Juan L. Gomez-Perales

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Michelle Lanaeuville from DrJes Research Journal of Experimental Science, speaks with Juan L. Gomez-Perales about his artwork, which combines both art and chemistry. The discussion ranges from how to make Scotch Whisky to peeing on statues to make art.

Moonshine and the Art of Juan Gomez Perales

Michelle Laneuville interviews Juan Gomez-Perales
Juan Gomez-Perales
Photo by Salihou

[ML]: What was the inspiration behind the “The Hunger of the Starlings”?

[JG-P]: “The Hunger of the Starlings” is related to a very specific project. It’s a project that sparked my interest in chemistry. Just to give you an idea of where the title comes from, I have a beautiful grapevine in my front yard in downtown Montreal. Every fall, there’s a huge harvest of grapes. Last year we picked 300 pounds of grapes off the vine. It’s the kind of vine that people stop on the sidewalk just to look at. It’s huge: three stories high and three houses wide.

The title “The Hunger of the Starlings” was inspired by the starlings that ate the grapes, becoming my archenemies. I was in a constant battle with these birds because just when the grapes were getting ripe and ready for me to pick, they were also ready for the starlings to eat.

The art project began a few years ago when I first started picking grapes, and was wondering what I would do with them. I decided to make jam, but we harvested about 150 pounds of grapes, and there was no way I was going to make that much jam.

I’ve gone to Cape Breton a couple of times and been aware of a certain moonshine culture out there. I became interested in making alcohol from my grapes. Also, making your own alcohol is quite a common thing in Spain, where I come from. A lot of Mediterranean countries have this tradition.

To make the alcohol, I had to build a distillation apparatus. In the process, I soon realised that there was a vast community of moonshiners in my area. It was mostly comprised of aging, immigrant men who came from Spain, Italy, Greece, France and Portugal. Their kids weren’t interested in continuing this culture, so they started teaching me everything they knew, seeing me as the next generation to carry on their cultural knowledge.

As an academic, I began doing my own research as well. Over the Internet, I met a chemist from Finland and he started explaining the science of distillation, alcohol and chemistry to me. So, my information came from two directions: science and culture. As an artist, my actual profession, I began seeing a beautiful relationship between the two aspects of this process, and I was acquiring knowledge that the locals didn’t have.

Once I had been making alcohol for a few years, I started wondering what exactly was in these things that I was making. So I had the opportunity to do some tests on the alcohol, where I would pass it through a mass spectrometer and gas chromatograph to find out exactly what the various components were. I was able to identify certain flavours based on what I could sense, but I never knew where they were coming from. For example, methyl alcohol and ketones have lower evaporation points than ethyl alcohol so their presence indicated a need to discard more of the beginning distillate and perhaps modify the distilling column to make it more efficient.

Furthermore, as a sculptor, I became very interested in the objects themselves, in the aesthetics of the distillation apparatus, in the beauty of the coil pieces of copper, and in the shapes of the various containers. So this project really comes from the interest in cultural anthropology, the aesthetics of objects, chemistry and the different chemical processes.

[ML]: And that spans how many years?

[JG-P]: For this specific project, dealing with the grapes, I’d say about 10 years.

[ML]: What advantages do you see in combining both the arts and the sciences?

[JG-P]: Well, arts and science have always been closely linked. If you look at the drawings of Leonardo da Vinci and his exploration into scientific processes, you see that he explored the workings of the human body in order to understand how to describe them through paintings and drawings. Throughout the history of the arts, there has been a fairly close link to science. Painters, while making their paint, are dealing with chemistry. They are using chemical processes in order to create certain pigments. Verdigris [Cu(CH3COO)2.H2O], for example, is a mineral pigment traditionally used in artists’ paints and is made by exposing copper to vinegar vapors.

Also, scientists talk about the arts as the aesthetics of a process. For example, Einstein was very interested in the aesthetics of physics, and his search for a unified field theory is proof of this. It has to do with distilling down the essence of an idea and ending up with something that is inherently beautiful.

[ML]: How did you make the necessary chemicals? You obviously used your distillation apparatus, but did you look it up before hand, or did you find another chemist to help you?

[JG-P]: The actual chemicals that I used were very basic. In terms of modifying water chemistry, I was basically using different salts and chalks. There are various mineral components that go into water, and most of the things are readily available.

The making of the alcohol is a chemical process that is essentially self-contained. I started with the grapes that eventually went through a process of fermentation, and created the alcohol. It also produced some things that I didn’t want in the alcohol, but that I’ve learned to remove Therefore, it was not really a case of obtaining a chemical. It was a case of working with them; purifying them and taking out the things that weren’t wanted.

[ML]: Did you experiment with different acids to know what colour you wanted, or did you already know approximately what colour it was going to turn out on the metal of your artwork?

[JG-P]: A lot of that had to do with experimentation and different research that I have done .Many of the patinas, which are basically the controlled oxidation of rust, are fairly commonly available. Most metals are affected chemically by different acids to create oxides which (for the artistic interest) have different visual properties.

For my purpose, I used the process of patinas on these metals, which is a historic process in sculpture. That green colour that you see on statues in a park is really a patina created by the air pollution and other chemicals in the air. In the old traditions of sculpture, artists would take a bronze cast sculpture, put it in a urinal and have people pee on it. The various acids from the urine would affect the patina in a particular way. Some sculptors would even bury their sculptures in manure piles in the barn so that it would be affected by the various vapours and chemicals produced. So much of it is intuitive; it is asking yourself: “What can I do to this metal?” and once you’ve done it: “Do I like what it looks like or should I try something else?” There’s a certain amount of exploration and experimentation involved. The understanding of the chemistry comes afterwards. It’s not necessarily a case of figuring things out; it’s more of a “pee on it, and if I like it, I’ll keep it.”

[ML]: Have you tried peeing on any of your artwork?

[JG-P]: No, not these ones, but maybe in the past.

 [ML]: Which piece of art in the “Hunger of the Starling” is your favourite and why?

[JG-P]: I honestly don’t know if I can pick one. I have a very special relationship with each one of them. They’re all quite different and the things that interest me about them are their differences.

Some are quite narrative, like Four Bottles of Milk. Everyone loves to point out to me that there are actually five bottles but they’re missing the point. This is based on a folk tale that I found through my research, where moonshiners would hide their alcohol in mason jars and paint them white so they could hide them in the cupboard where the milk was kept.

Another one, The Man with the Crooked Horn, really comes from an interview I had with a historian in Mabou, Cape Breton, who was telling me that this term, “The Man with the Crooked Horn,” referred to the local moonshiners. The crooked horn is the copper coil that would be the connotation system for the still.

[ML]: What are you working on now?

[JG-P]: One of my main focuses right now has to do with physics, mathematics and astronomy. A few years ago, I started exploring some of the aspects of science and art, and I’m getting very involved in reading many of the early writings in physics and astronomy, such as Galileo and Kepler, all the while trying to make sense of the ideas.

I think that, for the next little while, the chemistry and distillation process will remain an ongoing project, but that my research will lean more towards mathematics and physics, which are intriguing since I don’t have a science background.

Text originally published in:
DrJes, The Dawson Research Journal of Experimental Science
Winter 2006, Vol. 6,

Reprinted with permission.