isla de Pinos’. There’s only a couple colors in these, very muted. And even the fish paintings that have some reds and some pinks, in general tend to be on the darker side.”

[Rey]: “The series of black and white landscapes that I did of Cuba is called ‘Appropriated Memories’. The reason for the name is that I didn’t have any memories of Cuba so I was using references from the 1800’s. I wanted images that, for me, had little or no connection to Cuba’s present political situation. I wanted to create a separation between the imagery that I was using and the reality of how things are now. I wanted to present – to concentrate on – the landscape as a symbol for a culture. And since it wasn’t real for me, I wanted to make the work black and white. If the work is real and is something that I experienced, I generally try to paint it in color, Anything that is referenced but of which I have no memory of or real-life connection to – is painted in black and white to create that separation. The other reason that I selected that period –the late 1800’s and early 1900’s- was that I wanted to find black and white imagery that reflected those concerns for black and white imagery. I could have gone into the mid 1900’s and found color images but I wanted to work with the black and white and I wanted an untainted separation from the present. With respect to the fish paintings, some are very vivid and reflective of the American realist period of the 1830-60’s when the discovery and documentation of the United States was popular. Large landscape paintings of different parts of the country captured the beauty of land that few had seen. They also did small realistic paintings and still lifes of their environments. That’s what I wanted to do. I wanted to make these rediscovery paintings about our environments, nature and fish, because, in many ways, we’ve become disconnected from nature. Our lives are more about work and less about being connected to our environments. So I wanted to create a series that created this connection while paying attention to elements that were specific to a certain region. So, with these paintings, the color became more important because they identified a region: the colors of fish, the vegetation, those types of things. When doing underwater images, the light is much less intense. At times, I magnified the light so that when you’re looking through these paintings it becomes almost voyeuristic; your attention is drawn to only certain parts of the work while the rest is darker. The edges are a bit blurry so that there is a soft transition between reality and the artwork. Hopefully it helps in making you feel like you’re in these landscapes. Your eyes are not hopping all around the painting – it’s not about the rest of the information in the painting, it’s about the whole of the painting and about the emotion that you feel in the work. In some ways, it’s reflective of the same concerns I had in the balsas where I’m putting most of the highlights and attention on certain parts, everything else is darker.”

[Gracia]: “Then it turns out that you’re really an American painter in the American tradition. Because, this whole interest in the biology, in nature, in the landscape, in the animals and so forth, it’s been there at the beginning of American painting hasn’t it? So, you’re really a part of that.”

[Rey]: “Yes. There’s also a long tradition of naturalist painters/illustrators from Spain and France. They were the ones who first created visual documents of the Caribbean and parts of North America. I’ve also looked at a lot of Cuban painters and been intrigued into how they documented the landscape, fruits, and vegetation that were indigenous to the island. The same type of documentation happened in Mexico. I’ve always admired that type of work. In some ways, I find that the work is almost separated from contemporary art because I’m going backwards; I’m documenting something that, as a contemporary artist, is very traditional, but the reason I’m doing it is that there’s a contemporary need for it.”

[Gracia]: “I also wanted to ask you something about your inspiration. You did refer to particular factors that inspired you or gave you ideas but I see here, in your studio, all sorts of things. You have surrounded yourself with images of saints and all sorts of pictures. On this side you have pictures of fish, vegetation, and so on. So, how do you collect materials? You take pictures and then…?”

[Rey]: “One of the things that I like about collecting and then putting the objects in the studio is that I enjoy coming into a workspace and feel inspired. I think there’s so much of my life that is filled with other responsibilities that I’m often disconnected from the art. When I come in here and I look at all of this – paintings from Cuba, references to Cuba in art history, naturalist illustrations of plants, religious iconography, Mexican landscape paintings, American photography of Native American, watercolors from contemporary naturalists, sketch books, the photographs that I’ve taken for future paintings – all these things help create a connection so that as soon as I walk in the studio, I feel like I’m in this very rich space with images and emotion. I walk into the studio and I feel connected to the work again and I can pick up where I left off. If I didn’t have those references, I think the studio would just be a void. But now it’s so rich that as soon as I walk in I’m ready to start working. I also play a lot of music and my most extensive collection is of Cuban music. It all helps me to connect.”

[Gracia]: “And when you are thinking about all these things and your work, is there always a question of an audience? You have expressed the idea that basically you are an independent man because you have a position at the college; you don’t have to worry about money and so forth, and so you can be free. But even though you are free from that aspect – in other words, you don’t have to sell, you don’t have to think about where the next paycheck is coming from – is there some consideration of an audience and the kind of audience it is? Or, are you primarily guided by your own inner motives and desires and aims and the audience comes in simply as a secondary consideration, or maybe not at all?”

[Rey]: “The audience is very important to me. The finished painting is just the last part of a long process of research and the struggling of actually making the piece. If I weren’t concerned about the audience, I wouldn’t be doing the exhibitions. Ideally we all want to be respected for what we do. As for me, I also hope to be a very good artist before I die. To get to that point, I have to have demands on each of the works. I paint hoping that each painting will get me closer to that point. I want the painting to somehow connect with the audience, whether it’s emotionally or intellectually, or both. It’s always interesting and rewarding when you have people who are in the profession respect your work and acknowledge what you’re doing. But that’s not why I create the work. I’ve had shows that have been poorly reviewed and sometimes those are very useful because it gives you another perspective on the work that you might not have paid attention to. But, ideally everybody wants to be respected for what they do and I take the work seriously. If some people come in and they like the work, even though they have never have seen or know anything about painting, I think that’s also important. The audience is important to me – the audience doesn’t necessarily dictate how I paint or what I paint, but it’s important because it is important to share the work with other people. Again it’s about hoping to create a subtle connection that is universal.”

[Gracia]: “I think that at this point we need to ask you whether you want to say something else that occurs to you. Then I’d like to go through the studio and look at the whole layout while you comment. By the way, do you have here any of the grey ‘Appropriated Memory’ paintings like ‘El Morro’?”

[Rey]: “I have one of the big landscapes upstairs.”

[Gracia]: “It’s wrapped up though?”

[Rey]: “Yes, but we can unwrap it.”

[Gracia]: “So, tell us anything else you want to say…”

[Rey]: “The only other thing that I want to say is that I have also started to do films and video. It’s something that I’ve always wanted to do. I’ve always been a big fan of films and how they portray reality and how accessible the medium is to the public. Mostly, through new technology with the computer and digital camcorders, I can do film editing in a manner that is accessible to somebody whose background might not be in film. This is something that I’m very interested in and have started to incorporate into installations with paintings so that the video footage of these environments works cohesively to make the work, again, more accessible to the audience.

[Gracia]: “As in fact you have done at the exhibit at El Museo in Buffalo.”

[Rey]: “Yes. This type of installation is something that I’ve been thinking about for probably twenty years but haven’t been able to do until recently. It’s very exciting. This is a possibility for new work – and who knows what’s going to happen with the work. I really never know. I know what might be happening within the next year or so but in the long run something else could happen.”

[Gracia]: “So now why don’t we move through the studio and take some video of it. As you can see here, on the wall Alberto has all sorts of pictures of different fish – charts of the fish of North America. Now we are going up the stairs to the second floor. And we see one of those grey paintings – almost monochrome – ‘Isla de Pinos’ in Cuba – one of the ‘Appropriated Memory’ paintings that we were talking about earlier. Over here’s a collection of paintings that Alberto painted earlier. This one, entitled Binary Forms Series, is particularly interesting; it is from a period in which he was doing abstract work. It doesn’t use paint; it’s made out of wax and various other materials.”

[Rey]: “These watercolors just came back from a show in New Jersey and Fort Lauderdale. This is the crate. I just wanted to show you a couple things. One of the reasons I did the watercolors, again, was to create a connection between the medium, art history and the tradition of creating watercolors. It’s a good devotional type of medium. When I did these watercolors I was consciously thinking of American and European watercolors – the process in which they were made, trying to connect with it, and of the rich history of it. Some of these are of the fish and I was trying to create a connection with the American realists and the environments they painted. I had never worked with watercolors before – so the idea of working in this medium was a conscious decision to make that connection between the past and the present."

[Gracia]: “Now we will continue the interview at the Erie Art Museum where Rey has an exhibition of piscatorial and Icelandic paintings.”

[Rey]: “This is a painting of Iceland entitled ‘Lava Canyon, Grenlaekur River, Southeastern Iceland.’ It is part of a series called ‘Biological Regionalism.’ After working for many years on several series relating to Cuba, I decided to explore other places, and Iceland caught my attention because it is remote and presents a contrast to my other work. Cuba has had a long tradition of landscape painters; and there’s a long tradition of trying to capturing the beauty of the country and how it relates to the people. I soon started thinking that it would be interesting to go to different areas around the world to study the same theme and since I was interested in fishing – fly fishing and entomology – I thought that it would be interesting to also study fish in these areas particularly fish that are indigenous to a country. The lives we live now are rarely filled with experiences related to nature and so there has been a separation between our daily life and our environment. This series tries to connects back to the environment.”

[Gracia]: “And, this fish that we have here behind you on the side, what can you tell us about it?”

[Rey]: “This is a painting of an arctic char, entitled ‘Arctic Char, Hrutafjardara River, Western Iceland.’ I’m using a fairly traditional painting approach in it. I wanted to reflect the concerns and technique of some of the American realists whose work dealt with a sense of discovery, showing parts of the United States to an international market as well as to the market in the United States. I felt that we are in a period of rediscovery, rediscovering our environment and nature, and this is my subtle way of getting back in touch with that.”

[Gracia]: “And what about this painting, entitled ‘Lava Canyon , Grenlaekur River, Southeastern Iceland’?

[Rey]: “This is one of my favorites mostly because of the mood and because of how it was created. If you look up close, there’s very little specific information in it, but from a distance there is the impression of a lot of information. The brush work is very loose; it was a pleasure working on this piece. There are certain pieces that, when you’re working on them, you get more emotionally attached than other works. This landscape is important to me from the moment I first saw it. I was moved by it, and I tried to capture that emotion when I painted it. In some ways, the painting is not completely realistic and what I mean by that is that there are certain things that I have to work with to capture the mood of the piece that might not be in the reference material. It can be the color of the water or the atmosphere or the clouds or something else that I use to create the mood that might not otherwise happen if I were completely true to the reference. This is pretty much the same with all the paintings: you have to be willing to give up or add information to capture a mood or a feeling that is transmitted by the work. We must also remember that the reference material is limited in what it can provide. It distorts, simplifies and diminishes colors.”

[Gracia]: “And can you tell me how it was that you came to choose Iceland?”

[Rey]: “Iceland is one of those places that is not very popular. It’s not a place that everybody wants to go to or has gone to. There is a sense of unfamiliarity to it. It also creates a nice contrast to Cuba and the work that I have done on my Cuba. I thought Iceland would be a perfect subject to include in an exhibition. Iceland is also known for its fisheries, and the salmon and arctic char runs, so I thought it was a great place to use to bring the whole series together.”

[Gracia]: “And you’re a fisherman yourself.”

[Rey]: “I’m a fly fisherman and a guide – an Orvis endorsed guide, and that was the other reason why I went to Iceland: being a fly fisherman and a guide, and because I also do some writing and some artwork that’s published in fishing magazines. This is a whole new market that I’ve never had before; its opened a lot of doors that might not have been opened before – people are inviting me to come to places around the world to do articles on their fisheries and to also do paintings about species that are indigenous to those areas. It’s exciting to combine what I’ve been doing before with this new direction – integrating everything that I’ve studied in the past and that I’ve done in the past.”

[Gracia]: “Should we look at some of your favorite fish paintings?”

[Rey]: “Sure. Take a look at this one over here, entitled ‘Brown Trout, Bear Lake Outlet, Stockton, New York’....”

[Gracia]: “Looks mysterious!”

[Rey]: “Yes, in all the paintings I do, I try to limit the light, so there’s just a little highlight in certain places. It’s almost as if you’re voyeuristically looking at an environment. I try to do this not only with the fish paintings but also the landscapes. And this is a place that is about twenty minutes from my house. The fish is a brown trout in the Cassadaga Creek – which is out in the middle of nowhere. The environment is very rural and, again, the painting gets back to the idea of regionalism. Regionalism in art is almost impossible to do anymore, because we are so aware of everything that is happening around the world and art – because of magazines and the media. It is hard to find something that is specific to an area, so this topic, for me, has a biological dimension, the species itself represents a way of getting back to a sense of regionalism, finding out what is unique about a certain area.”

[Gracia]: “This environment where we are, where the exhibit is presented is fantastic because it’s a basement, underground, with stone walls – did you choose this in particular?”

[Rey]: “I came here years ago and really enjoyed the space. It’s very intimate. It is almost like a wine cellar and it captures the intimacy in the work. It doesn’t have very tall ceilings and there is a nice historical sense in the environment. I thought the paintings would look right in this space, but we had to wait a couple years until there was an opening in the schedule for this space, and now the exhibit is finally in place.”

[Gracia]: “This painting is also an Icelandic one?”

[Rey]: “Right, it is entitled ‘Abandoned Farmhouse, Skogar, Southern Iceland.’ This is another one of those rich pieces with a lot of nice color and muted background. Iceland is just incredibly beautiful but it is also very spiritual, very mundane in some areas, and there’s a lot of natural beauty but also a sense of silence in the environment.”

[Gracia]: “The landscape is very different from anything from Cuba. Are you attracted to it maybe because it is different or because you find something common?”

[Rey]: “It’s a little bit of both, but it is also the spirituality of the space – whether it’s in Cuba or Iceland, or even in areas in my backyard. I try to capture a sense of spirituality in the everyday and I try to do it through the paint and the painting. It’s probably one of the most important things in the artwork, trying to capture that feeling and trying to capture that emotion so that it’s transmitted to the audience and that is something that can be fairly difficult to do. It is something that you have to be very sensitive to when you’re painting- to make sure that it’s captured in the work.”

[Gracia]: “The paintings here are from Montana?”

[Rey]: “Yes, this is actually a very well known river in Montana, its called the ‘Big Horn’ and the fishery is known for its rainbow trout and this is one of the rainbow trout underwater. The reference shots were done with an underwater camera and then when they were brought back into the studio, I had to work the background and the environment to capture some of that special-ness so that the painting itself wasn’t busy with a lot of details. Only certain parts of the painting are highlighted but everything else adds to the mood of the piece.”

[Gracia]: “This fish even has an expression.”

[Rey]: “All fish have that similar look. But if you look at these paintings, they fall in a very long tradition of still-life painting. There’s a long tradition of this type of portraiture – fish portraiture. I wanted to make a connection to history – to art history – but to do it in a very contemporary manner. The paintings were painted on plaster and that is, again, the symbolic reference back to frescos and religious significance and symbolism going back to the Renaissance – so these become almost spiritual objects that use a contemporary subject matter and approach.”

[Gracia]: “The plaster, how does it work with the oil?”

[Rey]: “The plaster is sealed with a resin glue. I call this technique, ‘white-trash fresco’, because it uses contemporary products but it’s very stable and it’s not as time intensive as the traditional frescos approaches. It has taken me about eight to ten years to fine-tune this technique, so that it is very stable; it can be shipped anywhere, it doesn’t absorb moisture, and oils are absorbed readily into plaster. There’s also a canvas backing behind the frescos – behind the plaster – to keep it from flaking.”

[Gracia]: “So, you have some wood underneath, and then the plaster, and then the painting.”

[Rey]: “Right. You have the wood substrate, then you have the canvas and the plaster, and then you have the paint and the varnish.”

[Gracia]: “And basically all of your paintings now are done with this backing.”

[Rey]: “Yes, all the paintings – whether they are small or large.”

[Gracia]: “Now, the paintings that are in the other room, what are those?”

[Rey]: “These are from Western New York, the local area. This one, entitled ‘Brown Trout, Hosmer Creek, Sardinia, New York,’ is another traditional still-life – except, of course, that it is not a still-life – it is a real live fish which was put back into the creek after it was documented. The problem with photography is that it oftentimes kills the color, it simplifies the lighting, and so you have to take notes so that when you come back to paint what you have photographed, you can amplify the colors of the rocks, the shading to give it much more contrast here and to make it more life-like and more vivid, so that I can, hopefully, capture some of the emotions that I had when I was looking at the fish.”

[Gracia]: “I noticed that when we were looking at the Icelandic landscape you mentioned that you have the illusion of detail, but at the same time it’s all done with broad strokes and so forth. Now, I see you have more detail in the fish itself, the rocks, the stones.…”

[Rey]: “Yes, the rocks are more textural due to the brushwork. I tried to make the brushwork more subtle, more blended-in in the fish so that it stands out against the textured background. All these paintings are done during long painting periods. I usually work eight to twelve hours a day on each painting because I need to work on it while the paint is wet and I usually work in consecutive days so that the paint doesn’t dry. I don’t like using washes over the paintings, I like using the paint while it’s wet so that I can blend it into the painting around it. It is a much more difficult to do it in this manner but the result is more exciting for me. When I’m painting, I’m moving the paint that’s around and it gels together. I prefer this than putting one wash down and then putting another wash over it.”

[Gracia]: “How do you get that shine? Because this is one of those things that you see in the fish paintings, a kind of luster. The landscapes are not that shiny. They are more muted. Is this something special that you aim at because the fish are wet? And they have scales?”

[Rey]: “Right. I’m trying to capture the reality of the texture of the fish. These bright areas stand out because the fish is painted somewhat darker, so that the highlight stands out and it seems like its shimmering through the fish. Then, in the background, I’m trying to keep the white somewhat muted so it’s not as bright as the highlight on the fish. That makes the highlight stand out. In the paintings that portray underwater subjects there is generally a sense of haze created by the density of the fluidity of the water that is not evident when you look at something outside the water or out in the atmosphere; The clarity is more vivid in the still-life paintings than it is in the fish that are in water. There is a different mood when you look at something on top of the water – as we do when we look at reality or what we live in. That clarity is quite a bit different than what we see when are looking at something under water.”

[Gracia]: “This painting, ‘Steelhead, Canadaway Creek, Dunkirk, New York,’ is unusual.”

[Rey]: “This is another painting from the local area. The fish is a steelhead which is a migratory fish. It actually came to Western New York in the late 1800’s, brought in from California. Now, this species is doing much better than the fisheries in the Northwest and in California. Originally, it was a sea-run fish; it spawned in fresh water and then it would go out into the ocean and come back a few years later to spawn and die. The way it happens now in Western New York is that they spawn in fresh water and then they go back into the Great Lakes, and can return several times to spawn. They still have the same migratory pattern though the environment in which they live is different from the original one. Here, again, you can see some of that muted background, the highlights are more muted as are the details within the background- this is done in order to capture the mood that is evident with the underwater environment.”

[Gracia]: “I’d like to note for the record that, in the exhibit, we have little maps that tell us about the areas where the fish live.”

[Rey]: “Yes, and there is another thing that has been important in all of my work: I wanted to make people aware of the process involved in making the work. The painting is the final result of a very long process of research and a typical exhibition usually displays only a small percentage of what has been learned along the way. So I try to make people aware of the subject matter’s environments – show where these places are – some of these areas may be fairly close by. The little description makes the work more accessible to the public.”

[Gracia]: “How old are these paintings?”

[Rey]: “These are about, I’d say, all within the last two years. Some of them are very recent, probably I’d say within a year.”

[Gracia]: “When was it that you made the shift to fish?”

[Rey]: “About three or four years ago. Actually, it’s been longer than that. It’s probably been four or five but there’s been a whole other series that are no longer available. That work has either been sold or collected. That was the first group of piscatorial investigations. I have to keep concentrating on improving the work because you know you’re only as good as your last painting.”

[Gracia]: “That’s what they say!”

[Rey]: “You have to keep getting better and better.”

[Gracia]: “Where do you begin in a painting? Do you build it up – put the fish on top? How do you work it?”

[Rey]: “I try to capture the environment that the fish came from. I try to capture what was special about each specific composition- color, location, environment, the way I felt when I was there. When I’m looking at the reference materials, I try to remember the approaches and nostalgic look that some of the more traditional paintings from the 1800’s have, I also keep in mind the series as a whole and what it might need. I’m careful not to be redundant so that each work contributes some unique element to the series, then I try to bring it all together. It’s like a big aesthetic and intellectual puzzle. One of the most important parts of these paintings is trying to capture the elements that are specific to each environment. Like this grass is specific to Montana and to the Slough River. That background with the rocks is specific to that river. This is in the upper Ruby which is in Montana. And the rocks, and the type of rocks, and how they’re arranged are specific to the place. And the same thing with the mossy, brown parts of the Big Horn. The fall leaves of Catarraugus which is in Western New York. And so with all the different places – it’s important to capture the specific environment in which the fish are because that’s really what makes it unique to that area. You’re capturing that environment, you don’t want to make it up. You want to make sure that it’s true to the area so that the fish is in its own environment. To me, that’s very important. Otherwise, why do the series if you’re not putting in the information that is true or specific? It is those details that make a painting unique. Otherwise, it could just be anywhere.”

[Gracia]: “I want to finish the interview with a vital question. Could you be, or have been, anything other than an artist?”

[Rey]: “Before I became an artist I was thinking about biology because I was very intrigued with it and so I’ve come full circle…”

[Gracia]: “…it’s coming back!”

[Rey]: “…it’s coming back. I have also been very interested in architecture. I have always thought that if I had another life, I’d like to be an architect; the whole idea of living inside your art and people living inside your art was very compelling. Although I’m sure that is a very idealistic interpretation of the field, but it’s something that was of great interest to me. In hindsight, it’s important to find a vocation that uncovers elements of yourself that you never knew were there or to develop skills that challenge you aesthetically and intellectually. Being an artist has done that, and now being a filmmaker is doing that also. I hope to continue to do these things. Being a teacher also challenges me all the time. These vocations have really made for a very fulfilling life.

[Gracia]: “That’s wonderful. Thank you very much Alberto, and we’ll see you soon.”

[Rey]: “Thank you.”


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