Antonio Santin© Antonio Santin

Spanish Artist Antonio Santin On What Lies Behind His ‘Rugs’

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Sangeeta Waddhwani

What would get an artist so obsessed with Persian-patterned rug designs, drawing viewers in so they crave to touch the ornate surfaces? What ecstatically perfectionist designs are these, so wonderfully illusory, that one forgets they are not tapestry but oil paint and sculptural ‘embroidery’? What of the consistent folds and bulges, suggesting something submerged, something hidden?

Well, there’s a missing link. The Madrid-New York-based Antonio Santin started his artistic career exploring figurative art. But one watershed photoshoot triggered his magnum opus rug series. At that photoshoot, he got the idea of hiding the model under a carpet. When he saw the bulky rug through the lens, he realised what a truly powerful image it made.

“It had all the psychological tension of a person, but I had literally gotten rid of the body. The result was sublime, equally dark and humorous, heavy and beautiful,” Santin has shared, in past interviews.

In India, a country rich in heritage carpets, tapestries and rugs, there’s a high level of relatability to Santin’s explorations. His work created unprecedented engagement at India Art Fair (requiring security to keep people from touching his art!), and he’s had three exhibitions at Mumbai’s Galerie Isa. Here, the artist shares his contemplations on the magic of his vision and execution.

HELLO!: Your ornamental tapestries that ‘bend’ the subject have fascinated Indian art lovers. And we have a rich tradition of tapestry art from the Mughal period. Have you ever felt like bringing those motifs into your paintings?

Antonio Santin: “My taste is rather eclectic when it comes to inspiration. I look at many tapestries. Aside from their origins, what I essentially wonder is whether the pattern has the potential to become a painting. Nothing makes strict sense; it’s a gut feeling, and I tend to follow my instinct wherever it takes me.”

Antonio Santin Art©Antonio Santin

H!: What triggered this series, this signature theme for you in your journey?

AS: “The thing is, I don’t actually paint rugs. What I try to depict is what’s behind the rug, unknown or hidden and only definable by what’s covering it. This way, the rug is an ornate excuse to depict what we can’t see, or what we don’t want to see. We’re all familiar with the expression ‘sweeping something under the rug...’”

H!: In a world increasingly turning to technology to create illusion, your works have a classic, organic approach to the concept. Tell us about the layers of the process of each work. We believe it takes several weeks to months to execute a single painting!

AS: “Oil painting has been around for centuries, but nobody has ever used it the way I do.This is, after all, an innovation. I use syringes and an air compressor to create thin threads of colour that I then carefully model into micro-sculptural reliefs. When you look at the surface up close, it resembles embroidery. The result is a mixture between painting and sculpture — the first layer of illusion. On top of this texture, there’s a glazing that works both as a chiaroscuro and as a patina, and when it’s done well, it adds a third dimension to the drapery, tricking the beholder into seeing volumes.But it’s all flat! This is the second layer of illusion, a trompe-l’oeil. The third layer is the image itself. What lies behind the carpet? The answer to this belongs to the viewer. My technique is time consuming, and it can easily take half a year to complete one of my paintings.”

Antonio Santin Rugs Art©Antonio Santin

H!: You describe this work as ‘more real than reality itself’. We see in your work the combined techniques of tenebrism, chiaroscuro and trompe-l’oeil, the no-tech version of what is today virtual, immersive reality. Tell us how challenging it was to master these styles.

AS: “I’ve been developing this technique myself for years, for it to achieve this level of sophistication. It’s worth it to remain focused on one idea until you fulfill its entire potential. It’s, in fact, a rather difficult skill to master. You need to be very dexterous to apply dots of paint with that precision, and it requires extreme concentration to not make mistakes, as they are very difficult to amend. Other than that, as a Spaniard, I have a solid foundation studying traditional classical painting, so the process of including tenebrism in my work felt natural.”

H!: Creating a rich, textured surface that’s handpainted is a luxury for busy artisans. Do you work with a team to streamline the process better?

AS: “I started working on this series alone, but as soon as I understood the complexity of the challenge and its promising possibilities, I realised I’d need help to push my natural limits and create a reasonable production. I do work with a small team of assistants. They are highly trained artisans who help me amplify my vision. The workshop operates like an oil paint loom.”

H!: Over the centuries, whether it’s the Ajanta and Ellora Caves or the Sistine Chapel, chiaroscuro and trompe-l’oeil became globally known art languages. But in the modern world, which are the artists you admire who employ these rich visual approaches to their work?

AS: “A few years ago, I was clearer on who my references were. But since I became fully immersed in the digital era and the daily processing of thousands of images, I sincerely find it more difficult to say. To me, art has become an endless possibility with no beginning and no end, no names or dates. Although a few artists whose play with perspectives interests me would be Wim Delvoye, Paul McCarthy and Jong Oh.”

H!: The UAE has a rich tradition of tapestry-making, as well. How do art collectors respond to your works in cities like Dubai and Abu Dhabi?

AS: “Appreciation for my art seems to be universal. Every culture relates to it in one way or another, and I have collectors everywhere in the world. I’ve exhibited in the UAE numerous times, always with great results.”

Antonio Santin Rugs Art©Antonio Santin

H!:How did international art collectors and gallerists at the India Art Fair respond to your work this year?

AS: “India Art Fair is always intense. Unfortunately, I could only be there once, a couple of years ago, and I couldn’t believe my eyes! My painting was attracting so much attention. We needed to put security on both sides of the work, even a soft fence. It looked like everybody just wanted to touch my artwork! I believe painting is a slow language that has to be understood not only with your eyes but also with your body. This doesn’t mean, of course, that touching a painting is an option. It’s not, but I take that urge as a compliment. I think the amount of work involved in making this artwork is another dimension of the work that the viewer can actually feel in their body. I also believe that together, with the set of illusions I propose, it cumulatively produces some sort of vertigo that elicits a bodily response.”

H!: Which of your recent works is your favourite?

AS: “I like the body of work that I recently exhibited at Galerie Isa, both in composition and technique. These paintings represent the ‘state of the art’ of my idea.”

H!: We believe you started out with portraiture and then moved on to the Oriental rugs series. Do you see yourself heading in new directions in 2023?

AS: “This rug series keeps me incredibly busy. There are still many elements I can play with, which is exciting! However, I do keep exploring new directions on the side, in minimalism and organic abstraction in particular of late. I believe it’s important to challenge yourself every day.

 Photos Courtesy: Galerie Isa

This story has been adapted for the website from a story that was originally published in Hello! India’s March 2023 issue. Get your hands on the latest issue right here!