Orbiting the Wheel of Life with Cecilia Granara
The dream-like paintings by Cecilia Granara inhabit the liminal space between reality and the world beyond.
Born in Saudi Arabia, the Italian painter Cecilia Granara has lived in Mexico City, Rome, Chicago, and Paris, where she currently resides. Her multinational upbringing has become her own kaleidoscope of experiences and cultures, with which she observes and interprets the world around her. The unique visions on her colourful canvases are a manifestation of the artist’s subconscious. Her works are born of her mastery of Italian Medieval art, her visions of symbolic iconography, and her dedication to feminist readings and poetry. Drawing from her trove of memories and emotional experiences, Granara creates works that open up a spiritual dreamscape for viewers to enter. This liminal space allows the viewer to sift through emotions, be conscious of bodily sensations, and repose in peaceful meditation. The sensuous figures in her works are often in ecstatic motion—swirling, dancing, and intertwining with elements of the natural world. Psychedelic colours pulsate across her canvases, giving life to her figures immersed in nature: digesting flowers, birthing planets, lying beneath the Earth, or soaring into the skies.
Granara has had solo shows at Exo Exo, Paris and Studiolo Project, Milan. She has also participated in group shows at Galerie Jousse Entreprise, High Art, ps120 Berlin, and Brigade Copenhagen. She was a finalist in the Antoine Marin Prize in 2019 and has been nominated for the Cairo Prize in 2021. We are delighted to include Granara’s The Wheel (Emotional Acrobat), Body Confusion III, and Body Confusion IV in our current exhibition, The Nature of Women.
Tell us about this series of work?
The Wheel (Emotional Acrobat) is a collage of many emotions and images. One of the main images that triggered this work is “the Wheel of Fortune,” number 10, in Tarot cards. The card suggests spinning and lack of control. It suggests that in life there are constant forces at play, which means you can be at the top of the wheel one day, and at the bottom the next—you are always in movement. On a formal and pictorial level, I was interested in depicting a circular movement. I made an association between acrobats and how they twist into geometrical shapes. If you follow the movement of the red tears coming out of the acrobat’s eyes, they float upwards, creating a second circular cycle, and lead to a pair of eggs. Eggs are an interesting symbol and a beautiful subject to paint: historically, they are associated with the beginning of new life and the cosmos. After I finished the painting, I heard in an interview with Brenée Brown and Emily and Amelia Nagoski that emotions occur in our bodies in cycles: with a beginning, a middle, and an end. Stopping them from going through their complete evolution results in serious physiological manifestations that can be detrimental to our health. When we repress anger and sadness, for example, we can have physical reactions that cause inflammation, eczemas, heart palpitations, and all kinds of pain and spasms. So this acrobat is an emotional acrobat: she is letting herself cry while performing this amazing body shape. It’s a feat, but she’s agile. The portrayal of tears in the history of painting is nothing new, but I like to insist on presenting tears as something regenerative and beautiful.
With the Body Confusion works on paper, I was trying to recreate a bodily sensation from memory. While lying down on the floor in the corpse pose (savasana) during meditation, very interesting things happened to me. The pose is restful but it took me some training to reach a state of relaxation without falling asleep. The liminal space I enter is full of sensations and imagery that can’t come to me if I am actively seeking them. I recently heard Griselda Pollock say, “The horizontal is the axis of the dead” on the GWA Podcast by Katy Hessel. The body in a horizontal position conjures up narratives of eternal rest, and restores our relationship to the ground. When I scan my body in this position and feel where my foot or my skull or my clitoris is, it creates a different map of the body. This is why I called it “Body Confusion”: the vertical aspect and the usual order of the body are blurred. It turns out that the reconstruction resembles an archetypal tree of sorts. I just drew what I saw, but I like the idea of accidentally mixing my self-representation with another species that is not just human. After all, DNA makes up all of us, from trees to bananas to cats.
Where do you source your materials?
My physical materials like pigments, paint, primers, and canvas mostly come from Paris art shops.
What motivates you to create?
Everything that’s missing in the world, and everything that’s wonderful in the world.
I ask myself, what is it I would like to see more of? What would I like to feel more of? My replies: softness, tears, humour, eroticism, color, honesty.
I also think about what it means to be in a position to transmit emotions. Images and paintings are portals of sensation through which we can transmit emotions and messages. There is so much violence in our lives. I am motivated to offer moments of respite and reflection.
What is your philosophy on life?
Softness is strength. Even if people misunderstand that and underestimate it. Also, because of my many mistakes in the past, I really believe in being honest, even if it’s awkward. Honesty over comfort. Finally, joy is underrated. Creating moments of joy and pleasure is essential, in life like in painting. That doesn’t mean denying or cancelling out pain or suffering. It just means finding a way for all these to sit side by side.
What is one artist living or dead you feel a great connection to? Someone whose work has inspired your own practice and what you’re creating these days?
Francesco Clemente and my friend Christine Safa. Clemente for the scope and freedom in his approach to his work and Christine for her relationship to color and emotions.
What’s something you will not be doing in 10 years?
I will probably not be working in finance.
Tools or mediums you’re dying to experiment with?
Ceramics and sound. And comedy.
Silence or sound while creating? If sound, what are you listening to right now?
Mostly silence. Someone told me that painting is a conversation between you and the surface you are painting. How can you hear your conversation if there is loud music playing in the background?
If I do put music on, it’s to help me arrive at the mood where I am ready to paint. I recently have “The Sacrificial Code” by Kali Malone on repeat. It’s majestic, the vibrations really help me get Into painting. But then I switch it off when I’m in the flow.
If you could have a drink with one artist, who would it be?
I would ask Genevieve Figgis out to have a bubble tea with me. I heard her interview on the Great Women Artists podcast and thought, oh, I’m sure it would be fun to talk to her.
What makes you laugh no matter what?
Memes. I love memes.
Name your favorite female artist.
It’s really hard to choose, I am infinitely inspired. I think Jenna Gribbon is doing extraordinary things with paint and her position as a lesbian woman is representing a gaze on the female body that was not so familiar to us in painting before she came along. I recently saw a painting honoring trans women by Apolonia Sokol at the M.O.C.O in France that really moved me. I often re-read texts by Miriam Cahn, or Agnes Martin’s writings. Every time I’ve seen a Hilma af Klint show I have felt very motivated and inspired. Same with Jutta Koether. I could go on.
What is your creative process?
I start from sketches, which I draw over and over until I feel it’s the right moment to transpose the idea on paper or canvas. Then, it’s different for every painting. Sometimes It’s a slow and careful experimentation with what colors go where: sometimes it’s just absolutely clear and it takes a week and it’s all finished.
Each poem, painting, or drawing is a “feeling out,” a figuring out (from figura: form). Sometimes I’m just figuring out what a question even looks like.
I see parallels between the process of painting, drawing and making things, and the process of digestion. You have to let something enter your body, chew it, digest it, and let it come back out. During that process your body receives energy and is altered slightly by what you ingested. You have to continue the cycle to keep yourself alive, it’s simply necessary. And you have to lay down and rest once in a while, because it’s all quite tiring! And because letting things rest is deceptively active too.
Where do you draw inspiration from?
My imagery is a mix of drawing from memory and lived experiences (what we call imagination, but it’s very real!) and drawing from observation (what we see with our eyes). I’m inspired by medieval imagery, anthologies of symbols, Tarot cards, scientific illustrations and diagrams, anatomical drawings, poetry… What is interesting is when all of these come together, and the collage produces a syncretism. Recently someone described my work as imbued with eros: not specifically erotic but encompassing a force of creative organization in the world. When it’s going well at the studio and it’s effortless, that is how it feels: that I’m just letting some mysterious creative force make all the decisions for me.
On a more practical level, when I’m low and in existential crisis mode, it’s my contemporary circle of artist friends and colleagues that all inspire me. Seeing how they progress and advance in their own work takes me out of stagnancy.
Describe your work in three words…
Color, Liquid, Journey.
What makes you excited about the future?
The fact that there are so many emotions and images I haven’t yet experienced.
What is your approach to color?
The interesting thing about color is that we don’t understand exactly how it works. What I mean is: color is about perception. It’s not actually there— it’s something that happens in between an object and the eyes. Light bounces off of pigments and the eye receives the wavelengths, and our brain interprets it as color. How fleeting! And yet it’s so powerful, our bodies feel and perceive it…the effects of color on our nervous systems and our emotions are so immediate.
What influence does modern culture have on your work?
It was important to study Modernism and its artists of course, but growing up in the 90’s and 00’s in Chicago and Mexico and Rome I saw so much canonical Modernist art. The same artists in different museums worldwide. It was strange. It was an explosive discovery to find out what was happening in the contemporary art world. I remember when I saw a solo show by Cecily Brown for the first time in London, I was 18. It must have been the first time I saw a solo show by a woman painter! I was amazed. I’m so glad our contemporary artworld is offering us narratives outside canonical modernist art history.
Who are some contemporaries or figures in art history who have influenced you?
My contemporary influences are my immediate circle of artist friends: Christine Safa, Nathanaelle Herbelin, Bea Bonafini, Simon Martin, Madeleine Roger-Lacan, Jean Claraq. I see how they move forward in their work and I feel compelled to keep painting. They are all doing something different but important.