I have been an aficionado of photography since childhood. I learned the basic rules of exposition and analog development from my father, who mounted a darkroom in the home where I was born. Even in my paintings or drawings, I almost invariably work with photographic images as preliminary sketches.
In this case, it seemed to me that painting was the only possible way to make use of an image that had failed as a photograph. The snapshot I took one afternoon in 2005 at the Café Nuevo Brasil was poor – poorly illuminated from the back, underexposed, slightly out of focus. And yet, it had something that seduced me, something that kept me from discarding it at the time.
Partly, it was the circumstances. The Café Nuevo Brasil was a classic hole-in-the-wall in Monterrey, a city I found myself visiting for the first time. To me, it was a very important occasion: one of my works had been selected for the FEMSA Biennial, a vote of confidence that meant a great deal professionally as a self-taught painter finding acceptance in the trade.
In part, I was attracted to the composition because it can be read as a profanation of Las Meninas, the renowned masterpiece in which Velázquez peers out from inside a portrait he is creating of the infanta Margarita. It was as if unwittingly, I had made an irreverent gesture of sorts to the great Spanish maestro that was at the same time a heartfelt tribute to all the greasy spoons of the world, that is to say, the popular restaurants that bear that name in reference to the abundance of grease found not only on the spoons, but on all the other surfaces as well. (Here, by the way, I experimented with oils until finding a combination between dark ochre, sienna, and moss green that is a fairly accurate approach to grease when tenuously applied as a upper layer).
I like compositions with mirrors. I find that when they are transformed into paintings inside other paintings, into successive trompe l’oeils, it makes us want to step through them, like Alice. They no longer perform the function of reflection, yet their possibility as wondrous thresholds is enhanced. In this case, I am fascinated by how they fragment and at the same time, unfold the interior space of the café. The stained glass window in the back moves to the foreground, and what’s off to the left is somehow relegated up above, where almost magically, a downward bird’s eye view is perceived. All of the horizontal planes are crooked. The gazes of the occupants of the painting look away or unexpectedly meet, generating nuances.
I also like chaotic, disorderly compositions with randomly scattered objects. The mustard container balanced in an unlikely fashion on top of a dirty frying pan, the marker inside a styrofoam glass, the black plastic curtain that precariously hangs from the counter, its weight barely sustained by a few bits of packing tape.
And of course, I like compositions that play with light sources. Here we see juxtaposed on both sides of the vertical dividing line created by the frame of the larger mirror a cold, fluorescent light from the kitchen and that white, blinding sunlight of northern Mexico that burns through everything found outside, on the other side of the door.
Finally, I like psychologically complex compositions. Hence, on this occasion, I chose not to grid the photographic image in order to facilitate its translation into the language of painting. There were many times I lamented my decision, given that it elevated the difficulty of execution significantly. But I have no regrets. I wished to avoid the coldness of pure photorrealism by uncorking the surreal impact of a fake snapshot: a candid scene intervened by the hyperbole of the imagination.
I mention this fiction in order to make a confession: it has taken me fifteen years to finish this painting. Which does not mean, however, that I have been constantly at work. I abandoned it for a very long time. In fact, I was on the verge of sanding down the entire canvas and using it for something else. This was because the central figure of the original painting was my husband, but he wouldn’t be for very much longer. After our marriage ended, the last thing I wanted was to complete a portrait of him. When my current partner interfered in a truly moving scene in order to prevent its destruction, standing between my upraised hand and my unfinished creation, I decided to turn to dreams as a creative instrument to resolve the dilemma of the main figure. The dream world suggested a way to solve the problem by transforming him into an allegoric figure, thus altering the original narrative of a family portrait. It seemed to me that if that figure were the devil, it would improve that narrative considerably. Moreover, it seemed to me a fitting gesture to a certain Mexicanness that I have grown to love after so many years of living here: one that swears, hand to God, that it has witnessed a variety of supernatural manifestations, from UFOs to the goat-sucker.
Not long ago, another fundamental interlocutor, my friend Arturo Delgado, pointed out to me that the result of that change was the transformation of my own figure within the painting, originally incidental, into the main figure, not unlike Velázquez in Las Meninas. Arturo showed me the ways in which the entire painting acts as a kind of unfolding self-portrait. Unlike Velázquez, my expression or countenance cannot be appreciated, because I am hidden behind the mask of my trusty Nikon. That mask amplifies one of my personae, my facet as an artist. But it is also the self-portrait of the devil’s lover or witch: my amorous or sexual self. And to one side, my son Dylan is found, a baby sleeping in his carriage – that is to say, a figure that highlights my joyful maternity. And of course, the entire result is ultimately the anti-mimetic representation of my subconscious, that is to say, of a dream I had about how to finish the painting you see before you today.
Tanya Huntington is the author of Martín Luis Guzmán: Entre el águila y la serpiente, A Dozen Sonnets for Different Lovers, and Return. She is Managing Editor of Literal. Her Twitter is @Tanya Huntington