Margo Handwerker: "El Soñador Elegante" derives from Miguel de Cervantes’s character Don Quixote of Don Quixote de la Mancha. How many people do you think have read Don Quixote?
David McGee: None, I’m told [laughs]. After the show, I found out none.
MH: The show coincides with DiverseWorks’ 25th anniversary. As an artist, what is your history with DiverseWorks and how does the exhibition speak to that history?
DM: The basic principle of Don Quixote is to show the dreamer functioning between the real world and the world of waking dreams. You can’t have an art institution that is going to behave like Quixote if it’s thinking like other institutions. The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, has a way of thinking, the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston has a way of thinking, and The Menil Collection has a way of thinking. DiverseWorks almost behaves like Sancho — it takes inspiration from artists who function somewhere between the world as they see it and the world as it is.
MH: You are by no means the first to tackle Quixote. To name a few, there are artists Pablo Picasso and Salvador Dalí, composers Manuel de Falla and Richard Strauss. What is your interest in this story? Take your image of Dulcinea, for example.
DM: I was thinking about Willem de Kooning. When I was a child, I loved the Woman paintings. De Kooning said in interviews that he was looking at the Venus [of Willendorf] as he made those paintings. So, I’ve been thinking about her my whole life. I was in Vienna recently and she was there! I was so nervous. I waited my whole life to see her, to see what de Kooning was in love with.
She’s like Don Quixote’s girl. Don Quixote makes this girl, this teenager, his focus. He is looking for a queen and he chooses her. That’s always been a fascinating thing, making a person your muse without their knowing. You focus on her, but she’s not speaking to you, she’s not thinking about you. It’s as old as the ages. Dante did it with Beatrice. He saw her for like fifteen seconds, and then all of the Divine Comedy was based on that woman and his getting to her. We see people in celebrity culture whom we’re never going to meet, but whom we make our ideal.
MH: I know you’re a literary man. Are you overlapping with writers inspired by this text? Say, Salman Rushdie in The Moor's Last Sigh or Michel Foucault’s The Order of Things — two texts that address shifts in perception, an underlying theme in your exhibition, which features eye charts, etc.
DM: I’m not really interested in what things mean when I get my hands on them. I saw these eye charts on the Internet. I was interested in their shape and how they work. I was interested in the idea of looking at something so long, thinking about something so long, that the shape changes. I find that very interesting. And so the eye charts aren’t about vision. They’re about perception.
This thing of transformation is something that we all have to do — in love, in art making. You have to transform. Somebody has to move. If you look at something long enough, you’re going to transform it. If you care about looking at something, you’re going to transform it.
MH: That leads to another question. The title "El Soñador Elegante" [The Elegant Dreamer] is interesting in that dreaming represents something different to us as Americans than it did to Cervantes, a Spaniard. In Spanish literature, the word “dream” signifies a separation between reality and fiction, whereas we often use the phrase “to dream” to describe aspiration or hope. Do you have any thoughts on this distinction?
DM: The vagueness of translation is what’s strange. When I was reading about Don Quixote, I was irritated that every version I was reading was not the best version. I was confused about this. How many versions can you have? The title in Spanish, El Soñador Elegante, was homage to that confusion.
MH: Let’s talk about Don Quixote’s horse, Rocinante (or Rosinante, since it has the Mexican spelling in the show). It’s written in large, bright block letters like the name of a high school mascot. Why place such emphasis on the nag?
DM: You need to have something to ride. If you’re going to make a decision in public where you decide you’re going to be what you are, you need a doctrine to ride. When you decide that you are going to do what you are going to do, and people are telling you that you can’t do it because of financial restraints or whatever, you have to have a dream to ride. The horse is like a dream. You have to ride something that you believe in. If you’re going to be a painter, you have to believe that you are one. You need something to ride on. You need to ride on your own self-confidence, your own independence. It could be anything.
MH: In the gallery space, you have erected a windmill, Quixote’s giant. His battle against it represents the ultimate act of futility. Does this resonate with you?
DM: You can’t do Don Quixote without doing that windmill. Everyone thinks they know what that windmill means. Look, Cervantes was working in a very interesting time in Spain — the Moors were carrying on, Christians were running amuck. He was making fun of all those cats who didn’t understand the interplay between chivalry and independent thought. This climate, it was Cervantes’s own windmill.
MH: In the end Quixote dies from a reality check, so to speak. The message is twofold. On the one hand, idealism is futile — eventually we all “get real.” On the other, we die without vision — an apt analogy given the correlation between this exhibition and DiverseWorks’ 25th anniversary. Which outlook would you like viewers to take from the show?
DM: DiverseWorks had a meeting. They were thinking about the trickster in art. Is he making fun of us? And I thought, you’re asking me to think about what art is, what the artist does, and what art institutions are. Don’t ask me to do it if I can’t be reactionary. I’m saying that I’m a fan of you guys, but if you’re not cautious, you’ll be like everyone else. You can get offtrack. In the story when Quixote gets offtrack, he dies. DiverseWorks was nervous about that.
I realized quickly, reading Don Quixote, that I knew too many people along the way who reminded me of those antagonists. I didn’t know how much it was going to wear me down. I didn’t know how much I had to tighten my story up, how much it was going to be about my personality too. If I stop believing, I’ll die. And I have to have Sanchos around me all the time.
Images courtesy DiverseWorks
Margo Handwerker is a Curatorial Assistant of Prints & Drawings and Modern & Contemporary Art at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston.