We've all had those movements after lovemaking when we wonder: what would that have looked like to someone else? Alex Esguerra took that curiousity to the next level by creating a special kind of 21st century portraiture that captures the movement of bodies in sensuous connection across a floor-sized canvas. I recently spoke with Alex about his artistic enterprise, Love and Paint. – Ken Jordan
In February, as part of our celebration of love and sensuality, we're offering special sessions from Love and Paint on Evolver.net.
Ken Jordan: What is Love and Paint?
Alex Esguerra: Love and Paint is an idea I came up with as an artist a few years ago. I wanted to find a way to be able to capture the physical act of love without using technology, like photography, film, and so forth. The first thing that popped into my head after an experience I had one night was, what if this was done in paint? Would this look beautiful? Would it tell a story? Would it be abstract? Would it be a great experience? That began this journey of inviting couples, who were mainly compromised of my friends, friends of friends, roommate, and people in my building. I would set up my studio, which was just my bedroom at the time, lay the canvas down, organize the paint, and let them do their thing once I left the room. The paints were a special type that are safe for the body. After a few trial and errors, they turned out very beautiful.
What kicked this whole thing off?
I was single, and it was one of those nights where you just feel good. You feel like you're going to go out, meet someone, and have a good time. And that's exactly what I did. Before I left my apartment, I specifically remember cleaning my bedroom, organizing everything, and making sure everything was nice and neat. The reason I say that is because when I woke up the morning after, after having brought a lady home, my room was completely messed up. I must have been drinking way too much, but I couldn't remember everything that happened. That's a discussion in itself, but as an artist, I remember just looking at the room. She had left, and the room looked completely different than what I had set it up as. I was thinking about where our bodies were, and how they interacted with the room. I started thinking, what if there is a way to remember what happened through something cool, like paint? Seeing where our marks were on the bed or in the room, and really understanding how our physical bodies embraced the physical space we were making love and having sex in.
That's great. So you're creating an imprint of the event, a kind of artifact.
Exactly. I was thinking paint would be really messy all around the room, though. We could get paint on the sheets, but that would be messy. I'm a painter myself, so I thought, how much is canvas? It just kind of came from there.
Do you give people directions about how they should move on the canvas in order to get a certain kind of effect?
I give light instructions because for me, the beauty of my art is that I'm not the artist. I'm more the producer that sets up the experience for them, and at the end of the day, they are the artist. What I typically do is introduce myself, talk to them, ask how they met, learn a little about the couple. Once I know a little bit about who they are, it feels a bit like relationship therapy at times. I walk them into the studio, or whoever the situation is. I walk them through the entire process, tell him how the paints are safe, show them the canvas, the tarp, the best way to go about it, tips on the best positions, and tell them not to use too much paint too soon. Some of the paint dries pretty quickly, so you want to keep the paint going throughout the experience. It's also not about being an artist because I do leave the couple in pitch black rooms. They can light a couple of candles if they like, but I really want them to be less focused on creating a painting, and more focused on enjoying the texture of the medium on their bodies, laughing; it's a really silly, loving, sexy experience.
So they're not actually watching what they're doing, they're not looking at the canvas as it's coming along. They're literally in the dark.
Yeah, because I don't want it to become too contrived. I think at that point, the couple would become more occupied with taking it on as an art project as opposed to just trying to capture the love in a very true way. I like there to be integrity to these paintings. You can tell the difference between the couples for whom I've had the lights on versus couples for whom I've had the lights off. I prefer the ones with the lights off.
How would you characterize the difference?
Couples who had the lights on planned the positions they were doing. They wanted to create a certain image. They were always worried about certain colors mixing with other colors, and the guy being one color and the girl being the other, or the girl and the girl, or the guy and the guy. They're just so focused on every detail. It's just like when you're having sex for the first time with somebody you really care about and you're not enjoying the moment, you're just worried about whether you're doing a good job. If you're so focused on that, it almost takes away from the beauty of the memory. I like to prevent that as much as possible and remind them, this is about you two. I want you to look back at this painting and know that you gave each other one hundred percent at this moment. It wasn't about trying to make a perfect painting. The second your foot goes to the left, or your arm goes to the right, or you twist, you turn, all the colors get messed up and combined, and no matter how hard you try, you can never really create a certain look on the painting unless you freeze and work in a certain position the entire time. I think that is a waste of the experience.
The couples are really collaborators in the making of the painting, in a deep way. When you look at the finished painting, what do you learn about these people?
That's a very good question. People would ask me this question, and for the first couple of years, I would always say that I think I can tell something, but I can't tell something. Looking back at all the couples, and I've worked with a lot of couples of this, I would say I've finally decoded them. I realized couples that have been together for a long time that are more comfortable with each other tend to know what positions work for them. They've been doing it so much that they know what feels good and what is right. Instead of jumping around from position to position, they stick to their positions and really enjoy them and get the most out of them, as opposed to couples who are brand new or young and passionate and just doing this for fun. They switch and try all these different things, and they're all over the place. You see these marks and you have a lot more negative space between couples. A lot more of the canvas comes through for younger couples who haven't been together very long compared to couples who have been together for a long time. They tend to have these large, riding pattern sand swirls, these moments where you can tell the paints just swirled and mixed and overlaid each other for the entire period just in that one position. It's kind of fascinating. For couples who have been together a long time, the paintings look like they're underwater, and the paints come out like they're underwater. With the couples who are new, the paintings are more graphical and wild, which is almost appropriate, if you think about it.
What's the range of ages of the people who have participated in this?
I've had everything from couples who are 18 or 19 to the oldest couple I had, which was a 70 year old man and a 57 year old woman. It was their 30 year wedding anniversary. He was a cancer survivor, and it was the same month as their birthdays, so there was a lot of celebration going on in that moment.
That's gorgeous. What other memorable experiences have you had? You must have a lot of stories.
I do. Every time I look at these paintings, I see a specific story and a memory of being with and learning about that couple. I've tried to diversify my couples from the beginning. One thing I love is when you look at all the paintings, if I don't tell you what type of couple made them, you have no right to declare that the painting was made by a certain race, ethnicity, disability, or anything about anybody that made those paintings. They all become equal. The stories range from scandalous affairs to wedding vows to couples trying to conceive a child. I have lots of birthdays, anniversaries, and things like that. There was one woman who sent me an email that really struck my heart. She was raped a few years back, and this was the first time she was able to look at sex as beautiful again, because she had such a traumatic experience. This form of art opened her eyes to the fact that one day, when she's ready, sex can be beautiful again. That wasn't a story of a couple I've dealt with, but it was a story that I would love to deal with one day in the future. I have stories that range from all kinds of experiences, but that one really stuck out to me. If she is willing to do this, if she is reaching out to share this story with me, these couples and stories really can come from anywhere.
I'd have to look at all the paintings to remember all the stories! There was one couple that was a young homosexual couple, and they were just moving in together. They were walking down the street and got jumped by a bunch of homophobic guys. Two weeks later, they were still so upset about it that they decided to make the pointing almost as a "screw you" to those guys, as a "we love ourselves and our sexuality, and we're going to make this painting regardless of how you treat us." I thought that was beautiful. So some couples have light issues, some of them have deep issues, and some of them are just for fun.
Tell me a little bit about the Love and Paint documentary.
It hits a couple points. I guess I'd call myself a bit of an entrepreneur. I love the journey, the struggle, and what it takes to take an idea from nothing and hopefully bring it to the world and change the world in some way. In documentaries, it's very rare that you get to see somebody film the entire journey before they make it. Usually somebody will make it, be successful, and then they'll go back and find photographs and a clip here and there, and they'll piece it together and make a story of the past to tell their journey. I was thinking it would be really fascinating to film the entire journey, whether I make it or not, to motivate people in the future to have an idea, document it, follow it, and go for it. I figured Love and Paint was an ideal example for this concept, especially because you can pair it with these stories of all these couples, interviews with them, and meeting them, traveling around the country, and doing this at art shows, and seeing how this affects people. Everybody has an opinion about this form of art, I've noticed. I thought if you could tie it all together, it would be a really fascinating documentary.
So you've been shooting it all along?
I've been filming it on iPhones, flip cameras, every different type of camera. I've been filming it for three years now, and I have so much footage, it's incredible. I've interviewed pretty much every couple. I've asked them how they met, why they're doing this, how they heard about the project. I interview them before and after the experience, when they're covered in paint, I ask them about the experience, how they feel. I go back to the couple's home years later and ask them what it's like having the painting in their apartment, and have they had any funny stories with guests coming over asking about it. We've interviewed sex therapists, all kinds of people. I eventually want to get celebrity couples to do paintings for charity and have them do a little interview on the camera if they're comfortable.
Do you have any plans for finishing it up, or is this a never-ending shooting process?
There's a lot on the table right now. We're working on merchandising and a kit that we can mail to couples so they don't always have to come to me, because a lot of people from all around the world want to do this. I'm trying to make it a little more accessible. I'm also working on a coffee table book, and I'm working on my next show, which is Love and Clay, which uses clay instead of paint. After all that is said and done, my biggest priority is do the documentary. But I want to wait and see the climax of what happens. I'd like to see this get to the next level. Maybe a show in London or something. That would be a nice ending to the documentary. We got invited to do a show in London, but you have to make sure you have the right finances, and the right logistics. I don't want to rush over there, I want to make sure I do it right.
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