Interview with Monica Canilao on Her "Alchemy" Exhibit @ Inner State Gallery
For mixed-media artist Monica Canilao’s latest curated exhibition Alchemy, she called on dozens of her closest friends from all over the country, bringing a massive install to Detroit’s Inner State gallery, complete with a gallery wide takeover. In connection with the show, 1xRUN’s Editor-In-Chief Pietro Truba caught up with Canilao to discuss her recent work, curating Alchemy and more.
For mixed-media artist Monica Canilao’s latest curated exhibition Alchemy, she called on dozens of her closest friends from all over the country, bringing a massive install to Detroit’s Inner State gallery, complete with a gallery wide takeover. Using the medieval forerunner of chemistry for inspiration, Canilao asked the group of over 40 artists to create both two and three dimensional works that will transform the gallery into a contemporary reflection of this well worn path through the eyes of the contributing artists. In connection with the show, 1xRUN’s Editor-In-Chief Pietro Truba caught up with Canilao to discuss her recent work, curating Alchemy and more.
1xRUN: Looking at the layers and meticulous detail in your work, it seems like a style that has continued to evolved and built up similarly over the years. What was your childhood like as far as the arts were concerned? Do you come from a family of artists and makers?
Monica Canilao: I grew up between San Francisco and San Jose in Redwood City, California. Everybody in my family was either a carpenter or an artist. Mostly creative people. We grew up going to thrift stores and using everything that we found. Everybody in my family did everything for themselves. My mom was raised making a lot of their own clothes. We had hand-me-downs. We were always sharing everything. I’ve always been that “arty” kid in school…and forever. For me there wasn’t really any other thing. It was always assumed. My mom said after I was a few weeks old, I already had a pen in my hand. I was super active, always collecting little things, catching animals and building forts. My mom always kept everything – she’s really sentimental, and that she passed along to me. She always held onto anything from our family history, never throwing anything away. If you do get rid of something, you give it to somebody else. We all grew up in the same environment, just using what you have and sharing it. Fixing something if it breaks, and if you want to make something, you make it. This is the foundation for who I am and what I do now.
How about once you got into school, how did you begin to start to refine your style?
I just ended up in all of the higher art classes, and I used that as an excuse to leave other classes to work on art. Teachers would give me leeway because I was enveloped in making stuff all the time. All us punk kids in high school revived the darkroom in a backroom of the school that had been abandoned.
After that I went to California College of Arts and Crafts. I ended up meeting lots of people that were really inspiring there, and then did the same thing with those classes too. Pick and choose. If I didn’t like an assignment, I would offer up new ones, and it would usually just work that I could be doing what I wanted to be doing. I used all the electives to use all of the shop spaces there, whether they had to do with my major or not. I made a point to take advantage of all of the shops that I would not have had access to otherwise. That lead to a lot of printmaking, welding and playing with fiber arts, I just used all of the facilities that we had available.
Have you always been fringe in that sense? Where if everybody is going one way you end up being the one person saying “no, I’m going to do it my way.”
I just don’t want to do stuff that doesn’t make sense to me. I ended up changing my major from Painting & Drawing to Illustration because I wasn’t being forced to do anything new. It was just “cool do whatever you want!” and what I really wanted to get out of school was to be challenged. It was a really golden time. There are a ton of really amazing artists that came out of that period of my life that are still with me also doing what they love…creating art.
Let’s talk about that core of people you mentioned, are you still working with them? How important has collaboration become for you?
Yes, the bonds built through collaborating have only grown deeper and a lot of us have continued creating for a living. It was just a really amazing time and my biggest takeaway from school was the people I met. The ways they pushed me and we pushed each other. That’s how it worked. It was just a bunch of people who are inspired by what you’re making and you all want to create something together. You help people with other projects, and it is this back-and-forth of other people helping each other with what they are doing. Then you all start to see who is good at what, and who you want to work with on what, you all influence each other.
I have always been very interested in doing collaborations, and will always continue to do collaborations. It is a really intimate way of getting to know people. It’s also this really exciting thing that challenges you. You don’t know the outcome, but you are working with the somebody because you are excited by what they are doing, and neither of you know how it is going to turn out. You also learn a lot by seeing how other people work. They learn stuff from you and you learn stuff from them. It’s this big skill sharing kind of thing that is like going to school every day. You get to form these really deep bonds and relationships with people when you do something together that you most care about. My favorite way of getting to know people is working with them. It makes for more intimate relationships because you are trusting them with what you care about the most.
There’s a lot of things that you can’t make by yourself. When you collaborate things get bigger and grander, and you start to see who is exciting to work with. Then when different projects come up you pick your dream team. Alchemy is just the ultimate favorite “makers of things” who have worked with so many different medias. That is it. Overall I was really aiming for a show that is incredibly diverse, and seeing what my friends have come up with on such a interesting theme that everybody was very excited about.
You’ve mentioned the two parts or sides being an integral theme in Alchemy, can you explain that a bit more?
When you start researching alchemy it’s kind of insane with all the imagery involved. Then when you look at all the ways and medias in which everybody works, it all becomes very interesting. I wanted to throw in a challenge, for each person to come up with a two-part piece, however it is they interpreted it. It could be two different types of materials. It could be flat work with sculptural elements. It could be something old and something new, or a collaboration…whatever came out of each artists vision in their ability to work within very loose guidelines.
I just wanted people to be pushed out of the norm of making this specific size framed on a wall, because I really hate that. If I am in charge of curating something, it is going to be the opposite of that. That is why the installation is key in doing that. We want to transform the space as well as showcase how diverse this arts community is. I made sure to choose artists that range from relatively unknown, to very well known and everything in between, and seeing how all the work meshes together. Now seeing all the work hung, it is incredible how all the pieces flow so fluidly together.
Can you elaborate a bit more on why it is so important for you to have the installation aspect of Alchemy?
The whole idea of transforming the gallery continues with the theme of alchemy. It is finding a balance between light and dark. Exploring modes of being and manipulating different substances and mediums. We wanted the space to be transformed with the whole idea of making it into more of a sacred space, challenging people’s perception of experiencing art within a gallery setting. This way everybody’s energy is involved in creating the show. It’s not just hanging a framed painting on a white wall and being done. It is more inclusive. It is everybody’s energy working together to create this special experience for everybody, both artists and viewers. Everything that we are using is made from found materials, scavenged locally and brought from artists’ personal collections.
Why did you choose Detroit for this show?
I was looking for an excuse to come back to Detroit and Inner State has given me that opportunity. In 2010 I was brought out to Detroit for the first time to work on a project with Juxtapoz in collaboration with Powerhouse Projects. Several abandoned houses were bought with the money raised through an art auction and given to artists to transform…and thus The Treasure Nest was birthed. For the last five years I have been coming back to work on the house and a hand full of other projects, and have called Detroit my second home ever since. So I was talking with Ryan Doyle, who I originally purchased the Nest with (along with Harrison Bartlett and Zarah Acherman), about the idea of curating a group show. From there I decided to drive out from Oakland and bring any Bay area artists’ work with me. For this show roughly a third are local Detroit artists, a third are from the Bay Area, New York and New Orleans (all cities I have called home) and then rest scattered from around the country. A lot of contributing artists are using this as an excuse to come visit Detroit. Almost everybody in the show is connected, are friends in some way or have worked together, it’s like a family reunion.
Tell us briefly about the the Treasure Nest, for the unitiated, give us some background on that project.
Every year Juxtapoz has a fundraiser, and they always give the money they raise to a charity or foundation. In 2010 the idea came up to partner the Power House Project run by Mitch Cope and Gina Reichert to do something big with the money they raised for their 15th anniversary fundraiser. Juxtapoz decided to team up with them and use the money to buy a few abandoned houses around their area to transform into artists projects. I was invited out there to do that along with Swoon, Ben Wolf, Richard Coleman, Saelee Oh and Retna.
We all got to pick a house, so of course I chose the largest one on the block and started collecting stuff to work with. I primarily only used found materials in my art, so Detroit is a great canvas for me. It’s like a dream come true and this city really has carved out a huge chunk in my heart. We made a huge floor to ceiling chandelier in the upstairs that turned on a bar stool base and connected it to the rafters.
At the end of the project, everybody was in Detroit for two weeks and I was here for three. At the end of it we were like “well what’s your plan for this house? Because it very much feels like our house now…” So we ended up buying the house and just started working on it for the last five years. Since finishing that I have now been concentrated on working on the Sea Foam Palace (Of Arts & Amusements.) After all of the time I’ve put into Detroit I do not see my investment in this city waning any time soon.
Tell us a little bit more about Sea Foam Palace, when did that project begin?
The building was purchased a while ago by a group of makers and curators, including but not limited, to Julia Solis and John Law (both of whom are also in the show). I was invited to be a joint collaborator in the project about a year and a half ago. I set up a work space there and made it my new Detroit studio…a home away from home. Seafoam is going to be a sort of living breathing cabinet of curiosities museum with rotating attractions, installations, art workshops and happenings.
So Alchemy is somewhat tied into the Sea Foam work you’re creating in a way?
Yes, it is an extension of that same vein of magical realism, secret societies and secret worlds. We want to make the gallery more cavernous with paintings, installations and things hanging from the ceiling, playing with dark and light and layers. Everything in both places is made up of artifacts collected from around abandoned places of Detroit.
Aside from Alchemy, you are always staying busy, what else is on the docket for you?
I have a bunch of long-term projects that I am working on constantly. I am working on a collaboration with Aaron Huey, a National Geographic photographer. We had both been going to the Salton Sea for years to work on various projects and decided to work on something together. I drove out to the desert with friends Rob White and Jade Brandt, some dirt bikes and a whole lot of scavenged wood and together we built a big three story fort to live in the two weeks we were out there. The structure doubled as a set for my friend Dustin Wright’s independent film called ‘Bring Water’ that he came out to shoot at the same time, and myself and many other friends also played rolls in. Since then Aaron has started to send me photos from the trip and I am beginning to paint and work into them. We are going to be turning these collaborative images into a project calledShelter. The images capture people living out in the desert and making do with what they can find, making a life and surviving off of whatever you come in contact with. In a similar sense of the show, it is taking the photos and giving them new life by sewing and cutting, collaging and altering this already magical life.
I also am making a piece for the Headgear show at Five & Diamond. I’m going to collaborate with one of the artists in the show, Chrystie Cappelli. She loom weaves metal wire into panels, we are working on 2 headdresses together.
In addition I am working with Chrystie on an a collaborative series of ornate costume pieces for a continuation of a project with Bondage Erotique for a series of Shibari photos. The current harness piece we are building with the horse ribs is the first of many. The ribs were gifted to me by my good friend Cole who is a shepherdess. She knew the horse that they came from (his name was Duster) and she gave me 31 of them for my 31st birthday…one of these same ribs is worked into a piece of mine in the Alchemy show.
Every project I currently have my hands in is literally interwoven in some manner…whether be by people, objects or tone.
Where else can people find you?
My website or on Instagram @__moreferalthan__
Monica Canilao was interviewed by 1xRUN Editor-In-Chief Pietro Truba. He has previously interviewed Zoltron, Handiedan and Doze Green among many others. Follow him @Pietro1xRun.
Photos and video by 1xRUN Contributor Colin M. Day. He has previously worked on Pow Wow 2015 and Doze Green’s Lasting Influence On Hawaiian Culture. Follow him @seatsontitanic.