The Spanish artist, who lives with synaesthesia, turns colour into a form of communication and the basis of her successful work.
Ignacio Romo González
4 April 2022 (06:30 CET)
Maru Quiñonero (Murcia, 1979) has been exhibiting her work and projects all over the world for years. In March 2020, in fact, the artist was in New York opening an exhibition when the first confinements due to the pandemic began. In the months that followed, as you know, everyone’s existence came to an abrupt and unexpected halt. Without warning, a period of stillness and isolation ensued, a period that Quiñonero took advantage of to devise BIEN, the exhibition that the Alzueta Gallery has hosted at its Madrid headquarters during the month of March.
Maru Quiñonero’s interview with COOLT takes place precisely in this space in the Spanish capital. Two years have passed since all that and life, at least for Quiñonero, seems to be resuming its usual course: her agenda is once again full of plans, deliveries and travels. We chat, sitting on heavy wooden and wicker chairs, while the paintings in his exhibition BIEN observe and welcome us.
Maru Quiñonero at her ‘Bien’ Solo Show
Although she grew up in Murcia, the artist has been living in Madrid for so long that there is hardly a trace of her native accent in her speech. We begin our conversation by recalling her childhood, which she spent far removed from art. “In my family,” she says, “for many years it was joked that I didn’t like drawing. Thinking about it now, in retrospect, I wonder if that family joke didn’t affect me in some way during my childhood and adolescence.
-A kind of complex?
-Not a complex, because it wasn’t dramatic or anything like that. But I do think of it as a click that stuck in my head and said “I don’t know how to draw”. As a result of this, I always have a thought that expresses something like: be careful with the things we say to children, because perhaps a silly phrase, said at a very specific moment, can stay with a child for years.
Maru Quiñonero: ‘Bien’ Solo Show
In a way, Quiñonero believes that it is possible that her late incursion into the world of artistic production is due to precisely that: to a misplaced external commentary, to a negative notion about herself and her abilities that stuck to her unconscious for a long time. However, when it came to university, Maru opted to enrol in Art History, even though everything seemed to indicate that her path was English Philology: “I was good at English, but during the last years of high school I took a subject in Art History that I loved. I had a fantastic teacher who explained it very well, and at that moment everything changed”.
Asked what the artistic environment was like in Murcia during those university years (late nineties and early two thousand), Maru replies that she maintained a certain link with Ramón Gaya, a leading figure in 20th century painting in Spain, but because her family had a close relationship with him. “I suppose something of him rubbed off on me,” she reflects. “And then Murcia has the impediments of any provincial city. Nowadays there are some contemporary art galleries, but I always say the same thing: for me it’s easier to exhibit in New York than in Murcia. In the end, nobody is a prophet in their own land”.
Moving to Madrid
After completing his studies in Art History in Murcia, Quiñonero moved to Madrid to take a master’s degree in fashion communication offered by Vogue magazine and the Carlos III University. As a result of this training, she started working at the Condé Nast Group, in the marketing section.
-What were those years like?
-During that time I learned a lot about marketing, something that I have never been able to apply to my projects afterwards…
Quiñonero pauses. She sighs. She resumes the argument:
-It was a pretty routine and boring office job, at least from my perspective, although I try to take the good side of everything. At that time I was already starting to work in the art world, so it was a few years of double life: in the morning I was in the office sending mails and organising excels and in the afternoons I was rushing back home because I already had projects I was starting to do.
During this starting point Quiñonero experimented the collage technique: “I started with old school collage, cut and paste. Since I was a child I had collected all kinds of stickers, paper, magazine photographs… Paper has always attracted my attention. When I look back and take stock, I realise that paper has always accompanied me”.
From this more traditional collage, Quiñonero began to include different textures, materials and shapes. Also illustrations. “Little by little I began to introduce small lines of illustration. Then everything grew in a very organic way, always based on the needs and interests I had”.
No technical knowledge, no vices
Quiñonero never studied Fine Arts. If you think about it quickly, this fact may seem to be a limitation: an absence of knowledge of technique, form, materials, and so on. But the artist believes that she has managed to exploit these deficits to the point of transforming them into virtues. “I’ve been able to take advantage of all these shortcomings and then create. I would say that I work a lot by trial and error and that I have no vices. I know many people who have studied Fine Arts who end up feeling coerced when it comes to working. On the other hand, I don’t feel insecure because I don’t have a single a technique. Quite the contrary: my work is often a game of experimentation.
-And what was the process of becoming an artist like? Do you remember your first exhibition?
-The truth is that I don’t remember how the first opportunity arose. I suppose it was some contact that you suddenly meet and proposes an exhibition. They knew that I made collages in a very amateur way, but they offered me the chance to exhibit in a space in the Barrio de las Letras in Madrid that no longer exists.
Quiñonero sold everything in that first exhibition in Madrid. It was a success. The hope of a new life was opening up before her. And the impossibility of combining both jobs, that of marketing manager at Condé Nast and that of artist, became increasingly evident. Luckily, she didn’t even have to make the decision she seemed to be heading towards: in 2014 Condé Nast reduced its workforce; Quiñonero was among those made redundant and took advantage of the severance pay to start her artistic project. The unknowns, however, continued to outnumber the certainties. “I had a lot of doubts, both creatively and economically. Being self-employed is a leap. When you don’t have anyone to serve as a point of reference, being an entrepreneur is more difficult”.
Quiñonero says she was lucky because it was precisely around this time that she met Ale Megale, a freelance photographer who helped Maru to manage as an independent creator. “Ale is now my ex-partner, but we were a couple for a long time. He encouraged me a lot and helped me understand that it was possible to make a living from my work”. According to Maru, the idea that it is possible to make a living from a vocation is not very much encouraged in Spain. And even less so from an artistic or creative vocation. “In Spain, being an artist is frowned upon. It’s been hard for me to say that I’m an artist without fear of being looked at strangely. Because when you say it, people look at you as if to say: ‘What’s that, do you really make a living from this?
Successes, turbans and changes of direction
Her first artistic stage, that of collage, culminated in the work Mi chica del turbante, one of his best known and most successful works. Quiñonero explains its origin: “I wanted the works to begin to take on a more three-dimensional form, and that is when I began to work with fabrics and volumes, playing with folds”.
These volumes that she made with fabrics and other materials were then complemented with illustrations. In this way, Quiñonero ended up arriving at the girl’s profile. “I drew it very simply, with three or four lines. Actually, the important thing for me was to work on the turban, and the drawing of the girl was an excuse. However, it succeeded.
Quiñonero closed the project a couple of years ago, but he admits that he still receives proposals to make more and more girls with the turban. Why was it so successful? “I think it triumphed because people took it to their own territory. I remember there were people who gave me their fabrics so that I could make the girl with a turban. I have made turbans with very personal fabrics”.
-For example, the shirt of a mother who has passed away. A grandmother’s curtains from when the family lived in the mountains. Or even a wedding dress. I made turbans with fabrics that had incredible personal stories behind them.
-But you said that it was a success that, at a certain point, made you a little uncomfortable. Because everyone associated you with the same work.
-Yes, it’s like when you go to a U2 concert and you want them to play the most iconic song that you like the most. But, of course, they are presenting a new album, and they want to play it live as well. Still, it doesn’t bother me at all. I don’t feel any kind of rejection or anything like that. I’m just really grateful that people received it so well. It’s just that I felt I needed to put it all behind me.
Maru Quiñonero’s work in progress
In the final stages of that project, Quiñonero was still making girls and turbans, but in reality her mind and ambitions were already elsewhere. The artist was moving towards different ways of understanding painting, other ways of confronting artistic creation. Maru’s works were moving towards abstraction. “I was already in another creative moment, and sometimes I continued to make turbans only because I was receiving very personal and special fabrics. That’s why it was so hard for me to break away from that.
It is common for this kind of mismatch to happen in the cultural industry. There is almost always a mismatch between what an artist presents, premieres, and what they are actually working on at the time. “Yes, there is a certain gap,” Quiñonero acknowledges. “Like now, when I’m here presenting BIEN, a work that was already finished at the beginning of last summer. Think that I practically work with a calendar a year ahead. These days I’m beginning to sketch out what I’m going to present in March next year”.
Colour and emptiness’: a new stage
Maru recalls that it was in 2017 that she began to turn her artistic discourse towards abstraction. To unify her new project, she came up with the name “Color and vacuum”. His intention was to talk about colours, spaces and forms. It could be said that it is this triad that has been the basis of Quiñonero’s work for the last five years. “I gave it that title because I thought it was going to be a more concrete parenthesis, but once I started I couldn’t finish.
-What changed in you to produce this turn towards abstraction?
-To begin with, although I came from figurativism, I came from a minimalist figurativism. That is to say, it was a very simple style with very pure lines. On the other hand, I have always worked with colour.
‘Bien’ Show in progress
Quiñonero maintains that abstraction has its own language, which is why she is so interested in it. And in particular, the language with which Maru communicates is that of colour. “Sometimes colour helps me to enunciate in a clearer way than a realistic figure,” she says. But the language Quiñonero uses to express herself with colour is somewhat particular. Since she was a child, the artist has lived with synaesthesia, that is, a kind of alteration in her way of perceiving that causes sounds and colours to intermingle in her body until they generate a curious amalgam. “There are many types of synaesthesia,” she explains, “but the one I have has to do with the fact that some words, letters and phonemes are related in my mind to colours.
-So you see colours when you hear words?
-It’s not that I see colours, but rather I feel them. Colour accompanies some words, some letters and some phonemes.
“It’s very complicated to explain, it’s very complicated to explain”, the artist repeats several times during this point of the conversation. For those of us who do not have this way of perceiving, it is difficult to get used to the idea that it is possible to achieve sensations by means of stimuli that, a priori, are not the ones that should generate this type of response.
In order to make herself understood, the artist gives an example: “For me the a is red and the i is blue. This could be the headline, but then you have to develop it. The word Mississippi for me is blue because there is a lot of Latin i in it. But I couldn’t specify a specific blue, it’s more like a shade of blue. It’s a physical sensation that happens in my body.
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“Nobody is a prophet in their own land”, Quiñonero commented at the beginning of the interview. The artist has not exhibited in Murcia, her city of origin, but her work has been shown in London, Paris, New York, Japan and Taiwan, among other places. In the end, Quiñonero’s work goes abroad so often because colour is a universal language that everyone understands. “American culture, Asian culture and European culture are very different, but colour is a form of communication that everyone uses,” he says.
So global is the language of colour that even one of her works has appeared in Elite, the worldwide hit series produced by Netflix. “It was a diptych that appeared in Elite, two paintings. I remember that when people recognised them, they sent me lots of screenshots,” says Quiñonero. “The production company contacted me before the pandemic. I gave them the paintings and they kept them there for a couple of years until they returned them. Honestly, I don’t know how they got to me”.
On occasions, Maru has commented that the happier and calmer she is, the better she creates. In contrast to the figure of the cursed, tormented, alcoholic artist who takes advantage of the lowest and darkest moments in life to achieve his most brilliant ideas, Quiñonero places herself in an antagonistic position: “I like to be calm, relaxed, to get up early to work in natural light. The happier I am, the better things work out for me.
-And on bad days, what do you do?
-On bad days… In the artist’s life scenario, I would say that there are days totally dedicated to the production of the work that is being carried out at that moment. But before all that work, there are periods when I don’t pick up a pencil or think about colours. These are days when I visit the Prado Museum or other places, go to the cinema, go for a walk. There is a lot of that time that I have learned to respect. It is not only the moment of execution that is important. It is necessary to load yourself with experiences and experiences to then transform them into artistic projects.
For some months now, Quiñonero has been working at home. There she has set up something like a studio-home. There was a time when she carried out her work in a place located in Lavapiés, a central district of Madrid. But she finally ended up leaving it due to personal circumstances and because, she says, she found it rather cold and impersonal, almost as if it were a laboratory. “I really like being at home, I enjoy the way I have it set up. I’m alone with my dogs and it’s great, because I don’t have to answer to anyone. In the studio I had more space and a better set-up, but there was something that didn’t quite convince me”.
Despite Maru’s unconditional love for her home, there will be times when her time there will inevitably be limited and intermittent. The schedule is tight: this May, Quiñonero will travel to New York and then, between late spring and early summer, she will present a carpet with the Alzueta Gallery. The rugs will be made in India from jute and wool, and Maru has made the designs. In September she will visit Barcelona for an exhibition there. Months later, in December, she will fly to Taipei to present an exhibition of canvases and sculptures (it will be the first time she has exhibited her work in this format). And he has even more plans: “By March 2023 I have another exhibition in New York and, in May, another one here in Madrid”. In a way, it is fortunate that Maru is looking forward to such a busy year.
Maru Quiñonero with her latest edition