Walt Morton: You often paint human subjects in environments, and unlike many portrait artists who just present simple environment as a background for people, you seem very enthused about placing people in complicated, colorful and interesting settings. Sometimes the environment is of equal, or greater interest than human subjects in your work. How do you chose to relate these two things?
Jose Luis Cena Ruiz: One of the most interesting topics to me is the human figure. When you paint a portrait, you try to get the essence of the person. I believe that connecting people with the setting they move in enriches and completes the character represented.
Walt Morton: You trained in Spain as a painter and I’d like to know what that training was like and how traditional or non-traditional it was. Can you briefly outline your current working method and how you make a painting in 2017?
Jose Luis Cena Ruiz: I studied B.F.A. in Complutense University in Madrid. I spent a year preparing the exam to get in. When I entered the University, there was a classic sculpture drawing and a color one exam. Those were the days when it was really hard to pass the exams because there were a few vacancies and a lot of people trying to get into the University. Going through these studies helps open your mind. You learn a lot from other students. In this University, in particular, they had a good teaching method, though traditional, about color. You learnt painting from the beginning: building up a canvas, preparing it, making your own oil and acrylic colors, grinding and mixing pigments...You learnt how to make and place your color on your palette. I think is very important to have a good basic learning and know enough elements to play with them. My working routine is eclectic. My background studies on engraving and design have let me investigate different elements and techniques when I paint. I try to use both the virtues of graphic design and painting. I usually paint on linen on a wood base structure. I feel the linen texture very interesting because of the track it leaves behind when I paint. I can´t stop investigating with new tools to see how paintings respond, but today, plastic and rubbered scrapers are one of my favorite tools. I lean on photography to make sketches. I think it is really important also to have the “plain air” experience. But we are living in the digital era so avoiding photography doesn’t make any sense. As futile as as if we had to continue grinding our own pigments when you can buy a higher quality one.
Walt Morton: Your painting explores inventive color use, as well as broken color. Can you explain your current thinking on color and how you are making your color choices?
Jose Luis Cena Ruiz: Color is a language in itself. Happiness, sadness, are states of mind you can express just using color. I use it to balance composition in the paintings too, and to lead the viewers eye. It is a really expressive and useful weapon to bear in mind. As I mentioned before, my university teachers have always taken a great care of color, at least, when I was a student. You spent the whole year working on color based compositions. I didn’t really realized how important those exercises were. Shortly after, you become aware they have changed your painting point of view. Colors help you to organize your work. I guess everybody has a teacher who highly influenced their thought, but to me, it was José María Garayo. He was the one who changed my painting understanding point of view.
Walt Morton: A strong feature of your painting is your occasional use of silhouette as a design approach. I see how very effective this can be with something like the barstools in your painting “Geometric Lights.” What’s your approach to employing silhouette?
Jose Luis Cena Ruiz: Silhouette is a very useful resource used both in graphic design and engraving. In contrast to photography, where we catch the instant, silhouette can suggest the development of an action. The outlines stand for something that’s in, was in, or could have been in — a certain moment and place where the action is happening. They help me in encouraging people´s imagination, playing an active role on people rather than a simple observer. Our brain tends to complete open-shaped objects and to establish relationships between them due to their outlines. There is a quote from Lucio Muñoz, a Spanish painter I like very much, that says: “Why a sheet has to be more important than the space between them?” It is a sentence that made me think. There are more important spaces produced between objects than the objects themselves, though we don´t notice it.
Walt Morton: What do you do when a painting does not succeed? Some artists destroy their failures, others paint over them or spend months adjusting them. What about you?
Jose Luis Cena Ruiz: First of all, we should stop on the meaning of failure. An unsold painting? A painting that we no longer like? We often learn from "failure.” They are part of the learning process. So then, would it be a failure really? I don´t often destroy my paintings. When a painting doesn’t please me, I let her rest. I turn them back and I stop looking at it for a week. Time also paints. Sometimes We have been painting for such a long time that we don´t really see what the painting is offering us. I still keep some of my paintings from the University. They are not the best ones, but it is really necessary to look back to improve.
Walt Morton: From your perspective in Spain, how do you see the contemporary painting universe? Do you feel like you are well-situated in a place where traditional fine art is valued — or do you feel you’d rather be under a spotlight at the Gagosian Gallery in Beverly Hills? What’s the mental climate for a young Spanish painter?
Jose Luis Cena Ruiz: When you finish your degree, you are really lost. Nobody tells you what to do, where to go, what opportunities are ahead. You just come out of a bubble to the real world and you realize how hard it is. There is a long painting tradition in Spain. There have been countless fantastic painters in the history of our country. Velazquez, Sorolla, Ramón Casas, Fortuny, Picasso. We could fill dozens of pages with famous and relevant painters. The problem is that the sensitiveness towards art needs to be educated. Spain has ignored all the subjects to do with creativity for many years. Today these subjects have become obsolete, or in many cases, optionals or extracurricular. Nowadays, it is very hard to earn one´s living when you are a painter. The property bubble is over and there is not a financial incentive for collectors in this country. It is sad to realize that people prefer having an Eiffel Tower poster (with a million copies exactly the same) at home rather than having an original masterpiece with character and personality. I don´t care if I’m in Gagosian, but I was determined that I wanted to paint since I entered the University of Fine Arts, that was my language and a vital need. I´ll keep on fighting for that.
BIO: Jose Luis Cena Ruiz
José Luis Ceña Ruiz was born in Malaga in 1982. He studied Fine Art at Complutense University, Madrid (2000-2005) and Engraving and Graphic Design at the Royal Spanish Mint, Madrid. He is now Head of Media Graphics Printing at Castilla la Mancha University. José has won many art prizes. Recent ones include Honorable Mention II Award ModPortrait (2015), Bodegas Lozano Prize XIII Award ‘Virgen de las Viñas - Tomelloso (2014), Finalist XXL López Villaseñor (2012), Artistic Exchange with the National Wetland Museum of China (2012) and Finalist - V Figurative Painting Award, Arts & Artists Foundation - Barcelona (2010). His work can be viewed in numerous public collections including MEAM, European Contemporary Art Museum - Barcelona, Wetland Museum of China, Rafael Botí Foundation, Complutense Foundation - Madrid, The National Library - Madrid and the Royal Mint Museum - Madrid.