It was not an attractive face. From the corner of a booth at New York City’s Affordable Art Fair, I saw lopsided eyes, a spindly neck, features melting off the figure’s disproportionately large head. But the strawberry highlights at the cheekbones and chin, rendered in luminous oil color, betrayed the heightened emotion behind the dour expression. My piqued interest spiked higher when the director of the London-based GX Gallery sidled up to me and said, “The artist is a ballet dancer.” The artist and I have that in common.
Carlos Cortes—a Spanish-born painter based in the UK—and I—a Californian expat living in New York—have a mutual acquaintance: a ballet teacher named Lola de Avila, whose mother ran the dance school in Spain where Cortes trained in the 80s, before he embarked on his career in set design and visual arts.
Some of the characters in Cortes’s paintings are abstractly named: “Man in green vest” or “Midnight cowboy.” Others are borrowed and warped from history and pop culture: “Superman constipado” and “Batman with tits.” Cortes, a two-time winner of The Drawing Inspiration award from The Big Draw, has an unusual method for producing the sketches that become his paintings.
In a recent phone call, he discussed his move between mediums, how an early tragedy affected his artistry, a trick for sketching, and New York’s lacking sense of humor.
You danced professionally in Spain. Why did you transition from ballet to visual arts?
While I was dancing I was always painting and doing other things, which was very unusual. Most dancers are single minded, especially with ballet. My classmates weren’t very interested in anything other than training 8 hours a day. It was a bit of a madness environment. I couldn’t have a lot of conversations about painting or architecture or other things I was interested in.
And when I started dancing professionally, I immediately realized that there was something missing. In a company when you learn choreography, it’s about repetition. The creative input is very limited. I always knew I would become a choreographer, so I realized very soon that it wasn’t going to be a long journey as a dancer.
Did you study painting formally?
No, and that was a conscious decision. In fact, when I was in primary and secondary school, I didn’t get good marks in art. I would never do exactly what they asked me to do. Because what do they ask you to do? Copy something—an apple, another picture, whatever.
When I was dancing in Madrid I was always doodling. One day I started doodling with my left hand—I’m right handed. My left hand immediately created these amazing characters. Ever since, that has been the key to my work. What the left hand does for me is connect to the subconscious; it goes to a part of the brain where you don’t control things. If I had gone to proper academic training, they would have killed that. You could compare it to what happens to some people with ballet: they cannot move naturally anymore because their bodies have been shaped in an unnatural way.
But you did study theater design?
Some of the people I was dancing with started commissioning me to design sets for them, which I did before I had any training. So I came to the UK thinking that I should study. I got a masters in theater design at Wimbledon College of Arts. And that’s how I found a connection between my dance work and my visual arts work. The course really helped me to understand that there are ways of bringing them together.
Tell me about your theater design.
The visual elements in my dance projects aren’t traditional sets in the sense that they’re backgrounds with the dancers in front. But a lot of my dance work involves interaction with objects. I sometimes create projects in which people do temporary constructions, and then they interact with them. So they build something together and then dance with it or within it. You could think of it as set design, but it’s a bit beyond that. The set and the choreography come together in a way that I feel is more integrated, more organic, more holistic.
It sounds like a good balance between your dance making and visual arts work.
It works for me. And it hasn’t been easy to find that balance. As you know, with dancers you are surrounded by people who only think about dance. But If I spend too much time painting, when I’m on my own for too long in the studio, I sometimes miss that interaction with other people: The dialogue and creative conversations.
Many of your paintings are done on found objects—bits of wood and broken guitars, things like that. Can you tell me about the unconventional surfaces?
When I started painting, I worked on bits of cardboard or whatever I could find because I didn’t have money to buy canvases. But it became something. I like objects that show marks, scratches—signs of wear and tear. For example, I go to a supermarket with a shop in front of it every day. When the business that had been there for many years closed down, they dismantled the sign and left it behind. That kind of stuff is perfect for me. It has a connection with my every day experience but also someone else’s life: we shared that space and that time but we never met.
Your recent retrospective at Museum Centro de Arte y Naturaleza in Spain called “Black Boxes” equated your work with the black boxes from airplanes, their flight recorders. How did you come up with that?
When I was 17, my younger brother died in an accident. He was my only brother and we were very close. That moment has shaped me throughout my entire life but, for many years, I tried to avoid thinking about it. The black box was the perfect metaphor. Until they find the black box after an airplane accident, they don’t know what happened or why. But when they find it, they can examine the conversations, the system, the engine, all that. So the idea of the exhibition was trying to go back to [my brother’s death] and trying to understand what it meant for me and my development as an artist.
When I saw 25 years’ worth of my work altogether in one place, I understood a lot more of what I was doing: working with the idea of something broken, something discarded, lost, or gone that I don’t want to give up connection with. When I try to use canvases rather than found objects, there’s no connection there.
Circling back to your process, do you do the whole work with the left hand or just the sketch?
The left hand is only for the drawings, which are only as big as I can reach with my hand in one steady place. If I start involving my elbow, my shoulder, there’s more control and it doesn’t work. So my drawings are always small. I don’t do a lot of large paintings, but when I do, I scan the drawing, project it onto the surface, and trace. It has to be perfect tracing. After that, all the slow, controlled painting is done with my right hand.
The technique is similar to Renaissance painting: layers and layers of oil color. I do a base, then highlights, then shadows and again and again until the colors are vibrating off of the canvas. It’s completely controlled, but the essence of my work is in the left hand. If that very quick drawing wasn’t there, the hours and hours I spent with oils would be worthless.
I was drawn to the rich, bright colors, which I’d usually associate with something playful, happy. But you can see in the characters, there’s some darkness there.
Everybody says that my color palette is Spanish. With all the color, on the one hand the characters look naive or innocent, but on the other hand you can see there’s something behind this, something darker.
It reminds me of Goya, the Spanish painter. When you first look at his portrait of the Spanish royal family, the colors are really bright. Then you start seeing the characters. You can see that they’re ugly, terrible people. But because the subjects just looked at themselves, the colors, and the rich costumes, they didn’t get [the negative portrayal]. And I think with my work there’s a little bit of that. Sometimes people just see the colors but they don’t see the other side of it. But without that darker element or that element of vulnerability or fear or danger or damage, then it wouldn’t be my work at all.
At an event like the Affordable Art Fair, the focus is on buying. What do you think about the commercial side of the art world?
It’s something that I struggle with. I think of my work as whispering, because it’s small and so detailed. It’s difficult to hear someone whisper when the person next to you is shouting. I feel that when you go to art fairs, everyone is shouting. And I’m not talking about people speaking; I’m talking about the visual, so I think I struggle to make my point in that environment.
But obviously every art form has to be financially viable. Art fairs and places like that are necessary for artists and galleries to make a living. In London you have the Frieze, one of the biggest art fairs in the world. I should be there every year, but I often don’t go. I get a kind of indigestion when I go there. As you say, the work is not there to be seen as an art form, but to be bought.
Was this a rare year you went to Frieze?
No, though I had something planned. I did an installation one year with an interactive costume. People had to lick colorful stamps and stick them on me. At one point I was surrounded by a big crowd of people, and the security guard said, “Everybody is looking at you and not looking at the galleries. I’m afraid you’re going to have to go.” And then I had to go. But everyone enjoyed [the interaction] that wasn’t buying or selling. So this year I was trying to do a similar portable exhibition. At some point I will take it to busy places around London. Basically I have a very old fashioned baby buggy. With small “black box” paintings, I’m creating this kind of mobile altar piece. You can come and pray to my characters.
Doesn’t seem blasphemous, but I wasn’t raised religious.
I was brought up as a Catholic. I’m not so religious anymore, but I grew up sitting in church looking at paintings of virgins and saints and all that. In British culture there’s a lot of irony—from religion to politics, anything goes. I’ve been told that you can’t be as ironic in New York. People are very attached to their ideas.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Images courtesy of Carlos Cortes and G X Gallery.