Anna Ehrsam

Surf or Die: A Conversation with Nicholas Cueva+Philip Hardy 12/2/2018

Anna Ehrsam
Surf or Die: A Conversation with Nicholas Cueva+Philip Hardy 12/2/2018

Nicholas Cueva is an artist living and working out of Brooklyn, New York. In 2017, Nicholas Cueva began a series of paintings depicting early-morning surfers in the waters of Southern California. Each painting is a meditation on patience represented in the time spent waiting for waves. Rendered on a variety of coarse fabrics, recognizable images of human bodies and surfboards in the water pass in and out of view, subsumed by the water and mists, which are created by the textures of the painted surfaces themselves.

Nicholas Cueva was born in Dana Point, California in 1983. This is his first solo show in Manhattan. His recent solo in 2017 at Five Myles in Brooklyn was on Jerry Saltz's list of “10 Achievements of 2017.” His curation and involvement in the New York-area art scene, most notably with his Brooklyn gallery, Underdonk, fuels a scene of incredibly talented artists from whom he draws inspiration.

Philip Hardy: I am most interested in your current body of work focused on paintings of surfers. How is your work on that series progressing? How many bodies are you currently working on? Are the different bodies of work related in any significant way?

Nicholas Cueva: The surfing series is the culmination of a lot of ideas that I've been working with. Ultimately, for me, it’s an attempt to simplify. It’s me going back to an early time in my life that I believed had a concrete narrative and trying to unpack what worked and why it fell apart. I've always been introverted, evaluating and re-evaluating everything. 

The surfer series is a structure designed to make me be more deliberate with everything, to reduce and refine my gesture and color, and to allow myself to play more. Each one requires a full connection at the moment for me, each is its own world. They take time to make, to decide color and temperature, atmosphere and mood.

I've live all across the United States, but surfing culture was my first in experience in real-life culture. My ethnic heritage was taboo at the time (the Cold War made Cuba a dirty word), and my family eschewed any outward signifiers, searching for a place to belong. My parents landed in a growing post-hippy Christian culture in Seal Beach, California, where I was born.

I grew up in a community where surfing was not only the norm but also a huge philosophical and theological fulcrum to understand the cosmos. The superstructure of my culture at the time was a miracle-driven Christianity, which I would see other versions of later in life, in farming communities and academic communities. I eventually abandoned this superstructure in favor of an agnostic art practice, but not after attempting to become a pastor and missionary. Love it or hate it, miracle-driven Christianity is still a core memetic fountain in my mind.

As a young child, I was regarded as a miracle, fragile and troubled. I was already the survivor of a few heart surgeries by the age of 4, and the Christian surfing community, which had adopted my parents, held me up as an example of God's grace, love, and power. To that community, I was living proof of their beliefs. (To be honest, I sometimes take that role now in the art world; I am for some people a proof of art, which is ironically delightful and troublesome to me.)

But since I was 23, art has taken over. Painting is my daily bread, and I attended art events even more frequently than I went to church, Sunday school, Bible studies, prayer groups, etc. But as Dylan said... 

"... you're gonna have to serve somebody, yes

Indeed you're gonna have to serve somebody

Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord

But you're gonna have to serve somebody"

Within the structure of the surfing paintings, I hide a superstructure of a face. Pareidolia, which is the tendency to perceive a specific, meaningful image in a random pattern, is a focus to a lot of my research into the human mind. The faces within the surfer paintings, often pained, reflect my concept of God at the time, and the concept I have of myself now. Yes, I was saved from death, but who put me in that predicament in the first place, other than God? To my mind, my life was the plaything of a capricious and powerful being... this was also my child mind trying to deal with my immigrant Cuban grandfather, a surgeon, who was also kind, capricious, and abusive. 

We often see the world the way we need to at the time. Our psychology can affect our eyes and make us blind or give us super clarity. And often we don't get a choice how we see.

My grandfather's schizophrenia between his third-world scarcity/hierarchy-driven mindset and his idealistic "American" aspirations was destructive and alienating to everyone (sorry I keep talking about him, he recently died and I've been re-evaluating things). The ocean became the catch-all to describe the chaos of my world, reinforced by the hippy "go with the flow" attitude of my immediate support community, and in my mind this elevated the surfer to almost god-like status, a person able to "have dominion" over the waves.

I'm not alone in this comparison, but it still has profound meaning to me. There's a nice one-to-one, multi-use idea in it. The body, the board, and the water. The person, thing, place... all bound together by the competence of the person. The board, a blade slicing through the wave. My surgeons, masters of their craft, kept my little body going. My destructive surgeon father, certain of my imminent death, doubling down on his omniscience.

The irony is I haven't ever surfed (I love boogie boarding). It's a void in my life that has been filled with art. Actually, surfing has always been a little too dangerous for my condition. I tell myself it is a promised land I can never enter. I'm a little obsessed with voids, and the conception of a void, what is commonly called LACK (in all caps)... another theme in my work. What does it mean to know you don't, and have never had, something you believe you should have?

The community of Christian surfers was largely people who had got lost and hurt in the '70s, through drugs, the Vietnam war, etc. Liberals who got lost in the woods and wanted to come back to something. It was a refuge for the dispossessed, and it is these people I have found myself with most of my life (even here in the art world of New York).

I'm still making other bodies of work. For painting, I have my Scotoma series and my Haute Morgan Gesten Welt series. I've got a few drawing projects in the works and a series of larger, more sculptural painting-objects that are just in the planning stages.

All the work has to do with memory, personal and cultural. I think that's just one of the jobs of art. A job I feel suited for. Another job is realization; providing a viewer with just enough information to give them pause to reflect on themselves.

PH: You were in a group show recently at gallery Freight + Volume titled Summer of Love. Can you tell me a little about your piece in the show and the show’s title?

NC: The piece in the Summer of Love show was a remake of an earlier work, Birthday Suit. The original was a little softer and more nervous, in a lavender-violet depicting two naked surfers shyly approaching each other. The original was sold already, but the gallerist really wanted something like it, so I made a big bright yellow one, a tondo this time, titled Yellow. This time I wanted the figure in the foreground to be a little bolder. The rotondo also got me thinking about emoji and Harvey Ball, so the composition of this one is based on his yellow smiley face, which is now ubiquitous. The other work, Sprite, is a pink tondo, color, and atmosphere reminiscent of a Yuskavitch. 

PH: Are your paintings political in any way? Do you have any opinions about politically motivated art?

NC: Any art that is specifically politically motivated is boring to me—expensive political posters for people who need to tie themselves to a larger cause to avoid confronting their own LACK. Making art, by its nature, is political; the most individualistic choice one can make. Making propaganda, on the other hand, is a continuation of whatever system you believe yourself to be in. The truth is, no system is real, and your LACK is your own burden you made for yourself. You are missing nothing.

PH: I have seen more recently that you have been using weaving as a substrate for the surfer paintings. What material is it, and what prompted you to start using that material?

NC: We need texture now. Everything we touch is glass slick, and we are becoming bored. We need grit and the unforgiving. I was in love with Gauguin's burlap paintings, and after seeing a million paintings, I need that. I used to think impasto is what I wanted... but now I know I crave structure in my texture.