Lima-based painter Isabella Cuglievan weaves together a palette of vibrant yellows, turquoise-blues, deep purples and burnt oranges to create abstract compositions that waver between geometric symmetry and organic forms. A series of intersecting strokes converge upon a shifting centre as though emerging or receding from the ground on which they are painted. Working on both paper and fabric, Isabella draws on the textures of tapestry, embroidery and traditional Peruvian textile techniques, sometimes even incorporating elements of embroidery into her compositions. Primarily, however, Isabella thinks of herself as a painter, not stitching a piece together according to a fixed design, but allowing the pattern to unfold gradually through her subtle layering of brushstrokes. The abstract images she makes do not have a specific object in mind; rather they exist as a sustained meditation on, in her words, “space, energy and color.” Ultimately, the compositions are spaces onto which viewers are invited to project their own understanding and interpretation of the painted patterns and forms according to their own particular way of seeing.
Having worked and studied in Vermont and New York, Isabella now makes art in Lima, Peru. With her solo exhibition postponed due to the global pandemic, Isabella’s main focus currently is the exploration of materials and the interactions between colours in her use of acrylic ink and paint.
AMM: Hi Isabella! Just to start off – could you tell us a bit about yourself?
IC: I live and make art in Lima, Peru. I’ve lived here for most of my life, but spent a few years studying and working in Vermont and New York.
AMM: What was it that led you to pursue art as a career?
IC: I don’t think I ever saw myself doing anything else. There were a few detours along the way but I’ve realised they were probably more a by-product of self-doubt and fear. I also suspect there’s a relation between my art-making and the fact that I don’t consider myself to be good with words.
AMM: How would you describe the style of the work that you make?
IC: I think it sits comfortably within the sphere of abstraction and uses pattern and color almost shamelessly.
AMM: We see that you work with textiles as well as paint, and there is a quality to your paintings that puts us in mind of woven threads and materials – can you tell us about your use of textiles, and how it overlaps with your painting work?
IC: Yes! I hear that often. Those who have only seen my pieces on a screen may think they are indeed textiles or weavings at a first glance. It gets even more confusing when I add the embroidery element. I like the ambiguity of not being able to discern what it is you are looking at.
I consider myself primarily a painter and it is really from there that my approach towards textiles departs. I think of my paintbrush as a printmaking tool to create pattern, texture and form. This is true whether I’m working on paper or on fabric.
AMM: What are your preferred mediums to use? How does your approach to a piece change depending on the materials you’re using?
IC: For a long while I only made works on paper. I had a day job which felt like more than a full-time job and not much free time or space to make work. Painting on paper was an answer to those circumstances. Because I was working small scale, I could paint at night or on weekends and feel like I was actually getting some work done. It was important for me to feel that I could complete a piece and move on to the next; a way of releasing the weight of my thoughts by concentrating all of my energy into a single, bounded space.
Now I realize this was silly, but I remember convincing myself that once I got a studio I would work larger, switch mediums, maybe try canvas. For some reason that felt like the way forward. But by the time I did have a studio, I was still eagerly making works on paper. Something about how the paper has an effect on the ink as much as the ink leaves on imprint on the paper continues to fascinate me. I have yet to discover a surface that works to that effect for me. So instead of trying to reproduce what I was achieving on paper, I began looking for something different. Working on raw cotton for instance, opened up possibilities to dye and embroider the fabric. I had previously seen my embroidery work as something separate, but merging the two turned out to be a natural progression. I am still in the process of discovering where this takes me.
AMM: How do you decide on a colour palette for a piece, and what significance does colour have in the work as a whole?
IC: The work comes to be through colour. It is part of the process from the very beginning in the sense that I am drawing with colour, not colouring in. Although I often start with a combination of the same three or four colours – prussian blue, flame red, yellow ochre or purple – the palette shifts throughout. I never mix colours in the palette, I let that happen on the painted surface. By now, I am pretty familiar with how these colours interact with each other, but there is also an element of surprise that is very precious to me. New colours are revealed as I drag the brush through the surface – remnants from previous brush strokes. It is something so minute, perhaps imperceivable, but I find it electrifying.
I am interested in how two colors touch, in finding moments where color acts in a very palpable way. I would say that when I paint, more than thinking about shape, pattern and line, I am thinking about colour.
AMM: We would love to hear more about the almost kaleidoscopic effect you achieve in your artworks – do you think about this when making a piece? Do you ever use anything like a kaleidoscope for visual reference?
IC: I don’t use any direct visual references for my paintings. I guess the kaleidoscopic effect results mainly from my use of symmetry, which exists in my work in order to give it direction. I think of symmetry as a way of moving through a surface, rather than an end in itself.
AMM: Where do you think your work sits between the abstract and the figurative?
IC: My work is abstract. Sometimes, when I’m painting, I will notice the image begins to take on a figure-like quality. Because I work on vertical surfaces and use symmetry, it is almost natural for the image to suggest a body, or a temple. I used to deliberately try to paint out those semblances, but I’m learning to let the work take me to wherever it wants to go. If the image does not work, I’ll set it aside and revisit it later or toss it.
AMM: What do you want viewers to see, or feel, when they look at one of your works?
IC: I would like to steer away from ascribing any meaning or symbolism to the work that is not necessarily there for me. Some viewers may see sacred iconography, or landscapes, or references to the female form. This is totally valid for me. At best, I think each viewer’s emotions, memories, and ideas will make their way into the work… It might spark something in them I had never thought of before, something that offers an entrance into the work.
AMM: How do you go about making a painting? Do you plan before beginning the piece or do you improvise?
IC: When I begin a painting, I don’t know what it will end up looking like. I usually start at the centre and work outwards towards the edges of the paper or fabric, building the image stroke by stroke. Each brush stroke is at once a reaction to the previous one and an entry into the one that follows. Rather than choreographing the end result, I let the image emerge from itself.
AMM: What are the main influences and inspirations for your work?
IC: There are so many! Of course the most obvious ones are textiles – Pre-Columbian Peruvian tapestries which I grew up admiring, Shipibo embroideries, Ainu garments, African-American quilting traditions, to name a few. In some cases there are specific elements from each one that are reflected in my work, but it is also interesting to think about the recurring patterns across them all. What they have instilled in me more broadly is a sense of rhythm, energy and color.
Among the painters whose work I return to time and again are Alma Thomas, Ruth
Asawa, Brice Marden, Marina Adams, Max Ernst, James Siena, Hilma af Klint, Agnes Martin, Chris Ofili, Tamara Gonzales and Charles Burchfield.
AMM: How do you spend your time when you’re not making art?
IC: I spend a lot of time reading, but mostly I’m just in the studio. It is the first time I have had the chance to make art full-time, so I’m trying to take advantage of that. If I’m not painting, I’m thinking about painting, or looking at other artists’ work online or in books. I recently discovered that I can do the two things I love most at the same time—reading and painting—so I often listen to audiobooks while I work.
AMM: What conditions are necessary for you to be able to create? What is your workspace like?
IC: I like to work with music or a podcast playing in the background, something to keep me a bit distanced from the work. If I think too much about what’s in front of me, I’ll get nervous and mess up. I use acrylic ink and watered down acrylic paint, so I have to paint flat on a table. I have two architect drafting tables from the 80’s that belonged to my mother. I love them but I might have to get something larger soon. When I embroider, I sit on a comfortable chair and watch films or a tv show.
My studio is small, but it is flooded with sunlight. I use hand-dyed fabrics as curtains before painting on them, so on sunny days the light filters through and tints the studio in shades of pink and green. It is on a seventh floor, which places it at the same level as the tree canopies from the neighbouring park. I get occasional visits from saffron finches, hummingbirds and squirrels. They are virtually the only visits I get. Over the past few weeks a pair of parrotlets have been showing up around noon.
AMM: How collaborative is your practice? Do you ever make work with other artists, or if not would you like to?
IC: I’ve discussed the possibility of collaborating on an embroidery piece with an artist friend, but we haven’t gotten around doing it. We live in different countries, so for now it is something to look forward to!
AMM: How do you envision your practice developing? Any plans for the future?
IC: I hope to surprise myself. There are so many paths and curiosities I have yet to embark on, especially in terms of materials. Now that things are starting to open up a bit I hope to travel around Peru, where there is so much to learn from in the way of craftsmanship and art-making.
My first solo show is coming up at Best Western, a project space run by Marvin Gardens in New York. It was postponed because of the pandemic, but hopefully it will happen in the near future. I have followed their program for a while and am thrilled to show there!
I will also be participating in a show alongside Candice and Darren Romanelli at a new project space in Los Angeles called Stanley’s Pasadena. The show opens December 5th.
Find out more about the artist: www.instagram.com/isa_cug
Interview by Rebecca Irvin for ArtMaze Magazine.