Huben Cherkelov is an artist that Bulgaria has inevitably lost, chased away and never looked for again… But in spite of this fact, his name is well-known to many of the people who are somehow connected to the art scene in our country. Life takes Huben to the States – the place which recognises his dreams and where they come true legally. He was born in 1970. He graduates from the National Academy of Arts and he is a co-founder of the XXL Group, which becomes popular here during the 90s with its radical art performances and exhibitions. As of now, Huben is a successful artist, an art provocateur, a painter and a creator. We were most interested in his point of view on art, but together with this we also found out many other curious details about him. We managed to get in contact with Huben in the distant American megalopolis, where he feels right at home, personally and professionally speaking. And from there he told us in detail about his ideas and his work. While at the same time, here in Bulgaria, we are hoping that more and more ambitious young people hear his words, because he does have what to say namely to them. See for yourself what exactly we have been talking about with him.
You have been living in the States, and specifically in New York, for quite a while. You were born in Kardzhali and you studied in Sofia, and then in Amsterdam. What did these contrasts teach you in life? Which is the most valuable lesson this extensive existential transition taught you?
Yes, I am living in New York, which is ethnically a very diverse city. The same could be applied to Amsterdam and Kardzhali. We, people, are not so different, after all, even though it may look otherwise at first glance. I have always been looking for a common language and something unifying with everybody. Art and culture have the ability to gather people.
What is specific about the way you create your artworks? How could we recognise a painting of yours amongst many others?
This is quite easy. For the past ten years I have been working with optical illusion. My works could be divided into two types. When I am using oil paint, I pile up multiple layers – in this way I create the image in relief. When I am using acrylic paint and foil, they reflect light in different ways. The plot comes from banknotes – some contemporary ones, and others which are not so much. But in contemporary art it is extremely important that you have a recognisable style, something like a trade mark. In doing so the artist stands out from the graphic designer, for instance… in the ability to set out a particular style of working and to build it up through the years.
If you had to paint the United States and Bulgaria together in one single painting, what would it look like?
All my paintings technically contain both the States and Bulgaria at the same time, as they combine the tradition of icon painting (the rizas) and that of American pop art.
You are known as a person who provokes and experiments. Which is your biggest experiment you have conducted in you creative career and how do you provoke people with what you do?
I cannot distance myself from myself and look at myself from without, but I think that people get provoked by directness and sincerity. This looks rather shocking at first and it could be classified as provocation. But it is the truth itself. I am working in what has been termed the Second Gilded Age, which is run not by industrialisation, as it was 100 years ago, but by the financial system. This is especially valid in the States, where politicians and finance specialists work hand in hand – unfortunately, at the expense of deindustrialisation and the loss for many businesses. So, this is why I have focused on banknotes. Every age demands its own art…
If you knew that your words right now were going to reach several thousand young Bulgarian people, what kind of advice would you give them?
Work a lot and do so even when you don’t see the point of it. It is of the utmost importance to develop skills which will make you stand out. We are living in a global world and, unfortunately, it is going to get ever more competitive and stressful. It is a matter of survival.
And since we are working with a focus on fashion, we are curious to find out what your attitude towards fashion is. Do you think it could be regarded as art in some instances?
Most definitely! Here, for example, Alexander McQueen, whose exhibition in the Metropolitan Museum of Art was one of the most visited and it was even extended… And all designers who make haute couture, naturally. There are some street designers who also work their magic.
I am tempted to ask you a question which I often pose to people, working in the arts. If you ever had the chance to work in collaboration with a famous fashion designer, who would it be and what would you create together with them?
I like Tom Ford a lot. He is a commercial designer and this is the precise reason why I like him. He creates collections which could actually be worn in almost any circumstances. And apart from that they are sexy. Lately, New York has been presenting a certain type of professional challenge of how to produce a mass product at the highest quality possible. This is the barrier in art. Here, take Rolex for example – they produce a million watches of great quality every year, and juxtapose them with an artisan watchmaker like Philippe Dufour, who produces twenty watches a year.
Right now I am focused on the artistry and the talent which would allow me to create sixty paintings a year at a very good quality instead of six, as it has been so far.
I am a great fan of cashmere, alligator skin with a lot of details… something in this direction, which boosts your confidence, something which you put on to make yourself feel significant and important.
If you had to describe your lifestyle in America in three words, which ones would they be?
I am leading a perfectly normal life, entirely focused on my work in the studio.
What is your attitude to Bulgaria and to people who make art here?
It is exceptionally difficult to defend your point of view when the social environment stands still somewhere in the 1980s… People are making a lot of compromises with their artworks. But at the end of the day, there are always going to be some 3 or 4 good painters out of a generation, and this must be a good thing.
Do you think that young people here are progressive, or is there anything which prevents them from growing?
I have no personal observations, but I have noticed that less and less young Bulgarians come to study at universities in the States. Perhaps Europe is more affordable and this could be the reason, I don’t know. There will always be a certain percentage of highly motivated young people. The problem of the older generation is being able to motivate all the rest to learn, develop skills and grow. The problem here is that adults are not so well incorporated socially, so that they could pass on what they know to the younger generation.
How do you see your professional growth in 2, 3 and 10 years from now? Would you change anything?
I hope so. I will very probably try to change a lot of things. The world of the arts changes rapidly. It is facing the young, the active and the brave.
In one word, what is art to you?
Interview: Stefy Stoeva
Photos: Huben Cherkelov