Rubens Ghenov, assistant professor of painting and drawing, had a solo exhibition at the Morgan Lehman Gallery in New York City in May 2016. Joshua Bienko, assistant professor of painting and drawing, sat down with Ghenov to discuss his teaching, his art, and his Brazilian roots.
Joshua Bienko: How is your artwork related to your teaching?
Rubens Ghenov: My works largely deals with translation, embodiment, and fiction. All those aspects are somehow succinctly, but distinctly practiced in the classroom; though not always necessarily present. Translation and embodiment take form osmotically and at times are difficult to be seen separately in the classroom. The fictive is perhaps more apparent to me, though what I see as fictional in my teaching doesn’t perhaps translate as such to students. In fiction, the imagined and the factually physically experienced coagulate and invent an artifact of sorts that is truer that the factual. The mask might be truer because it disinters the furtive and amalgamates with the disclosed. Conscious and subconscious consummate. This to me is one of the most important things in that which we call art. I go about this in class by constantly proposing prompts, ideas, readings, films, artists that align those conditions, providing the space and example for students to understand that their whole needs to be in, or potentially can inhabit their work collectively.
JB: You’re Brazilian and you’ve lived in Philadelphia and a range of different cities, and have a global outlook when it comes to music, artistic influence, and food. How do you incorporate these many aspects into your artwork? Into your classes?
RG: Being Brazilian has afforded me with the notion that things from disparate places conflate and become one. That oneness doesn’t always perform or exist unified in the country though. It is a process that actually mixes, syncretizes, and coagulates. It is a true melting pot, unlike here. Where racism and xenophobia present that mix as nonsensical, in Brazil we live in that condition as normal, as truth. Though again, this is not to say that Brazil is free from racism or xenophobia, but those conditions play themselves out differently through the intersectionality of its culture, spirituality, economy, corruption, and class system. The quintessential Brazilian is the person with both African and European descent, whereas the American is the white person of European descent.
Syncretism in Brazil is an important aspect when speaking of conflation. The Yoruba syncretism with Catholicism, when Africans began reconfiguring the Yoruban belief structure and customs via the European Catholic ceremonial visage of its practices and beliefs utterly invented completely different rituals by adjoining, reinterpreting, and correlating the two into many ones, ie: Candomblé, Umbanda, Macumba, etc. The conflation became something new by living out its spiritual considerations in the body of another, a sort of translation, an embodiment.
But to go back to the notion of conflation vis-à-vis fiction, I here speak of Jorge Luis Borges, Clarice Lispector, and Fernando Pessoa, who like myself were also immigrants and foreigners. All have been writers who have given me license to do that which was already within me prior to being aware of them. Research, travel, literature, poetry, folklore, and experience invent story telling anew in Borges. Prose, philosophy, psychology, feminism, and the mystical fuse in Lispector. Fiction and poetry consummate and thus effectuate as one in Pessoa. Strange as it might seem, to venture seriously into fiction and poetry in and through the praxis of painting was at first something that felt disallowed. In terms of visual artists, people like Trenton Doyle Hancock and Ralph Lemon, were seminal in my thinking for that allowance.
In the classroom, what ends up happening is a fight against the whitened art history presented in the canon. What makes Brazil succinctly it, is the fact that Africa and Europe are its parents and thus it is not only difficult, but astoundingly ridiculous to preach Europe as focal exclusively. I speak often on female artists who preceded their male counterparts in relation to abstraction, ie: Hilma Af Klint, Emma Kunz; as well as I bring articles that align what is usually considered peripheral, as central, as in the case of Latin American artists who were already involved, though under different nomenclature, in things such as relational aesthetics, social practice, and
installation art prior to certain canonized North Americans and Europeans. It is not only a fight against racist structures within academia and art history, but first and foremost a quest for truth, and again, one that comes from a place of conflation.
JB: What is unique about the painting and drawing program here at the University of Tennessee?
RG: There are a plethora of things to mention, but I’ll focus on two. First, the School of Art does not hold a monolithic rigidity in terms of a school of thought. Of course, most schools would like to think of themselves in that manner, and rightfully so, though here things are set up to work in a way that allows reinvention on a constant basis. The AIR program, which is my second focus in this query, is one of those elements. It is one of the most idiomatic things not only for students and faculty, but also to the artists in residence themselves. The fact that students and faculty are able to work closely, relate thinking, and exchange ideas with a new person is quite genius; notwithstanding that the program brings an incredible diversity of minds and makers on semester basis. Students are able to penetrate in an immense variety of idiosyncratic praxes and thoughts because of the AIR.
JB: What are goals you have for your future work?
RG: It’s always difficult for me to speak on the idea of future goals. I sense that I’m always chasing a bodhisattva that’s parallel, not ahead. Due to it not being ahead, but parallel, the speed is much slower, more reflective, subconscious.
Recently, I have started to work larger than previous years. Where the scale had mostly been 20”x16”, it has slightly shifted (I’m still working on smaller pieces, but no longer exclusively), though proportionately, to 60”x48” or 48”x60”. The larger paintings have opened up new ways of thinking, making, and seeing for me that should eventually blow back anew also in the smaller works. I’m still mining the Korean scholar accoutrements paintings of the 19th century, called chaekkori, where items were painted in shelves for the purpose of meditation for the scholar.
Perhaps it’s a bit trite to speak about scale change as a major component in future work for a painter, though this shift has accommodated thoughts I have been working with for quite a while; namely, to work on multiple paintings at once and watch them osmose as one, or to set a structure where rather than painting shelved accoutrements. I’ve begun shelving paintings of shelved accoutrements together in a larger shelf structure. Paintings within a painting. One of my other goals is to finally compose a documentary for the fictive poet I have been basing my work on for the last five years, Angélico Morandá. This however remains quite nebulous in terms of how the subject matter will be disseminated in video as the poet’s life and work are also extremely amorphous.
In every show I have had these past five years, sound has been an ever-present component; almost as if the shows have a soundtrack scored for them, though ideologically the sound is not made with that purpose in mind. I have slowly been amassing sound pieces (not from the shows however) that I hope to gather in a record and put out next summer. These are much like the fiction of Morandá and my paintings.
JB: If you could hang your painting next to any three paintings (not for a show or exhibition, just to see it in relation to other work) what would those three paintings be?
RG: Lovely query and one which periodically would change, although for the last seven years it would more than likely be:
* Fra Angelico’s “Sepulchring of Saint Cosmas and Saint Damia”
* Agnes Martin “Untitled #1, 2003” (with the two black triangles with yellow tips)
* Miyoko Ito’s “Jan. Into Feb., circa 1980”