In Conversation with Ray Abeyta

by Claudia Vitarelli

photography Giorgia Valli

18 February 2014

Painter Ray Abeyta is an artist, like the ones you imagined when you were a kid. His studio, where this conversation took place, is located in a motorcycle shop in Brooklyn, NY. Ray is a prodigious storyteller, wears overalls dirty with paint, and yeshas all those messed up paint brushes on his work table too. He has been living in what is now the hip and over-priced part of town for decades but change doesn't faze him. Ray lives his own legend, and by osmosis everyone else around him becomes part of it.

His paintings were all over his studio when I went to visit him, in preparation for upcoming gallery and museum shows. The proximity of earlier works to more recent ones in one space exposed a cohesive, multi-layered narrative infused with tales, history, and myths resonating with Ray's knack for storytelling. "You've got to make life magical, enigmatic. I'm not interested in the decrepit reality of things."

He left to get us a glass of red wine. He came back with a bottle. Our conversation started from where we were, the studio space in Brooklyn.

When did you move to Brooklyn?

1986. I liked the cool scene of the artists living in Soho. There were still artists and people working there but it can get a little expensive to live in Manhattan. 

In this studio?

No, I was in South Side—a bunch of crazies around there. That’s the time when I was doing earlier works. I kept doing these shapes over and over, playing with form, and colors.

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Above: Spectre Whalemen, 2009 and The Artist and The Showman (East Coast West Coast), 2012/13.

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Some of the subjects in those earlier works are still present in your current ones. 

To me it’s all just one big painting, you know, there’s different passages in it. I don’t think of them as different paintings—just one giant, big painting. 

Is there a story that connects them?

They’re paragraphs and passages of my life. There are things that I’m interested in and metaphors. There’s the ocean, which is an obvious one for painters—you have the depth, and that sort of mythology connected to it: the sea, monsters, possibilities, death… Yeah, there’s always been a narrative.

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On the left: detail of the diptych Fate & Purchase, 2011. On the right: El Diablo Y El Mar Profundo, work in progress.

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Where did you grow up ?

My family is from New Mexico, for generations, an old Spanish family. My father was in the army because there was no job there, it was a very poor place. It was great for me because I got to travel all over the world with him. We’d always go back to New Mexico if he couldn’t take us some place. So if he had to go to Korea or Vietnam, or someplace we couldn’t go, we would go stay with my grandparents back in New Mexico. So I had this whole outer world, and then I had the place of the heart, this whole family—I had both things.

It has always informed the way I look at these paintings. The one back there Hold Fast (Unforgiven Livin), is about the way that we mark our passage through time and space through maps and tattoos. The map is an old map from James Cook, from when they first started to discover and explore the South Pacific. The English wanted to claim it for their own before anybody else would—you know, the Dutch or the Spanish, or the Americans. So they sent James Cook to map everything, and he did three different journeys and he mapped that map in the painting. On the third journey, he was on, they call it, the Sandwich Island, Hawaii. I was telling a friend of mine—you know, Austin from over here, at Five Leaves?—anyway, he’s Hawaiian, and so I was telling him about making this painting with James Cook’s map, and that I didn’t know that the Hawaiian Islands were called the Sandwich Islands, and that the maps were made by James Cook. James Cook died in the Hawaiian Islands over an argument over his boats… So I tell this to Austin—and he’s like super Hawaiian from generations—and he’s like "Oh yeah James Cook, we ate that motherfucker!"

Like, you know, the cannibal thing. So they ate him after they killed him! I thought that was awesome. So the middle character in the painting is a Maori, a native from New Zealand, and he’s based on that character from Moby Dick. So after Austin told me that, I put a tattoo of James Cook cooking in a little cannibal cooking pot on the Maori, right by the Hawaiian Islands.

This is how these paintings work—it’s about life experiences, things that you learn, things that people tell you… I have this whole series of paintings based on all of the stories one of my aunts told me.

Are they mostly based on popular stories?

Stories from these little places in New Mexico. There are popular ones too, like the one in Orfeo Y Eurydice, based on Orfeo and Eurydice, but that one I did in this 1950s B movie style. To me that’s a classical period, you know my parents are that age, so that’s a classical period for inspiration—the car, the bikes, and all that stuff. 

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Above: on the right side is the work in progress Drowning.

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Above: detail of El Diablo Y El Mar Profundo, work in progress.

You mention your process and how you keep adding to it over time. Do you have a specific idea for a piece before you start or does it develop in the making?

Yeah, I usually have a general idea, the main idea, and I just start. Then it changes sometimes as I go along. Most times I know what I wanna do before I start.

Do you start with a base drawing?

I use charcoal, and I shape it up before I start painting it.

Are you classically trained?

I taught myself how to be classically trained. There was nobody who could teach me when I was in art school, nobody knew how to do that shit. But I wanted to learn because I thought "This is how you become a painter." You start here and then you go to shit like that. Originally I wanted to be an abstract painter. I was, for a number of years, but then I ran out of money and trying to make abstract painting on small scale is stupid and cute. Figures always work on a small scale… I mean, I don’t care, I love everything from cave paintings to what people are doing now, to me it’s all just one thing. 

I was talking to a young artist yesterday, she recently graduated, and she was telling me how all the classical training in art school didn’t really help her figure out what people were doing in the arts outside of school. You could be classically trained, but you’re never really trained.

About any education after you get out of high school: that shit is for you, you’re fucking paying for it! Here, it is expensive to go to school ma. If you go to school you better make it about yourself, you learn what you wanna learn, and you figure out what you wanna learn. You’re not sitting there waiting for people to teach you. Why do you wanna be an artist if you are just going to be waiting around for people to tell you what to do? Fuck off man.

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On the right: Señor Suerte.

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On the left: Hold Fast (Unforgiven Livin), 2012/13.

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You were talking about the relationship between size and content in paintings. The canvas size for your recent works feels very appropriate.

There’s something interesting about Abstract Expressionist painting and American painting in general. Everybody is like, "American painting is so big because it’s like, about manifest destiny, the landscape, and conquering the Native Americans, and the world, and all that stuff." The reason why their paintings were big is because they had big fucking studios man! The giant studios they used to get in Soho, the size of a block, for what? 45 dollars a month? Like 2,000 square feet.

You get a big space you’re not gonna sit in there make tiny little paintings you know? You make big fucking shit because you got a big fucking wall! And that’s why they made big paintings. If you look at any painter… you know, my favorite is Morandi—he made these tiny little paintings because he’s living with his mama in, you know, a little house in Italy… he’s not gonna paint giant fucking paintings. 

Does the subject drive the size of the painting?

Well, for me the size of these recent ones is a good one—though I’m tired of it already. Usually I make my own canvases, with linen, animal skin glue—old style, man—and it’s beautiful to paint on—literally oh, so nice—but it’s expensive, and it’s tedious to stretch them all out and to wait for them to dry… ah, so I’m like, fuck that. I called the guy and I said, "Dude, send me over 10 canvases 4 foot by 5 foot. I want thick enough canvas for me to pound on, so I can do detailed stuff." And he’s like, "I gotcha." I didn’t even have to look at it, he knew exactly what I wanted. I just wanted it shipped here.

It was kind of weird because all of a sudden the studio was full of fucking canvases, and I had a bunch of my own here too, so it’s like 15 of them or so. I would start one and, "Ah, it’s too wet," so I’d start another one, and just kept starting new ones over and over… everything was unfinished. These are the last three I gotta finish, these are the most complicated ones… I had to be remembering what I was thinking, and comparing it to the other ones… it was kind of stupid, but it was fun.

It goes back to what you were saying about a common narrative that goes through the paintings, you really never want to be done with it.

Yeah. And sometimes I don’t like to sell them, because I need to look at them. I can reference new stuff off older stuff. And when I don’t have them it’s like, "Oh, what was that," I have to pull out one of the catalogs, but it’s not the same. 

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Above: a photo by Bill Phelps of Abeyta on his motorcycle.

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Do you have any artist you like? Or anything about your visual background that sticked with you over the years? 

I guess I like everything. Well, I’ve been here for so long. I’ve always loved the ocean, and I come from the desert—they’re the same, it’s the expanse of landscape, the kind of stories, mythologies on a landscape, and how we tell stories that become legend, that become mythologies, that become history, that become part of this ongoing story that we tell each other.

You come from Europe, everything is history there. It kind of sucks. Here everybody re-invents everything, also because Americans have no sense of history, their memory is short-term. It’s really bizarre, but at the same time kind of refreshing because you get to re-invent. 

There’s a sense of having to place yourself in history, when in fact it doesn’t have to be the motivation behind things.

Tell me a whale story. 

This painting El Diablo Y El Mar Profundo is based on a print by a Mexican print maker, José-Guadalupe Posada, but I don’t know much about him. It had these two guys fighting, struggling, and there was a sea monster which had a devil’s head, and the two men were fighting over something in it… it was a morality tale—you know, drinking, women… whatever guys fight over. But when I wanted to do this painting, it was to be based on the stories and histories about whaling. Whales used to be our petroleum before kerosene. It occurred to me that it was relevant to the current problem of petroleum running out, the same way that they were killing off all the whales.

This is one of the stories about how they used to hunt these animals, which is just amazing. They’re these huge, giant animals compared to these tiny little guys, you know. You were taking life into your hands if you wanted to kill these animals. So all these stories developed around it. Here in America we have Pecos Bill, a cowboy who could lasso tornados, and Paul Bunyan… larger than life, extravagant, exaggerated characters.

This guy was a legendary whaler, he could catch anything that swam in the sea, but there was this one whale that he couldn’t kill—its name was Crookjaw. He could never kill it, and he’d see it often on his travels, and the whale would always get away. Finally he’s out there in the ocean, sees the whale, "Oh there’s that motherfucker man,"he’s like, "I’m gonna kill it," and he’s getting all buffed up. "Take me up along side. I’m gonna dive in, take out my knife, I’m gonna wait till it opens its mouth and I’m gonna cut its fucking heart out." So he dives into the water with his knife between his teeth, and he’s waiting for the whale to open his mouth. Finally the whale opens its mouth and he swims in.

He's standing there in the dark. "Where is the fucker’s heart?" He looks in the back, and he sees the devil and a mermaid playing cards. "What the fuck." They’re not paying attention to him, they’re just playing cards, and finally the devil slams down his cards and disappears in blue smoke and sparks, and the mermaid finally looks at him. "What were you playing for?" She smiles at him and says, "You." So he ends up having a one-night stand in the whale with this sexy mermaid. And then the morning he swims out, and the boys are still waiting for him, and they’re like "What the fuck man." This story was so cool, I had to make a painting. I was trying to figure out a way to paint the whale, so I kept looking around to find images and I found that one Mexican graphic artist. I wanted it to be a monster, because the whale is a sea monster.

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Above: various paintings realized between the 1990s and 2000s.

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Above: detail of Lotus Eater (Sink Until You Float), 2013.

How about sailors? This painting has yet another reference to a story. 

Yes, about how you don’t light a cigarette from a candle… If a sailor would go away they would put a candle on a window, and wait for you to come back, it’s something almost sacred, so that the sailor would find his way home. If you use it to light a cigarette, you know… it shows all the bad things we do that bring us down. 

How long did it take you?

Too long. 

I wanted the green because it’s based on old Catholic posters of the soul in flames. There’s a lot of cross reference. 

Did you grow up in a religious family? 

Oh yeah. I’m not religious…

I grew up in a Catholic family as well. I have always liked wearing black, skulls and such, which is not very cool to my grandma. But she doesn’t realize that it is in fact so ingrained in the visual imagery of Catholicism. It’s interesting how differently people appropriate it. You absorb these images almost unconsciously over time.

Black carried over not only from the Italian references to how you dress after a death. The Victorian era was very death obsessed, and here in the Americas with the Civil War, there was an immense loss of lives. It was an industrial war, different from the First World War. There was this whole culture of black. The other thing is that with the rise of the industrial era everybody was burning coal, so coal dust was everywhere. If you wore nice clothes, light colors, it would get dirty. So everybody wore black because it would hide all the shit that was in the air.

In the arts, it was with punk and rock… yes, it was about death but it was about being a badass, motorcycle jackets and so on, made you look like a badass. It’s an affectation of the infatuation everybody has with skulls. For all of us that grew up with that stuff it’s just part of a culture. There are still some parts of my culture though… that shit creeps me out.

There’s this figure, Dona Sebastiana, called Sebastiana because of Saint Sebastian who was shot with arrows. She goes around and looks for you, and shoots you with an arrow. She goes around in a cart and she throws your soul in the back. Where I grew up in New Mexico they make all this figurines for all the saints, and that was one of them. Oh man. I’ve done paintings of her, but—uh uh, I don’t want that shit in my house. Dude, I’m not superstitious but some shit scares me, man. Some things you should not fuck with, man.

Santeria was the original American religion because it was African, American, Spanish, all combined—it’s called syncretic.

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On the left: detail of Drowning. On the right: Drowning, work in progress.

The painting Bodegon Curiso, from an older series, is a Wunderkammer of all these traditional icons and myths.

Thats’s what that is. It’s a cabinet of curiosities of bizarre American images. That purple Indian comes from Santeria, it’s an Indian chief, a power symbol. You can keep it in your car, it protects you... it also makes your car smell good. The one next to it, the orange one, is the different levels that the Aztec thought the world is made of. The black one in the middle is from voodoo. The little yellow guy is a chupacabra, which means "goat sucker." They thought something was killing their sheep and goats in the desert, so they came up with the chupacabra, which is based off folk descriptions of it. 

What about the hairy leg?

When I used to live in Guatemala, the white people—the European extractions, the Spanish—used to grow hair on their legs so they wouldn’t look like Indians, because Indians didn’t have any hair. It was a point of pride, very racist. 

The nun there, references all those psycho sexual things going on between nuns and Jesus… It’s a very common thread in religious representation. Come on, Saint Theresa?

The Ecstasy of Saint Theresa by Bernini. It goes back to what we were saying about religion and its representation. Certain subjects and images were repressed, but at the same time they were being let out through art. 

Artist realized that you could make fun of it on a subtle level. Look at that sculpture and you know that he is having so much fun just going there.

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Above: on the left, The Artist And The Showman (East Coast West Coast), 2012/13, and on the right Orfeo Y Eurydice, 2005.

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Above: detail of Orfeo Y Eurydice, 2005. 

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 Above: dyptich Fate & Purchase, 2011.

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