Fall Down The Rabbit Hole of Symbolism Through the Work of Maria Fragoso

The young up-and-coming artist is breaking the barriers and plowing the ground of Contemporary sensorial figuration. Mexico City-based Maria Fragoso, works both through works on paper and canvas to express broader themes of love, history and culture, motherhood, and sexuality. We had the chance to interview Fragoso where she shared the many conceptual layers through which her body of work navigates. Not only through an incredibly detailed, symbolic, colorful imagery, but also through her fearless compositional approach, Fragoso’s work reveals an unparalleled dialogue with the viewer. In the interview she expands on how her multicultural upbringing has made an impact in the approach to drawings and paintings. How she attempts to add a sense of heat, humidity, smells, music, even the taste of food. Continue below to discover the intensity and passion embedded in María Fragoso’s art, and to learn more about her upbringing and inspirations. 

Seeding, 2020, Oil on Canvas, 40 x 36 in, Courtesy of the Artist and 1969 Gallery, New York

Tell us a bit about yourself. Where are you from and how did art first come into your life?

I was born in Mexico City and grew up in the out skirts of the area. After high school I moved to Baltimore to get my BFA at MICA (Maryland Institute College of Art). After finishing my studies, I moved back to Mexico where I’m currently based. I would say art has always been a part of my life. I’ve been drawing for as long as I can remember— I even have sketchbooks from when I was around 2 years old. I think this is because at home everyone around me would draw. My mom was a children books illustrator, so whenever I was at home she was always drawing and painting. My dad is an architect, and I have an older brother who is 11 years older than me, and who was also constantly drawing when I was growing up. I was always exposed to this lifestyle, it was an every-day occurrence for me. I would always carry a pen and sketchbook around to pass the time when I was growing up. As I spent so much time with people that were so much older than me, I’d start sketching any time we were waiting for food or in the car, or any other time. I never really saw it as “Art”, but more as a way for me to play. Early on I started drawing people in a similar way as I depict them now, which was a way for me to fantasise and invent these characters and stories I would eventually be bringing up in my paintings. While I was growing up I always had a hard time with school. I feel very lucky that my parents were never too pushy in making me take art classes. So for me, the practice of drawing and painting wasn’t really something I saw as an obligation, but rather as a pastime I enjoyed with freedom.

Antes de tragarme, 2021, Oil on Canvas, 24 x 16 in, Courtesy of the Artist and 1969 Gallery, New York

Has your work always taken on the style it currently embodies? 

I wouldn’t say there was a radical change in my work but rather a progression. I’ve always been fascinated with figuration since I was a child. In terms of the style, I would say that since I have only been painting for five or six years, it’s been more of a build-up experience. Even though the viewer may not see this off the bat, I’m always experimenting with new things and trying to evolve in a specific way with each painting that I make. The way I approach painting has evolved throughout time. 

Augurio, 2021, Oil on Canvas, 36 x 40 in, Courtesy of the Artist and 1969 Gallery, New York

What’s your process like? How do you begin a work? 

I always have a sketchbook with me that I use for writing and sketching ideas. I’ve derived ideas from conversations, memories, things I see on the street, or from movies, books, other paintings and the internet, and I write them down in a sketchbook I always keep on me. I’ve jotted down phrases that people say, or a specific way I see two hands touching, or food, or any element I want to use. Mainly, I pay a lot of attention to interactions between people and how they communicate with each other. 

I go back to my collection of ideas and make up a composition based on what I’m looking to communicate. Once I have something clear in my mind that feels exciting to me, I go to the canvas and based on the size, I start drawing on large sheets of paper which I cut out and start taping them together onto a wall. This helps me visualise the composition and to modify figures here and there until I feel satisfied with the result. Then I start preparing the main elements onto the canvas. This process from beginning to end can take up between one or two months, where I find myself guided by the feeling I get when I encounter my work. I feel my practice has benefitted a lot from my drawing background. Drawings have a quicker delivery, they can take a couple of days to complete, and I love doing it, so it’s something that I always want to have around.

El mar que sube mudo hasta mis labios, 2021, Oil on Canvas, 28 x 24 in, Courtesy of the Artist and 1969 Gallery, New York

Can you tell us about why your drawings are monochromatic and in red? 

I think it’s best for me because since my paintings are always so charged with so many details and colors, so with my drawings, I use only red in order to focus on weight, contact, contrast, etc. I like red, I always have. I see it as a very powerful color, and the results come out with a sculptural component that really draws to me.

To mouth, 2020, Oil on Canvas 47 x 59 in, Courtesy of the Artist and 1969 Gallery, New York

Walk us through a day in the studio.

I work better at night, so I wake up without rush and start the day slowly, I start checking emails and my to-do list. During the day there’s a lot of distractions, so I work on and off. That’s why at night the quietness allows me to get immersed in my work.

El paraíso perdido será siempre paraíso, 2019, Oil on Canvas, 40 x 34 in, Courtesy of the Artist and 1969 Gallery, New York

Tell us about the flies. 

I love the flies because they add a sensory component that is very specific to their presence. I really try to make my paintings allude to the senses in some way or another, be it a smell or a sound, or a sensation of heat and humidity, all those things lure the unsettling presence of flies. For example food and its decay. The flies mark the passage of time, they become the symbol of something that cannot be easily held. It only stands still, slows down, to be captured in the painting.

Everything is silent, everything is wild III, 2021, Colored Pencil on Paper, 38.5 x 34 in, Courtesy of the Artist and 1969 Gallery, New York

Can you tell us about your relationship to color? 

It’s probably the most important thing for me apart from composition, because it’s the most visceral component to my paintings. I like to think about color in terms of the capacity it has to create meaning and emotion by itself, that whether you like it or not, draws you in as a viewer. In my work, I look to color to add a sort of rhythm that moves the eye around in a very specific manner. It allows the viewer to single out the importance of certain elements through repetition or singularity. It underlines symbolism too. I like to be bold when it comes to color, it’s something I’ve always been exposed to. I like it when the outcome is pleasing and unsettling at the same time, which is probably why I like red so much. I like that contradiction which alludes to emotions and memories that color can generate in the viewer.

Unison I, 2021, Colored Pencil on Paper, 14 x 11 in, Courtesy of the Artist and 1969 Gallery, New York

What larger questions do you think your work asks? 

That’s a difficult question. I think each artwork asks its own questions. How we think of sexuality, relationships, a mutable or questionable world, love, gender, the body. This is why I’m interested in exploring fantasy, mythology, the uncanny, dreams, fiction and performativity. Most works deal with an exploration of emotions, instincts, fears, desires. I am interested in that  psychological message and looking into the human psyche through the representation of emotional exchanges. Such as sharing, sexual desire, longing for human connection, and empathy. The last one being key to questions about how we relate to each other as humans, and how we perceive or understand others around us.

Young thick blood (Offering I), Colored Pencil on Paper, 11 x 14 in,  Courtesy of the Artist and 1969 Gallery, New York

Does your work reference any Art Historical movements or figures? 

Pre-Columbian art has been very influential in my work, and you can see that more clearly in my works on paper. I grew up visiting the Museo de Antropología (Museum of Anthropology) in Mexico City. It’s one of my favorite museums in the world, where no matter how many times I visit, I’m always amazed at the intricacy in style of the works. Every object you come across has so many levels of meaning and symbolism to them, and I like to reflect that quality in my work.

I can also mention Mexican muralists and female surrealist painters. Other two big influences would be the presence of Catholicism and Catholic imagery, and movements such as costumbrismo and casta paintings that represent the introduction of oil painting and western traditions  into Mexican colonial life. Figurative painters that I have looked at since I was very young are Otto Dix and Christian Schad, from the Neue Sachlichkeit.

Young thick blood (Offering I), Colored Pencil on Paper, 11 x 14 in,  Courtesy of the Artist and 1969 Gallery, New York

What’s next for you? 

I had been working in a new body of work for my first solo show in New York at 1969 Gallery. My show ‘El jardín entre tus dientes’ opened in March and is on view through April 24. 

Your remains I, 2021, Colored Pencil on Paper, 11 x 14 in,  Courtesy of the Artist and 1969 Gallery, New York

At the end of each interview we like to ask the artist to recommend a friend whose work you love and would like us to interview next. Who would you suggest? 

Nicole Chaput, whose work I really respect and love. 

Decadencia, un solo sabor a fruta madura, 2021, Oil on Canvas, 20 x 28 in, Courtesy of the Artist and 1969 Gallery, New York