In Conversation

KATIA SANTIBAÑEZ with Phong Bui

In the midst of trying to finish several paintings and drawings to be included in her forthcoming solo exhibit, Journey of a Solitary Painter, at Morgan Lehman (October 20 – December 10, 2011), the painter Katia Santibañez first welcomed Rail publisher Phong Bui to her TriBeCa studio, then a few days later she paid a visit late one morning to the Rail’s headquarters to talk about her life and work.

Portrait of the artist. Pencil on paper by Phong Bui.

Phong Bui (Rail): We know you were born in ’64 in Paris.

Katia Santibañez: Yes.

Rail: Do you remember the first experience or first memory of being exposed to a work of art in a gallery or museum? Or anywhere, for that matter.

Santibañez: My very first memory of seeing a work of art was a traditional landscape painting, which had cows standing in the foreground, painted by my father, who once was an aspiring painter. It was fabulous because it was hanging in our home. My father had moved to France from Spain with his mother; his father had disappeared for unknown reasons. Both of my father’s parents were anarchists so naturally they didn’t like Franco, which left them little option but to cross the border by foot. They stayed in the south of France for a while, not too long, and then they eventually came to Paris. My father really wanted to become an artist, but the truth was his mother didn’t encourage him to follow such a path. She felt that he should be more responsible—he should have a real job that could support his family. But in any case, he was making some paintings; he also was playing guitar and singing in bars. And that was before he met my mother and got married. Anyway, as a child I always loved all the art classes. I remember at some point, when I was 8 or 9, I took classes outside of school in ceramics and pottery, and I really enjoyed them. Once at school, we had this project for which we were asked to paint something on a thin piece of silk, like a scarf, and then get it framed for some kind of an end-of-the-year benefit at the school. I remember I made a geometric pattern with various squares, and I was proud of myself, enough that I invited my parents to come and see it at the event. And when we arrived it was gone. I asked what happened to it, and they said, “Oh, well, we’re sorry but somebody bought it.” I was happy because somebody wanted it, but I was so disappointed because I couldn’t show it to my parents. But nevertheless, they were proud of me, my parents. They kept telling me, “You know, you can make another one.” Later, I visited museums but I have no memory of any specific paintings, except Cézanne’s paintings, especially the late landscapes.

Rail: How are we to get over Cézanne? Can we really get over our first love? [Laughs.] Probably not. At any rate, were your parents supportive of your desire to be an artist?

Santibañez: Yes, I feel lucky because they always supported me, even though my father later, when I was 18—because he had a decorative painting company—encouraged me to maybe take over the company. But that was not something I wanted to do. And at some point, I wanted to be a scientist because my father was pushing me to do something else. And that’s what I did; I studied biochemistry and microbiology for three years. Then I just gave it all up.

Rail: Did they get upset at your decision?

Santibañez: Well, I told my father, “I changed my mind. I think I want to be an artist. Like a real artist the rest of my life.” So my father said, “Okay, that’s fine, but you know, you still have to earn a living. You can’t survive on your paintings.” He said, “Why don’t you do decorative painting for awhile until something else comes along later?”

Rail: Well, he was really pushing you to do the family business.

Santibañez: Yeah, and I was the oldest one.

Rail: It can’t be that bad for a while. Braque was a house painter. He took after his father’s business. De Kooning was a house painter, and he was very proud of it. What was your reason for resisting your father’s urging?

Santibañez: I just didn’t want to do it. Maybe I resisted because of the anarchist blood I have inside me. And I felt that while my father wasn’t able to pursue his career as an artist I didn’t want to do the same for myself. What I did was: around 1984–85, and because I wanted to go to either the École des Beaux-Arts or the Arts Décoratifs—there’s not much choice in Paris for art schools—I prepared two different exams for both schools at the same time, which was pretty crazy, but at some point I decided to just focus on Beaux-Arts while I was still in my final year of studying microbiology. I remember telling my father, I’m going to prepare for the exam in a private school, private studio. I didn’t think he would like the idea, but I did it anyway. I dropped out of school in the last year and I worked to make some money to pay for the private studio for a year. And then I passed the exam. It was a great year actually. The class was very small. There were only five of us. And all the teachers were great. They really trained me well enough to go to the École des Beaux-Arts for five years, between 1985 and 1990.

Rail: Was it largely based on traditional methods, including working from live models, making copies from sculpture casts, studying materials and techniques from the Old Masters, and so on?

Santibañez: Yes. I had a Japanese teacher, Masao Haijima, who taught us both painting and drawing. Not only was he very traditional, he was very intense. Like in his work—he would work on one thing for a whole year. So all of us would work on one plaster figure forever. He also went to the École des Beaux-Arts for five years and he introduced me to his former teacher, Monsieur Pierre Carron, who was the assistant of Balthus in Rome. And his paintings looked a little bit like Balthus. He made portraits of his niece without the explicit eroticism that is so identifiable with Balthus’s paintings.

Rail: Did the school have a broader application to modern and contemporary art beyond its rigorous traditional teaching method? After all, such well-known contemporary artists like Jean-Marc Bustamante, Annette Messager, Christian Boltanski, and even Marina Abramović have taught there.

Santibañez: Not when I was there. I think the program must have changed a few years after I left. My teacher, Mr. Carron, with whom I studied for five years, was very traditional. Yes, we did work with live models almost every day. But I remember other studies with other teachers who refused the idea of a live model because they found it too academic. I am glad I had a traditional education because when you have the basics you can just get inspired by other artists and become who you are. I believe in education. Think of Picasso: his father was a teacher and he started to draw very early; besides being a genius, Picasso also had the education from his father.

Rail: Did you have Pierre Alechinsky as a painting teacher?

Santibañez: No, but he was one of the jurors on the painting committee. Otherwise, my painting teachers were Leonardo Cremonini, who is very well-known in Europe, and Zavaro. I couldn’t relate to the teaching method of the latter too well, so I didn’t study with him that long. I basically went to see Carron and said, “You know they put me with Zavaro,” and he said, “Just change, just come to my class.” So I was with Mr. Carron for five years. Of course, there were other classes, like working from still life and art history, which then didn’t require me to write long papers. We just worked a lot in our studios.

Rail: How about visiting artists or critics?

Santibañez: Oh gosh, we had Yuri Kuper who was invited by Carron. And I remember how scared I was. We each had to show him only one painting, and he would look at each one very carefully. Part of the reason why I was so scared was because he was sort of a tough guy, but when he looked at my work, he did like it, so it was a big relief. Other than that, most artists would come and give slide lectures of their works. Pierre Soulages came once, and he was great. A very nice man.

Rail: A very handsome and nice man, whom I met at dinner at Dore Ashton’s home in May or June 2005, when he had his show at Robert Miller.

Santibañez: Cool. I thought he was great talking about his work. I saw his retrospective in Paris in Beaubourg. Quite amazing to see an artist using only black, like Ryman used only white.

“The Red Path,” 2011. Flashe on panel. 60 × 72”. Photography by: Adam Reich. Courtesy of: Morgan Lehman Gallery.

Rail: When did the shift from traditional figurative works to abstraction take place in your work? And did it happen gradually or drastically?

Santibañez: It shifted very slowly. Basically, I graduated in May 1990. Then I went to New York with my boyfriend right after for a week or so. And by the end of October, I came back with luggage and $200 in my pocket, then the boyfriend came a few days later. I immediately got a job as a coatcheck in a French restaurant, Les Routiers, on Amsterdam Avenue. We stayed in a very small bedroom, and had a tiny bed. You know, we were eating in the restaurant where I was working. I was going to different cafes, making watercolors of the façades of buildings, things like that. Little by little, we tried to make a little bit of money. Then we had an apartment on 14th Street, where I carved out a corner to make paintings of still lifes with teapots and cups, and so on. Eventually, I began to meet many different artists and started to go to as many art shows as I could. Some of my first memories were my discoveries of Sol LeWitt, Myron Stout, Donald Judd, and Anne Truit. And at some point I would go up to the roof, and I began to paint rooftops.

Rail: Which was what Mondrian did, when he first came to Paris in 1914; he painted façades and rooftops of buildings in the city.

Santibañez: Yeah, that’s how my abstraction came gradually. I mean, I always liked Mondrian, especially the late paintings, like “Broadway Boogie Woogie,” which he did when he came to New York. So I definitely could feel this connection with him, because I realized that unlike Paris, Manhattan is a vertical city, in which all the skyscrapers are reaching high and upward. And when the light falls onto the countless windows, it creates this amazing sparkle that looks just like in his paintings. Every time the vertical and horizontal lines cross each other it creates this flickering effect optically. At any rate, at some point, I did some decorative painting jobs in fancy penthouses of very tall buildings uptown, which provided me a chance to see the city from above, so I felt like I began to see what I assume Mondrian saw: the grid of the street, the yellow stripe created by the constant moving yellow cabs.

Rail: Another thing that you share with Mondrian is the complete absence of natural light. I mean, he covered all of his studio windows.

Santibañez: With mine, I have no choice. [Laughs.] I only have one small window, but it’s right next to the next building, maybe three or four feet away, so there is hardly any light anyway. But regarding abstraction and representational images that relate to things that you see in nature and urban environments, I always feel like I’m in between two chairs, and I have a hard time—which one should I sit on?

Rail: That is your identifiable style. For example, I remember the first time I saw your work was at PPOW, when it was on Broome Street in 2000. You were—

Santibañez: In the Project Room.

Rail: And James Esber had the main space. That’s right. And I remember there were variations of grass motifs.

Santibañez: Yes. I love grass. And there are so many different kinds of grass.

Rail: The first thing I was reminded of was a beautiful line from Walt Whitman, “A blade of grass is no less than the journey-work of the stars.” As far as the use of the grass grid, I feel his poem “Chanting the Square Deific” fits the sentiment of such a pantheistic view as well.

Santibañez: Yeah, there are a lot of things, I think, when your work is evolving. There are a lot of little things that you pick up on the way. I’m like a bee; I take something from here and I take something from there in order to make my own honey. I also love to be in a plane, so I just look at the landscape from above. Actually, it may have begun with when I was a kid; my parents would take me to the Luxembourg Gardens, which like most French gardens was laid out geometrically. Then later in New York, I would go to Long Island to a friend’s house, which had a swimming pool. And there was grass growing in between the tiles. It cast such beautiful shadows, which really fascinated me.

Rail: What year are we talking about now? ’96, ’97?

Santibañez: ’97, yeah.

Rail: So by that point you had already met James Siena?

Santibañez: I met James in ’93. Long before the discovery of the grass and its shadow. Actually, when I met James, I was making paintings from pinecones.

Rail: So there was the transformation from the aerial view of the city, the rooftops, and the pine cone to the shadows of the blades of grass in between the grid of the tiles. Would you say that your first solo show at PPOW was an important show for you?

Santibañez: Oh yeah, I first knew about the gallery because my friends Marilla Palmer, James Esber, Karen Arm, had all shown there. I think either Wendy Olsoff or Penny Pilkington had found my work at Pierogi’s Flat Files, which was at a show at the Brooklyn Museum (Working in Brooklyn: Current Undercurrent) in 1997. And then Joe Amrhein did a small version at Pierogi. And on the walls, Joe put a little grass painting of mine. It was Wendy who saw it, then she called the next day and said, “Hey, we’re putting up a group show called @ the artist’s studio, would you consider including one of your paintings?” And I said sure. That was how it got started, with PPOW first. Something I forgot to mention to you is that I lived in the countryside from the age of 11 or 12 to 15 in this little village about an hour and a half from Paris. There was this woman who was an artist and she became friends with my mother and she would invite me to draw in her garden, and that was part of my early inspiration. I’ve always been attracted to nature first. Then later I remember my Spanish grandmother said to me, “You know, Paris is a big museum.” And she was right. So in the five years I spent at the Beaux-Arts I began to appreciate the different façades and buildings in Paris, which essentially became the subject of my work.

Rail: That makes absolute sense. You see nature and man as an inseparable unit. Which brings to mind that one of your most familiar motifs, recurring in its various forms, is as Geoffrey Young refers to it, a “tree naked in winter.” It’s intriguing to see the motif as early as the two drawings “Wild Pleasure” (2006), a more reductive version of the other, and the more complex “Beyond the Tower” (2007). In both there is a similar insistence on the slight on-and-off of the vertical and horizontal grid, whereas in other paintings, for example, “More Return” (2006), variations of diagonals were added to deviate from the grid, therefore pulsating a whole different energy of the field. And that same motif was readopted with subtle alterations in the two paintings “The First Glimpse” and “Mutual Pleasure,” the featured paintings from your show at Danesein 2008.

Santibañez: In November, yes.

Rail: “Mutual Grid,” with its greater use of interlace and more complex repetitions on the grid, seems to have fed into the new paintings and drawings in this show, like “Summer Sonata,” “The Other Side,” or “Radiant Spring.” It feels as if a transformation has taken place—architectural presence seems more pronounced in your work in the last two or three years.

“Hidden Version,” 2011. Acrylic on panel. 36 × 36”. Photography by: Adam Reich. Courtesy of: Morgan Lehman Gallery.

Santibañez: Yes, in terms of how complex the abstraction has become, but as far as the reference to the images of the façade and the trees are concerned, it first appeared in my representational paintings that I did while I was at Beaux-Arts. Of course the trees stood in front of the façade and were connected and corresponding to each other, but they were not as integrated as in the recent work. What has happened in the last few years is that the two elements have combined with better rhythm. 

Rail: That’s a nice way to describe it. And that’s one thing one identifies with in your work: you allow the interplay between geometry and natural form without making an apology for the latter, certainly not for your firm belief in retaining the natural form, however reductive it may be. The slight allusion to representation or realism allows somehow for it to repeat and multiply within the grid organically, which essentially feeds on the concept of subtle distinction between difference and repetition or between similarity and repetition. My question is, which element gets developed first? Is it the natural form or the geometry? Or both simultaneously?

Santibañez: It was a gradual realization, but I learned that however complex the painting may evolve as I’m working on it, it’s better off with a structure underneath. So the geometry always starts first, then I allow the motif to have its own freedom; to play with the grid.

Rail: Do you make sketches or drawings before deciding on a specific one to realize in a painting?

Santibañez: I have a hard time calling them sketches, so I will say that I take notations and then I start a drawing or a painting. I also take photographs when I travel, or when I am in my garden. On my computer I sometimes enlarge a certain part of the picture and see something interesting, and start from the new image. It’s only when I’m pleased with a drawing that I may have some ideas for a painting. But there are always changes because I cannot repeat what’s in the drawing the same way in the painting. There’s no point in doing that. Not to mention that you have to introduce the colors and then deal with the scale, which is so different in the painting than in the drawing.

Rail: How do you proceed in the painting? Do you put the grid first in pencil?

Santibañez: First I choose the color and then I apply it to the background as a neutral tone and then I draw the grid with a pencil, not the paint. I also choose the element I am going to work with, usually from a drawing, and I always make changes. Then the whole painting sort of develops after that, but I never use a pencil. I start to paint directly with the paint, and I do use tape for the edges of the grid.

Rail: You don’t even use tracing paper with all the motifs and structures already worked out in advance so things get less complicated?

Santibañez: Nope. I never use any of that.

Rail: So you use your judgment and trust your memory of what you have drawn and the rest of the painting process has its own life?

Santibañez: Yes, I just let it all go. It’s like walking on a rope and seeing what will happen. If I make a mistake I try to work with it. I usually don’t make many. I am always surprising myself actually, with my hands, my mind, and how I can use the same element without repeating it.

Rail: That’s kind of insane. [Laughs.]

Santibañez: Yeah, it is, yeah. [Laughs.] I’m taking risks. If I used pencil to draw everything, then everything would get filled in with paint. One, it would take me forever. Two, I’d get bored. The truth is, I’m fascinated by where I’m going because I don’t know where I may end up. It’s more challenging and fun that way.

Rail: Even though your work is very different from James’s, you both share the same trust in the differences and sameness, and how they alternate their roles.

Santibañez: It’s our constant dialogue, which we treasure; differences and sameness are important to create a balance. James uses a lot of rules in his work, mathematical rules. I do not. We have a schedule each day but every day is different; sometimes things you cannot control happen during the day, and you just have to go with the flow and deal with surprises. We do work every day, and we work very slowly. We have a routine in our life, and we share lots of things like cooking, running, going to the gym, or even keeping an open mind about welcoming unexpected moments in our lives and in our work. But we are also very independent; we do not visit each other’s studios very often. We talk about each other’s work or ideas and then we leave each other space and privacy. I’m glad I share my life with him because he is a painter and we understand each other as artists. We both also do finished drawings and print editions. This is very important because the paintings feed the drawings and the prints; it’s like a circle, the energy flows. And sometimes we argue and it’s great.

“Shadows Upon Shadows,” 2011. Acrylic, black gesso on panel. 48 × 36”. Photography by: Adam Reich. Courtesy of: Morgan Lehman Gallery.

Rail: I always have a feeling that you think of color in terms of black and white or in a tonal range. The reason that I’m asking is partly because you are half-Spanish, and most Spanish paintings are painted with such blacks and grays. I even feel that Picasso has always thought in black-and-white terms!

Santibañez: I never really think about it that way, but as far as my pencil drawing, which I love doing just as much as painting—I treat it as an equally important activity as painting—I do play with different tonalities. And I do think of them as colors. I also think colors relate to the idea of working with the force of opposition, for example, the vertical against the horizontal lines, and how they find their equilibriums within the grid. Oftentimes, I mix black and white with red, orange, and yellow, which is my own way of relating to Mondrian. In a way, I want to go further than Mondrian when he thought about verticality and horizontality and the idea of balance. In the beginning, he worked from nature; he also used black, white, red, yellow, and blue. The opposition between two colors brings a balance, and I use this in my work. It also adds another dimension to the work by bringing in the idea of different spaces and plans, forms and structures. My latest painting was mostly black and orange, then I decided to add some yellow and red in some places, not everywhere. It was complex to know how to keep harmony and balance. Mondrian knew how to do it. I also think a lot about movements and flux, a dialogue between inside and outside, positive and negative.

Rail: Well, that’s fairly evident with the two paintings in the show, “Red Path” and “Shadows Upon Shadows,” which are both compressed and monochromatic. They’re very confrontational, which is a word that one would never use to describe your work. [Laughs.]

Santibañez: That’s my father’s side: confrontation. Any time we have any problems, they get resolved immediately. Actually, I’m very close to my father’s passionate nature.

Rail: Even if you may think in black and white, still, your use of colors must have its root somewhere?

Santibañez: For many years while being trained at the Beaux-Arts and for a few years that followed, my palette was all browns, grays, blacks, mostly earth colors. Then something happened. I suddenly exploded with color. Maybe it had been initiated by the amazing colors of different plants and flowers—I love gardening—and what I have been seeing ever since I came to New York: works of other artists in museums and galleries. I especially love Albers’s use of color and his square paintings and Sol LeWitt’s bright colors.

Rail: That makes sense. Anyway, the last time I was in your studio, we talked about Georges Perec’s classic Life: A User’s Manual, partly because of his association with Oulipo, which aspires towards the use of constrained writing techniques in order to seek new structures and patterns.

Santibañez: I love that book, partly because of its structure; it’s constructed like a tapestry of very complex and different stories based on the lives of the tenants who lived in a fictitious Parisian apartment block.

Rail: Do you remember one of the characters, Serge Valene, who planned to paint the whole apartment block, seen in elevation with the façade removed?

Santibañez: Yes, I do. He’s a very interesting character.

Rail: Another thing about the novel is that it deals with geometry. Each chapter is arranged by a Graeco-Latin square that measures the entire block as the 10 by 10 grid. Have you ever studied any form of analytic geometry?

Santibañez: Not really. What I know of geometry comes mostly from my own observation of nature and urban environments, and of course from having applied it in the work. Geometry is essentially very simple. You see it everywhere, in a plant, a flower, when you look at the buildings, windows, how things are constructed with the grids. It’s my aim to harmonize architecture and nature. Imagine a building or a tree without structure! An artwork, too, needs structure to generate its balance and energy. Other than that, I just make up the rest as I go along. It also has to do with the body—my body—and how it relates to the verticals and horizontals.

Rail: Which has a great deal to do with yoga—an essential practice of your daily routine.

Santibañez: Maybe. I never thought of it.

Rail: When did you begin to do yoga?

Santibañez: When I moved to New York, actually. I also did the Alexander technique for a while. In general, I am very aware of my body and its relationship to the verticals and the horizontals.

Rail: Mondrian talked about vertical and horizontal lines as the expression of the two opposing forces that exist everywhere and dominate everything.

Santibañez: Yes, and the yoga that I have been practicing now is referred to as Bikram Yoga which takes place in a room heated to 104 degrees. One of the many postures is called the “tree.” You can imagine pulling your body in two directions, your feet flat on the ground while you visualize roots growing from them down into the soil. I also remember the columns at La Sagrada Família looking like trees, and the roots supporting the edifice. Again, nature and architecture integrate and unify to bring balance and strength.

Rail: The tree being your recurrent motif, which has now become part of the yogic discipline that supports your daily practice.

Santibañez: Exactly. Not long ago I had a discussion in the car with James about why we do the different things that we do. He has his band, which he practices with quite regularly. And he makes prints, and occasionally he teaches. I’m doing a lot too: I’m making prints, drawing, painting; I’m doing my yoga. But everything I do I want to do it 100 percent. I mean, I work out every day, I paint every day, and I have sex every day. I need to do those things every day. And really fully, not like in 10 minutes.

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