Exploring the Inventory of Memory

Photos: Kealan Shilling

Trying to write something about Harley Cortez without creating a clichéd character you’d find in a beat novel is fairly tough. He fits the description.

Harley is the kind of guy that can get up in front of a room, play a beautiful melody on the piano and then read some poem or prose he’s written that will either leave you laughing or completely torn down. In his studio, paintbrush in hand, he’ll regale you with tales of the bands he was in and about the time he went on tour with Morrissey or hung out with Nick Cave. Yet you need only dig a little deeper to find that Harley has had a pretty tough year. He lost his mother in the fall to pulmonary fibrosis, went through a breakup at the beginning of quarantine, and, more recently, his nephew unexpectedly passed away due to a drug overdose. Through it all, though, Harley seems to be pouring his heart out onto the canvas more voraciously than ever—and his work is gaining more notoriety than ever. I met up with Harley at his studio outside of downtown LA for a beer and a catch up on life, love, meditation, and what he’s been working on.

What are you working on this evening, Harley?

I’m finishing up a few commissions and working on personal pieces. I’m trying to
build up a collection for a possible show at the end of the year. I’m working on a piece right now for a bigger musician; I can’t say who at the moment, but I’m pretty psyched. Other than that, my days have been pretty routine lately: go to the studio, go home, walk the dog, have a couple glasses of wine. It’s been a productive sort of cabin fever.

It seems like you usually go into the studio to paint more in the afternoon or evening. Do you find you’re more productive or focused at that time?

Yeah, I used to work a lot at home or as soon as I got up I would start working, which is great, but then I wouldn’t do other stuff. I didn’t go outside sometimes. I think it’s in my nature just to keep working, but I was also going through a period of intense grieving. At a point I decided I needed to see more sun, so during the day, I try to sit outside on the deck and write or go for a hike with the dog, use my daytime for that. It just depends if there’s other stuff going on.

Tell me about where you grew up.

I was born in L.A. I’m a native. I grew up in the Inglewood, South Central area. When I was a kid, we used to spend a lot of time in Guatemala where my mom is from. We’d take, like, three or four months and spend summers there. Then I went to high school in New York. Moving out, there was sort of a culture shock. I think I always craved more of that culture as a kid, but I grew up pretty poor, and being in South Central, there wasn’t a lot of opportunity in the arts around, but when I got to New York it was everywhere.

What brought you guys to New York? I’m assuming it was your mother that brought you out?

Yeah, it was me, my mom and two of my brothers. I had an abusive stepfather growing up. It took going all the way to New York to get away from him. My mom remarried, and so we travelled across the country. It was my first time doing that, and I found it so interesting. For me, the United States of America appeared almost exotic. When you grow up in a huge urban city and suddenly see a place like Nebraska, you’re like wow! It looks like something out of the movies. I found it so fascinating. I guess that’s why later on I got into travelling and road-tripping around. But, yeah, we landed in Queens, New York when I was fourteen.

When you talk about access to arts, was it because of things like the subway and being able to get to Museums and Galleries, is that what you’re referring to?

Yeah, but it was just more around you everywhere and more encouraged. In the ’90s in LA, you had to really go out and find it, really seek it; whereas in New York, it was just all around you. I won a few poetry awards, basically through a teacher that would submit my work—sometimes without my knowledge—and I would get stuff published and sometimes go to read at these colleges. I met Jim Carrol at one of them; being young, that really made an impression. Also, on a cultural level, where I grew up in LA was predominantly Black and Latino, but in Queens, there were more people from every walk of life.

We met at a poetry reading where you also played a few songs on the piano, then I found out you used to play in a few bands. How did you get into music?

I always played music. I wanted to play upright bass when I was growing up. I had a Charles Mingus cassette, and that really tuned into my senses and even how I paint these days. He had the craziest titles for his songs, which I found very influential. He has a song titled ‘All the Things You Could Be by Now If Sigmund Freud’s Wife Was Your Mother’. I thought that was great, and I like the idea of holding an instrument beside me almost like a lover. When I moved back to LA to go to film school, I fell more into playing in bands and recording. I had a band called Red Cortez with Calvin Love; at one point we went on tour with Morrisey, but eventually, we broke up. Right before we broke up, though, we recorded a record out of our own pocket called Lonely Hunter that Richard Swift produced. That was probably the proudest moment for the band.

How’d you end up touring with Morrissey?

I guess a buddy of his or his manager picked him up from the airport and made him listen to my tape; he later told me that he really liked my lyrics.

That’s pretty amazing, I’m curious then what made your focus turn more toward painting rather than music?

After Red Cortez, I had a band called Half Blood and was back in New York. I had wanted to turn my attention toward painting sooner, but I was touring a lot. I would come home and really crave being rooted in something more autonomous, something I could do alone. I started playing around with meditation more, and then painting was one of those things that I could kind of just lock myself up in a shed and focus on. It started to feel like that was really good for my soul. I’ve gone back and forth with music, but I’d say about three or four years ago was when I really decided to dedicate my time to painting, to where I felt I could say I was a painter. I had a smaller exhibition in Tokyo Japan, then an exhibition here at the Dave Frey Gallery in L.A. that turned out amazing. Doing those really brought my attention into it and, you know, once you turn forty, you’re like, ‘Ok, I know this change or dedication in careers is a bit scary and a risk, but it almost becomes a necessity—this is what I have to do.’ It just felt natural. Fortunately, I’ve been able to find my own place in all of it.

Tell me a little more about your painting approach.

Well, I usually paint on the floor, that’s one thing. Sometimes I’ll put on films or something in the background; there is a process, but it’s become so automatic, I don’t even think about it. But, yeah, it usually begins with water, coffee or tea—not drinking it, but actually using it as a material. I’ll start a painting with a lot of layering, and then try to give a painting its own voice. I think I already touched on this, but the paint is going to do more work or be a better painter than I am. Allowing it to do what it does chemically almost like being a chemist; sometimes it feels like that, like a series of experiments I’ve done over the years. You kind of figure out what works and what doesn’t, and you develop your personal methods of how you paint. I don’t use any [one] medium. I use oil, acrylic, pastel, charcoal, ink, literally all in one painting, so there’s a lot going on, and often times a piece will have to have fixative on it, and then I’ll paint layers on top of that. Sometimes there will even be a portrait underneath a painting, like an actual figurative piece. I work on a lot of pieces at the same time, so it’s never really like I’m waiting for paint to dry. Occasionally, I’ll have a narrative I’m trying to express in some way, something very subtle. That’s kind of it.

You once told me that a lot of your work is based on genetic memory. Can you explain that a little more?

I had a show in San Diego a couple of years ago titled An Inventory of Memory, which is
also the title of the book I’m trying to put out with some of my poems and images. It’s a theme that I’ve been working with for a few years now. One of the things I think is really interesting about genetic memory is the idea behind how so much of what our ancestors did can dictate where we’re at, what we’re doing or who we are. Memories we perhaps didn’t know we had, so on and so forth. My mom was a very mystical person; being Native American, she was very spiritual, and my father, who I really didn’t know growing up, was a writer and a pretty well-known painter and musician for where he was, that’s how he made a living. I never really knew him, yet our trajectory was very similar. That’s what really sparked my curiosity in genetic memory, along with the theme of mortality, those are both very apparent themes in my work. Obviously, my work is very abstract, so I find that interesting to explore because people respond to things so personally. I find that in itself fascinating, how someone will gravitate toward a piece of my work for their house or collection, or just hanging in an exhibition when people come up to me to talk about a piece and what they feel. I don’t think it’s so much the colour psychology—although that plays a role—as much as it’s a strong pull based on genetic memory. So, yeah, that’s been the obsession and theme behind most of my work over the last few years: exploring the inventory of my memory.

What artists initially inspired you to paint, and where have you been drawing inspiration from more recently?

There was an exhibition I went to about twenty years ago: Egon Schiele, an Austrian
figurative painter. I was amazed! He’s not the biggest influence on my work nowadays, but I remember that retrospective specifically. I was also really into Mexican folk art, seeing expressionist works by Jean Dubuffet, Cy Twombly, Antoni Tàpies… I love Marcel Duchamp too, but what I think really got me to where I am now, was actually that I was really into poetry. Writing and poetry have really influenced a lot of my work, and one of the writers I was really influenced by is Robert Desnos. He, along with a few other writers, practised a technique they called ‘automatic writing’, encouraging people to write within the first five minutes of waking up. When you’re between your conscious and your subconscious. I think that’s what I try to do, a sort of automatic painting, letting the painting paint itself and allowing things to just happen. You kind of saw an idea of what goes into it, but it’s a process of layers and layers, and when the writing happens it kind of just happens on its own, allowing those words to come out. It sounds really… I don’t know, crazy or something, but to be honest, it’s really therapeutic. For me, it’s really the ability to speak through paint. We all have so much pain inside at times, and being able to find beauty within that, or come through that pain is, I guess, is sort of the objective.

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