What is Manta Cruda?
I get way too excited about canvas. The smell, the feel, the texture, the surface quality and its infinite subtleties. When I roll out a fresh piece of canvas, this powerful feeling takes over that I can’t describe. It’s kind of ridiculous. And when the canvas is sustainable and earth friendly I get even more excited. I go to great lengths to find the best canvas for my work, because in this series called Manta Cruda (raw canvas), the piece is constructed of canvas and little else besides the frame that it is stretched on. So it better be good.
But why am I so interested in just using canvas as a medium with little to no other materials?
Most of the materials I use are earth friendly and I am always on the look out for more of them, obsessively so. I’ll travel a long way to find a new sustainable material that I can use in my art. The Ash Series, Manta Cruda Series, Wipee and the Pita Maguey work are all made from natural locally sourced materials. And when I need to stretch the work or attach it to a frame, I always try to use sustainably sourced woods from local tree farms such as Hacienda Rio Dulce in Rio Dulce Guatemala.
So when I find a good material that meets the above criteria, and it hits me in the gut with an intangible effervescent feeling, I try to exploit that material and take it as far as I can. In this series I have been using just canvas for a while now and I’m a long way from exhausting it’s potentials.
As I said before, I will go a long way to find a new material, or I will wait a long time until that material finds me. But sometimes I get lucky and discover something new right in my own backyard.
Ditch the paint
When I first arrived in Guatemala, I had no intention of making art. I was more than content to chill in the woods above Lake Atitlan in the little casita I lived in with my wife and one year old daughter. We had just left New York for a 4 month extended vacation and we needed a break from the crazy of the city. But my desire to chill didn’t last long. I began to get the itch to make some art and so I set out to find materials that might be available around the lake. That proved to be a futile task. Even when I looked around Guatemala City, the import prices were ridiculous for what I could actually find, and the materials weren’t the best and not what I was used to working with.
That turned out to be a good thing (more or less).
The first material I found was this amazingly beautiful (in my twisted mind) synthetic twine that came in different fluorescent colors. This twine, in Guatemala is called pita (slang for string) plastica (plastic). It’s a ubiquitous material that is used for everything from wrapping up bundles of wood, making bags, wrapping up vegetables; tying pretty much anything together one can think of. I still use it because I really love it and it makes incredibly unique pieces of art. But it is plastic and my preference is to use natural materials.
So my search continued.
Pita Plastica hanging outside of a tienda in San Pedro Las Huertas
Finding the Canvas
Panajachel is the main town in Lake Atitlan. It can be reached in less than 30 minutes by boat from any of the neighboring towns around the lake. If you need stuff, thats where you go. But sometimes it can be a mess getting there. If it’s rainy season you have to get on a boat packed full of local travelers and tourists and the boats aren’t really where you want to be when it’s raining. During a downpour, the boat assistant will pull out a large sheet of plastic and hand it to the people riding in the front of the boat. And everybody chips in to hold up the plastic up to create a loose bubble for shelter from torential downpours and hammering waves. Being inside the bubble is not a pleasant experience. It smells, like feet, to be exact. And the bubble is not always effective at keeping the rain out. So you end up getting off the boat slightly wet, slightly sea sick and nautious from the choppy ride, and smelling like fish and feet. Nasty. But those rides are not the norm, fortunately, though I have been through more than I would like.
It was one of those rides that finally brought me to “the canvas”. We were only about 15 minutes from Pana, which made everything easier, so I would go in to town frequently to shop or just check things out. The town is a bustling overcrowded place where you have to watch your back constantly for fear of getting clipped by taxis, busses, or tuc tucs (little go cart taxis). One day while making the slog up to the market to buy veggies, I wandered onto a side street to see what was there. There was a little shop (tienda) on the corner that sold fabrics of all kinds. And there in the corner was a large roll of canvas wrapped in plastic and leaning up against the wall. It was calling my name. I bought 50 yards and headed back down to the boat dock with a fat roll of canvas sticking out of the side of the tuc tuc.
images from the manta cruda series
Now that I had my canvas, the question was, what to do with it? I tried some paintings with some inexpensive paint I bought in a dollar store, but I wasn’t feeling it. I think after a long time of abstract painting, I needed a new direction. Even though my paintings were good, I still, after all these years had not found my true voice. Something was still holding me back. And ask anyone around me about my mood swings when I am painting. Volatile. Mercurial. Not good for relationships and mental stability. My life becomes dictated by my paintings; when they are good, everything is good. But when they are not going well, it gets ugly. Regardless, I love to paint abstracts, and I’m still doing it with intense and focused energy, but I really want to concentrate on the new series of work inspired by Guatemala. That’s where it’s at for me right now.
Even so, I will paint until the day I die.
A recent painting made and sold in Antigua, Guatemala
Like What You See? Purchase work from Kurtis Brand
Waiting on the muse.
Sometimes you just have to wait for “the” idea to come. I was working with other materials and had some canvases stretched for painting, and one day I just picked up an exacto knife and started cutting without thinking. It felt good. So I continued doing that.
The thing I found most interesting about cutting the canvas was the way it made me feel. It was like a meditation. It felt similar to doing zazen (zen meditation) in the early morning when everyone was still sleeping.
Zazen at Casita Blanca, Santa Cruz la Laguna
So I decided to run with that idea, or better yet, sit with that idea, or even better yet, that no idea and see where it took me.
But before I did that I also had the idea to start attaching canvas to canvas. It’s amazing when you limit your options with regards to materials and excecution. Some of my absolute favorite artists such as Joseph Beuys and Robert Ryman used this method. Ryman created guidelines that dictated he use only subtle tints, tones and shades of white, and he mostly worked in a square format. The body of work that he created using these rules is astonishing. And Beuys created a large body of his poetic and conceptual work using felt and fat with consistent thematic content.
So I decided to limit myself for the time being to canvas and maybe one or two other materials to tie or attach the canvas such as wire and wood.
Outside of the formal aspects of the Manta Cruda pieces, there are concepts dealing with the nature of meditation and Buddhist philosophy. One of the concepts is duality, another is bondage to self, and the final concept is oneness (connection) and understanding the universe as a single functioning entity. Practicing meditation is practicing art, and practicing art is meditation. I try to make all of my work central to these concepts.
The “Cut” pieces are at first a mindfulness excercise I developed with the intention of incorporating my meditation practice into my art. The process begins with a design in mind. Then I sit in meditation for 30 minutes before I start the piece.
After the meditation I approach the canvas with the same mind and begin to cut. And I continue until I am finished, in one sitting, so the whole process is one long meditation. Depending on the size of the piece and the duration to complete, things can get tricky. The meditation requires full attention and concentration, but as it progresses sometimes the mind starts to wander and a mis-cut occurs. After that the piece is over. The large piece, Emptiness, Cut 2 , the featured image of this post took 64 minutes to finish. When it takes that long the physical difficulty of repeated cuttings along with full mental concentration can be a challenge. Fortunately most of what I have completed in the studio have been without mistakes. But there have been a few where I mis-cut and have to start the process all over again.
Another important part of the Cut pieces is the visual embodiment of our perceived notion that the universe consists of subject and object, or self and other.
Buddhist philosophy says this is not so.
When the canvas is cut, it creates a negative. And the piece that was cut is a perfect mirror image of the empty piece. This in itself fascinates me. So the once perfectly clean piece of canvas is now seperated in two. This is the nature of reality. There is oneness, then an instant later, we seperate into two things. Then back again to one. The repetition of this pattern is our nature of existence.
An interesting part of this process is the way the cut pieces of canvas fall down to the surface below the cut, and how they react as a whole. The pieces when seen together create a very interesting and beautiful moire pattern, that I perceive as delusion of the original self. Like a ripple in a pond interupting the mirror image of yourself as you gaze into the water.
The “Bondage” pieces have to do with the nature of suffering and bondage to our perceived selves. In Buddhism, the self is without form, and therefore does not exist. And because we have been conditioned almost from birth to attach to this self, suffering arrises. This is my weak attempt to explain. The only real way to understand this concept is through experience. Here is a better explanation of the concept.
The “Connected” pieces show our inherent oneness and the fact that we as “individuals” are connected to all things. Nothing can exist on its own, therefore our connection to all things is obvious. The probem is that we always attach to our selves as permanant and seperate entities and therefore cause undo suffering by always trying to satisfy our constant desires and cravings.
Again, I am not a teacher, I am a student of The Way and therefore my explanations of these concepts are futile. But they are central to my thinking and practice in life, therefore they are central to my art.
Connected, Ultimate Small