THE BODY IS A PUZZLE of both physical and mental pleasures, and anatomy is often a vessel for the psychological as well as the sensual keys to its secrets. Our bodies are at once our cages and our arenas -- with them, others perceive us by stance and gesture; they are our armor, and our glass. The human form of each of us is a sum total of experience at any point in our lives, and the indelible imprint of our current state of mind. Constructs of vivid abstractions, lambent genius, and the core of beauty and desire, our bodies are the fulcrum on which we taste, feel, and respond to the world and each other.
EMIL ALZAMORA is a sculptor who utilizes the body's limitless and profound incarnations as inspiration to explore these psychological, emotional, and cultural states of being, expressed in the parameters of anatomy and psychology. For Alzamora, the body is a history, and a map; it is an archeological site of surfaces that can exhume psychic identity as well as cultural meanings. His three-dimensional depictions of emotional states of being are founded on a rich association with the body's inherent beauty. For as complex as these skins we inhabit are, it is how we use them to relate to one another that is Alzamora's focus. He is not only sculpting from life, he is sculpting from mind.
Born in Peru and educated in the U. S., Alzamora is a sculptor of wide-ranging intelligence, as well as disarming collegiality. His stunning interpretations of the human form attest to a life surrounded by art -- his mother is an artist -- and the love of natural sciences, literature, and history. His is not the rote depiction of form, nor even the high-art classicism of the academy. His art is of the eye, mind and hand, working together -- with often febrile energy -- to reconstruct the body from its puzzle of meanings and physical associations into a rich vocabulary of sensate materials and surfaces. Academically trained at Florida State University, his work also has the power and insight of his time spent at The Polich Art Works, the noted foundry in Newburg, New York, where he honed his craft and his vision. With a broad array of materials to work with, he has created a body of work that is extraordinary in its conceptual ideas, and resonant in its beauty.
One looks at these works and wants to touch them; but one looks at these works and wants to also speak with them. Upon seeing one of his sculptures, "Centaur" -- poised armed with gun in hand -- I was immediately reminded of Robert Graves's statement about the contradictory nature of these beings in his great work, The Greek Myths: they inhabit two natures, that of "wisdom and misdemeanor." And it is to such natures that Alzamora knowingly tips his hat. And so in these remarkable evocations of human form do we also connect to the universal puzzle that is flesh, blood, and being, attuned to the contemporary face of our specific cultural context.
Alzamora's creations look back on us with as questioning a glance as we give them; they lie exhausted from battles, or at complete rest, reach across to us deeply, embrace us face to face; they rise in air and surround us with their attention; they compel us to consider the deeper worlds below the flesh and bone, which is yet just so near the surface, and to examine the magic of ideas. Upon seeing his recent exhibition "Random Mutations That Work", shown this past February at The ArtBreak Gallery in Williamsburg, I was completely drawn to Alzamora's innate gifts of perception and creation. These works compel us to reconsider everything we think we know about anatomy and its rules. He upends the body in a joyful play and tangle of limbs, mind, and heart which uncover those emotions and states inside of us that show more than the surface ever could. Marrying the real to the imagined, Alzamora creates sculptures that celebrate figuration. I had the chance to visit with him recently in his home and studio, to discuss his work and the inspirations and ideas which have been his source.
Your mother is an artist, and you were surrounded by art as you were growing up, through her guidance. You mentioned that she showed you Dali's artworks and you were able to see them almost as comic books -- which is a wonderful way of looking at Dali, but it also reinforces the fact that most young people's introduction to art is through some of the most interesting imagery being drawn. Superheroes are almost the first graphic entry point for students to think about the human body in motion. Dali's color and figure work -- often in pen and ink -- would be a perfect connection. Your mother's work was also sculptural and story-filled. Can you speak to these inspirations?
My first memories of any artist as a person, other than my mother, aunt, or grandmother, was Salvador Dali. My mother and aunt appreciated his work and figured it would be a great way to show my brother and I art that was fun and weird (as that seemed to be the most appealing kind of art to a couple of rambunctious boys). I can recall going to both Dali museums in Spain when I was about eight and then later in Florida. That left a strong impression. I loved to draw and did so as often as I could. It was a very easy thing to do with so many people in my family making (and selling) their own artwork. My mother and my aunt's work were filled with stories and metaphors, whether oil paintings or sculpted clay, they always had rich narratives that encouraged consideration. I also loved the drawings and stories in the Tin Tin comics, a very popular series in Spain. That segued into the more contemporary comic books like Spider-man and The Hulk. My mother was less enthusiastic of this art form and would often show me classical references of where many of these heroes originated (greek, roman and renaissance). At about the age of 16, I came around to being more impressed with Michelangelo over Todd MacFarlane.
In your work, anatomy is never about the figure in itself: your work always integrates the body with the mind. Psychological and emotional states -- they are more like expressions -- in your work turn on a single gesture, torsion, or movement in your figures. They are never static, even when they are at rest. Your bodies are truly portraits of the whole being. There is always something humming, some aura cast about them that makes them seem to move -- which is the ultimate thing that sculpture can do. Why is the body such a singular basis for your work?
Thank you for that assessment. It is something I try to imbue in the work. They have to stand on their own and the more life they have in them the more convincing they will be, the more effective. The most interesting aspect of the human form is that we all have one and therefore can relate to it. For years I would try to perfect its nuances and overcome the challenges of badly sculpted anatomy (figurative sculpture can go wrong faster than any other kind). I still love "nailing" something, like a perfect swish in basketball. It is a way of reducing barriers of perception and absorption. If the figure is convincingly alive, people are more likely to forget its artifice. I think ultimately art does serve a function, subtle as it may be. When successful, it can make us see things in a new way, or appreciate life from a different perspective, be it intellectual or emotional. For me, the use of the figure automatically opens the door to interpretation and reflection.
Mythology, literature, history, science and the pulse of popular culture all seem to co-exist in your work, together or separately. They energize the viewer to think deeper about the pieces they are looking at, and permit them wide imagination, whether or not they know the references. Your works are disarmingly welcoming. Their surfaces are as mesmerizing as their meanings, but you never put the viewer off with a sense of academic strictures. Your sculptures seem democratic in the best way. Can you speak to some of your inspirations?
I like "democratic". We all matter, and that seems to be at the core of my work. I love and care for people and the systems of people so much that it is important for me to feel like I have something relevant to contribute. I am full of ideas, from science to sociology to history and politics and psychology etc. etc. I like for my work to express these things in a way that is clear to the human eye, not just the art critic's and art historian's eye. Accessibility has always been a huge consideration within my work. As I said before, the artist performs a service like anyone else. If that service isn't useful to others, it ends up being a somewhat self-indulgent activity, without any greater consideration. To quote a very talented portrait artist and friend: "freakish self-expression".
You were trained and attended art school, but you mentioned that your real school was the foundry you first worked in. Can you describe how that developed you as an artist and sculptor?
University was great in so many ways, mainly for personal growth and learning about the world through science, history and art history. I have to give enormous credit to the academic portion of my education. Florida State University had some great teachers and a fantastic art department with a fully equipped sculpture and metal casting facility. That helped foster the idea of working in an art foundry as both a practical application of learned skills and a place to continue to develop my sculpture. I had no idea at the time, but I would end up working side by side on projects with Frank Stella, Eric Fischl, Magdalena Abakanowicz, Tom Otterness and Jeff Koons among many others. My primary role was to enlarge an artist's maquette and make it as much as 7 times bigger using a century old pantograph machine. I enlarged Eric Fischl's Arthur Ashe memorial, Tom Otterness' 9 foot tall Free Money sculpture and helped to enlarge Louise Bourgois' Pittsburgh Fountain. I worked in the mold making and metal finishing departments as well. The combination of seeing all of these artists execute their ideas along with having to learn the technical skills to help them do so had a monumental impact on my understanding of the art world and being an artist in it. It was somewhat like working behind the wizard's curtain.
Your materials are wide and intriguing, and your choices in using certain materials over others when creating a sculpture directly connects to how you perceive a piece and how the material will interpret the very core of the sculpture. It's as if you find the perfect skin for each piece to reveal its inner heart. How do these choices come to you?
I think every sculptor is in pursuit of the holy grail of mediums. I am always certain that there is a better, more versatile material out there that will reveal an entirely new world of possibilities, both aesthetic and conceptual. One of my favorite things to do is to walk down the hardware store aisles and think about what combination of materials will open a door to another world. I have had a number of these types of discoveries and so I'm hooked on the idea that there are many more out there. Then there are the more basic materials, like ceramic and bronze. These are beautiful and timeless and so can often work with anything I make, though I will approach certain ideas with one or the other in mind. The material is, in the end, an integral part of the sculpture and communicates much about the piece (fragility, strength, obscurity, luminosity). New materials are seriously vetted to see whether or not there is a relationship between the medium and the idea. For example, a sculpture with a contemporary automotive paint finish will have a more specific range of possibilities than would bronze.
You begin with your ideas on paper -- sketches and visual notes -- and yet you've said that often you see the piece in your mind so clearly first, that the sketch is simply a prelude. I'm thinking of "Abyss", which is fairly exactly the piece that is in your working drawing.
Often it will take many drawings to arrive to that specific end. Dozens of them. Then one of them will hit and it feels right. Or I might revisit an idea being tossed around over and over and then it lands in a particular way that feels right. "Abyss" came about in this way. I showed you the drawing that stuck, but in the previous pages there may have been 10 or more that were "tossed out". The sketch book is an easy place to be liquid. The nature of sculpture is such that too much exploration in action can result in huge amounts of wasted time, materials and energy. This is where I am now, I do foresee a time where I explore more while in the process of sculpting, but I haven't graduated to that level of mastery just yet. All in good time. Or not, I don't know. Maybe this is just the way I do it?
Your imagery has a quality that is dark -- or at least has a tension of something deeper below the often delicate and fragile surface. In "Current", there is such a sense of release and complete giving up to the sea's arms -- water as life -- but one can also read something more sardonic in the image: the seduction of an element that can also drown you. It's a kind of Janus-faced coin. Your works convey a sense of duality both of emotions and of meanings.
I love beauty and it is satisfying to make beautiful things, but to focus only on that aspect of life is to miss out on the bigger picture. It's not that I want my work to be "realistic", it has more to do with respecting how complex life really is. I don't think we can have a complete experience without feeling and being aware of the darker side of things. Everything beautiful has a tragic side to it, and if not tragic then uncertain. I think we all have a difficult time with the unknown.
You're very interested in science, and you read in that subject. Your project "Random Mutations That Work" was inspired by ideas involving genetics as the intelligence of chance. It seems that nature simply perseveres -- evolution -- and incorporates the stray gene that may become the one useful component that creates a new being or ability. As applied in your sculpture, we can see that these possibilities are inherent in the idea of creation. Can you discuss some of this?
Years ago I read a book that explored complexity and chaos theory. One of the things highlighted was the auto-catalytic set. This was a group of amino acids or cells or some life-force that would, through its own make-up and nature and inherent tendency to reproduce, increase in complexity. It sparked a question: what is this tendency to grow in the direction of greater complexity and higher order? And years later I asked, could it be truly random as Darwinian theory suggests? I am not a creationist by any stretch whatsoever, quite the opposite. If we have the ability to create God for ourselves, can cells and complex groups of cells have the comparatively simple ability to intentionally construct better mechanisms for themselves? It seems like common sense to me but it may be impossible to prove (like my model of the universe but that is another topic).
Your works are wonderfully named; they both connote and denote a multiplicity of meanings or symbols. Language and words are often what sculpture is not about, yet your works, to me, are garrulous and conversational. How does language play a part in some of your decisions or inspirations for a figure or idea for one?
Titles are fun. It is the closest I get to publishing (really short) poetry. Most pieces scream a title to me as though it came from nowhere. They often times seem to name themselves. In the end, I like for a piece to have enough information in the title to direct a viewer in a certain way but not too much to where it dictates everything. For me, a piece should have a meaningful title that helps people to understand a little bit more about where the artist is coming from. What I don't think art needs is a great descriptive paragraph telling the viewer all there is to know about the work. They should be "mature" enough to need very little hand-holding when they leave the artist's sanctuary.
What is the most difficult aspect of the medium you have chosen to work in? How does its challenges lead you to develop new ideas?
Sculpture is a challenge no matter how you cut it. I have always been one to throw myself into really difficult situations and rather like operating in uncomfortable environments for many hours at a time. I have managed to pick a line of work where I create the problems and solve them too, as difficult or painless as I need them to be. I like to be my own pacesetter (manic). Each medium presents a new set of challenges and each has something new to offer in terms of what its properties are and what you can do to them. I don't like monotony either so I will have multiple sculptures in different materials going on at any given time.
What ideas are developing for you as you go forward? Do you have particular imagery that you wish to expand into new work?
The future is wide open. I just put this show together and I have a few art fairs coming up that I have to make several pieces for, but as for a specific direction I am not sure. I enjoy the ceramics, and I want to explore resins. I will continue with the gypsum as it is unbelievably versatile. I have to spend a few days in my sketchbook to see what comes of it. It is like mining a weird hole. You never know. I have been fascinated with sharks and aquatic life lately. That may be something?
ALL IMAGES COPYRIGHT EMIL ALZAMORA, 2010. Used with kind permission of the artist. Images from top to bottom: "King", Ceramic, 2008; "Ultima Thule", Ceramic, 2007; "Mother and Child I", Ceramic, 2009; "Centaur", Porcelain, 2009; "Minotaur", Gypsum, 2006; "Aegis" (Detail), Bronze, 2009; "Abyss", Gypsum, 2008; "Current", Bonded Iron, 2009; "Abrazo", Bronze, 2004; "Masochist", Gypsum, 2004.
For more information and to see the work of Emil Alzamora, go to his website at: http://www.emilalzamora.com
To read more about his work, see the article by Lyle Rexer in the Brooklyn Rail: http://www.brooklynrail.org/2010/03/artseen/emil-alzamora-random-mutations-that-work