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The Ruins of Tiled Fantasies: A conversation with Renée Lotenero

Renee Lotenero...Arial view of the sculpture garden at the...Honolulu International Airport...2007...Mixed media on panel...48 x 60 inches

Renée Lotenero received her MFA in sculpture from UCLA in 2004. Her
work has been featured in various group shows including Almost 30, a
2006 exhibition at the Ulrich Museum of Art, Wichita, Kansas, and the
2005 Hammer Museum exhibition titled THING: New Sculpture from Los
. New work by the Los Angeles-based artist is currently on view at
McClain Gallery in Houston. The show consists of luscious sculptures
and intricate drawings on paper and panel. Lotenero’s mixed-media works
are fresh, buoyant and engaging. I had the opportunity to meet the
artist and chat with her about her work while she was in Houston. Below
is the continued exchange that took place on-line.

Catalina Montaño: Decorative tiles appear constantly throughout your work… In fact, we could say that tiles make up the core of your work. How did this architectural element begin influencing your sculptures and drawings?

Installation shot

Renée Lotenero: I became interested in tile designs after I saw an image of Silvia Fendi’s kitchen in a magazine. The entire kitchen was covered in these beautiful intricate tiles… I became obsessed, I had to have them, and so I made them myself, and then started making sculptures out of them.

CM: Have you always made and painted your own tiles for your sculptures, or have you actually incorporated existing tiles into your work in the past?

RL: I’ve always made my own tiles; a lot of the tiles that influence me are historic and therefore not easily available. It’s important to me that I fabricate the tiles myself, although I can always use an extra hand or two helping me paint them! The work wouldn’t be the same if I went out and bought 300 tiles and built a sculpture out of them. So much of it is looking back and seeing how the tiles were made and following that same process.

CM: What is interesting about your process is that not only do you employ these handmade ceramic tiles and other rigid architectural elements, but you also incorporate photographs of tiles and soft materials, such as hand-painted vellum, to simulate things like grass. This combination of different media gives each sculpture a very tactile appearance. What is it that interests you most about this change in dimensionality throughout your work?

Renee Lotenero...A sculpture made from the bedroom...floor tiles perched upon grass...2007...Mixed media on paper...38 x 50 inches unframed

RL: After documenting a sculpture that I made in undergraduate school, I became really interested in how the work changed going from a three-dimensional object to a two-dimensional object. The photograph gave a new life to the sculpture, and in some cases it became more interesting than the original piece. I am interested in documenting specific moments of a piece, and then transforming that document to exist in several other ways.

CM: Something that I enjoyed from the show is the appearance of decay inherent in your sculptural structures. But is this interpretation accurate? I guess these structures could also be at the beginning stage of creation — just starting to rise, rather than collapsing. There is, however, a melancholic beauty attached to the thought of them being magnificent structures stuck in the slow process of decay. What is your intention?

RL: My intention is to have the object / structure in an unknown state…for the viewer… Like you mentioned, they might be at the beginning stage of creation or inherently decaying. I want the work to have that unsettled feeling.

CM: Your drawings currently at McClain Gallery are elegant and robust. Some of them display new elements or perhaps just more of the elements you have used in the past. We discussed earlier that your work is so much about what is not, or is barely, there. Each composition is perfectly balanced, giving the viewer enough information, yet leaving room for the imagination to fill in the blanks. For example, there are tiles that you have drawn the shape for, but you have left out the design… using negative space to your benefit.

Installation shot

RL: The drawings have areas that are, I guess you could say, “fading away,” or where the detail is omitted. This is to show their state of flux or uncertainty, in the same way the sculptures… might be falling apart, or transforming and growing into something else.

CM: You tend to call these works “drawings of sculptures,” perhaps because in essence you are a sculptor. Do you see these drawings as more than simple sketches for your sculptural work?

RL: Yes, much more… At first they started as drawings to inform sculptures, but now they both heavily inform each other. I am constantly looking at the sculptures when making the drawings and vice versa. For example, in Ruins of Tiled Fantasies, photographs of the sculptures are collaged into the drawings, and then at times a drawing is photographed and worked back into a sculpture.

CM: You mentioned that you like to work on both the drawings and the sculptures simultaneously. Tell us a little bit about your creative process — what are the limitations or freedoms you experience with each medium? Does one medium influence the other in any way?

Renee Lotenero...Cement Paver Sculpture with tiles taken from...Via Francesco Saverio Grovieri stuck to the top of it...2007...Mixed media on paper...38 x 50 inches

RL: The ideas I’m thinking about are always the same… regardless of the medium. As we have talked about before, the drawings seem to have a certain freedom about them — in the sense that I am drawing a structure, but I do not have to engineer them and worry if they are going to fall on someone. There is no worrying about how the joints will be made to ensure that the piece can be transported. These are definitely some of the freedoms I have with drawing… I want to see what 100 tiles look like falling over onto a pile of junk, and I can just draw it: it’s a bit of instant gratification! On the other hand, the three-dimensional pieces are truly inspiring to see finished; something that you have been planning out for months suddenly comes to life, and you are able to walk around it. A sculpture has a presence to it that you can’t achieve with the drawings… It’s there, you can see it and touch it… it’s just really alive. And although I show sculptures without drawings and vice versa, I think when they exist together, they are the most successful.

CM: How would you say that your drawings have evolved in the past couple of years?

RL: I’ve become very comfortable with the materials I am using and so have been able to create more complex drawings. Also the scale has gotten larger; the drawings led to my first panel, which is on display at the gallery. This does not mean I think the new work is more successful than the earlier work, just different. Although I enjoy seeing the work evolve, I also look back on drawings I did a few years ago and see really interesting things that may not be in the newer work… (I am actually a bit jealous of anyone who owns a drawing from 2005, because I stupidly didn’t save one for myself.) A teacher of mine in graduate school [Charles Ray] said: “An artist can make a really amazing piece of work at any age, but what you can do when you’re 20 you can’t necessarily do when you’re 45.”

CM: You mentioned that you would like to imagine your sculptures in a public setting — for example, on a sidewalk of an urban city or in a public garden. What is it that fascinates you about the thought of having your sculptures taking on a life of their own and interacting with the general public?

Installation shot

RL: The Honolulu International Airport series that is at the McClain Gallery is definitely one that I imagine in that space, at the airport. Others have a more subdued surrounding, for example, the series of work made from the bedroom floor tiles. The place in which I imagine these pieces to be has to do with where I found the tile that inspired me, and with the work’s having a direct relationship to a specific location, culture or historical reference.

CM: Your work invites the spectator into a world of fantasy. Do you have any intention for the viewer’s experience?

RL: Of course, I understand that every viewer is going to see something different in my work and that just as one person sees a woman in a dress, another sees a rooster (these are both actual interpretations!). I am most pleased when the work has challenged the viewer, whether it’s good or bad, even if someone is annoyed by it and is, like, “what the heck is that?” But if they are interested enough to go back and look at it again… this is what I am interested in.

Images courtesy McClain Gallery

Catalina Montaño is a writer currently living in Houston.

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