Sophia Kayafas visits Carlos Vela-Prado, a conceptual artist living and working in Greenpoint. Vela-Prado strives to remove himself from the execution of his art, hence giving agency to the idea and eliminating the preciousness of the artist’s hand.
(air whooshing) (gentle music)
- [Carlos] Hey how is it going?
- Hi Carlos
- Nice to meet you.
- Nice to meet you too, I'm Sophia.
It's a muggy, stormy day.
And I'm visiting artist Carlos Vela-Prado
in his Greenpoint studio.
Carlos moved to the space
three years ago
after having various studios in Williamsburg.
I love these big old freight elevators.
Carlos travels the world gathering photographs
and materials that inform and inspire his work.
I was eager to find out how he combines all
of his ideas into one process.
From what I know, from your work,
which I've only seen online, on your website,
I can tell that it's very conceptual
and you're kind of straddling many, many different materials
and different ways of thinking about ideas and meanings.
I mean, could you tell me a little bit about the materials?
- So I went to school for sculpture,
but I came from a background within photography
and computer science basically.
And what drew me to sculpture was the fact
that I can form a conversation around a concept
and really engage a space and kind of activate it.
And within that, I am a person that loves learning
and I like to teach myself all
these different kinds of mediums.
So it's like, I like to kind of confuse the kind
of organic ideas that one's perception
of what a painting would be like
or what a drawing would be like.
These are just panels that I'm preparing
for these photographic frescoes that I've kind
of been working on and off for the last six years.
And it's gone through many iterations.
- What's a photographic fresco?
I'm always trying to invent something a new way of working.
So this is trying to find a way
to photographically expose an image on a plaster surface.
So the image that I'm using here is actually from last year
from the migrant crisis on the border
between the U.S. and Mexico.
- So this image really kind of took a hold of me.
And I just kept thinking about how, you know,
in Italy, Italian frescoes, it's always a procession,
it's always kind of a group of people moving.
I kind of got obsessed with this photo
that I think people really gloss over.
When do they initially see this?
It's just the atrocities of being shot -
You know, a mother and her children being shot
with tear gas, but the clothing that they're wearing,
she's wearing a Frozen shirt and, you know,
and the little girl
was wearing a little Buzz Light Year shirt,
but then for me it became this other aspect
of the transfers of clothes between America
and the different parts of the world
and, you know, the waste and all.
This is a finished artwork.
This is a scale replica of Manet's Olympia
which is this painting right here.
This is just called Olympia.
This is one of the earliest things that I was doing
with this plaster medium.
I really like this piece.
And because of its inherent, again,
back to what I was saying, it's very minimal,
I took high risk photographs of the painting.
And I found
where all the cracks were in the painting right now.
The plaster in itself is tinted to be the same color
as it was first shown at the Salon de Paris
and then going in there,
it's actually carved into the plaster.
- [Sophia] So when you're putting the marks
with the graphite,
you're not just leaving a mark, you're carving out.
- So it's actually all carved and then filled with graphite.
What happens here is just through time and itself,
like the white,
female figure actually just completely gets blurred out.
But what happens with just the painting, the physicality
of the painting, it creates a halo around the black figure.
And I think that's kind of a very beautiful way.
And the in painting itself is kind
of changing its own history through time
and kind of letting you think about it in a certain,
in a different way.
- It seems like you're in your studio
and you're playing with meaning.
And if something has meaning that it has history,
but even in the midst of all this kind of enigma,
at first glance, it seems like you're finding new meanings
and new connections.
And I'm wondering what that makes a studio feel like
when you're in here,
do you feel like you can't focus on one thing?
Are you like moving around?
Are you writing things down?
- The best way to make sense
of how I work is kind of going back to computer science.
Basically, I'm thinking of an idea or a concept
and every individual artwork is like a line of code in order
to describe something else.
So it's the build up of all these individual artworks
that create the final artwork.
- Establishing a flow, like a workflow is something
that has driven me to madness many times.
Sometimes it has to do
with maybe being in the studio every day, repetitively.
And then you kind of get into the flow.
Sometimes it happens in an hour.
Sometimes it takes a week.
I'm wondering, can you talk to me about your workflow?
What does that feel like?
- Can you just say that again?
What if, sorry.
- You know, like a flow sate?
- No, I do know a flow state.
But that's I think inherently what's problematic
with being an artist in which we just never stop.
You know, I feel like there was a moment
at one time after grad school
that I was sitting there with my friend
and we were both having, you know, we were both working
whatever jobs we had and we went for dinner
and we sat there and we're looking at everyone walking
by and we're like, this is just not fair.
Like everyone, you know, who has, you know, who works,
you know, for a living doing, you know,
construction or something, going back to their home
to their family has this idea of having time off
and with whatever we have done,
it's just like we can never have time off.
So there's always this kind of anxiety of trying
to get one more thing finished before the night is over.
- [Sophia] What's the name of the storm again?
- [Carlos] Isaias.
- [Sophia] Isaias.
- Yeah, it's pretty, it's pretty bad.
- How far are we right now from..?
- It's a 10 minute walk.
It's not too far.
So it's kind of we're in the industry side of Greenpoint
and we're walking towards the old industry side
but obviously it's turning around
with all the construction near the waterfront.
- How do you feel about that?
- It's a mixed bag of things.
I like how quiet it was.
It is now relatively, but it's obvious
that it's going to just going to be an influx of people.
- [Sophia] My God, your house is amazing.
- [Carlos] Thanks.
- It's nice to see your face too.
- I know, its a little bit awkward,
but come on in.
- Wow, how long have you had this place?
- My wife has been here for about seven years, please.
- Oh yeah?
So it's kind of one of these old Brooklyn, you know,
chaotic spaces that someone built out
that really shouldn't have,
but it's been amazing.
So and it's been great - I love it.
- to be here during the pandemic
because it allows us to have space and, you know,
I can work at home as well.
And this is Imo.
I am from Guatemala, I was born in Guatemala.
And my dad came here when I was born,
basically, lived here until he got his residency
and then my mother and I came over.
So I was about around eight years old when that happened.
- Oh, wow.
- So and then we grew up in, well,
I grew up on Long Island, with a name like Carlos,
it's obviously that I'm not like, let's say American, right.
But it is, I am from Guatemala,
but I am much more - I'm an American, as an American can be,
the American dream is... I kind of fall in line with that.
And then kind of, you know, I understand where I come from
and I understand the responsibility
and that's kind of part of it's that ties into my work
because it's a struggle that I have.
How do I acknowledge myself as a minority,
but also as an American,
without exoticizing myself or my culture.
I've been making these drawings
with a machine. I found this 3D printer,
I started getting into 3D printing
and back into robotics and coding.
And last year I was making these drawings
by hand, which took, you know, weeks to make.
And they're all very, you know, mechanical in a sense,
but in the way that they're produced,
I'd like that, you know,
there's always some sort of, I was never perfect.
You know, it's like, I'm not a machine.
But it got to the point, it's like, all right,
what if I make a machine to make these things for me?
Within that, I wanted to kind of push the boundaries
off the software and actually really simplify it.
So not have something that's very exact or very controlled.
But I actually attached, let's say,
the most simplest object. and that being the pencil,
the pencil itself blurs the lines
of the mark making and the creator.
I have a particular notion of the idea
of the artists and the artists making drawings
within the school of thought
that mark making in itself could be inherently an artwork.
And for that, if I can separate myself and add a filter,
that is also mark making on its own
without my control, but allow itself to make accidents.
Then I feel like that gives the agency
to an idea and the machine, as opposed to me as the artist,
just making a mark on a piece of paper
and letting that be the artwork.
I think there's a preciousness
that artists can imbue in things
that I'm sort of against. The removal of me
and adding something that kind of complicates it,
I find that very interesting.
- You're dealing with all of these ideas that are invisible.
They're invisible, they're in your head
they're in your soul, in your heart,
they're floating around and you're having to negotiate,
like you said, these different things
and have them maybe strike a new meeting,
maybe accidentally or on purpose.
I'm wondering if sometimes those ideas feel more concrete
than the substances in the materials that you use?
- I'm going to say no,
I think that's the beauty of it because it is a negotiation.
What I'm trying to do is orchestrate
these different moments in time, in space,
with different objects,
to kind of allude to a kind of, you know,
melody and chorus in my head
that I don't think it's very easy to kind of understand,
but if I can drive the meaning
and points via a text, a photo, a video,
to allude to a feeling
that I have an actual feeling or an actual,
you know, idea, if I can approach that,
that's the goal.
There are machines involved in everything
but I never want them to be at the forefront.
It's doing this for me
but it's not the end I have to go in
and erase things - there are specifics.
So it actually brings it back to this idea of photography,
which at the end of the day,
I still have to dodge and burn the actual image.
So I have to go in and like take out the highlights,
you know, darken the darker spots
by using a smudge stick.
It becomes this whole play as well.
- Do you feel like this project and even this machine,
do you feel like it's part of a new maybe area in your work?
Maybe in a step forward that you haven't been before?
Would you say it even defines you more clearly as an artist?
- Do you have one that does?
- One work?
- A one project or one work yeah.
That you were like, yeah, this is who I am.
This is the work I'm making now I see myself.
- I don't think so.
I think it's within the whole aspect of,
I think within my whole body of work.
It's basically that's what it's going to come down to.
I think when it's all looked together at once.
Maybe I'm just a little bit narcissistic,
in that I think, you know, when it all comes together,
maybe there's a greater story within it.
And I think that will be me and it it'll be my story.
- Ideas can strike us at any moment,
but we can also seek them out, cultivate them,
pluck them out of a whirlwind of chaotic thoughts.
Sometimes we need to get lost in the process in order
to find a clarity that's meaningful or new.
Sometimes only the bigger picture forms the ultimate meaning
of what we're working on.
And sometimes it's just the journey itself
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