Yoan Capote answering questions posed by Phyllis Tuchman
PT: Would you characterize your art as an example of Figurative Minimalism?
YC: While I like the term Figurative Minimalism, it relates to formal analysis. I’m interested in Minimalist concepts relating to space, simple or geometric forms, the repetition of symbols as a pattern, the quest for visual synthesis and economical elements. I believe these aesthetic solutions combined with the influence of Minimalism are found in design, photography, architecture, even representational art. Nevertheless, I identify myself as a conceptual artist. Ideas and content play an important role in my work. Like other conceptualists, I have no set formal allegiances. I am openly promiscuous regarding visual solutions. My creative process starts with meanings. Often, I begin by writing titles on a white sheet of paper torn from my agenda. Almost everything is inspired by the psychological analysis of things, objects, actions. I am introspective. I try to research behaviors comparable to the way anthropologists and ethnographers approach participatory observation. That’s a method involving extracting information from private and collective experiences. I like to examine the psychological states. Whenever you are interested in human conflicts, it is difficult to escape from the representation of the body. Body and mind are an indissoluble unit. This does not mean that all my works needs to use a representation of the body. Sometimes, the body of the beholder is manipulated during its interaction with a work or an installation. In art, everything is symbolic, beginning with the colors of the walls in the gallery, the lighting, the smells, and even the behavior of the people.
PT: When you create a play on images, is that the visual equivalent of a play on words?
YC: According to semiotics, words and images are closely related in our minds. Saussure said, when referring to the duality of the word, it will convey an image as well as a sound simultaneously. Metaphors are also a symbolic play between images and words. I am attracted to all of this because I am always motivated by the need to convey content. Very few of my works are untitled. Often, they include a parenthetical subtitle. I grant great importance to visual poetry generated by the contradiction of meanings. I don’t always produce works that convey a message; but, today’s spectator, almost always, seems to want to extract a meaning from it. Every day there seems to be a greater need to explain an artwork. This brings to mind something Harold Rosenberg once said regarding the way contemporary art resembled a type of centaur that is half artistic material and half words.
PT: Do you have favorite materials?
YC: No, I do not. Some of my favorite pieces are comprised of bronze and concrete. But materials don’t determine the work. Ideas are critical to my deciding which materials to use. I have worked with wax, plaster, glass, blood, plastic, and other substances. The same applies to media, such as painting, video, photography, installation. These days, you do not need to call yourself a painter, a sculptor, or a photographer. Whenever you have something interesting to convey, you look for the ideal way to express it.
PT: Do your installations and discrete objects address the same concerns?
YC: As time passes, every artist realizes he or she is more sensitive to specific means or materials. It is practically an unconscious process. Decisions depend on the aims of your work. In my specific case, installations result from objects. For example, whenever I want to stress the power of a work through the use of space, sound, repetition, or interaction with the viewer, objects are transformed into installations. That was the case when I cast microphones from iron. Similarly, “Paranoia” exists as a single object displayed in front of a white wall in a gallery and as an installation that permits another type of experience, engaging the architectural space of a room with bars. There are many intimate, private works that rely less on space and exist as small, independent objects.
PT: Were you surprised you could create such realistic cityscapes from fishhooks?
YC: I was pleased when I was able to complete the first work using fishhooks. I had had the image in my mind for quite some time before I was able to materialize it. I made several studies. I wanted to produce something related to the traditional genre of landscape. Early twentieth century American painters, particularly landscapes of New York State by Georgia O’Keeffe, have inspired me. On top of a wooden plane--where fishhooks would be placed--I painted sky and glittering buildings with a wet brush and white oil pastes. I consider these works to be sculpture because they involve a three-dimensional experience. The real magic of these pieces occurs for me when one becomes aware of the fact that the representation is subordinated to both the physical and symbolic force of the object. We want to touch them, with the risk of finding out whether fishhooks create the image. The creative process was also very symbolic. The act of nailing almost 80,000 fishhooks verges on being obsessive/compulsive as is nailing the imagery to a painted wood plane while respecting the drawing and the shading. I am interested in this sense of obsession because the work concerns the issue of the American dream, immigration, and the culture of seduction and risk. “Appeal” has aggressive areas to touch that are pleasing to the eye.
PT: Is drawing a significant aspect of your practice?
YC: A drawing is the most direct visual expression of thought and I believe all artists find it valuable. When you draw, you are making a graphic rendering of what you picture in your mind. I always try to devote one hour every night, before I go to sleep, to producing small sketches as I search my daily experiences for a good idea. Many ideas relate to what I’ve been experiencing. You know they matter when you make several that allow you to assess how these images would be perceived in real space. Even though you might have a pc to use, the initial sketches are critical. Exhibiting drawings helps to expose the secrets of the mind, be they valid or false. In the space between our imagination and the realization of the final work, many hidden components await transformation. Sometimes the act of presenting them helps me to explain the etymology of the work, thus allowing me to stress its meanings.
PT: When you were a child, did you realize you’d become an artist?
YC: Joseph Beuys once said there is an artist in every man. That’s especially true during childhood. Young children are sensitive to color, shapes, and other aspects of creativity. Art is about being sensitive and the will to develop this takes you by surprise. Environmental factors play a role, too. Having access to an artistic education at an early stage will engender elements of fantasy and the will to devote your life to creating things that others will enjoy. My brother Ivan is also an artist. As children, we were our own best audience when we drew and made clay sculptures. We were both able to study art as youngsters. At that time, in Cuba, you could start studying art when you were 11 years old and you’d complete your program at the university level. At boarding schools, which you’d attend for 12 or so years, the teachers were trained in Russian academies. They were involved with a rigorous, pedagogical system. I can still smell the art history books as I reached for them in the library. That’s how I accumulated knowledge from Ancient cultures to Pop art and Conceptual art. At first, I didn’t fully understand these volumes. Nevertheless, they filled me with emotion.
PT: What did you learn at art school that is still useful today?
YC: Anything you learn at art school becomes a tool for the future. It’s a platform that, among others, provides technical choices. You are able to conceive a work with any type of material or in any type of medium. In your mind, you will be able to visualize it finished. Something I learned as a student in art school that I find useful is the knowledge and possibility of understanding art history in relation to society and universal human thinking. At the university level—the Higher Art Institute—we were lucky enough to have professors who expanded our knowledge beyond the ideological stereotypes that are generally associated with Cuba. My generation experienced a change in our conceptions as a result of the collapse of the Socialist camp, the legalization of American dollars in Havana, the expansive wave of tourism, the revaluation of the English language. At school, everything became more flexible, more international. The situation allowed me to learn more deeply about contemporary art and its origins without ever setting foot outside Havana. After my graduation and during trips abroad, while visiting museums and art fairs, I experienced a sort of déjà vu. During my first trip to New York, I was able to visit Louise Bourgeois one Sunday. Because I studied her work in my classes, I was able to appreciate her every word and each drawing with deep emotion. Eventually, this energy and knowledge is transformed into inspiration and creativity.
PT: What have you learned from your own solo shows?
YC: I have learned that sometimes, less is more, that only a few works can guarantee the efficacy of meanings. That space and the empty space in a gallery form part of the work itself just as silence is part of music. I also have been able to learn about the complexities of the art world regarding relations with galleries, curators, other artists, and the like.
PT: How critical is it for artists to travel?
YC: Traveling is important. Right now, contemporary artists face globalization and the break down of territories. Every day art becomes more interrelated. Right now, an international audience appreciates works of art. There are a lot of macro events, such as Biennials, the opening of new museums, large art fairs. We also communicate through the web without leaving our room. Still, art entails other types of multiple experiences for our senses. It is the sensible experience that saves and enriches our more humane side.