Art In Conversation
Felipe Baeza with Zoë Hopkins
“I see the body as a landscape because thats the only landscape some of us have.”
New YorkFortnight Institute
Felipe Baeza: Made into Being
September 8 – October 8, 2022
Born in Guanajuato, Mexico, and raised in Chicago, Felipe Baeza’s practice draws on collage, printmaking, embroidery, and sculpture. Informed by queer and immigrant histories, Baeza’s largely figurative practice envisions what emancipation and fugitivity might look like for othered bodies. His figures are hybrid, often occupying an unfixed category somewhere between humanoid and plant-like. Situated against densely textured backgrounds, they seem to transcend place or time, breaking free from any domain that we can define or locate.
Having graduated with a BFA from the Cooper Union (2009) and an MFA from Yale (2018), Baeza currently lives and works in New York. Several of his large-scale pieces are currently on view at the Venice Biennale. Additionally, his work has been the subject of solo exhibitions at Maureen Paley in London, The Mistake Room in Los Angeles, and the Fortnight Institute in New York.
Zoë Hopkins (Rail): As a point of orientation, I’d like to start our conversation around fugitivity. The concept of the “fugitive body” is something that kind of lies at the bedrock of your work. So I'm wondering if we can begin by discussing how you navigate the term fugitivity, what the fugitive body means to you, and how it appears as a fixture in your work?
Felipe Baeza: Well, I think it is a disservice to speak about fugitivity, when the whole point of fugitivity is that it eludes. But it is quite important to say a few things about it. My connection to the word has changed over time. This has to do with language: I’m speaking of fugitivity as a term connected to many ways of being. I guess before it was the right to opacity. But to describe fugitivity, we also have to look at what the fugitive is. It’s a noun. It's naming a subject, a condition. It evokes a condition that’s always escaping, always fleeing, always evading. And I think that's also my interest, that the fugitive is always on the run, never at rest. The question is also: What is it evading? What is it fleeing? Fugitivity is also a condition that's related to being hunted or to being wanted. It’s a condition that deviates from laws or norms. I also think that because the fugitive is always running and escaping, it is connected to liminal and interstitial space. And that's very much what I'm interested in. The room for liminality and possibility is what allows a subject to live a life worth living.
Rail: Yeah. And I noticed in so much of your work that there is an embedded liminality, even in the composition. We'll find figures that are kind of caught somewhere between floating and groundedness. Of course plants and roots are a motif in your work, but a lot of your figures appear unrooted, unmoored, untethered to any particular kind of spatial temporal reality. And so I'm wondering if you could speak to how your works relate to these concepts? How do they express that liminal space between rootedness and unrootedness?
Baeza: I'm glad that you're speaking to that. It’s a question that is also very connected to evolving ideas in my work concerning what fugitivity is and what it might expand to. I am thinking about what a fugitive desires. And what do I desire in my day-to-day life as a person who navigates this country in a very precarious way? The fugitive desires freedom from the law, freedom from being captured, freedom from punishment and freedom from regulation, but also desires to get out of the system of control. To find the outside—as Fred Moten puts it. Fugitivity is about articulating an outside that's inside, that’s an alternative inside. But it’s also a freedom from. It’s another kind of community and another kind of life. And that’s what I am interested in conceptually, but also materially. In my work, these subjects, these landscapes, these bodies are merging in ways where they start to reveal themselves slowly. They’re not fully available. Like the fugitive, they are legible on their own terms. Not in the ways that any laws demand. I’m interested in those modes of queerness and illegality that don't announce themselves. And that's very much embedded in how the work is made, where these subjects can somehow blend with the background, and the more time you spend with them, the more they start to reveal themselves. They're also containing their own agency on their own terms, navigating at their own pace. And that is important for me to think about. In relation to the making, but also in my day-to-day life, how do I navigate this landscape? And how do I also try to practice those same methods I'm doing in the work in my day-to-day life?
Rail: There's so much there. To start where you ended, perhaps we can examine how the concept of opacity relates to your practice? You have a long standing commitment to collage practice. In my encounters with your work, I interpret your collaging as equal parts obscuring and revealing. We often encounter these figures shrouded behind embroidery or cutouts. But ultimately, that obscuring reveals fundamental truths about power, about the politics of visibility and invisibility. So on a material level, there are layers of obscurity and opacity, but on a metaphorical level, there's also an unveiling and a revealing.
Baeza: I would say that collage has allowed me to think about the possibility of combining different images, different times, and bringing them into a specific conversation. Part of that is concealing things and foregrounding things. When I’m thinking of concealment, I’m thinking of masks. Masks hide parts of you away, but they also make new ways of navigating the world visible. And that’s the way collage functions in my practice. I’m working from a site of fracture rather than repair. I'm working with the rubble, that is the paper that I've been finding or making or using, that is constantly giving life to other pieces. There’s a sort of regeneration of the work that is giving life to other works. And that's what's happening at the moment. The work that I’m making now is from scraps from other projects.
Rail: I think there are some resonances there with the fugitive as well, in the sense that collage is such a dialectical mode of working: it insists on seeing everything in relation to other things. I think part of fugitivity is a relinquishing of individuality. It’s a commitment to being incomplete and to being in relation with others. Collage really gives form to this: it's a meshing together of categories, a coming together of everything in relation.
Baeza: That is one thing I've been trying to push in the practice, as you mentioned. That’s also why I speak about how fugitivity functions in very different ways. I see it as incomplete, so incompleteness functions to me also as fugitivity. Collage is this mesh of things that are combined but also speak to an incompleteness. When you see my work, you might sometimes see fragmented body parts, and there might be an idea that there’s violence happening in the work. But I don't think of it that way. The whole body is there, and the whole body is thriving. I’m also thinking in regard to incompleteness as rupture. Fragmentation allows for other things to be imagined, to be possible.
Rail: I think, also, there is a tendency in Western thinking to see anything that is fragmentary as wrong. In order to be this enlightenment subject, you have to have possession of a total, unitary self, a sovereign wholeness. There is something radical in gesturing towards the incomplete and fragmentary, towards thinking that finds fullness through unmaking.
Baeza: That's certainly a great point. It's very much in the work. In the pieces I've been making the past three years, the body is always in constant becoming. Becoming other forms, rupturing and breaking. This is also why my work values queerness. Queerness can never be encapsulated or defined.
Rail: Your work lends so much to that conversation. It really offers us a reconceptualization of queerness. You’ve emphasized becoming as a process of regeneration. But so often there's this reading of queerness as a rejection of regeneration and futurity: the so-called queer art of failure is the failure to biologically reproduce, which is a failure of futurity. But in your work there are so many gestures towards becoming and towards continuous life. There are, for example, these plants sprouting everywhere with uncontainable possibility. And I think all of this holds another way of thinking about queerness. … There was a lot in that question. [Laughter]
Baeza: I mean, that gets to it. If queerness were a project, the project would never be complete. It’s this incompleteness that allows for imagination. I think the radical use of imagination is a mode of survival. The queerness of imagination is how I make a life worth living, and that is what I try and foreground in the work. There has also been an unlearning within my own personal life. To not live in those fixed notions of being. And I think my practice has allowed me to dwell in modes of being that are emancipatory. That is the “beautiful experiment,” to cite Saidiya Hartman. That is the ongoing project.
Rail: Yes. That is everything. That's all of it. To that end, I also want to talk about the plants that appear in your work. How does this turn towards plants and foliage manifest the emancipatory aims of your practice?
Baeza: The use of foliage in the work started around four years ago, with my thinking about those bodies that never made it to the other side. And by that I mean those who, in the process of migration, didn’t physically make it. How might those bodies thrive through different forms? In Mesoamerican mythologies, and in mythologies around the world, there is the idea that you start living once you die, because your body is becoming and thriving in multiple forms. The plant functions as a form, as a vessel that allows for the body to thrive under very specific conditions. And that's where I'm at right now with the work: the question of how to create liberatory structures and how to thrive when the landscape isn't there. There are rarely landscapes or settings in the work. I see the body as a landscape because that's the only landscape some of us have.
Rail: Absolutely. I can't help but think of mycelium roots beneath the earth, and the secret interconnected life of plants. For me, mycelium roots embody an insistence on relationality. And I think your work really opens up a way of understanding the question of what would happen if we humans viewed ourselves in relation to other species? I think the plants really drive home that question.
Baeza: I'm glad you say that. I think that's a very good point. You know, it's like, what if? Because we haven't. And we're seeing the costs of individuality within our own thinking. It’s affected our surroundings. We need to be in relation not just with other humans, but also with our surroundings. We need to care for our surroundings, and it’s still possible for us to make that happen. It’s extremely critical.
Rail: Yes, and more so everyday. You brought up earlier that in some Mesoamerican mythology, plants contain the lives of ancestors: they are a portal to past lives. For me, this resonates with other parts of your practice. I’m thinking in particular about your habit of archiving images and ephemera from the past, and amassing this collection of temporalities. Can you speak a little bit about that, and how that's informed your practice?
Baeza: There has always been an interest in collecting printed images. But it’s changed over time, and I think that has to do with the change of technology. All the images I've collected are from books, or from stuff I found. But I don't think I've ever gone online and printed an image. I think it has to do with the interest in collage. I collect a broad range of images that are later collaged either physically or mentally to reveal other forms. If you come to my studio, it's just visual noise.
Rail: Yeah, I see some of that behind you. [Laughs]
Baeza: Visual noise everywhere. It is an ongoing archive unfolding in the studio. Sometimes these things end up in the work, and sometimes they're just hanging around, and sometimes I just find them on the floor, after years of trying to look for something. There's this collection, this archive that has made it into the work overtime. In undergrad, I studied printmaking in a very traditional way, and I was working with images directly, printing them directly. That changed over time. I'm still working with very specific images, but much less directly. I think that's what collage offers, I'm able to work with images but change them fully.
Rail: That's fascinating. That evolution from printmaking to your more recent work—how did that unfold?
Baeza: I went into undergrad with a sculptural background. I had done printmaking before, like I said, and I was extremely attracted to the medium. There's a sort of abstraction to the medium in that you take an image and then you transfer it to a matrix. You’re using very different methods to develop the image, and then transferring it to a paper. The process itself was extremely interesting to me, and also sculptural in form, in that you're using either a stone to draw on or a piece of wood to carve out. You're basically making the image and sculpting the image to later transfer it to a 2D format. The work is still very much grounded in printmaking. A lot of the surfaces are built on the floor. I’m essentially making monotypes, laying tons of pigment and water and laying the paper on top, and letting it absorb those colors. There's also that element of surprise that I love about printmaking where I am not fully in control. It’s a process that could be extremely stressful at times, but extremely fruitful. At first I was like, how do I step away from making editions and relying on the printing press? Which, as a printmaker, was extremely daunting. Like, wait, how does one make work? And why would someone do that? But I think not having access to a print shop allowed that. Now the floor has become the press. The last time I used an image directly was in the map I made. I was essentially making a collagraph, which is a process where you add different textures to a matrix to give it tonality. As I was finishing it, I was like, “wait, no, this is the work!” It was sort of a breakthrough. And since then, a lot of the work has been made as a collagraph. You end up seeing things that you can’t see in the actual piece, but when I print it, a lot of those elements are revealed.
Rail: So you have this miraculous surprising and unexpected effect happening on the paper with collagraphing. But your work also involves very deliberate interventions like cutouts and embroidery. I wanted to ask about how you came to these two techniques: cutouts and embroidery?
Baeza: I’ll speak to embroidery first. Embroidery happened before collage in my work. And then I started working later with the cutouts. In undergrad and after undergrad, I was working directly with images. Often those were very specific images of people photographed or documented in the process of migrating, these images of people in trunks or other compartments trying to get to another side, to another life. As I was working the images through silkscreen and lithography, I was troubled by the question of how to work with the archive without recreating the same systems of violence that made it in the first place. That was the problem that I was having. In working with these images, was I replicating the same violence that was already being done? That’s where embroidery came in, to conceal what was happening there. It started as a line-making tool, but then it started to act as a tool to obscure different parts in the work. And that has changed over time, it functions differently now. When I use it, it’s in very small works that are meant to be seen by one person at a time. The embroidery is reacting to the environment, to the breath of the viewer in front of it. It's kind of functioning as a kinetic sculpture, per se. That is the function of embroidery in the work. But in regard to the cutout, that was something that happened organically in the studio as I was making these large works on paper. I’m not using a paintbrush, you know, but if I were I guess it would be my exacto knife. I started with these scraps of paper, and I would work on specific parts rather than the whole body. And then I realized this is another way to talk about fragmentation. And it’s also talking about regeneration, using the same sources and materials that I have available to me to create these forms and these worlds.
Rail: Right. So it very much becomes a kind of metaphorical material as well. I love what you were saying about embroidery as an active material and a vehicle of connection to the viewer. I love the idea of the viewer’s breath becoming part of the medium and growing entangled with the whole experience of reading the work. With the cutouts as well, I think there is resonance with our earlier conversation about fragmentation. It feels like your whole material sensibility is very much bound up with the theoretical exercises that your work is responding to and also generating.
Baeza: Yeah, there is quite an interest in texture. That does a couple of different things for me and for the viewer. I think for the viewer, color and texture sometimes function as a trap. Since I am working in nontraditional ways of making paintings, people often respond with, “wait, what is going on here, what's happening?” A lot of the works are dark and monochromatic. They do not announce themselves right away. But if you’re a dedicated viewer, the work starts to reveal itself slowly. What might start as a monochromatic painting becomes something else once you spend time with it, once you confront it. It allows for more conversations to happen, and that’s what I enjoy in the making.
Rail: It sounds to me like the work itself is very much its own fugitive body, in the sense that it's operating at its own pace, and on its own terms. It reveals itself when it wants to.
Baeza: True. I think that's what I've been speaking to and trying to get at in my practice, but also in my own life, in my own day to day, and how the work also functions as a fugitive materially too, not just conceptually. The work photographs terribly. [Laughter] And I’m happy with that. It refuses to be legible all the time.
Rail: Absolutely. I’m interested in a point you brought up a few minutes ago: you mentioned that you started as a sculptor. And I couldn’t help but notice a sculptural work in the process images for the Fortnight Institute show. We’ve had such a rich and extensive discussion about your collaging and paper practices. I was wondering if we could linger a bit with sculpture. What are the kinds of thematics and techniques that are motivating your sculptural practice?
Baeza: The way I've navigated different modes of making have all been sculptural. I’ve always been itching to go back to that sculptural form. The way I work now continues to be very sculptural. There’s this process of layering and gluing and cutting and carving. When the paper goes through all these processes, it becomes almost like leather. I’m always asking myself, how do I get out of this 2D form? Do I need to get out of the 2D form? How does one make what I've been making into a 3D form? What would that look like? I’m still navigating those questions. There was an opportunity to work with Ross Art Studio, a glassmaking studio, to think about these questions, which led to the sculptural work that will hopefully be in the show. With that work, I was also thinking about different methods of being and thriving. If you've seen the work, you know it's a hand that is evoking ceiba trees—a young ceiba tree is surrounded by thorns as a mode of protection. So again, it’s about how one creates modes of protection to thrive and survive under hostile conditions. I think that can be seen in the collage work as well. There are these subjects that are not fixed to a specific ground but are surrounded by these forms of protection. They’re still thriving and becoming.
Rail: I think it's so special that you're working with glass as well. Because it is this material that we think of as a solid, but is actually also liquid. It’s an amorphous material. So it does kind of feel resonant with our earlier discussions around liminality and refusing stability.
Baeza: I'm extremely excited. It's something completely new. I've never worked with glass before. I've done ceramics before, which is kind of similar, since it’s this material that becomes something else through the process of fire and heat. Both are shape shifters. Glass also becomes a very precarious solid. How does that inform the work? It was extremely refreshing to work with. I also feel like I've been working with the same ideas in my collage work, with layering, and carving towards something emancipatory. I think for me, this is a new way of making, but it has already informed the making that is happening right now in the studio.
Rail: I think sculpture has such a historically troubling relationship to the question of the body. We so often discuss bodies in sculptural terms, and in turn, I think figurative sculpture has been bound up with notions of the idealized body. Your collage and paper practice unsettles so much of the traditional thinking on what figurative work is meant to do. So I'm wondering, how does your sculptural practice unsettle some of those conventions?
Baeza: Yes, how do I push on these methods of thinking? That’s been the ongoing project within the sculptural work. I think, to your point, yes, collage functions as a critical mode of disrupting the norm. In my larger paper pieces, I’m thinking of the figurative body in a very different form. The sculpture mimics what I'm already doing in my larger work. The body is fragmented and incomplete: I'm working with a cast I created of my forearm, but my forearm represents the whole body here. It functions as a relic in a way. I know we didn’t speak about this, but I think that relic is very much embedded in the work. I come from traditional and problematic religious backgrounds on both sides of my family. And it would be a disservice to omit that, because it is part of me and part of the work. In my large-scale paper works, there's usually one central figure. I think, consciously or unconsciously, that's informed by images that I grew up with, where the body of the saint was its own landscape. There was no ground.
Rail: I'm so glad that you brought up religion here. I see in your work a dimension of transcendence, not religion capital R, but spirituality lowercase s, and it feels to me like there is something beyond our own world that is being accessed in and through your work. Maybe, in part, it's because so many of your figures are divorced from a background that situates us in time or space. Is that something that your work is motivated by or responding to?
Baeza: Definitely. I think it’s poetics. For me, it has been extremely fruitful to foreground the poetics that are embedded in the themes I'm interested in. In regard to religion and the religious imagery that I was exposed to, one side of my family is Catholic, and the other side is Evangelical Christian. But what I saw on the Catholic side as a five-year-old in Mexico, you will rarely see in other places. There's a very, very specific visual language that I find extremely interesting and captivating. It taught me the power of fabulation, which continues to be a critical part of my work. It's a mode of survival too. But also, I think about how they were used in the colonial project. Specifically in Mexico, pre-Columbian images were embedded with new Catholic images to attract new believers and to impose this new religion onto a new population. This too is a collage, right? At some point the colonizers embed and hybridize these forms, to make new forms happen.
Rail: Literally layers of violence to think about there.
Baeza: I mean, this is important regarding my interest in printmaking. Printmaking has a long history of being a colonial tool, in creating the “other” and disseminating belief in these categories. How does one take that sort of tool and create one’s own language with it? My first printworks were very engaged with that question. I was thinking about religion, about what it would be to make a queer religion. What would it look like?
Rail: I feel like your collage work is an offering towards a kind of queer spirituality.
Baeza: Yeah, the work is very much about responding to a need and desire to create portals. The essence of my practice is the desire to belong anywhere, to belong elsewhere. That, for me, is queer making. This also takes us back to the idea of incompleteness. The incompleteness of queerness, which José Esteban Muñoz talks about.
Rail: I want to return to a word that you used earlier, which is poetics. I've noticed throughout our conversation, you've cited a number of thinkers and theorists, including Saidiya Hartman, José Esteban Muñoz, and Fred Moten. I know that in your titling practice, there is a citational poetics going on as well, where your titles are based on textual excerpts. We've talked about the way that you often use archival images or found images, but I'm also curious about your use of found text and your relationship to literature and poetry.
Baeza: I'm glad you brought up the archival images again, because with titles it's very similar. I am constantly reading something and a word or phrase just sticks. I just have that impulse to write it down. They're pasted everywhere. I have an ongoing archive of language and words. And sometimes these fragments make it as a title for a piece, and sometimes they don’t. But all that is to say that these writers have given me language to think about different concepts. To think about fugitivity, to think about incompleteness, to think about refusal. And that has been crucial to my practice. I situate my artistic practice within intellectual and creative communities—writers like José Esteban Muñoz, Gayatri Gopinath, Saidiya Hartman, Sylvia Wynter, they have been crucial. They allow me to reclaim a queer futurity, a futurity that values difference over sameness, a queerness that resists assimilation. Storytelling has also been crucial, not just to my practice, but to my being. Edwidge Danticat has taught me so much about fabulation and memory. I’m thinking about how magical realism—as I would describe it—functions in her work. There are these parts that could be real or not real, injections of made-up things that elaborate the story. Leave the logic aside, right? There's obviously no logic in the work. Thank God there isn’t. I'm not interested in it, and I think it would be such a disservice to work in the studio from logic. I first encountered Edwidge Danticat in undergrad. At the time, Leslie Hewitt was teaching a course, this must have been 2008 or 2007. And she was like, you have to read Krik? Krak!, you have to! And I read it, and then I was like, wow. Danticat’s story is kind of similar to my own. She grew up in Haiti, came here at a very young age, and I was born in Mexico, came here at a very young age. Obviously that’s an experience of hers that has affected the way she writes, and it’s also part of why I feel so connected to her writing.
Rail: I think it's so interesting that you brought up magical realism, as well. I honestly hadn't thought of that term to describe your work before, but now that you've brought it into the conversation, it feels deeply relevant.
Baeza: Yeah, now because of the Venice Biennale, and even before the Biennale, people have developed a way of talking about my work in terms of surrealism. I don't want to discredit that conversation, but I think more than surrealism, my work is connected to magical realism. I think it’s about how real circumstances get altered in these fantastical ways. That’s the way that I think about the work. I don't want to label it, but I think more than surrealism, there’s magical realism in the work.
Rail: I feel like this also resonates with your earlier remarks about interstitiality. You’re invoking the space in between reality and magic, memory and future.
Baeza: I think I’m allowing the work to shape shift, to be unfixed. I don't feel comfortable saying that I know what I'm going to do, and I know how to do it. I enjoy creating work in a state that is unfixed. There's no fixed notion of making when I’m in the studio, like, oh, well, I really know how to do this part of the work. It’s always an extremely joyful frustration. And that’s what I enjoy about coming to the studio. Conceptually and materially, the work sits in an unfixed space, and I hope it manages to stay that way.