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Artist Manolo Valdés and perceptions of reality

In Dubai for his regional solo debut, Manolo Valdés reflects on a creative career of half a century and leaving sculptures behind for the city’s residents to explore 

“The lack of freedom impedes growth and the exchange of information, and it prevents you from expressing your ideas.” ~Manolo Valdés

“I wouldn’t want to work in a dictatorship again.”

Spanish artist Manolo Valdés has gained international renown over 50 years working on canvas and with sculptures and mixed media, commenting on the political situation at home. While that environment has spurred him to create work that has seen him become one of the most influential Spanish artists of the 21st century, he doesn’t need it to create. “If I were working in one at the moment, I wouldn’t have been able to travel to Dubai because I wouldn’t even have a passport,” he says. 

“The lack of freedom impedes growth and the exchange of information, and it prevents you from expressing your ideas.”

The Valencia-born artist was in Dubai recently to open his debut solo exhibition in the Middle East, at Dubai’s Opera Gallery. Many of the more than 25 pieces on show will have their international premiere. Valdés has also created four sculptures in brass and 24ct gold exclusively for Dubai, and five monumental sculptures will be displayed throughout the DIFC for a year afterwards as part of the neighbourhood’s public art integration programme. 

“The lack of freedom impedes growth and the exchange of information, and it prevents you from expressing your ideas.” ~Manolo Valdés

Debonair caught up with the artist, who thrives on different interpretations of his work. 

Your work was sometimes political when you were a young man — is it still? My work was political when I lived in a dictatorship. I wanted the situation to normalise and I wanted us to have a democracy that other European countries had. Thankfully, everything normalised and at that moment all these new ideas came in that facilitated debate and development.

How has your art changed and how has it remained the same through each decade? The other day I was viewing a retrospective of my work in Spain, and I could see that there has been a great deal of changes in my art. My work has become more complex as time has passed and my personal development has amplified. The changes are not always a result of “will they happen without planning or foreseeing them”, but they are always welcome. For example, sculptures have a position of leadership in my body of works that I would never have predicted. Living in New York, a city with very diverse and rich exchange of information has completed my formation and made it a lot more complex.

Has the passage of time effected how you view art? Yes, the passage of time has affected my vision of art but also has affected the perception I have of reality. When I look at a painting by Diego Velázquez or Henri Matisse, I enjoy them in a more complex and complete way, even if it is the same piece that I used to
see before.

Are you ever able to view art as a consumer, or is your mind always judging as an artist? I am a regular in museums and an avid consumer of art history. Other artists’ works evoke a great deal of curiosity and pleasure in me. It also is a necessity for me to execute my own work, by observing others.

What kind of everyday objects please you aesthetically? It depends and is something that often changes. Sometimes I am obsessed with flowers when I depict them in my paintings, other times it is a landscape and other times it is the human shape that catches my eye and captures all of my attention.

Iris II, 46x29x18, white bronze, 2017

“I am a regular in museums and an avid consumer of art history. Other artists’ works evoke a great deal of curiosity and pleasure in me.”

What themes were in your art when you were younger that you’ve abandoned, and what themes are continually running through your art throughout your career? The particular themes used in my art have accompanied me my whole life. Another thing is how you see and treat them. I have interpretations and commentaries on Velázquez’ Reina Mariana from the beginning of my career in Valencia until now. That theme, much like others, will always be with me as long as I think I can make a noble interpretation.

If you could describe the Spanish sense of art in one sentence, what would it be? For me, art is very international and it is very difficult to find in this moment one form of art that can represent my country. I think of Pablo Picasso, who was a Spanish artist but who spent the greater part of his life in Paris, and I also think of myself as a Spanish artist who has spent 25 years in New York studying and completing my education with very varied influences.

Dubai is not a city yet known for its arts movement — what made you want to bring your work here? For me, Dubai is a city I only knew about through literature and the images I am exposed to. This makes it a very attractive place for me to see and show my work. When Opera Gallery offered me the opportunity of doing the show here in Dubai, I didn’t hesitate at all. I even gave this project priority over previous commitments because I was so excited by it.

Golden Butterfly II, 50x36x38, brass with 24K gold, 2017

You’ll be leaving your sculptures throughout Dubai for a year — is it a strange or a satisfying feeling to have your creations all over the world? It is extremely gratifying and satisfying for me to take my work to different parts of the world. I love that these pieces have been in New York, St Petersburg and Paris and now they are here in Dubai for even more people to enjoy them. They will be seen through new eyes, which means new and different interpretations of the same artworks, and that’s exactly what my art is about and something I find very interesting. How much someone’s interpretation of my pieces can vary depending on the person’s location, background, nationality and so on is very exciting to me and something that I never want to stop exploring.

How do you think the UAE can continue to build its arts scene organically? I think the fact that my art is physically here in the UAE is a perfect example of how the art scene can grow organically. My artworks and other artists’ artworks being here will generate and inspire new ideas and the art culture here will continue to grow.

Who are your favourite artists from around the world? Many artists interest me. Enjoying other artists’ work changes with the times. Some artists to mention are Velázquez and Matisse, who have always been with me. Abstract and pop art as well as other genres that I have seen be born have also been with me and influenced me a great deal in my career.

Is there one person you think was the most influential on you in your art career? There isn’t one single person that I can think of who unilaterally defined my trajectory. It is a series of very diverse people who all had a hand in inspiring me and keeping me inspired throughout my career.

What’s the smallest canvas or sculpture you’ve ever worked with? And the largest? If we are talking about scale, the smaller pieces are drawings that I make in travel journals in which I try to collect information and ideas. These works are very personal and are not often exhibited. However, they are a gateway to final works, which in my case tend to be in very large formats.

How do you disconnect and rest from your work as a creator? The obsession I have for art comes with me even during down times and I don’t see it as something I need to rest from. I enjoy it; it is always with me and I hope it remains this way for the rest of my life! 

Manolo Valdés’ debut solo exhibition is running in Dubai’s Opera Gallery until April 14, coinciding with the art space’s 10th anniversary

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