Santiago Cárdenas: The Transcendence of the Trivial

“Drawing for me is a basic impulse, instinctive and precise; it is the most direct means of conveying human thought in an instant and through time.”

By: Alberto Gualde
Photos: Carlos Eduardo Gómez


From a very young age and without his father´s blessing, Santiago Cárdenas left behind what could have been a solid future as an architect to immerse himself into the anxiety-filled world of art. This outstanding artist was born in Bogotá in 1937 and before long he was inevitably attracted toward drawing. The lines of a drawing, he tells us, may be as trivial and short lived as the line that takes form as you casually drag a finger across a dust covered table, or as significant as Leonardo da Vinci´s anatomy studies. And this art is quite relevant, in his opinion, “the drawings in the Altamira caves, during the paleolithic era, are the first signs that show human beings emerging from the barbaric era, abandoning the confounding clay for civilization and culture.”

Painting, however, was not so easy…

“Learning took me years. In painting, like in music, order is needed, and structure. If music demands that the notes are set with certain criteria that generate harmony, in painting, colors also need a structure to generate a strong visual impression. To learn that takes time and I am a slow learner, very slow, extremely slow. However, drawing was always, for me, a natural activity in which the hand, the eye, the pencil, and the mind are an active circuit, very much alive, capable of instantaneously making any image visible. Really, now I am as comfortable drawing as painting because I finally learned how to paint. Besides, I must be one of the few artists who still voluntarily get entangled in the difficulties of painting with oil paints. Most painters now work with acrylics or any other material that dries easily.”

Cárdenas studied in the United States. In the early 1960´s, he attended the Rhode Island School of Design Fine Arts program and later, the Yale University School of Art and Architecture Masters program. Originally, Santiago was supposed to study architecture. On his first trip back to his native land after a couple of intense learning semesters, he was carrying a suitcase bursting with his sketches, drawings, and drafts. With timid pride he showed them, one by one, to his father who looked at them with slow and patient interest before asking his recently arrived son: “And where are your architectural drafts?” Then, Santiago, the passionate draftsman, had to tell him that early in the semester, he had secretly acted on the suggestion of a professor who admired his drawing skills.

During his time in North America, Cárdenas witnessed and participated in the dynamic creative forces arising from the simultaneous presence of two forceful expressive currents: abstract expressionism and pop art. “I remember attending the first Warhol and Pollock exhibits. Now it may seem remote and absurd, but at the time there was a strong rivalry between emerging pop artists and established masters like Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock.”

In 1965, Santiago Cárdenas began his artistic career in Colombia, where he still works. “When I returned, I felt like certain Spanish pioneers who built their cathedrals on pre-Colombian temples, using the original stones. Or like the Brazilian cultural cannibals who, following Oswald de Andrade, defended the idea of devouring foreign cultures and appropriating them to later produce something of their own.”

When the trivial becomes transcendent

At that moment, Santiago Cárdenas proposed an artistic and graphic oeuvre in which he represented personal and private situations and objects in his surroundings. Many of his paintings suggest that the most trivial realities (clothes, furniture, home electronic devices, umbrellas) are actually significant subjects. What would be considered irrelevant on a daily basis, acquires a weight in Cárdenas’ work, a gravity that seems to challenge us.

“I don´t perceive a determined hierarchy among objects. I feel something else. Even the most simple or humble thing can be very expressive and say a lot. A clothes hanger, a blackboard, an umbrella, a curtain, or a flower can say much about us, or a specific era, or the society in which we live. I feel like an archeologist who, in discovering something minuscule, is able to understand or project a whole era.”

Many art critics have compared this facet of Santiago Cardenas´ work with the North American pop art scene of the 1960s, because both languages explore, from their own perspectives, the world of insignificant objects in powerful prints that efficiently represent the human experience.

Since then, Cárdenas has represented daily life, and also developed impressive levels of technical perfection with his series of blackboards, architectural spaces, and shadows. He also plays with creating artistic spaces of powerful realism, capable of deceiving and confusing the human eye, calling the links between the artistic process and daily images into question.

A method with almost no discourse

“When I go into the workshop I start thinking while I look at the empty canvas and that empty canvas wakes something in me. It is a process requiring much calmness; more frequently than not I suffer from an initial inertia and it takes some effort to overcome it. In the end I do it, without needing an idea to start. I just paint and, generally, after a while the path clears. Sometimes, while painting, I get blocked. Then I need to stop. I lift the canvas and start again on a new one. Later, maybe days, weeks, or months later, I can resume the interrupted work.”

How do you currently perceive conceptual art? 

“Like in any other form of expression, the good ones are marvelous and the bad ones are a disaster. I have nothing against breaking traditions. There will always be good and bad artists, in conceptual art and painting. Not long ago, in New York, I was able to take part in an extraordinary performance by Marina Abramovic and I was very impressed. I was completely overwhelmed.”

Your work has been defined from many points of view and concepts. Do you have a personal word that defines your work?

“I have never been able to define my work. And if someone asks me, I simply answer that I am a realist painter. You have to simplify. Art is always a dialogue. To paint is to have something to say and say it.”