João Mourão/Luís Silva Your practice seems to make ubiquitous references to pop culture imagery as a way of commenting on your own experiences and self. Figures like Alanis Morrissette, Cher, Nicki Minaj, Sinéad O’Connor, to name a few, have been route companions of yours. You have portrayed them, dressed up as them, performed as them. Can you tell us about your interest in pop culture and how and why you think pop culture can be a relevant tool in terms of commenting both the world we live in as well as your understanding of it?
Manuel Solano I have always felt very much out of place in the world. Looking back at my life, I see that I have struggled with the loneliness this makes me feel all the time. I think I perhaps see a common tongue in pop culture. Pop culture crystallizes our fears, our wants and how we want others to perceive us. And then throws it back in our faces ready for our senses to enjoy. I can’t find myself in the world and so I point out the things other humans and myself have in common by referencing the things they love.
JM/LS What do you mean when you say you have always felt very much out of place in the world?
MS In answer to your question, I don’t have an answer to your question. I don’t know why I feel this way. I can say this: I have always been extremely self-aware, even as a child; I also have a very good memory (I have some clear visual memories from a trip to Cancún when I was about to turn two, for instance. I also remember my first sexual fantasies and dreams from when I was three, in kindergarten). I could also tell, as a kid, that I was smarter than others. I learned how to talk before some of the other kids in my mother’s group of friends; later, in grade school, my exposure to the English language was the same as my schoolmates; but I read my first book in English when I was eight, while most of my schoolmates couldn’t yet hold a real conversation in English. And all my life, even as a small child, I have known myself to be different, although I’m sure I must seem pretty normal to the rest of you. When I was ten years old, I sat my father down because I needed to ask him something and I asked if I was really, seriously, in all and absolute honesty, from this planet. What I’m saying is, I really feel like I don’t belong and my life has been one uninterrupted struggle against these feelings.
But for a couple months now, I have been thinking it might be about gender. And sex. Like, maybe I could instinctively tell all along that my sexuality and gender identity are different from most the people I have been around in my life. I also realize how much anger I have internalized from an early age because of these feelings of being out of place and in the wrong body. I don’t think this is what he meant, but a teacher once told me that narcissistic existence is one of suffering and not joy; the entire universe is all about you and none of it can ever do you justice or match your expectations. I find this rings true.
I Don't Know Love, 2017, Acrylic on canvas 202 x 171 cm
Untitled, 2017, Acrylic on canvas 131 x 192 cm
The Basement, 2017, Acrylic on canvas 208 x 166 cm
La Tía Ana Retratada Con Sus Perlas (Aunt Ana Portrayed With Her Pearls), 2017 Acrylic on canvas 136 x 183 cm
I'm Flying!, 2017, Acrylic on canvas 146 x 199 cm
Photo: Damien Moreau
The Sigourney Weaver Jam Sessions, PICA at West End, Portland, 2017 Photo: Damien Moreau
JM/LS Do you think becoming an artist was a way of not only dealing with those feelings but also, and maybe more importantly, of being able to address them in a public way?
MS Yes. I guess I instinctively have yearned for intimacy, to feel seen. And I naïvely assumed expressing myself would broker that. I think you touched on something important with the public aspect of things, I knew that I definitely needed to devote my life and work to a path where I would always be the center of attention, which is why I dropped out of design and switched to art on the first morning of my college education.
I remember a conversation with a friend, back when we were about to graduate from high school. I was telling him I wasn’t at all sure what I wanted to do or be and he asked me how I saw myself in ten years. I immediately got this image in my head where I was standing in a very large space, surrounded by a crowd of people smiling and looking at me, cheering and applauding; and there were lots of colors in this image. I remember telling my friend this, that I was going to be dressed in crazy colorful clothes and surrounded by colors and people cheering me. It was obviously a whim and probably too vague, but this image maybe indicated the mood being set.
JM/LS In a way your early work did just that, wouldn’t you say? We’re thinking of some performative pieces in which you exposed yourself, either by putting yourself in what seems very uncomfortable positions, such as Best New Artist (2013), in which you dressed up as Alanis Morissette and performed an acoustic version of the same song that she performed when she was awarded a Grammy for best new artist in 1996, or by exposing your own privacy, sharing intimate moments with the audience, such as I Like You a Lot (2012), in which you told the story of your brief acquaintance with a guy you met on Grindr, who stopped talking to you after the second date, while clicking like on each one of his photos on Facebook.
MS Yeah. The performance I did this year for the Time-Based Art Festival in Portland was very similar in that regard. I have been trying to learn to play the guitar, and I did a performance piece where I tried to play and sing with some guest band members. I say ‘tried,’ because I can’t really play yet. But I’m getting better. It was titled The Sigourney Weaver Open Jam Sessions, because the band is named Sigourney Weaver. It was terrifying and awkward but people seemed to love it. Like, there were people in tears. And I had a packed room every night. I felt pretty much naked, and I broke down and cried into my friend’s shoulder as soon as I came offstage the first night. But by the third night I felt great doing it. Before I did it, I kept asking myself why I keep getting myself into these scenarios. But there is something definitely bursting to come out there that I’m tapping into with these pieces. Portland taught me the importance of play and playfulness in my creative process. I surprised myself through performance again, as I did with The Victory Of Good Over Evil in 2012. I had cross-dressed by removing my hair rather than by adding something on. I didn’t know it then, but that awoke something in me. I looked at myself then and saw someone I didn’t know had been there. I would spend a long time each day grooming myself and then choosing my clothes and then looking in the mirror. It required subtle changes in my shifting my gravity center while walking, or moving my eyes and cheekbones in a certain way. And lots of bravado. Gender performativity. And after that, I would take this person out and be seen and people didn’t immediately know whether I was female or male. I felt close to good in my own skin. I miss this person very much, and I thought I had lost them because I haven’t been able to bring them out since I became blind. Performing in Portland and just being there, I saw that maybe this person is still here somewhere. I need to keep digging until I find them.
And yeah, there is definitely some exhibitionism at play, but it is still always an excruciating experience for me to perform. I’m extremely shy and nervous in reality.
JM/LS You mentioned the sense of loss and longing for this person, this very important part of yourself, as a result of becoming blind, which was a consequence of an HIV-related infection a few years ago. How did that change your work and the way you relate to it? We’re thinking specifically of the Blind Transgender with AIDS series of paintings, which was how we came across your work for the first time.
MS The time between my going blind and starting to work on BTA has been blocked by my brain, I remember almost nothing from that time. I do know that, at that point, I thought blindness would be temporary. I had been misled to believe by doctors and everyone around me that a vitreous humor transplant down the road would make me see again. However, when I look back at BTA, I see this hopelessness, as if the same part of me driving me to paint also thought my artistic life was over. I think I saw these paintings as jokes. I was even self-deprecating in a way in choosing that title. And I used that title as a coming out, too, by using the words Transgender and AIDS. I deliberately chose not to use something like “blind transgender individual,” to make it more deprecating, by which I was obviously making a commentary on how I knew I was going to be seen by a lot of people. Even so, the first time anyone wrote about this series, it was in Spanish, and this person made the title more politically correct in his translation by using “Ciego Transgénero con SIDA” instead of “Transgénero Ciego con SIDA.” But yeah, it was meant to be read as a reductionist “they are a transgender” rather than “they are a non-binary trans-identifying artist with AIDS.” And I used this word as an umbrella term, but apparently people all understood very specific things from it. Little did I know that I would survive and have to face a life of being seen as less than a person in my country; that I would have no head to even contemplate the implications of the identity that was so dear to me and had just begun to dip my toe into; that I would start to feel less like myself as time went by without seeing myself in the mirror; that I would get so chronically lonely and untouched that I would go out of my way to affect masculinity, wear men’s sweatpants and grow my chest hair, post pictures of my abs on social media, do any number of shit to be more pleasant to the Mexican male gaze, all to no avail; that my gender identity would be questioned; or that I would go from full blown AIDS to undetectability in a matter of a few months. But I also see a lot of myself all over the series and I have a lot of love and respect for those joke paintings. I had lost touch with the world and my person, and my reaction was to step on the gas with bringing out my taste, my quirkiness, my humor, my queerness through those very simple and limited paintings I was able to make.
It’s been a couple of years and I can see now, especially with the works I just made for the New Museum Triennial, that all the main ingredients are here in the art and the artist, and they were very much there in BTA and they have been here all along. I really do see it as a single endeavor, one pursuit throughout my life. And coming back from Portland a couple months ago and looking back at my life and staring ahead at my work, I see that I am still this person and I can’t be losing touch with these concerns. These things are true in me and bursting to come out.