Luis Sahagún: Brotherhood: Leyendas de un Bracero
Kruger Gallery in Chicago until March 31, 2017
A conversation with Lise McKean
LM: You’ve talked about your background and its influence on your work in interviews and artistic statements. Could you talk about what comes to mind about your own story as we’re sitting here in the gallery surrounded by your recent work?
LS: A lot of times when I write a statement about my work, I say I use art to connect with my family. But what does that really mean? For example, what does that say about my relationship with my dad? When I was at the residency in Roswell, I decided to use art, objects, and visual culture to find an intersection or way to connect with him in a way I hadn’t done before through art.
I started paying attention to the objects at our house that he had collected. I had taken pictures of them before I went to Roswell. They’re little objects—cows and horses are next to the Statue of Liberty next to a Native American statue next to a dream catcher. He takes a lot of time curating the objects, placing them around the house. I was interested in that gesture.
They’re more than objects. They connect to his past life in Mexico. They had a lot of land in Mexico and raised cows. The objects carried memories of a life from his past. I thought by understanding that gesture, I could find a moment or way of connecting with my dad.
LM: Can you talk about the thinking and feeling that went into your exploration of his objects?
LS: I was interested in the gesture. For instance, my dad’s Facebook profile. He started posting photos of objects from his collection. Most specifically, the panther. His profile showed a panther. Then his friend created the image of super colorful panther that has my dad’s face imposed on it.
He grew up on the farm and never went to school. He learned to read and write as an adult. My mom went to school up to third grade. My mom is infatuated with fish.
LM: Did she grow up near the ocean?
LS: Yes, she grew up by the Pacific Ocean. Everything is fish—glass fish, metal fish, ceramic fish. She has fish tank in the bathroom. She doesn’t even know why. She pinned a stuff Nemo to the bathroom wall. It took me a while to realize that my parents’ relationship to their collections is as innocent and playful as a child’s.
LM: Did this realization come for being away from home and the distance created by being at Roswell?
LS: Yes. And being at a distance, I also realized that our home was an embodiment of Mexico. But everything outside of our home was different. They were two completely different worlds.
LM: What do your parents say when you try to talk to your parents about their objects in the house? Do they see their objects as collections?
LS: My dad is a storyteller. He tells stories about being a farmer. I know that they’re his memories. My dad’s mom will tell me more specific things. The objects are tools to remember their past lives. My mom doesn’t talk about herself.
LM: So these objects carry memory. Do they embody feelings of loss and longing? Of feeling homesick?
LS: The memories are of the past. It’s not idealized. It’s the past. My parents are both retired. They could go back to live in Mexico. But their life now is here. My mom doesn’t want to leave her kids and grandkids. I see the homesickness in her mom. My parents’ world in Mexico is in the past. They left it behind. But when the phone call comes with news that another cousin died, they cry as if they saw the cousin just yesterday. Another part of them is gone. It’s a new beginning here. A whole new family origin is here. My nieces and sisters won’t go to Mexico.
LM: With those ideas floating in your mind, can you tell me about how the work is about mythologies of a new place—the new tale of family origin here in the US?
LS: I knew I wanted to make the work more representational and to understand my dad. When I was a kid and wanted to play with my friends, my dad made me work in the garden. He wanted me to know how to grow food. He thought every man should be able to grow food to feed his family. In graduate school and seeing the moon all the time as I lay in bed. I had the leisure to lay and look at it. I started falling in love again with nature. On top of that wonder and reconnection with nature, I went to Roswell.
LM: That forced to farming work as a kid pushed you away from nature. But now you’re coming to a new appreciation of nature—and of father.
LS: That’s a good connection. My dad is a farmer and Roswell is a farming community. Here in Chicago, you’re cut off from nature. You’re in the shadow of skyscrapers. Living in DeKalb and Roswell I could see the sunset, the moon, the stars. Seeing the moon in DeKalb sparked a desire to get wonder back in my life.
LM: It thought it was very dry in Roswell. How can they farm there?
LS: They have to use a lot of water to grow crops in Roswell. It’s sad to see.
LM: What did you propose for the Roswell residency?
LS: In graduate school I focused on materials and materialism. I wanted to be in a community and put this interest in materialism into coherent body of work.
LM: Most people who have heard of Roswell think of UFOs and aliens.
LS: Yes. There’s an alien museum in Roswell [International UFO Museum and Research Center]. About 50,000 people live there. The museum is on a strip with stores selling alien objects. The McDonalds looks like alien spaceship. The museum feels like DIY place. It feels ridiculous to day but I was intrigued by the people who really believe. There’s a sign that says, “If you came to Roswell for the truth, call” and it gives a number.
Roswell has a week-long aliens [UFO] festival. They bring in people to give talks. There’s a movie about a man who believes without a doubt that he was abducted by aliens. I’m fascinated about being so lost in something—to blindly believe in something other people find completely ridiculous.
LM: Were people evangelical about their belief in aliens and UFOs?
LS: That man in the movie wanted to talk to others about his experience of alien abduction. Most people in the audience already were believers. They were interested in learning about aliens and he had answers for them.
LM: I’ve been thinking about Dr. Seuss lately. Works of yours such as Hunch and The Rise of a New King seem almost Seussian. Or even alien-like. Did being in Roswell, with images of aliens as part of your visual field, and meeting believers in aliens come to affect your visual vocabulary?
LS: I can’t say no. At the same time, I wasn’t thinking about aliens. I knew what I was making were fish, but I didn’t want them to look like fish. I was more after an emotion. I was exploring how I could use the material of concrete to play with textures, context, and create a feeling. The fact that the fish are cyclopic or one-eyed is really important. My mom has been really sick for past the 10 years and at one point she almost died. She has a heart condition and after going under anesthesia she lost one of her eyes. It caused her a lot of suffering. When I was making them, I didn’t know why these fish have one eye.
LM: We’ve talked about some of the ideas and feelings underneath your work. Let’s turn to their materiality. They’re substantial objects, yet not forms typically associated with concrete. I’m thinking of concrete and cement as a material that’s poured into rectilinear forms, for example sidewalks and cinder blocks. Your concrete forms in this show aren’t at all rectilinear. They’re almost amorphous, and seem to retain the fluidity of concrete, that is, they suggest the mutable form that concrete takes before it solidifies.
What other works in this show are made with concrete?
LS: In addition to Hunch and Rise of a New King (joint compound, drywall and concrete), the other works in this show with concrete and other materials are Baby, Don, The Clouds Spirit, and A Lost Conversation with an Old Angel. The angel is my grandma.
When I was in grad school, I liked exploring my own resourcefulness. That led me down the concrete path. I remember a grad school professor saying that plaster is a poor man’s marble. I’m using concrete as a poor man’s clay. I love concrete’s gray color. I used it in this way because I have this weird thing in my studio that I like to build relationships with my objects. I build relationship with what the material can and cannot do. I want to make sure I build with materials without asking them to do too much. It makes sense. Concrete has its own alchemy: combine water and powder and it becomes very moldable and dries fast. I don’t feel like I’m asking the concrete to do anything it can’t do.
LM: Does your familiarity with concrete come from working with it on construction jobs?
LS: Yes, I’ve poured concrete. I wasn’t a skilled laborer. You know the Ozinga trucks? I pushed wheel barrows filled with cement to build interior floors for restaurants and other interiors.
LM: Moving and pouring concrete is demanding physical work. It sounds like you earned your understanding of the properties of concrete through hard labor. Does the Spanish word bracero in the title of your show refer to your experience of working as an unskilled laborer?
LS: Bracero means working class. For example, a bracero can be a concrete worker, farmworker, or steelworker. Mexicans were brought to Chicago Heights to work in the steel mills in the 1940s through the Bracero Project. They came over a period of time. My grandfathers on my mom’s and dad’s sides were brought by the Bracero Project.
LM: So the word bracero is personal beyond your own work experience. It also relates to how your family got to Chicago Heights.
LS: In grad school I was part of a history project that was trying to find and document the stories of Braceros still living in the U.S. The project reminded me that my own family was Bracero.
LM: So Bracero is about your family history, your experience as a bracero, and bringing both of those strands into your art practice. Are there other strands?
LS: That’s right. My interest in materials, Bracero connections on both sides of my family, and my work in construction.
LM: Let’s look at specific works now, starting with The Words of Silent Ancestors? This scale of this work is mural-like. Its panels and overall horizontal length evoke east Asian screen paintings. What led you to that format? And what about those visceral materials in the lower part? And do you have anything more to say about the panther image?
LS: At the time I was making this work I was moving between working in studio and writing the mythology. The story and characters were important to me to tell. I attempted to do it with poetry. That’s a panther-ish figure. I realized I made the panther character different in each work. But the all the panthers have two common and distinguishing features. They are saber-toothed and have pointy ears. It’s the same with the fish. It’s the same with fish character but each one looks different. If I was talking about same character, it would never look the same:
LM: That idea for your panther and fish characters reminds me of the figure in mythology and folktales of the shape-shifter. It appears in many different cultures. A scholar named Stith Thompson created the Motif-Index of Folk-literature. It’s fascinating to see how motifs appear in far flung places.
LS: In The Words of Silent Ancestors I wanted to create a painting that functioned as a painting. By that I mean it’s a window to another world. I wanted to make it appropriate to another world so I used simple, one-point perspective. It’s not too logical. It could be sunset or sunrise. The light and colors don’t have to make sense. In my world these things don’t t have to make sense.
LM You’re making a world that has its own approach to making sense—one that’s not governed by logical and visual conventions.
LS: Exactly. And this was a fun project. The idea of one eye appears in different ways. Some of my stories treat the moon as a one eye. The panther’s eye is the moon looking at us in the “concrete world.”
LM: I like the way concrete is both literal and metaphorical at the same time in your work. By making images with concrete, you make your imaginary world concrete for viewers. I’d like to hear more about what’s going on in The Words of Silent Ancestors.
LS: The panther has its mouth open. The long form projecting from the upper to the lower panel is the panther’s lower lip. The panther’s breath is the arcing form coming down on the left. Its one eye is like full moon. There’s abstraction in foreground. The wave is cresting. I use stucco to give it dimensionality.
LM: What’s in stucco?
LS: It’s made from soil and fibers. Stucco is a new material for me to work with. In Roswell stucco is a very common building material.
LM: How did you apply the stucco to make the waves?
LS: It’s a combination of stucco, silicone caulk, resin, foam, and acrylic. I dyed the stucco blue, and painted parts of it.
LM: What’s going on with the palette? It’s a distinctive range and combination of colors.
LS: I don’t want to get too art history but I took from Frank Stella the idea that all color is arbitrary. I just line up my buckets and start painting. I know what colors I buy but when I approach the canvas I just start. It’s intuitive. If I don’t like it, I repaint to change the color.
LM: I ask because I’ve spent time in artists’ studios where they are very precise and particular about color. They have color tests and samples pinned up on the wall. I guess some painters are more colorists than others.
LS: I’m not a colorist. I use it for feeling and depth.
LM: Can you say something about the forms in the painting’s upper left?
LS: It’s a mountain cave. I used gesso instead of white. The painting is on cement board, a material typically used for attaching bathroom and kitchen tile. It’s more resistant to moisture than drywall. Each panel weighs about 20 pounds and I made a u-channel to attach them in the gallery.
LM : When we were having lunch before the interview, you mentioned the upcoming performance you’re planning for your Bolt Residency. The Words of Silent Ancestors could be an excellent backdrop for the dance you described.
LS: I was thinking about that too in restaurant.
LM: They Had Young Hearts, but Large Halos is the piece you chose for the gallery window. Its large circular form makes frames a view into the gallery and the entire show. It’s like a smaller window placed inside a larger one. It looks like it’s made of 2 by 4s.
LS: It’s the last piece I made for this show.
LM: The 2 x 4s bring to mind the construction work of braceros.
LS: I used to build wood trusses for homes. They’re sold pre-made and used for the top of buildings and floors. I worked at company called Best Homes building trusses. It was the worst job of my life.
LM: What made it so bad?
LS: It was such hard work. You had to work outside in rain shine. The trusses are built on huge conveyor belts that move from inside to outside, where they’re loaded on trucks. The workers have to hammer by hand. The pieces of wood are squeezed together as they’re moved along the conveyor belt. The workers have to hammer them together and then put clamps on them.
I worked there during the summer during college. When I went back to my dorm room in the fall I wrote down the name of the company to remind me to study so I wouldn’t have to work there after college. The work was so painful. You wake up in the night with a fever. When a new person came we would place bets on whether they would quit before lunch. OSHA finally shut the company down company because of violations.
LM: So bracero is the tough and repetitive work of lifting, carrying, pounding. Of working in heat, rain, and cold. Work that’s physically painful and wears out your body.
LS: Yes, and to survive that kind of work you have to be very creative. You have to figure out how to move trusses with hammer to reduce the effort and strain.
LM: For braceros, necessity is mother of invention. They need to minimize the toll of work on the body.
LS: I’ve seen braceros who are super-creative. There are videos online of albanil the work of coating bricks and cinderblocks with cement, paint or whitewash that show amazing, labor-saving techniques.
LM: In this interview we’ve talked about the work in this show you made during your Roswell residency. Right now you have a Bolt residency with the Chicago Artists Coalition. Can you give a preview of what’s coming next?
LS: I’m creating a fictional ritual that involves sculpture, sound, and dance. The idea came from my creation mythology that combines many stories into one. Instead of continuing to develop the mythology, I want to continue to tell the same story over and over in different forms. I want to tell a similar story with dance. The show will be on July 21 at the Bolt space.