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Published 07/01/2008 email E-MAIL print PRINT

The One and the Many: Carlos Ortiz and the Dance of Life

'Carlos Ortiz: Dancin'
El Taller Latino Americano, New York
11 January to 23 February 2008
Organised and curated by Veronica Aberham
An opening reception for the artist will be held on 11 January from 6 to 9 p.m. For more information, visit: www.tallerlatino.org

For Nuyorican artist Carlos Ortiz, the seeds for a series of personal epiphanies were planted while he was a child growing up in New York and suburban Queens. His early years were spent on Manhattan's Upper West Side, where he and his family fitted comfortably with the rest of the struggling Latino community. During a pivotal period in every person's life - the teen years - Ortiz's family moved into what Ortiz calls 'a new world that also brought some painful experiences'. At that point, in his new neighbourhood in Queens, Ortiz discovered the racial and cultural barriers that result in misunderstanding, mistrust, alienation and anger. Self-consciousness and even shame provoked in him a steady consideration of urgent existential questions. These feelings led Ortiz into an exploration and celebration of his mixed cultural heritage as a Latino and fuelled his subsequent activities. Through much travel, intellectual study, reading of philosophy and spiritual searching he has teased out the 'polyrhythmic' strands that include a synthesis of Amerindian, European, African (particularly Yoruban) and American cultures.1 The roles he plays in life are many: painter and printmaker, musician, educator and advocate for the eclectic Latino community in New York and New Jersey. These, too, he balances rhythmically, as in a dance, each role affecting the others in a dynamic interchange.

Ortiz's conception of Latino identity is a true melting pot, an energetic, all-encompassing swirl made up of a multitude of rhythms. The artist's vision is, essentially, musical and spiritual, grounded by the physical acts of drumming, singing, writing, painting and, crowning them all, dancing. Reading, drawing, painting and playing instruments (piano, guitar, harmonica and, later, drums) helped to anchor him at a time when he could have succumbed to a sense of helplessness. The artistic epiphany that saved Ortiz and ignited his passion for art was his discovery of the dance that resolves tensions between disparate parts and creates harmony among them.

On 11 January 2008, El Taller Latino Americano will display a series of Ortiz's paintings in which he explores themes of family, cultural heritage and community.2 The exhibition title 'Dancin' comes from a mural created by the artist. This mural and the exhibition highlight Ortiz's approach to painting and to life. His art style is quick and expressionistic. By focusing on the physical aspect of the artistic process, the artist says he hopes to spark spontaneous responses to his experiences. Bold colours, exaggerated and fluid shapes and overlapping images combine for powerful effect, yet the overall sense is warm and welcoming. Viewing these works is like entering an embrace.

The works in the show address a full range of human emotions. Certainly, viewers will detect Ortiz's lifelong preoccupation with existential themes: the despair and alienation he felt as a young person of mixed race trying to find a place in a predominantly white, privileged culture; and his success in using art to heal personal pain. What is most notable, though, is the artist's transcendent vision. He has taken his own experience, or the 'one', and travelled into the terrain of the 'many'. This spiritual terrain is a place where light, love, balance and harmony prevail.

Studio International spoke to Ortiz prior to the opening of his show at El Taller Latino Americano. In this interview, the artist discusses the influence of music on his art; the artists who have inspired him; how he has learned to define a distinct 'self' within a broad community; his travels to Africa; and his notion of the artist as a cultural worker.

CDM: Thank you for speaking with Studio International, Mr Ortiz. Your role as an assistant dean at Montclair State University in Montclair, New Jersey, cannot leave much time for painting. Still, for more than two decades you have exhibited your art in solo and group shows. I know that you are strongly committed to your students, as well as the educational process needed to ensure that future generations remain connected to their heritage and community. How do you fit it all in?

CO: I get up early every day, between 5 and 5.30 am, to exercise and meditate. This prepares me for the day. It is a balancing act one gets used to and learns to love. I have to schedule my painting time accordingly into four- to five-hour blocks, otherwise I never get any work done. My day job allows a lot of freedom. I am very fortunate to work in an institution that supports my artistic talents, and where I have been able to exhibit my works. When I need time, I can take time and balance it with my work schedule. I've been allowed the use of the painting and printmaking studio facilities on campus, and for many years I have been able to be very productive thanks to the help of many colleagues at the university who have encouraged and supported my creative work.

CDM: Please describe your teenage years during the 1960s. The music of that era is a keystone of your artistic consciousness. Who were you listening to, and why were you drawn to their music?

CO: The 1960s were a revolutionary time, musically and artistically. As a teenager, fortunately, I had the opportunity to be exposed to the power of change that was a part of the musical and artistic world at that time. I was listening to everybody. Jazz, Latin jazz, blues, rock, folk, salsa, Jimmy Hendrix, Bob Dylan, Carlos Santana and Nueva Cancion, a musical style in which Puerto Rican musicians combined their folk music with rock and roll. I listened to it all, and I felt that it blended well and expressed the dynamic realities of the children of immigrant Latinos growing up in New York. I became a part of that world, which was capable of an incredible integration of cultures, of deep synchronicity and of change and flux. Abstract expressionism and early neo-expressionism were forms being expressed in visual art at this time. That is why I work with polyrhythms. Unity is created when you seek harmony with diverse cultural influences and images. My art grew out of that. I was also interested in Eastern philosophy, which was becoming more prevalent among young people, especially Zen Buddhism. It was a time when Eastern philosophy was being introduced into America, a kind of East meeting the West. Different types of religions were becoming available to young people. The youth movement was powerful, and the people involved with it wanted to change the world, to create a more humane and compassionate society. There was a counter-culture among the youth, a movement away from established norms and the superficial consumerism and materialism of the 1950s. We wanted to break free of our parents' values, return to a collective spirituality and freely express ourselves.

CDM: You are a musician and, as a young person, learned to play piano, guitar and harmonica. When did drumming come into the musical mix? Can you describe how the rhythms of drumming mirror the rhythms of painting?

CO: Drumming influenced me at a very early age. My father was a musician, a troubadour, and he also exposed me to Latin jazz. At a very early age I was listening to Machito, Tito Rodriguez, Mario Bauzo and el Gran Combo. Their style of music used the rhythmic sounds of percussion as its foundation. The first instrument I purchased was a drum, at the age of 13 or 14. The drum is, probably, one of the most accessible instruments that you can play. All you need to do to play it is to allow your inner spirit to feel a rhythm. If you are not afraid to let your body experience a rhythm, you can certainly play a drum. Playing conga drums and bongos was my first experience with creative freedom because it was a natural way to allow a natural flow of energy to express itself. Before that, I was a part of a doo-wop singing group, but the drum was the first instrument that allowed that kind of free, creative experience. When I visited the salsa clubs in the 1970s, it was the drum that really captured my attention. The drum is a powerful cultural artefact. I transferred that kind of feeling into different art forms, like painting and collage, through compositional elements that incorporated vibrant rhythm, form and colour, and that provided an inner connection to that culture. Different elements came together to create a new rhythm, a polyrhythm, a universal rhythm. I was so elated by the kind of feeling expressed, and it drew me deeper into painting. Sometimes I play my drums before I paint. It has become a ritual. In some cultures, drummers are considered priests and the drum is a spiritual tool that calls forth divine universal rhythms, the gods, and connects the community with very powerful healing forces.

CDM: Your travels to Africa put you intimately in touch with African culture. What did you recognise in that culture that plugged into your experience as a Latino?

CO: I had first gone to Spain to explore my language and religious roots. I became conscious of what is considered by many Latinos as the mother country. But I did not stop there. When I arrived in southern Spain, I was intrigued by the Moorish influence and continued my journey into Morocco. Once on the African continent, I was inspired by what I saw and wanted to explore African culture. It was obvious to me that my Caribbean cultural heritage was polyrhythmic, and as a man of colour I wanted to explore my entire heritage, so I later went to Kenya in East Africa and Tanzania. My travels to Africa were influential in my development as an artist because I wanted to express what I experienced there artistically. The beauty of nature and animals in their natural surroundings, African music, dress, the way people related to each other, the spiritual influence, the strong sense of community and family, all of that was very powerful and I wanted to paint it. In Africa I experienced the deepest roots of my parents' culture, and I made it mine, too. Historically, Africa is the mother country of all people, not just Latinos. It was just a natural thing for me to experience it.

CDM: During the 1960s and 1970s, expressionism was embraced by the New York Puerto Rican community. Where did you first encounter expressionist paintings? Do you remember how you felt?

CO: I first became interested in expressionism at MoMA [the Museum of Modern Art in New York]. As a teenager, I would take the subway downtown to visit MoMA because I loved seeing Picasso's Guernica, which had been exhibited there for many years. I would go almost every week to see this painting. It inspired me to paint. After Picasso passed away, the painting was returned to Spain and now is in Madrid. MoMA provided a historical context for modern art and a place for me to learn about what was going on in modern art. Later, in the late 1960s, I encountered expressionism in Puerto Rican painting at el Museo del Barrio in New York City.3 I was one of the museum's first patrons. I would attend the exhibitions and made it my responsibility to meet and support the artists. At the time, Taller Boricua, which was located in the same building as el Museo del Barrio, provided studio space to Puerto Rican artists, mostly painters. These artists collaborated in developing the Nuyorican experience as an art form. Many of the artists worked in an expressionistic style. The Nuyorican poets were also very influential with their forceful spoken word performances. It seemed natural to me to express visually what the poets were doing, mixing different cultural influences into the context of the Nuyorican experience. Expressionism is a wonderful way to mix all of my experiences into one identity. I also became immersed in Taoism. Mixing Chinese and Puerto Rican culture ... who would think of that? The painting Gateway to Heaven is about that ... Taoism and the Nuyorican experience, a kind of yin and yang, all integrated into one vision, one identity and heaven as finding peace within all of this.

CDM: Other than Picasso, you were drawn to the work of Dubuffet, Munch, Kandinsky and Matisse. I was interested to read that Louise Nevelson made a strong impact on you, as well. Was there an essential quality to these artists' works that connected them in your mind? Had they accessed something that struck you as critical to your artistic development?

CO: Louise Nevelson is an artist I encountered at MoMA. I was fascinated with the spiritual quality of her black box sculptures and the way she took fragments of New York and hammered the pieces into those boxes and painted them black. To me, her work has a beautiful, mystical and otherworldly quality to it. [She used] discarded pieces of articles that one can find on the streets. I was amazed at how, in her work, the pieces transcended what they had been. The colour black is important to me. From the pain of my life, I had to learn to come out from the darkness into the light. I was sensitive and vulnerable to the opinions others had of me. Then, to experience Nevelson telling me to allow even the darkest feelings, and to express them, was an act of healing. She was a powerful influence on my life. Also, the boxes represented to me the structure of a city. Within the boxes were individual souls that were confined, as human beings are confined in apartments and homes. Her works expressed how we confine ourselves in these boxes, but that these enclosures can be transcended. You can construct an identity by adding and subtracting, and can grow in the process as Nevelson's sculptures grew into monuments. My mural piece [Dancin] supports the idea of identity changing, never constricted but always flowing to the ultimate source of freedom and oneness with all the disparate elements of life. All of the artists that I enjoyed have this quality in their work, this essential element of freedom and deep emotion, and the courage to express it.

CDM: As an undergraduate, you majored in Spanish literature. In Manhattan and Queens, you spoke 'Spanglish'. How did studying Spanish literature deepen your awareness of your heritage?

CO: I read Unamuno and Frederico García Lorca. In Lorca's Poeta en Nueva York, he explored black culture during the Harlem Renaissance in the late 1920s and found affinities with the predicament of black Americans and those of Spanish gypsies of Andalusia, who were also an oppressed people. I became interested in these authors because they explored the anguish involved in searching for truths beyond what is defined by society. During the summers, I worked as a social service intern in the Puerto Rican community at the Henry Street Settlement House on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. It was a period in which I began learning how to help marginalised black and Latino youth to empower themselves as individuals and politically as a community. But Spanish literature got me thinking about deepening my understanding of my cultural and historical roots coming from Spain, a culture which itself is composed of a mixture of other cultures.

CDM: In college, you took art classes and were mentored by one of your painting instructors. At that time, you focused on portraiture and still lifes on canvas. Later, you studied at the Art Students League in New York, travelled to Africa and Puerto Rico, and began painting landscapes. You have also done much work as a printmaker. And then, following the completion in 1996 of a Master of Fine Arts degree, your style turned more completely toward the expressionist and spiritual. Can you trace the development of your imagery from then until now? How have you arrived at the exaggerated shapes, vibrantly saturated coloration and interplay of swirling forms that make up your works?

CO: It wasn't until the late 1970s that I really began to feel some clarity about the art style I would remain with for quite some time. I had a wonderful mentor, Leon De Leeuw, who was an abstract expressionist painter, as well as a friend and mentor. We worked in the same studio for years, shared the same ideas about painting and collaborated on a number of works. Abstract expressionism allowed me to freely explore exaggerated forms, bold colour and rhythm in my compositions. The mono-printing process encourages spontaneity and a certain level of quickness in the execution of drawings and images on the plate. This printmaking process allowed me to acquire a finished work quickly, one that I could continue to work on with oil and oil sticks. I also shared a studio with a Chinese painter for several years and collaborated with him on a number of works done with a very fluid application of acrylic paints on canvas. I was attracted to working in a very rapid and fluid way so that my intuition could express itself without the interference of too much thinking. Out of the process of integrating these experiences - Chinese painting, printmaking, abstract expressionism - came a flood of images and compositions that then became a language and allowed me to work quite rapidly.

CDM: When did you begin teaching? Over the time you have taught, have you noticed a change in students' understanding of heritage and culture?

CO: I started teaching in the early 1990s. I was fortunate to work in a programme for uniquely gifted and talented high school students who were invited to take art classes at the university. My early teaching experience was a positive one because I worked in a direction that allowed for the most creativity for students. I incorporated into my teaching many things from my own life that I loved doing. These were very well received by students: yoga, meditation, dance, writing and qigong. I encouraged collaboration to allow students to evolve psychologically, emotionally, culturally and spiritually. I continue to teach in addition to my administrative duties as assistant dean. Young student artists today are even hungrier for a classroom experience that allows their intuitive nature to be voiced, and to also experience the cultural and spiritual aspects of their lives through their creative work. They are aware that they can and must create a better world, and that art can be a powerful force for change.

CDM: How do you see the 'cultural worker' and artist functioning in the decades to come?

CO: I believe that the artist as cultural worker can bring positive changes to a community in need of constructive and positive change. Artists who are doing this work in New York include Diogenes Ballester, who lives and works in el barrio, Fernandez Salicrup and Marcos Dimas, who run Taller Boricua, and Marina Gutierrez, who has made great contributions at Cooper Union and in the Latino community.4 Historically, they have been instrumental in developing cultural institutions in the city that provide opportunities for creative expression and offer educational programmes and community-focused workshops for young people in need of positive role models and a safe place to grow as artists. I can see that in this world today, there is an even greater need for artists who are also community workers. The artist as cultural worker must be involved in the education of young people and the development of community organisations devoted to providing a forum for creative expression and opportunities for artists to collaborate in raising political, social and cultural awareness.

CDM: Thank you again for speaking with Studio International, Mr Ortiz. Can you give readers a preview of your activities for the coming year?

CO: I am going to continue this journey in the healthiest and most positive way possible so that I have the energy to do my creative work and continue making contributions at the university as administrator and teacher. Of course, as an artist I would like to continue exhibiting my work, travelling and collaborating with other artists on creative projects, making some contribution in this way, and having lots of fun in the process. Thank you for this opportunity. Peace and joy to you and your readers.

Interviewed by Cindi Di Marzo

Footnotes
1. Ortiz says that most of the Africans brought to America as slaves were from the peoples of the Yoruba tribe, who lived in western Nigeria and eastern Benin Republic.
2. Now located on Manhattan's Upper West Side, El Taller has played a critical role in the growth and development of the Latino community in New York. Since 1969, when El Taller founder Bernardo Palombo moved here from Argentina, he has nurtured and promoted Latino artists living in or visiting the city. In 1979, Palombo founded El Taller in a small space on Manhattan's lower east side. Since then, many celebrated artists and musicians have performed and studied at El Taller, including David Byrne, Paul Simon and Philip Glass. In 1996, the volunteer-run, non-profit organisation moved to its current space, a few blocks from Columbia University.
3. El Museo del Barrio was founded in 1969 in New York by Puerto Rican educators, artists and community activists. It is the only museum in the city devoted to Puerto Rican, Latin American and Caribbean art forms. For more information on the Museo del Barrio, go to: www.elmuseo.org.
4. Founded in 1970, Taller Boricua ('Workshop Puerto Rico') is a non-profit, multicultural and community-based arts organisation. For more information, go to: www.tallerboricua.org.



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