Art In Conversation
Jorge Pardo with William Corwin
“When I started putting things in galleries, I always had a hard time telling myself when to stop the game of perception.”
September 9 – October 27, 2021
Jorge Pardo’s practice tends to inhabit zones where we don’t focus our attention, at least initially. The work emerges from beneath the viewer’s feet, or from the furniture and the lighting fixtures: it’s embedded in the architecture, or is the architecture itself. In his current exhibition at Petzel Gallery, All bets are off, he reorients the work to be front and center. He describes inventing a notion of painting that considers the act of looking while you’re actually doing it. These are hybrid objects that obsess over Pardo’s screen time; simultaneously trying to pin it down and keep it fluid. Over the course of unpacking these shimmering panel paintings of polychromed laser-etched wood, we zero in on the idea of amplifying the sense of object-ness. While Pardo is hesitant to assign actual agency to objects, he is more than happy to instill a second-hand self-conscious agency in them. We talk about his self-recording pinhole cameras from art school (and a new one in the current exhibition), as well as ladders, houses, chairs, altars. Pardo also employs his fascination with the uncanny presence of objects in designing museum installations; for Pre-Columbian artifacts at the LACMA, and Medieval column capitals at the Musee des Augustins. Treading lightly along this trajectory we begin to explain the motivation behind this newest body of work, and answer the question, “why painting?”
William Corwin (Rail): You exhibited a series of paintings here at Petzel in 2017, and you have this new series on view now; so I guess the question to start with is: for an artist most known for his architectural interventions and object-related practice, why painting?
Jorge Pardo: I started as a painter while pursuing my fine art background. I got involved in architecture and other things because I wanted to try to understand how places and spaces in the world impact what I do, how those things are read, and what they might mean. So I developed a practice where I started to exhibit things that were not necessarily typical, architecture being one of them, as a kind of an inquiry into what was possible to extend into an art exhibition. What it can hold, what it can’t. What happens to the discourse and what happens to my ability to control the content. It became an interesting way to work because while I wasn’t necessarily in full control of it, I was learning as I was doing it. But throughout that time I was always painting. Some of the paintings I made have not been shown, while others developed into murals for architectural commissions. Yet, for the past five years I have been developing what is currently at Petzel Gallery.
Rail: The early stuff you exhibited in Jorge Pardo: New Work at Tom Solomon’s garage in 1990; the ladders, the baseball bats; all look at the object as something beyond “objectness.” Painting on the other hand is very self-consciously an object, one that’s very different from a chair or a ladder.
We’ll get back to the paintings. I want to talk about objects first. I was just reading about La Venta, an Olmec site in the Yucatan—you have your studio in the Yucatan, in La Mérida—and one of the things archeologists discovered at La Venta was the circulation of certain objects—certain objects were so important, they weren’t buried in the tombs of the elite, because they were too important, they were recycled over and over again and they literally even found their way sometimes into Aztec culture, thousands of years later. So I’m really fascinated by this idea of the recycling of the object, which I think is something that you work with. I was wondering, when did that moment take place where you decided to move away from this idea of painting, and to move towards the idea of the object as something that could embody its own power?
Pardo: I have always had a lot of doubt about whether objects have the ability to contain some consistent agency. For instance, the Yucatan where my studio is, has the largest population of Indigenous people in this hemisphere. There are more Mayans than any other Indigenous group and they are Catholic. When the Spanish came, they looked around, and wherever there was a big-assed pyramid, they’d take the rocks from the pyramid and make a big-assed church, because they knew people would come. The fact that you can repurpose things means there is malleability to something and that malleability always throws into question for me any kind of essentiality in their being.
Rail: So when you redesigned the LACMA Pre-Columbian gallery in 2008, I noticed that there were very interesting aesthetic decisions with the MDF, but what you said, which was really poignant, is that “no one knows what the fuck these things were for,” or most of these things anyway.
Pardo: It’s funny because the way archeologists talk about these things is always with a question—it’s like “we think it may have been used for this…” It is always speaking about some potential that may have been. With the LACMA installation, I said, I am going to approach this from the point of view and from the position of the guys that made the objects. Because that is what I am closer to. I started to use the color and form in them and I came up with a way to set up a relationship that was almost hysterically artisanal rather than quasi-historical, which is traditionally what archaeology does.
Rail: What meaning do you pull from those objects?
Pardo: Some of the objects had different stones and jades and colors and shapes and things like that. I’m not sure that is meaning, but I pulled formally from them, in the same way that I used to pull formally from paintings when I began to make paintings. And I thought, this is an interesting and honest way to address these things because I am not an archeologist.
Rail: Were you able to get a take on the effectiveness of the presentation and the public response?
Pardo: I think you do look at the exhibition much longer. When you make a place to look at objects, and set up a very strong eccentric peripheral context for them, there is hope that people will stay. And maybe people who had no interest in Pre-Columbian objects would stop and consider it as well. That was a big part of the task for me. How do I get them to look at something other than those objects, and in relation to that, look at what I do as an artist.
Rail: How does that relate to your project “Tecoh,” the old hacienda?
Pardo: It’s an old hacienda and these philanthropists in Mexico own it. They collect haciendas. They do it as a way to have green spaces in the Yucatan that won’t be touched. They wanted something interesting to happen in one of these haciendas, and to use it as a cultural anchor. They basically said, “do whatever you want.” Traditionally they have made hotels, so I said “I don’t really want to make a hotel because you have hotels, but I don’t really know what this thing should be.” I’m very interested in working aesthetically, so we would make one building, then another building, then another building. Never with this idea that this is going to be this, or this is going to be that. It is making spaces purely for visual pleasure.
Rail: Very anti-architectural in a way…
Pardo: There is no program. The only program is the program of keeping an interesting project for me.
Rail: But was there an organic program? One where you began one part and you said, “this needs to happen here because…” maybe there was a beautiful tree there, or a view?
Pardo: Yeah, we used very traditional architectural modes to put something like this together. It was never “this needs to be this,” but rather, it was “this might be interesting to do here.” A lot of the things were made on the computer, and then it became a matter of how do you go from that to analog, and then make it in the jungle.
Rail: You’ve talked about the idea of the folly before, with Olbrich. Are these follies? That brings in this eighteenth century idea of the sublime and the view—was that what you were employing?
Pardo: I use that term really expeditiously; not necessarily from the point of view of its bucolic potential or its relationship to the sublime. The sublime has a lot of problems as a final destination. There’s a lot of suspension of disbelief in those notions.
Rail: In what way?
Pardo: Well, I think the sublime is always an extra-language experience. An extra-perceptual experience that happens to you, that remakes you because you are not armed with anything that can consume it the way you consume everyday life.
Pardo: And I always thought that was preposterous. You know what I mean?
Rail: But then I also feel like you embrace the sublime.
Pardo: I love the imagery of it. I love the set-up just like I love drama—I like going to the movies, but always with this understanding: “folks, this is make-believe, this is a set-up.”
Rail: That’s interesting because I wanted to ask you about the Musée des Augustins in Toulouse, the exhibition space of those Romanesque and Gothic column capitals. That’s sort of the opposite of the LACMA project. You’re originally from Cuba, so you have some experience with Christianity or a Catholic background.
Pardo: My parents are Catholic.
Rail: But we know what those capitals are about at the Musée des Augustins, as members of a largely Judeo-Christian society. Fitting oneself into a Catholic milieu is much easier than a Pre-Columbian Mayan context. Or not?
Pardo: Not really, because I think those objects were just as foreign as the stuff coming out of the ground in Mexico. I did not grow up in the church. I am not baptized Catholic. I grew up without any real religion, so most religious scenarios for me are things at which I really have to work at understanding. My grandmother was probably the most religious person I knew, and she was into Santeria. I grew up with that stuff. I always thought that was preposterous and it scared the shit out of me.
Rail: So then your approach to designing the space in the Musee des Augustins, was it very similar to designing the Pre-Columbian space at LACMA?
Pardo: Yeah. It was very much about the question you brought up earlier: how do you construct a place where you are trying to extract more detail from these objects than the way they were positioned before? I tried to animate the space around them, and I stuck a lamp over each one—strangely enough, it kind of worked—because you have a structure with which to do something as ridiculous as that, and in return you kind of see more detail in them because of the peripheral realities. Many times you need a counterpoint to get to something deeper.
Rail: Benjamin said that architecture is viewed in a distracted state, so when you say peripheral realities, do you enjoy playing with that? Do you enjoy crafting things that people take a moment to recognize: like the floor at Chelsea DIA, which is made of these marvelous tiles that take a moment to register as an art work; is that the aim, to hide it?
Pardo: Yeah, to almost make it uncanny. Do you know what I mean? It never goes away, but it’s never explicit. I enjoy that because I think the whole world operates on it. When I started putting things in galleries, I always had a hard time telling myself when to stop the game of perception. Is it on the edge of the frame, is it on the pedestal? When I went and saw a show where the space was different, I would remember the details of the doors, what the floor was like, all these things, but I could never really quite isolate the object as a complete experience. I was always measuring and understanding and consuming and reading things in terms of where I was and how it was. I would see the work of an artist in one museum, then you’d see another work by the same artist in another museum, and it’s a slightly different experience. There is this whole machine of how something is put into the world and that is much more complicated to me than the object alone.
Rail: Well you talk about the “contamination” of public space in a positive way. Is that this contamination of public space?
Pardo: Any time you make an object in which you make it impossible to have direct access to what you think it is, is a form of contamination to some degree. It’s a distortion of some sort—it slows the space of discerning, and I always think that is very fruitful. Most of the things that I make that are successful, you are not quite sure how to position yourself in front of them. That is one of the big charms that they have—how am I supposed to read this? What was important to the artist? Is the artist an architect? Is the artist a designer? Things like that. I have always been interested in that instability as a very fruitful space for the poetics of reading something.
Rail: Was that Tom Solomon show the first time you felt you had the liberty to take things and display them? I’m interested when that moment took place where you felt liberated to focus on objectness.
Pardo: When I got out of school I was making these pinhole cameras. Tom Solomon wanted to do a show with those. I remember he came to the studio while I was still in school and I said, “Tom I really don’t want to show those”—because I made them when I was in school and considered it student work. I’m not sure what I think about work that I made as a student because I think there’s kind of an artifice to it. Even if you’re in graduate school, there’s always the sense of an assignment. But for whatever reason I got a lot of attention with these works that I did in school, enough for Tom to want to do a show. I wanted to wait a year or two, and make something else, and see if I still wanted to be an artist—I was very honest with him. And he said “Ok Jorge, call me when you have some other work.”
At that time, I had a roommate who was a really good carpenter and I started to want to be a good carpenter. We did jobs together. That led to making funny objects that had problems in them—how do you take a ladder and make it interesting?
Rail: How do you make a ladder uncanny? How do you do that?
Pardo: I started to take it apart and replace parts with other kinds of materials. I changed two or three of the steps. One of the steps had really exotic material like MDF or particle board. I started to change the screws on it. Basically, I tried to take advantage of the structure of the thing so that at almost every juncture where it’s put together, you would notice differences. Some parts of the ladder were finished to a much higher quality than the others, because it was a ladder I bought. What was interesting was that I could take an object and by altering it—slightly upgrading and downgrading its constituent parts—install a different kind of contemplative time. I could take things that were very simple and familiar to me and install these very nice reflexive gestures that looked back at you as you looked at them.
Rail: Well that’s the thing, I think that was what the appeal was with the pinhole cameras, I found they had this very sweet quality that they look at themselves, which is this idea that it’s not just human beings that are narcissistic, but a chair, or a pinhole camera or an object can have its own feelings. So much of our mythology is about that…
Pardo: Yeah, I was very interested in how an object can have visuality in it. How can we construct something that is inanimate and at least pretend that it has some mechanism to look at itself? And as a result of that, maybe some kind of more interesting questions arise—where is the subject and why are we doing these things? Where is the object, what’s the peripheral activity? How does that diffuse or identify what the project is? For instance, I made a little pinhole camera cup and set it at a mirror in the men’s room. Six or seven guys peed while this thing was taking a picture of itself, but since the exposure was so slow you don’t see anybody. So you have that funny story or narrative that’s real…
Rail: And it’s also created on the cup’s time frame—
Pardo: And not captured, and uncapturable. And I thought, I can make things that take pictures of themselves, but because of the nature of the exposure, there will be other experiences that exist in the space between the lens and the reflection. That became as important as the object.
Rail: In the current show at Petzel you’ve created a new set of pinhole camera photographs.
Pardo: You know, it’s a piece that I never did, I started it but did not finish it. The story is that I was going to apply to the Yale sculpture program, and in the ’90s you always had to send your slides. And I thought, I bet they’re not really thinking about the mechanism of the carousel and its parts very much, so instead of actually sending work that I made in the past, I’m going to make work from that object, and then feed it back into the object. That is what it is. I basically took the slide frames, I modeled them into a pinhole camera, and it took a picture of itself. Then I took the picture of that and put it into a slide using the exact same mechanism. You are looking at the same thing that you’re looking with, and you’re looking at images of nothing in relationship to what you are supposed to have there.
Rail: Yeah, but there’s an interesting space in your work where you don’t always know that you’re looking at nothing: you don’t always know that the guys are peeing behind the cup photographing itself. With the slide pinhole camera images, when I was going through them in the gallery, they could be anything; they could be a falling-down house.
Pardo: Yeah, because the quality of the photograph is so low. It is not like I took these pinhole cameras and really spent a lot of time photographing it over and over until I got the image right. Sometimes that would happen and the image would be clear, and sometimes it wouldn’t, but I really didn’t edit that.
Rail: But that gives you the space to imagine what’s not there.
Pardo: It was really more about the mechanical presence and that activity than, let’s say, the picture.
Rail: So how do you make paintings, which are already uncanny in this self-reflexive way, because there’s already this focus and tension when you hang something on a wall.
Pardo: What I am trying to do with these paintings is paint my screen time. They are basically made from other paintings mixed with images in my phone that my daughter took, that I took, scribbles or whatever. It is an additive process. Let’s say there is a Joan Mitchell painting, and then there is a Pollock over it, and then there is somebody else, and it starts growing. What happens is you have constructed a field of abstraction on your screen. Then instead of actually trying to take that part off, which you can do in Photoshop, I sit there and I say “that’s not working, let’s put another picture on top—I think a yellow one would be interesting.” Generally I sit with my assistant and we just start adding and adding, and then when it gets to the point where it is enough of a picture, it then gets sent to the laser. The laser then etches the little outlines, which get painted in by these art students in Mexico. So, I don’t really know what I’m going to get because it is not that controlled.
Rail: Are they looking at an original image too and then approximating?
Pardo: They’re using a phone.
Rail: They’re using a phone, but it’s an image that you send them?
Pardo: It’s an image that I sent them. I have a big TV in the room (where they work), but a lot of them don’t like the TV, they’ll just take a picture of it and use their phone. It is kind of interesting because at the end of the day I will put those things in an ink-jet and they would be very different, procedurally speaking. I think it is very important that the sense of distortion happens through some sort of humanization. When I have made two of the same compositions, and they always come out different at the end. Something like that is important when you are trying to instill into the idea of “painting” something that’s a little bit indirect. The most important thing about these is not what ends up on the wall. What I am interested in is that I like to be on the internet, and I like to be lost on the internet, and I was trying to figure out a way to return to some sort of image-production methodology for myself.
Rail: You’re obviously accepting a sort of challenge: in architecture it is very easy to be indirect, in painting it’s very hard to be indirect because you’re forcing someone to look at it. Being indirect in a very direct method; it's like yelling at someone while whispering.
Pardo: Yeah, it’s actually very interesting. I keep describing these as quasi-paintings—they look like real paintings, right?
Rail: They are paintings. I mean, I think so.
Pardo: I think so too, but there’s always that question in me, to some degree.
Rail: But what would make them “not” paintings? That’s the thing…
Pardo: I think that has everything to do with the kind of belief system that painting requires of art. I think traditionally, not always, but a lot of painting has to mark the struggle of the painter. That struggle is where the attachment of the belief system, the earnestness, the actual “genius” of it happens. I’m interested in making pictures to look at, which is what most painters would say anyway. But I am trying to literalize it through its methodology, its method of production. Because the paintings are constructed by these different processes, that is why I think it is the real thing. Then there is the “painterly” event on the wall, which is probably the most interesting and uninteresting part of the whole thing at the same time. You have to make a choice about if this thing is any good. And that is such an ambiguous space.
Rail: Well how does that sensibility manifest itself between these and the last series of paintings at Petzel, which were a lot of self-portraits?
Pardo: They were all self-portraits. They were different, I was trying to figure out how to paint with my CNC machine, lasers and things like that, and I thought, I’ll just do portraits. And once I did portraits I realized, if we do this with more complexity, we might be able to achieve the kind of abstract spaces that traditional paintings have.
Rail: There was one project that really jumped out at me, when you recreated the LeCorbusier chairs with copper pipe.
Pardo: Yeah, I made it with my mother.
Rail: Yeah—that was another question of why it had that title … so you made it with your mother?
Pardo: Yeah because she did the upholstery; I used to make work with my mom a lot, because she could sew.
Rail: What was her interpretation of your work?
Pardo: She thought it was crazy.
Rail: But she was happy to participate?
Pardo: My mom’s a working-class lady who used to sell food to kids at the public school, and my dad worked at a factory, and I think if I had been a supervisor at a factory somewhere they would have been very happy. I went to college and became for them this somewhat more esoteric freaky kid. They were supportive, but it was like “he’s crazy, I don’t know what he’s doing.”
Rail: So what was the premise of the LeCorbusier chair reimagined?
Pardo: It was a way to kind of appropriate it on my own terms: can this thing sustain portraiture? Can this thing sustain an image of me and my mother? Can it actually be reconstituted?
Rail: And did it work?
Pardo: I don’t know, maybe? We’re talking about it, so there’s something odd in it.
Rail: There’s something magical about it.
Pardo: There’s something kind of beautifully strange in it, whether you hear that my mother and I made it together or not, there’s something.
Rail: And you have designed church projects.
Pardo: It’s funny, I was asked to design this church, and they said “your parents are Catholic, what do you think about Catholicism?” and I remember the priest was there and I said “I don’t really think about Catholicism, but I like drama.” And he goes “Catholic churches are one of the most dramatic places I’ve ever experienced,” so that for me was a place of engagement.
Rail: There are two projects I’m thinking of—Alianzas in Spain, and one where you designed the church altogether, The Propsteikirche St. Trinitatis, in Leipzig.
Pardo: The first was a church that had already been repurposed into an exhibition space.
Rail: Was there a distinct difference between those two projects then?
Pardo: The first one was a more traditional invitation; the church that had become an exhibition space. The second one was different because I was commissioned to do all of the liturgical furnishings for the church: everything that they needed to be Catholic. The altar is very sensitive. I didn’t know that you have to have an actual object of a saint in there for it to be real.
Rail: Oh really?
Pardo: And it has to be put in in a way that is locked in forever. And I asked “what do you have?” And the priest said “we have a lot of stuff; like a nail, a piece of bone, some hair, we’ll find something,” and that’s how you initiate the altar—it’s not just furniture. It is furniture with some death in there, and not any death, but a saint.
Rail: Which saint did they use in the end?
Pardo: They didn’t tell me. I think the Vatican has vast warehouses of all this. But anyway, they got the relic, and we had to leave a little hole that it went into. There was a whole ceremony when they encased it, these German carpenters used liquid nails to seal it. I was like “So liquid nails? It’s good for perpetuity?”
Rail: Well do you think objects have a certain consciousness or power? You distanced yourself from the sublime earlier—do you draw a firm line in the sand between “this is a nice idea” and “but it’s not real?” I’ve spoken to other artists who have said objects have a certain energy.
Pardo: I have never felt that. I would like to, but I have never felt that. I think it is a little weird to want things to talk to you. Do you know what I mean?
Rail: It certainly is—it’s very Freudian.
Pardo: And you end up in the same story every time you finish. I think I probably make too rigid of a division between things like people and objects. I have never thought we had the power to instill ourselves in these things with the kind of endurance that a lot of people would like.