New American Paintings Spotlight Archive: William Cordova

As we continue working on a new and vastly improved, there has been a lot of time spent looking into our past. It's been a good excuse to peruse older issues and all of the great work within. Also, in doing so, we recalled some great Spotlights that were in print and we think are worthy of another view. While the work may be a bit dated, the articles are still awesome. So in this new Spotlight Blog series, we'll bring you some of our favorites.

To kick things off, we are going back to issue #86, released in 2010. Former Editor-At-Large, Evan J. Garza, interviewed William Cordova who was featured in our 2013 MFA Annual. Enjoy!

Untitled (Echo in Nicola¦üs Guille¦ün)

William Cordova |From: Untitled (the Echo in Nicolás Guillén Landrián’s Bolex), 2008-09, mixed media collage, 1 of 100 works, Courtesy: Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York, NY

William Cordova has been busy since he was first featured in New American Paintings—very busy. The Peruvian-born artist has enjoyed back to back residencies across the country for the last five consecutive years, and his work has been included in some remarkable museum shows, most notably the 2008 Whitney Biennial and NeoHooDoo: Art for a Forgotten Faith, curated by Franklin Sirmans and co-organized by The Menil Collection and P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center. His participation in the latter was marked by an attention to ritual and spiritual characteristics—qualities that continue to mark the artist’s varied work.

Known for his incredible installations and sculptures—like towers of used speakers, labyrinths of old LPs, and several pieces made with found objects—Cordova’s work is highly conceptual and his collections of detritus are rich monuments to cultural and ritual affections. Not surprisingly, his paintings are approached much in the same way, made with untraditional application and materials, like masses of paint swatches, that question the accepted tropes of the practice itself. I spoke with him as he was taking a much needed, post-residency break at home in Miami.

“I look at [my paintings] as ephemeral monuments…” he says, “I see them as very transient monuments, as everyday monuments. The material is a very important part of my work process…. objects in my own environment that have already been painted or had parts in them that were already activated by somebody else, and I basically reconfigure them or juxtapose them. That’s how a lot of my assemblages and a lot of my sculpture work come together. …This is a big reason why traditional painting doesn’t enter my installations or my work—it’s a rendering of something that might be real, or not.

“I have no one particular way of working. I gravitate from one to the other, back and forth. I don’t work in a one-dimensional way, so I’m always thinking of the installation more so than individual pieces. So, in a way, in my studio—I’m not saying I jump around—but it’s very performative. For me, painting has to be performative… the painting has to be performative and ritualistic and spiritual. It’s coming from a different place, a different geographic location, rather than the traditional, which is taught at school.”

Cordova received his MFA from Yale University in 2004, but his instinctual efforts towards painting during his junior college and undergraduate studies were not always met with immediate success.

Untitled (cosmos)
William Cordova |Untitled (cosmos), 2006-09, mixed media, 61 x 86 inches, Courtesy: Sikkema Jenkins &Co., New York, NY

“When I was in school, I ended up treating [painting], in a way, like math…” he explains. “I questioned its existence instead of understanding it… When I tried to learn how to paint, I understood how it works, but I ended up scrutinizing it a lot more for how it fits into—instead of how it opens up—other conversations. I wanted to open it up and have no certain conclusions… The more I tried to make my own painting, the more I gravitated away from the traditional… 

I kept making drawings with paint, or applying paint as drawing, and I wasn’t able to do what was required of me in those classes. The faculty would often say, ‘This isn’t painting, this is drawing.’ They would show me Guillermo Kuitca, Basquiat… I was more interested in mark making; I was more interested in applying paint—that being the subject, that being part of the concept. I wanted to address that on the surface. I wanted that medium to be part of the conversation, more so than making an image.”

Born in Lima, Peru, Cordova’s upbringing has much to do with his attention to physical objects and, more importantly, his inclination to create very much with very little.

“We tended to draw our own little characters and cut them out. We didn’t rely too much on having toys or objects—everything had to be drawn out. If you saw a car you liked, you drew it out and played with it. After a while, you refine your skills and you can, in a way, transcribe everything—from visual [objects] to somebody talking about an idea and you can draw it out for them… at a very early age.”

 When asked if he thinks about his paintings like a sculptor, he answered with an unexpected and endearing reply. “I think about [my work] more like a writer and a filmmaker in a way, because everything is thought out before I actually create it. A writer might have the idea, the concept, and then write and be in a certain trance or have a meditative moment in order for them to write… while filmmakers have to articulate every piece of detail before they go in and start shooting—and I’m not talking about art films either. That is more my approach… [Much of] why I work this way is because I’m really interested in creating a different perspective for people to consider—not my work—but to consider how they look at themselves, how they look at others, and that includes art. But more so how they value themselves or their personal objects… It’s more like how when somebody goes to see a really great film that touches them so deeply, they walk out and they still resonating from that film, they’re feeling it, and they start seeing everything much differently… Or a really good book that makes you think about life differently. It transforms you.”

Tupac Katari
William Cordova | Tupac Katari, 2007, color paint chips mounted on paper, 87 x 85 inches, Courtesy of fpm collection, Germany; the artist and ARNDT

Cordova’s work is exceptionally transformative and his approach to painting, like that of his installation work, is grounded in multifarious personal narratives, ritual histories, and subjective perception. Whether creating towering monuments of found speakers or humorous and reductive paintings on used cardboard, Cordova’s incredibly humble approach makes for work that is overwhelmingly thoughtful and executed in a majestic manner in keeping with the medium itself. - Evan J. Garza


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