Jennifer Sammet interviews Alfredo Gisholt
Alfredo Gisholt seems relieved when I say he can just tell me stories; he doesn’t have to explain the work. He calls his paintings “pictures”; they are places where glimpses of experience and narratives congregate. I have been following his work since his 2014 solo exhibition at the Cue Foundation, New York, and part of what attracts me is that the paintings are seductive and meaty and difficult to locate. They are abstractions that operate in the interstices between still-life, landscape, and interiors, all at once. The forms within them are vivid, tactile suggestions of plants, animals, furniture, buildings, train tracks, and waterfalls. The short linear marks make me think of metaphoric raindrops, as if a landscape could cry.
It’s fitting that Pablo Neruda’s book of poems, Canto General (1950), has been a major influence on Gisholt’s work. The canto — a division or segment within an epic poem — feels like a model for how Gisholt’s paintings, and his studio, are organized. On one studio wall is a perfect grid of dozens of identically sized small panel paintings. The studio has stations for different modes of working, loaded with the appropriate tools and materials. The window wall is verdant with house plants alongside Day of the Dead objects.
Gisholt has set up a table with our beer between two handsome rocking chairs. The studio objects become part of the raw material for a vocabulary of forms that mingles and accumulates in his paintings. I think about the concept of “memento mori” while looking at his work — and it’s not simply because the skull is often the only recognizable form. It is the potent combination of plenty and decay.
When we visit the campus of Brandeis University — where Gisholt is a professor — he indulges my curiosity about the history of the department: who was there, where they worked, what they left behind on campus. Gisholt cultivates the same kind of “studio ghosts” in his own work. The paintings are compressed with this layered history augmented by art historical references.
Alfredo Gisholt in his studio (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Gisholt was born in 1971 in Mexico City and spent his high school years in Miami. He attended the Academy of San Carlos in Mexico City and received his MFA from Boston University. In addition to the 2014 exhibition at the Cue Foundation, New York, he has had solo exhibitions at the Museum of the University of Maine; the Deborah Colton Gallery in Houston; the Richard and Dolly Maass Gallery, Purchase College, New York; and Recinto Project Room, Mexico City. He has participated in numerous group exhibitions at venues that include the Rose Art Museum at Brandeis University, Marist College; Denise Bibro Gallery, New York; and the Nielsen Gallery, Boston. He serves as Assistant Professor of Painting and Drawing at Brandeis University, and lives and works in Boston.
Jennifer Samet: Where did you grow up? Were you exposed to art as a child?
Alfredo Gisholt: I grew up in Mexico City, very close to the center of the city, which has a great, crazy energy. Both of my parents worked, and the work day in Mexico is 9 am to 9 pm, so I grew up also being raised by my nanny who had been with our family for 40 years. My parents were very conscientious, good people, in terms of being aware and helping others. My siblings and I grew up with that spirit of lending a hand. In Mexico, there is a lot of disparity between the rich and the poor, but also a lot of interaction. I was raised by someone who came from a different place and looked very different from me, and that was very normal. The street life was the same. My siblings and I were neighborhood kids. We would ride our bikes, kick the ball around. Everyone came together on the street, all kinds of people. And I have a lot of nice memories of that time. My parents got divorced and when I was 15, we left Mexico with my mother, and went to Miami.
I was not making art as a child, and would never have predicted that I would become an artist, although creativity was fostered. My father, and all of his family members, are engineers. I grew up building things, like little toys. I used to draw, but it was all diagrams. I really wanted to be a soccer player, so I would watch games and draw plays. But it wasn’t about being an artist; it was that I wanted to score a goal like that one day.
In my last year of high school, my mother moved back to Mexico, but my brother, who was a year younger, and I decided to stay in Miami. We had made good friends there. My brother and I moved into a small apartment and we were independent. We had jobs at the grocery store. We could afford to rent a little apartment in the south of the city, near US 1., and support ourselves.
JS: That’s amazing that you could do that. What led you into art-making eventually?
AG: I had gone from a very small private school in Mexico to a 3500-student public school in Miami. I was a bit of a loner and a reader; I hung out with who my son Diego would call the Emos. But I was also playing sports which is a totally different crowd. In my last year of high school, I was taking a lot of humanities classes. I started worrying about what was going to happen if I went to engineering school, which had been the plan.
Instead I went to the community college at Miami Dade and got a scholarship for the humanities. In that program, you could take up to six classes, and two of them had to be studio art classes. As soon as I walked into figure drawing I never again thought twice about it.
Then I went to Spain for a year because my cousin was living there. By then I was pretty committed to art-making. My dad used to say, “What other classes are you going to take?” But I made a very conscious decision not to give myself a plan B. I didn’t know what the outcome was going to be, but I wasn’t going to plan for an alternative. That year in Spain was the first time I had access to museums. Then I would go back to Mexico in the summers and see work by Frida Kahlo, and the muralists, and Jose Guadalupe Posada.
I really identified with the sensibility of Spanish art. It felt familiar: the simultaneous optimism and pessimism — the contrast and tension between something being incredibly beautiful and moving, and painful at the same time. That is something that I remember about my life in Mexico. You see it on the streets. You pull up to a traffic light and you see a flame thrower, and someone wanting to sell you little Popeye figurines. They are very humble, and it tears you apart. Goya was the first artist I really identified with. And since that time, the Spanish painters have been a strong presence for me.
When I saw El Greco’s “Burial of Count Orgaz” (1586–1588), I was 19, and I remember thinking, “One day I want to make a painting like that” — as silly as that sounds. My cousin had an internship in Spain, but this was during the Iraq war, and his internship was terminated and we ran out of money. So I came back to Miami, gathered my things, and went to Mexico. I decided to go to the Academy of San Carlos in Mexico City and get that kind of formal training. I was there for three and a half years.
JS: What was the teaching like at the Academy? How did you react to it?
AG: Originally the Academy was not part of the university; it was a like standalone technical school, and not degree-granting. It was established in the 1860s by the French who came to Mexico. It was a sky-lit building with an inside courtyard and big studios. It was taught in a master and apprentice model. Every year you would be assigned to a workshop led by a teacher. The university model was somewhere else. I liked the building and I liked the vibe of downtown Mexico City. The emphasis was on dexterity with drawing and paint in terms of observation and representation.
It was a funky place at the time that I was there. Art and politics in Mexico were not separated at all. It was during the Zapatista uprising in Chiapas. There was a lot of activity around that, that you would somehow have to engage.
I got a job with a friend who had a restaurant that was reviving 19th-century Mexican cuisine. I used to do prep in the morning and go to school after that. I had to go to market at 5 in the morning every day to buy food for the kitchen. You would see the goat and lamb truck arrive, filled with still warm meat. It looked like a Goya painting. It was just the most amazing visual.
JS: How did you end up moving to the Northeast and going to Boston University for your MFA?
AG: I had a good friend from Miami, John Bailly, who had gone to Yale. In between his first and second year I invited him to come to Mexico and paint over the summer. He was having a great time painting at Yale. He said, “I have these great teachers and you should come.” That stayed in the back of my mind.
While at the Academy, we used to go to the symphony because with a student ID you got free tickets. One day they were playing Beethoven’s Ninth, and it was totally sold out. Instead I went to the bookstore. There was a book about the School of London painters. I opened it up and it was organized alphabetically, so the first artist was Frank Auerbach. I thought, “Whoah. This looks good.” The last artist was John Walker. By then I was thinking, “This is a sensibility that I trust.” In the little biography, it said, “teaches at Yale. Lives in New York.” That’s when I decided to take off and go find him.
But I couldn’t apply to Yale, because I didn’t have a degree. I went to Florida International University in Miami for two years. Then I applied to Yale, got an interview, and didn’t get in. I had no Plan B. So I went back to Miami and lived with John Bailly, who had a bare-bones house there. Both of us had a studio. It was great; we were painting all the time.
My wife and I got married that summer in Mexico and she had just finished graduate school at Lesley University. She was able to continue to work in the same school she had interned. So, we moved to Massachusetts to a little house off of Route 2 in Maynard. The first week I was there, I opened the Boston Globe, and in the Art section, I read about an exhibition of faculty member John Walker at Boston University. I was like, “He’s here?” I had no idea he had left Yale. I painted in Maynard for a year and then applied to BU, and I got in.
JS: What attracted you to John Walker’s work, and what was he like as a professor?
AG: I felt John was painting about the things that I cared about. I’ve always liked painting that talks about the big things: who we are, where we come from, where are we going; life, death, our relationship to nature. The paintings that I initially saw were the ones he made in Australia – the “Alba” paintings. They seemed to have a way of reaching the same sentiment without having to paint Jesus.
I’ve always painted skulls. I collect them. It’s always been Day of the Dead. You see this in Mexico all the time. It was a motif and a way for me to think about those things. So the first thing I did was set up a little still life with a couple of sugar candy skulls. In the first weekend at BU, I filled my studio wall with still life drawings. And then John came by and peeked into my studio. He went into his own studio, and came back with a human skull, asking me, “Would you like a real one?”
By the third week, I was making paintings about a hurricane that had hit Acapulco: this overturned world. They were heavy-handed in their subject; I would take magazine clippings and put them all together. John came into my studio, sat in my chair, and said, “Imagine if you could paint to the water.” What does that even mean? But he came by later that afternoon and said, “I live by the water in New Bedford. I’m leaving tomorrow. Buy a French easel and come with me.” I was a studio artist; I had never painted outside before.
The instruction was like holding up a mirror, in a way that only a few people can do. It was like “You figure it out, and I’m just here to point to a few things. I’m not going to explain.” I arrived and he said, “I’m going to Vassar tomorrow for an exhibition and they said some of the paintings need repair. I’m leaving in the morning. There’s food in the fridge. There’s paper and paint in the garage, if you need.”
It rained for nine days, and I painted every day under an umbrella, with plastic bags wrapped around my Converse shoes. The paint wouldn’t stick. I would come back to the studio and dry out and go out again. But it was a real experience. When I returned to my studio, I looked at my old paintings and thought “I know what he means.” I looked at the ones that had been painted outside. They had barely anything on them, but it was a very different thing. They were not “art.” What was there was experience.
JS: Can you talk about the tension in your work between abstraction and representation? I see sets of symbolic shapes, recognizable forms, and more abstract passages.
AG: My older paintings were a lot more referential, with piles of things, skeletons and little figures. They were very much in dialogue with narrative figure painting. I started thinking about how I could tell a story without figurative elements, but still using representational forms. In the past, my more representational paintings seemed to predict their outcome. I started to get suspicious about it.
I was also very affected by the Willem de Kooning retrospective exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, in 2012. I saw that de Kooning could look entirely different from one group to the next, maintaining the same profundity, the same gravity. That drove me crazy. Could I do that? Would I allow myself to do that?
Some of the painterly marks are ways to touch things. They are notations and they are directional. I had the goal of making drawings with shallow, compressed pictorial space, like the space in Caravaggio’s painting. I would do different things to allude to content, but I also wanted to go there without symbols.
I would paint my studio and the things around me: flip my trash can over and paint it. I recently made paintings called “Day Studio” and “Night Studio.” They are the studio as an evocative, metaphoric place — like late Georges Braque studio paintings, where the studio is not a rendering, but a place where a bird can start to fly.
One of the things the skull does is set up a scale within the painting. By having that one measure, it gives you an indication that the space is human scale. I want them to feel like rooms or spaces that you can walk through. I look at where things accumulate, where people leave things. Every house has a corner like that.
JS: Earlier you spoke about the social climate of Mexico City in your childhood, and the political situation when you were attending the Academy. I’m wondering if you consider how your work responds to political or emotional situations.
AG: I’ve always felt that great painting doesn’t just engage internally; it also engages externally. There are different ways of engaging, though, like the difference between Matisse and Picasso during the war. People said that Matisse was ignoring the situation, but it was just a different way of responding. Picasso was much more direct. Recently, I think political protest signs have been very powerful. But paintings can engage in a different way. I don’t want my paintings to be signs, even though I hope they have the same clarity.
When there were photographs in the news of the 2017 earthquake in Central Mexico, I came into the studio and realized some of my paintings looked like that. There were things tumbling down and unstable. The palette was very similar. I was surprised that happened, but I do want my paintings to feel familiar. And there is a tumultuous thing that I want to paint: relationships between shapes, the way things overlap, the way material is applied. I’m interested in the kind of visual energy that could be violent, but also very sensual – an energy you could smell and hear. But I also want the paintings to be somewhat beautiful. Titian’s “The Flaying of Marsyas” (1570–1576) is like that. It is horrific, but you cannot take your eyes off of it. It’s so seductive. That’s the way that I want these to engage – that you feel those extremes. I don’t want these to look like you’re going to the mall. But I do want them to feel like going to the market in Tepoztlan, Mexico: stopping, smelling the fruit, hearing the sounds and looking around.
JS: Do you find that you use a recurring vocabulary of forms to evoke these places?
AG: I find forms that I can move around and use to construct pictures. It’s a way to internalize something and reconfigure it, re-process it, and try to always get to another place. It’s like going to see the sunset. We go today and it’s a beautiful experience, and we know it’s going to be similar tomorrow, but we still go to see the same thing happening again. There may be a variation, or a difference in our perception and experience. I draw these forms all the time. I make drawings and then see the world in relation to them. For instance, I am looking at clouds and thinking of ways to simplify them so they can be brought into the work. It is a back and forth.
I’m always testing it. I need to keep looking at the world. Sometimes I put a plant in front of my painting and I draw the plant and the painting. I want to see the painting in relation to something that has a real, dimensional presence – something that is not full of art moves. I do that to test it, to see it again. If I put my rocking chair in front of my easel and look at it, it reminds me of how, in “Las Meninas” (1656), Velázquez introduces space by blocking it with a canvas. The space opens up. Or I put an easel near the painting and it casts a shadow on the painting. I think about how, in Goya’s paintings, there are shadows coming from outside the painting. It’s all about internalizing these experiences — painting from life and in different situations, and looking at the wonderful history we inherit and considering what I can contribute to it, given my personal experience. I do want my paintings to feel Mexican: to have that element. I want people to think, “I’ve been to the market too. I’ve walked down those cobblestone streets.” It is important that they have a feeling of familiarity of experience, and a sense of place: a sense of place that feels human.