Amanda Gray recently caught up with artist Monica Perez Vega to talk about her career, the process behind her artwork and her inspirations.
LC: Where did it all start?
MPV: My aunt is a figurative painter, mostly self-taught, and she introduced me to drawing and painting at an early age. She was my earliest teacher and really built the foundation of my artistic career.
LC: How do you begin a painting?
MPV: My background is abstract painting, but this has evolved into something more figurative, with an emphasis on plants and trees. I’ve always found analogies to my life through the process of making; this has evolved into the figuration as well. I would think of each painting as a story, one that is built in layers, adapting and evolving as it goes. The first layer might be random, expressive, abstract; while the next would be about applying direction and meaning. As individuals and societies as a whole, we are derived of the stories and layers we’ve lived; the paths we’ve taken. We can try to wash them out or paint over them, but they are always a part of us.
I generally start a painting by creating incidents that must be dealt with in some way. I might dye the canvas, stain, wash, or just paint in abstract gestures. I then start to see forms and will begin navigating their way out of the painting. As I paint, they begin to morph and adapt, or deal with new circumstances as I add new layers. This is all a response to urban and natural environments morphing and adapting to one another, and my love for incidental and found art, but also my feeling of displacement and insecurities between and within these places.
LC: In relation to ‘Watch out for Pricks’, you started out with abstract forms that evolved into cactii. Is there an element of chance and spontaneity with all your works?
MPV: Yes, absolutely. I embrace chance, accidents, failure and try to let go of expectations. This is another example of my process being analogous to life. Life is a journey of navigating obstacles and failed expectations. It is a fluidity of sacrifice and endurance, with a pragmatic optimism that each new path will lead to something better than that which has been severed.
LC: Do you begin with drawings or with painting?
MPV: I take a lot of mental notes, gather inspiration and sketch out ideas, but those ideas often don’t come to fruition until much later. I dip back into ideas that have been stewing. I try not to plan too much, because things never work out the way I intend (again, life analogy)… But I am now confident enough with my process to know that ideas will work themselves out, in time.
There is a quote that I love from the book ‘Lab Girl’ by Hope Jahren that says: “A seed knows how to wait. Most seeds wait for at least a year before starting to grow; a cherry seed can wait for a hundred years with no problem. What exactly each seed is waiting for is known only to that seed.”
LC: You recently graduated from the MFA course at Slade School of Art. How has your practice evolved during your time there?
MPV: I learned a lot about material and was exposed to processes that were really helpful. I explored a lot and feel like my practice just exploded all over the place, but I eventually found ways of making that made sense to me, that felt right, and I followed it through. I think the biggest thing I learned is that anything goes. Don’t compare yourself to others; just follow your spark. I’ve become more confident in just doing what I want to do without worrying what other people think.
LC: In your graduate show, you exhibited both paintings and sculptures made from acrylic sheets. Is there a particular medium you are drawn to? The acrylic sheets have a certain organic plasticity – an abstract painting in 3D. What are your thoughts on the medium?
MPV: Since starting at the Slade, I knew I wanted to combine painting and sculpture somehow, and had envisioned making 3D paintings that would curl off the wall like bark. I started with plaster and cement, eventually formed paper with water and canvas with rabbit skin glue. My tutor, Gary Woodley, recommended that I try out thermoplastics, which is a thin non-toxic plastic sheet that moulds with heat, often used in making cosplay costumes. I did play with it (and still do), but it’s quite thin and melts quickly so it has its limitations. I eventually started playing with plexiglass off-cuts and was getting more of the results I wanted. The large acrylic sheets were just a sort of lucky find. My husband happened to have some left over from a project at work and offered to bring them home for me. Over the summer of 2018, I began playing with them in the back garden, forming them over fire and spray painting them. I love the transparencies, the gloss and forms, as well as the action of working with them. There is a sort of dance that happens in working with the large awkward material. I also find it very satisfying to sort of destroy something and then bring it back to life, so to speak. However, if it weren’t for the ‘reclaimed’ element of the material, I don’t think those sculptures would have happened. Going forward, if I use plastics, I would continue working with reclaimed/off-cuts etc, which again I enjoy because it gives me a certain set of conditions to start from, just like with my paintings.
LC: The paintings, although abstract, borrow certain elements and forms from nature and, looking at your Instagram feed, there appears to be a recurrent interest in nature. Is this the case?
MPV: Definitely. I lived in Amsterdam for 10 years. One thing I realised upon moving from Amsterdam to London was how much I missed trees. Amsterdam is an amazing city, but it’s a little like living on an island – an urban island. I was slowly going insane due to the lack of wilderness. I would feel it every time I went home to California – the contrast was overwhelming. I was so homesick for trees and birds and stars… Amsterdam doesn’t have a plant out of place. Every tree was intentionally planted and lives in a straight line. Coming to London was very refreshing in this way. Living on the suburban outskirts, I wake up to songbirds, for a time had a family of foxes living under a shed. I walk through green spaces on my commute, and I see the moon and stars every day.
Being surrounded by nature again has reawakened an awareness of my relationship to it. Following a commute though the seasons, I watched the changing of the leaves and drew parallels from my life to that of the trees. I began to use forms and colours inspired by my daily walks through natural and urban spaces. As fallen leaves and peeling bark show both death and hopeful signs of regeneration, so do the flaking patina and crumbling facades of the urban environment. Echoing the story of life, of death, and of the ever-changing state of all things, I look to nature for signs of hope; of a promise of return.
I grew up in California, camping among the ‘Big Trees’, and interestingly Giant Sequoias uniquely rely on the catalyst of fire. Protected by thick bark, their cones will open from the heat, allowing thousands of seeds to distribute at once, and a fire also rids competing vegetation. However, this relationship is a precarious one, evidenced by the rampant wildfires currently decimating my homeland. It was not lost on me that while I was forming my plastic sculptures over fire, California was experiencing the worst wildfire in history.
Recently an article was published claiming planting more trees is truly our greatest fight against climate change. There is a nature reserve hidden behind my house, and as you walk from the busy street into the woods, you can literally feel the air grow cooler.
We know trees filter carbon dioxide and many other plants filter the air, water and soil, but those that do it REALLY well are called ‘hyperaccumulators’. They are used in ‘phytoremediation’, which is the process of using plants to remove, degrade or stabilise pollutants or waste. Sunflowers absorb a wide range of compounds, such as uranium, cesium and methyl bromide. They have become an asset in nuclear clean-up. An entire field can be neutralised within three years of planting. There are many more examples of this. Maize and canola are soaking up mercury run-off in Brazil. Mustard greens are removing lead in Boston. Pumpkin vines are cleaning a former factory in New Jersey, and Alpine pennycress is cleaning abandoned mines in Britain. A willow tree can absorb copper, zinc, cadmium, selenium, silver, chromium, uranium, petrochemicals and many others.
Plants and trees are incredibly resilient. They absorb, adapt and grow. Nature has all the answers and provides the greatest hope in realigning ourselves with this planet. My interest in both natural and urban environments and the collision of these two spaces, speaks to my struggle with modernity and my anxieties about the future. I feel at times lost between worlds and am trying to find solace in things as they are – with a grain of hope that they will sustain or improve.
LC: Where will your practice take you next?
MPV: I am not sure yet. Since my degree show, I have been working at a summer residency at the Slade, creating leaf-like forms with canvas – one of those ideas that sat on a backburner until now. I am excited to finally see it as an installation. Other than that, I am moving to Birmingham and need to get settled into a new studio and see what’s next. I will definitely keep painting and creating my plastic forms. I would love to learn ceramics… who knows!
LC: What forthcoming shows do you have coming up?
Slade Summer Residency Exhibition
PV / Talk 31 July, 17-21:00
01 – 09 Aug, 10-16:00 M-F
Slade School of Fine Art
Raw Materials: PLASTICS @bowarts
May 17-Aug 25