Interview with ‘Media Lux’ Artist Irene Pantelis

This is the third installment of the Media Lux artist interview series. Media Lux features work by Clay Dunklin, Mason Hurley, Irene Pantelis, Monroe Isenberg, and Gina Takaoka.

Irene Pantelis | Graduate Student and Artist | Exhibiting in Media Lux from April 2nd through May 19th, 2018 at The Stamp Gallery | University of Maryland, College Park | Interview by Kat Mullineaux

Khipu Reiterations 2018, Ink, Watercolor, oil paint on mylar, overhead projectors

Khipu (String and knot record) 2018, Polylactic acid filament

KM: Before we talk about your pieces in MEDIA LUX, I am wondering about your journey to this point. Where did you do your undergraduate study and what lead you to the MFA program here at the University of Maryland?

IP: I was an undergraduate here at UMCP back in the early nineties, majoring in Spanish and English. My path to the MFA was a bit of a long one. After college, I went to Georgetown Law and became a labor lawyer for about ten years. During that time, I was an artist on the side, going to lots of exhibits, traveling to see art abroad, taking classes at the Corcoran, and participating in weekly figure drawing sessions at the studio of local artist Micheline Klagsbrun. When my children were born, I decided to quit law and stay home with them. My art became more expressive and much more abstracted. As the years went on, as scary and crazy as it seemed, I decided not to go back to my legal career and take a leap into becoming a full-time artist instead. I came back to UMCP initially to take undergraduate courses, especially in digital art, but soon realized that my quest would really benefit from an MFA. I chose to do it here at UMCP because the program is very flexible and interdisciplinary, allowing for lots of experimentation.

KM: This is your second year of the program and now that you have reached the midpoint of your MFA journey, I am curious about where you and your work has evolved from–and where you see yourself going in the future. Has your work shifted from your first year in the program to the works you have currently in MEDIA LUX? If yes, how so?

IP: My work has definitely evolved since I started the MFA program. Some things remain constant, like the use of grids and organic shapes, the interest in ambiguity and hybrid, and the repetition of marks and textures. My prior work was about the process and the aesthetics of the materials, hinting at broad and hard to pinpoint concepts. The MFA has made me think harder and deeper about what the work means or conveys. It has also made me strive harder to find innovative and effective ways to create work that resonates with me but might be relevant to others. The works I have in MEDIA LUX are part of a series where for the first time I am using abstraction to explore a specific narrative or history.

KM: So,I have been staring at your pieces Khipu Reiterations and Khipu (string and knot record) for a couple weeks now from the docent desk in the Stamp Gallery. It has prompted me to Google questions about Inca culture, where you buy 3D pens, when did overhead projectors decline in use anyway–and so many more. One thing that I see as tying the two sets of pieces together is the presence of Khipu knots. Upon my own limited research, I have read that these knotted ropes/strings were used in Inca and Andean cultures to keep track of things, whether that be money, marriages or whatever. I wonder, can you say something on where your inspiration to work with these knots came from and what they mean–to you or in general?

IP: To me, a khipu is one of the most beautiful types of grids out there. Khipus blend reason with craftsmanship in a unique way. The Incas, or more properly, the Quetchuas, made khipus by tying many strings in parallel fashion to a longer, larger rope. The strings were then tied into knots, aligned horizontally. Each decimal number had its own kind of knot. The knots, the spacing and hues of the strings, and the direction in which they were spun recorded numerical data, such as zip codes and population numbers, but also mathematical and algebraic transactions on a decimal system. At the same time, the khipus were used as nemonic devices to pass down oral narratives and traditions. During the years of the Inca Empire, in the absence of the written word, the Quetchuas, who still live in the region and number about 8 million, used the khipus as part of their governance. The Spaniards burned most of the khipus in the early settlement years, so only about 600 of them survived, found in collections worldwide. The Spaniards left lots of drawings and chronicles of them, but the khipu code has not been fully decoded. Their information is still veiled and mysterious, though clearly about data and narratives that are interconnected. One of the features I love about the khipus is that most string break into several smaller ones, which in turn break down further, creating a hierarchy that visually resembles a flow chart or family tree, but also the branching of trees, the spreading of roots, the formation of rivers, and, for the Quetchuas, a corn plant. Grids have always been a key component of my images, so it was kind of natural for me to be drawn to the khipus. They are a part of my past, being from Bolivia and having a Quetchua grandmother who died when my father was still a child.

KM: There are many cultural implications attached to using a tool from a millennial educational environment and even newer technology in the 3D pen, to portray something from so long ago with so much history. Now that we have a bit more information on your relationship to these Khipu knots, I am extremely interested in the interaction between new/newish technology and a simple yet ingenious keeper of knowledge. How do you see these things interacting in your work? What is their significance.

IP: There is a play between technology, the chemistry of the materials, and the art of drawing going on. For the wall sculpture, I wanted to make a three-dimensional khipu that took on the curves of my fingers, hands and wrists. It was a meditation on the fact that so much of counting for humanity started with our fingers and hands. Data and numbers in the end are about people. I also wanted to underscore that the way the khipus were organized, while organic and hand-made, can resemble visually the way we depict data today, like a computer matrix, a data graph, or perhaps a sound wave. The khipus also make me think of our obsession with collecting information and cataloguing things in a logical manner. The 3D pen was the most versatile at creating the form I wanted and effectively hinted at a present-day significance for the object. While artificial, the material takes on a very organic, natural shape. Interestingly, the PLA filament I used is made from corn, which is a main staple of the Quetchua diet and plays a significant role in how numerical concepts are labelled or described in the Quetchua language and mythology.

IMG_2243 (1)

Khipu Reiterations 2018, Ink, Watercolor, oil paint on mylar, overhead projectors

KM: In your pieces the mediums you work with are what I see as genuinely unique. I thank you for the experience of seeing an overhead projector used for beauty and complexity as opposed to being just the thing my middle school math class used to teach us fractions with little plastic octagons and squares. Why did you choose to work with these projectors? Do their placement and rather chunky presence play into the work as a whole for you?

IP: Overhead projectors evoke a kind of nostalgia. They have to do with the passing down of knowledge from one generation to the next, which is in part what the khipus did. The projectors are clunky but kind of sculptural at the same time. They clash with the ethereal nature of the image they project. The image projected is always a different version, a reiteration of the image on the light box, which itself is a reiteration of something else.

KM: Do you have a favorite medium? Do you see yourself as a technologically influenced artist or do you primarily work in other mediums?

IP: My practice is multidisciplinary. Drawing and painting are the foundation of my work, but from there I go in many directions—sound, video, sculpture. I like the mix of traditional and new media, it’s another way of exploring hybrid natures, and it the case of these pieces, of creating a bridge between the past and today.

KM: There is a simplicity to your work–a minimalism. Your use of black and white, shadow and light, is interesting to me to say the least. How do you view this minimalist aesthetic? Is it intentional?

IP: My aesthetic choices are mostly intuitive. The PLA filament and the overhead projectors were so rich as mediums that I did not feel the art pieces needed to be overly ornate. I always try to let the materials dictate the form. Minimalism is also both really old and really modern.

KM: Who and what do you see as your influences on your work?

IP: There are many, many artists I find inspiration from, as well as writers and poets. My list is very eclectic. Cezanne and Khalo are still two of my favorites, as are Homi Bhabha and Timothy Morton.

KM: Do you have any current projects you would like to tell us about?

IP: I have a solo show scheduled for December at VisArts in Rockville, MD.

KM: Looking ahead as you have one more year in this MFA program, what do you hope to do when you have reached the end of this journey? Sleep is hopefully on the list!

IP: My plan is to keep on making and showing art. I would love to do residencies and show my work in South America as well as the US.


The Stamp Gallery wishes Irene all the best in her future endeavors and artistic pursuits. 

MEDIA LUX runs in the Stamp Gallery from April 2-May 19, 2018.

The Stamp Gallery Hours




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