Manuel Solano, the artist who turned blindness into an opportunity

Paul Laster  -  February 27, 2018

Manuel Solano is the most controversial discovery made by the New Museum’s 2018 Triennial. We spoke with him about his work to better understand how his impairment changed his approach to art and life.

Born in Mexico City in 1987, Manuel Solano was an emerging, 26-year-old artist when he lost his eyesight to an HIV-related infection in 2013. Unwilling to be hindered by his condition and urged on by his friends, Solano returned to making work. But rather than the experimental art of his earlier years, he began anew with a series of expressive portraits and word paintings, titled “Blind Transgender With AIDS.” Mining his memories of pop culture and past times while applying the paint with his hands, Solano created an impressive body of work that once again caught the attention of the art world. Presenting four new paintings in “Songs for Sabotage,” the New Museum’s 2018 Triennial, the gifted artist spoke to Conceptual Fine Arts about his life and work while he was visiting New York for the exhibition.

Do you remember what your thoughts were about being an artist before you became blind?

I knew that I wanted to make it very much my own practice. I guess that I suspected — even if I wasn’t clear about it  — my work was about myself. There were times back then when I thought my work was about pop culture and about humanity and about love—more general and broad things—which it is about, but only in as much as it affects myself.

How have those thoughts changed now that your life is different?

They’ve been reinforced. I’m clearer now more than ever that what I’m doing is putting myself out there through my work and it’s clear more than ever that’s what I’ve been trying to do all of my life, even as a little kid.

How old were you when you got the infection that caused your blindness?

I was 26.

How old are you now?

I’m 30.

How do you go about making work now? Do you use tools to help you or do you have assistants? How do you actually approach the canvas?

Sometimes — like for this body of work in the Triennial — I do work with an assistant, but mostly I work by myself. I work with the canvas stretched directly on the wall, rather than on stretchers, because using stretchers would add more difficulties to the process. I work immediately on the wall and I paint with my hands because, obviously, my sense of touch is my main guide.

Because I paint with my hands I use acrylic paint rather than oil paint. I also use what I call tactile or haptic markers on the canvas. For example, when painting a portrait I use markers for the pupils and nostrils. I place a pin or a thumbtack or a nail to mark the area. If I need to mark a line I use string or if it’s a curved line I use a pipe cleaner and follow that line with my fingers as I’m painting.

If I work with an assistant he usually helps me lay out those markers because if I lay them out myself it takes a long time. For example, in the big portrait of the woman with pearls, which is the largest portrait that I’ve ever painted, I laid out the markers myself, but it took a whole day and a half of work just to get the layout right.

I usually start with the pupils and place them, and then I place the nostrils and then I have to check back and forth to see if the markers feel like the correct distance between them. Because of blindness it’s sometimes difficult for me to gauge such things as distance. It’s also difficult for me to gauge if the eyes are at the same level on a horizontal line, which can be a bit tricky. I usually don’t mind…no, actually I do mind. I don’t want to think that the face that I’m laying out is not symmetrical; but, obviously, I need to accept that I can’t control everything about a painting that I can’t see.

Working with an assistant is a great relief because there’s a pair of eyes to check that the markers are in the right places. I can work a lot faster that way, plus the assistant’s main job is to follow my instructions in mixing colors. I work with a very limited color scheme. I usually only buy primary colors and I usually only buy two of each, like two blues, two yellows, two reds. And I do have a couple secondary colors, like green and brown and flesh tone. I give instructions to the assistant as to what colors to put into the mix, and I’m open to his feedback.

Did you have to mark each pearl in the portrait of the woman with the pearls?

Yes, and it took a lot of markers for the pearls. Each pearl was marked with a pin. I had to layout a line of pins and paint around the contact point.

Are all of these pieces self-portraits?

In a way they are. The woman with the pearls is a portrait of my great aunt. But I do see myself in all of them, or a trace of myself or of my personality. In that way, I would say yes, all of my work is self-portraiture, or at least self-referential.

Do you work from memory?

Yes, I do. For example, that portrait with the pearls is based on a photograph that I saw only once when I was 14 or 15 maybe; but I have a very good memory.

Do you also create new subjects based on people’s descriptions?

Yes, for example, I Don’t Know Love, which is in the show, is something that I never saw. I saw the movie that it references, The Fifth Element, but I never saw the scene in the painting. I dressed up as the main character for Halloween in 2016, when I was already blind. I didn’t see myself in that costume or the setting where the Halloween party took place, which was up in the mountains in Taos, New Mexico. I was there with a very dear friend of mine and he described things for me very well. He would describe the sky and the sunset and the clouds, which are all characteristic of that region of the Southwest. The starting point for me for this painting was that it had to be a self-portrait and it was going to be tricky. It should be apparent that it’s me, but I’m also in costume. You need to also be able to see the reference to the movie, and yet you need to be able to discern that it’s not a scene from the movie, so the sky needs to define a new setting. It was important for me to get the clouds and sky colors right.

It’s interesting because memory can be a recollection of a photograph of your aunt or it can be of something you recall yourself doing or it can be the memory of a film. How about the painting I’m Flying, where the figure is strapped to the bed?

That is actually one of the closing scenes from the movie The Craft, from 1996. It’s Fairuza Balk in that scene, where she ends up in a mental asylum. The movie is about witches and her character is the most powerful one. She abuses her power or disrespects her power and loses it. She’s sent to an asylum and strapped to the bed, where she screams over and over “I’m flying,” because she used to be able to fly.

I draw a lot from pop culture, but also from my daily life. I was listening to music one day and heard PJ Harvey singing the song Esctasy. The opening line from the song is “I’m flying.” As soon as I heard it I was instantly reminded of this scene from The Craft. I started building this fantasy in my head that PJ Harvey was referencing that film, but the movie was released way later. Hearing the song and the lyric inspired me tomake that painting, but I had previously portrayed Fairuza Balk in my work. I find her to be very uncanny. I am drawn to her characters, but there’s also a parallel between how this figure is strapped and constrained, but also free in her mind. I feel very restrained a lot of the time, especially back home in Mexico, where my world can become very small through disability, as well as what I’ve been through and how I’ve experienced that stigma. All of these things are psychological barriers and restraints, but they are sometimes physical ones, too.

What about the last piece that’s in the show, the guy leaning against the wall? He seems very free, very liberated.

Yes, that one is Michael Jackson. I had wanted to make a portrait of Michael Jackson for a long time. I think he was my first pop culture interest.

Is this portrait based on the image of him from the Herb Ritts video, where he dances with Naomi Campbell?

Yeah, yeah, yeah, I was obsessed with Michael Jackson when I was about five. When I turned six my birthday party had a Michael Jackson theme. My mom made me a little Michael Jackson costume and me and my friends put on a dance show. I remember thinking that Michael Jackson was the symbol of perfection. I remember staring at the poster of him that I had and thinking that he was so perfect, that he was so beautiful. I remember thinking that he was so powerful and I guess that power came through his creativity, though the way he harnessed his creativity. He was one of the most powerful people in the world, in a way. He must have been very, very lonely in that power and very lonely in his abilities. I somehow feel that great creativity is also very isolating. Again, I see a lot of myself in this painting. It’s presumptuous of me to say, but I do feel related to him.

I think that’s interesting that you say it because in representing him in this way you create a projection of yourself. Perhaps it’s how you would like things to be. Remembering that video—where he’s out in the desert, out in the free open space with all of this space to move—it’s not only a seductive environment, but there’s also a lot of sexy moves between him and Naomi Campbell.

Yeah, to me I guess it’s about freedom, and self-affirmation, in a way, about—I don’t know how to say it in English—about embracing yourself, like standing behind yourself.

Do you also draw?

Sometimes, but I don’t like drawing as much.

Yeah, it’s probably easier, since you said you paint with your fingers, to sense the space that you are working on from direct touch, right?

I can draw, but it’s quite different for me. Say I’m using a Sharpie—there’s no way I can sense the space. Once it’s dry I can’t tell the difference between a blank sheet of paper or one that I’ve drawn on. Although, it’s not like I can feel the canvas. If I touched one of my canvases it’s more than likely that I wouldn’t know which one of my paintings it is. When laying out the work—when making a painting—it’s quite different.

Do you have any vision at all? Do you see anything when you look at one of your paintings?

No, out of my left eye I see only blackness and out of my right eye I see a white nothing.

So it’s not like a blurred vision.

No, I am able to sometimes detect some movement or some changes in the conditions of light, but that’s degenerating very rapidly.

Is there something that can be done or is it too late at this point?

No, at this point there’s nothing that can be done. It could have been done at an earlier point, but I was never told.