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The Art Five, Issue 15 with Artist and Curator, Juan Bolivar

Updated: Jul 22, 2021

Juan Bolivar. Photo by Simon Goodwin

JB: Showing work is a mixture of anticipation, expectation and excitement in the run-up to an exhibition; followed by dread, doubt and anxiety nearing the opening. Powerage is no exception. Lockdown enabled a period of incubation to reconsider the initial premise of the exhibition planned for 2019; inadvertently contributing to this new body of work in unexpected ways. Artists are either hermits or nomads and I am definitely more of the former. Carmen Herrera (who is 106 this year), didn’t begin to receive attention until Herrera was in her 80’s. In an interview the Cuban-American artist explains with hindsight she welcomed this fact, as it allowed Herrera to ‘get on with her work’. After I graduated from CSM in 1988 for the next ten years I had little contact with other artists. Paradoxically, this anonymity allowed me to be self-directed in a similar manner to Herrera’s description; in my case enabling the necessary and at times painful production of a lot of ‘bad’ paintings behind closed doors. After graduating from Goldsmiths in 2003, my work began to reach a larger audience and featured in prominent exhibitions such as New British Painting at John Hansard Gallery (2004). Since then my reaction to exhibiting has always been similar; I welcome the opportunity to present my latest work but I also feel slightly bashful and inexplicably embarrassed. Mostly however, I worry about the works getting damaged as they leave the studio and are wrapped, unwrapped, documented, and unwrapped again for installation. By the time the paintings are on the wall I feel a momentary disconnection, finding it hard to imagine how the paintings came into being. Damien Hirst makes a good analogy comparing exhibitions to elaborate dinner parties where a host is constantly aware of looking after guests, and by the time you eat you have lost all appetite – exhausted from preparations – but a month later you look back and think: “that was great party!”

Installation view, 'Powerage': Juan Bolivar' at JGM Gallery, London courtesy of JGM Gallery/Dean Brannagan

JB: The overarching theme here is painting, and a story of painting, stretching or trying to stretch our understanding of what this could mean by saying, look, someone 700 years ago was attempting to place painted figures in a pictorial space, someone was attempting to establish figure/ground relationships. Using this connection to Trecento and Quattrocento painting, I have created a logic whereby cartoon-like characters sit in the spaces provided by (re-enactments) of 20th century modernist paintings; titling works with biblical references and scenes from Duccio’s Maestá to point to this connection to the past. For many years Western painting was synonymous with pictures of religious stories depicting the life of Christ and the Virgin Mary. Artist competed for attention to make their work more life-like for a public to connect, gradually making paintings less symbolic and more naturalistic, by creating ‘animated’ sequences which brought religious figures to life. These works from 1300 and 1400 are the origins of the comic strip which appear later in Europe at the end of the 19th century, and the animated cartoons of the 20th century. Both Angel, 2020-21 and Resurrection, 2020-21, re-enact Barnett Newman paintings to stretch this intertextual game further. For Angel, 2020-21, I re-enact Eve painted by Newman in 1950 preceding his famous Who's Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue series (1966-70), playing with the idea that Angel could be a dog’s name as well as a biblical apparition. In the words of Courbet "show me an angel, and I'll paint you a lie”. Resurrection also takes a Newman painting as starting point but the sentiment is very different. This is based on Untitled, 1970, the last painting Newman was working on which was found in his studio after his death on July 4th, 1970. I have a deep love and admiration for Newman and his work. He is one of the most misunderstood artists of the 20th century. My painting is a homage to him; its title referring to Newman’s breakthrough series Stations of the Cross (1958-66), but also utilising a child-like logic to resurrect him back to life through this posthumous fifteenth Station.

'Resurrection', 2020-21 Acrylic on canvas 166 x 127 cm 'Angel', 2020-21 Acrylic on canvas 198 x 158 cm. Photos by Damian Griffiths

Juan Bolivar painting
'Maestá' 2020-21 Acrylic on canvas 143 x 187 cm. Photo by Damian Griffiths

JB: In his Philosophical Investigations (1953) Ludwig Wittgenstein devised what is referred to as the ‘duck-rabbit’ image to illustrate perception. This image flicks between the readings of a duck and a rabbit; persistently as both and neither. What’s interesting in Maestá, which you eloquently describe here, is that it operates in a similar way. In our minds we can’t help but note the character’s mouth to be absent, because as a viewer we are compelled to automatically fill-in this liminal space. In the original Maestá (1308-1311) by Duccio, the frontal panel depicts the Virgin Mary holding Christ as a child. To the sides are three rows of saints which flank both figures. My painting reinterprets this arrangement with a figure in the middle of a re-enacted Morris Louis (which also holds its own pathos because of Louis’ death), using the paint flows in Louis’ painting to echo the cascading effect of the saints in Duccio’s painting. In Duccio’s painting the Virgin Mary is described as the ‘intercessor’ between man and Christ and is painted in a more humanistic way than in previous icon paintings. Christ as a child likewise, is described as having a sense of gravitas and the wisdom of a fully grown adult, conveyed by Duccio for the first time in a different way aiming to connect with visitors to the church in Sienna where it was first shown in 1311, and allowing church goers sitting on the front of the altarpiece to witness this ‘proto-animation’, the way movie-goers do today in a cinema.


Installation view, 'Powerage': Juan Bolivar' at JGM Gallery, London. Photo by Damian Griffiths.
Installation view, 'Powerage': Juan Bolivar' at JGM Gallery, London courtesy of JGM Gallery/Dean Brannagan

JB: The overall process can be described as chaotic and slightly absurd. I have learned to embrace the fact that I have a polyfaceted identity and I am curious about many different subjects. My entry into modernism is partly autobiographical. I grew up in Caracas at a time when South America was heavily influenced by ideas of European utopian modernism. Later in life I became interested in Mondrian’s Theosophical ideas and it wasn’t until well in my 30’s that I discovered the word ‘postmodernism’ enabling me to see paintings as texts or signs. Growing up in my teens in Venezuela there was a big American culture influence, combining the influx of disco and Saturday Night Fever, with Latin American music, baseball, comics, food and films such as Jaws, Star Wars and Grease, all mixed together from blurred points of origin. Arriving in the UK in the 80’s my brother and I connected with ‘rockers’ and our arrival coincided with AC/DC’s release of Back in Black (1980). Recently I have been thinking about my conflated relationship to popular culture researching Stuart Hall’s ideas on the subject. Hall describes popular culture “as sites where this struggle for and against a culture of the powerful is engaged” and in a recent Stuart Hall seminar a former colleague of Hall states that with hindsight Hall’s concern was with ‘power’ studies, and not just culture or popular cultural studies in the common sense. For years I struggled to reconcile my many interests from the esoteric to the vernacular. Encouraged by peers and tutors at Goldsmiths, in particular Gerard Hemsworth, I began to engage in a process of ‘misquotation’ to free myself from the limitations these different areas of interest had set up; what Harold Bloom's calls the “anxiety of influence”. The chaos of this process creates frictions and tensions (sometimes deliberate and sometimes accidental) which underpin the experience of my paintings. This ‘puzzlement’ or inherent contradictions in the work, Derrida describes as ‘Aporia’; our ability to connect to the doubt and the blind-spots in any argument in order to maintain its criticality.

Paintings by Juan Bolivar
'Darkness', 2020-21 Acrylic on canvas 46 x 46 cm. 'Baptism', 2021 Acrylic on canvas 150 x 150 cm. Photos by Damian Griffiths
Painting by Juan Bolivar
'Dionysius', 2020-21 Acrylic on canvas 172 x 123 cm. Photo by Damian Griffiths

JB: In these paintings there are traits and themes from earlier works that I have returned to, so there’s a sense of continuity. Philip Guston who has been a huge influenced in my work, spoke about the artist ‘leaving the room’ as the work reached its completion. I wouldn’t go so far as to say these paintings are self-portraits, as in many ways I agree with Guston in that I too leave the room once the works is finished. Rather than the more commonly understood psychoanalytical theory that all painting is self-portraiture, I would refer to something the artist Lisa Milroy once mentioned: that is, that an artist is always making the same painting. In my case Dionysius (2020-21) is a meta-reference to an earlier work from 2003, where a colour-field abstract painting appears to be sticking its tongue out to the viewer; the more ambiguous forms of this earlier work now appearing explicitly in Dionysius. I find paintings of animal-creatures, especially dogs, amusing, as words like dog, cat, and chair are often used in linguistics to illustrate ideas of signs and symbols. It is as if no matter how in depth our understanding of language may be, we can only ever refer to the most basic examples of ‘things’ to illustrate linguistic concepts. Paradoxically Dionysius could also be a dog’s name; offering a more quotidian explanation for the work so there are different levels to the interpretation of this work (the painting is in fact titled after Barnett Newman’s 1949 painting by the same name). Another meta-reference in this painting, is the way in which Dionysius appears to be emerging from a green ring around its neck, reminiscent to the rolls of masking tape I employ to make these paintings. In its final analysis a recent thought I have been entertaining is my continued relationship and return to ideas of colour and design, wondering whether in fact it is in these inherently formal ideas of abstraction that the power in painting stems from, and that in the end all the rules set up for these paintings are just a pretext or reason to use colour and shape.

Installation view, 'Powerage', courtesy of JGM Gallery/Dean Brannagan


Thank you to Juan Bolivar for participating in The Art Five, Issue 15.

Current exhibition:

Powerage: Juan Bolivar at JGM Gallery, London 7 July - 7 August

Powerage Exhibition T-shirt: more info

About Juan Bolivar is an artist and curator. His paintings negotiate the tension between meaning and form. He combines elements from disparate sources to investigate hybridity, language and abstraction. As an independent curator he has worked on over 40 exhibitions with a focus on inclusivity, multidisciplinary practice and polysemic cultural dialogues. Born in Caracas, Venezuela, Bolivar graduated from Goldsmiths College and has twice been a recipient of a Pollock-Krasner award. His work is included in The Government Art Collection, and selected for significant exhibitions such as New British Painting at John Hansard Gallery, University of Southampton and East International at Norwich School of Art. His work was included in Nanjing Museum's first international exhibition of contemporary art where he was a prize winner.

Bolivar lives and works in London where he is a Lecturer in Painting at Camberwell College of Arts.

All images courtesy of The Artist.

Individual artwork photography by Damian Griffiths

Studio portrait photo Simon Goodwin

Installation views courtesy of JGM Gallery/Dean Brannagan


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