UN-HUMAN: An Interview with Bernardo Vallarino

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by Scott Gleeson

Artist Bernardo Vallarino confronts the dehumanizing effect of modern and contemporary warfare by highlighting the slippage between humanist philosophy underpinning Western culture and political rhetoric during times of armed conflict. A self-proclaimed sceptic, Vallarino challenges the status quo through a democratic, accessible iconography rooted in classical sculpture, entomology, and material exploration. Peripheral Vision has caught up with the artist to discuss his influences, inspiration, and the future direction of his practice.

Describe a work of art that has been meaningful to you or influential in some way.

Ai Wei-Wei and Doris Salsedo are both influential and meaningful in my work. I tend to associate my own work closer to Ai Wei-Wei's, but Doris Salcedo's approach to art and art-making directly influences my own. If I had to pick only one artwork from her outstanding body of work I would have to choose A Flor de Piel. The Colombian born artist creates conceptually powerful sculptures addressing issues of violence. Her works are simple, clean and in many instances delicate; A Flor de Piel is a perfect example. This sculpture is a sort of quilt, a “shroud” made of hand-stitched rose petals inspired by the story of a Colombian nurse who was tortured and dismembered. The stitching of the rose petals becomes a symbolic attempt to piece together these victims while retaining a sense of commemoration and offering. Another important element is the chemically-treated rose petals. Due to their treatment the petals do not wilt, existing in a state of limbo between life and death - a metaphor for the inconsolable state of grieving of the families. When the story is heard and the visual fragility of the sculpture is experienced the shroud no longer becomes an object, but rather a feeling. This emotional state brings me to my last and possibly one of my favorite parts - the title of the sculpture. A Flor de Piel cannot be translated literally because it is an idiom that is meant to describe a feeling or a physical pain that is so strong that a person can barely contain it. When I make art I strive to create artworks with motivations and sensitivities similar to those of Salcedo, adding a slightly contentious or confrontational tone. 

What is the first work of art you remember experiencing as a child? Was there something about the experience that influenced your practice or decision to become an artist?

The first work of art that I could consider influential to my growth as an artist was a papier-mâché dragon. This "realistic" looking dragon was the first sculptural object of a substantial size I ever made. The 3' tall sculpture sparked in me the intrinsic satisfaction for bringing into existence objects with certain amount of detail that lured people into looking up close. I still find it significant to make works with elements that yield a similar desire for exploration. Another element that I used on that artwork that I still use now is multiplicity; numerable objects in one artwork like the individually folded scales on the body of the beast. I think that it was also important back then as it is now to create objects that have a clear intent and mood. As a 14 year old artist I accomplished this by representing aggression through long claws, a mouth full of teeth and a pair of wide open wings.

Tell us about a travel experience that has influenced your practice in a significant way.

I have had the fortune to be able to travel fairly extensively and to have visited many museums in those travels. But the trip that has influenced my work the most has been my immigration to the United States. Coming to the US from Colombia has given me the opportunity to compare differences and similarities between the two countries. Even though I was born in Santa Barbara, California, I consider myself Colombian because I obtained most of my cultural identity from there. And I am very grateful to have come back to the USA, because without it I wouldn’t have the experiences needed to jump-start my artistic thinking. Continually evaluating my experiences brought about an abundance of questions that eventually became the fuel for my art. Questions like: Why is the US so obsessed with war? Why are Americans blasé about their country’s state of war? When will Colombians be able to breed a similar sense of physical safety? This utopian tone of concern eventually changed when I came out as gay. Divulging the truth about who I am tore apart my life and it opened my eyes to a world full of hypocrisy. I realized that words like “love” are empty manipulative tools; and only actions can truly uncover intent. Since then, I have applied the same skepticism and raw pragmatism to answering those kinds of questions I had as an immigrant and have expanded my view point from Colombia and the US to a more global approach.

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How old were you when you decided to become an artist? Describe your training and how it has contributed to your current practice.

I was in college when I decided to become an artist. Due to the proverbial stigma in Latin America that art is a dead end, my father found going to museums and galleries a complete waste of time. My mom, on the other hand, encouraged and nurtured my love for making things and my ability to look at my surroundings through an aesthetic lens. In middle school I enjoyed being in art class, but in high school I decided to focus in other areas. During my junior year in high school, while watching an episode of Oprah about the children’s fantasy film Jumanji, I found a career that spoke to me. I felt that special effects for the film industry was perfect for me; it seemed both artistic and lucrative. At TCU I chose to become a radio, TV, and film major with a minor in art. The turning point towards contemporary fine art began half way though my college years. My sculpture professor suggested that I should find a couple of things I had an interested in and used them as inspiration. The two things I came up with were insects and war. As I developed a visual vocabulary to discuss my antipathy for war I began to see myself more and more as an artist. From that point forward I have refined that vocabulary and apply it to metaphors that illustrate hypocritical and dark human behaviors.

What are the dominant themes in your current body of work and how did your practice evolve to focus on these concerns?

Currently I am focusing on themes of plurality; looking for ways to visually describe the huge number of victims affected by violence and war. I am interested in creating artworks that contain a mind-boggling number of single objects and images that correlate to death, war and politics. The goal of the numerous objects is to overwhelm the viewer with the perceived incapacity of counting. With this approach I’m also trying to eliminate identity from the individual while retaining a sense of value. This concept of multiplicity and subversion of identity comes from my observations and research of insects. Another insect-inspired element I am trying to tap into is the psychological fear that swarms of insects have on human beings. The sculptures comprising the series UN-HUMAN are my most pivotal body of work. With UN-HUMAN I was finally able to erode my self-imposed requirement of having insects be visually recognizable in my artwork. By conceptually braking down insects into singular formal elements I am able to create artworks with much more freedom, opening my mind to new possibilities.

How do you make your art? Please describe your materials and techniques and how they developed.

The most important part of my artwork is concept. A lot of my time is spent researching the topics I am looking to address before I sketch. Once satisfied with the amount of information I have gathered I synthesize the information into visual elements. I rely on the most widely accessible data to guide the simplification process. Design is challenging and rewarding because I have to shape my ideas as my creativity runs untethered in my head. Once a sketch is made, materials become the next challenge. As a multimedia artist the options of materials are countless; for a guide, I look into the common perceptions and connotations of materials. For example, cast metals allude to a sense of value or preciousness, found branches and wood reflect on nature, and plastics or resins tend to invoke a sense of industrial fabrication. Every material is carefully chosen with the sole intent of aiding the sculpture's message.

Questions of spectatorship and participation in art history and theory have insured that the ‘viewer’ or 'audience’ have become increasingly visible in contemporary art discourses. How does your practice respond or contribute to these conversations?

As a post-modern "political" artist working in installation art I am counting on the audience to be participative. The imagery in my works is accessible and recognizable to a broad audience. The purpose of retaining such clear imagery is to allow viewers to interact directly with the meaning of the artwork without unnecessary questions regarding the identity of the objects. I also try to be very conscious of any connotations or association any of the elements in the artwork may have. I use a macro-micro relationship in the sculpture as a way to entice the viewer to interact with the sculpture. From out-far the viewer is meant to get a broad sense of the meaning of the sculpture but in order to obtain the rest of the information they are guided by different elements of the sculpture to explore it up-close. I utilize the internet and social media to maintain a direct and personal connection with my audience outside the gallery space, and see these platforms as an extension of my practice.

If you could travel back in time to hang out with a famous artist for a day, who would it be and what would the day be like?

I find Frida Khalo to be an exceptionally intriguing individual and I would love to spend a whole day with her. I admire her strength, her individuality, and her contributions to surrealism. I imagine our day beginning with a typical Mexican breakfast with a side conversation on cultural differences between our native countries and the places we've been. In the afternoon I could imagine a visit to her studio, talking about the things that inspire her and how she develops her ideas. I'm sure the conversation would die down as she sits to rest and paint. The silence would be inundated with the sounds of her animals and the smells from the kitchen. As the afternoon turns to evening her friends and her husband gather around the dinner table to talk and drink. The discussion would be invigorating. I imagine a balanced discussion of radical politics, idealistic societies and artistic ideas. The revelry would end as Frida retires to her room. I hope that I would be able to spend a little more time with her as we discuss intimate anecdotes, our fears and our dreams.

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Dogs or cats? Beach or mountains? Urban or rural? Salt or no salt (it’s a margarita thing)?

Dogs. Their positivism and kindness are contagious. Beach. Relaxing at the beach requires little effort and minimal clothing. Urban. I like to have easy access to things, large urban areas fulfill that need. Salt, and it's definitely a margarita thing. I judge a restaurant by the quality of their margaritas.

Master of Fine Arts degree programs, unlike other graduate degree programs in the humanities, are notoriously underfunded, requiring aspiring artists to acquire student debt. What is your perspective on the issue of student debt, and how has the acquisition of debt affected your vision of your future practice?

I don’t believe the debt is the problem. The problem is the lack of education of how to be properly prepared for it. Before I began my MFA program I had an idea of what the debt amount was going to be. I saved enough liquid cash to cushion my expenses. I made sure I had a strong work resumé in education and art so I could rely on it when I graduated. However, my strongest asset is my understanding, experience and personal holdings in real estate. With all this in place I will be able to pay off my debt in a timely manner while I continue teaching and making art. I am very proud of this because as a gay man at 18 I was cut off; I had no job skills and my only way out was going through TCU using loans. In my case the acquisition of loans helped me get ahead, but also made me think of ways of how to pay it and use it in my advantage.

How have issues of identity and identity politics influenced your art? How are individual and collective concerns addressed in your work?

I am a gay man from a Catholic South American family who had to face many identity issues. The cathartic process of “coming out” opened my eyes to the subversive hypocrisy that exists in many aspects of the world around us. I no longer believed people who utter the words “I love you” and I began to question the intentions behind people’s words. This fatalistic way of approaching the world encouraged me to evaluate words in relation to actions. My artwork was directly affected by this personal vernacular. I began to do work that highlighted the discrepancies between social beliefs, dogmas, agreements, etc. and the actions taken by those same groups that mirror those beliefs. These gaps between words and actions direct me to create artworks containing criticisms concerning violence, human suffering, abuse of power, politics and other social injustices. My work is all about concerns for the life of the individual, as well as the future of human kind.