In this very weird times of staying home in order to individually prevent the Covid-19 pandemic to grow endlessly, interviews are systematically made by skype. Armando and I both are in Paris at the moment and as many of us, we are creating in the small spaces we have. Through my computer, I see a smiley face, lit up by the early afternoon light. My interest towards Armando Cabba’s work was primarily stimulated by the sex (yes !) in the way he depicted it : close up, thoughtfully framed visions of raw sexuality, no decoration, no faces, no feelings : just pure, human sexuality.
Then, I realized that Armando was a friend of friend as well as a remarkable realist painter. Originally from Montreal (he went through famous Dawson School and then Concordia university, studying fine arts), 29 years old Armando has been living in Paris for four years after a romanticized experience in Florence, Italy. There, he wanted to learn how to paint like the renaissance masters, he ended up in a very strict environnement where experimentation was not allowed nor encouraged.
For the past four years in France, Armando had the chance to test many different things. He opened (now closed) a painting space where the public could directly come and experience the painting being done, he went further than ever before in his painting and is now ready to expand through his visions, inspired by renaissance painting as well as modern realist aesthetics.
In this interview, we explore the process of creation, the intentions behind painting, his relationship with himself through self-portraiture, his ideas of the contemporary logics of censorship, his use of the pornographic imaginary and subjectivity in painting and representing life around, through sexuality and colors.
Let’s enter the world of Armando Cabba
First and foremost, I’m interested with your relationship to oil painting ? most painters come across it but usually decide to let go of it when it’s time to produce more. What challenges you in this way of creating (slow-process and time given to the drying) ?
I switched from acrylic to oils when I was 21 so I’m getting close to the 9 year mark of working with them. There’s a dialogue created between the artist and their materials especially with oil painting. You have to listen to it and you’re not in complete control. I already spend so much time alone working way in my studio that oil paint behaves as a presence. It really does speak to you. There’s only so much you can push in a day before it tells you to stop. Those breaks are highly valued because you get to reflect on your piece. Your painting can breathe and speak to you when you aren’t working. It evolves more. Sure, it’s a lot slower but the end result is worth it.
There is an obvious (at least to me) component of openness in your work, may it be in the faces exposing their darkest aspect or in the more sexual-focused pieces, can you talk to me about that ? What does ‘openness’ mean to you ?
Every piece of art reveals the artist no matter what the subject matter is. Painting portraits of other people isn’t like taking a photo or simply documenting what’s in front of you . It’s an allegory of the artist’s feelings transmitted visually onto the surface. There’s an emotion present. I’ve always been open with my work especially my self portraits. You have to be open to make sincere art. If you can’t be honest with yourself, then who are you trying to fool? I paint these portraits for my own wellbeing, so what’s the point if I was hiding something? I’d be lying to myself which would render the entire piece useless. Sexuality is a part of all of us and I think it’s important to be open on the issue so it becomes normalized as opposed to how messy it is now.
Is there a relationship between you, politics and painting ? if yes, tell me more.
This relationship didn’t exist before, but now it’s there. Everything has become political despite how some people feel about the subject. I was really in my own bubble during my time in art school back in Montreal. Painting is a part of me and it’s an extension of my voice. Seeing how loaded our political climate is, it’s hard not to keep quiet about it. There’s so much fucked up shit going on that I’m shocked at how most artists can remain silent. There’s keeping the peace and then there’s being absolutely tone deaf. Just because an issue doesn’t impact your life directly doesn’t mean you shouldn’t care. The world needs more voices. Use your platform and do some good. If you don’t know what to say, pass the microphone. I know I can make images that resonate with people. They can add parts of themselves to it and share it with others. It brings more visibility to the issue. So to answer your question, it’s a yes and it’s not going away anytime soon.
In your self portrait, the eye-symbol seems to be used in several purposes, I was wondering if the self-portraits are in itself a statement or simply a way for you to talk about the inner self, the inner monster as many artists say ?
Eyes are windows to the soul. We see them and they look back into us. The gaze is incredibly potent in portraiture. When I look at myself, I’m often locked in on my eyes rather than observing what’s happening on my face. Looking into people’s eyes is like emotional window shopping. My self portraits are examples of my truest selves. The parts we feel and can’t say no to. These aren’t Instagram selfies or supposed to be flattering. They’re supposed to be human. I don’t see the point in curating my emotions for better consumption over social media. We experience the same feelings for whatever reason, so why hide it from each other? It’s therapeutic to show your darker bits to the world. Don’t use toxic methods to drown them and shut them out. These little monsters or inner demons will exist forever in all of us and I decided to charge mine with rent.
Your work makes me think of Munch, but also Chagall and Mapplethorpe at the same time, maybe because of the surrealist aesthetics sometimes, the no-filter aspect of sex shown and maybe, by the way you seem to play with image and outside perception as the painter that your art. My question is then : are those artists part of your constellation, and if not, who else ? And who are your masters/mastresses ?
That’s the first time I’ve been compared to any of those artists. I wouldn’t say they’re part of my constellation, but I guess it proves to me that I’m evolving. Without a doubt, my big overall inspirations have been Rembrandt, Francis Bacon, and Basquiat. When it comes to my more sexual work, it’s shifted a great deal. I love to keep the warmth of skin that I look up to in Baroque paintings. My first in person experience with erotic painting was when I saw John Currin’s Seductions at a gallery in Montreal. Of male painters out there, his series is the most interesting. I prefer Betty Tompkins who really broke the barriers as a woman creating erotic images. There is such a huge difference between the male and female gaze. I find there’s something more intimate and precious when it comes to women depicting sex in painting compared to their male counterparts. Looking at guys on Instagram painting pornography feels way too much like peacocking and harsh. They somehow have taken such a rich experience between two humans and made it lifeless. The same is said when you compare mainstream porn to independent directors. It’s rigid and I can’t say I’m a fan.
In my third question , I approached politics. Though there is always politics in the private, painting has been instrumentalized by institutions and private investors in the history of art and more, what is your point of you on that ?
There will always be tons of moving parts under the table when it comes to politics in art. It’s all optics. We forget how much art in itself is a business and who the big players are. Institutions have agendas outside the artist’s knowledge. There’s no legal obligation to tell the artist either. You can have your own plans to go home with someone after your show but you’re not obligated to tell the curator whose cheeks you’re clapping. I witnessed institutional politics first hand when I participated in the SNBA here in Paris at The Louvre. I was one of the artists representing Canada is this world-wide art fair back in 2013. My first clue that something was going on was when I noticed the names on the wall. Each country was listed, but didn’t list their individual artists except for China. They had all their names on metal plaques and I didn’t think much of it at first. We had strict size restrictions being limited to having nothing larger than 1.5 m and I remember wandering around the show and noticed some pieces that were close to 4.5-6 m long. I looked for tags and noticed I was in the Chinese pavilion. I wouldn’t describe the work as ground breaking, yet 85% of the awards went to them and It was the last day I realized there was something political going on. Going down into the shipping area of the museum to pack my work with other artists. We all had our cardboard and make shift containers except for the Chinese artists. They had these giant professional crates covered in government logos and stamps being handled by the museum staff. I feel there was definitely something happening on the side for relationships between The Louvre and China. A major museum making attempts to be closer and build a future with an economic power house isn’t outlandish. This show felt more like background music to their own plans which is common with most galleries and institutions. Opening night isn’t just about the artist and their work. To answer your question, I think it’s inevitable.
The choices that you make in terms of framing the painting picture and how you crop in very precise and incisive manners interests me. Are you painting ideas or visions ?
I like challenging myself with framing especially with the more erotic paintings. I wouldn’t say I have a vision, but I have an idea. Portraits tend to be more vertical rectangles and landscapes are horizontal. So I decided to work with a square for my intimate series. Equal on all sides the same way all types of love are equal. There’s no way you can lean on one side as a crutch to help your composition. You either have it or you don’t. I feel it also helps me see outside of what the actual subject matter is resulting in something that’s a lot more than just painting porn. Cropping it so it’s just the action or a fragment lets the viewer interact more. It’s like a hot flash or a memory almost anyone can have. All of these elements allow the painting to become more universal.
Finally, I want to know more about you, can you tell me about your relationship with sexuality and what led you to explore it in sexual art ? Does it come from the lack of such representation, a wish to ‘talk’ about it differently or, maybe, simply a genuine interest (which I share) ?
The Tumblr ban (ndlr : 2017) was the catalyst that lead me to begin this series. As I said earlier, sexuality is a part of all of us and it’s normal. We should be able to talk about it more and let people be expressive without bringing them down for it. There should be more multifaceted Sex Ed courses in schools where everything outside of heterosexuality isn’t seen as a novelty. There shouldn’t be any sensation of alienation or shame. Overtime I became more open regarding my communication concerning my own sexuality. Speaking about it properly and expressing my own desires. I don’t think you can be fulfilled sexually in any relationship if you don’t open up about it. People would rather be negative to others for voicing their sexual identity than sort out their own issues within themselves.
This creates a vicious cycle where people are too afraid to be who they really are and end up going on the offensive towards others. Repressing through censorship just creates more problems. I’ve had my moments where I sat down and reflected on what I like and who I am. I’ve experimented and I know what works and what doesn’t work for me. My sexuality is open minded. Don’t knock it till you try it.
Follow his endeavours here : and on his website : http://www.armando-cabba.com/