Vancouver artist Cara Guri creates phenomenally photorealistic yet surreal paintings that demand closer inspection and reveal an active imagination.
Following the announcement of her participation in the Burrard Arts Foundation‘s 2020 Artist Residency program, we spoke with Cara about the details of her mental and physical processes, from beginning to (arguable) completion…
What is your attraction to portraiture? What initially inspired your interest in this particular form of expression and what led to it becoming the focus of your practice?
I have always been interested in portraiture and its connection to how identity is constructed or perceived. Much of my practice stems in part from an interest in probing and questioning the poses, conventions and aims of historical portraiture and figurative painting in Western art history and exploring the dynamics of looking and being looked at. I am interested in a type of portraiture that conceals certain expected aspects of its subject, while also highlighting something else about them. The subjects in my paintings both refuse and demand to be seen on their own terms.
I’ve seen pictures of you working in the studio and it looks like you actually use real life models for your paintings, to some extent, at least. I’d love to know more about your process…
Usually there is a large real-life component to my paintings, though each piece will require its own unique approach. I love the amount of colour and light I am able to capture from real-life observation and how it shifts with time of day, time of year and the weather. Rather than capturing a single moment in time, painting from life enables me to document something across time: the painting becomes a synthesis of observed moments, memory, imagination and light. If I am painting a person I know, they will typically pose for me at least part of the time throughout the painting. I also have a mannequin that I sometimes use for clothing to provide real-life reference without a person always being present. When I am creating self-portraits, they are usually done with the help of a mirror. Imagination and memory typically play some part in the process as well. Ultimately, the final piece is usually a fusion of actual and psychological space: a combination of what I observe and my own mindscape or what I piece together in my mind. I try to create paintings that are both literal and psychological, that push at the parameters of perceived reality and yet are still palpable.
Who are the people who sit for you? Are your paintings inspired by the people in them and what you know about them, or by your imagination or a pre-existing idea?
These days I typically paint either self-portraits or portraits of people I am very close with. I use myself as a type of prop frequently in my paintings because I feel very free to use my own body in any conceptual way that I wish. Frequently, the actual compositions of my paintings come from my imagination in the start, and then I will use a combination of real-life objects, people and imagination to complete them. Much of my current practice also has its starting point in a kind of translation of historical portraiture into my current reality in a way that disrupts its original meaning or intent. For example, my painting “Looking Glass” is a response to Velázquez’s “The Rokeby Venus”. I chose to swap the very familiar figure of my mother in place of the glorified goddess. Instead of reclining she is seated upright. I traded mirror glass for drinking glasses from my childhood that in part distort and obscure rather that foreground the subject. She is clothed rather than nude. The distortions visible in my painting are quite literally the distortions I observed reflecting in the glass itself, and are not to idealize the figure or to make the mirror reflection more visible as in the ‘venus effect’ device used in “The Rokeby Venus”. It is not important to me that this reference is obvious or even known to the viewer, it is really just a starting point for me to generate something new. The completed painting grows to be its own entity. Sometimes what sparks a painting will be less specific as well, but typically relates to an interest in playing with the conventions of posing, ornamentation and the staged nature of portraiture.
How much of your process involves actually figuring out and staging the visual trickery with props, etc. and how much is purely from your head?
It is usually a combination of the two. A big part of my process does require observation of specific people and objects, but the original idea usually starts and fleshes out initially in my imagination. At the beginning stages, I typically generate very rough compositional sketches purely from my imagination, and then later begin to work with props and people to flesh out my vision and give it clarity. Depending on the piece, there is often some imaginative component in actually combining things together in the form they appear in the painting. However, it is important to me to also have physical objects present that inform the piece in a direct way because of what their specificity brings to the meaning of the piece and the connection I have with it. I enjoy using painting as a way of really seeing and internalizing the people and objects I spend my life around. Just as I typically paint people I know, the objects and clothing in my paintings are often things that I have a strong personal connection with and have spent considerable time in my immediate environment. Memory will also play a role as things start to become more vivid in my mind through observation. My work plays with a kind of tangible surrealism and toys with the merging of literal and psychological space.
“I like spending time with people and things and learning to truly notice and see them. So much of how we visually document the world is through taking (and often forgetting) photographs as quickly as possible. To me, there is value in spending time with something and committing it to memory, internalizing details about a subject.”
Where does your penchant for the absurd and visual play come from?
I’m interested in meaning and context and how the meaning of subjects and objects shifts depending on how they are portrayed. I enjoy how playing with the expectations we might have as viewers invites us to question traditional norms and to connect in new ways with a subject. In my current series, visual play is about inviting new encounters to generate alternate possibilities, meaning and ways of visually processing and interacting with the world. I’ve always had an active imagination, and this inevitably filters into how I perceive and interpret the world through my work.
The slow pace, patience and non-technological aspects associated with portrait sittings and painting from live models is the antithesis to the general cultural landscape of urgency and our high volume output of images. How does this context factor into your work? Beyond your own personal practice and the motivations behind each individual painting, what are your greater intentions, if any? What sort of impact or statement are you making through your artistic choices?
I am interested in the relative slowness of painting as a platform for consideration. I use the process of creating a piece to observe, consider, decode and recode the encounters that I have with both myself and the outside world. It brings me to see familiar people and objects from a new vantage point and with greater clarity. I like spending time with people and things and learning to truly notice and see them. So much of how we visually document the world is through taking (and often forgetting) photographs as quickly as possible. To me, there is value in spending time with something and committing it to memory, internalizing details about a subject. I find this visual information stays with me much more vividly than if I had simply taken a snapshot. I have to stay active in every moment of its creation – the vision is filtered through my mind and body, which of course also makes it subjective and leads it to feel very personal. It is up to each viewer to connect with or respond to the work in their own subjective way, but the creation of these pieces for me is very contemplative and in part about considering my position as a viewer, artist and often as a subject, about visually processing the world and art history through my own mind, space and time. The idea of looking and re-looking, interpreting and reinterpreting is a large part of my current practice.
Your paintings are so photorealistic – I imagine it’s very intense and emotional for you working in such fine detail, and it must be difficult to know when to stop. How do you decide that a piece is finished? After the intensity of creating such meticulous work, and being so intimate with your paintings, what does it feel like once you have decided that something is complete? Tell me about your relationship to your paintings.
I’m not sure that anything ever really feels like it’s complete to me. Typically, I work on several pieces at a time, and not infrequently some will get shelved for considerable periods of time until I figure out what I want to do with them. At most, there is sometimes a gradual feeling of resolution. I never really have that moment of putting the final brushstroke on a piece and knowing it is done in the moment. It is only after time and consideration that I decide to step away. Sometimes a piece feels like it belongs to a specific space and time and I have moved beyond it and that is how its completion is decided. Not infrequently, I will also go back into work that I may have moved away from if there is more that needs to be delved into. Each painting is a journey to me. I learn something from each one that I complete and every piece unfolds very much in its own time.