(Esmeralda Gómez Galera) Just this week, as we move forward with the preparations for your first solo show at L21, a devastating report by the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) has been published. This coincidence has made me look at your new paintings from a different perspective… Toucans are endangered tropical birds that are quite vulnerable at the moment. Why choosing toucans in this new series of works? Have you had the opportunity to see any of these birds in their natural environment?
(Craig Kucia) I chose the toucan, because I want subjects that are meaningful to me, but are also quite open to interpretation. I like the idea of leaving the story half-finished, or unclear, so the viewer has to or is able to bring their own memories to it.
For me, I had an uncle who did a tour of duty in the Vietnam war. He was very quiet and never talked about his experience except one time. He told us a story about his friend who was severely injured in the jungle and, as he was dying, he looked up and said, “hey there’s a toucan”, and my uncle said that everyone turned around and looked into the trees but nothing was there and when they looked back he had died. It was such a strange story to hear as a child; it’s something that always stuck with me. Later on when I was in junior high, I had a falling out with my best friend and we never spoke again. His mom had an obsessive addiction to toucan figurines, and when you entered his house they were everywhere that you looked. So there’s definitely some of my past there, but I have also always been interested in anthropomorphism more generally and its place in our culture.
The toucan, like many other animals, has been used historically in advertising, and advertising specifically aimed at the working-classes. The painting with the glass on the toucan’s beak is a play on the old Guinness ads. At the time, and probably still, beer was a working man’s drink, and Guinness used these ads in an attempt to expand the appeal of beer to the upper classes. I was interested in the contrast this image created and the way it connected to another theme I often use in my work: the working class and its place in society. This was the main theme behind the whale works.
And, obviously there’s also the environmental factor. I’ve always been interested in how we use animals for our own purposes with little regard to their well-being. Specifically here, deforestation in Brazil has led to the decline of toucans and has affected the ecosystem of the whole forest, in all the ways that are as unexpected as they are familiar. Toucans are integral to the life-cycle of specific kinds of trees, such as the Jucara tree, which is, itself, integral to the shade and cooling of the Brazilian forests. With fewer toucans, you have fewer Jucara, and with fewer Jucara everything gets hotter: what can live and grow there will or has already completely changed.
(E) Recent paintings also feature other wild animals, such as whales. That series of work resonates with the following quote from Herman Melville’s Moby Dick:
“you must needs conclude that the great Leviathan is that one creature in the world which must remain unpainted to the last. True, one portrait may hit the mark much nearer than another, but none can hit it with any very considerable degree of exactness. So there is no earthly way of finding out precisely what the whale really looks like. And the only mode in which you can derive even a tolerable idea of his living contour, is by going a-whaling yourself”
The only solution Melville’s character sees for anyone who wants to depict a whale is to have a real encounter with one. Perhaps the same could be said of other animals. What do you think of this idea? Is there a particular reason for choosing these themes in your paintings? Where do these animal images that become iconic in your paintings come from?
(C) I’m also always interested in how to represent something you may have never seen in person, and this idea of secondhand perception. This is true for the whale and the toucan, and even so much art. Early in my career I had lunch with a gallerist and we spoke about an artist whose work inspired mine. She asked me what I thought of the work, and I confessed I had only seen them online, so I only could imagine what they looked like in person. I was inspired by the work, but had to make my paintings based on what I imagined the surfaces to be like. For all of them – whales, toucans, art – there’s this idea of access and proximity.
These days, I think there are a lot of Leviathans people have never had any real contact with, but are nonetheless terrifying for them. I think what Melville touches on is the idea of contact being both more and less awful than one might imagine. For example, my whales have teeth on top and bottom, like the 19th century images, but obviously real whales don’t. In my view, the possibility of this contact is a privilege and a culpability. It implies the means to travel, or to live in cities.
As a white man in the 21st century, I also have to think about the ways in which that contact has been really destructive. My family is very blue collar, and so on some level, I really identify with the whalers and the loggers. I know that a lot of those guys were doing what they needed to do to support their families, and believed in the work they did, but also that that work directly or indirectly endangered and extinguished whole populations of animals and people. I think it’s also where the idea of tourism is complicated – obviously, I would love to visit the Galapagos or to see a toucan in Brazil, but I know that the journey itself, the actual privilege of seeing, can be harmful.
(E) On a more technical level, the paintings in the exhibition “A toucan” are based on the repetition of the same figure in the foreground and then there are variations of textures, colours and patterns… the painting’s backgrounds place each of these birds in a completely different universe. Can you tell us a bit more about your process and this relationship between figure and background in your works?
(C) My process is all over the place, but so much of it is just the actual love of painting and all of the things you can do with paint. I’m interested in a lot of different kinds of art, and it’s been a lot of fun to quote from some of my favorite painters. I came to art later in life, and I grew up in a house with a real hodge podge of furniture. I don’t think there was a particular style or aesthetic, neither of my parents decorated so much as acquired. My work is the same – I borrow from a lot of different places. The series process has been so unexpectedly fruitful and exciting in that way.
I’m using the exact same whale or toucan over and over, but these sometimes minor variations change the whole mood in really big ways. It’s been a fun excuse to play around and show off in some technical aspects as well as a way to play with styles and techniques that aren’t necessarily “mine.” In some recent paintings, like the dipytchs I did for Harper’s, I’m removing the whale from the background and just painting the background. I like the idea that they are somehow totally distinct.
(E) Lastly, I would like to know more about the role of the frames in these works, as they seem to be an essential part of the painting itself. Is their design something you decide from the first sketches or is it rather something you come across during the process?
(C) For the whale paintings, the frames were very much meant to feel found. They were intended to indicate the handmade, and initially I was making the frames and the paintings totally separately. That evolved a bit over the series, and I had fun making frames that paired more particularly with paintings or expanded the painted surface so that whole piece became one object.
I also think a lot about the ways in which framing makes things feel important – it gives weight to things that might not have it otherwise. For the toucans, I wanted the painting themselves to feel “found,” but loved: like they’d been framed by someone who was excited about what they discovered, but didn’t necessarily have an art background.
A conversation between Esmeralda Gómez Galera and Craig Kucia.