Curator, creative strategist and producer Anne-Laure Lemaitre, investigates Miguel Ángel Payano Jr.’s exploration of language in his practice and solo exhibition Limbguistics.
Our inner being grasps the world through a set of codes and signifiers of our own making. This “language,” unique to each of us, is an amalgam of influences, learnings, connections, interests and feelings we’ve accumulated throughout our lives and beyond. No one experiences life in the exact same manner. We find ways to communicate and meet each other through common grounds and mutual understanding despite deeper singularities.
Most of us share an education embedded in the territorial landscape of our upbringing. This base allows us a common read of our surroundings and of greater universal mechanisms. The concepts that we learn define the way we perceive. Yet, they also limit us. One of the most fascinating aspects of exploring language as a communication device in its multiplicity is its ability to reveal the at times profound dissonances we face in trying to understand one another. Switching from one language to the next can expose just how incredibly vast and different our perceptions may be, to the point an entire lexicon relating to a feeling or a philosophy may lack any equivalent whatsoever in a different context.
"Switching from one language to the next can expose just how incredibly vast and different our perceptions may be."
– Anne-Laure Lemaitre
Miguel Ángel Payano’s practice-and experience-exists as connecting point and meeting place between multiple identities which, as they touch and blend, open up an entire new space of belonging. Born in New York City to Dominican parents, Miguel spent his childhood immersed in the Afro-Caribbean neighbourhood of Washington Heights before leaving to pursue his education in privileged enclaves of New England, ultimately relocating to China, where he resided nearly two decades. As these very different strata of living and knowing layered upon one another, they merged, permeated, dissonated and echoed, birthing new forms. Miguel’s works are both extremely relatable, human at their core, yet retain an inherent elusiveness. Their unequivocal presence as matter and objects contrasts with their ethereal otherworldly nature. One enters the expanse that unfolds in a Miguel Ángel Payano collage-painting as they would a dream, where tangible familiarity meets unexpected bursts of unbridled subconsciousness.
When creating, Miguel seeks a state of utmost thoughtlessness. The act of making, when approached as one would recite a mantra or enter a meditative practice, can allow pre-established conceptual frameworks and muscle memory to take over, freeing the mind from the clutter of everyday thoughts. It’s in this state of organic exploration, breaking loose from self imposed constraints and limitations that Payano’s unique vernacular unravels best. Peaches with mouths become quintessential ‘single-celled humans’, waves wash over bodies in tragic yet somewhat comical tumbling dances, figures turn into landscapes which themselves escape the confines of their predetermined frames. Reaching deeper within, junctures between the very different worlds which inhabit the artist arise, flow freely and connect anew. Objects become bodies, bodies become worlds, worlds become portals to greater inner beyonds.
Payano produces in series, or ‘bodies of works’ of diverse nature, often pursuing them in parallel. Each has its very own and distinct methods of making and visual dialect. But instead of being disparate avenues of reflection, each in fact seems to draw you back in towards a symbiotic substance, as if each were one of multiple lenses circling a broader common entity or quest, mirroring their maker’s own plural-faceted identity. There’s an urgency in Miguel’s approach to artmaking, an understanding our time to leave a mark has a limit no one can presume to control. This force of life, with its gravity, velocity but also inherent comical absurdity transpires throughout his art, as it does his being. There’s a playfulness to Miguel’s work and character, a permanent need to refuse taking life overly seriously, even when evoking incredibly specific and complex problematics or perceptive intentions.
Fragmented bodies appear to varying degrees in his practice. Emblems of humanity, they are reduced to essential key signifiers to avoid distracting from their representative purpose.
Trees bearing mouth-peaches are a recurring motif. As disconnected as we may feel, we, as people are one. The chaotic cacophonic noise in which we lose ourselves, our inability to communicate or understand one another does not take away from our deeply seeded bond.
A series of entangled legs emerge from troubled water and clouds to conjure the ungovernable forces we all have to face, whether intimately or as a whole. The act of living is as active, as it is reactive. We move and are forced to adapt to circumstances beyond our control.
The hand, alongside the mouth are known symbols of communication. They are the means with which we reach one another and express ourselves to those around us. By using as manifestations for his phantasmagorical portraits oscillating between human and monkey-a revered traditional Chinese idiom-hands and mouths casted from his own body or the body of his close ones, Miguel opens physical, concrete portals into the meanders of his being. His artworks are reaching out, calling for us to open ourselves to their deeper meaning, seeping into our realm and reality. How specific words, objects, expressions, feelings are received in the different cultures the artist considers how his own meet and materially become one in poetic, at times quirky, at times sombre ways.
In this heterogeneous yet thorough exploration of the ways images and words influence perception and flow, transcending their primal meaning and differences, may lie the core of what is so fascinating in Miguel Ángel Payano’s practice. His works refuse any limitations in materiality as they do in definition. They accept that one’s mind being completely understood is somewhat of an illusion. And that the beauty of life is also in what we may express and compulsively keep seeking, knowing too well we may never be able to fully fathom or truly explain. The human experience is as collective as it is solitary. It’s a gathering of inputs and encounters the matter of which shapes a life. Perhaps a story and practice as singular as Miguel’s are reminders of our need to open ourselves further to new ways of seeing, experiencing, and ultimately, living.
Miguel Ángel Payano Jr. (b. 1980) is an Afro-Caribbean American visual artist born in New York, USA. He completed a BA at Williams College in Chinese Language & Studio Art in Williamstown, Massachusetts (2003); an MFA in Oil Painting from Central Academy of Fine Arts, Beijing (2008) and an MFA in Studio Art from Hunter College, CUNY, NY (2020). Heavily influenced by American, Caribbean and Chinese cultures, Payano’s mixed media works investigate themes of identity-formation and class.