Following three months of a New York City in pandemic lockdown, we were finally able to venture to 1969 Gallery on the Lower East Side to catch the physical opening of Cristina BanBan’s Tigre y Paloma. The exhibition title comes from El poeta pide a su amor que le escriba… (trans. “The poet asks his love to write”), a poem by renowned Spanish poet Federico García Lorca, from his famous work Sonetos del Amor Oscuro (Sonnets of Dark Love). Due to COVID-19 restrictions, the works were originally shown only virtually.
Already a venerable artist whose fusion of neoclassicism and Japanese manga is easily distinguishable, the paintings and work on paper are BanBan’s second solo exhibition with the gallery. Originally from Spain, she produced this body of work while quarantined in a Brooklyn studio, and the pieces are inspired by memories of her family, and time spent at the beach…including a few self-portraits.
As we walked in, we were met by the artist, who treated us to a guided tour of her work. She showed us pieces with brilliant, textured, and richly saturated color. As we walked toward the back of the gallery, we arrived at a very powerful image of a man and woman together in bed. Then we encountered Lagrimitas de Cocodrilo, a painting of a striking, powerful femme, with long ginger hair, which we later found out is one of the self-portraits. BanBan’s works are a form of escapism for both the viewer and herself, she told us.
She mentioned that she was classically trained from the age of five, and went on to study fine arts at the Universitat de Barcelona. As a girl, she used to love Japanese anime. The paintings featured big eyes, and hands were a blend of acrylic colors and soft pastels, which looked like watercolor and rich pigment on paper. Her work is a mix experiences and memories.
We headed toward the secret back garden of the gallery with a Blue Moon brew in hand to begin our interview about her work and her experiences in NYC.
Image by Nelson Castillo; MUA: Meghan Yarde; Location Studio: Waverly Studios
You work is distinctive and recognizable. What started you on this path?
I have always been drawn to figurative painting, I use bodies to narrate stories. The vast majority of the characters in my paintings are female and contain a degree of self-portraiture. They don’t all resemble me, but definitely reflect my emotional and psychological states.
I had a very traditional education in the arts. Since I was very young I have taken life drawing classes, convinced that good work had to look as close as possible to the real world. I learned anatomy through a lot of practical training, hundreds of hours drawing from nude models or still lifes. I never got bored and enjoyed it. Some years ago when I started working in the studio trying to find my style, I realized that drawing was a fundamental part of my work, and I used those skills to play with the distortions of the body. Viewers recognize this and I guess distortion has become part of my signature.
Is it inspired by a Neoclassical style?
If you understand neo-classicism as a movement that took some aspects of classical style, yes, you could then say my work relates, because of the importance I give to drawing. I admire the elegance and mastership of Ingres portraits and preparatory drawings. I always try to embrace the beauty of the female body, its realness, but also assigning these women with a certain divine look through dramatic gestures and positions. I am interested in how the figures are placed in the foreground in Ingres’ work, eliminating the perspective, which is characteristic of my paintings.
Do politics and social movements influence your work? Art is a language: What do you want your viewer to take away from it?
My emotions and experiences have been the main source for my paintings. I think my work is accessible and expressive. The current social and political climate has impacted my recent work, with more realistic themes and metaphors. Thousands of New Yorkers have been fighting in the streets over a month. As a creative individual, I want to use my work to contribute to the cause. I am learning how to use my skills as a painter to make more meaningful work. I think this is an ongoing preoccupation for most artists.
What was the last exhibit you saw that left an impression and why?
Imagine Me and You, a Dana Schutz solo exhibition at Petzel Gallery, has stayed in my mind. I was blown away by the intensity of the colors, brushstrokes, and the distortion of the bodies and her twisted imagination. A bit grotesque and mysterious at times, Schutz creates very powerful emotional narratives.
During our photoshoot, we listened to your Spotify playlist, which included early J-Lo hits and Missy Elliot. What do you listen to while working in your studio?
I was probably feeling a bit nostalgic! It depends on the mood really. When I start a painting I go for something a bit more melodic, or repetitive beats that help me focus on what I am doing. I play loud music when I need to be energized. Kings of Tomorrow, Leatherette, Floating Points, Burial.. but also I can play a session with a mix of cumbia, bachata or salsa. I often go to NTS, an online radio station based in Dalston, London, to explore new genres and discover musicians. They have a great variety of sessions and it’s so inspiring.
Does the speed of culture now force you to produce your art at a faster pace to stay relevant?
Painting is the content on my social media but I am not “producing content” to share online. I share work when the show is already up, giving priority to the real experience first. I think of social media as a CV or a visual diary for me. I use stories to show a bit of my personal life and how I work in the studio, which perhaps can be interesting to those who wonder how pieces are made. Having said that, I don’t feel pressure to create new paintings to post, but I might feel tempted to show what I am making. My gallerist Quang Bao has put himself in charge of shutting down this recurring temptation.
Having lived in places such as London, Barcelona, and Ibiza, what’s your impression of NYC?
I moved at the end of 2019. Then with everything that we have been trough in 2020, I can’t give you an accurate picture of my experience in New York yet, but my strongest impression is the incredible energy. The city always has something to offer, and so far I met very interesting, unique and talented people. I am looking forward to see what comes next.
You also have a show at Richard Heller Gallery in Santa Monica. Would you ever live in LA?
There is always this idea on the back of my mind that says “okay, and now what next?” Packing up and leaving everything behind is exciting but also can be a form of escapism. So for now, I am living in the present and I am grateful to be here.
Where would you like to travel to next?