Confluence, Abstraction, and the Lima Biennale: Brian Young Interviews Painter Camilo Sanin

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As a curator for a collection with an emphasis on Maryland artists and contemporary programming, I am constantly evaluating art from dual perspectives. In particular, I am intrigued by artists who possess this duality, especially those who belong to two cultures. What does it mean to be a Latin American artist and an American – or even Maryland – artist?

I first experienced Camilo Sanin’s work when he exhibited colorful, geometric abstractions in Vista at UMUC in 2012. Although originally from Colombia, Camilo Sanin has studied at MICA (MFA) and at the University of Maryland in College Park (BFA).

In addition to showing recently at the World Trade Center in Baltimore, Sanin’s work will be included at the Art Museum of the Americas, Washington D.C. He will also be represented in “Art Lima 2014,” Peru’s second International Art Fair, through Galeria Okyo of Caracas, Venezuela. I drove out to Hagerstown to reconnect with Camilo Sanin in his home and studio.

Epipelagic One, 2012. Acrylic on Canvas. 20 x 20 in
Epipelagic One, 2012. Acrylic on Canvas. 20 x 20 in

Brian: I think the last time we saw each other you were still in Takoma Park, Maryland. This was shortly after you participated in the Vista exhibition at UMUC, and this would have been in 2012. As an update, tell me what you have been up to for the last year.

Camilo: Stemming from the body of work seen in Vista (at UMUC in 2012) I underwent a mural project with the Business Improvement District in Crystal City, Virginia. It was a twelve-piece project where the paintings are read using high intensity scanners and transferred onto Dibond aluminum panels. These panels were then placed on Jefferson highway.

Brian: With those larger pieces blown up, are they still considered your work or are they reproductions?

Camilo: I think it is considered a reproduction. I am not quite sure. (Smiling.) I haven’t really thought about the division between the two.

It wasn’t until that project that I really thought about how important scale is to my work. Of course one thinks of scale within a given painting, but it allowed me to reassess the viewer/work relationship on a very different dimension… After that project, I spent the next five or six months in the studio planning and producing work for an exhibition I had in July 2013 at Galeria Okyo in Caracas, Venezuela. At the end of 2012, I left my studio in Takoma Park and started my residency at St. Mary’s College of Maryland where I finished the work for Okyo and taught a couple of classes. The move itself was quite interesting because I went from a very urban environment to one that was much more rural. So I saw a lot of farms, open fields and the college itself, which is rather beautiful and right by the water. I was surrounded by nature.

Wavelength, (Mesopelagic Three) 2014. Acrylic on Canvas. 60 x 60 inches
Wavelength, (Mesopelagic Three) 2014. Acrylic on Canvas. 60 x 60 inches

Brian: So if you are an abstract artist does and you go to commune with nature, does that affect your work as much as it might a traditional artist who does realist work?

Camilo: I can’t speak for all abstract artists, but it definitely did for me. Some see abstraction as an antithesis to nature. But for me, the surrounding environment is one of the biggest influences.

Brian: Which way does the environment manifest itself in your work?

Camilo: In (the works’) structure, form and color. What has happened since the end of 2012, is that my work has become, I don’t want to say muddier, but there is a reason why I employ the title “Confluences.” There is a confluence of things coming together. The are shifts from the urban to the architectural as blue print, to the rural and its respective landscapes. The word confluence also refers to the term that designates a point where two bodies of water come together. The work, while still gridded, urban and hard edged, has taken much more to sinuous and organic elements.

Brian: So the work is less frenetic and a little more fluid?

Camilo: Yes. There is a bit more fluidity and responsiveness to the environment.

Brian: Your artistic background includes degrees from the University of Maryland, College Park, and MICA and then you spent a semester in Oxford, England. Tell me a little about the influences on your work such as the Washington Color School.

Camilo: For me it was important to understand the art historical aspects of abstraction. I was working on my undergraduate degree with Professor W.C. Richardson and Professor Steven Mansbach. Working on my thesis, I began to look a good deal at Laszlo Moholy-Nagy and Piet Mondrian. At some point, the research veered towards early 20th century abstraction in England. I looked at Ben Nicholson both because of his color sensibility and his mechanics. Also because his forms were so free and because his mastery of surface made many of his works resemble lunar landscapes. For my semester at Oxford, I spent a lot of time at the Ashmolean Museum looking at Nicholson, Leslie Martin (an architect) and Moholy-Nagy. Together, their work and ideas influence one another quite a bit.

Brian: What about William Stanley Hayter?

Camilo: Yes. Hayter too. He was well represented there also. I was able to see a vast collection of his drawings.

Half Past Two, 2013. Acrylic on Canvas. 40 x 52 in
Half Past Two, 2013. Acrylic on Canvas. 40 x 52 in

Brian: So after Oxford, you returned to College Park and then headed off to Baltimore for graduate school.

Camilo: Yes, I finished school in 2008 and took a year off. I had a lot of things (artistically) that I wanted to resolve before graduate school. At MICA, I met a great professor, Timothy App, at the Hoffberger School of Painting. He became an important mentor to me during that first year.

My second big mentor at MICA, after Timothy, was Joan Waltemath who worked in abstraction but came from a completely different place. Timothy went to Temple University for his MFA but lived and worked in California for many years. He was, I believe, influenced a great deal by Karl Benjamin. Joan, on the other hand, had been living and working in New York for a long time.

MICA has always had a very strong history of abstraction. This goes back to Morris Louis, his time at MICA and his subsequent participation in the Washington Color School. His large painting at the Brown Center was an early influence. I would be completely dumbfounded by its scale and seeming simplicity. The work in “Confluence” was very much influenced by his work and the work of Gene Davis.

While completing my MFA, I was fortunate enough to be invited to show a couple of pieces at Connersmith (then Conner Contemporary) in Washington D.C. It seemed to me that there was a larger base in Washington D.C. and I wanted to be a painter full time so access to galleries was crucial. After the Connor show, I participated in In Line/Out of Line at Heiner Contemporary, also in D.C. Following that, we (the artist Camilo, other curators and I) did the Vista show together at UMUC. Thereafter, I began working with a number of galleries in Colombia and Venezuela.

The Artist-in-Residence program at the beginning of this year was pivotal, because it allowed me to continue painting while exploring and teaching a course on movie poster design, another one of my passions.

Brian: Have you designed any movie posters yourself?

Camilo: I did. I designed a couple for the class. What interests me most is the relationship between what was going on in a particular society, how that was being manifested in these posters by a local artist, and the mediating role of the actual movie had.

These parameters make for great art. There is a long history there (designing posters) that existed before computer generated imagery, which in its early stages gave great creative freedom before the rise of a very scripted formula. For example, the recurring floating faces or the fading landscapes that are all too common now.

In some great posters, you can really tell what was important for that local society and what were the sensibilities for that time and place. We would try to trace that and link it with current art movements. Some countries for example really embraced geometric abstraction more than others, countries such as Sweden. In the United States, what became really important was, for a movie by Hitchcock, the characters. In a movie like Vertigo, other cultures might emphasize the “sensation” and so they would emphasize the background or feel of a setting to create a jarring effect within the poster. They would use a plastic aggressiveness. With movie posters, something has to grab you. You can only tell that story once. Yet you have to tell the story of the movie without giving it away. And you have to think about the audience.

Brian: And you have to include the “credits.”

Camilo: Yes. I think the feeling is that not a lot has been done (in the field) in terms of looking at it from a painter’s perspective, but there are so many great artists who are unknown and should be getting credit. You can’t really name a lot of movie poster designers.

Brian: As an artist-in-residence at St. Mary’s you were focused on just movie posters or…

Camilo: I only had to teach that one class so it gave me plenty of time to research and to be in the studio. We started by working traditional media; pencil, charcoal, or pastel and looked at the early work in a movie like King Kong (1933), for example. As we moved though poster design we began to look at the new media these designer came in contact with eventually working in the computer in Illustrator or Photoshop. We moved a great deal throughout the course and it seemed in a lot of ways like mutual discovery with the students.

April, 2013. Acrylic on Canvas. 40 x 52 in
April, 2013. Acrylic on Canvas. 40 x 52 in

Brian: Now that you have moved here (to Hagerstown), assuming you are away from the movie poster business, where is your work heading now?

Camilo: I moved here because I wanted to be in a rural setting and away from. . . I guess I just wanted to be away from the familiar, to gather my thoughts once again recommit myself to painting. I like to work on two or three veins at a time. This has most recently developed into the “Half Past” series, which plays with the idea of catching glimpses in time. It is a very abstract attempt to talk about time and space as they develop within the process of making a painting. I have also continued to work on the “Confluence” and “Countershading” series, which encompass the more organic works and the recurring idea of traversing spaces that we physically would have difficulty navigating. Rivers, deserts, large bodies of water. The Epipelagic and Mesopelagic paintings dealt with the sunlit zones (of the oceans) where most life occurs.

Brian: The Vista exhibition at UMUC had a Epipelagical piece and a Mesopelagic piece.

Camilo: Yes, since moving to Hagerstown, I’ve continued the Epipelagic paintings which went directly to the International Art Fairs in Lima, Peru and Bogota, Colombia.

Brian: You are from Bogota, Colombia right?

Camilo: Yes.

Brian: Do you think of yourself as a South American artist too?

Camilo: Yes definitely. I came here (to the US) when I was 11 years old. But I know where many of my roots are from. A lot of my color choices and sensibilities are influenced by my Colombian upbringing.

Brian: What would those be?

Camilo: I think when I was young and I was still grasping, there was this sense that my color relationships occurred in a sensibility close to that of (Yaacov) Agam. This was polarizing especially when I was in grad school since it is different than what most of my peers were practicing. I then realized that whenever I go somewhere my color sensibilities are shifted by that place. In Colombia, the environment changes and color becomes more prominent. Everything is brighter, louder and busier. It stands in many ways to life in Maryland and being of these two places has allowed me to be more susceptible to the shifts.

Underlying Structure Two, 2012. Acrylic on Canvas. 30 x 30 in
Underlying Structure Two, 2012. Acrylic on Canvas. 30 x 30 in

Brian: Somebody like yourself credits their environment as having an influence, but I have to ask since moving to Hagerstown, do you ever think about Antietam? Do you think that space has entered your vocabulary?

Camilo: Yes. Definitely. I can’t say how exactly this place will influence me, but I am beginning to take it all in. I found some waterfalls nearby and I also like traveling to Williamsport, which is about 15 minutes from here. There is the Conococheague creek and the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal which made it a very important location during the 1800s.

I like to go out, sketch and take photographs and take notes on colors I see. It’s good and it is relaxing for me.

Brian: And the rent is cheaper.

Camilo: Yes, the cost of living is lower and I love driving some of the amazing roads around here.

Underlying Structure, 2012. Acrylic on Canvas. 30 x 30 in
Underlying Structure, 2012. Acrylic on Canvas. 30 x 30 in

Brian: But I want to ask, do you feel you have as many opportunities as you had in Baltimore? You are no longer close to MICA nor are you close to D.C. Is it harder to maintain connections?

Camilo: It is easier now than it used to be. I am always interested in working with new galleries, but one can always send a couple of images over the Internet. And it is still not that far from D.C. since I think it is important for young artists to be near art and other artists.

I was lucky enough to be able to establish a small base when I was in D.C. and South America. These connections have afforded me the chance to get away for a bit. I still try to get to D.C. at least every other week and I used to be an intern and conservation assistant at the Hirshhorn for two years, so I like to get back. I don’t go to New York as often as I would like but whenever I do make it out of Hagerstown (including trips to Berlin, Germany, and Florence, Italy), I like to see as much work as possible and gather as much information as I can. As an artist, you have to find your own way. For me, Hagerstown has been catalyst for what’s most important to me, studio work. It limits the distractions.

Brian: Present company excluded???

Camilo: Haha yes, of course. But this location forces one to prioritize and make conscious decisions about attending events, openings etc… and leaving the studio.

* Author Brian Young is curator for the Arts Program and adjunct assistant professor of art history at the University of Maryland University College in Adelphi, Maryland.

** Featured Image at top: Confluence (2012). Acrylic on Canvas. 36 x 48 in

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