Much like the artist himself, Andrew Cortes’ art is at once confident of its place in the world, yet open to possibility. His striking paintings, mosaics, and sculpture-like pieces yearn to express a deep truth hiding just beyond the surface of things, but are okay with the fact that this truth is, in large part, fleetingly uncapturable. The effect is undeniably dynamic and irresistibly inviting.
When interviewing Andrew, I was struck that he and his art could embody such a play of opposites. He is a charmingly broad-sighted human who is keenly aware of the greater forces at work – nature, history, his ancestors, the universe – in his words, “something beyond me.” And yet he is deeply present in the here and now, soaking up each awe-inspiring moment to be reimagined and expressed through his art – before it vanishes forever.
With names like “A Spiritual Alibi” and “Night Light, Holy Dark,” and made up of materials that reflect the rugged order of the natural world that constantly inspires him, Andrew’s pieces invite you to embody an almost mystical space, but are self-assured enough to leave it up to you if you want to enter.
I catch up with the artist at a time when he is still hesitant to define what being an “artist” even means, but it’s clear that his urge to create is as essential and unquestioning as the very act of breathing.
Why do you do what you do?
I don’t think I have a really well-defined answer to that question still. Life usually just feels like breathing to me. I don't "try" to breathe usually... I need to breathe. Instead I try to change my breathing from time to time. I change my breathing to gain a calm or channel my focus into a singular moment. Not sure this answers the question but it dances around it pretty well.
What’s one of your earliest memories of creating?
I would make these little cities, using my mom’s Tupperware, old shoeboxes, chairs, furniture... combining things that were already in my home that I had no control over with things that I could move around and manipulate. Once the cites were in place I would orchestrate these elaborate battles, dramatic storylines, and sometimes catastrophic multi-day sagas with all my toys and action figures making cameos. Batman, the Ninja Turtles, GI-Joes, Spiderman, Tonka trucks – it was the ultimate crossover experience. My mom would let me leave these bedroom-sized dioramas up for days on end, which was cool to now be able to say that I never heard the words "clean your room."
When did you start considering yourself an artist?
I am a really awkward person about being an artist, I don't know when I really consciously started creating as an "artist" versus creating just as a person. It’s a very organic practice that changes and flows within itself.
You’ve said that when you create, you feel as if “something moves through you.” This made me think of the origin of the word “inspiration,” which is “in spirit,” and the idea that artists are a conduit for a universal force. Do you feel this applies to you when you’re creating?
I want it to apply to me. I spend a lot of time outdoors, and to me that’s where I tap into something else... something spiritual, something mystical, something beyond me. Nature has this profound power to give humans a peek into the unfathomable. Earlier this past year I took a trip down a portion of the Grand Canyon on a white-water raft with friends. We camped under the blackest skies I have ever seen, jumped off cliffs, explored little caves, and found ancient native water falls. Being in the presence of something that is millions of years old... that was a river to prehistoric creatures, was a river before my ancestors settled in Mexico, was a river before I was born, as we speak is currently still flowing with water, and long after I am gone, it will still be a river – it’s such a massive idea to try and wrap a mind around.
Nature does that to me. I don’t just see a bunch of rocks and water – I try and absorb the energy and it’s so colossal that it dwarfs me in the universe, and I’m okay with that. I’ve accepted being very small dust in the cosmos. When I come back to my studio from drifting off on these adventures I don’t necessarily try and make a picture of what I saw, instead I try to create an object that will reflect the experience I myself tried to understand. It’s up to the viewer if they want to enter. It’s up to them if they want to see past rocks and water.
Do you make the tiles and materials you mosaic with? Or are they found?
Awesome question. I don’t make any of it. I find most of it or purchase specialty glasses second hand. I also scout around at thrift shops or the occasional trash bin for materials. Aside from the tiles though there are natural elements that also make their way into my work in the form of stones and driftwood pieces. These mean a lot to me. Nearly every beach, desert, forest, canyon, hike, surf session, or walk I take, I like to leave with a piece of trash to help clean up. And in exchange I feel like mother nature is gifting me a few stones or sticks for my collection. I consider this a trade.
What’s the worst job you’ve ever had?
KFC… dishwasher... one week.
If you could own any great work of art, what would it be?
You grew up in California, moved to New York, and then moved back. How did your art change when you came back to California?
New York City... I love Brooklyn, it had such an impact on me and helped me rebuild a new foundation for my practice and inspired me in all sorts of other ways. But living in NYC is intense. It’s not for everyone and ultimately I came to the realization that it wasn't really for me. I missed nature, I wanted to live a healthier lifestyle, and slow down a little – I like stopping to smell flowers. So back West I went.
I believe in energy and there is this very unique energy in California that I forgot about, or couldn't really feel in New York anymore. Over time as I rediscovered the West, something just changed inside me, and by association my work transformed. I honestly surrendered to the things that interested me and drove me. I stopped thinking about how to be an artist, or how to be original, or how to be successful, or how to be anything really. Just being alive and experiencing life has been a really wonderful benefit in California that didn’t exist the same way in New York.
I saw you recently took a trip through the Pacific Northwest, and you said you encountered fear, which I thought was refreshingly candid for social media. What frightened you?
Yeah, I went to an artist residency – Sou'wester Lodge, in South Western Washington. I drove up from LA, I have a Honda Element which I have set up to car camp and basically survive on the road. But yeah, basically once you get a few hours north of San Francisco, into the redwoods and beyond you are really out there. On the Oregon Coast, there are these unbelievable waves and no one out – which in theory is a great thing. But when you find a beach with perfect rifling surf, ice cold conditions, and you are literally the only human anywhere within sight, paddling out becomes this very eerie decision-making process.
I had these moments where I would actually talk to myself out loud in the water to keep my mind off some scary scenarios. Traveling alone makes for this whole internal voice that reminds you, "Well if I get hurt, there’s no one out there to help me, and no one knows exactly where I am," so I needed to be completely present, focused, and confident. It was a really lovely time though, I like fear in many ways. Its raw and powerful. Its mentally very cleansing. You don’t think about much else when you're battling fear... I like that.
Do you want people to feel or think a certain thing when they look at your art? Or do you consciously leave it open to their interpretation?
I like to leave things open to a viewer’s interpretations for the most part. I use the names of the works to sometimes put the viewer into a certain atmosphere of guide them into a time or place or thought I was existing with when I made it. But it’s not crucial to the work for me to make the viewer see or understand everything from my exact viewpoint. Just getting them to the door is usually good enough. If they want to walk in and explore – it’s up to them.