Mexico-born artist Santiago Evans Canales recently moved to London from Antwerp to join the prestigious Royal College of Art. Oscillating between fiction, childhood imagination, his paintings feature vibrant, curved characters and shapes, which take inspiration from his personal life and travels, historical figures, and immersions into imaginary, magical worlds.
The artist mainly uses long brushstrokes to slowly locate the image he develops through the different textures and swathes of colour in the initial layers of paint. These elements, as well as the compositions, are usually dictated by the materials he employs for the resulting painting.
His work is influenced by observation, abstraction, and imagination and he often sits in museums to reinterpret works on the walls. His practice is therefore deeply rooted in Classical painting.
The very talented artist usually paints on large-scale paper exploring the materiality of the canvas, paper qualities and textures. The depicted human forms and their environments recall the work of Henri Matisse and the vivid colours, Raoul Dufy.
Represented by the excellent Galerie Derouillon, Canales’ explorations also include animations and other mixed media. Curators around the world have shown interest in his work.
Art is Alive catches up with him in his new London studio and discusses his visual language, techniques and future projects.
I’m really interested in your technique to achieve such strong work. How do you start your paintings: do you begin immediately with the subject matter, the content or rather explore the colours and ‘shapes’ first? And do you draw beforehand?
I never draw the painting beforehand. When I paint, I have an idea to begin with, a particular character, moment or place, but what really starts the painting is putting one colour down and using my whole body to create strokes that fill the canvas, then putting down other colours that interact with the first one. It’s a form of excavation for the image in the initial layers. I focus on the fluidity and transparency of the marks. A specific mark or colour will sometimes dictate the rhythm of the rest of the painting, what I do with my brush strokes, and what kind of lights I create in the composition. In this abstract process, I sometimes find images, objects and figures that I’ve been drawing in my sketchbook. Slowly, they come out from the shapes and the lines, but the actual final piece isn’t decided as a scene until it’s finished. Painting in its early stages is just decisions about the spaces in-between, or the lines that go through them and how the eye travels through the work.
In the end, I like to explore those spaces in numerous paintings. Sometimes they feel like the same space but looked at from a different angle, both literally and atmospherically. I am always fascinated with the idea of slight repetition in works and how this can create a narrative in a series.
I’m always sketching, but only with pen and paper. These drawings will sometimes inspire my paintings, but they are never the same image that I paint because I see them as two separate works. My sketches are always made with the small flat surface and texture of the sketchbook in mind, and it would contradict or make the painting redundant if I simply copied a drawing from a sketchbook. They’re only connected in the way that I recreate the same state of mind when I go from one to the other – to do that, I have to approach them entirely differently.
One of the recurring themes seems to be the exploration of shape and almost mythical
figures. Am I right and is literature pregnant in your work?
Absolutely. My process of exploration often comes out of specific images or experiences from my past. I enjoy abstracting my life into this mythical story because I can build a new world out of it. I paint memories and bastardize them, often repeating the same images or characters to the point that their original narrative is erased. In reiterating them, I’m able to transform each into more fantastical shapes and abstractions. Even though the images are personal and influenced by my past, I still want the viewers to decide for themselves what each of the elements in the imaginary world means to them instead of me dictating that through the piece. To me, what matters most is the challenge of taking that absurd world further or breaking it down in a more practical sense – in a material sense.
If my work has a literary or visual connection, it’s probably from my childhood books like “Where
the Wild Things Are” or movies like “Fantasia” or the “Silly Symphonies” cartoons that brought a
lot of colour to my life.
How much of your personal life do you draw into these works?
Most forms of art that really impact me are personal in one way or another. What matters to me is to have some personal connection to the work. So yes, my life experiences definitely extend into my paintings; I can’t separate one from the other. It’s part of my life but in a pictorial sense. It’s a retrospective on how I view people, places and myself, and those perceptions change depending on where I am in my life. So the paintings change with that perception. The deeper the paintings go into exploring myself, the more universal the image becomes, and the closer it gets to the viewer because most human experiences are universally relatable. I enjoy it when someone doesn’t see my personal life but sees their own or feels like they’re looking through a window at someone else’s.
How do you approach the conception and installation of your exhibitions?
When coming up with ideas for installations, I try to make each painting stand on its own, but honestly, one of my favourite things is for each show to be its own experience. I focus on how each work complements the other in terms of themes explored.
Recently, I had a show in Paris at Galerie Derouillon, and for the exhibit, I focused on the sizes (juxtaposing very large and very small ones next to each other) and the colours I use. For example, when I start a painting, I choose a particular colour as the main base and then build off that to find other colours that contrast and compliment the whole. If I develop that piece into an entire series, the secondary colour might become the new base for the next painting. Or, if there is an element or image in my initial painting I want to explore further, I may extend that into subsequent paintings to create a narrative that alternates in the foregrounds and backgrounds of each work. Size is also a significant factor in conceptualizing my installations. I love turning a viewer in my show into a camera that zooms in and out of each piece. When I have these very large works, people often have to step back to see everything fully, but if I compliment them with much smaller ones, you’re compelled to physically move closer to be able to see them. It makes people take their time with each painting and not pass over some pieces, since you can’t see them from the same distances. I’ve found it very important to get your audience to engage your work in a very physical sense.
Your inspiration: do other painters influence your work?
Yes, it’s almost impossible not to be influenced by other artists. Growing up, I had a deep appreciation of Edward Hopper and Amedeo Modigliani. Later, when I began my studies, I looked towards contemporary artists from around the world, such as Nicole Eisenman, Peter Doig, Chris Ofili, and Jockum Nordström.
Living in Belgium, I also developed an appreciation of Flemish artists throughout all their periods. From the primitives to James Ensor, Edgard Tytgat, Jean Brusselmans, Jan Cox, to today’s artists. Flanders is an interesting place where you can see a clear line that has been
built on previous generations of paintings.
While I admire many artists, what inspires me the most is making a strong connection to specific paintings, regardless of the painter. The time I saw the Pierre Bonnard retrospective at the Tate was really important to my practice; his use of colour as a medium for light, his compositions and his understanding of the rules, as well as his disregard for them, made a huge impact on me. Also, the first time I saw Gomaar Gilliams show at Gallery Sofie Van de Velde a few years back, the details in his work, how they are stitched together; for example, a piece of tape left behind that became an essential mark in the painting. These shows influenced me because they serve as a constant reminder that things don’t need to be a certain way and to try to break rules that even I set for myself.
But the most influential artists for me were never famous at all. My great-grandmother was a painter, and, growing up, I would paint by her side. She also filled her house with paintings of Carlos Marichal, who was her painting teacher. For a long time, I thought they didn’t influence me, outside of the fact that they made me want to become an artist, but going back home after a long time, I realized how much their art and their ideas had ingrained themselves in my work up to now.
Your favorite artists, dead or alive?
My favourite artists change depending on what I’m working on, and I’ve noticed my taste has changed just in the last few years, so the list has grown a lot. At the moment, I have been enjoying works from artists like Martín Ramirez, Hilma Klimt, Frank Walter, Marlene Dumas, Peter Blake, David Hockney and Cecily Brown. But, the poet/painter William Blake is currently at the top of my list.
Can you quote a few other cultural talents – dead or alive – that have influenced your
Growing up, I watched a lot of classic movies with directors like Alfred Hitchcock, Billy Wilder, Akira Kurosawa, and David Lean. The way they played with lights, shadows and angles changed how I perceive those things today. I didn’t notice this as a kid, but I think my approach to painting is very much influenced by a more cinematic medium. Especially older Disney cartoons, their colours and styles have always fascinated me. I think those cartoons of the ’30s and ’40s are ingenious because they were the first in their field, and no rules had been established for what was supposed to be a “good cartoon,” so people had a lot of room to experiment with techniques and different styles. This freedom let them make some unique, creative works, where, especially with the Internet and modern TV, many newer types of animation have become very homogenized. It can be challenging to break out of convention when a medium is already well established, but re-watching those older animations and how they were figuring out their craft helps inspire me to break the rules of painting a little bit more.
Recent book you read and loved?
I’m currently reading The Labyrinth of Solitude by Octavio Paz. The book is about being Mexican, but I think it’s more about being human and how we interact with our own culture and the cultures that influence us. For Mexico, that influence is the United States. I’m Mexican, and on my father’s side American and Argentine; I also grew up moving around Mexico, the US and Canada. Then I studied in Belgium, and now I’m living in London. In a way, living in so many places has made me realize that every culture has a particular dynamic, with its own people and an outside influence, whether good or bad. Since the book is about questioning yourself and who you are in your society, how you participate in your society’s rituals and culture, I have enjoyed becoming more aware of the people that I’m around and how I interact with them on that level.
Would you ever explore other media in the future, or do you want to stick to painting?
Over the summer, I started working with ceramics. I’m exploring how to make my work three-dimensional. So I think ceramics are an exciting way for the characters of my work to become physical in their own sense. It’s definitely challenging because I’m not a sculptor or wasn’t trained as a sculptor, but I find it interesting not to think and just slowly try to make an object physically. Also, the surprise of not even knowing what the colours will be until they’ve been fired in the kiln is a very unique thing, and it takes me out of my normal practice. I really enjoy the spontaneity of getting out of my comfort zone.
I also enjoy making little animations based on my work. They are a mix of traditional and digital
animation, and I use them to present my upcoming shows and as a moving painting on social media. I think it’s difficult to attract someone in a space full of images like Instagram or Facebook. Viewers usually have a rhythm of how they look through things, and the idea of a moving image or not a real-world image will make someone look at a work more than the one-second average that people look at a picture, so maybe 1.2 seconds.
However, I feel painting is the best medium for expressing or connecting with myself and the viewer.
Will we see an exhibition of your work in London soon?
I just moved to London with my dog Charlie to start my master’s at the Royal College of Art. When I have a show here, everyone will be invited, and Charlie will be there to greet you at the door!