Armando Mesías Lets the Canvas Speak Back

Untold stories are embedded into the Colombian-born painter’s evocative timeworn canvases, which combine lost love letters and torn posters found abroad with his own musings about decay and the passage of time. His first stateside solo show, “The Curse of Knowledge” at Galerie Ground Los Angeles, plumbs the depths of identity and permanence while questioning what lies beyond humanity’s realm of knowledge.

Armando Mesías in his Madrid studio. All photography by Marina Denisova

What’s the premise of your latest exhibition, “The Curse of Knowledge,” and what was on your mind when making the artworks? 

The main themes of my work and the exhibition are open questions about the nature of permanence, identity, and our need for certainty. Much has happened in the world that makes it hard to preserve the illusion of control. Hence, “The Curse Of Knowledge” is a paradox about not always knowing really what lies ahead. 

Your canvases often accumulate sources of knowledge from disparate places—love letters, torn posters, notebook clippings…

I’m always looking for ways to reflect the passage of time and show evidence of decay and past lives. I’ve been collecting these elements over the years and waiting for the right cue to incorporate them. It’s usually very self-referential, but I feel most excited about stuff I find along the way that belongs to a different person, a different time, a different place. I think of my own experience as part of a bigger whole, and try to bring in anecdotes and stories from others in order to make it about a more universal place rather than only from my own.

You rarely sketch before creating. When did you realize that you prefer spontaneity?   

I’m fascinated by the evidence of experience and marks in objects, walls, and people. I learned early on this isn’t something you can plan or program—it has to happen on its own across time. I thrive on letting the canvas speak back, and engage in a conversation that’s not dictated by me. It’s a dance where there are certain rules, but you need the other side’s pull and intention to stay creative and alert. In a way, I sketch directly on the canvas, which binds me to commit not only to the most developed ideas or outcomes but to the process itself. 

Many of your artworks are marked by splatters and stains that happen organically in the studio. 

It’s circling back to the idea of true experience gained through time. Most of my work is created during different stages, or during different moments of my research. These happen to pop out in a non-chronological order in the finished work. It’s a reminder that as a human there’s only so much you can leave behind, and also only so much you can go back to. 

What’s the backstory behind one important piece in the show?

Guts is the show’s masterpiece, and it has a small mark with a strong personal meaning. When I first met my (now) wife, we used to walk by a wall that had a random love message spray-painted on. It sort of became our own secret thing, and I often use it as a tribute to her. Something only she would be able to find. 

Your canvases have a strong “hands-on” element, so it wasn’t surprising to learn that you spent time in shoe factories growing up or that you studied industrial design in college. How have these experiences shaped your trajectory? 

I grew up around a strong appreciation of objects and materials. Even though I consider myself a painter, I’m always more interested in the pieces as objects than as mere images. It’s something we’ve lost during the digital era that needs to find its way back into visual culture. 

I’m always thinking of ways to activate the physical aspect of the work, be it through texture, transparency or scale. Even though the layers of content tend to flatten out, having evidence of different moments on the canvas gives the work a certain sense of tri-dimensionality. 

How do you know when one of your works is finished? 

I don’t! I feel I need to stop working when there’s already enough in them to carry on beyond my studio. I think the afterlife of a piece meeting new contexts and different audiences is as important as actual work I put into them. At some point I just have to let go. 

You’re curious about the elements in your work beyond your control, such as the emotional response from viewers.

Artwork truly comes to life when reflected upon. It’s kind of like the sound of a tree falling in the forest. I try to leave breadcrumbs and easter eggs all around the work for people to latch on to, and “own” a bit of the work each time they do. Now they have their own little secret, their own little moment that I’m never going to be a part of. I love that. 

After living in Bogotá, London, and Barcelona, what drew you to Madrid? 

We needed a change of scenery. We were never bound to any one place, and started getting drawn by Madrid’s growing vibrant cultural scene. It feels like untapped territory for many new projects and ideas, and a renewed identity for the city. We keep finding ourselves discovering new shops, restaurants, galleries, and makers that are all so eager to create new stuff, to engage from a place of tradition many times, but ready to bring it to the next level. 

The city has this charm of feeling very elegant and cosmopolitan while at the same time remaining walkable and intimate. It’s easy to find your way around and find your own crowd and corners. I was lucky enough to find a studio space in the Justicia district, a hotspot for new projects that’s always bursting with creativity right in the heart of the city.

How did you pass time during lockdown, and how have the past couple years of disruption shaped your outlook?

We had only just moved to Madrid, and at the height of the lockdown I had the blessing of getting in touch with Galerie Ground, who had only just launched as a gallery in Los Angeles and New York. Soon after, we started learning more about each other and challenging our ideas and output constantly, leading up to this moment opening “The Curse of Knowledge,” a first solo show in the U.S. for both of us. 

Disruption, uncertainty, and loss of attachment have a big echo in this body of work. They nudged me in a direction I was probably flirting with for some time already. I was able to let myself go with more freedom, to find new languages in the least expected materials and ways of doing, and ultimately to stop trying to control the outcome, and be ready to accept how things turn out and move on. Paradoxically, this brought much more unity and coherence to my work, which is something that truly shows in the show. 

You don’t like staying in the same place for too long. What are you itching to do next? 

I’m certainly itching! I have this vision of a studio/house in the countryside outside of Lisbon. In the meantime there will be much more happening in the U.S., and L.A. is definitely calling.

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