Popular Art. Interview with Cecilia Azcarate. – O Production Company

Left: detail of The Martyrdom of Saint Lawrence by Masters of the Acts of Mercy (Austrian, Salzburg, c. 1465) Right: ASAP Ferg

Popular Art. Interview with Cecilia Azcarate. – O Production Company

Left: Perugia Altarpiece left panel by Fra Angelico, 1437 / Right: Kanye West and Pastor Rich Wilkerson Jr at Kim & Kanye’s wedding.

Popular Art. Interview with Cecilia Azcarate.

by Gerard Casau.

Popular Art. Interview with Cecilia Azcarate. – O Production Company

Left: Pre Colombian – Moche portrait head of ‘Cut Lip’ 400 AD – Right: ASAP Rocky

Popular Art. Interview with Cecilia Azcarate. – O Production Company

Left: detail of Christ Blessing surrounded by a Donor Family.
Unknown German Painter 1560 – Right: 2 Chainz

Popular Art. Interview with Cecilia Azcarate. – O Production Company

Left: Jan van Eyck. Ghent Altarpiece detail. c. 1432 / Right: The ATL Twins.

“It pisses me off not to have visited the Museo del Prado yet. I’d love to go and visit their Goya collection because, every time we see one of his paintings, a friend of mine and I have the habit of taking a selfie next to it. We even do it at a bar in New York we usually go to that has some reproductions.”.

It’s clear that Cecilia Azcarate‘s attitude towards art is far from reverential, but rather playful with no prejudices at all. The eyes of this native of San Sebastián (where she lived until she was four, when she moved with her parents to Perpignan) see art everywhere they look: a picture of Rick Ross with a fur coat and a massive chain over his tattooed torso reminds her of a Henry VIII portrait painted in the 16th century; if Kim Kardashian crops the head of her baby on an Instagram selfie, Cecilia reproduces the gesture with several paintings of the Virgin Mary holding baby Jesus; and when contemplating the embarrassing sex tapes of famous people, this young advertising creative doesn’t look at celebs’ flesh, but at the functional and anonymous pictures decorating their lusty scenarios.
All very funny and inventive, yes, but let’s not forget an important detail: it is possible that the gags Art from sex tapes, Kardashian Crop and, particularly, have circulated more paintings on social networks than any initiative undertaken by a museum in order to get rid of its elitist nature. It might be because for Cecilia there is no difference between high and low art, but everything is included on the same mythology of power, wealth and images of worship. We talk about all this in a New York – Barcelona Skype conversation, the flow of which is only interrupted at times due to technological inclemency.

Popular Art. Interview with Cecilia Azcarate. – O Production Company

Cecilia Azcarate selfie

Having lived first in Europe and then in the United States, do you think that the way in which people relate to art is different in both continents?
I’d say yes. Those of us born in Europe tend to find it easier to recognize the different periods and centuries. We know how to distinguish between the Flemish and the Italians. On the other hand, the city I lived in was like a 17th century time capsule; you could feel History all around you. However, in the US, the past is a lot shorter, it has less weight, And I think that’s what allows them to have a much more optimistic and less critical attitude.

Your most popular series is B4-XVI beforesixteen, where, in your own words, you highlight “an invisible dialogue between hip hop and art before the 16th century”. How did you come up with this idea?
Through small details that I noticed and found quite funny. In fact, one of the first ones to call my attention was on a 15th century Spanish painting by Aragón: there was a character on it that had a headdress quite similar to the caps sported by rappers today. Then there was the blessing sign that Christ makes by stretching out the thumb and the fingers, which is repeated in a vast number of images until we get to Kanye West. I started collecting all those paintings including details that reminded me of something from current times. But there are still many I haven’t used yet, because I only wanted to use those equivalences in which the connection came to mind right away. 

Why do you think your Tumblr has become so successful?
I guess it’s because when seeing the similarities between these images you are totally caught by surprise. We tend to sacralise ancient works of art because they are in a museum and are meant to be serious stuff. But if you get them out of that context and relate them to pop culture, you soon realise that both get on quite well with each other. Furthermore, in a museum you are surrounded by hundreds of paintings; you don’t know what to look at and that can end up getting boring. But if you get one painting out of its context and highlight one single detail, everything acquires a different meaning and you can enjoy it in a different way. On my account about ancient art, I’ve also noticed that what many people like is seeing that along the centuries people have been doing the same things we all do now. The fact that they lived a few centuries back doesn’t mean they were very different from us!

Have you had the chance to talk about B4-XVI beforesixteen with someone from the hip hop scene?
I have friends working in the rap industry and, from what they tell me, general reactions towards it are positive. For the moment, no one has felt offended. I guess it’ll always be flattering to be compared to a Van Eyck painting…

Is there any common idea uniting all your comparisons between ancient art and the pop imaginary?
When I started uniting all these things, I started asking myself whether there was a universal representation of swag. If what we deem cool is not a new concept, but an idea that has existed all along. And I think there’s something of it on all these portraits of the gods and representations of the powerful; it’s an eternal iconography. In any case, I am not an art historian. My approach to the subject is very naive.

Another way of calling it would “intuitive”. In my opinion, what’s interesting about your comparisons is that they highlight things that would rarely be pinpointed from an academic or orthodox perspective.
Of course! When I started my Tumblr I wanted to address as well all these people that are very respectful towards art and make them look at pop culture images. The idea of having people involved with high culture looking at a 2 Chainz picture seemed very funny! It was a way of trying to make them take into account something that they’d otherwise despise. For example, I think that Kanye West is one of the most interesting artists in our era and there will always be someone undervaluing him. In a different way, I also think all that Kim Kardashian represents is very important. From my point of view, everything has a place within pop culture.

Are you worried about the fact that your contrasting between the old and new depends on a given context? For example, what will happen with the Kardashian Crop series once we forget about the selfie that gave it origin?
Well, then I’ll simply do something completely different. I don’t mind. I don’t aspire to anything with this. I work as a creative in an agency, developing projects for different brands. All these Tumblr accounts are just observations and reactions to things happening now. It’s something impulsive.

You don’t think that what you’re doing is going to pass the test of time?
Absolutely not! That would be too pretentious on my behalf, because I’m simply joining things that other people have created. All I do is getting them out of their context. To me, Kardashian Crop is only one of the millions of jokes you can encounter while surfing the Internet.

It’s funny you don’t give importance to what you do based on the fact that you are not the author of the artwork. It reminds me of the prejudices that hip hop found on the beginning because of its use of samples. A lot of people didn’t think of it as real music.
Yes, that’s true. I’d never thought of it that way…

Then, what do you think about the fact that different magazines devote articles to your work and analyse your series?
To me it’s very flattering, of course. It’s nice because it means that there are people out there that think that what I do is interesting. And that makes me want to go on and maybe even do something bigger, like a book.

Despite your constant Internet activity, would you still like to do something physical, then?
Somehow, yes. What’s good about the Internet is that you can send something out to the world and receive instant feedback. But if you repeat an idea two, three times… people end up losing interest. That’s why I’d like to create something that people would like to preserve and look at again after a while. Maybe a volume compiling my observations on ancient art…

One of the main features of art is the relationship an author establishes with his/her working materials. How can that be translated to a virtual environment?
To me everything tends towards immateriality. Even in those projects with a physical component, like the posters in Oil & Water Do Not Mix. It’s not that the actual creation of the pieces doesn’t have a lot of weight, but what is truly important is having people commenting the idea behind them.

Debate is more relevant than the work itself?
For me it is, yes. I don’t know whether this is going to sound pretentious, but in the same way that my brain is bad for certain things, I also have the feeling that I see things in a different way. And I might have the ability of expressing certain things in a way that they are understandable to everyone. It gets on my nerves when someone makes difficult something that in the end is very simple. Like ancient art: when studying it now it seems we should try and look for some kind of mysterious nonsense, but when it was created, people understood that language. They knew what the gesture that Christ made meant, or that a dog on a painting was a symbol of faithfulness, in the same way that today everybody gets the meaning of a smiley. It’s something that is part of our language, nothing more.

Popular Art. Interview with Cecilia Azcarate. – O Production Company

Top: Kim Kardashian and North West cropped selfie – Bottom: Cecilia Azcarate parody

Gerard Casau