Julio Linares + Sophia Dahlin
I met the painter Julio Linares in 2011, with the painter and tattooist Julia Garibaldi Tobias, a year after I’d moved to Oakland from Madrid. A madrileño friend had arranged for Julio and Julia, lxs Julis, to stay me while they toured California—they were going to buy a van, drive to Burning Man, and ask to be admitted. Ticketless. They won’t let you in, we told them, but Julio and Julia insisted: no, we’ll tell them from our hearts, we’ll tell them how far we’ve come, show them our art—and they’ll let us in.
They did not, of course. But the story is still sweet. There at the gate, Julio and Julia made friends with other idealists who’d bought the hype but not the tickets, rag-tag out of towners unaware that Burning Man is a for-profit worker-cannibalizing capitalist trashfire flickering only across the face glitter of those basking, for a few days, in the novelty of being simultaneously moneyed and dusty. They took a road trip with their new friends, and ended up living with some of them—and with me—and with other strangers—and with me again—for months before Julia left to connect with family in South America. Julio lingered, briefly got adopted by some urgent scenesters in the Mission, who threw a huge show of the portraits he made of them, and returned to Madrid. In the time he lived here, I fell very much in love with his luminous, venomous, visionary works of art.
Julio and I did this interview over email, in Spanish (mine botched from years of disuse), all of which I’ve translated here. —Sophia
Sophia: For years you’ve painted forests, palm trees, wild animals, thick-tongued snakes. Your most recent paintings include figures that look like you, sometimes naked, sleeping, beside big cats. Are these interior landscapes? Can you find them on a map?
Julio: They are interior landscapes, basically. The truth is I’m not sure where I got this obsession…Well, yes I do, and it’s very naïve and simple. When I was little, my grandfather told me stories about his characters Don Teodoro and Babalí. Babalí was the son of a tribal chief and Don Teodoro an explorer like my grandfather. They had adventures in which they shared their knowledge. My grandfather told me these stories so naturally, with so much detail, that I took for granted that I would grow up and have similar adventures. That’s where my obsession began. My childish imagination, inflated by my grandfather. And this space consolidated the base from which I channel my creation. So, you can locate it in a child’s fantasy.
Sophia: Wait, your grandfather was an explorer?!
Julio: My grandfather was an involuntary explorer in the Spanish Civil War, but he never went to the jungle. He made these stories up for his grandchild, living his dreams as he told them, remembering a life he didn’t have, a life he would have preferred over what fell to him instead, which was the war.
Don Teodoro and Babalí come from him. I didn’t realize they were fantasies until my grandfather died and I was more teenager than child. But let’s be clear: it didn’t matter whether they were invented or experienced, I’d already taken for granted that I would go to the jungle like my grandfather, and I have now met people of these countries.
Sophia: You bring so much gusto to everything, Julio, as if you were totally unafraid, but your art makes me think that you live in a world that vibrates with danger. And to choose to make art, each time, is difficult enough. How do you bring yourself to grab your paintbrush, that snake-birthing snake? Does it scare you?
Julio: Ah! It doesn’t scare me, or I think it doesn’t scare me, because I am very used to doing it—but there is fear there. There is this fear of seeing what will emerge, what mythical furious demons will appear in my naïve forms of snakes or lions. Because they do emerge, they leak from my unconscious without my noticing. And do sometimes frighten me. But it’s a fear I know, an ally. It’s what prompts me to keep painting as a way of learning.
Sophia: Years ago you made a portrait of me, and you insisted that I look you in the eyes. Your friend Julia was at your side making a twin portrait, and she also attempted to capture my gaze. The two of you tussled—I loved it—over my gaze. What does the gaze offer you? Is it dangerous like your wildcats? Does it matter when you’re not painting a portrait?
Julio: Yes. It all matters. Because a form is a form, after all, a mass of flesh with more or less volume, some shadows, blah blah, but the eyes are infinite wells, doors within, toward the formless within, toward the darkness where everything is held. And to paint the formless is pure alchemy. To head into the mystery of fullness. That’s where the venom is. The venom that transforms you and gives you knowledge, a wild knowing that does not pass through the mind. And from that, for me, comes all that art is about. Whether you’re painting a portrait by way of some eyes, or the surface of a Chinese vase, if you don’t go into the danger and try to translate that unnameable, untouchable thing, the trip’s a drag.
Sophia: The gaze is an infinite well and the Chinese vase also has its gaze or equivalent, and I love how you put it. Your vases give me the shivers. You live in Madrid, but you grew up in Toledo, where your parents have an antique shop. Works you’ve shown over the last few years include golden landscapes, vases, saints, Jesus’s face but gold—that is, more than the dream of the forest. Do you, queer and anarchic Julio, hold some passion for the ancient, the royal seal, the Toledan or Castilian? Has your relationship (artistic or in other senses) with Spain changed over the course of your life?
Julio: It has. Patriotism is something I don’t understand; I don’t have the zeal that many do. Nevertheless, yes, I do feel plenty and, again, in a strange unconscious way, a belonging. A belonging to the Castilian, the Spanish that shapes me. There’s this knowledge of the Castilian I’ve received, I’d say via osmosis, being raised among Castilian antiques, virgins, saints, Jesuses polychromed in gold, urns, objects, objects, objects…When I was younger, I painted in the classical Spanish palette: ochres, reds, earth tones, shadows. After my sojourns to the forest and traveling in chromatically explosive places (like that in which I met you), my colors mutated into neons and I abandoned the classic Spanish tones.
I’ve disowned much of my antiquarian past—as a child I viscerally rejected it, basically because it was my predetermined fate and not my choice. Now I should make peace with my past, because those colors are coming back, combining harmoniously (or so I intend) with the fluorescents and bling, and all the antique, baroque, Castilian, ancient art of Spain is overpowering me. And I love it!
In your definition as a poet, Sophia, would you include the adjective “American”? Do you feel a sense of belonging to your origins?
Sophia: I do not love my country, and so I do not mean to sound patriotic when I say my poetry is of this country; I do not believe in nations, nor support the policing of borders. However, I grew up reading and listening here, and my poetry is gnarled to that of other U.S. poets at the base, at the most intuitive hypnotized level.
So I do pertain, my poetry pertains to this fucked up imperial death machine of a country. And because of this and the privileges I have been afforded at the expense of others as a “citizen” here, I feel duty-bound to resist capitalism and fascism in the U.S, in a way that I do not feel elsewhere.
Does that resistance inform my poetry? It tries.
I often write dreamily, sleepily, from a sulky trance or luminous confusion or some dark mood leaves me unexpected. I rarely write with intention; nearly never with an idea of what the poem will “say.” So my writing is not an efficient form of resistance.
When I write poems that are dreamy, sulky, confused, what I have to do later is distrust them and scrutinize them to make sure they are not dreamily sulkily or confusedly reiterating fascist and capitalist and imperialist logics. Like I had a poem joke that went “where do rainbows go when they’ve been bad.” And the punchline was “prism.” And I told it for a while but then stopped because people aren’t incarcerated for being “bad.”
A friend was like, “Maybe, where do rainbows go when they’ve been racialized?”
Yes: my poetry belongs to the States, to California, and to Oakland. But it belongs to California dreamily, childishly; to Oakland gratefully, longingly. And to the U.S. grievously, furiously, constantly turning around to see the tyrant.
Julio: You have lived in Spain: have that and other experiences outside the United States changed your way of using words?
Sophia: As I’d never studied ancient languages, learning Spanish (and German, which I don’t remember at all anymore) was a linguistic revelation. It allowed me to hear the roots of words. It made me conceive of language as something physical, literal, vegetal. And viral.
And more, I suppose it affected my syntax. It gave me more syntax, more structures. More commas. I answered your previous question in English; I’ve responded to this in Spanish. We’ll see if it shows in the translation.