Mayra Barraza (El Salvador, 1966) lives and works in England, where she has built a steadfast career after initial studies for the Bachelor in Arts at The Corcoran School of Art in Washington D.C. in 1989-1990. Winner of the Drawing Award from the Museum of Latin American Art of Long Beach, California (2008); the First Prize at the Santo Domingo Drawing Salon in Dominican Republic (2007); and the 2009 Ibero-American Print Biennial of Cáceres, Spain, among other recognitions; Barraza has made important contributions to artistic discourse and has become one of the leading artists in the region investigating issues of contemporary life such as gender identity, memory, and nature vs culture dichotomies. In 2016 she was Guest Visitor of the Federal Republic of Germany to Berlin Art Week, and recipient of a Travel Grant in 2015 by the Patricia Phelps Cisneros Foundation to attend the CIRMA Forum in Tokyo. In Spain, she was selected for the XXXI Pontevedra Biennial: “Utropicos” curated by Santiago Olmo in 2010, and for “Meso-America: Oscilations and Artifices” at the Atlantic Center for Modern Art in Las Palmas Gran Canarias in 2002, as well as awarded an Artists Residence at the Fundación Valparaíso in Almería. Between 2006 and 2010 she developed a body of work under the title “Republic of Death”, that was exhibited at the Spanish Cultural Centers in El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala. Barraza has actively created and engaged with community projects such as the art and literature E-Magazine El ojo de Adrián of which she was Founding Member and Editor between 2009 and 2012; and Y.ES Contemporary Art for El Salvador, of which she is Council Member since 2015. Over the last 25 years, she has exhibited her work at the Museo del Barrio in New York, the Instituto de Cultura Puertorriqueña in Puerto Rico, the Museum of Modern Art in Guatemala and the II Biennial of Lima, Peru. In 2013 her work was shown as part of ”Mixtape”, curated by Selene Preciado at MoLAA, and of “Nine Women in the Arts” at the National Chiang Kai-Shek Cultural Center in South Korea.
Image source: Liliana Bloch Gallery.
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- Tell us about the inspiration behind your recent solo exhibition at Liliana Bloch Gallery?
The show curated by Liliana Bloch includes works from two parallel series I’ve been working on for the last couple of years. One is called “Feral Female” and is about issues regarding what it means to me to be a woman, and is permeated by feelings of rage, desire, isolation… I feel there aren’t enough representations of women by women in the history of painting, at least not known or widely circulating, and I wanted to add to that discourse on self representation.
The other series, from which the title of the show “Predicament of the Subject” is taken, revolves around maleness and types of men and attitudes, also in a wide specter of possibilities.
Also, there are two works included from a longer series called “Zenith”, that consists of 50 or so portraits of women regarding the idea of beauty.
Those are the main ideas, frameworks if you will of the different groups, but the truth is, once the painting starts flying away it all takes a path of its own, hard to explain or put into words.
- Why have you linked Aristotle’s ten predicaments directly to your work? And why was it important to bring this reference to these paintings? In your opinion, do you think we need to know the reason behind this work to truly understand and enjoy the painting?
Actually, it works the other way around for me. The titles sort of pop into my head and then I try to make sense of them. In this case I had the title even before I started painting the series. I had a vague notion of what it meant to me and what I wanted to do, which was to try to understand what being a man is about, all its complexities. I have two young sons now both in their twenties, and three brothers, many good male friends, too many boyfriends to want to remember, and also a couple of broken marriages behind me, so it´s always been a mystery. There´s actually quite a complex thought process going on behind every painting.
Anyhow, going back to your question, I only found out about the origin of the word Predicament after I had started the series. It made sense to think of this grand philosopher ordering the world around him. Its something I find would be impossible nowadays to do, with massive information available everywhere; but in my own humble way I guess ,there’s the intention to construct a typology, though not a categorization for art is so much about freedom, that it would be senseless to do so.
There is actually more of psychological component to the series than a philosophical one if your will.
- Why did you decide to work in a small scale for this exhibition? Is it an unusual way of painting for you?
For many years now I’ve been working full time on other jobs besides painting. I’ve had to raise my kids alone (except for help from my mother), and continue to paint all at the same time. It’s been one hell of a ride, intense and chaotic at times, so I found increasingly difficult to carry on one painting for several days or weeks or months. It was so difficult to continue on the same wavelength required, and I felt the need to start and finish in one session. Who knew what would happen the day after! So they are one shot paintings. I had to work small scale in order to finish within a certain time frame, sort of in between washing the dishes after dinner and before going to bed.
Looking back, I think the format gives them a very punchy feel, that perhaps on a larger scale, with a spatula, would have been difficult to deliver. Then again, I am comfortable with exploring different formats and approaches, it depends wholly on what’s available and the idea you want to convey.I am comfortable with exploring different formats and approaches, it depends wholly on what's available and the idea you want to convey. Click To Tweet
- You used images that were sourced directly from Social Media. Was it from Instagram or some other platform? Why did you use Social Media for this and not Google search? What is so significant about it?
Yes, I used Instagram as a reference. I like how the streaming works, and how you can access images not just from the people you follow but from complete strangers everywhere. Hashtag searches are wonderful too. You can search for just about anything and, as long as people have tagged their images with the word, it will pop up. So there is a nice feeling behind it too, where everybody is just hanging out wanting to see and be seen.
I have no idea why it’s so significant, I guess it has to do with how we communicate nowadays, and how it opens up new creative spaces to interrelate.
- What drives sexual explorations in your painting?
Loneliness and desire.
- Why is the representation of male and female nudity literal in your work?
It´s not. It´s always crisscrossing away in some skewed angle. Have you ever seen or played a squash match? I love the game, I used to play quite a lot when I was young, and still do whenever I can get a hold of a partner. That’s what my painting is like, its never like a straightforward tennis shot.
- Tell us about your color pallet.
Now we are talking!
I like to work in set or groups, and within those sets I set up a framework of colors, techniques, scale, that I believe will work out. Sometimes I run off course, or make small variations, but I try to keep those reference points even if in a loose way.
For the small scale paintings, the male portraits are all set to black and white striped backgrounds, and the bodies are defined with loose brush or spatula work in a wide range of colors, a la Max Beckmann, making them seem like in a state of palpitation. For the Feral Female nudes, there are counter notes of complimentary colors in pastel tones which makes them spring to life, in scenarios defined in mushy colors and dots, sort of like drunken Vuillard brushstrokes. Over the images I paint the title, and on the edges I place accents of fluorescent colors.
- How does your culture and background influence your art?
I come from a very rich diverse cultural background, which I have cultivated through the years. In that sense, I feel comfortable exploring a wide array of subjects. The flip side is, you feel you don’t really belong anywhere.
- You live and work in London. Why did you decide to move, so many times in your life? Are you of the opinion that the place we live in shapes us?
I can’t say all my travels have been product of a decision. I’ve always been very open to chance and I guess when the opportunities came my way I was strong and courageous enough to detach myself from comfortable surroundings into the unknown. Everything around us shapes us, even if you are stationary or in constant movement.
- What is contemporary art in your opinion?
Of this time. That speaks of the present.
- What is an artist’s purpose?
To be true to oneself.