Ronewa had the pleasure of meeting up with American artist Douglas Diaz as he traveled through Berlin to chat about his introspective art-making process and the profound ideas about memory and identity that thread his new series Memorias (Memories) together. We delved into concepts of identity construction and collective histories, the artist’s disciplined practice of meditation, and how place impacts his work.
The online exhibition Memorias (Memories) is live in the Ronewa online viewing room from November 17 to December 31, 2021.
April Dell: Your new series of works on paper coming to the Ronewa online viewing room bring together themes around memory. What is your particular interest in this topic?
Douglas Diaz: It came about when I was walking through Milan. I noticed there is a strong celebration of history there. There is an interesting problem when people are tied through their history. How does this connection inform the way you create new experiences if you constantly understand them as catalogs for an archive of some sort?
From a western perspective, we think of time and memories as linear. However, we only have memories in the present. In popular culture, we fantasize about time travel, but we’re doing it all the time. That’s just what living in the present moment is.
I immediately began thinking about collective time and memory. The most classic notion of this is a historical event, like the COVID-19 pandemic. We all have our personal experience of it, but it's also wrapped up in a collective experience. The problem with histories is that they’re meant as justifications for behaviors and actions.
AD: Histories are constructed narratives.
DD: Exactly, narratives that have been neatly rationalized. I realized that identities are attached to memory. When identity is constructed through memory, it’s condensed and packaged in a way that, while it has flaws, it’s untouchable. I thought, am I this accumulation of memories within a historical framework, or do I get to choose who I am in the present moment?
This body of work is the beginning of my investigation into these questions. I chose the title in Spanish because Memorias is a feminine noun. For me, the feminine has something to do with creation. When we tell a memory from the past, we are creating it in the present.
Leave No Trace, 2021, mixed media on paper, 70 x 50 cm., 27 1/2 x 19 3/4 in.
AD: How do these ideas about memory play out in the Memorias works - visually or in your process?
DD: When I change series in my practice, I slightly modify my techniques. This is based on the simple premise that if you learn new information, you act differently. So my techniques and movements for this series were an outcome of my questioning of new ideas about memory. I had to spend some time just getting rid of old movements and figuring out new ones.
On an emotional level, while creating this body of work, I was contemplating what it means to belong to a group of people. How does collective history inform the choices I make as a descendant of a particular ethnic group? When I first read James Baldwin’s hugely important text The Fire Next Time, it really resonated with me. Like Baldwin, I felt fated to experience the marginalized American condition. I’ve come to understand that Baldwin is really discussing the lack of humanity with which the historical lens has framed both the oppressed and the oppressor. The two are intertwined in a locked fate, reinforced through patterns of repetition. I believe Baldwin left the US for France largely because he understood that his identity was greater than that perpetuated by the American historical context.
Working on this series, I began asking, are my histories already set, or can I make them anew, like in the case of me learning new movements?
AD: You employ a range of mark-making techniques within this series of works – from your characteristic splashes of paint, abstract sketches, and broad, blunt paint strokes to the repetition of horizontal lines in the works titled ‘Finding Myself Within Time.’
Do certain types of mark-making carry a particular emotion, association, or energy?
DD: Even though there are recognizable motifs and an aesthetic continuity across most of my work, the movement within my body is very different. When you look at Memorias, there are roughly four types of works that each look different. This is because of the material, what tool is in my hand. For some works, I used a piece of wood to push paint around. But actually, it’s all the same gesture.
The marks that my grandmother calls “chicken scratches” are drawn with this tension from me building up energy, resisting, and resisting, then letting go. That’s exactly what’s happening with the straight lines too. Right before I put pencil to paper, I'm holding the pencil with so much tension, and then I just let it go. I’m not interested in making a straight line. What I’m interested in is how, as I move across the 70-centimeter wide piece of paper, the movement of my arm naturally has a slight kink to it. I know that's going to happen and I try to resist it.
These horizontal line works are about collective history and how if we know a history – like me knowing this about how my arm moves – how do we resist it or succumb to it. The repetition is like trying to overcome it and rewrite it.
Finding Myself Within Time #1, 2021, mixed media on paper, 100 x 70 cm., 39 3/8 x 27 1/2 in.
AD: How does meditation fit into your practice?
DD: I started painting because of meditation. I was learning how to meditate in Zazen, which is a practice of Japanese Zen Buddhism. When you’re a beginner, like I am, you count your breath in and out. The point of it is to let your thoughts pass through without getting attached to them. It's not necessarily to disconnect from life or what’s happening around you.
When creating work like this, I meditate before every drawing. So I draw and paint sitting on the ground. I allow myself to reach this space where certain levels of awareness – evaluating, judging, analyzing – fade away. Once I find the void of that space, then I immediately start drawing. I become truly lost in it. The more I meditate, the works become better in the sense that they hone in on the topic I’m contemplating.
AD: While meditating for this series, in what ways did the topic of memory come up?
DD: When I’m in this state, I try not to think about intellectual ideas. For these works, I focused on the feeling of a memory. There’s a drawing called ‘That Time in Bali’ that is based on the feeling of being with my beloved in the ocean – this incredible feeling of the sand beneath my feet and the way the water hits my body. I was trying to capture where my heart and mind were at that moment, but through what I’m experiencing right now. As the work is unfolding and I’m paying attention to the emotions that come up.
AD: You’ve written about incorporating honesty, vulnerability, and humility into your process. Why is this important to your work?
DD: When I make work that isn’t completely honest, the clarity of my intentions isn’t there. When I'm vulnerable, I become much more honest. If you’re too guarded, then the work is a different type of work, and as a consequence, viewers don’t feel a certain level of impact. Someone might understand the work intellectually, but it hasn’t touched their soul – and that’s what I’m interested in. When you look at it, does it push you into an emotional dimension? Does it challenge you or force you to negotiate something?
Humility is more of an outcome. I’m arrogant enough to think I can sit in front of a piece of paper and channel my emotions and create something. But I’m humble enough to know that I’m just a medium for this energy. I have to be diligent and disciplined in my practice. A lot of preparation goes into it; I try to stay focused in the emotional and energetic space as much as possible.
AD: You also employ language in your work. Where do these words come from?
DD: If I’m reading or listening to something, I will pick out certain things and put them in a collection. There are multiple tabs open in an archive in my head. I don’t collect them for a particular work. I might suddenly remember something that I archived five years ago and I can go and find it.
Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time has been lingering in the background for years. It inspired three works in this series that each take a quote from the book that express my desire to take flight from a preordained narrative and propose something new. The colors of these works are intetionally extracted from the American flag as a kind of commentary on being marginalized from the American discourse.
I Imagine One of the Reasons, 2021, mixed media on paper, 70 x 50 cm.,
27 1/2 x 19 3/4 in.
In two of these works, the red and the blue, the text became obscured in the painting process. The text is often the first layer I put down because if there are words in my head, it’s hard to get around them. I have to write them down to expunge them from my mind so that I can paint.
AD: You use a lot of black and grey, and also negative space. Why are you drawn to these elements? Are there other colors you’re specifically drawn to?
DD: There is a piece called ‘I Sea You,’ which is a precursor to ‘That Time in Bali’. It references the sea and has the color blue. But actually, my use of the color blue is less about the representation of the ocean as it is about what it means to be in blue light, which has to do with purity. Usually, when I use blue I’m referring to the higher order that organizes the energy between people. I’m influenced by the idea that colors have an energetic quality; they’re connected to the chakras of the body. I care less about the aesthetic, it’s about the energy. I use red because it's a grounding color and it's very primordial. Deep, passionate things like anger are in the family of red.
Black to me is about intensity; it's the velocity of something rather than the direction. I’m interested in black because it expresses the intensity of emotion. I don’t subscribe to the morality of black as darkness and white as purity – that's a social construct.
AD: You created the Memorias works while traveling. What are the challenges and the benefits of creating away from your studio?
DD: I have this curse: if I go too long without painting, my mood changes and I become quiet, grumpy, and my demons come out. It’s about releasing a certain amount of energy and nothing else can substitute it. So on this trip, I’ve been very deliberate about it. My bag is full of materials.
Of course, there are the practical constraints of painting in a hotel room. But the lack of familiarity is something that I really enjoy. In my work and my life, I’m constantly trying to fight the default. When I have all my materials and I’m working in my perfectly primed studio, then I have to fight against that level of comfort.
Douglas Diaz in his studio. Photo by Larisa Sakhnenko.
AD: Does the particular place you’re living in or are traveling in impact your work?
DD: What I love about painting while I travel is that every place I go has a different energy level. Japan, for me, has a hyper pure energy. The mountains have a history of thousands of years of people meditating there, and the connection to that energetic source is so clear. In Hawaii, I experience the same clarity, but the energy is very intense. It’s like riding an angry bull. The energies of cities and urban spaces are harder for me to tap into. I loved Milan, but it was difficult to paint there.
AD: It must have been a challenge being restricted to one space during the pandemic lockdowns in Bali. Can you tell me about the series you created during this time? Was it a deliberate coping mechanism?
DD: One of the reasons I travel is to escape the boredom of repetition. Which is ironic because how I work is massively repetitive. But I’ve worked hard to do the tasks I do deliberately and with presence of mind. What the pandemic did was test this mindset.
I was traveling in Bali when the lockdown hit. I am claustrophobic, and I realized there is a certain amount of claustrophobia in this repetition I have developed. Then anxiety and panic hit. I remember waking up one day and thinking, I don’t think I'll make it through this. It struck me that I needed to go back to drawing.
The series wasn’t planned, it was a knee-jerk reaction. Initially, I only bought ten pieces of paper, which forced me to challenge myself: if I can only do one drawing a day, which is not typically how I work, what would it be? It was a practice of discipline.
The quarantine series was my response to that situation: the claustrophobia, the panic, the uncertainty. Beautiful things like gratitude and feeling super connected to people came out of it. For the second quarantine series I created in 2021, I decided to focus on how other people were responding to the situation. I shared a set of prompts on Instagram to lead the conversation: “I am…”; “I yearn for....”; “I will….” A lot of the responses resonated with me very deeply.
AD: How did that experience inform your choice to explore the topic of memory and collective histories?
DD: It gave me an incredible reflection of what others were experiencing and how I fit into that. It was also very challenging because it was emotionally draining. I was exhausted. Afterward, I had to disconnect from people and dive back into myself again. Now, working on this memory topic, I feel more grounded.
AD: You mentioned using Instagram to connect with people for your quarantine series. What have you observed about the boom in online art activity, and how do you feel about it as an artist?
DD: I only began using social media when someone suggested I start sharing my work on Instagram. I was interested in the potential for engagement – not in terms of receiving praise or evaluations on my work, but in the interaction between people it generates. When I post, I describe the process, what I felt, and what it meant to me. People engage with that and it becomes a conversation. It creates a window for making connections with people and their lives.
I used to do a lot of work in the digital space, doing virtual reality and modeling in the architecture field in the mid-90s and 2000s. So I knew we were heading towards this space that blurred the digital and real world. I think what the pandemic has done to accelerate it is to raise the comfort level of being in this digital space and relating to each other across it.
Images courtesy of the artist.
Douglas Diaz – Memorias (Memories)
November 17 – December 31
Ronewa online viewing room
Ronewa Art Projects