Abraham Cruzvillegas Makes Art With Sonnets, Science, And Threes
For Mexican artist Abraham Cruzvillegas’s latest Los Angeles exhibition, three is a magic number. “Tres sonetos” is built around triplets, using a set of rules he created for himself based on three groups of three.
During an opening night performance, Cruzvillegas moved through the gallery space at Regen Projects, going into the assembled crowd’s personal space and taking advantage of the energy within a live audience. He even shared hugs with several friendly faces among the throng.
If he believes in anything, it’s science, Cruzvillegas told LAist.
“With the vaccine, maybe we can reconnect with society, with crowds, [and] with people, with more confidence,” he said.
Throughout the pandemic, Cruzvillegas stayed connected with his art students via Zoom — he teaches in Paris.
“We discovered that it’s possible — that it’s easy, in fact — to do this. But it was also very sad, not being in person,” Cruzvillegas said. “It was very complicated in terms of the soul’s health.”
The artworks put up for display include three sets of three: three sculptures, three large drawings, and three painted handkerchiefs. The sculptures take the form of platforms set around the room, featuring simple geometric shapes — with primary colors of blue, yellow, and red — along with secondary accent colors.
Like a Venn diagram, this work is also about the spaces in between.
“Three shapes that intersect together, and they produce something in the center that is the meaning,” Cruzvillegas said.
The Los Angeles In “Tres Sonetos”
That philosophy of the spaces in between also applies to the cities where his art is made and those where it resides, as well as the people who gather to experience it.
“It’s not about my life, it’s more about my context and the environment that allowed me to become whatever I am,” Cruzvillegas said. “I try to learn and listen to the local, including some elements into my learning, into the process of the work — so it mingles together my own experience with the locals' experience.”
Local experiences can also interconnect, Cruzvillegas noted. He pointed to both humans and other animals migrating beyond just one place, such as the monarch butterfly’s journey from western Mexico up into Illinois.
“What is the local, at the end?” Cruzvillegas asked with a sense of amusement. “This is fun — what describes the identity of someone or something that is emblematic of somewhere?”
Cruzvillegas has exhibited at Regen Projects before, with his first exhibition in Los Angeles being one that explored Pachuco culture. He felt that it was a topic that he understood but that also had strong local relevance, given the history of L.A. and zoot suiters of the city’s past.
“But it had an impact also on me in Mexico when I was a teenager, through the films, zoot suits, and so on,” Cruzvillegas said, “but also the Mexican pachucos that we have, that I always refer to as my ancestors — as the punks of their time, but related to an economic and political environment that produced a very rich and beautiful culture.”
Breaking His Own Rules
After showing his art publicly since 1987, his latest L.A. work breaks with much of what he’s been known for in the service of something fresh.
“I wanted to make something completely different from anything I did before in my work,” Cruzvillegas said. “So I tried to make this challenge to myself, asking myself to produce something completely new — but of course, very much based in previous works and projects. This was a very good challenge.”
He started with that rule of threes, but also allowed for improvisation, both in the creation of the work and in his opening night presentation.
“I try to create a set of rules for myself, and then I improvise,” Cruzvillegas said. “So there’s no script, but it’s more like producing some questions that take shape in space, that you can call ‘art’ — sculpture, performance, video, drawing.”
Citing punk music as an inspiration, Cruzvillegas has a rebellious side.
“I of course wanted to include an element that breaks the rules,” Cruzvillegas said.
So he added a fourth element outside his system: the work of Mexican poet Concha Urquiza, giving the assembled work its name, “Tres sonetos” — three sonnets. Urquiza, a mystic who worked in the 1920s, became known as one of the best poets in contemporary Mexican history. She’s particularly revered by other poets, artists, and writers, according to Cruzvillegas.
“She was always referring to God, speaking about the love for God, trying to have a relationship with God,” Cruzvillegas said. “But for many people who analyze or interpret her poetry, they say that for her, God takes shape in words. So, this is poetry.”
Cruzvillegas stepped onto the platforms with controlled movements, as if measuring them with his steps, reciting these poems for the opening night crowd. The remnants of that opening performance are still part of the work, with the book he read from — Urquiza’s Poesías y prosas — left behind atop a platform.
As a teenager, he started to connect with her work, which cultivated a sense of cultural identity in him. He’s wanted to include her in his work since the late 1980s, but said that he didn’t know how to do it until now.
“In the '20s, right after the Mexican revolution, the construction of Mexican identity was very important — if not the most important project in culture for the government, for producing a monolithic identity as Mexico was burning,” Cruzvillegas said. “Everybody who knows her life and work, they worship her.”
He grew up in a Catholic family that fought for human rights, Cruzvillegas said, but he quit the church when he was a teenager. Despite that, his family’s social justice spirit comes through in his interests and the work that he produces.
A part of what Cruzvillegas loves about Urquiza is how important she was to Mexico in that era, before it became what he described as a “macho culture, ruled by men, including the art world.” She also came from the same historic homeland as Cruzvillegas’s father in western Mexico.
“At that time, it was important to be radical. In a very male-ruled culture, she was a communist, she was also Catholic, and she was a lesbian,” Cruzvillegas said. “It was very exceptional — and I think she was not comfortable for many people.”
Art In Everything
There’s a musicality to Cruzvillegas’s work. On opening night, the artist drummed in rhythm while stalking around the work. He used deer antlers as drumsticks, beating a pair of turtle shells and striking the antlers on the gallery’s hard floor. At the end of the performance, he stabbed the antlers into the wall, hanging his drums from them.
Over the past decade, Cruzvillegas has started to use music in his projects, inspired by music’s influence on his life. That includes the use of his platform sculptures as instruments in their own right, dancing on them to create more percussive sounds, by turns “using them as planes, sculptures, and instruments,” he said.
Even his body is part of the pieces making up “Tres sonetos.” For the first time, Cruzvillegas painted himself for this project, part of one of the sets of three — in this case, the three handkerchiefs — as well as part of his live performance. The paint was streaked across his scalp, contrasting with his sharp suit and glasses. To make the handkerchief prints, he painted his own head and face, then printed photos of himself onto the handkerchiefs.
Cruzvillegas said he finds joy in using unexpected approaches to the process of creating art. Another case in point: the large, bright paintings on the walls, made up of large strokes he created using a mop.
Building On Instability
Cruzvillegas is perhaps best known in recent years for his autoconstrucción style, using inspiration from the unstable, ad hoc construction seen in the Ajusco area of Mexico. In his own work, it’s meant creating art that’s not always permanent, with pieces that could collapse at any moment. He’s used the style in exploring environmental issues, among others — but it’s a much smaller part of “Tres sonetos.”
“It’s something that will not remain as an artwork, but just its documentation,” Cruzvillegas said. “So this combination of things, together with objects that are part of an exhibition that remain, and that can go to institutions, collections, and so on — it’s a good balance for me.”
Cruzvillegas incorporates inspirations from throughout his life, he said, but it hasn’t been something that he’s discussed until now. Those inspirations include music, film, books, philosophy, poetry, and personal experience.
“Like maybe a good evening with friends, sipping tequila or listening to music together, or enjoying a good walk — this information,” Cruzvillegas said.
That information also includes Urquiza’s incorporation into this work, according to Cruzvillegas.
“For every artist, there are many references that we cannot deny,” Cruzvillegas said. “We create nothing, we invent nothing, everything exists there, and we just take elements of reality to make a new work that is a new arrangement of things.”
Cruzvillegas’s Origin Story
For those who may be inspired to follow in his footsteps, Cruzvillegas found art while exploring what he found fun in high school. He directed and wrote a piece of theater, thought for a while about becoming a biologist, and spent time wanting to be a punk rocker.
“I discovered that I loved to make drawings better than anything else,” Cruzvillegas said.
In the mid-1980s, he started to work as an cartoonist/illustrator for magazines and newspapers in Mexico while attending college. But as he sought to say something without creating propaganda, he challenged himself to both learn and to “produce good questions,” Cruzvillegas said.
“[Art] produces more engagement than making pamphlets,” he said. “It’s more about pointing at certain specific situations of reality, not in a didactic way, but in a critical way that can produce collective discussion for producing better questions to ourselves — embracing the responsibility that it means being a human, and not just dropping everything onto the politicians and the state. Asking ourselves, what’s our duty?”