etched in sound

Harley Cortez, the multidisciplinary artist trying to capture life’s beauty and pain
By Jenna Putnam | Art | 13 August 2021
Photographer Jenna Putnam

This feature’s text and photography is by artist Jenna Putnam.

Looking at the paintings of Harley Cortez feels like traversing some sort of ancient landscape, a surreal and poignant experience unique. Gentle stains of colour laced with charcoal etchings of prose, the pieces are a glimpse at the inner workings of the human mind; as much psychological as they are visceral. Look closer and you will see Cortez contains multitudes. Aside from three solo shows coming up in Mexico City, New York, and Berlin, Harley has been busy making short films that he’s directed, acted in, and scored as well as composing an arresting collection of music.

An Inventory of Memory: Volume II is the second part of four avant-classical instrumental albums. Created with a sense of urgency, the songs are a continuation of Cortez’s successful attempt at turning loss into beauty: after the passing of his mother and his nephew this past year, he took refuge in his art, and has emerged with a body of work that speaks directly to the soul.

GALLERYPhotography by Jenna Putnam

Jenna Putnam: Family and heritage are a huge influence on your work, were there certain things growing up that you’re re-discovering in the body of work you’re creating now?
Harley Cortez: A lot of things in life become calcified in a space and time and that becomes the well you source from. Generational or personal trauma is, in a way what an artist is trying to break. I talk a lot about genetic memory in interviews and describing my work and process. But I suppose since my mom’s passing, and nephew’s as well, and after the upside-down year we’ve all had, I’m rediscovering a lot of memories, traumas, but also beautiful, simple moments – meditative moments – that I now realise are the best things life has to offer. I’ve had a wild and very unique life and that energy is present in my work, if nothing else.

So many memories have surfaced since my mom’s passing. We grew up in such a multicultural family that I celebrate now more than ever, in my work and in life. I suppose it’s a way of holding on to my roots at the same time as paving my own road.

“I’m trying to capture a unique way in which we cope with existential malaise and beauty.”

JP: You have three solo shows coming up in different parts of the world – Mexico City, New York, and Berlin. Are you creating separate bodies of work for each city?
HC: Yes they’ll all be separate works for each show. The one in Mexico is called Etimología de Pocho [etymology of pocho] and aims to explore identity in a global and post-pandemic world. Berlin and New York will both be in spring and fall of next year at Georges Berges Gallery, who represent me. What’s not to love about all of these places? Mexico is such an incredible place, a lot of my closest friends are from there. I’m Guatemalan but every time I hear Canción Mixteca it fills me with longing for Mexico. NYC is a heartbreaker and always leaves you inspired. Berlin is an artist’s city. I’m currently in Athens and I’m considering a show here as well. Tomorrow I’m seeing Brian Eno at the Acropolis – he’s someone who is an artist on which to model one’s trajectory, his approach to his work is so inspiring. I grew up in Los Angeles and New York City – two of the biggest cities and cultural centres – and live in a constant dichotomy of craving a metropolitan life and wanting nature and seclusion.

“I grew up in Los Angeles and New York City – two of the biggest cities and cultural centres – and live in a constant dichotomy of craving a metropolitan life and wanting nature and seclusion.”

JP: I remember you saying once that you don’t want to put out your writing or films yet because they’re too precious. What do each of these mediums mean to you?
HC: I always thought I’d grow up to be the ‘romantic’ idea of a writer or poet. I gravitated towards painting, music and filmmaking as a means of expression but I was always most strongly connected to poetry. So in a sense I just never wanted to commodify. My film The Sick Oyster was just selected to premiere at the International Film Festival in the Democratic Republic of Congo, which means more than anything, because the lead character is supposed to be from Congo and it is a pan-African film. We’re considering going to Congo for the screening. But yeah, I’m starting to show my films more. I hope to make a feature called Chapina based on my mom’s life in the near future.

JP: The instrumental tracks in Inventory are quite different to your previous music, I think they harmonise with your visual art in a powerful way. What caused this change?
HC: There are many answers to this. On the one hand, it has just been a natural trajectory. My DNA is made up in a way that I’m always seeking. I’m looking to challenge myself in a way that feels organic, not doing what I’ve already done. When I played music in the past I was generally given most attention for the lyrics. So, the fact that I’m now making non-lyrical music makes sense for me… or it’s just another form of self-sabotage. But, yes it feels very symbiotic with my work. Music is the greatest thing. No matter how hard I try to leave it to focus on my painting, I always go back to it. It just so happens that this is how it is coming out at this moment.

JP: In the song After the Tz’utujil Ceremony in Atitlan, you sampled some sounds from a Mayan ceremony in Guatemala, which is your mother’s homeland. Listening to that was very visual and meditative. Can you speak more about that experience? 
HC: In each volume of this album series there is a field recording from my travels around the world. In the first volume there was one from Morocco during Ramadan. It’s a way of calcifying an important moment in amber for myself. I went to the village near where I was conceived and met up with a spirit guide, the father of a guide I know there. It was a beautiful ceremony performed for my mom. I find real beauty in how we honour our dead in different cultures. It’s a coping mechanism. I try to capture something that even the most devout atheist would find enlightening. With these field recordings, I’m trying to capture a unique way in which we cope with existential malaise and beauty.

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