Texturas Visuales: Una Conversación con Paula Córdoba

March 25, 2021 by María Carolina Baulo

Paula Córdoba, an Argentinian visual artist living in Houston, creates works of art in which she aims to reveal cultural phenomena silenced by Occidental hegemonic thinking. Her installations and objects establish a contrast between large format pieces that take over the space and small works that have aesthetic and physical features associated with a particular type of lace; an elegant, feminine lattice with a textile-like appearance is a leitmotif in all of her work. This contrast is present as much in the artworks’ formal presentation as in their materials, which are in dialogue with the concept that underlies her body of work. With a bachelor’s degree in Museum Studies, a Postgraduate Diploma in Fine Arts, a Postgraduate certificate in Critical Writing and Arts Marketing, and a master’s degree in Artistic and Cultural Heritage in Colonial South America, Paula engages her impressive cultural background to ground her aesthetic choices, playing with a combination of visual textures that nostalgically look to the past while also seeking to disrupt contemporary points of view.

María Carolina Baulo: Once you wrote: “By appropriating classical European ornamental imagery from textiles, façades, and crafts, my work reflects on the traces of colonial discourse and its political implications in South America.” Taking the pieces Through the Veins of History, Past and Present Intertwine and Neither Beginning nor End as examples, I would like you to elaborate on how you visually represent this concept that seems to be at the center of your creative exploration.

Paula Córdoba: First, I would like to thank you, María Carolina, for the opportunity to speak with you about my work and for sharing our exchange with Sculpture’s readers. In the case of the works you mentioned, the European ornamental elements are formally inspired by a Spanish handmade lace commonly known as “Tenerife lace.” This textile was introduced to several settlements in colonial South America; initially, its technique was taught and reproduced, but later, over time, it was modified and acquired its own identity in the hands of local weavers. This transformation can be observed in the new use of color, rich and bold in its palette, as well as in the introduction of local iconography, namely animal and floral motifs from the region. The most iconic example of these is ñanduty, a type of lace particular to and emblematic of the area known today as Paraguay. Even though, in terms of its formal aspect, I chose to keep the traditional structure of the textile, which is characterized by the repetition of sun motifs, my introduction of colors is an homage to transculturation. In the process of making these works, which escalated in size (so far the largest in the series is Neither Beginning nor End, which measures 95 x 74 inches), I started to reappropriate these traditional motifs, reinterpreting them as “rhizomes.” The importance of this motif lies in my reading of it as a symbol of cultural resistance. According to Deleuze, the rhizome is a web of elements that are without hierarchies and that, connected and interdependent, honor the “space in-between.” Therefore, the sense of resistance that I assign to the motif derives from its multiplicity and simultaneity, representing a silent yet powerful force that, thanks to its net-like structure and lack of a single identifiable core, can defy and oppose a greater force, in this case hegemonic power. Outside of this particular series, my inspiration usually comes from the designs on different types of textiles and on the sculptural reliefs of architectonic facades with classical ornamentation: acanthus leaves, flower motifs, and volutes. Within these designs, elements that recall the architecture of Buenos Aires appear, referencing Eclecticism, an architectural style of the late XIX and early XIX centuries. The net-like structure alludes to the social fabric, representing culture as a series of interconnections and interdependencies. The void spaces aim to echo the histories silenced in the context of power struggles.

MCB: How do you think your broad academic background influences your artistic practice?

PC: I consider my artistic production very much linked to my studies in other fields; these studies have given me conceptual tools that support and shape my visual discourse. I have always had a curiosity for understanding the drivers of cultural processes, the concept of “identity” as a social construction, and this construct’s relationship with the intangible and tangible heritage of a society. In particular, my initial questions tried to comprehend our positioning as Latin Americans and our conflicts with Europe and its colonial legacy with respect to our identities, politics, and epistemologies. Born and raised in Buenos Aires, an especially Eurocentric culture, these questions only multiplied. Even the city’s nickname “The Paris of South America” exemplifies the ubiquity of the narratives that express an identification with Europe’s legacy while perceiving the “Latin American” as something foreign, as a way of manifesting Otherness. During my academic studies, some lecturers acknowledged the need to question the supposed universality from which we conceive of Europe as the center of all knowledge; however, it is evident that Eurocentrism runs through not only art history, museology, and cultural studies but all disciplines and imposes pedagogic discourses and aesthetic values that pretend to construct a homogenous worldview.

My interest in these subjects led me to pursue a master’s degree in Artistic and Cultural Heritage in Colonial South America at UBA (Universidad de Buenos Aires); this degree enabled me to not only explore the historical processes and manifestations of colonialism but also analyze the bases that legitimized the colonial regime. Thanks to these studies, I gained knowledge of authors like Walter Mignolo, Enrique Dussel, and Nelson-Maldonado Torres, among others, who propose “decolonization” as a “project” or “turn” that, even if it is always inconclusive, provides the conceptual tools for us to question our perspectives of the world and operate within our respective fields of knowledge. Occidental thinking is characterized by conceiving of the world as binary constructions, categorizations that survive in cultures today and are manifested by social issues such as racism and gender inequality. Considering the arts as an engine for transformation, I am interested in adopting a decolonial approach to overcome these realities. The crossovers between art and cultural studies make research an important part of my work as an artist. I am interested in continuing to explore these theories and believe my work to be within “decolonial aesthetics.” In my artistic production, I aim to integrate disciplines and to interlace my themes of interest with my experience as a South American woman, thereby expressing subtle worlds, the establishment of interrelations, the possibility of integration, and the surmounting of dichotomies.

MBC: What is the importance of materiality and visual texture in your work and how do you choose your materials?

PC: Materiality is a fundamental aspect of my work. A few years ago, I started experimenting with polyethylene, which I modeled with heat to create “shells.” In these works, I started to demonstrate the duality between negative and positive space. Through experimentation, I finally identified (I would say that I fell in love!) with a type of resin that is very unique with regard to its flexibility and softness. In addition, the possibility of coloring and working this resin as either a translucid or a matte material is another of its appealing traits. From its particular artificiality, I find that it appeals to the senses, especially the touch, at the same time that it allows me to achieve a particular flow, displaying characteristics traditionally associated with the organic. My selection of this inorganic material is based on its being a “cultural” product, the result of technological development, and a sign of our times. It makes me think of the “social” constructions, the production processes, that have gone through many changes between modernity and the present. The visual textures achieved with the soft resin often mirror the aesthetic of handmade lace, though the large scale of the resin art objects contrasts with the smallness of the textiles; to me, these textures suggest a sign of transitoriness that evokes different forms of making and living, thereby creating a bridge between the past and the present. Referring to the hyper-acceleration of life today, the flexible resin expresses itself through its fluidity and the speed with which I must work with it, given its short curing time.

MCB: Taking as an example some of your installations, such as Cultural Wounds and Infinite Circles, let us address the theme of space in relation to the viewer. I would like you to elaborate in detail, step-by-step, on your work process, using examples of your choice.

PC: In the works you mentioned, as in others, I am very interested in guiding the sight towards the perception of the space “in-between”—between the space created by the “threads” of the weave and the “other space” of the room, which suggests and incorporates immaterially through the staging of the installation and the use of lighting, including the shadows cast by the pieces. With respect to my creative process, I tend to start with research, exploring the concepts in which I am interested in a given series. Going back to the formal aspect, I often get inspiration from objects in museum repositories and from architecture; in these cases, I do an initial search that involves both antique textile collections and photography archives. Later, I look for a correlation between the two, which slowly translates into the visual discourse that I start developing while thinking through my reappropriation of the “design,” including the format, scale, and palette of my work, and my treatment of the material. Given the particularities of working with soft epoxy-resin—a common thread in my work—I experimented and developed my own technique that fulfills my creative and conceptual interests. In my work process, I cross the boundaries between disciplines: even though printmaking techniques are present in almost all of my works that get their texture from relief and bas-relief, some of them have a flow and a particular use of color that make them closer to painting; likewise, the use of the line and the relevance it acquires in other works recalls the language of drawing. However, since projection in space is an important part of my exploration, I prefer to define my works as textural sculptures or sculptural patterns. In terms of my manual process specifically, for each work I make a sort of one-time mold in which I also define the bas-relief textures in each area. Also, in terms of pouring the material, I usually work in several layers in which I play with the transparency of each color and the thickness’ level. The resin dictates the timing, requiring me, on occasion, to work long hours to ensure that the layers adhere to one another but also that each layer is sufficiently cured so that it does not blend with the previous one.

MCB: The series Oblivion introduces another key subject in your work: memory. And the interesting thing is that you also link it to lace as a symbolic motif. I am not referring necessarily to the textile lace but to the weave, the pattern, the design, and its symbolism. Tell us about these works.

PC: Indeed, memory is very important within my creative universe because it bridges the subjects that I am attracted to from a rational perspective—that is, those we spoke about at the beginning—with my personal life, namely the experiences that have made these concepts and fields of study relevant to me. With regard to my subjectivity as a “porteña” (as we call the inhabitants of Buenos Aires), memory and nostalgia play a major role in shaping our identity. Also, in terms of sound, this identity has been beautifully expressed through the fusion of musical genres that gave rise to tango. The city’s architecture cohabits with traces of the belle époque, which are especially iconic in the facades’ ornamentation. Calling the city “The Paris of South America,” as I mentioned earlier, has “condemned” us in a way to look back to a very idealized past. Without getting into details, these vestiges of the past reveal how and from where we constructed our identity as a society and, at the same time, suggest how postcolonialism manifests itself in Buenos Aires. Since I was little, my gaze has lingered on the ornamental details of old buildings. From then on, I have been attracted to the city’s faded glamour, which is much more noticeable in the southern neighborhoods, where the traditional houses are far—temporally and materially—from the magnificence that they had at the beginning of the 20th century. Finally, this is the reason why, in addition to the academic meaning of the term “in-between,” I find its strongly evocative and poetic qualities very appealing. They say that memory is a paradox that involves both remembering and forgetting; the duality of the weave expresses this idea. The open spaces long to be “filled” by the viewer’s sensations and experiences in a broad sense, honoring forgotten voices and mementos, scents, etc.

MCB: Considering that we are starting the year 2021, with all the changes that we have been through during the Covid-19 pandemic, how do you see your immediate future?

PC: In the first part of the year, the virtual mode will allow me to stay connected with peers from other regions and participate in activities created and promoted in this context. Even though our immediate future is still uncertain, I have hopes that we will resume in-person activities in the last third of 2021 and am working with this in mind. For now, having only just started the year, I will participate in the digital conference “Rethinking Postcolonial Europe: Moving Identities, Changing Subjectivities” organized by Justus-Liebig-University Giessen (Germany). This opportunity is possible for me because of the digital format the conference took this year, although this is actually the eighth forum in “Postcolonial Narrations” organized by the Postgraduate Center for the Study of Culture. There, I will present my work’s approach to decolonial subjects and will elaborate on how the arts can operate from the symbolic and imaginary in reality and call on viewers to consider these issues. I am interested in diving deeper into these lines of work and building a network with other artists and art theorists who share these interests in order to work on future exchanges, collaborations, and exhibition projects.

Texturas Visuales: Una Conversación con Paula Córdoba