Joan Artman: How does your interest in philosophy informs your compositions?

Pedro Bonnin: I’m not sure it does, at least not in a conscious way. I certainly wouldn’t want my artwork to be an illustration of any philosophical thesis or philosophical truth, if there -is such a thing. I don’t want to teach anything through my paintings. I’m not saying we can’t learn valuable lessons from art, we can, for instance, live many lives through fiction in literature or cinema or we can get a deeper understanding of the workings of the human psyche reading plays or going to the theater but that would be stopping short of what an accomplished artwork is all about. Nietzsche wrote, “We posses art lest we perish from truth.” He was defending the “untruth” in artworks. It was far from clear to him that the value of truth was greater than the value of the aesthetic. For Nietzsche art can be more conductive to vitality and a good life than scientific, philosophical or theological truth. I believe we are contradictory beings capable of making sublime works of art be we are also capable of persecuting and killing each other in the street. We are torn apart by conflicting passions, inhabited by opposing desires, we hope and fear, laugh and despair, we love and hate almost at the same time. We are suspended between gravity and grace. That fragile balance, the moment in which we don’t know if we’re ascending or falling has been the point of departure for most of my compositions but that’s not so much a philosophical notion as an existential given, a condition of what it means to be human. I got my master degree in philosophy when I was young working mainly on Aesthetics. I wanted to understand what art is. After a lot of theory I realized I needed to get my hands dirty as well. That changed everything. Now, after many years devoted to painting the role of philosophy in my life has become very modest. It is about resisting the stupid in me and not giving in to despair. Philosophy this days is about constantly revisiting the ancient idea of a good life, a life worth living. I’m not sure I have an answer to what that may be yet but I do know so far that, to me, there can’t be a good life without art.

JA: Your new works show a focus on a monochromatic palette with pops of color. What is your relationship with color?

PB: Your question reminds me an entry in Paul Klee’s diary where, after a trip to Tunisia he wrote, “Color and I are one.” I envy that, maybe one day color and I can become not one but friends at least. Right now my relationship to it is more that of a struggle where I have to keep color at bay because drama comes first. So I try to use color, or very often the lack of it, to create tension and add to the mystery.

JA: Is there a significance to your figures wearing glasses?

PB: Originally the sunglasses where meant to give anonymity to the characters so that viewers could relate and project themselves more easily into them. A funny thing happens though with sunglasses, people tend to wear them when they want to go incognito but the very fact that they are trying to hide their face makes us look harder in trying to recognize them. Sunglasses can also be a statement, depending on their style and how we wear them they can mean someone is cool and easy going or sophisticated or even dangerous, so in the end sunglasses also command attention.

JA: What does fashion means to you? Is it a true art form?

PB: I have a very sad relation to fashion mainly because I can’t afford to dress in Prada. Seriously, though, fashion fascinates me. As an aesthetic phenomenon I love how beautiful it can be, how daring and bold. I love its sense of urgency, its capacity to constantly change shapes and its ability to recycle itself and come up with something entirely new. I’m very sensitive to its power of seduction so I want to be careful about it. Beauty, Stendhal sad, is a promise of happiness. This is particularly true in fashion. Ultimately, fashion wants to transfigure us, to change us into something other than we are, something more beautiful, more attractive. A better version of ourselves at the very least and it usually succeeds but, as in art, sometimes the power of the work comes not so much from what it reveals but from what it hides. In the best case this can be a good thing but it can also be a dangerous thing. Is it a true art form? If we ask Kant he would definitely say no, art for him has to be disinterested, that is, free from any utilitarian concern, and fashion, he would argue, has to keep in mind the fact that in the end someone is going to wear it for other more simple purposes than mere contemplation. But, fortunately, we don’t have to ask Kant, creativity, I find, is often more alive in fashion than it is in many other disciplines. I usually find more inspiration, awe and delight in fashion than I do in other contemporary art forms.

ARTSY Interview, 2015

Artsy: How would you describe your painting process? Are you painting from life or photos? How much of it is a collaboration with the models?

Pedro Bonnin: Like many artists, I believe I paint out of a painful sense of life’s fleeting nature, of life’s fragility. An artwork is an attempt to stop time, a brave attempt maybe but also a tragic one since it’s doomed to fail. Nevertheless, this resistance to loss is one of the traits that makes us human and it takes many forms, I haven’t found a better way to deal with it than through art. There’s something paradoxically worthwhile and beautiful in defying oblivion, in the futile struggle against disappearance, against “the dying of the light”. From the Odissey to Emily Dickinson to Proust to W.G. Sebald, from Giotto to Velazquez to Bacon to Kiefer, the most profound, moving and beautiful comments on finitude are the ones I’ve find in art. I would humbly like to join the conversation.

My painting process usually starts with a vague image in my mind of one or two characters in a tight spot. I look for twisted poses as if something just happened or is about to happen but it’s not clear what this is. I then do quick sketches on paper and when I have many I call my friends for a photoshoot. The sketches are just a starting point, I ask the models to take it from there and to move slowly but freely following their own instincts. Within a controlled framework I encourage improvisation and chance. I take as many photographs as I can and later I select the ones I find most interesting. I mess with them in the computer, I crop them, flip them, filter them and often combine two or three different shots to produce a single image for a painting.

Artsy: What makes a good subject for a painting?

PB: A little drama, some tension -some eros-, and a lot of ambiguity wrapped in style. What I look for in a painting is, in Hemingway’s words, some “grace under pressure”.

Artsy: Could you talk about the influence of fashion photography on your work? Are there any artists/images that have influenced you in particular?

PB: Photography as an art form has always interested me. I arrived at fashion photography through Helmut Newton and Guy Bourdin. In their case it’s a fine line between commercial and artistic work, with an open mind it’s not  difficult to find affinities between say Balthus and Helmut Newton. I’m a big fan of photographers such as Viviane Sassen who move freely between both the fashion and the fine art world.

What I like about fashion imagery is the fact that it is designed to be looked at immediately, impatiently, and it won’t stop at anything to make us turn our heads and look at it. I kind of like this sense of urgency, the problem is that once we’ve looked at it there’s usually not much behind the image, just a simple message or worst,  a commandment: wear this, use this, buy this. Nevertheless, fashion is very good at making us look, it knows what buttons to push, so there’s a lesson to be learned and what I’m interested in is using those same devices but changing the message, instead of a commercial line I would like to substitute it for an existential question, if possible or at least (and less pretentiously) for an open question. I would be happy enough if the viewer is a little at loss in front of one of my pieces and asks himself “What is this guy trying to tell me, what is going on?” I believe good things can happen from losing our certainties. In a world filled with economic and political discourse and commercial slogans the absence of a clear, tailor-made message can be a subversive act in itself, hence the value of ambiguity, of open ends.

Right now photographers who interest me the most are the ones with either a melancholic or provocative side to their work. I’m thinking about Josef Koudelka on one side of the specter and Araki Nobuyoshi on the other. Of course painters like Lucian Freud, R. B. Kitaj or Anselm Kiefer are always on my mind but I also feel very close to certain photographers and wish, for instance, I could translate to painting the pathos of Kohei Yoshiyuki’s The Park series. Contemporary painters I admire and look up to are Justin Mortimer, Phil Hale, Adrian Ghenie, Michael Borremans or Paul Fenniak, to name a few.

Artsy: Many of your images feature people in contorted poses. What about these twisted poses appeals to you and how do you arrive at these poses?

PB: Behind the twisted poses hides Nietzsche’s dictum, to make one’s life into a work of art. We aim for the stars and more often than not we crash, (e.g. we hope and we fear, we laugh and we despair, we love and do harm -very often at the same time). We are strange beings suspended between gravity and grace. Always falling, always trying again. This fleeting in-between, this fragile balance is what the contorted poses are meant to represent, the precise point where we don’t know anymore if we’re flying or falling. And just in case we discover it is the later, what better way to go down than in style.


BLISSS Magazine Interview, 2018

BLISSS: I’m always curious where people are at the present time that we interview them; will you describe where you are right now? This way everyone reading along can imagine the setting.

Pedro Bonnin: I’m in Cuernavaca, my hometown, at Pulquería “La Guayaba,” a colorful Pulque and Mezcal bar owned by my friend Francesco and his brother Aldo. Pulque is a traditional Mexican drink that native cultures drank way before Columbus arrived to America. It is made by fermenting sap from the maguey plant. It can also be mixed with fruits such as zapote, guanábana, melón, guayaba, and many more to obtain what is known as a “curado.” I’m sitting by myself, I’m supposed to meet a dancer from a local contemporary dance company to see if I can convince her to help me with some photographs I need for a new project I have in mind. While I wait I’m having a beer, as tempting as it sounds, having any other thing may seriously impair my ability to give proper answers to this interview.

BLISSS: What is the process you use to conceptualize a piece, refine it, “test it”, etcetera, so you do not get part way through and discover, “this is not working”?

PB: I’ve always been an unredeemed daydreamer. I’m also a big reader and I spend a lot of time watching movies, art books and magazines, so images come easily to me. When I’m about to start a new series of paintings I try to picture people in action: flying, falling, jumping, running or fighting. I then do sketches of this image and twist them a little for dramatic effect. I ask friends or family to pose for me, the sketches provide a starting point for the first photographs but then I give them small directions and ask them to move freely to make a little space for surprise and the unexpected. I try to make as many photos as I can. Later, working on the computer, I select the most promising pictures and I filter and tweak them until I get something interesting. I may combine two or three photographs to form a single image. By the time I get to the painting part I’ve already spent a lot of time with the final images so I know which ones are going to work on a canvas and which ones are not. If in the middle of the painting process the picture is not working, it’s usually because a problem of execution and not so much a problem of composition (although I’ve had those too) and then I just have to work harder to get it right.

BLISSS: Your paintings are pretty insane, they could almost be mistaken as digital, will you tell us a little about your background? How did you get into realism?

PB: I started painting when I was very young. The first paintings I made that galleries took in and sold were very literary paintings. At the time I was reading lots of Borges, Kafka, Calvino, Allan Poe, Cortazar… These paintings were something like illustrations for mysterious stories or strange fables that people had to figure out. They had little characters in them and the style was somehow a little naive, I’ve been to Europe and was very influenced by the early Italian masters: Giotto, Simone Martini, Cimabue, Lorenzetti, Duccio di Buoninsegna. After a while I got tired of telling stories through painting and the psychological side of it started to weigh heavy on me. I went to college, studied philoshopy and got a master’s degree. I was teaching, went through the whole history of art, went back to Europe and was now interested in very different painters: Velazquez, Caravaggio, Ingres, Rembrandt, Titian, Rubens, David. I wanted to make paintings that relied more on pictorial values like color or form than in narratives. Instead of looking to my inner imaginative world I wanted to pay attention to the outside world around me. I wanted to make striking paintings, paintings that captured people’s attention right from the beginning, like a KO instead of having the judges decide. This is where fashion photography comes in, I took from it its allure but more important its sense of the immediate and that certain urgency that comes from having very little time to cause an impression. My plan was to keep discourse to a minimum, to simplify the storytelling and to put tension, drama, and frozen-action in its place (I know this is an oxymoron but that’s precisely where the tension comes from). In order to get away with this I realized I needed to give my images a high degree of realism.

BLISSS: Is there an element of self-portraiture in your work?

PB: Naturally, a painting can tell a lot about the artist behind it. More so in modern or contemporary art where finding one’s own voice or style, that is being original, becomes a mandate and an obsession for many. Besides that, in a strict sense, I wouldn’t say there’s an element of self-portraiture in my work. I like looking at other people more than I like looking at myself.

BLISSS: What’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced as an artist?

PB: I’ll say the biggest challenge I face as an artist is knowing when to stop what I’ve been doing and move on to something new. Stepping out of the comfort zone and moving into new territory can be terrifying and for a while even paralyzing, but it’s also very exciting and in the end it’s what keeps me alive.

BLISSS: Any last words for our readers?

PB: The headmaster of a Zen monastery wanted to retire so he gathered all the monks in the meditation hall and then placed a glass of water in the center of the room. He then said “Whoever tells me what this is without calling it by its name would become my successor.” The first to answer was a young an ambitious monk, he said, “I wouldn’t say this is a wooden shoe.” The rest of the monks gave similar answers. Finally, the monk in charge of the kitchen stood up, walked to the glass of water and without saying a word, tipped it over with his foot spilling the water on the floor. The headmaster smiled and named him his successor.

HIGH Technique and High Drama

The work of Pedro Bonnin

Pedro Bonnin creates vibrant, photorealistic, figurative works on canvas. Visually striking, the works also represent a highly technical approach to the tradition of oil painting. Bonnin creates a sense of high drama and high stakes through the use of color, negative space and a hyper-realistic painting style. The influence of Italian masters can be seen in his illusionistic technique in his careful handling of shadow and light. Additionally, Bonnin employs exaggerated proportions and the use of close cropping to give us an even greater sense of immediacy and action.

Bonnin’s use of perspective, as well as the smooth modeling of paint and use of chiaroscuro are a nod to the Italian Masters who had a tremendous influence on the artist during his travels through Italy. Bonnin’s works both channel as well as play upon the ideals of Renaissance portraiture -his figures do not assume typically stationary stances of figurative painting. Instead they float, jump, twist and turn through the air.

Equally expressive in both their facial ranges which go from outrage to deep calm, the figures interact with both the space as well as themselves. They reach, touch and connect within planes of flat color that both flatten the visual plane as well as give a sense of continuous depth. Clothing, hosiery and footwear are used by the artist to both orient the figures in the present moment as well as entice our senses with opulent materials and detailed fabrics. These intimate works play with both our perceptions as well as our expectations to achieve an arresting and dynamic vision.

JoAnne ARTMAN, 2016

POORLY Cut Cherry Halves

on Pedro Bonnin’s Paintings

Pedro Bonnin’s Paintings, are they portraits? A reinterpretation of Genre Painting? A re-reading of the allegorical, the epic, the mythological in every day life? This questions can be reduced to one: Who are really the characters in this paintings?

More than a face sometimes it is a color, a texture. In this canvases the garments of the characters are a second face: in the tone and the folds of the clothing we can read the lines as if they were the features of a unique physiognomy.

Often, more than a texture it is a disposition. This characters are not immersed in themselves: From their joyous theatricality they defy the viewer. For them identity is a disguise, a game: A minotaur threatens us with his banana horns. An exerted kid stars as the strong man of the circus. The wolf from the children’s story is about to annihilate us with a ruthless gust of wind. Behind her mask a modern clairvoyant guesses our presence like a premonition -she sees us traveling at full speed from the future, about to collide with this very instant.

In Pedro Bonnin’s paintings a powerful realism lends itself as a vehicle for daily fantasy. This fantasy is inhabited by fabulous beings, mythological characters, popular archetypes recreated by the spell of mimicry, activated by the singular resource of grimace. Forget Mona Lisa’s smile, lets embrace the warm gesture, the loud sign, the funny expression: contortions, pantomime, almost onomatopoeias of the face: the features of a face as a special kind of writing.

Alive mostly among primitive people, the compulsion to imitate is a decisive trace of being human. What has been the destiny of this faculty among the moderns? To Walter Benjamin’s famous question Bonnin answers with this series of paintings that seems to reveal the truth of mimesis.

A funny face is a return to the primeval, the candidness of childhood, the innocence of the species before the Fall. This lost worlds survive in the universe of play. Children, same as primitive people, live immersed in a world of magical connections. The grimace reveal a dimension of truth that inhabits childhood as well as the primitive, the ritual play of reality and matter: The return of being’s elemental unity.

Games and mimicry are an attempt at unity and attaining Paradise: the living residues of an original certitude. Departing from the day to day a re enchantment of the world is at work in Bonnin’s images, a recovering of lost traces, a retrieval of the fantastic from the sanctuary of immediacy.

From the other side of the mirror Bonnin’s characters look at us. They remind us that grimaces also affirm the reality of doubleness. Being’s essential partition. Being always manifest itself as divided: It is itself and the other, the object and its conscience. Being is never only in itself and it’s always somewhere else: In the gaze, in the reflection, in the impulse towards otherness, towards a beyond…

Parmenides maintained that Being is a sphere. Mimesis shows a split in the sphere. A division between reality and its many doubles -consciousness, signs, fantasy. What’s left after the division of that sphere are unequal fragments, out of proportion pieces of meaning. Like an image and its reflection, reality and its representation: poorly cut cherry halves.

Humberto BECK, 2014

SOME thoughts behind the Constellation series.

A constellation is traditionally a group of stars forming a pattern or a figure in the night sky. It is an imaginative attempt to discover a secret design in the celestial sphere. It is also, of course,  a form of art, a kind of paint-by-numbers proto-drawing. A constellation is all about projecting the human world into the menacing vastness of the universe so that the unknown becomes familiar and we can feel less alone, less defenseless and a little bit more at home floating towards nowhere in this tiny blue planet of ours. But the true mystery, I think, is not out there but down here and all around us, it is not the indifferent universe that elicits my interest but we humans and our “useless passions”.

Somebody once asked a desert father how did he spend his days, the hermit replied “by falling and getting back on my feet then falling again and getting back on my feet once more.” The subtle wisdom of the holy man manages to capture life in a powerful image. It is this looped mixture of boldness and flaws, this cyclical motion -the like of a dance, of reaching for the sky and falling short that amazes me and makes me wonder. The ancient greeks had a figure for the human condition in Sisyphus who was condemned to roll an immense boulder up a mountain only to watch it roll back down and to repeat this action forever. He was punished for his cleverness and trickery. Once, he deceived Hades, the god of the underworld, and put him in chains. While the god was immobilized nobody could die. It was an act of hubris, no doubt, but also a brave attempt at escaping the human condition an upward movement aimed at becoming a god (only gods are immortal, to be a man means always to be mortal -at least so far) and its consequent fall in the form of his terrible fate.

We aim for the stars and we crash, (e.g. we hope and we fear, we laugh and we despair, we love and do harm -very often at the same time). We are strange beings suspended between gravity and grace. Always falling, always trying again.  This fleeting in-between, this fragile balance (the boulder at the top of the mountain just before it starts to roll down) is at the heart of my work.

Nietzsche believed that on a fundamental level we are artists and inventors, “individuals capable of dazzling feats of imaginative initiative” and that we should turn our lives into works of art, that means we have to self-fashion and self-master ourselves, we have to transform every single aspect of  our existence into something worth of contemplation. To do so we need to acknowledge not only our desire to take heaven by storm but our failure to do so as well so that we can try again in a learned, renewed, original fashion. In his own words, this can be effectively undertaken only by those who are willing “to survey all the strengths and weaknesses of their nature and then fit them into an artistic plan until every one of them appears as art and reason and even weaknesses delight the eye.”  It’s pretty much a matter of style. Every step in this process, every evolution, forms a figure of life, a momentary existential constellation.

A proper subtitle for this series of paintings could be “An Aesthetics of Falling” with Icarus as its patron saint. Its burning wings like a brushstroke in the middle of the sky. The figures on the canvas become shooting stars, instant constellations.

To fall, then, yes, inevitably, again and again but not in defeat, not in fear but in reverence. So, an elated fall, a proud fall, a graceful fall, above all a graceful, stylish fall, a luminous constellation. We need to touch ground if only so that we can thrust ourselves higher into the ever receding horizon.

Pedro BONNIN, 2014

WORDS read on occasion of a one man opening show at Arden Gallery, 2009

Art that interest me is like a mirror. Not a clear, ordinary mirror but a strange one: a blurry, foggy and sometimes dark mirror. A mirror that reflects not necessarily the world of physical objects around us but our inner world instead. The world of feelings, emotions, dreams, drives and thoughts that inhabit us. Sometimes this type of art is kind and reassuring, it tells us exactly what we want to hear. But other times it works like the evil witch´s mirror in Snow White telling us things that makes us uncomfortable. For instance, that we´re not the prettiest people in the kingdom, that we´re not as good or innocent or as easy to understand as we would like to think we are. Things that we don´t necessarily want to hear but that may be nevertheless true. I believe in art that illuminates the life of the soul, both the uncharted regions of the self with its dark motivations and the well known obsessions like love, death, hope and desire that makes us the complex and interesting beings we are. Of course for an artwork to be effective aesthetic experience must come first but once the initial shock starts to fade an accomplished piece must make us think and by doing this we should learn something about ourselves. We should be able to see the rich and varied ways that we humans are capable of producing in order to interpret and deal with what it means to be men and women sharing a common world. In this case, art operates like Alice´s in Wonderland mirror: it allows us to see into the other side to discover the infinite number of ways there are to look at the world with which to enrich our own personal views. There is one last metaphor of art as a mirror I would like to mention. It is the greek myth of Narcissus. As you know, Narcissus was a very handsome young man. When he was born the seer Tiresias prophesied that Narcissus will lead a long life as long as he never get to know himself. Cursed by the gods because of the many lovers he deceived, Narcissus sees his own reflection on the clear, undisturbed waters of a pond. This was not an ordinary pond but the pond of Artemis, the huntress goddess sister of Apollo capable, as his brother was, to heal or bring death to humans. Immediately Narcissus falls in love with his own image. Mesmerized by what he sees Narcissus is unable to move finding himself in a paradoxical situation: On the one hand he longs to posses what cannot be grasped and at the same time, even though he knows he´ll never have the object of his desire, he also knows, with absolute certainty, that this object (his own image) will never betray him, will never belong to anyone else but to himself. Unable to move, eat, sleep and be loved in return Narcissus dies. Where his body was a flower grows: the white narcissus. This, to me, is the perfect picture of what art does. Art captivates us, seizes our minds, our bodies and souls, and makes us fall in love with it. It becomes identical with ourselves. Art can only be understood at the risk of our own lives. I don´t mean that we need to die to understand a masterpiece but we definitely need to be shocked by it and changed by it, which is a way of dying and being born again. So art can be dangerous. Picasso, who was a very smart man, said once that  “Art is a weapon” and also that “Art is a lie that speaks about the truth”. What kind of truth that is is for each one of us to find out. For my part, instead of talking forever, I will like to leave you with a very modest bunch of lies hanging from this virtual walls. I hope you enjoy them.