The bedrock of the imagination: Sebastián Hidalgo’s fantastical interpretations of reality and sensory perception

'Akira Toxqui' artist project by Sebastián Hidalgo and Rafael Uriegas

Sebastián Hidalgo’s painting practice is an explorative one. Working between different mediums and grounds—oil paint, ink, graphite; marble, linen, canvas, paper— Sebastián emphasises sensory experience and tactile perception as integral to his act of making for the way the material interacts with his subject matter. It is the emphatic materiality of his process that anchors the fantastical, surreal qualities of his images in the world of tangible experience. In the paintings Bocanada (Puff) and Baile (Dance), the ethereal, almost vaporous oil-rendered images of a celestial outward breath and an indistinct dancing figure are given solidity, density and opacity by the chunks of marble on which they are painted. For Sebastián, the planes of reality and the imagination are intersecting and have a mutual bearing upon one another. That which is otherworldly contains, in his view, the capacity to be palpably felt by altering one’s perception of immediate reality.

This notion of defamiliarising the viewer from the accepted perimeters of the real is conceptually present throughout Sebastián’s work. His paintings show surreal landscapes, hazy human forms with blurred faces, disembodied hands which enter the frame as though thrust into view by an unseen figure, fantastical creatures with human aspects, shapes which linger on the verge of becoming something recognisable while simultaneously being pulled towards abstraction and obscurity. The figures that appear in his images are like those seen in a dream, their features smeared and blended together, or else spliced with outlandish beings. The surreal quality of Sebastián’s work is upheld by his use of colour. In many paintings, brightly dappled neons lend an unearthly luminosity to his subjects, while in others, contradictory chromatic choices highlight the tension between perceived reality and imagined fantasy. While Sebastián states, “my work can’t offer any answers”, his images do offer a distorting lens through which the viewer is invited to peer as a way of reconfiguring their perceptions and understanding, both of the external world and of their own internal landscape.

Based in Cholula, Puebla, Mexico, Sebastián is currently experimenting with rendering his paintings in large-scale formats, finding inspiration in everything from Seurat to sci-fi, Mezcala culture art to his own perceptual experiences.

AMM: Hi Sebastián! To start off—can you tell us a bit about your background and your studies, and how your art practice became your main focus?

SH: I was born in Mexico and spent my childhood on the periphery of Puebla, a city placed in a valley surrounded by volcanos. The place I grew up in had a lot of high trees and free spaces to wander around; that environment led me to establish a close relationship with the natural world. I am the son of a taxidermist and an anthropologist, which gave me access to a craft workshop and an awareness of ancient mesoamerican art.

I’ve been drawing most of my life—I felt a strong attraction to it from an early age. I lived in Germany and Canada for a while, and when I was entering my twenties, after working for a year as a dishwasher, I decided to dedicate myself to art. I did a BFA between Spain and Mexico. When I was done with those studies and was on my own, I immersed myself in the practice.

AMM: Your recent works incorporate different mediums—what is the thinking behind your choice of materials?

SH: It’s hard to know which event may shift the direction of the work. It can be a personal experience or finding something of interest while working, like a material, an alternative way to apply paint or a different point of view. I’ve been mainly working with oil because it is a very flexible medium and it offers me a lot of possibilities, but I do change medium when I’m drawn to it. These changes boost my attention and help me understand things differently. When I go back to oil I see things with a fresh view. Lately, I’ve been going back and forth between drawing and painting. In a certain way they have become the same for me.

En el pasto (In the Grass), oil on linen, 81 x 61.5 cm

AMM: What is it about marble that attracts you to it as a ground on which to paint? Does it make you work differently to how you would on canvas?

SH: Marble is mostly made of calcium carbonate; it can serve as a ready-made undercoat to paint on and certain kinds absorb and reflect light in a particular manner, providing a bright white surface that enables a broad spectrum of colour. Painting on a rock feels peculiar and marble has a special presence to me. It feels good to be close to it and to hold it in my hands. There is something about rocks, you kind of sense their density and weight when you are close to them. Technically speaking, I haven’t found much of a difference between working on marble and canvas, the difference lies more in the sensations you get while working and in the possibilities that unfold before you. From that perspective it does make me work differently to how I would on canvas.

AMM: How do you negotiate the dichotomy of abstraction and figuration?

SH: It has been a process for me, since I got used to looking at paintings in both ways at the same time. It is a tension between matter and image. The pole towards which a piece moves depends on what I am chasing or looking for at that moment—it is often subject to its own evolution.

AMM: There is a vaguely surreal quality to many of your works, particularly those that include otherworldly figures—can you expand on the concepts underlying your subject matter?

SH: Fantasy and imagination play a role in the world we inhabit. They may operate in their own plane of reality, but they have an effect in the tangible world. When I was a child, animated cartoons had a big impact on my mind; they can push you quickly to feel a wide range of emotions and alter the mind while you watch them. I think that may have contributed to developing an inclination towards those kinds of shapes.

I use otherworldly figures as an amplifier, to provoke an alteration in our perception and to induce us to question ourselves about reality and its boundaries. Plus, it gives me a wider range of freedom while working, to detach shapes from reality. All in all I think my work can’t offer any answers, it’s just made to provide bridges and doors.

Fuego (Fire), oil on linen, 27 x 38 cm

AMM: What role does symbolism play in your work?

SH: I’m interested in the way symbols evolve as well as in their capacity to compress and concentrate big amounts of information, ideas and meanings. It also makes me curious how they are conceived. I use them sometimes to synthesize, to alter their course of direction, to expand them or to play with complexity. Symbolism works for me as a tool to be used when needed.

AMM: How do notions of selfhood and interiority enter your images? What do you think of the notion that art is always a reflection of the self?

SH: I have always been attracted to the inner world, my relationship with it and my understanding about it has been evolving since I was a child. Eventually that attraction found its way to the surface through my work. I think that looking inward helps us to expand our comprehension and it also encourages us to develop deeper connections with the world. Consequently, part of my work comes from personal experiences and inner states, but I use those forces just as fuel. At some point those works become something else, meant to resonate and interact with people and their own inner states.

I don’t see art as a reflection, its origin and its destination are still a mystery to me, but if we picture the self as an inherent part of us, then I could see art passing through ourselves. I think the self acts like a filter.

Bocanada (Puff), oil on marble, 9.5 x 10 x 2 cm

AMM: Can you tell us about your solo exhibitions? When working towards a show, do you create a body of work centred on a single theme, or do you think of each artwork as a standalone piece?

SH: I don’t create a body of work centred on a single theme—at least I don’t conceive it that way. I tend to work in cycles, in spirals, and usually all the pieces that belong to a cycle share common characteristics due to the interests that I may have at that particular time. So, even though I try to take each piece its own way, they end up connecting. At the end I like to see the whole result and how the pieces interact with space and with each other; it opens new dimensions of dialogue and an unexpected overall sensation. There is a kind of tension about it that I enjoy.

AMM: What is your approach when it comes to making a piece? Do you plan or sketch out compositions beforehand?

There is a lot of creative visualization involved. I usually look for starting points— it can be colour, an idea, a concept, a composition, a stain, a sensation—then I see where they can take me. I use no specific method, sometimes I plan thoughtfully and other times I like to balance on the tightrope until something appears. Recently I have been spending more time working on compositions.

Baile (Dance), oil on marble, 16 x 10 x 2.2 cm

AMM: Could you please tell us about your collaborations, in particular working with Rafael Uriegas on a piece ‘El río nos confrontó (The River Confronted Us)’? You evidently share points of common interest, but what differences or distinct perspectives do you think you each bring to the work?

SH: Akira Toxqui is a collaboration project with Rafael Uriegas. We made up a ghostly figure to open new fields of creativity and to free ourselves from ourselves. Working in duo with Rafa has been an enriching experience, it expands my understanding of painting and of the creative process. It gives us unexpected perspectives and an atmosphere of uncertainty while working, and that I value a lot because it drives the work to the unknown and you learn a lot along the way.

AMM: Are there other artists, either from art history or currently practicing, whose work has had an influence on your own?

SH: Overall much of what I have seen has had—in different measures—an influence on my work, and it hasn’t been limited to the visual. Lately I have been into the Mezcala culture art, Seurat and sci-fi. To me it’s a matter of absorbing and forgetting information. Aesthetics change and evolve; I’m mostly interested in the medium possibilities as well as in what drives some people to spend part of their lifetime pursuing those possibilities.

Proyector (Projector), ink and oil on marble, 29.5 x 9.5 x 7 cm

AMM: Outside of visual art, what inspires your work? Do you ever look to film, literature or current events?

SH: I appreciate people who go as deep as they can into something until the point where they forget themselves, I like to listen to music made that way. I rarely watch TV, I prefer watching films once in a while. I used to read a lot about Taoism, Zen Buddhism, Yoga and Mysticism; occasionally I read literature and texts. Nowadays I spend more time staring at the world.

AMM: What conditions are necessary for you to be able to create? Do you have any rituals or routines that help you to work?

SH: It helps a lot to avoid being in a hurry, having time is the most valuable condition for me. Apart from that, my actions and routines are usually quite simple and ordinary if you look at them from the outside.

AMM: Are there other directions you envision your work taking? Will you continue experimenting with different mediums and materials?

SH: At the moment I am concentrated on painting and I have the projection of working in bigger formats, to stand in front of bigger colour fields. That’s all I know about my direction at the moment.

AMM: How have you managed to maintain your practice in the past year? Have you found ways of continuing to work?

SH: I tried to adapt to the situation and to the change of rhythms as far as possible. Fortunately, I didn’t experience any dramatical alteration in my working habits.

AMM: What role do you think art has in times of crisis?

SH: I see crisis as the consequence of a previous state, and from this point of view I think art—along with other means—can help us to base our choice of priorities on more stable principles.

Find out more about the artist: www.sebastianhidalgo.net

Interview by Rebecca Irvin for ArtMaze Magazine.

Lengüita, oil on linen, 51 x 37 cm