In a time of political and societal upheaval, art can seem frivolous and a waste of space. Regardless of the political climate, it’s rare to see art in a white-walled gallery that’s not mostly white washed; to see an exhibition that actually pertains to lives of the marginalized people that exist outside. Andrea Arrubla, a photographer and poet, was not looking to create artwork with an agenda. She was simply trying to learn how to paint using the accessible materials around her. But as a gay immigrant woman living in New York, Arrubla’s experiment with a new medium couldn’t exist in a bubble. The state of the world around her started, inevitably, to sink in.
Still Absorbing the Good News, Arrubla’s first solo show at New Release Gallery, is not just a reaction to the cultural turmoil brought to light in the past few months surrounding Orlando, Black Lives Matter, police brutality, anti-immigration, terrorism, racism, sexism, classism, and ever-mounting fear; these paintings are Arrubla’s real-time diary during a time of destruction. Screen shots from recent news programs are blended with the artist’s own memories, from growing up in Long Island as an immigrant from Colombia, to fond memories of past loves. But there is something refreshingly approachable, funny and comforting about these works that combat the fear around us. Perhaps it’s her amature style of painting that feels honest and inclusive, giving her the freedom to paint fast and report the world around us as it happens. Or, maybe it’s just her openness to approaching these difficult topics: not with a sugar coating, but rather, a sweet bite to take the bitterness off.
The Creators Project talked to Arrubla about her experience as an immigrant and an advocate for Black Lives Matter, why the cardboard she paints on is similar to the immigrants in the U.S, and how she will close out the show on August 6th by signing her painting of her social security card.
The Creators Project: What was the original idea behind this show? Were you planning on it being so political?
Andrea Arrubla: I started working on these two to three months ago, first to just to get into painting. I had never really painted and had always been discouraged to do it, so some of the first pieces like Waiting, and the church ones, were when I was trying to learn. When I was a kid I had a substitute music teacher come to my art class—he wasn’t even an art teacher—and we were drawing a still life. I was coloring outside the lines and he just stopped and yelled at me in front of the whole class! Every since then I had been like, Fuck that! But recently I started talking to my painter friends and I went and saw the Nicole Eisenman show and there was something super liberating about the way that she paints, so I had to do it. Whatever rules I thought were there, aren't.
I was going painting by painting and then realized they were saying something together. It’s a lot darker than I expected. I was just trying to learn how to paint, but I feel these things and it comes through. I thought a lot about participating in violence by watching violence. It’s a weird moral dilemma. But these videos that are being made are really the only way to fight back against the abuse.
The show seems exceptionally relevant right now with the social and political upheaval going on. How much was the work influenced by the Black Lives Matter movement?
Painting these made me look at what my responsibilities are, if I have the right to paint a black body or a brown body or a white body, for that matter. But I think I’ve always been lucky enough to sort of have a partisan view. I went to a very diverse high school when I came to New York so I’ve always had an appreciation and understanding of a way to coexist and tell stories of other people you don’t know, respectfully.
A lot of the images are taken from composites in my head. Photographs I’ve seen or movies, or my memories. It’s about compassion in a way, but in a critical way. Like the Kindergarten Cop piece, it was hard to paint that and I was scared to show it. It’s the same as the original poster but here the black kid is the only one that is not a white supremacist. The cop is holding him up, and it’s about how we all build white supremacy. It’s about fighting back but not masking the fact that black people need to be protected.
Which paintings showed some of your more personal memories?
The butt one! It’s two memories. One from Miami Beach last year when I went skinny dipping with someone I really like, and it meant a lot to me and I’m always thinking back on that image.The other side is immigration. Which I’m thinking about all the time. The countless number of people who swam in that sea trying to get to America. It’s a moment of pleasure or a moment of panic at the same time.
Why did you choose to use cardboard?
It’s everywhere. And it’s similar to immigrants, we are everywhere, we support so many structures, we are malleable. There was something really comfortable about seeing a material you know. It’s also about using whatever is available. I got the cardboard from my last job, they are actually boxes that were shipped to Julian Schnabel that I stole.
How has what has been going on with Trump’s policies, especially around immigration, affected you and the work?
It’s been insane. I can’t tell you the amount of times I’ve cried to myself about it. I have an incredible privilege as an immigrant alone. We didn’t have to sneak through the border, we didn’t have to work in any fields. My parents had steady jobs, I had a job, cleaning houses. People were nice where we lived it wasn’t like they were going to call immigration on us. But I didn’t have papers until I graduated from college, so there was fear.
Recently, [before Trump] I thought it had gotten better, or I was in a group of people that didn’t question my background or history any more. My family got more accustomed to America, all of my siblings now speak English, we feel more American than ever. But suddenly there is this backwards craziness. That fear from when I was younger came back. I remember that if our car was stopped by a cop at a light or something I would have to translate, and I would be freaking out that we would suddenly be kicked out of the country. I never took that fear for granted, of seeing a cop or someone of power, and now to have that fear flood back again. It makes me mad because I forgot how precarious our life is.
Is that what you are showing with the social security card painting?
Yeah, but It’s also supposed to be funny. “Still absorbing the good news” is from a panty liner box, and it’s kind of mocking all the bad news we keep getting. My mom actually had a really strong reaction to it. And I realized she really remembers how I suffered not having papers, how I cried when I was 16 and couldn’t get a job at the pottery painting studio. I originally left it blank because it felt like too much text, but then I realized i should take pride and sign it. I’m going to do it the closing night of the show. That was her idea. I think it will be kind of emotional, because I remember that feeling signing mine for the first time. I’m excited to do it again.
Still Absorbing the Good News will be on view until August 6th at New Release Gallery, with a closing party August 6th from 5-8 PM.