15.03.2024 Perrotin Paris #art

Gabriel de la Mora

Art Beyond Language

Art has to be beautiful and universal, you don’t need to be an expert to experience art, you need to be human

Right before the opening of his new exhibition at Perrotin Paris, we caught up with Gabriel de la Mora to explore together the paintings featured in “Élan Vital”. The Mexican artist unveiled to us the secrets behind his bright and captivating works, pieces that speak to us visually and universally, transcending the boundaries of language.

Your exhibition features two new series of works, contrasting in nature yet equally striking due to the light interplay they create. Is light the key element uniting them?

Gabriel de la Mora: 

Light is very important to me, for there’s no colour without light. Pure light is white, and the complete lack of light gives us its opposite, black. Since the beginning of my career, I’ve been playing with the boundaries between these contrasting poles: white and dark, or lightness and darkness. Paradoxically, this amazing element also has the power of damaging the colours it creates, in a way, since direct sunlight is the worst thing for anything, wood, fabrics, photography, drawings… even oil paint.

It is through light that the two series dialogue. Both in the butterfly wing works and the obsidian ones, light is the element bringing about this striking iridescent colour. In the case of obsidian, a volcanic glass created by volcanic eruptions in Mexico thousands of years ago, light has the power to turn its black colour into white and plenty of intermedial shades.

How do you create this kaleidoscopic effect?

Gabriel de la Mora:
I start cutting very thin fragments, layers of 1 to 2mm in thickness, which I then arrange according to a pattern that I have previously drawn. There are rules governing the placement of fragments, as obsidian can take on a completely different hue depending on the edge and position. I select them so that there are never two fragments reflecting the same colour next to each other. The same underlying pattern can give rise to a myriad of different paintings, so the interaction between fragments becomes a crucial element.

So it is some sort of a protean mosaic?

Gabriel de la Mora:
You could call it a mosaic, yes. Many ancient cultures have done mosaics, like the Aztecs in Mexico, but also Romans, Greeks, Egyptians… I have been doing it with feathers, eggshells, butterfly wings and now obsidian. It is a technique that comes from the past which, just like the obsidian, is becoming the future as part of this series. I believe that the present doesn’t exist, it’s just the future becoming the past, so I like to turn the idea around and see the past turning into the future. 


I’m also reluctant to speak of art media in terms of ancient and new, especially since many so-called old works are still very much contemporary today. I think we should redefine abstraction and what we understand as ancient. Mosaic is an incredible medium that keeps opening up endless possibilities today. It has led me to artistic exploration, pushing me to pose myself many questions.

What makes an artwork contemporary then?

Gabriel de la Mora:
In technical terms, it’s supposed to be the now, yet many modern artists classified as modern still feel contemporary to me. Ancient works too, from Egyptian art, ancient Chinese, even crafts and objects that aren’t considered artworks! Many things from the past are still fresh, avant-garde, and have the potential to raise new questions.


Ultimately, it becomes a question of time perception, of how we look at processes through time. A convent in Oaxaca comes to mind, which took 300 years to be built. Neither the architect who designed it nor those who started building it ever saw the halfway stage or the end, and vice versa, those who completed it never saw the beginning… 


I am well aware that we need to establish a timeline to frame history, yet I see it as a continuum. Take the stars for instance, what we see is light emitted years ago that only reaches us today, perhaps it no longer exists. These kinds of notions are quite hard to grasp. What makes up reality? Is this even real? (laughs)


Time is really hard to understand. The most important thing to me is that you can replace anything but time, and life.

Focusing on the here and now then, what one can call reality before these paintings, is beauty.

Gabriel de la Mora:
For me, art has to be beautiful. The first impact of any artwork is visual, everything starts with the eyes, then comes emotion, and then, as you contemplate further, questions arise. The best thing that an artwork can do is to move you emotionally, and then make you think. 


Nature has this powerful visual communication too, you discover it as you walk through it, quite similarly as you move before these paintings to discover the changes in their light reflections. That’s how you get to interact with the work. Many variables also come into play, the light, your position, your height, the distance you take from the piece… I also wonder if a blind person can feel something too, because obsidian has a lot of properties beyond the visual ones. One of them is that they can purify and change the energy of the room where they are…

To look at these paintings becomes a very instinctive, spatial and free experience, yet your work is presented with quite some philosophical underpinnings, which can feel a bit intimidating at first…

Gabriel de la Mora:
As I said, art has to be beautiful and universal, it is essential for me. You don’t need to be an art expert to experience art, you need to be human, have feelings, and open your eyes to see. You may or may not like it… You just need to be there, alive. There are no barriers to experiencing art, not even language! The titles of my works are just numbers, referring to the number of fragments or elements composing each piece. 

These pieces can feel very natural but also futuristic and digital at the same time, almost alien-like, sometimes architectonic and geometrical too. The technique and the medium itself are very important. When I was a little boy I loved going to museums and posing two questions: “How can someone think about something like this?”, and “How can someone do something like this?” Formal and conceptual go hand-in-hand, everything is at the same time monochrome, abstract, and figurative.

How did you think of working with butterfly wings?

Gabriel de la Mora:
I first worked with eggshells, then human hair, then feathers, whose iridescence I really liked. Then I discovered that insects, and particularly butterflies, have this iridescent hue in their tissues. I also like to explore painting without paint, using organic, inorganic, and synthetic materials, from different realms. I also like for instance the information from discarded shoe soles, what they reveal about the process of wearing and walking on them. 


My work deals pretty much with that, taking something that has already accomplished its function so it is a remnant of something, yet becomes the beginning of something new through transformation. My definition of art, in a way, is a parallel to that of energy: art is not created or destroyed, it is transformed.

Is this transformation process constant or is there an end to a series of works?

Gabriel de la Mora:
Here the possibilities are endless! There are over 2000 species of butterflies, and so many ways of combining their wings, the same species can give to completely different paintings. So it could go on and on for quite some time (laughs) The more the series grows, the more the possibilities. For now, I haven’t started yet mixing different butterfly species in a work, there are some sketches and ideas already but we also need to check the amounts and see what works better. 


A series has to live as you still discover things while working on it. When you’re not getting anything new out of it, it’s time to stop. It can happen, however, that years after I think of a new way of tackling it and go back to a series, but if it doesn’t it means it’s the end. When art becomes a formula, a repetitive thing, it must be stopped.

Time is also a limitation, I imagine, as these delicate pieces take a long time to be created.

Gabriel de la Mora:
For one person, it could take months to create one piece, but we are 25 people working together in the studio in Mexico City. There’s also the sourcing of the material, the classification, and the treatment to ensure it won’t be damaged before the actual assemblage of the pieces. We start with very small samples at first and we test different grids with each species, creating different patterns until I find one we like. Then we enlarge the scale, first to 30 x 30 cm, to see how it looks. Depending on the results, some will be explored in bigger scales like 60 x 60 cm, then 90 x 90 cm, and, hopefully, one day, up to 170 x 170 cm. 


The more we work, the more the media evolves and gets perfectioned, opening the doors to other series. The first pieces of the eggshell pieces for instance, which I started 25 years ago, aren’t as good as the last ones in terms of technique.

In a way, we could say that you are creating new artistic media!

Gabriel de la Mora:
As an artist, I never thought that an idea could create a work, which could then create a series, and the series could become a new medium. But yes, in a way, I could say that each series is giving birth to a new medium. Many visitors and collectors have told me that they’ve never seen anything like it before. This is the best compliment for me as an artist, because thinking that there’s still so much to discover is highly inspiring. Even with materials like these, which have existed for years, we can still explore them in different ways and create new things. 


I love Gilles Deleuze’s “Difference and Repetition” (1968), and I believe that repetition does not exist because there are never too many identical things, there is always something different. Especially when it comes to nature, which, even when reworked as it has been here, still creates patterns, movements, shapes, and even images that look like faces or even numbers! Take your time to delve into them, and enjoy, you’ll let me know what you see!


Gabriel de la Mora’s exhibition, “Élan Vital”, is on show at Perrotin Paris, 76 Rue de Turenne, from March 9th to April 6th.


Interview by Cristina López Caballer

Photos: Jean Picon



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