You only need to see one of the many collages that he has created recently to fall in love with his art, which is bursting with joy, happiness and beauty. Flowers of every variety, size and colour form the base of creations that are extraordinary in their originality and inventiveness. One of the recent series of works, entitled The Black Dahlia, like the famous James Ellroy novel, is a very personal, disenchanted homage to the America of pin-up girls, noir, the Fifties and «pop» magazines. This is just one of the many aspects of the work and art of Felipe Cardeña. We met the artist and got him to explain the «wonderful world of Felipe» in his own words.
Where did your passion for art and everything about it come from?
It’s an «affliction» I’ve been suffering from since I was a young boy. When I was little, one of my uncles, a former priest (a rather unusual, slightly Almodovarian fellow, who had been thrown out of the Church for some very mysterious goings-on of his, which it was strictly forbidden to mention in the family fold), would take me along with him on long «cultural» trips. We went to Madrid (feasting greedily on the paintings at the Prado), Barcelona (the Sagrada Familia was my teen «revelation»), but we also went around Italy, because he had Italian origins (my mother’s family is Italian). That’s how I grew up with a strange, almost obsessive adoration of certain Sixteenth and Seventeenth Century Spanish painting, but also Italian painting… I was really into El Greco, Velázquez, Goya and Caravaggio, along with sci-fi fantasy comics like Enki Bilal, Moebius and Ranxerox… then when I was about twenty, I «swerved» into Pop Art (Warhol, Lichtenstein, Basquiat and Keith Haring) as well as American Marvel comic strips and unrivalled masterpieces like Frank Miller’s Batman. Finally, my fortuitous encounter with an extraordinary character, the psychedelic painter Mati Klarwein (who did the famous cover artwork for Santana’s Abraxas LP) in Majorca made me decide to become an artist.
When did you start painting?
I’ve never really painted. I’ve sketched, built sculptures out of all sorts of materials, done collages…
You’re not a conventional artist. Besides shows and exhibitions, you’ve made your name with less conventional, often surprise performances. Tell us about them…
I started out stealing into shows that I wasn’t invited to. In Madrid, I impersonated «living statues» at the entrance of group shows… people usually took me for a street artist and in effect I kind of was one. I dressed as a «statue» and stood outside the main door, stock still, for 4 or 5 hours at a time. Then in 2005 through a Spanish friend who was working in Italy in the contemporary art circuit, I was invited to do one of my performances officially for the first time, in a show called Miracolo a Milano. I stood motionless for 6 hours on the trot, inside a wooden box that formed the «base» of the sculpture, with just my head sticking out, impersonating the beheaded John the Baptist…
You define yourself as a sans papier, or paperless, artist. How and why is that?
I’ve never had a fixed abode, apart from when I have been forced into it by extenuating circumstances.
Who are your artistic references, pictorial and otherwise?
Mati Klarwein, Roy Lichtenstein, Robert Williams, Antoni Gaudí, Enki Bilal, Giacomo Balla, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Allen Ginsberg, Marc Ryden, El Greco, Fortunato Depero, Takashi Murakami, Max Ernst, Tanino Liberatore, Andy Warhol, William Burroughs, David LaChapelle, Raoul Hausmann, Mimmo Rotella, Keith Haring, Gilbert & George, John Heartfield, Kehinde Wiley, Robert Rauschenberg, Andrea Zucchi, Moebius, Marc Quinn, Richard Hamilton, Colin Christian, Pierre e Gilles, Luigi Ontani, Jeff Koons, Ray Caesar… and Felipe Cardeña.
You started the Power Flower project at the end of 2007. What does it consist of, how long will it last and what are your next steps?
The Power Flower project, with its collages of coloured flowers in its various forms, is the one which most of my current work gravitates around. Power Flower is the title of one of my small-size collage series (24x30 cm) which has been going on for a couple of years now and is intended to keep going to infinity (to date I’ve done more than 200) but in the broadest sense it’s the theme that all of my current work could be grouped under, consisting of work on the aesthetic and dynamic richness of floral forms.
Why did you choose collage and why flowers?
My love for collage «bloomed» three years ago, during an extremely difficult period of my life, when I was forced to stay «stuck» in one place for a long time, without any contact with my world and my old friends. That’s where the spontaneous choice of a meticulous, monotone technique came from, repetitive to the point of obsession: the act of cutting flowers, then sticking them onto the canvas one by one, ad infinitum, had and still has an apotropaic and releasing magic healing power (or to quote Jodorowsky, I could define it as «psycho-magic»). It’s like chanting a mantra or saying a prayer or fingering a string of rosary beads, one by one. It helps you think, but it also helps free the mind, reconcile you with the latent forces of the universe, dream of «other» dimensions, escape, take a flight of fantasy and feel «free» even if you aren’t in what we call «real» life.
Flowers are a natural and in a certain sense inevitable choice. They’re the richest, most beautiful shapes in Nature and in the curiosity of their thousand different forms and extraordinary shades of colour… there’s the pattern, the fantastic «set» in which I build my stories, my world and that imaginary geography of the crazy universe that I call «Cardeñaland».
The flower as an object of pictorial and photographic art has noble, important references. In the Twentieth Century alone, you only need to think of Georgia O’Keeffe and Robert Mapplethorpe. And now Felipe Cardeña…
There are extraordinary testimonies of flowers in art, both past and contemporary. I love flowers in art when they become both a decorative and highly symbolic element: from Georgia O’Keeffe, naturally, to the tenuous flowers of «marchesino pittore» Filippo de Pisis, symbolic of Nature’s frailty and sensuality, to the mountains of flowers spilled onto canvas by Alma Tadema. You only have to think of his masterpiece, Le rose di Eliogabalo, where an array of roses frames the emperor’s women… (D’Annunzio compared Alma Tadema’s painting to a «rare piece of silverware, something like a finely cut jewel, a sculpted, engraved ivory, a meticulously fretworked alabaster». I have this dream of believing that, who knows, he might have said that about one of my collages too…).
But among my contemporaries, I believe that Marc Quinn has reached an extraordinary peak with his Frozen Garden made of frozen flowers, plunged into liquid silicone at minus 20 degrees. It’s a miracle of pure form, in which the garden becomes an absolute, impossible work, in perfect equilibrium between natural charm and artificial creation… just as on the other hand some of the Eighteenth century botanical curiosities and «marvels» also were…
Your recent works also remind some people of compositions by Gilbert & George and David LaChapelle.
I adore Gilbert & George’s work, and I consider David LaChapelle to be one of the best contemporary artists, at least among the ones using photography. I owe a lot to both in terms of aesthetics. I’m not forgetting the work by Pierre et Gilles who, as Jeff Koons said, «they’re always looking for beauty in everything». I push myself to do the same thing as well…
One recent series of your works is entitled The Black Dahlia. Who and what inspired you? The most obvious references seem to be Fifties America, pin-up girls and noir culture. What else is there?
It was homage to all of that, of course. James Ellroy’s cult novel, The Black Dahlia, was one of my big loves in my teens. That’s where I discovered that the «dark side» of human nature should not be removed or demonized; it should be understood, studied and researched. I mean, you have to deal with it day after day. Anyhow, I’ve always been fascinated by crime reporting and I’ve always loved both film noir and noir novels.
Your giant format collages recently went as far as Cuba.
A Cuban poetess and «cultural mover», Ana Pedroso, fell in love with my work and asked me to create a site specific piece for Arte Mas 2009, the Festival Internacional de Arte y Literatura Joven that she was curating. I decided to re-work the traditional iconography of El Che – which is nowadays a pure Pop symbol in every aspect, on the same scale as Mao, Marilyn or the Dalai Lama –, submerging it in a rich, brightly coloured floral background: I chose a line from a famous Cuban song, Cuba es un jardín de rosas for its title. I then reproduced the work in a series of huge panels more than three metres across, which were hung in different strategic points around Havana. The original work was then donated to the Municipalidad de Havana, which gave it a permanent installation at the Academy of Fine Arts.
What’s next after flowers and collages?
Collage and flowers are now part of my world, and I don’t think I’ll be able to abandon them that easily. It’s more likely that I will add in other techniques with collage. Recently, for example, I have created some «floral sculptures», using fabric flowers which I stitch and embroider, using scraps of different material, different colour cloth, words and slogans embroidered on the leaves and petals… I would like to make the second motto of Futurism mine, according to which you can «rebuild the universe, making it a happier place, by fully recreating it». Felipe’s flowers will inevitably break free of the canvas surface to freely invade the world…
You don’t really like talking about yourself. Can we at least know where you live and with whom?
Where do I live? What a question! In Cardeñaland, right?
What’s been your greatest satisfaction up until now?
Bringing bursts of happiness to people who love my work.
Tell me about a dream that you want to make reality (artistic, but not only that).
I dream of being invited to create a house completely overrun with my flowers: there are flowers on all the walls, doors, ornaments, furniture, rugs, beds, and flowers sprouting out of the walls, bursting out of the bathroom taps and spilling out of the cupboards and in through the windows. And in the garden too, there’s an avalanche of flowers: real, fake, artificial, cultivated, wild, exotic, European, all mixed up in an infinite, overflowing maelstrom…
What is contemporary art for you?
A world where nothing is impossible.
Are you a collector?
It’s more a case of collecting works by artist friends with whom I sometimes swap work, or with whom I often create works with two pairs of hands. I have for example done quite a few different works with Ukrainian painter Svitlana Grebenyuk.
Apart from yourself, name another contemporary artist to watch, and tell us why.
Paolo Schmidlin. He’s one of the best contemporary sculptors because of his disenchanted, highly elegant and at time cruel treatment of the obsession with beauty and youth beyond all natural limits, that dictatorship of artificial beauty that governs contemporary society.
In 50 years time, what would you like to leave behind?
The paintings of a bizarre artist who’s just a little different from everyone else and who invented a crazy, crazy, crazy world made entirely out of flowers.
Who is Felipe Cardeña?
An artist who has tried to turn chaos into beauty, and the difficulty of living into eternal aesthetic joy.