Poetic Paper | Mingei International Museum

"When you find something that consumes your thoughts, even when you are not physically working on it, that's something that should be nurtured and explored."

Roberto Benavidez explored his way into making piñatas, inventing his own unique layering technique that plays with color and requires precision cutting. His works in the Museum’s current exhibition, Piñatas: The High Art of Celebration, lure viewers in (maybe even tempting them to cross over those sacred museum stanchions) to take a closer look at his works of art.

Benavidez is an accomplished fine art paper sculptor whose work plays on themes of race, sexuality, art, sin, humor, ephemerality, and beauty. His pieces have been exhibited in numerous group and solo shows, and in places such as Craft In America, Mesa Contemporary Art Museum, Art Design & Architecture Museum at UCSB, and Palo Alto Art Center. And if you read The New York Times, you probably saw his work, Javelina Girl (Illuminated Piñata No. 14) featured on the cover of the Fine Arts & Exhibits section this past October. Needless to say, if you haven’t seen his piñatas yet, you probably should.

If someone looks closely at your piñatas, they’ll find multiple layers of paper finely cut with perfectly pointed fringe. Can you describe your process of piñata-making? Is there a particular type of paper you use to achieve this style?

Part of my practice is exploring the piñata technique of creating a paper mache form and adorning it with cut crepe paper. Over the years, I have stayed with this technique but shifted to more durable and longer-lasting materials. The paper I use for paper-mâché is now acid and lignin-free, and the paste is PH-balanced ensuring a longer life for my work. The crepe paper I use is heavier-weight, acid-free, and more durable than the party streamers I’ve used in my earlier works or that you see on many other piñatas.

I also appreciate that this crepe paper is made in Italy, touching back on the inspiration for this piñata and its historical journey through Europe. It is through my layering of colored papers that I can accomplish complex colorations in my work, and the serrated cut I use on my fringe gives each piece a clean-lined signature look, emphasizing the care and detail I put into my sculptural forms.

Can you explain your process for creating one of your Illuminated piñatas?

My Illuminated series is based on creatures found in the marginalia of medieval manuscripts. It is a branch-off series from an earlier series based on creatures from paintings by Northern Renaissance artist Hieronymus Bosch. Apart from the fantastical nature of these works, I was drawn to both sources for my piñata works for two main reasons, the first being it's a way of representing my mixed-race heritage. I thought it would be interesting to mix these iconic western works of art with the Mexican piñata craft. I also liked that these source materials were religious, touching back on the origin of the star piñata representing the 7 deadly sins, a motif that I incorporate as much as possible into my works.

Roberto Benavidez, Javelina Girl (Illuminated Piñata No. 14)”
Roberto Benavidez, Illuminated Piñata No. 6

Where did you get the idea for your Piñathko piñatas?

My Piñathko series was born out of an exploration of the materials. I noticed that because party streamers are semi-transparent, you can layer them to create subtle shifts in color. It reminded me of painting and mixing pigments to create different hues. I wanted to explore this color mixing with paper and immediately thought of Rothko’s color field paintings. Instead of creating a purely utilitarian swatch book for my layered color paper, I decided to turn my explorations into a small-format piñatas series. I enjoy the humor in it, and I’m a big fan of Rothko’s work, so it’s just plain fun for me to explore this motif.

I read that before creating piñatas, you explored other mediums such as photography and bronze casting. Do you have any advice for creatives trying to find their visual voice? Or any reflections on your journey?

My advice to artists is not to listen to anyone who gives them advice–not even me! I view art-making as a personal experience. While I enjoyed photography and other sculptural mediums, working with paper spoke to me in a different way–specifically piñata making. Once I started, it was all I thought about. When you find something that consumes your thoughts, even when you are not physically working on it, that's something that should be nurtured and explored. And brush off any attempts from others to try to help you better define your work. Let it be yours and be as weird and personal as you want it to be. There is room for everyone.

Sometimes people ask for advice as if there is some trick to creating work. I don’t believe there are tricks or shortcuts when it comes to making art. I think of an art practice as just that, practice. Doing the same thing repeatedly and still finding the magic in it and allowing it to grow, shift and change organically through your making. If there is no magic in it, it might be time to move on and experiment with other ideas and mediums until you find something that speaks to you.

What do you hope people take away from seeing your work and this exhibition?

I hope people learn a new appreciation for the piñata form. To see it not only as a valuable cultural craft but also a fine art medium–and in turn, give more appreciation to the piñata makers out there making a business with this craft. I also hope this exhibition inspires other artists to take up this medium and explore it through their perspective. I believe this is just the beginning of piñata appreciation in the fine art world.

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