Catalina Viejo Lopez de Roda’s intimate pandemic works come to Dot
No matter which angle you glimpse them from, Catalina Viejo Lopez de Roda’s paintings and animations are stunning. Her “work focuses on images taken from her memories, dreams, and experiences of female intimacy … with the central theme being self care” and female figures that “reflect the landscape around them: arms open up like flowers, legs mirror river bends, bottoms mimic hills.” All while “double-sided dioramas encourage the viewer to rotate around the work and rearrange pieces to modify the landscape.”
With her show at HallSpace in Dorchester opening Dec. 11, we asked Viejo Lopez de Roda, who was raised in the Canary Islands but earned her BFA from Montserrat College of Art in Beverly, about her dynamic and thoughtful pandemic creations.
The detail is incredible on these, and they aren’t tiny. Can you tell us a wee bit about your process and how long some of these take?
They usually take several weeks to complete. “Generosity,” for example, took me a couple of months. The drawing starts well before putting pencil to paper. When I begin a work, I create a lot of small idea sketches based on a specific topic. I have been working on the theme of Self Care since the pandemic began and what that signifies. For example, what does self generosity mean? What does it look like visually?
I begin by collecting photographic images. I’ll use my body as a reference for the figures in my drawings, photograph trees or objects outside, and scour the internet until I find the images I need to create a particular composition. I then start cutting and pasting on photoshop, creating a collage of a figure in a specific setting. These images are entirely fabricated but depict a believable space that hopefully feels real for a viewer.
After I’ve created this composite, I begin the drawing in graphite. There is a lot of repetition when drawing many natural elements like leaves or waves, but this way of working forces me to slow down and connect with my work on a deeper level. It is a slow process, but I find it very meditative. After the graphite drawing is complete, I then go back in with charcoal. I love the various tonal values I get with graphite and the contrast of its shininess against the deep mat black of the charcoal. Eventually, these images get translated into different mediums; animations, paintings, and dioramas.
You say, “the groups of women that appeared in my previous work have disappeared and a single woman remains in isolation in each of these works.” This seems like a major change, can you tell us more?
It was a surprise for me too! Earlier drawing and paintings had often included various female figures in the same composition, often in interiors and interacting with each other in one way or another. As I developed the Self Care topic, it seemed to make sense that they would be on their own. Of course, like many of us, I went from having a very social life pre-pandemic to spending days, weeks, and sometimes months by myself in my apartment. The more I was indoors, the more the outdoors infiltrated into my art too. Blooming flowers and bushes, tall, strong trees, waves, mountains and big open spaces all began to pour into the work.
The other significant change I noticed after making half a dozen drawings was that the figures’ faces were obscured in every work. As someone whose foundation started as a portrait artist and has always placed a strong emphasis on facial recognition, it was a surprise to realize that I had been covering these figures’ faces. I have come to understand that her facial omission is meaningful in that we cannot completely access her; something about her is elusive. She does not engage with the viewer and is continuously involved with herself and the landscape around her. She encompasses the wild woman archetype; a bit dangerous, unpredictable, and free.
You say, “the female figures in these drawings inspire how I would like to live my life. Stripped of material possessions, social relationships, and facial recognition, these women show us the value of being human and remind us that our natural environment is inextricably weaved into the fabric of our existence.” When you’re in the process of creating these, how close are you to that perfect state?
While I do my work, I don’t have company and I’m not talking on the phone with anyone. I don’t have a tv on or background music. I draw by myself in silence. As I work on these drawings, these moments of quiet allow me to be deeply engaged, focused, and present. In some ways, this reflects the female figures in the drawings who are fully immersed in their setting. One of the silver linings of the pandemic is how it forced me to slow down. We are so over-stimulated in our environment—by work, other people, images, sounds, constant background noise, etc. I don’t think I have reached the “perfect” state, and I’m not sure if there is such a thing … but what these drawings have done for me and what I hope it offers viewers is a moment of pause and reflection within ourselves.
The female figures in these works often look like they inhabit ideal lush landscapes. However, on closer inspection, some of these environments have the potential to be dangerous or are so abundant that they seem like they are on the verge of consuming some of the figures. These women aren’t afraid; they’re not sitting around pondering about what-ifs—they get on with it. We cannot control our environment, the actions of others, or what is happening in the world, but we do have control over how we respond to it. There is enormous power within that realization.
How about the actual models for your work?
I use my body as a reference for these drawings, but I don’t see these drawings as self-portraits. My body becomes a tool to convey a particular pose by a female figure within each work. It’s not lost on me that a viewer might read these drawings very differently if I had a very different body type.
A curator recently mentioned that the voluptuous female figures in my work reminded them of some of the female figures in R. Crumb’s drawings and comics. The women in Crumbs’ drawings sadistically dominate and control the men in his images. There is a power dynamic that vibrates between pleasure and violence. I think that the female figures in my work also weave between a pleasure/ violence dynamic, but this duality exists purely within themselves and not for the pleasure of others (at least within the realm of the drawing). The way the female body is depicted in art, of course, taps into the topic of the male gaze and how as a female artist, do I take ownership of my female body and female experiences.
Artists don’t get asked this much, sorry if it is an annoying question, but considering how personal your work is, do you have in mind an ideal buyer and/or place for your pieces to ultimately hang?
Not an annoying question and, in fact, completely relevant! I’ve made works that are so personal that there have been times that I’ve had to hold on to them for a little while before letting go of them. I see my work as autobiographical. Making art allows me to process the world around me, my experiences, relationships, body, and emotions. My work is rooted in feeling and connection. So when I do sell my work, it can sometimes feel like selling an intimate page from one’s diary.
The ideal buyer is someone who genuinely connects with the work. They are not purchasing it for investment purposes or because it matches the couch or other superficial reasons. They are buying it because something about that work conveys an experience that they can relate to, which makes them feel something. Like many artists, I would like to see my work hanging in public spaces where it is easily accessible and where it has the opportunity to connect with a larger audience and spark a meaningful dialogue. Of course, once the works are out in the world, one has to let go.
Considering your explainers, you put an awful lot of thought into your work beyond just the production. But how much of that comes beforehand? And how much comes as you are working?
Continuous thoughts weave in and out of the work from beginning to end. I also work from a place of feeling. Sometimes an artistic decision might not make much sense in my mind, but it feels right. For example, when I was working on the figures and omitting their faces, I kept thinking it was odd, but my gut feeling told me it was the right decision, and eventually, it made sense. I enjoy this part of the process a lot because I can make discoveries and learn from my work, I’m in a continuous dialogue with it, and it presents me with different possibilities.
My work is incredibly layered, and I can sometimes have difficulty talking about it because I can discuss it from so many different lenses. I want to talk about the importance of our environment, feminist issues, the illusion of dreams and memories, our psychological makeup, our voyeuristic impulses, the meaning of our existence. Overwhelming, right? Sometimes I have to throw a cat in the picture, slightly smirking at the viewer with its asshole in your face, because at some point, you just have to laugh at intensity, absurdity, and uncomfortable moments.
Were all of these done during the pandemic? I think we may have covered some of that, but generally speaking, will you look back on this as a show that was absolutely shaped by the pandemic?
I created all these works during the pandemic. They are not necessarily about the pandemic, but they are most definitely a response to the circumstances created by the pandemic. I’m originally from Spain, and I have not seen any of my family members and many loved ones in almost two years. Although I’m very independent and have a high tolerance for spending time alone, this continuous isolation deeply affected me.
This Self Care project became a way to process the restlessness I felt concerning that isolation. As human beings, we might feel unfulfilled without the company of others, we place expectations on our relationships, and we long for outside connections, but what I have learned through the making of this project is that I’m more resilient than I thought, that if I pause and stay with myself (without outside distractions), I enjoy my own company. Most importantly, if I take care of myself, my health, my baggage, etc., I am better equipped to support, take care of, and give positively to the world around me. I hope that people who see the show get a moment of pause where they can reflect and process their own needs for self-care so that it can bring them peace, hope, and self-love.
Self Care at HallSpace, 950 Dorchester Avenue, Dorchester. Dec. 11 – Jan. 29. Opening reception Dec. 18, 2pm – 5pm.