An artist is a person who questions the rules of a society and by means of her art offers an alternative or a different perspective. The role of art is to point to reality, expose it and be a point of origin for discussion.
Humans started wearing clothing around 170,000 years ago. The earliest known sewing needle dates back to 28000 B.C., and the Industrial Revolution brought about the power loom and the sewing machine, mechanizing the textile industry. Throughout human history, clothing was at first functional; protecting its wearer from harsh environments and the weather. Then, it became a way for people to express their culture, wealth, social status, religion, gender and personal style. Today, clothes are our second-skin. But how deep is our relationship with our clothes?
In her artist’s statement Irene Carvajal explains her work as being “in the space where globalized culture presses against local culture.” Many of her pieces encourage deeper inspection of everyday items like clothes: Where did they come from? Who made them? Did a local environment get destroyed in the process? The pieces call out the sociopolitical, cultural and economic side of manufactured goods that the average consumer doesn’t usually think about when shopping. “I seek to reveal these complex cultural and conceptual layers,” Irene says, “by collapsing the space normally occupied by the body and subjecting them to the physical pressure of the printing press.”
The printing press may represent a spectrum of economical and psychological pressures associated with the global textile industry — low wages, long hours, and sweatshop conditions on the garment workers’ end; and fashion trends, the cost of quality clothing, and ethically responsible shopping on the consumer’s side.
Irene’s somewhat haunting prints and installations remind us that clothing is a multifaceted and integrated part of our lives. The artist’s anthropomorphic prints could reflect the ghosts of human impact, stamping our place in history under the pressures of society and economy through the garment industry.
“The artist is a philosopher, poet and critical thinker,” Irene says. “An artist is a person who questions the rules of a society and by means of her art offers an alternative or a different perspective. The role of art is to point to reality, expose it and be a point of origin for discussion.” And usually, the goal is for these discussions to lead to positive change.
There are no rules. That if someone tells you this is the way to do it you should be distrustful.
The San Francisco-based artist has been a maker all her life, and naturally, she got her start in drawing. “This became the gateway to sculpture and printmaking, which are my main mediums,” Carvajal says. If there’s one thing the artist wished she knew before she started her career, it’s that there are no rules. “If someone tells you, ‘this is the way to do it,’ you should be distrustful,” she says.
Irene’s first influences were her parents and grandparents. “My paternal grandfather was a furniture maker,” she says. “I remember spending countless hours in his factory watching him, my father and their co-workers carve intricate designs into the wood. My maternal grandmother was a teacher in an impoverished school district [and] created most of the educational materials at home; they were beautifully illustrated by my mother.”
Growing up, her family stressed the value and importance of art. “It was not dismissed as a hobby or something you do on the side,” Irene says. “It was honored as a crucial part of the human experience.”
As for her process, the production of one piece could take several weeks of planning, writing, sketching, and collecting materials. “Even when I do begin to make, there is a trial and error period where I often have to start over,” Irene says. “I actually find this to be an immensely valuable time. I work out lots of issues and learn valuable lessons and skills along the way. It is a very intense, meditative and intimate time for me. Time just slips by and I don’t even notice.”
To that end, the third-generation artist doesn’t believe in time off. “Art, to me, is something you live,” she says. “Living is an art.”
One challenge is the occasional unpredictability of working with certain materials. “I sometimes finish a piece and then realize that the support materials affect the work in a way I did not expect. Or that the way I planned on installing will not work at all,” Irene says. “Since art is a generative endeavor I try and see what the piece wants to be.”
An ongoing challenge Irene faces is having a set idea of what the final result of a work should be, even before she starts it. “If I insist on controlling the work to match my initial vision, I limit the possibilities,” she says. “I’m trying really hard to let go and honor the process and the result.”
Believe in yourself and your work. Take a moment and honor the decision and whatever steps you have taken to be an artist. It is an important job you’ve chosen to do.
In school, the most fundamental things the artist learned were to “ask questions, debate, make friends, discuss and listen. Keep these friendships and relationships alive.” On her own, she’s learned that there are lots of ways to do things. “No one way is the right way,” she says. “Find your own way!”
Irene’s advice for those just starting out is, above all, to “believe in yourself and your work.” She says, “Take a moment and honor the decision and whatever steps you have taken to be an artist. It is an important job you’ve chosen to do. Be proud and enjoy what you are doing — if you do, others will see it too. Work hard and don’t stop working.”
That last part is especially important. Irene says to keep putting your work out there despite being turned down. “Be resilient. Don’t be disappointed at the rejections; learn from them,” she says. “Even if you get a rejection, your work is being seen, so keep on applying.” Oftentimes when Carvajal would apply to a particular show and not be accepted, the curators offered her other shows just because they saw her work.
As for what’s next, Irene is continuing to work with casting and printing with everyday domestic objects, and she is working on several shows up to early next year. Presently, Irene is in the inaugural show at The Brayer in Ventura, CA, and has upcoming solo shows at Root Division in San Francisco and at Minan Gallery in Los Angeles. As a curator, Irene is currently showing the work of Gail Wight (until 23 August) and David Tim (from 19 July) at the Peninsula Museum of Art in Burlingame, CA. She will also be teaching Printmaking at the San Francisco Art Institute in the fall and at Stanford in the spring.