Sylvia Fernández: On the Life of Painting. Part One.
Updated: Mar 14
By Karen Moe.
Sylvia Fernández Conversación 6 50 x 40 cm. Oil on Canvas, 2019.
I love talking to painters.
And writing about them, too. This isn’t only because I have no idea how to paint, that it’s a mystery to me personally as to how stroke and colour combine to create visualized epiphanies; it is primarily because there is a mystery to painting that is often described by the painters themselves where, once instigated by the artist, the painting soon exists beyond their reach, even while they are painting it. Sylvia Fernández is such a painter.
“Painting is like falling in love,” Fernández told me during our interview in the fall of 2020. As when two lovers first meet, the intensity of the fresh passion has an ebullience that feels as though it will last forever: the conversation, the curiosity, the love-making is eternal in that moment. So, too, the life of the new painting, once given breath, is in a constant dialogue with their artist/lover and, like when entranced by a new love who has magically become the most astonishing creature, in Fernández’s words: “it surprises you continuously.”
Post-Modernism and its twentieth century art schools that promulgated the reign of the concept is the context from which Fernández emerged in the 1990s. Post-Modern Conceptualism, with its stringent scripture of premeditation, was the antithesis of falling in love.
“When I studied,” she told me, “the idea was so important, concept art, the way it’s going to be at the end, how you see it, everything was so linear.” For her, on the other hand, once the painting has risen from her psyche and her lived life, she has no idea what the future holds. And it doesn’t matter. Destination is the last thing on her mind.
“I trust the process more than anything,” she said, the living of the work. Her art is never still; the praxis is the painting and it is never constrained by any future intent.
Sylvia Fernández: It’s like a pulse, it’s like a rhythm. Suddenly you are in it and you’re just going. With painting, you just start and you don’t know where you’re going and it really amazes me the way it works. I don’t know if it’s good or bad and I don’t care. It’s like you get into it and you don’t stop. It takes you away to another place, somewhere that you really feel good. And it’s not just the way it makes you feel. It’s where you end up. You find something that you were never aware of.
Sylvia Fernández Conversación 18 100 x 70 cm. Oil on Canvas, 2019.
Sylvia told me a story about a cat.
A cat that started out as not her cat and then became her cat and then wasn’t her cat again.
She always starts with a landscape. The artist creates a world that she will fill—or that will fill itself—with what will happen to happen next. This world she has created is both here and not here and tells the artist what to do: “the painting waits for the image,” the painter says.
“So then something happened there,” Sylvia related about one of the worlds she has painted, her recollection so vivid it was as though she was pointing to a canvas long-since filled. “I remember that it started with all these blue colours and this horizon. And suddenly, I needed an animal … there's an animal … there's going to be an animal there,” she feels and she knows. “But I don't know really which one or what or if it’s even here anymore on earth … maybe an extinct animal. Then I started researching cats.” She found the Thylacinus Cynocephalus, the wolf-tiger of Tanzania that was reported extinct in the 1970s: “and he got into my painting.”
Like her paintings being both of her world and not, the disappeared returns and is invited—or invites itself—into the world of her painting. “I’m conquering a space where I do belong and I don’t quite understand,” Sylvia told me.
But, “the cat became so fucking aggressive!” she exclaimed. She sought solace from this painting that had turned against her and went for a walk on the beach.
“This is not my cat,” she learned as she walked and then returned to the theatre of her studio. Even though the cat was still physically there, was still a painted figure in the painting, this was all he was now. The cat that had entered the painting wasn’t there anymore.
Why did the cat become aggressive? Why did what the artist needed, what she had searched for, suddenly turn on her? Or, why did she turn on it? These questions are rhetorical, of course: it is the asking that contains the answer and the answer is unanswerable as the painting is both of the artist and then not and then of and not, an undulating relationship that builds a tension with what is, what we think is and what we think we know and, like when passion is clawed into tumult, suddenly: isn’t.
The painter got rid of the cat …
Sylvia Fernández Conversación 8 150 x 150 cm. Oil on Canvas, 2019.
“Since I was young, instinct has been something that I really value,” Fernández says.
… “and I turned and my cat,” she continued. “My own cat was waiting for me. Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. And she's gray and she's kind of a bitchy cat and she was looking at me and saying:
“Hey, there you are, you are mine.” So I start painting her. She's not really the one in the painting, but she looks like her. She doesn’t have eyes. I couldn’t paint her eyes.”
The cat that the artist saw in her painting before she painted it was a mystery, a puzzle that reached beyond extinction and back again and then landed within the heart of her domestic space.
“Here was the idea of extinction, right beside me on the sofa and how we will all sooner or later disappear,” Sylvia related. And then, as the artist is guided by her unquestioned instinct, mystery, the uncanny, asserts its mastery in her work and what her paintings (don’t) tell us. As we all exist as we disappear.
Sylvia told me the story of her grandmother and her cat.
When I first became acquainted with Sylvia’s grandmother at Salon ACME during Art Week Mexico 2020, I thought she was dead. I met her in the series of paintings that are based on her, Conversaciónes con Carmen (Conversations with Carmen) that was exhibited at the booth of Lima’s Galería del Paseo. The paintings, the conversations, are about memory and loss. I wrongfully assumed that this was a loss that is final, an absolute ending, as opposed to the process of losing, in terms of life’s essence as one of disappearing. I presumed that the living had finished. I found out that the opposite was the case:
“I want to leave. I want to go,” Sylvia’s grandmother says. “I’m one-hundred years old. I want to leave. I mean, what am I doing here?”
“It is like my grandma is disappearing all the time,” Sylvia told me and, as her grandmother is trapped in her crossing of the threshold between life and death, she goes blind. Like the painter’s cat on the sofa having just returned from being extinct, her story continues as it ends and the cat and the little tiger and the grandmother overlap in the landscapes of the artist’s imaginary. “My grandmother is always saying: I wish I could see you …”
The painter goes back to her studio and paints her cat. “She doesn’t have eyes. I couldn’t paint her eyes.”
Sylvia Fernández Conversación 20 200 x 200 cm. Oil on Canvas, 2019.
Sylvia told me the story of how pink can be black.
In early twentieth century Lima, her grandmother was one of the children who floated. She was one of the white ones with their delicately rosed cheeks and their prioritized porcelain-hued skin. And, even though slavery was abolished in Peru in 1854, she was one of the privileged children who were raised by black nannies. She was kept pure in her Conquistador decent.
When I first saw Niña (Girl), I couldn’t stop staring at it. And I mean staring. Not just looking. Staring. It is beautiful and it is terrible. It makes me happy and it makes me horrified. I want to eat it and I want to throw it up. So I can’t stop staring at it. Painted in Fernández’s simultaneously minimal and decadent palette (here: pudding pinks in combination with an impenetrable black), the broad brush strokes of what we feel as flesh pulse outwards into the sharp demarcations of the figures. There is a liberation and a cloistering; the swathed figures are both phantoms and fairy-tales. Facing forward faceless, they are no one and everyone.
I would never have guessed the truth that the artist painted in front of what I later learned is a curtain where canceled-out lives are brought to the forefront of a cultural representation. And that certainly isn’t the point: my knowing exactly what and why, that is. The lived origins of all art are but touch-stones that, once given life on canvas and propelled by passion in paint, expand beyond themselves, into the psyche of one who takes the time to participate in acts of witnessing where we feel something of ourselves in what we do not necessarily know.
As Fernández explains: “there's something mysterious about painting and when you connect with it. You can feel just a little bit of what maybe the artist painting was feeling or you can feel it in yourself and suddenly it makes you react. You don't know to what, you don't know the story behind it, you don't have any idea what's going on. But whenever the viewer lets themselves go and is captured by a painting and the painting takes them away with it, it's like magic. It's like a synthesis of a ballad, like with my grandma and the story that she has inside of her.”
Sylvia Fernández Niña 40 x 35 cm. Oil on Canvas, 2017.
Sylvia Fernández: Niña started with a real picture. There was a photographer named Eugene Courret. He was a family photographer. He was French and he had his studio in the center of Lima, a really snobby thing. People went and took pictures of their families. But there was no way to hold the young child because the child just slipped away. This is maybe a six-month-old child. So they got this black curtain and put it behind the little child and the black nanny held the baby. When you went for your photo shoot, you raised the child and they floated. In my painting, I wanted to rescue that nanny and so I put a pink curtain behind her. And it talks about women and about the way we see each other and about slavery and about Lima and its social complexities. And so my grandma, in a way, was this little girl. That is my heritage.
Karen Moe: So your grandma was from the upper classes. She was one of those babies that was held by the black nanny.
SF: Yes, yes, exactly. And now, in her last conversations, she regrets so much, so many things related to that and the way she was. It’s like she’s saying goodbye to all these things that she believed in so much and suddenly she doesn't believe in. She’s in another state and she can’t believe that she ever felt like that.
KM: Wow. So she doesn’t believe in her life anymore.
SF: She believes in the love. In all the love present in her life. She adores her children and grandchildren and I don't know about my grandfather. They had a good relationship, but she was not the center of his life in a way. She allowed so many things to happen and she didn't say anything. It was a time when you let things happen because you're a woman and that's the only thing you have to do. And so everything falls apart, even though she's loved and she's taken care of. But the thing is that you can see and you can listen through her … through her voice and the way she speaks about the past, there's a real emptiness. For me, this was a starting point for Conversaciónes con Carmen.
KM: So what do you think instigated this change in her?
SF: They were selling the family house and moving my grandma to my mother's building, to an apartment there. When the move began, so many things started to come out of the closets and started to come out from her mind and her mouth, and she started to speak about the past and it was amazing because she was so straight and so strong and she believed in herself one hundred percent. She was so right all her life and suddenly everything was different.
KM: So it was like an ontological shift and it was when she left her house that everything started flying apart. All these things started coming out of the closet both literally and emotionally and existentially.
SF: Yes all of these conversations got really powerful when she was moving out but they really started when she was going blind.
KM: It’s as though, through her blindness, the world she had known all of her life disappears and she remembers what she never knew: what was happening all along and what she had been kept blind to.
SF: The first painting where I painted everything pink was a portrait of my grandmother. It's called Abuela Rosada (Pink Grandma) and she has no eyes, but she has her eyelashes. I discovered that my grandma was a pink person on a black background. She's like a strawberry pie. She's so sweet. She's so pink. The way she is. But she has all these black things inside of her like we all do and she can feel it in her lifetime. I think colour has its own significance and its own symbolism to the painter. Sometimes my blue might be black and sometimes my pink might be black, too.
Sylvia Fernández Abuela Rosada 30 x 25 cm. Oil on Canvas, 2017.
On Colour and Insects and Birthday Cakes.
Originating in the paintings of her grandmother, Fernández’s palette of pinks are so beautiful and so sweet and so pretty. But then, as this play with what one colour can contain beyond its literality builds, there is the abject. The object. The thing. What she is actually painting. The horror.
Lavate tus dedos (Wash your Fingers) begins innocently enough when it presents itself as the possibility of a birthday cake. The tones are delicious: sugary pinks both backgrounded and foregrounded by a band of ripe plum. And yet: this illusion—or delusion—quickly melts away as what could have been three candles are really three fingers poking up out of a pile of mushed up comrades and the decorative icing that would have ringed the cake is alive as squirming smears. All are mixed up in a state of saccharine decomposition.
Sylvia Fernández Lavate tus dedos 72.5 x 62.5 cm. Oil on Paper, 2020.
In Nuevos seres, beautific blues are large insects that scramble over the head, neck, shoulders, back, and ears of a silhouette that is not merely a shadow cast but, rather, a solid, the one-dimensional surface of the painting as object alive with the density of a living human. Colours infuse life. The artist explains:
“Colour allows me to carry and to take whatever monster is inside and show it … Colour is a vehicle. It's a merging between darkness and light. It's so sweet but, at the same, time it can be really aggressive.”
There is a liberation in Fernández’s paintings where, through a confluence of binaries, a merging of the dark and the light, separations disappear. As she paints, the artist relates how: “I'm in another state. I'm in another place. I'm not here. I'm in between.” Along with the pulse of her process, the paintings breathe here to there, here to there and we feel ourselves, inexplicably, there, too. Within these pictorial worlds where the dynamism of creation is never held back, we recognize and know not precisely the why of anything at all. Fernández paints the Freudian unheimliche, or the uncanny: we recognize ourselves in the strange, the inexplicable. There is always the return to the inherent mystery that underlies all human experience.
Sylvia Fernández Nuevos seres 42 x 34.5 cm. Oil on Canvas, 2020.
Sylvia told me the story of her palette.
It is a story as vivid as the one about her grandmother; the artist’s relationship with her paint is filled with a similar substance.
“Whenever I prepare colour,” she told me, “colour is like an ally, an ally to my process. Colour stays with me. And it's really interesting because colour has its own process in the palette. It stays in the palette; it waits in the palette. Then you put another colour in and then it changes and I respect that too. In the process of the colour, I don't say: Oh, I'm going to try a deep blue. No. It's just in the palette. And suddenly it turns into something really interesting. Maybe it's gray and I allow it to be in my canvas because it's also in the palette.”
When I first encountered Conversación 3, it was a true encounter in that it was absolutely unexpected and filled with the electricity of possible conflict. It was during my project of “always on the look-out for something important”  at Art Week Mexico 2020 and, when I came upon Conversación 3 at Lima’s galleria del paseo booth at Salon ACME, I found it. Finally. After slogging through trite the day before, my adrenalin was tweaked. A woman? A human being? Hair? Energy pulsing from paint, the painting that is of hair and flesh (that Sylvia later told me was the cape one wears in a hair salon) has no face. It is uncertain as to whether the figure is the back of the head or is a face covered with hair. Matted hair. Oozing through clumps to merge with the luscious brush strokes of pinks and cool greys below, greys that are a part of the pinks and pinks that are a part of the greys and one can see, both in hue and mood, the relationships within the palette. As our eyes scan across the painting, we can feel a gravitational pull towards the density of the sumptuous base. But the punctum, where the eye cannot help but return with a force that defies gravity, is the mysterious bald spot at top center. The beauty is eroded into a state of ecstatic revulsion. As the artist expressed: this painting conquered me, the viewer. And, like when falling in love, I succumbed willingly. I had no choice. And I didn’t require an answer as to why or what. I just was. Bewitched.
Sylvia Fernández Conversación 3 50 x 40 cm. Oil on Canvas, 2019.
Sylvia told me the story of this beautiful, repulsive, irresistible painting that draws me in absolutely.
Sylvia Fernández: I remember a story that I read about a woman who was in a really bad depression and, for six months, she didn’t have a bath and she didn’t even wash her hair. She eventually went to a hairdresser and they took a picture of before and after. In a way, it is metaphorically talking about abandoning yourself in a way that your portrait is just gone, you're not there anymore and what you can see in this painting is just hair and the bottom part is the cape you wear at the hairdresser.
Karen Moe: This is an interesting example of how paintings can be an adventure for the viewer that is external from the adventure that the artist has because I saw this cape as her skin.
SF: That's what painting can do, because finally I created the cape like it was skin. So I am also in touch with the feeling that you have.
KM: It’s like the reality of the cape is the starting point.
SF: Yes, and suddenly, my picture is much messier than her hair. The little picture that I saw is just a memory. I don't work from a photo or anything. And suddenly you are doing the hair and you're in it. I painted it in twenty minutes. I remember that I was really moved, almost claustrophobic because feeling that way with someone behind the hair who couldn't breathe and she was not going to breathe anymore because the painting was going to keep her in that stage. I wasn’t able to take away the hair and look at her face. So I remember doing it really quickly. You know what I mean?
KM: Yeah, yeah, yeah. You wanted to escape from your painting,
SF: Escape from the claustrophobic feeling. I remember I painted it at night, something that I usually don't do because I paint in daylight and I did it and I put my paintbrush into the bucket and I went away and I got into my bed and I said, fuck, it bothers me. Why does it bother you so much? I believe that it took me somewhere else. And it started with something completely different. The image of something that you see really connects with something that you feel.
No Need to Over-Think: Connections are Inevitable.
Conversación 9 is a horrifying painting. But not at first. At first you don’t see it. Or I didn’t anyway. But when I did, that’s all I see.
Sylvia Fernández Conversación 9 300 x 200 cm. Oil on Canvas, 2019.
A landscape. Tropical plants fan and are backgrounded by an ocean that is the same colour as the grey sky. A miniscule sun dips in the painted ambivalence of is-it-setting-or-is-it- rising. There is a figure that is at first translucent, like a cut out that is filled with what lies behind. And then, my focus tightened. It is a body, a corpse of a woman, legs, groin, arm, hand and feet is all that is seen as the torso and any individuality of a face are concealed by ferns. There are no literal signifiers of sexed female and yet we instinctively know it to be so because this is what happens so often: woman’s body found dead in forest. Once luxurious, the ferns now reveal themselves as bent. Sordid. Despicable. Fixed narrations of a conflict. How the body came to be there. Even though all that we know for sure is that it is. There. And can no longer be concealed.
The skin is the palest pink that emerges from the same palette of grey sky and sea; we can see hints of it in the heavy sky that weighs down upon the scene. This time, though, it appears that the pink was discovered in the grey and not the other way around as her dissolving flesh is but an echo on the painted texture of water and cloud. The unity speaks of inevitability, of the horror being somehow natural, of the fusion between a murdered woman’s body and its disappearance. This is all I look at now. When my gaze attempts to roam and I squint and try to once again flatten the plane and fight back to the original moment when I didn’t see her, when I only saw the disappearance in paint, my eyes snap back to what was always there. Just like in the world from which we look: female corpses vanished in the woods.
“…it starts like that,” Sylvia said, “But then it gets politically and metaphorically engaged with something else. Whenever I start to find connections, they are everywhere and I can just connect one or two, maybe by an idea and an image, and suddenly a story starts and it develops on its own. It might not even belong to me anymore.”
To be Continued ...
Sylvia Fernández Plagas (Pests) 52 x 50 cm. Oil on Paper, 2020.
 This article, Always on the Look Out (for something important) Mexico City’s Art Week 2020 was published in White Hot Magazine in February 2020. https://whitehotmagazine.com/articles/city-s-art-week-2020/4528
About the Artist:
SYLVIA FERNÁNDEZ statement
My work consists of a constant dialogue with painting, a relationship that allows me to explore intuitively through the material and arrive at images that come from the most intimate interests to plural/universal-ideas. Permanent associations between images and ideas convey to the spectator their own journey. My recent process has taken me to images that explore abandonment, disappearance, extinction—what is gone and what remains.
SYLVIA FERNÁNDEZ (Lima, 1978)
Sylvia Fernández studied at Corriente Alterna, an art school in Lima, Peru, where she graduated with honors in 2002. Since then, she has taken part in several group and solo shows both in Lima and abroad. She has also participated in different art contests, where she has been a semifinalist in BP Portrait Award (London, 2017), a finalist in Focus Abengoa Foundation’s award (Spain, 2005) and received the Pasaporte para un Artista award (Lima, 2004), among others. She has participated in fairs such as Arco (Spain) and Art Fair Cologne (Germany) and just recently Salon Acme (Mexico). Her work is part of several local and international art collections. Sylvia Fernández is represented by Galería del Paseo in Lima, Peru.
About the Writer:
Karen Moe is a writer, visual and performance artist and a feminist activist. She has been published in such magazines as Border Crossings, ArtSpace, WhiteHot and Revista 192. She is the editor and founder of the magazine Vigilance: Fierce Feminisms. Karen has exhibited and performed across Canada, in the US and in Mexico. Her first book, Victim: a Manifesto, is being published in Fall 2021. Karen lives in British Columbia, Canada and in Mexico City.