One of the most crucial moments in your career was your move to London. What motivated you to move to this city?
I was 22 years old and everyone I knew had gone to London. So I moved to that city too, to see the world. Back then I loved after-punk music, and all the bands I liked were there: New Order, The Residents, The Fall… I saw Big Audio Dynamites and The Clash!
Much of my work has been influenced by music… for example, in the piece Upright (Piano) I put one piano on top of another to make one that you could play standing up. Unlike John Cage’s pianos, this one kept its original sound. In fact, a composer friend of mine created a piece specifically for it.
So, we guess there’s always music while you’re working
Were you interested in art when you were younger?
When I first arrived in London, I was studying philosophy. I spent more time in bars than at university! I loved it… I met Gerry (her partner) in a café almost as soon as I arrived, and we’ve been together for thirty years. He also loves music. Walking down the street together one day, we saw an art school, and that’s where I got started.
You entered the Sculpture school of the Faculty of Fine Arts, right?
My first year in art was at Chelsea College of Art. Then I did my BA for three years at Goldsmiths College, with Steve McQueen and others… At Goldsmiths I was taught a lot of theory: that’s where I learned why you do things and why you express yourself. For my work it’s always been fundamental to have a good theoretical basis.
Later, in my MA specialization I spent two years on sculpture and theory. My teacher at the Slade School of Art was Phyllida Barlow. I love her work and I admire her a lot, but her work didn’t influence me.
I always knew I wanted to be a painter, but at that time nobody was interested. Besides, I was the only woman. Painting became fashionable again later, and then everyone started painting. But it’s part of a very patriarchal tradition…. At Goldsmiths I had already started painting monochromes, and became interested in painting as object. My theoretical training helped me in this sense to think, to question myself, because I wanted to be a painter when nobody wanted to be one.
Has philosophy been an important source in your work?
I’ve been very influenced by philosophy. When I was studying I was interested in Walter Benjamin, Martin Heidegger and others… The first paintings I made happened when I was reading Jacques Derrida. His work helped me see painting as an object. You can take the canvas off the wall, move it around the space, and from there treat it as a painting again; or place it on heels, or facing backwards, or use the corners. With each of these gestures, I imagine that I’m inventing a new language, an alphabet in which each piece is a step.
You’ve said that all your painting starts from the tradition of landscape painting, and you follow that same tradition by painting in a horizontal direction. Non-representation and tradition together in the same work
I’m very interested in traditional painting. My work speaks of the essence of banality and super-production, of a painting that has already exists and is constantly repeated. I remember that from the beginning I was interested in minimalism, even though my painting has always been very material. It was also much more performative. I was learning, I didn’t know the materials well… Now I would paint totally differently. I had been removing things until the point that you see now. I use the language of minimalism because it goes well with my work. Sometimes, we ourselves are the art work.
From 2010 I started experimenting with aluminium as a canvas. These days I’m very interested in the longevity of a piece, using certain materials and treating them in a way to ensure they last as long as possible. When I break or twist a frame, I have to do what I believe will be long-lasting. You don’t see this interest in durability in, for example, American abstract expressionists: Rothko’s paintings are disappearing
Your work is constantly evolving, and you incorporate diverse materials. What are you experimenting with at the moment?
I’m still working with aluminium but I’m starting to discover a new material. In my latest pieces the canvas is made of cement – you put water on it, shape it how you want, and then let it solidify. Each of these new pieces weighs about 60 kilos, but to make them look lighter, I’m finishing them with paint in pastel colours.
I’d describe this current work as passive aggressive. There’s a sense of cold containment throughout. We’re living in a pretty turbulent time. In the UK we’ve had to live with Brexit, and there are problems all over Europe: with Merkel, the rise of the far-right, the bombs and attacks.
For me, an artist’s work must reflect the political situation and the social and intellectual situation of the moment. In my case, I’ve been thinking about Grenfell Tower in my work lately. My studio is very close to where the fire that killed 73 people happened.
As well as switching up your materials, there’s also a lot of chromatic change. From your current pastels to the striking fluorescent shades of Clutter
When it comes to colours I’m inspired by fashion. I love going to the shops and seeing what colours are on-trend. At the beginning of my career I used a lot of dirty white, “shitty” brown, and dark blues inspired by dirt. At that time my studio was located in an alternative space in a somewhat troubled area. There were always homeless people coming in, and it was really dirty. I had to keep the studio locked up – people would come in to shoot up and did their business everywhere. So the colours came from what I was living through. And then I started incorporating brighter colours.
There is a constant structure in your work, certain themes and forms that are repeated. And you’ve found a set formula that repeats itself and you can always recognize.
I think that all the pieces are equal and that, in some way, everything goes with everything else. It’s a bit like Lego.
Another thing I’ve always said is that a painting always has to be a painting. Everything must be able to return to its original state and return to being a painting. I think of them like a body with a deformity, or a body missing a leg, but then you put on a prosthetic leg to walk. I also like to think of my paintings like the parable of the prodigal son: whenever they want, they can return.
You’ve also said on occasion that the tradition of painting weighs heavily on you, that you have to be sure about what you have in mind because there are already too many paintings.
What I want from my painting is effectiveness.
My painting initially stems from postmodernity. I’ve read a lot of Gianni Vatimo, and he wrote a book about postmodernism in the 1970s in which defined eclecticism as the act of taking things from anywhere and mixing them up. And I’m interested in everything, from philosophy to gossip magazines and pop culture. I love Pedro Almodóvar, especially his film Labyrinth of Passions (1982) in which Cecilia Roth sings McNamara, and also Buñuel, Bergman, Fellini, Lars von Trier… And I used to love the Spanish TV show from the 80s, The Golden Age, with its great music.
You’ve got a full and complex production schedule. How do you manage it? How do you work in the studio?
I’ve got around five or six assistants in total, although they don’t all work at the same time. So I think about work at home and I pass on the instructions.
It used to be a different before. I remember being in the studio thinking, staring into space, smoking. My first study was in Spitalfields Market and it was very small, a matchbox. That place was very important to me. On Sundays there was the Central Saint Martins student clothing market. I was discovering my language. I wasn’t so much of a perfectionist as I am now, and I treated my work terribly, dragging it through the studio. I called my paintings “my children”! (laughs)
Then I went to Ederworld in Old Street, and later at Cubitt in Kings Cross I had a larger studio and started working with an assistant. The Ready to wear pieces come from this period. As the studio has grown, the work has also grown in size.
Now I have three studies: one used as an office, another to paint inn, and another to let the work rest for a while, even a few years. Sometimes I recycle them into a new work.
The first time I worked with a team of people was with the piece Larger Than Life. I was inspired by a photograph of a very large man who could barely fit in his room. I wanted to create a painting that would occupy and overpower the whole space. It was shown for the first time at the Royal Festival Hall at the Southbank Centre, London.
Your career has largely developed in England and London, and you’ve even been nominated for the Turner Prize (2010). In Spain you have exhibited in La Panera, in CarrerasMugica, twice with Helga de Alvear….
I have also exhibited at the MARCO in Vigo, CAAC in Seville, Max Estrella, Bomba Gens, and I’ve also participated in Manifesta5 Donostia-San Sebastián in 2004. Those last ones weren’t solo shows, but they were important to me. Massimiliano Gioni, curator of Manifesta5, saw the solo show project I did at Arco and asked me to participate.
Carlota Álvarez Basso, director of MARCO in Vigo, offered me very good conditions to work in with my exhibition. The funny thing is that we met at Arco but we closed our deal at the Cook bar. (laughs) MARCO de Vigo changed my relationship with Spain. I’d thought: I will never exhibit in Spain because they’re not interested in my work. At that time I was exhibiting in New York (John Weber Gallery), in Melbourne, in Vienna with Krinzinger Gallery…but not here. Luckily, then there were other exhibitions.
You’ve said on previous occasions that there’s an emotional component to doing projects in Spain. And there are many cases of artists who have had to further their careers abroad and who sometimes fail to receive the support of their own country.
In Spain you have to leave to succeed. Spanish artists have it very tough. Museums hire directors based on contacts… There’s still this snobbishness/elitism in art.
I’ve never liked that politics and art were so close. I’ve even turned down exhibitions at places where the director was hired based on contacts, or they have a dubious reputation. I really value the work of curators and critics. It’s a huge job, and then someone from the government comes along and hires someone based on favouritism.
In 2017 your work was recognised with the National Prize for Plastic Arts, awarded by the Spanish Ministry of Culture. What did that mean for you?
To be honest, when I got the call I thought it was a joke. I loved it because it meant I was being recognised, but more than anything I value the financial help that allows me to continue working. Because I invest everything in my work.
I want to convey to young artists that being an artist is a difficult challenge. It’s like living on a tightrope all the time – you never know what’s going to happen. And it’s also hard for the people who live with you, who have to constantly adapt to you. But you have to go for it and keep on going, because a lot of artists stay on the path, but others don’t.
Perhaps we could talk about the most recent exhibition that you had in Spain Homeless, in Azkuna Zentroa and in CGAC, taking advantage of the fact that we are here talking with your great friend and curator Carolina Grau (info).
Carolina: What I did was bringing together 20 years of her language, using the piece ‘Homeless’ as the main work, as the starting and final point. The exhibition was not set out chronologically, and everything was interconnected. It was a challenge for both of us, because we were exhibiting a lot of pieces that had never previously been shown together, and we didn’t know how they were going to speak to each other. Our intention was to generate multiple paths and new readings from which we drew many ideas.
Angela: My aim is always to integrate the work into the space, and I love working with Carolina because she knows how to explain things, she really gets what I want to do, and she has excellent ideas. We complement each other very well. You know what interested me on this occasion? Putting pieces together, as if they were a people sheltering under a bus stop in the rain, where people gather and come together but they don’t mingle, they don’t know each other.
Carolina: I’ve worked with sculptors before, running their studios, so I understand Angela’s work very well. Her practice always uses the architectural space, magnifying it, and forces you to make many decisions ‘in situ’. For example, at the exhibition that we did in La Panera we asked for work lights just for the assembly, but we ended up leaving them exposed in the exhibition, in such a way that you could see both the good and the bad of the space. I never would have done it like that before!
We spoke with the artist Angela de la Cruz (A Coruña, 1965), together with curator Carolina Grau, a major expert in her work and who has curated her latest exhibition Homeless presented at Azkuna Zentroa (Bilbao) in 2018 and at CGAC (Santiago de Compostela) 2019. Nominated for the Turner Prize in 2010 and awarded the National Prize for Plastic Arts in 2017, her pictorial practice has led her to explore painting and sculpture, always seeking to push the conventions and traditions of the medium to their limits.
This interview was conducted at various times throughout 2018 and 2019. With special thanks to Rafael Perez Evans (rafaelperezevans.com), who took the photographs at Angela’s London studio in the spring of 2019.