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Everything Should Be Both, Always: An Interview with Gabriella Moreno

Alley Horn in conversation with Gabriella Moreno.

It’s 7:01pm Eastern on August 3, 2020 when I hop into my Zoom meeting—the only kind of meeting there is these days—with artist, Gabriella Moreno. Apart from email, we have never spoken before. Yet, I felt immediately seen by her works when I first encountered them via NYC Crit Club’s Instagram page a few months back. The blunt, urgent mark-making, the decisive yet playful symbolism, and the recurring female figures—who appear willing to pose, but only on their own terms—not only tickled my own artistic inclinations, but also clued me in to what our conversation would confirm: Trusting her impulses to guide her hand, eye, and subject matter, Moreno draws to unpack the significance of specific objects and experiences throughout her life, evoking universal feelings of uncertainty in the process. Mirroring this strange homeostatic tension between validation and uncertainty is the tension between the spontaneous vigor of Moreno’s linework and the steadfast autonomy of her figures. For me, this confidence-in-contradiction awakens the inner knowledge that peace of mind means not having to settle one’s mind or body at all. Knowing that there is nothing to be settled or conquered, Moreno’s works unfold the great expanses of meaning hidden within the most intimate spaces and innocuous objects. I knew that, like Moreno’s figures, our conversation would do what it wanted. And so, biting into a freshly rinsed peach, I said as much to Moreno before we dove into discussing the long list of things I was hungry to know.

A.H.: In your artist statement, you pinpoint this parallel between the “physical qualities” of your works and the way they “conceptually relate to the personal narrative being exposed in each piece.”  Do you think about that relationship between concept and material from the outset?

G.M.: Definitely. These days I’m realizing that I’m less of a “painter.” That the idea of painting is really not as interesting to me as drawing or sculpture. I’m not so interested in creating depth within a composition; I’m interested in weight and how the form can hold weight. I would rather something feel confident and feel heavy or light, or feel the correct density, than be placed in a composition “correctly.” So using materials to talk about that weight and that density or create a tension between the image that I’m making and the surface it’s on, is something that I’ve been playing a lot with. 

I was making really big charcoal drawings on raw canvas a couple of months ago, and they were kind of like these flags for me. But the material it was on was heavy, and the charcoal looked heavy, and the body was heavy, so I transitioned to using satin and silk as like these airy kind of surfaces to put all of the movement and tension “on.” If that makes any sense?

A.H.: Yes, I know exactly the works you’re talking about, too, because I saw them on your website. And looking at the ones you did on satin and silk, I thought to myself “wow, I bet these are so much more iridescent and active in-person.” 

G.M.: Yeah, I’m actually kind of grappling with how I should be photographing some pieces right now. Like do I show this intense glare to bring out the sculptural elements of the piece?

A.H.: What a great problem to have though: Better to be beautiful in person than only on Tinder, you know what I mean? Your art is living and worth experiencing live.

G.M.: Yes, seeing them in-person with light coming through is definitely the optimal way to view these pieces.

A.H.: So tell me more about the significance of the satin.

G.M.: Well I like this idea that the fabric could be a bed or it could be my clothing or someone’s skin or anything that is “of the realm.” Not just a surface material like canvas, which is so institutionalized and academic to me. My work doesn’t feel that way and my work is not necessarily trying to promote that. My work is about the arena of the intimate. So I believe that my surface should reflect that as well.

A.H.: What you said earlier about veering away from painting and toward drawing makes me think of how when I first looked at your work, I felt like I could relate to it immediately. Not just because it is figurative, or because it’s unapologetically feminine, but because when I look at it, I see the hand of an artist who, like me, is inclined to draw. In other words, someone who is going to make that line once and only once, and as quickly and confidently as possible. 

G.M.: Yes, line economy is very important to me. It’s equal parts confidence and restraint and that is a tension in and of itself. And when I think of drawing, I think of—literally—how to see the world. 

My grandfather was a painter and a professor at Bronx Community College and he basically taught me how to draw and he had me do all these weird little exercises to A) train my hand to do what my brain is saying and then B) train my eye to actually see the thing in front of me because we think we see objects all the time, but we’re not actually taking them in. And drawing, to me is like taking in an object’s entirety—understanding its weight and understanding its space and its place. So painting and light is not necessarily on my mind. It’s more about how something sits in relation to you. 

I also think drawing is a way to make sense of things, and a lot of my work is about processing—emotional trauma, or just moments. And so as I process, I’m constantly trying to make sense of moments. I feel like my “paintings” are this release of images. Rather than just casting off something, it really feels like my work needs to go through like some sort of digestive situation and then come out the other side. So I think the reason why I draw is because it is conducive to processing.

A.H.: In my first critique with Catherine Haggarty she told me: “Alley, the truth is, you’re not a painter. You’re a draw-er. And there’s nothing wrong with that. Embrace it!” And it stung, but man, did I need to hear it. 

G.M.: Absolutely, undergrad was like a million—albeit, all male—professors telling me, “You’re drawing with paint,” and I was like, “Yeah, that’s what I want to do.” So fuck it.

A.H.: And one of the recurring images in your paintings—or painted drawings—is plantains. Could you speak about that? Why plantains?

G.M.: Plantains are important for a few reasons. First, because they’re kind of phallic, they’re kind of like this sexual symbol. But then again, are they? Because at the end of the day, it’s just an innocent fruit. They’re also ambiguous because like what is the difference between plantains and bananas? The answer really depends on who is looking. Like sometimes people will know plantain immediately. And sometimes people will just say banana. Sometimes people use the terms interchangeably. And I really like that ambiguity they create. Ambiguity is something that I’ve experienced a lot in my lifetime. 

My father is an immigrant from Cuba, and my mom is half Puerto Rican, half Irish, but I’m like very white-looking. And I grew up in a very white town. So for much of my life, my proximity to whiteness allowed me to kind of blend in, maybe more so than some of my peers who were/are people of color. And I benefited from white privilege and my proximity to whiteness so much growing up, and even through that, there was a lot of kind of shapeshifting and camouflaging back and forth between my relating to people who shared similar cultural values as me and then, white people, frankly. And so I always felt like I was kind of in this in-between area where I wasn’t quite this and I wasn’t quite that. So ambiguity, I think, speaks to my position of displacement growing up. And it’s even a little bit more a nod to my family history because in Cuba, my great grandfather worked as a foreman on this plantation for plantains where he’d ride around on this horse in a cowboy hat. It’s a piece of my family history that I’m just learning more about now as I get older. So I’m definitely still processing all that, too. 

*twins* (2020), neon pigment, gel pen, and oil stick on stretched satin, 20″x14” each.

A.H.: Could you speak more on learning about your family history now versus when you were younger? 

G.M.: I think a lot now about conditioning. And it’s something I process in my work a lot as well. A lot of what was happening as my father assimilated into American culture. A lot of things that he knew to be his reality had to stop being his reality. The way he interacted with people had to change, all these things had to change. Long story, short: whitewashing, Americanizing. And a lot of our heritage didn’t really get passed down, especially when they settled outside of the city. It just became about who we were now, not about my father’s immigration from Cuba. I never really knew the circumstances. I just felt like I was never getting the full story. And now as I’m getting older, I’m realizing how important that is to me. But it’s hard because there’s a lot of trauma there, too. So my work is, for me, a way to kind of work through my trauma and my inherited trauma. It’s like this necessary step, but it can be weird, too. Like asking somebody who went through all of this to re-hash it for you when they probably don’t want to. So it comes in doses.

A.H.: Mm, I very much relate to the weirdness of passed-down trauma. My dad, he was born in Munich and his parents were Holocaust survivors. But for me, the complicated thing is that my dad is also a toxic person to be around (undoubtedly due in part to his inherited and unprocessed trauma). And so I don’t want to talk to him, but I still have all these questions I want answers to. This is all to say, that I also reached a certain point in my adulthood where I realized that so much of what I experienced was inherited trauma. It’s big and palpable yet also super murky and elusive. Like it takes a long time to be able to identify it, and when you finally do, well, now you have this gigantic, shadowy, splintering, intergenerational wound to heal? 

G.M.: Right, but because you’ve experienced it your whole life—especially if you’re dealing with somebody who’s toxic—it’s like literally everywhere, so it’s small moments where you poke something and then you see a light and you’re like, shit, okay, there it is, let’s go.

A.H.: Yes, I love that. For me personally, it also brings up this dilemma of sympathy. Like is my father’s behavior more excusable because of his traumatic history?

G.M.: Right, right. Yeah, that’s something that I’ve struggled with. I feel like I’ll make all these excuses as to why something’s happening or why someone is acting this way or whatever it is, but in reality, it’s okay for that to exist over there and for me to not want to do that. Like they can both happen. But it doesn’t always have to happen at the same time in my eyeline.

A.H.: Oh, yes, I love that, too: you don’t have to process both at once in the same space. I feel like, in tandem with the tension you describe in your artist statement, your work demonstrates this incredible ability to balance the ugliness of trauma-processing with like, the aesthetic beauty of a balanced composition. Like even though your artistic process is a means of emotional processing, your work still seems to care about pleasing the eye. Do you agree?

G.M.: Yeah, I always want it to be like “visually pleasing” and I think sometimes that stunts me, like maybe I should just make a really ugly painting and hang it up in my bedroom and live with it for a while. I’m not saying that every single piece is stellar, but I do like to make things that are easy to look at or pleasant to look at because the content for me is so intense. My works are pretty charged. Emotionally charged for sure. 

A.H.:  Do you sketch or—what’s your process like?

G.M.: So I have these running lists where I’ll have like, “onion peels,” for example. I want to do onion peels somewhere or like, “bending over three times in one canvas.”

A.H.: Do you have different lists or just one big list? 

G.M.: Just one list with everything and it kind of runs and I’ll just pick a few things that are speaking to me that week and go with it. I’ll typically think of what I want, then I’ll take a photograph of myself posing for the piece, and then I’ll draw those elements in a small sketch, just to get my hand moving that day and also to figure out where things will be placed. And sometimes it’s good to draw a hand before you draw the hand on the final thing, right? Like if I understand how to draw it, then I’ll be fine.

A.H.: Oh, knowing how to draw something beforehand must be so helpful in terms of line economy in the final piece.

G.M.: Exactly. And typically, I don’t work on things more than once, so it’s just like one-and-done. But these days I’m changing that up. I’m working on one piece right now that I’ve been working on for a couple weeks because I’m using all different materials—still  stretching satin—but incorporating like sidewalk chalk and sparkly fabric markers and glitter glue and puffy paint and all of these materials that I really loved using when I was a little girl. So there’s drying time now that I usually don’t have to account for. And so I’m kind of doing these newer pieces more slowly. Like this “XOXO” painting—drawing—that I made? That took like three studio sessions. But it was cool to leave it for a second and come back. And right now I’m working on this composition that has two of me and I’m using glue and pigment, and I’m trying to just like zero in on a lot of details and take my time. 

A.H.: So you’re sort of challenging your own temperament as someone who likes to draw while still “drawing.”

G.M.: Right, it’s funny to just be like, “you know, this one I’m going to take longer on, and let’s see what happens.”

A.H.: You mentioned that “XOXO” piece and I wanted to ask you to explain the inspiration behind that one as well as behind a piece I saw you posted on Instagram recently, in which the word “heaven” appeared to be shaved into a man’s thigh?

G.M.: So XOXO came about in college. I feel like in college I was very focused on—and this is going to sound cliché—my own sexual experiences with men, and the subversion and control within that. You’re like relaying intimate moments. So that’s what I was really focused on and XOXO just came because it’s like something that you draw when you’re a little girl in your notebook and I was having this experience where I was being infantilized a lot by men. So using symbols like XOXO became this empowering way of owning this infantilization. Like my inner child is still mine and you can’t project her onto me. And XOXO is just something that is seemingly so insignificant but also means “kiss and hug.” These little letters mean something that we physically do with somebody, so they’re such a signal of something that we don’t even think about. We just see XOXO in an email or in a card and it just exists, but it really means kissing. Hugging. So yeah, it’s another ambiguous symbol that can be both innocent but also sexual.

A.H.: That duality is also sort of analogous to what you were saying earlier about learning to draw. Like how to draw an object, we must switch the way we are looking at it. To draw “a plantain” we must see it not as a plantain, but as a collection of shapes and values. 

G.M.: Definitely, definitely…and drawing attention to how we see objects. I feel like a lot of my work is about bringing the internal, out. And so much of my process is about taking those little things and making them big. I definitely like things to be big. I like things to hold power over viewers and to not be belittled. Especially the female experience where we’re conditioned to be smaller—and that translates in so many ways for so many women and people—but XOXO is something that is so small that I want to be bold, and big, and read.

A.H.: So many artists go big just to go big, but I love that all of your choices as an artist carry so much significance and are doing so much while also working together harmoniously. Like there’s no choice that seems extra or redundant or just because. Your works aren’t big for the sake of being big, no. XOXO has to be big or its just an email signature. 

G.M.: Exactly.

A.H.: What about “heaven?” 

G.M.: Yeah, so this is a weird one. I just made it and it feels very different. I was going through old photos and this was a photo I had on my phone of me with one of my exes, who was particularly terrible and I am currently still processing a lot of that relationship and I was like oh, yeah, this needs to be a drawing. I’m not sure if I know exactly what the whole thing about this was but [the book featured in the drawing] is a Miranda July book called Nobody Belongs Here More Than You. It’s this book of short stories and they feel really dreamy and light, but they’re really emotionally charged, and intense, and sexual at points, too. And this was a moment where I was reading this book aloud to my ex. And I feel like no one reads books aloud to each other anymore and it’s something that I try to do but who fucking really does it, you know? But I know in that part of my life I was definitely—and don’t judge me—reading books aloud to men, specifically.

A.H.: I would never judge you. Especially because I’ve had these exact thoughts. Like a few months ago, I kid you not, I made a plan with the guy that I was sleeping with to read Just Kids aloud to each other in bed. But then I realized—and don’t judge me—neither of us really cares enough about Patti Smith or Robert Maplethorpe to followthrough with this plan. Anyway, I had this impulse to read it aloud I guess as like some vehicle for intimacy. I’m not sure. What was it for you?

G.M.: I think for me it was heavily performative. Like this is something you would expect my “person” to do. Right? Like this is something that “I” would do. Like I would read this to you because I am “this person who reads these types of books” and you are the kind of person who will be enthralled by that. It was very much like that. And there’s a power dynamic within that. Who has the upper hand? Like I am reading aloud, so I’m dictating to you, but you’re making me make this move. So that whole thing in and of itself is like a series of chess moves. That’s a lot of what I’m thinking about: what’s making me move the way I’m moving and why? And that’s the case in most of my pieces, I think. 

The word “heaven,” I think maybe I was listening to music, or thinking about lyrics and sweetness and also subversion. Like it’s the word heaven, shaved out of this hair right below the ball of his dick so, it’s kind of gross but also saying otherwise. What is being said and what is actually there are two different things. 

I always speak softly when talking to you (2020), graphite on paper, 11.5″x16″.

A.H.: It’s also challenging the artist/muse stereotype. 

G.M.: And this idea of muse and how women have been portrayed throughout art history and history of the world in general with all these images of passive, nude, women posing. I think my work is a questioning of that and a sort of empowerment of her form. I want it to feel transgressive and I want his body in this to feel like an object but also for it to be obviously an intimate space. Everything should be both always. 

Challenging traditional narratives and challenging traditional materials is important to me as a way to not use the same tools that have been given to me. It’s like that Audre Lorde quote, “The master’s tools will never destroy the master’s shed.” And I know it’s not the same but I wonder if I were to use oil paint on canvas, would I just be doing that? I don’t know if I believe that but it’s my train of thought.

A.H.: Have you ever come up against resistance to the objectification of the men you portray in your works? Like does the male ego ever rear its head?

G.M.: There have been many experiences where people have been upset about my work which is so funny to me. There was this dude in college I used to date, and I wasn’t making work about him at all, like ever, but any time I had a critique and it’d be a drawing of some man in a bed he would just up and leave the room in the middle of it and it was like a pattern for months so he was obviously fucking bothered. Even in Crit Club and things like that, I’ve noticed that men typically respond on-edge toward my work. And I am fine with that. It’s obvious they feel uncomfortable and some are out there with it and some are like “you know this makes me feel uncomfortable but I think it’s supposed to,” and they’re respectful about it, but the discomfort is always there, which is fun for me.

A.H.: Ha, I love that you see that as fun. I really admire that you’re able to fully separate their issues from yours. Has it always been very clear to you that those reactions are not your problem?

G.M.: Yeah, as soon as I started using my body as reference I had to accept that like, it’s going to be out there, people are going to see it, so just deal with it. Figure out how to protect yourself from it. But more often than not people are like wow, this is celebratory and empowering. I think the first time I drew something that was sexual or intimate was a tampon and I was like, oh my god, this is my inside, and everyone is going to see that I use tampons. But like yeah, I have tits. Yeah, I have leg hair. I grow out my armpit hair and my leg hair when I want to and still wear shorts. It’s kind of the same thing with my art. This is what I’m going to do because it’s my choice and if you don’t like it then that sucks for you but don’t project that onto me. You don’t need to like it. I like it. 

A.H.: That’s such a great motto and philosophy to live by.

G.M.: It’s an affirmation I think. Like I don’t believe that everyday but my best self believes that. But I think one thing I’ve learned the last two years is someone’s always going to like it and someone’s always going to not like it. 

A.H.: Totally. And why make work for the person who isn’t going to get it? Like we should always make work for our ideal audience.

G.M.: Yeah, definitely. I was watching Rupaul’s Drag Race and I forget what queen said this but they were talking about trying to perform for their haters instead of for the people who loved them. And once you start performing for the people that love you, you’re going to unlock some crazy shit. You’re going to just open up your world. 

A.H.: Yes, perform for the people who love you! We should scream that from the rooftops. Okay, final questions. I know you mentioned that Miranda July book. What are your top five favorite books? Or just list for me the books, articles, or essays that have been super important for you.

G.M.: Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red – I think I recommend this book to every single person I meet. It’s a novel in verse. She’s a poet but also an ancient Greek scholar and playwright. And it’s all about genre bending. It’s about sexuality and gender and trauma. I’m currently reading All About Love by bell hooks and it’s really checking me on attachment style. Any book by Audre Lorde. The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel A. van der Kolk –this I came by because I hang out with a lot of art therapists, which definitely informs what I do. The War on Desire and Techonlogy by Sandy Stone was a big one for my thesis, in which I basically wrote about pornography. And Judith Butler’s Subject of Desire. Those are my top. 

A.H.: Amazing. Definitely going to read all of those. And last thing I want to know more about is Third Project, your independent curatorial project that “focuses on challenging conventional narratives in the contemporary market.”

G.M.: My best friend who is an art therapist and I have been curating shows for the last couple years because a lot of our friends are artists and we go on a lot of studio visits and a lot of things that we are really interested in don’t really fall within our own practices, so it became this way to massage out ideas that we would not typically work through by simply having conversations with other artists. We tend to do one-night-only shows. We were working with this space in Bushwick for a little bit, run by this couple, but then there was a fire. We just curated a show at SVA that was supposed to open on March 18 but COVID happened so we went digital. It’s called “cloud 9,” and it’s all about the idea of Eden and about how there’s no physical, actual space. How heaven and Eden exist as a space to project our fantasies on. So what do those fantasies look like? What do they look like specifically for women? We’re pretty dedicated to showcasing only works by female artists and artists of color. 

A.H.: Awesome. Well, I will definitely keep Third Project on my radar and thank you so much for taking the time to talk.

G.M.: Thank you!

About the artist: Gabriella Moreno has a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Visual and Critical Studies from the School of Visual Arts, where she was awarded the Silas H. Rhodes Scholarship. She has exhibited in New York, Glasgow and Rome, and co-founded The Third Project, an independent curatorial experiment that focuses on challenging conventional narratives in the contemporary market. She lives and works in Brooklyn, New York. Gabriella’s work will be featured in a group show at Olympia opening this September.  Her work can also be seen on gabriellamoreno.com or on Instagram @g.abriella.moreno.

About the writer: Alley Horn is an artist and writer from New York. She is not yet the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship but is manifesting her destiny one bio at a time. Follow her on Instagram @alley.horn or visit her website at www.alleyhorn.com.