The Eternal Question: Carlos Vega on the ecumenical sources of his new work
For a fleeting moment of time in 12th century Spain, a period of enlightened thinking prevailed. Three leaders, each a representative of one of the Abrahamic religions — the Christian Spanish king, Alphonso X “The Wise”; Muslim philosopher Averroes, and Jewish scholar Maimonides — peacefully fostered a period of intellectual advancement in medicine, science, literature, and the arts that was not dogged by religious constrictions. At Jack Shainman Gallery (through December 5), artist Carlos Vega pays tribute to these three broad-minded thinkers, and asks the viewer to contemplate what their ancient harmony may have to teach us in the contemporary moment, in his current show, “Faith Need Not Fear Reason.” A couple of nights before the opening, Vega took a break from installation to spend some time speaking to me.
JESSICA HOLMES: Tell me about Melilla.
CARLOS VEGA: I grew up in this little place in North Africa. It’s been a Spanish city since 1497. In order to safeguard the coast of Spain, Queen Isabelle and King Ferdinand took this little piece of land on the Moroccan coast that is next to a natural harbor. Then, at the beginning of the 20th century, it became a hub for mining in the Atlas Mountains, and suddenly became a prosperous place with a multicultural community. A lot of the Sephardim from Morocco and Turkey, who had left 400 years prior, came back to do business, and there was a very wealthy Indian community and of course a very large Muslim community. And I lived there for my first 20 years.
And it’s always been Spanish?
It’s been Spanish for 500 years, and my family has been living there for 100-plus years. Growing up, I had friends who were Muslims, who were Jews, who were Christians, and in a funny way I was not aware of how unique this was because that was my reality. When you come to New York, you find that’s common in American metropolises, but it’s very unusual in a city of 60,000 people.
Can you talk about the historical moment that inspired this body of work?
While studying the history of Spain I learned about the Jewish philosopher Maimonides, who was a theologian, a doctor, an astronomer, a religious mystic—
He was radical in his time, wasn’t he?
Today he is a pillar of Judaism, but in his time his own people persecuted him. Then there was Averroes, to whom we owe the proliferation of Aristotelian thinking, and the idea of achieving the knowledge of God through reason. Then, King Alphonse the Wise had the idea of creating this encyclopedic compendium of all the knowledge of the world. It was a time of prosperity, and they all got along together more or less, though there is a lot of myth about that. This opening lasted only briefly and then the world collapsed from within. Feudal mentality allowed that you were only as powerful as your land holdings were big, and how much you had inherited. Today, it feels like we are in the same crossroads — what to do with our future.
Your materials even seem to have a historical bent. How did you come to use lead in so much of your work?
I think that we humans have been in love with lead for thousands of years because it’s soft, easy to melt, easy to carve.
Lead has such a specific feel to it.
Doesn’t it? It has that coolness, that pliability. I think the idea of alchemy still plays on lead. By applying color to it, by puncturing it, it’s an act of enriching the lead, in a metaphorical way. I find it very satisfying. There is that contemporary wariness about lead because of danger of poison but growing up I used to melt lead pellets with my brother and then pour the liquid in a sink filled with water and watch the beautiful flowers and explosions erupt.
How long does one of your lead-based works take to complete?
I approach like an engraver. Because although you can fix your first imprint, once you subtract material you’ve already done injury to the virgin lead plate. Sometimes things are very fluid or very organic, but because of this profound idea of permanence or precision it takes time for me to find the courage to begin. I have worked on pieces for up to two years. I don’t have a large production; I don’t do more than 15 to 20 pieces a year. And with the best of my abilities I try to impregnate those works with a whisper to the viewer, to make them a vessel for thought.
What has drawn you to using postage stamps?
My feeling is that we are better people than our parents, our grandparents, and our great-grandparents. We are more compassionate and more accepting of difference. I use the stamps as a reference because stamps make a quotation between today and the 175 years since they first came into use. You can see how the stamps evolve from Queen Victoria, kaisers and kings to social ideas and aspirations, humanitarian causes, popular culture, the arts. And although they are so humble, stamps are really ambassadors of our aspirations and hopes; and at the same time they are becoming extinct.
I think they are beautiful time capsules, and it sounds funny but I spend hours in front of them just trying to make connections. I find them in the flea market, on eBay, or friends give them to me. I rarely pursue them in a scholarly way. I think it would take away some of the ludic act of the collage, putting one next to the other, playing with color, playing with genders, playing with random association of ideas. I want to leave that story untold, so the viewer has that act of discovery.
How much do you plan out a work, or is it an intuitive process?
When I approach something representational normally it’s very meditative. I need to gather courage, or do a bunch of studies and transfer the drawings to the lead. I’m still learning how to attack, and am trying to be looser and more spontaneous because sometimes it places me in a very uncomfortable psychological place. The act of creation sometimes makes me question everything. In a funny way, this exhibition is one where I feel that I am freer and more accepting of my limitations, embracing accidents and playing with chance. I think what’s happening in this show is a large step forward because there is not only lead, and the stamps, there is work on paper, there is canvas, there are freestanding pieces. It’s been a year and a half of personal growth and planning what I want to be when I grow up, as an artist. How much suffering I want to do, and I want to stop suffering.
I don’t blame you for that. When you are working on a piece for so long, how do you know when it’s finished? Or do you know?
That’s where the suffering comes in!
Has spending time with, and meditating on this intersection of Alphonse, Averroes and Maimonides influenced your own spirituality?
I think that now I’m at a point where the big question is the survival of consciousness, of awareness. It’s an important part of what I’m searching for in my dialogue through art. How can it be done without being preachy? Are we done when we die or does the soul, our self inside of us, survive? But I think that’s the ultimate, eternal question — the last frontier.