Multimedia artist interested in more than what meets the eye
Alva CalyMayor is a multi-faceted artist from Mexico City who works in New York. CalyMayor’s works respond to immediate social and political changes in the (broad sense of) community. She creates with multiple mediums and various ideas, but her work is connected by the profound and deep seated research she does on the subject matter. CalyMayor’s physical work always has a hidden component to it, whether it is on the back or underneath the work, for the viewer to discover.
You work in many different mediums. Do you focus on one project at a time or do you move from project to project? How do you keep all those ideas?
The idea I want to research and explore decides the medium and material I work with. I use lots of different mediums ranging from sound, sculpture, printmaking, to painting.
What I am interested in tends to show up as a reaction to what is happening around me: the art world, politics in Mexico or Latin America, and relations between USA and Mexico. There are things that are constantly happening, so I usually keep a huge leather journal of ideas. I may revisit them, however there is an urgency to react to something right away.
I have been reading a book with interviews with Werner Herzog. In one of his responses, he says that he’d like to try to give meaning to his existence through his work. I very much share this view when it comes to the work I make.
Do you consider yourself a political artist?
I have made work from a necessity to call attention to events that have happened in Mexico. In general I don’t know if my work or some of my work would qualify as political. If by making use of empirical observation in order to interpret my surroundings can be considered so, then I guess it is.
I would like to believe that through Art we can contribute to the process of social transformation in order to bring awareness to issues that require attention or action.
What types of art are you most interested in right now?
I have been reading a lot about color because I have been slowly going back to painting. I’m interested in natural pigments--an interest that extends back to earlier work when I was painting with natural dyes. I find it really interesting to create colors out of things that you can eat; I like to see the color transform. For example, when you paint with pomegranate juice, the color changes according to the levels of PH used in the mix.
I have always been attracted to the possibilities of using a diversity of materials, especially with clay and papier mâché. I really enjoy working on a good ink gradient by utilizing a big rubber roll at the print studio. It can be either heartbreaking or very rewarding to see the results once you pull out a print, especially when more than one printmaker is working at the studio. I will inevitably take a peek and watch a successful print surface. The “oooh” and “aah” sounds make it even more exciting!
In general, the work I find most appealing is that which relates to whichever work I am developing at the moment. I enjoy picking up books that somehow seem to connect to the precise chain of ideas I am exploring. These days I have been reading a lot about potatoes and their introduction from South America to Europe, which is in connection to a collaboration I’m doing with Paul Branca for a show happening in London called Costermongering at Belmacz Gallery in London. Back in 2013 and 2014, Branca Staged at several squats in New York--a project consisting of selling still life paintings of produce, made by himself and a group of artists, at vacant vegetable stands in Brooklyn. This upcoming exhibit will bring together twenty six artists contributing fruit, vegetables, meat and fish sculptures and paintings to create a market stand. In my research, I found that potatoes were imported to the UK by the Spanish from South America and were once considered poisonous, but now are an essential crop in Europe. I can’t help but connect it to the recent fear with welcoming refugees and immigrants associated with the outcome of Brexit results .
Often in my work there are a lot of layers which might not surface at a first glance; you might even miss them. However it feels really good when someone approaches me and brings up exactly that same question or aspect I am addressing. I usually make work that does call to the audience’s attention, but the audience doesn’t necessarily need to know everything at first glance.
How does the public interact with your work?
I was just listening to Arlene Shechet talk about her work. Shechet works with a lot of materials (as do I) and just had a retrospective at the ICA in Boston. Shechet said she likes how people “dance” around her sculptures. I never fully realized that there is this whole choreography put on by the audience around a sculpture. That is what everybody does--an interaction with the work while trying to grasp what there is. I would like to think about my work being viewed in that manner.
I’ve certainly played with how my work could be viewed. My friend Blanca was having shows in her bedroom in the Bronx --the Bronx Blue Bedroom. She invited an artist a month for about two years. A lot of people from the community were able to come see her shows, which is one of the very few successful community projects I could think of. My show at the Bronx Blue Bedroom was influenced by my first observations in New York upon arriving from Mexico. I had been studying printmaking at a school uptown and saw so many nannies taking care of babies that aren’t their own. A lot of these nannies lived in the Bronx and I thought I wanted to make a work that was in relation to that for the Bronx Blue Bedroom. So, I created a ceramic she wolf sculpture with a feeding system. The sculpture had little kittens and I had people eat milk from bowls placed on the floor so that they could see the sculpture from a different perspective. I like to play with ways in which art can be viewed.
What do you like about the Mexico City art scene that you wish could happen in NYC, and vice versa?
This is a question that keeps coming up, there is at least one article a year talking about the rising scene of Mexico City or the cool new scene happening somewhere in NYC. This is good because one can trace how they have changed over the years according to the experiences of people directly involved.
I don’t feel comfortable with talking about the subject when the word “scene,” is utilized. I don’t know why, but I get obsessed with the use of certain words sometimes.
The rise and fall of Independent Spaces is frequently said to happen in periods of three years. As I see it, there is currently a period of transition happening where some of the spaces and projects are growing into a more ambitious format. Others are becoming more solid, strengthened by a pedagogy aspect through sharing knowledge and having discussions (this interests me the most). Some are creatively building a stronger collector base. Regarding the perils of strengthening acquisitions and attracting more collectors, I do not know a formula nor know if there is one, but I would like to see more young collectors doing research and collecting emerging and mid-career artists’ work.
In September 2015, I started collaborating on the idea of a space that would open in Mexico City. It would be a shared tool and equipment workshop, with 4 to 5 subsidized studios, and a project space and curatorial proposals open to members. As excited as I was with the possibility of a space like this, the project had to be reconsidered. It was slowly but surely heading into another tale of debt under a non rent-stabilized scenario.
I hear a lot of people want to move to Mexico City, and every artist in New York at least at one point in their careers ask themselves if they wish to remain living here. It is really tough to give an objective opinion on this because the ecosystem is not well balanced on either side of neighborhood community or scene.
I have found more viable models that I trust by having conversations with NY-based artists in my community such as Leah Dixon, co-owner of Beverly’s. I’ve been observing what other artists are proposing such as Caroline Woolard, who banded together with artists and non-artists alike in order to build a real estate investment cooperative.
As an artist, curator, performance artist, maker and thinker, what is the underlying thread in all of your different roles?
I think it's a lot of research. I like to explore how things are presented and how people react to things. When creating work, I don’t initially think about how I can get people to like the work. I do it because I need to do it. The second step is then to think about how people would interact with it, and add more layers to it.
Recently the interaction aspect is something I’ve found to really like. During a performance piece, by acting in character, you can find out a lot of information which wouldn’t be necessarily available under normal circumstances. This past December, I collaborated with Ed Varie and Jen Dunlap and we performed as curanderas at Miami Basel near the NADA Art Fair. Initially, the idea surfaced from Talking Contemporary Curating, specifically the chapter where Mari Carmen Ramírez speaks about early in her career as a curator in which some people in her hometown thought she might be referring to her profession as a Curandera instead. For our performance at the Fontainebleau Cabana, we drew inspiration from Lygia Clark and the psycho-magic therapy of Alejandro Jodorowsky by intertwining the dynamics of art, bodies, and culture from Coco Fusco as well as the practice of the Meso-American Culture and Chontal groups.
There is so much energy stuck in art fairs and their booths, and people don’t realize how stressed they actually are. Art fairs are usually taking away from you, they don't really give. We were giving people attention as “healers” and focusing on them instead of what else was happening at Basel. Honestly it is the only way I could have survived that Art Fair week.
* My first time in Miami Basel as well
** Oh! remember the stabbing, yeah that happened this year as well, just as a side note
How do you think collectives like EYELEVEL BQE can help rising artists?
Initially, I wanted EYELEVEL to function like a gallery, hence the starting name of EYELEVEL Gallery. I had decided the program was going to consist of monthly shows and operating under a gallery format, but I soon realized it wasn’t what I really wanted. The name changed to EYELEVEL BQE when we changed to a bigger space and when I started learning more about other project spaces models. What I like about it was that there was a community of artists that started working together. I certainly would have wanted It to grow more. It happens with every collective where people become involved very actively at the beginning and then slowly the involvement starts dissolving. So I think in order for EYELEVEL to keep running as a space it would have to be a lot of people doing things together.
Nowadays I’d like to see it more as a research project, through studio visits, conversations with peers in order to understand how other artists work, rather than trying to promote shows or making sales.
What resources do rising artists need?
Lately there is this belief that you have to be an entrepreneur and promote yourself all the time, such as on Instagram. It certainly helps but I do feel that too much of that is not making the art scene very exciting. There used to be parties and get togethers and it used to be more about being a community rather than business enterprise. Of course you want to make money from your work but it can make things less interesting. I do however enjoy meeting new artists and projects through it, just want more IRL action.
What does an art community mean to you?
An art community is everything to me. The culture of communities are so crucial because I think it's one of the few formulas to survive. All the neighborhoods of NYC are getting pushed and displaced. The cycle seems to start when artists come and make use of raw and under utilized spaces. Workshops, studios and spaces result from it, making the area a bit more interesting for the real estate. I think as artists, we are missing something by doing this. We are excluding the rest of the community and we have to be actively conscious about what we are doing to help the neighborhood last longer than that period of 5-10 years wherein the neighborhood becomes yuppified. In LA, some areas don’t even want galleries to open because they don’t want the area to become quickly gentrified, because as soon as a gallery opens, a condo follows. Then the artists won’t be able to afford to live there as well. It is important to think about community not only in terms of artistic but also sustainability aspects. You need to work with resources in addition to artist practices. I think meeting, discussing, gathering and learning from each other is very important.
Interviewed by Sarah Cho