Memories of Stories Told: A Studio Visit with Eugenia Barbuc

by Alexis Alicette Bolter

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There was a moment during my studio visit with Eugenia Barbuc where I thought we might be related.  That is the kind of spell Eugenia casts on her viewers, a familial intimacy that is intoxicating and perplexing.  Her worlds of abstract places are at once foreign and familiar, framed by absurd actions that are sincere attempts at inherently flawed tasks.  And in this tangled web of imagery and looped narrative, you walk away from this undeniably California work and think… yeah, I know what you mean.

I became a superfan of Eugenia when I saw her video then suddenly she is at a critique night held through the Women’s Center of Creative Work in Los Angeles.  At critique night, you go around in a circle and awkwardly introduce yourself and your medium. When you get to Eugenia she’ll say with a charming smile that she does painting, sculpture, video, and installation.  And guess what, she honestly does all of those things.

My article for The Coastal Post gave me a wonderful opportunity to find out more about Eugenia’s process.  Being that this was my first interview, I went into our studio visit with a series of questions and themes I had observed from my previous exposure to her work.  “I find your work to be pretty funny, do you use humor as a tool and to what end?”  “Your videos contains found footage in the form of home movies shot on film, how does this inform your work and what does that medium mean to you?”  Little did I know these questions were silly, canned, and, well, not nearly as interesting as what came up during our discussion.  

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When I enter Eugenia’s studio I found a stack of drawings, paintings hung on the wall, a table covered with maquettes, and Eugenia’s computer ready to screen her newest work volver after volver after volver.  When I asked about her process it was amazing to see how each object and image is an exploration on the way to this final video.  How a conversation led to a drawing that led to a sculpture that led to a drawing that led to a performance that led to a sculpture that led to a video.  Each individual work and the work’s successes and failures inform the next piece.  This type of creative chase results in such a wonderfully eclectic body of work.  Eugenia likes to talk about in between spaces, this unknowable space that isn’t quite foreign and that isn’t quite familiar.  Essentially her studio space exists in a similar dimension.

After watching volver, the creative chase continued as we discussed the exploration of memory in Eugenia’s work.  When Eugenia talks about the abstract places in her video she is referencing the space that exists around her memory of a memory.  The films, objects, and landscapes in this series are connected to a documentary Eugenia did for Para Los Ninos.  For the documentary, she interviewed women from South and Central America about their journey to the States.  Their narratives were strikingly similar to her parents’ narratives and how her parents’ came to America.  As Eugenia describes, “From my standpoint, I was interested in how I access the memories of these places they tell me.  The stories exist as places in my own head but they are not the same places as the places of their memories.  I like that abstraction of place.”    

The abstract places in Eugenia’s video are brought to life by the accompanying soundtrack. The music is haunting and homey and an all-around perfect fit for the mood.  The source of the music came up when we discussed the theme of failure in this body of work.  Eugenia taught herself to play these songs on the guitar and finds the music’s failed performance as an important imperfection.  Failure is such an integral part of Eugenia’s practice and is closely accompanied by the humor associated with that failure.  The failure of the objects is related to what Eugenia describes as the failure of the body.  “I want these objects to exist in the same way I, as a body, exist.  In this constant state of failure.  Not striving for perfection but existing with the frayed edges and the imperfections and embodying an intersectional idea of a thing.”  Not only does this resonate with the music but also, very memorable, with the fleshy carabiner that Eugenia clumsily tried to finagle in front of the canned mountain backdrops.  

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All of these failed and repetitive actions are brought to life by a cowboy.  Eugenia plays the cowboy character in two different iterations.  Eugenia dressed as the cowboy in the classic white t-shirt, jeans, and cowboy hat illuminates a striking comparison of the lone ranger and the artist in the studio.  The struggle of an artist to create in a capitalistic economy leads to an isolated life focused on hard work and constant production.  This structure is also rooted in a patriarchal lineage where the male cowboy is heroic and the male artist is genius as they both reign over their kingdom.  Eugenia describes her attempts to subvert that narrative through her performance of this failed masculinity.   The queerness that Eugenia inhabits in here role as cowboy shines through in the form of a yellow sports bra.  The other cowboy character in this work is the draped landscape topped with a cowboy hat (à la Casper the friendly ghost).  This figure, while accompanied by mystique and dramatic effect, is essentially a body hidden by a western landscape backdrop.  When I first asked about the western subject matter, Eugenia discussed memories of her childhood and growing up in a home decorated by western imagery including paintings of vast western landscapes.  “My parents are not from here so when they decorated their home they decorated with cowboy stuff.  I remember thinking ‘why are they so interested in these western landscapes?’ and it’s because it’s considered the American dream.”  In this work, Eugenia covers herself in the “American dream landscape” as an attempt to embody this memory of her parents’ desires.  The absurdity of such an action and the attempts to blend in with her surroundings creates both a humorous and poignant moment in this video.  

Before I left Eugenia’s studio I asked to grab a few photos and I couldn’t help but request an image with the fleshy carabiner.  I’ve seen this prop in previous iterations and this most recent sculpture, in its silicon material and flesh tone, is by far my favorite.  The inherently flawed object that replicates a tool intended for security and strength becomes limp and impotent in its new form.  As Eugenia very aptly points out, it looks like a dildo.  Eugenia’s repeated attempts to make the object function as intended (both in the video and in our photo exchange) have a charming effect.  Each time the carabiner locks into place and is then released I hear an inaudible “ta-da!” ringing through my head.

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The world of Eugenia Barbuc is familiar for a reason, the way she engages with memory allows the viewer to enter the work and feel like they’re in a familiar abstract place.  Her studio feels the same.  Everything you see looks like something you’ve seen before but not exactly.  It’s the quirky in between.  I left her studio giddy and energized despite the late hour and long day.  If there was a fake sunset background I would have triumphantly walked into the sunset that night.