Where the Lead Points

Valentina Jager interviews Gwladys Alonzo

VJ: I remember our first conversations perfectly, from just over a year ago. You and I had arrived in Guadalajara more or less at the same time, and we’d get together at your workshop to chat. Actually, we didn’t get together just anywhere: we went directly to the rooftop of the building, where you could see the whole city. You would talk to me about assembling sculptures, from the highest possible point where we could talk about them. At the time, you were starting to work with the towers of tiles, ‘stretching’ the possibilities of the material as much as possible. 


Tell me about the materials you’re using now. I see them as characters in a mise-en-scène, because of the way they’re placed in relation to one another, and their such distinctive qualities. Each sculpture has its own personality, strength – and even charm. The materials don’t determine their behavior alone; rather, you’re a facilitator. 


GA: I remember those moments on the roof of that building under construction in the center; María Álvarez and Jaime Ashida let me use it as a studio while it was being renovated. The builders were on one side and I was on the other, each trying to understand what the other was doing. My passion for tiles came about about the esthetic of that place. I don’t know if you remember, but all the walls had this blue 10 x 10 cm tile – like the work of Jean-Pierre Raynaud, but with white filling and huge navy metal pillars. That’s what inspired me to use that material in 2016. The tile entered my vocabulary in that same period because of it’s very unique and informal use on the streets and chapels we could see from that roof in Guadalajara. The red clay of Mexican pottery also entered: a really interesting clay that can transform into lava at 1,200°C, and I’m just discovering that. I started working with ceramics in France six years ago, and then I continued in Turkey, figuring out how to load the construction materials into an oven which was generally used for producing ‘nice’ objects. I wanted to see how the enamel would react, and I learnt that it combines with the texture of the red turkish brick for the piece Mur (2014). The technique was different With Circulación I and Circulación II (2017), my task was to bring out the enamel’s strength against the weight of the brick. I’d like to continue down that path, leaving more and more space between each brick, until I reach a lacework of bricks supported by the enamel alone. 


When I approach a material, I do it to discover something: like a new variable in a modifying equation. Every time I make a sculpture, it has to do with resolving some technical question that doesn’t have a real solution.  With the enamel for example –for anyone who doesn’t know much about the material– if a final drop from your pot falls and hits the baking tray, both are ruined: the plaque and the pot. Everyone makes sure that doesn’t happen, but I’m interested in the exact opposite. No one can tell me how much enamel is needed for it to work as an adhesive, because that isn’t its function.

 We’ve given materials a very defined use, and in that way, we’ve restricted them. 


It’s like the relation between George Braque’s papier collé and Picasso’s collage, both made in 1912. The former is made up of one piece of paper on top of another, and the second is a piece of paper in confrontation with something. When Duchamp relocates an already-existing object from one space to another, the point isn’t solely about the change of location, but also about the abandonment of technique and identity. By defying the conventions of non-orthodox materiales, such as bee wax, felt, and dead animals, Joseph Beuys pushed the limits of what constitutes art. He was fascinated with materials, and their composition – as we see with the 20 tons of fat in Unschlitt (1977). 


VJ: So do you think humans limit the evolution of matter?


GA: Yes, sometimes humans create new materials that play a very limited role. Like metal rods that are only used within concrete, when there are so many other possibilities. Though, of course, this is obviously much more flexible in Mexico than in France. 


I think the objects within this exhibition have started to exist independently of the materials, upon recognizing their qualities and differences. It goes further than simply juxtaposing materials; I wanted to see if working with other variables could create a unique form – a distinct body. I wanted to create a fusion.


VJ: Could we look at the dilemma of causality a different way and consider that, since things are initially made from matter, that’s where the concept emerges from?


Though really it’s like a circle, with no beginning nor end, which makes me think that there are non-linguistic ideas that are inherent to materials. The act of assembling allows the objects to be themselves and nothing else. There’s no pretence of hiding; rather it’s about showing the personalities. 


GA: My production process is cyclical. Things come and then they go. One thing calls the other, and sometimes, within the creative process –when I’m looking for the materials ethat I consider adequate– I make another discovery. It’s a childlike curiosity to understand the material world. I also establish a very specific relationship with people. It’s a journey that I’d already started and now it continues in Mexico City, where I’m learning to live. Two years ago I didn’t know anything about Mexico. I was told to ‘hunt the material’, so I had to go to the source. I study material with that aim: to get to know it beyond its verbal or mental limits. Common sense works arbitrarily. Every material reproduces the same form, or mimics it. 


VJ: What or whom does the material mimic?


GA: In Turkey, working with glass –which would appear to be a common and mundane experiment– was a way for me to learn about the culture and the relationship we establish with our surroundings. Each region uses different materials, which are also part of a generational ‘crop’. Houses there are built with red bricks of different dimensions to those produced in France. You have to re-learn to use and understand materials according to their context. 

In France there are lots of unspoken agreements regarding how to paint objects and houses. Even if it’s your own house, you don’t have the freedom to paint it as you wish. There are lists of possible colours for each neighborhood: pinks, blues, oranges, and greens with multi-colored dots are not welcome. Your neighbors won’t like it: they can sue you to make you change it – and they probably will. Painting is almost an illegal act; you can’t paint your walls, or draw on them, or make marks. When I started to use colour in France, I followed “the advice” of John Chamberlain. He used materials that already contained color to avoid the extra act of painting. My technique, at the time, involved placing a pigment in the mix to avoid the pictorial gesture, and in doing so I narrowed the possibilities of that gesture. 


Mexico changed all of that. Here, all of the sidewalks are marked, and you can perceive the human presence that surrounds us. All of the signs of stores, businesses, and groceries are hand-made. 


I learned Spanish here. Every day, I have new words that stick in my memory and their contexts, from I now belong to. The painting was also a language to be learned, in the sense of acquiring new knowledge and having it stick with you. It’s like understanding a new word. All the Mexicans and Foreigns around me taught me new words and their multiple meanings. 

I’m aware of the shapes of my pieces, and I try to open them up and open myself up to new shapes, new lines, new acts. I’m drawn to curvy shapes, and I’m starting to apply color. I began with the act of painting here in Mexico; I couldn’t accept it before that – I was scared of it. I still can’t bring the color red into my work. Blue only just makes it in, without really entering. Klein worked blue in such a beautiful and sublime way and you can’t reinvent that. I use color in my work by elimination rather than choice. I ask myself: what would be the best color for a particular material? When it covers a material, does the paint act like clothing? It’s a filter that’s going to bring out the curves of the piece differently and reveal something about it’s texture. It’s like a primitive act of signing, marking something; an appropiation. I became fascinated with pastel tones in the city of Valladolid; they’ve stayed with me. I discovered painting; I discovered a new meaning; I gave myself the permission and freedom to paint. 


VJ: In the time I’ve known you, I’ve noticed that you don’t learn from culture; rather, you grasp it – as though it were another material. It becomes a very tangible labor: the taking from one side to another; grasping and transforming. Like when you place one thing on top of another, creating a stand-alone structure that grows longitudinally. I see you as an overlay of acquired experiences. Like the graft of one plant with another, which allows for the dispersion of one species by merging it with another. On the other hand, the materials you use are not light – even if the forms are fragile and can appear unstable. 


I see a comic touch in the action of erecting the lead. A phallic figure made from the densest, heaviest material possible – but also one of the most malleable, one that melts easily. I wonder, if we were to leave it in the desert –the sculpture– would it become even more flacid? Would it melt down and form a crawling penis, or if it would fall heavily? It´s a very soft material – almost penetrable. Imagine we were to build a wall with it… Or even that sculpture, the one in front of me: could it be penetrable?


The same thing happens when I see the brick wheels. It’s as though you’ve taken on the role of an acting director, and you’ve ordered your works to do the exact thing they´re not made to do. And so the exhibition becomes a collective construction between the artist and the matter. 


GA: There is, I believe, in my sculptures a certain life; I consider them people or bodies who have their own identity and a relationship with the space.  My body is also in relation with the outside, it's an element in an environment like a sculpture. I try to perceive the characteristics of each work, how do they show themselves? How will they interact and engage with the vacuum between them. Perhaps a large sculpture will go into a smaller space and allow more breathing to sculpture on a smaller scale.


At first i build my scukptures on the ground, and then I erect them. Everything that´s dead litter down on the floor. So lifting them up, it's gives then life: as though they sleep and then get up every morning – and when they don´t get up anymore, it´s because they’ve died. It´s also interesting that in Spanish and in French, the word ‘sculpture’ is a feminine noun, even though it stems from a phallic imaginary and vocabulary: a foot (male), a leg (female), a hand (female), an arm (male) , opposites in itself?  Also, in the dictionary the first definition of erection has to do with sculpture. 


Viewing a sculpture as a body is particularly classic: take the Venus of Lespugue; the Egyptian bas-reliefs; even Camille Claudel. I make abstract bodies that have those qualities: a front, a back, profiles more cubic and synthetically. 


VJ: An other time, I see what you mean about lifting up off the ground, about bringing to life. You make your sculptures stand, just like the monster in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein: created from the union of different parts of corpses. Your sculptures aren’t made from remains, but you do rescue all of the surrounding materials to make them – even something that would normally be used as mold. And there are similarities with Victor Frankenstein: it’s a do-it-yourself scientific endeavor. Your building methods are far from industrial. We´ve talked about it before – there´s something very domestic about working and creating big objects with the thoroughness of a chef: sticking tile by tile; melting the lead in a pot three kilos at a time; attaching the metal barbs one by one. 


GA: What you say seems very clear to me. It’s my chemistry –my laboratory– After reading your last comment I did not know what to answer, as it fit well to my works.

I also try to see and understand all of the facets of the link you made between horror and fascination in Frankenstein that can be detect in my sculptures because of the use of lead, or stained glass cut up like cactus spikes – objects with a specific context. to maybe get to say that they may have poor or negative image. These words do not enchant me, "bad or good" I like trying to talk about differences, just like Frankenstein's body. The tubes of lead that brought the water into the houses were poisonous, but in a sculptural form it does not hurt anyone, or like the stained-glass window enshrined in lead. Could we extend this meaning to bigger things? Take Mexico City: could it be a Frankenstein by its extreme characteristics and beauties? The world is like an immense Frankenstein that we’re constantly trying to contain, like Schwitters´ Merzbau.


VJ: Rather than the monstrous or horrific aspect of that romantic novel, I’m interested in the approach to nature in a life principle, and a creation that’s far-removed from the reproductive. Considering the time it takes you to produce; the studies and the obsession to keep things upright; the mixture of a chemistry, alchemy, and electricity as in "I have erections too" (2017), in neon light. As you say, there´s no good or bad: there’s no morality in these objects. But I also think about the addition of some materials to others, like the pink and green paraffin ‘prosthesis’ to the marble that provides a finishing to the piece Caillou ciré II (2017) – or become its limbs, in a sense. Well, not in any sense, but in the vertical sense, if we consider that the base of the sculpture is the closest thing to the ground. This piece, in particular, has a very descriptive title. What is its relation to Luciente I (2017), for example?


GA: Caillou ciré II is literally translated from French as ‘waxed pebble’: they’re the words. I call them pebbles because they´re not common stones. It’s really difficult to get them to my workshop. Once they´re there, I work on them, cut them, inscribe them; they become ‘mine’. Normaly we speak about “waxed shoes”.


The title of each work tells us about my stories with them. The first time I saw metal barbs was in Mexico. The ones I saw then were made of aluminum and unpainted, and with the sun’s reflection my first reaction was, “Wow, how beautiful! What´s that shining so much?” It was hard to realize that I’d distanced myself from reality. Luciente is very close to the word ´lucid´. I like that attachment to something that I considered so beautiful upon first impressions, when it has such a coarse use. I thought that the word had all these double meanings, and it resonates with its radiant shape. The same thing happened with the glass of the broken bottles that shine in such a lovely way along the edges of the walls [in Mexico]. 


I think it's good to finish by commenting on the words of this work aesthetically different from the others, the neon "I Have Erections Too" The title of one of my last exhibitions * left the wall to exist in space and to install a dialogue where words can be confronted from sculpture to sculpture. I continue this reflection with the titles of the works. I wonder how they can exist with the sculptural object, where? On the ground? on sculpture? Or to imagine it in a distinct or even autonomous form?