IN THE STUDIO | Emil Alzamora
If we are lucky, we will get to experience precious moments when we collide with total strangers who within minutes feel like an immediate part of our life – as if we’ve found a part of our self we didn’t really know we needed until that very second. And if we are really lucky, these strangers become friends (and gurus and benchmarks) throughout the course of our life; sometimes guiding and teaching from afar and floating in and out just as we need them. These instances are rare and beautiful and the friendships become treasures: heart-filling, gut-checking, soul-provoking treasures. Now imagine all of this alchemy translated into exquisite and imposing sculptures, and you have my friend Emil Alzamora.
Emil’s work, since the beginning (or since I so fortunately met him some 20 years ago), has always encapsulated his gentle spirit, his ever-hopeful attitude, and his passion for the “being” part of our existence. Coupled with his mastery and skill of depicting and perpetuating the body, his work becomes something new entirely: representations of the physical with the psychological, emotional, and philosophical happenings of the self exuded through his perfect forms, distorted limbs, or hybrid creatures. I don’t quite know how he does it, but I always sense his presence when I encounter his work (which is more often than we see one another); his works are bursting with it. But somehow, the works become his surrogate, gently nudging that he’s still always there; and I am reminded of how lucky I truly am.
I invite you to learn more about this remarkable artist and even more remarkable human being, Emil Alzamora…
Name: Emil Alzamora
DOB: May 22
Place of Birth: Lima, Peru
Current City & State: Beacon, New York
Q: If you had to describe your work in three words what would they be and why?
A: Figurative. Minimal. Visceral. Figurative is obvious. I have always been drawn to the image of the human for as a means to communicate. Minimal because I am a believer in simplicity and clarity and in my works there appears to be an effort to reduce or simplify the forms down to a single note. Visceral because I like to bypass the intellect and head right for the emotional centers of perception and communication.
Q: When we met, 20 years ago, you were working in oils and casting life-size bronze figures – always with a focus on the human figure. What drew you to the body as a subject then? What continues to draw you to the body now?
A: I have always enjoyed the puzzle of fitting the human form together (be it in 2d or 3d) in ways that are at once believable, but more importantly, activated. Figurative work can fall dead flat even if it is technically perfectly executed. There is something else that happens when a work goes beyond the "academic" portrayal of a figure, regardless of whatever else the artist does to it (ornamentation, context etc.). Not using models has always helped in allowing my interpretation to gradually creep into the work and hopefully replace some of the artifice with a sort of autobiographical fingerprint. I am happy that it comes through clearly in most of my work. I can hit a wall from time to time but that's what serves as a course corrector.
Q: You refer to your work as “unexpected interpretations of the sculpted human figure.” Can you elaborate on how you choose to distort, deconstruct, etc… the figure? And how do you find these distortions reveal your conceptual ideas?
A: Part of it is subconscious. I often will sketch out possible sculptures in my sketchbook. This is a really mindless activity. I say mindless because I am not dictating where my hand goes or what type of figure I want to draw. I can have an umbrella concept for a drawing- for example, I might have an idea to bury the figure beneath some sort of plating and this will be in my thoughts as I am drawing but there is very little planning that goes into the actual drawing. This is the start of my effort to make something "original" or at least something that isn't really available in art world both now or historically. I like to think of my process as an attempt to interpret life as only I could. Not because I am particularly interesting, we are all interesting. I am more interested in crafting one small window into the Human Soul. Anyone being authentically creative contributes to overall human self-awareness and actualization.
Q: Conceptually, your work has been critiqued as “meditations on the forlorn beauty and pain of the human experience…figures that manifest impossibly long limbs and twisted, hard flesh, visualizing the intangible effects of psychic wounds and troubling situations.” Would you say this is accurate?
A: Hmm, accurate enough I suppose. Out of context I would think of the author of such works to be a bit gloomy, but yes. I might lean on the side of gloomy, but I try to counter it with grace and balance and harmony. I like that tension. Happy on happy and you have a double positive which for me makes a negative. I know that's bad math but, life is far more often a combination of both happy and sad.
Q: Which end of the spectrum, then, would you say your work falls – the sad and the melancholy or the hopeful?
A: Great question. Again, I think I encode my work with enough of both. The very act of making sculpture is a supremely hopeful if not unrealistic endeavor. So to make works that reveal some of the turmoil and struggles of life seems very natural to me. I get bothered when I see overtly pleasant works of art, especially figurative sculpture and especially when it involves drapery. But I tend to lean toward that tension that all life forms feel a good portion of their lives – how to make it all work despite the opposition. It is cold and unforgiving in deep space.
Q: Your works have been referred to as Surrealist? Would you agree with this categorization?
A: If Surreal in that they bend what might normally be seen as real, yes. It could also be one of several “isms” that would accurately describe my work. It seems hard for me to think of making art that isn't a bit bent after what humanity has gone through this past century.
Q: Your work always feels so deeply personal, how much would you say is autobiographical?
A: Thank you! I don’t hear that as often as I would like. On the surface my work can seem anonymous and distant: the every-human. But I do think of them as being very tightly linked to my life and my experience; not so much aesthetically or narratively but genetically. I think the most committed artists do not have to "brand" or gimmick-ize their work because there is something of their DNA in the work and this is as individual/personal/autobiographical as it gets.
Q: Coming from a family of dynamic female artists, both your grandmother and your mother, how influential would you say they are in your development as a person and as an artist?
A: Don't forget my two aunts as well. And my uncle though he died before I was old enough to really be influenced first-hand. My wife, Annie and I have works by all of them around our house. They had an enormous influence on me aesthetically, politically, philosophically and spiritually. Practically speaking, you could equate it to a family business of sorts. I knew that it was a viable way to earn a living. Their creativity and productivity was like a "V" formation and I fit right in.
Q: There is this interesting dynamic in your work, of big concepts and big works but they are so exquisitely crafted with a soft, adept touch. Such craftsmanship is something so often lost in work loaded with connotation, how much weight do you give to technique / craft vs. concept? Is there a specific split of focus or is it not a question for you?
A: Craftsmanship is very important to me. I bring the same sensibility to my work that a builder must bring to a house. It has to be well made and it has to work. With sculpture, this means being durable to last without too much babysitting by the maker. The best way to solve that is to craft it in a way that is resistant to entropy. It is the canvas on which all of my painting occurs (first bad painting analogy). Some would argue to a fault in that I don't take enough chances because I try to make things in a way that they will not fall apart. Despite this, it is a perimeter that I am happy to work inside of. It is a bit like growing up and being responsible.
Q: In 1998, you moved to Newburg, NY to work at the renowned foundry Polich Art Works, how did this impact your work?
A: In more ways than I feel I can describe. I have been going back there consistently to work on my own bronzes; and though working there for more than two years was huge, I still grow and learn and I'm inspired each time I visit. Process, technique, tools and equipment etc, etc, etc... Not to mention the wisdom and friendship of Dick Polich himself. If I had a living real-life super hero, there he is. No exaggeration. This was and continues to be heaven for any young (or old) sculptor to be able to experience, especially for as long and as much as I have been able to. Think of the Met, but not the gallery space. More like where everything thing was made. It was and is THAT cool. I am going there today actually.
Q: How did you make the transition to working in porcelain? And how do you compare working in ceramics to your metal foundry work?
A: Night and day. The only thing more night to the day of metal work is glass. And Porcelain is almost glass. In 2007 and especially in 2008 I had to really think of an alternative to the challenges of bronze as a primary medium. The costs were so outrageous and time-consuming that I needed another medium to explore and make available. Ceramic is so inexpensive by comparison. You do have to get set up for it and that is where West's Ceramics came in. They were only a few minutes away from the foundry and they had an amazing facility. They were more traditional in that they focused primarily on slip-cast earthenware (garden gnomes and such), but I learned to make slip molds there and how to cast clay. This was another really lucky thing to have access to, the Hudson Valley is a rich area for creative people. Ceramics offers another world conceptually too. It asks you to pay attention to the subtleties more so than metal and it offers a completely different aesthetic which opened up new areas for me conceptually. Materials do that, they are like guides in unfamiliar territories.
Q: Now that you are working in a vast array of materials: metal, ceramics, gypsum, wax, glass, resin – how do you select which is appropriate? Is it conceptually informed, your aesthetic preference, availability, scale?
A: All of these things factor into the making of a sculpture. Challenging the material too can reveal a completely new process of end result. I have been doing that a whole lot in the studio lately. I call it the miracle of matter. Each work is inextricably linked to what it is made of. Often the material will end up dictating much of the idea of the piece and vice-versa.
Q: Who are you drawing inspirations from these days (artists, philosophers, writers), artistically speaking?
A: Physics, fiction, music, film. I look everywhere. Names elude me as always, but I have an audible account and way too many audiobooks to make sense of. I often will listen to any number of books while I am sanding or filing. They become part of a nonsensical stew that I guess helps me to extrude what eventually become sculpture. I think I could improve my actual awareness on these things but, alas, I am not going to be tested on any of the material as far as I can tell. Maybe I could be more analytical and cerebral in my practice, but for now I like a good warm stew.
Q: So, what’s next?
A: I have no idea. I am just making a slew of new and experimental works. I am sure there will be the art fairs and such to plan for but for now, I am just plowing ahead into new territory with an ever expanding arsenal of mediums.
Q: Ok, last question. A major museum is burning and you have to go in and save 3 works —what works do you rush in to get?
A: What a horrifying scenario. I would call upon the wind to leave the building thereby starving the fire of oxygen in order to save everything.
For more information about Emil and his work, please visit the following:
Images all courtesy of the artist (from top to bottom): Interval, 2011, Gypsum, Acrylic Paint, 60 x 27 x 17 inches; Minotaur, 2006, gypsum, 95 x 42 x 18 inches; Bowlby's Wall, 2015, Gypsum, 36 x 18 x 26 inches; Afterlife Afterthought, 2005, gypsum, 90 x 65 x 42 inches; Where I’m From, 2015, wood, 38 x 25 x 12 inches; Chrysalis, 2015, Gypsum with graphite wax finish, 31 x 10 x 13 1/2 inches; Spaceman, 2011, Resin, Ceramic, Auto Paint, 24 x 35 x 21 inches; In Two Places (detail), 2013, Gypsum, Acrylic Paint, 37 x 16 x 10 inches; Drop Series, 2015, Porcelain, 10 inches; Portrait of the Artist, photo by Michael Rudin