We asked former studio resident Eric J. Garcia and Center Program alum Carlos Matallana to sit down for a discussion on arts practice, family, and of course, comics. In addition to the dialogue, they also spent the time sketching as a form of response and as a form of documentation. Below are the dialogue and the sketches.
Known for mixing torytory and culture with contemporary themes, Eric J. Garcia is a versatile artist working in an assortment of media, from hand-printed posters, to nationally published political cartoons, to large scale public
murals. In addition to finishing up stunning animation and visuals for the National Museum of Mexican Art’s Dia De Los Muertos celebration, he regularly updates his tumblr for his ongoing “El Machete Illustrated” series.
Carlos Matallana is a Bogotá-born, Chicago-based artist and teacher. His “Manual of Violence” project, an investigation into the history and narrativization of violence, has stretched several years and a dozen workshops, one game, countless classrooms, and a full-length comic book teaching manual (in progress) based on his ongoing conversations about violence with his young children. “South Side Weekly” recently published an excerpt of the just released 1st part of “Manual of Violence” titled “Brea.”
ERIC: Here’s the big difference though, of being in critique and having criticism of your art. In the critique, the work’s not even finished yet. These are just ideas you’re building within the studio. Versus a criticism of your artwork—that artwork’s done; it’s thrown out into the world, and then people are reacting to it. It’s hard to judge something when it’s incomplete, because I’m still working on it.
CARLOS: Yeah, I agree with you.
ERIC: So, when you’re in the studio and people come in, 20 different brains come into your studio, and they’re telling you [in] which direction to move. I already have a plan to move forward, but now you’re telling me to go all these different directions. So I have no problem putting the work out into the world when it’s done and then getting criticism. Either it’s bad or you should’ve gone one direction or another. I don’t have a problem with that, but it’s more useful to me in the studio if I have someone that I respect, and I want their opinion versus having random people tell me which way to go.
ERIC: Do you often have people in the studio while you’re making something?
CARLOS: I do, but it’s a safe space, because it’s a comfort zone, in the sense that I have friends. So it’s people who know my work, who know me as a person. So yes. And then once people understand my intention, it’s easier for me to build on that. But then sometimes, when I’m out of the comfort zone, it feels like I challenged the work, and that’s how I tested it. I prefer it within the safe zone, and then I just release it. And then whatever response I get is welcome. That’s pretty much how I see it.
ERIC: So you said you’d craved the critiques in the Center Program because you’d been out of school for a long time so you wanted that space of critique.
CARLOS: I think the critique engages different perspectives. Because I felt like I was in a box, like when you have your residence box. It’s great and everything, so everything sounds pretty much like you. So there is no “something” or “someone” to challenge you to arguments or to support your perspective, in my case.
ERIC: Your practice in your studio—I only know a little bit about your artwork—could I say a majority of your work is small and intimate drawings? Or no?
ERIC: So when you’re in the studio, you’re in a small space, and you’re working like this, in this space, versus out in the open working on larger scale things.
CARLOS: I think yes, I start like this, but I just use this space I have to work with, but then you start work, and it’s fueled by the outside. Whether its a muse or trends. I’m very much into what’s a trend instead of the news. What’s the bigger picture? That’s pretty much what moves me. Not a personal experience—of course my personal experience is there—but not just a particular experience. In this case, the citizen or the resident experience, when I’m talking about Chicago, for instance.
ERIC: So I know you have two kids, correct? And a wife?
ERIC: My practice has been primarily drawing alone in the studio. I only recently got married. So now that’s changed the dynamic—having to live with someone and share space, and share time, make time for work, for art, for my wife. Your studio time—when you’re creating—is it now combined with kids running around? Is it combined with your wife working alongside you? Or are you still separate? Do you segment a special time and place for your craft?
CARLOS: I think when I was living by myself, I had nothing—just canvas and paper and oils. And so I had plenty of space, but I also had plenty of time that I misused. Because you have plenty, you just don’t know that you have it. You know what I mean? So the work, I had the chance to work on my own paintings or my own cartoons—before I got frustrated with publishing cartoons—before that I was pretty out in the open. But then the wife and kids came along, and I think they don’t take space. It’s like when you have water, and then you add some oil color to the water. Somehow it’s there, but it’s part of the substance. You can see the colors, you can see that its oil, you can see the borders, but somehow it’s flexible. That’s how I see it, but it also enriches it. Each kid has his own color—his character—and then the other adult that is next to me has another color, so it has boundaries, but they’re very flexible. Sort of bendable. That’s how I see it, visually.
ERIC: Did your practice take a big shift when you had kids?
CARLOS: It was hard. It’s not easy, but then you always go back to your parents, I guess, and that’s how you close the sinkhole. Sometimes you’re criticizing your parents, you know? And then you go back to ask them for advice, and they just give you advice, because they know that you’re starting that cycle. So that’s how I did it. And sometimes you get overwhelmed by decisions about kids, and they just say, “No, just take it easy. That’s okay, there are some other things that you need to worry about.” That’s pretty much what I see, or how I see it. The family, you rely on it as you create your own. Because it’s just part of it. Just like how when you’re illustrating or drawing you have some influence from other artists that you admire, I think that’s relevant.
ERIC: You’ve been drawing since you were small?
CARLOS: Yeah. Always. I told you that, in the textbooks, you always start from left to right, but then I started the notebook backwards as well, and I would just keep on drawing while I listened to the class. So I was listening and drawing, drawing, drawing. Everything. Mostly science fiction.
ERIC: Did you read comic books when you were growing up?
CARLOS: Yeah, plenty.
ERIC: What kind of comics did you like? Science fiction? Superheroes?
CARLOS: Yes, that’s the standard. DC and Marvel, but there were some that somehow got into my hands that were by European artists, and some other independent Americans. And then there is another, Mortadelo y Filemón, they are two guys who are detectives, but they are crazy. They’re like Mad Max. They’re pretty much the weird version of Spy vs. Spy, but this is even funnier and weirder. They are even sometimes politically incorrect.
ERIC: Spy vs. Spy didn’t have any words. Is it like that?
CARLOS: No this is very Spanish, from Castellano, old Spanish, so they use slangs and very local Spanish.
ERIC: Do they have text?
CARLOS: Yes they do, and they are very bizarre, too. So that’s one that I was like, “Wow.”…What about you? Did you like comics?
ERIC: Yeah… A lot of Marvel, a lot of X-Men, Wolverine.
ERIC: Yeah, but not until later did I start looking at other stuff. The Hernandez Brothers…I guess, more sophisticated graphic novels, if you want to call them that. Lots of cartoons, I grew up watching a lot of cartoons on TV.
CARLOS: There is also political critique. Do you have that from a particular outlet?
ERIC: I think that comes more from my brother’s influence. My brother is a political activist and a historian. He’s been a big influence on my philosophy of what I do. I think that’s where that comes from. But I’ve always drawn; I’ve always wanted to create, so I think that’s how I fused the two together—of doing art and being political. How did you get into this? Do you often do social-political work? [The book you’re currently working on] is about a criticism of gun violence that you have now. Did your previous work talk about social issues?
CARLOS: Yeah, most of it. But then again, I see it now and I did a series on Bush in 2001. Now I see this new—how should I call it?—new political bullshit. It’s pretty much the same. Like, I can revisit those, and there is nothing new. It’s just a different puppet, but the political agenda is behind it, and it’s just the same old-same old. So that generates frustration. That’s why I shifted to education, to somehow contribute to that. That was back in 2005? 2004? After Bush’s mess. I revisit those old illustrations and it’s just the same pattern. There’s nothing new here. It’s just like they have different lenses, and this time there is a thicker political foam, for a way to say it, but then there’s nothing for substance. It’s just pretty much…it’s a foamy political time. And everything’s political now. Everything is political. Even a soda commercial, you know? So that’s very tricky. That’s a very tricky landscape, I think.
ERIC: Do you feel that because of the contemporary political climate that more artists are doing political art? Do you think it’s become a trend? It’s not that there weren’t political artists in previous years, before Trump, but all of a sudden…I don’t know if they see a need to make political art, or they just think it’s trendy, like it’s the thing to do.
CARLOS: I think it’s not a trend. I think it’s a market.
ERIC: There’s a market for it.
CARLOS: Yeah, there’s a market for it, and that’s what defines everything, pretty much. And it’s not just the market, like the current market, but the collectors, and all the system that moves around art. That’s bad in itself, pretty much. So that’s the trend, and you can tell. Just the fact of a sea of private companies fired [their employees] because he is supporting the government at this point, that says a lot about what’s going on, how pretty much politics have become a marketing tool.
ERIC: Do you work a lot on the computer? Digitally?
CARLOS: Yeah I’m very skilled at that, because I learned for graphic design, but again, I’m trying to stay away from it. I mean I don’t—I mean I was saying, my friend, he is from Potosi, in Mexico. I was telling him I don’t have anything against Word, but I try to avoid it. You know what I mean? I try to resolve it mentally and then once I see it, just try to pin it down. That’s pretty much how I do it. What about you?
ERIC: Depends what I’m creating. I like to use different media; I like to experiment with different media. I do a lot of drawing, I do my weekly political cartoons, but in my studio practice I like to use different things, like either creating a sculpture or an installation or not necessarily something two dimensional, but three dimensional, but I’m constantly drawing. I guess my mode of creating is always to sketch first and build upon that sketch, so I always have a bunch of different sketchbooks jotting down ideas.
CARLOS: What triggers your—let’s say, how do you choose a topic? How did you choose a specific topic? How did you inform yourself?
ERIC: I think history. I love history, and one of my goals is to illustrate history. Specifically history that’s been forgotten, or is being erased. I want to keep it alive, visually. So I think that’s where I get a lot of inspiration. And then, I’m addicted to the news. When I’m working, I don’t listen to music, I’m listening to NPR, consuming news. Everyday there’s a new issue, and I’m taking myself to task to try to illustrate a different issue.
CARLOS: How does that…let’s say you’re listening to the radio, everyday, to the news, have you tried not listening to it? Have you sensed any difference in the work that you produce?
ERIC: Occasionally I can’t find anything to listen to, so I’ll put some music on, but I don’t think there’s a change in pace or style or anything. I think the big frustration is to constantly change the dial. To be interrupted is my frustration. Like, if I put the radio on and its just music, I’ll want to change the dial to a better song, or to listen to something different, versus with the news, I just have it in the background constantly; I don’t need to change it. For some reason, NPR is a go-to because there’s a new Prog-Out coming up, I don’t need to change the dial. There’s new information.
CARLOS: Do you think that you feel better when you’re listening to someone talking over you’re ear, or there’s a story happening, than with music?
ERIC: I don’t know. I feel like, when I’m listening to the news, that I’m actually working, that it’s good for me. Versus when I’m just listening to music, I feel guilty—
CARLOS: Interesting. “I’m relaxing too much.”
CARLOS: Okay, what about me? I’m napping.
ERIC: But I take pleasure it as well, you know. I like to be informed; I like to hear people tell stories, whether it’s a StoryCorps or contemporary issues that they’re doing. Or even scary stories, like right now I’m into listening to scary stories, like podcasts, because Halloween’s coming up, and there are a lot of scary podcasts right now. It’s interesting to hear stories.
CARLOS: Did you always do 3-D work? Or did you recently move to 3-D?
ERIC: I think I’ve always done it, but it has been more recently that I’ve done more sculptural stuff.
CARLOS: What are the challenges of each of those two?
ERIC: The biggest challenge of doing sculpture stuff is just having the space to create something, versus 2-D. Like you were saying, I can do it anywhere. I can take a pencil and paper wherever [I] go.
CARLOS: What about the topic, or the theme behind it?
ERIC: I think that’s one thing that’s consistent about my work. I still navigate between themes of politics and history, no matter what I’m doing.