“How can I capture a moment without replicating reality?” asks painter Giorgio Celin. To behold his work is to fall into a moment, one charged with bombastic emotions and creatively reimagined settings. His work often exists in the past tense. Celin’s canvases seem saturated with the stuff of memories: edges flow into one another, bodies dance through abstracted forms and the colours are no longer beholden to light’s demands and instead find themselves tinted with feeling and impulse.
For Celin, the search for beauty means embracing the diversity of humanity, something that inherently runs up against the gate-kept standards of the fashion and art world. Even within the queer community, beauty ideals can still be strict and harmful. As Celin says, “We live with this Adonis complex that is so toxic, it fuels insecurities and means comparisons and body dysmorphia. You know what? Fuck that shit.” So, Celin paints his subjects to represent humanity’s diverse range of bodies. In the moonlight bath of his nocturnal compositions, his subjects often tenderly embrace one another with undulating, fluid limbs.

Celin’s paintings are often deeply intimate. As he frequently says, “Everything is a self-portrait” and thus is inspired by his own experiences with lovers both past and present. He works through his own emotions on canvases full of life and drama. Often, it takes time before he is ready to approach a period of his life, but when he is ready, the results are breathtaking. His work is inviting, recalling emotions we have all experienced in one form or another, and yet also grounded in his own specific experiences and memories. Celin holds the almost magical ability to make contact with a viewer’s soul through his paintings. His work has landed him the attention of top galleries and now also fashion houses. This past year, Celin was invited to take part in the Valentino On Canvas advertising campaign. Here he candidly speaks about his work, his approach to making art as an essential life process and becoming the artist he has always dreamed of being.
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To start off, could you please introduce yourself and your art?
I’m Giorgio Celin, a Colombian Italian painter, proud immigrant and art school dropout, who recently graduated from an imaginary but prestigious art institution.
You have talked about making creative projects before you understood them as art. When did you begin to understand what you were doing as art?
I don’t know if I recall a specific moment, but I know that the road to identifying myself as an ‘artist making art,’ was a rocky one.
Also, as a son of immigrants, I always felt a little sense of guilt about wanting to have a career as an artist: my mom worked so hard to take care of us that the concept of ‘work’ was basically very long hours, small pay, many struggles, no rights and people taking advantage of you. When your mom asks, after a long day at work, what you did and you reply, “I painted all day,” it is a weird feeling, believe me.
A lot of the people who make it in fashion, art and cultural entertainment have some kind of class privilege that allows them to work for free until something starts to happen for them. And the privilege there is not having to question what their position is related to work, and if what they are doing is ‘art,’ a hobby between shifts at a restaurant or a silly dream to distract them while selling clothes or whatever. I spent years second-guessing myself and what I was doing.
Also, drawing and writing were such an essential part of my existence – it was so natural that it was difficult to conceptualise them as an art practice. Anyhow, every day I feel like I’m getting closer to being the artist I want to be. Every day I’m healing, and I hope that one day I will answer this question more clearly, without the need to get into this big explanation of where I come from.
You have spoken about Kanye West’s The College Dropout as a point of inspiration for you. What did you take from art school? Do you have any advice for young artists navigating decisions about how to approach art?
That is my favourite Kanye album! It talks about education, what it is to have a college degree, the social status attached to it and working odd jobs to support yourself while trying to ‘make it.’ It’s so relatable.
It was always my dream to study art but I was unsure where it could take me. After all, what is a public art academy degree good for? It would not connect me with the art world, institutions etc. So, I felt it was completely useless for me. That’s why I dropped out. Also, people around me were so uninspiring… so I’m an art academy dropout that went out there doing their thing and proving himself in the field that he could do it. And I honestly felt like the last show I had (with 68 Projects in Berlin) was kind of a graduation for me. I feel like I proved to others what I can do. Now it is time to prove things only to myself and the people who supported me on the way here.
But no more Kanye references, for now. Honestly, the way he is harassing his ex-wife is kind of embarrassing and hard to watch for someone like me that grew up in a very macho and abusive household. But this doesn’t take away from the greatness of that album.
The only advice I have would be to work on the type of art you want to see, without thinking about what others think. And network horizontally, don’t try to get in with the big cats right away. Find your peers and your voice first, gravitate to what is natural for you, put all your inspirations in a blender and see what comes out of it.
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Can you tell me a bit about the Valentino collaboration? How did it come about, and what did you hope to achieve with this project?
They called me to participate in the Valentino On Canvas campaign this year, a project in which the brand gives complete freedom to some internationally renowned artists to create a work reinterpreting Valentino’s One Stud bag from the Rendez-Vous collection. My intention with the project was to associate high fashion with the immigrant narrative, so I called my friend Hadi, who comes from Lebanon, and he shot this beautiful video of Cacao (a Venezuelan girl) voguing by the beach, and this visual eventually was a starting point for the final work.
The painting was a portrait of Cacao wearing a dress that could be used to dance cumbia (the African-rooted national dance of Colombia) in the brand’s signature red colour, the bag that they were advertising and some jewellery. I’m proud of what I did, I’m happy that they chose me, it was a beautiful thing... Also, I got to go shopping in Paris at their boutique feeling very Pretty Woman – they were super cute to me (shoutout to Máxime and Niccolò).
I’ve been approached by other brands as well, but I have turned them down because they felt very similar to this Valentino project… I definitely want to do more collabs with fashion brands, but I’m not interested in the industry, really. What I wish for now is to be part of the designing team and invent crazy, wild garments.
Your paintings so often capture a distinct moment, feeling spontaneous, like a candid photo. Yet you defy realism through form, colour and perspective. How do you balance these impulses in a painting? What is the ‘moment’ of your paintings?
My images are a mix of real people, fantasies and memories, it’s a potpourri. It’s an imaginative moment inspired by reality and a subtle game of balance between representation and abstraction. The question that I always ask myself is this: how can I capture a moment without replicating reality? Because realism is boring to me. I don’t want to represent reality. I want to create something out of my living experience, my own perceptions and my feelings. Painting is a transformative practice for me. So, if a limb doesn’t fit in the canvas, or in the specific position I draw, I will distort it. I can do it, it’s not a ‘real’ limb, I can do whatever the fuck I want with it. It moves according to my needs and doesn’t need to follow any rules except for mine. So, it’s an imaginary moment, a romanticised expressive one that might remind you of reality but it's definitely not that.
Your paintings often depict a nocturnal temporality. What is important about this temporality for you?
I’m obsessed with the moon as a symbol of divine femininity and a symbolic activator of the moods and emotions within an individual's psyche. So, I feel like I’m putting my characters in a place where they are more connected to their emotional lives.
When I was a kid, I got this book about science and there was one page talking about moon rituals and ‘lunatics,’ a condition once attributed to ‘lunacy.’ I was so scared to look too much at the moon and turn into a crazy person that I developed this obsession with it, it became something that I feared and revered as something really powerful and important. Setting my paintings at night also gives me a chance to connect the old world of symbols with a contemporary lifestyle: the city at night is a spectacular show of characters, situations, neon lights, etc., and a bright full moon is definitely one of the most beautiful things you can experience in nature. And for me, one of my favourite things is to paint a setting for my characters.
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What does accessibility in art mean to you?
This can go in a lot of directions! The most literal definition of the word can be physical accessibility to a facility for people with disabilities or having access to the art regardless of economic background. This last one resonates more with me because I come from a disadvantaged economic situation. Economic barriers prevent access to art education also on a psychological level because you get this feeling that it is ‘a waste of time’ to engage with art or that it’s not ‘meant for you.’ I don’t know if I’m actually making art more accessible to the group of people that I come from. I know I try to represent people like me, immigrants, Latinxs, etc., but if the structures that show my work are not accessible for this group of people, I will not make much difference. You must sit down in the chair of the decision-makers. From there you can make a change. And that’s exactly what I want: to sit in that chair.
You have mentioned Egon Schiele as a reference point for your work, it is something I felt but couldn’t explain while looking at your paintings. Tell me about this relationship.
So, as a kid, I was an avid manga reader, one of my favourites was called Mars by Fuyumi Soryo, and one of the characters, this effeminate sociopath called Masao Kirishima, mentions Schiele as his favourite artist. I did some research and I instantly got obsessed. Every drawing he did was a masterpiece: so stylish, so personal. In such little time, he was able to produce great masterpieces. He was a true genius.
My big thing with Schiele was that I didn’t want to copy him. But that’s bullshit, you always copy the masters. When you copy an artist, you break down his style, and you understand what makes him ‘him,’ and by doing that, ironically, you understand more of ‘you.’ Then I started to make copies of myself doing copies of Schiele, so I started to really understand my own style, my line through drawing, the way I use my hand and my own flow. Edgar Degas talked about this in some writing. Then comes painting, and that’s a different story because it's mainly about colours. So, Schiele is there, it’s not as obvious as it used to be, but it’s definitely there.
What inspires your work? When do you know you have the idea for a new painting?
Well, life. My head explodes with ideas all the time. Especially during long travels, I just get ideas out of nowhere… some of them stay, others go away. Images just come to me in an unexpected way. I stop whatever I’m doing if I get a good idea for a painting or an intuition for a series. But yes, travelling makes me think a lot. Sometimes I get ideas that stay there for years and then suddenly, I take the drawing and paint it. And it’s done.
“I exist (and therefore my work does too) between worlds.”
You use the phrase, “Everything is a self-portrait” as an artist statement often. What does this mean to you?
I’m a petty Aries, so I’m very focused on myself. I don’t see it as a negative thing, though. I’m an artist, so I need to be very present for myself, focus on my experience, my feelings, the business, etc. When I paint a self-portrait of myself in the middle of the night crying over my ex and looking for a Grindr hook-up that probably is going to leave me even sadder, who is this story for? How many can relate to this? It is a popular experience since there is nothing special about me as a human being. My experiences can resonate with others. I understand the power of just being myself and doing things from my very own perspective. Being transparent, that’s the word. So it’s about me, but it’s about us as well, for us to feel represented, seen, alive. Everything I do is a self-portrait because it comes from my eyes, soul and hands, it’s all seen through my lived experience and opinions. I’m not a ‘god’s eyes’ narrator that sees it all. I have my feet on the ground. I’m not a ‘special human being,’ I’m one among millions of people that live the same things I do.
In contrast to the last question, your work also presents so many different bodies, and you discuss a desire to represent more than just, “white cisgender gym bodies.” How do you work to accomplish this?
Listen, as a queer immigrant, I feel like finally we have a voice. We can tell our own stories. And this lean, muscular white body is not something I’m particularly interested in representing. I will tell you a story that I shared on Instagram: when I was growing up in Italy, I read these columns about red carpets and stuff. In a very famous magazine (I think it was Il Venerdì), they wrote the following words about Jennifer Lopez’s body shape that I will never forget: “She can dress up. But she will always look like the employee that ran away with the mistress’s dress.” I didn’t understand why those words hurt. Now I do. I’m from the Caribbean, our culture celebrates women with curves, but here in Europe (and to white America as well), this was seen as ‘vulgar,’ not professional, or alternatively exoticised and sexualised. You know what? Fuck that shit. I make an effort to make the people I paint look as different as I can because we come in every colour and shape. I want to celebrate that because it’s beautiful. On the other hand, there is the issue of the ‘perfect body’ that is so present in the queer community. We live with this Adonis complex that is so toxic, it fuels insecurities and means comparisons and body dysmorphia. You know what? Fuck that shit número dos, I don’t want to be part of this culture.
Your identity as an immigrant often informs your work, and your work spans vast geographies. Where have you ended up in the world and why? How do you understand making work grounded in place?
A few years ago I landed in Barcelona. There is something about the city that, for a European city, makes me feel like I’m close to my home. There is a huge community of Latinx diaspora. People doing drag, performance, movies, pushing the narrative of decolonisation, and having a freedom that we probably could not have in our home countries. This can happen only in Spain, because of the colonial past and the language. Also, I have a deep connection to Colombia, and being in Spain really helps with the flights.
But I do travel a lot, and I don’t attach myself to places too much. My place is the ocean, it's a journey. I belong to an endless process of migration, I want to constantly leave my comfort zone and experience new places, people, conflicts and challenges. I’m just genuinely curious and fascinated by people’s conflicts and relationships. Maybe it has to do with being from the Caribbean, a complex and diverse region, a ‘totality kaleidospique.’ I exist (and therefore my work does too) between worlds.
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Your work investigates experiences of the Latinx diaspora and presents tensions between displaced, deterritorialised cultural encounters, and place-specific experiences. How do you navigate this balance in your work between the specific and the global diasporic experiences?
As I said, I don’t want to attach myself to a specific place, I always have a sense of in-between. The Latinx diaspora is a huge phenomenon, not a monolithic experience, it contains multiple variables, it's indigenous, it's afro, it's mestizo, and it's about social classes, culture and heritage. One could never understand it all. But I do talk about it, and I like to paint stuff like passports to highlight the questions that we ask ourselves all the time. Where do we belong? Do we belong at all? Do we need to ground our experience in a place?
Reading and studying work from the diaspora made me understand that creating from outside of your home country, as an immigrant, connects you more with your homeland. Because you have a special relationship with that place and notions of ‘home,’ country, etc. Creating from the diaspora makes you elaborate on identity so much, probably more than if you just stay where you were born all your life. When I travel, I want to see the periphery of the cities, the immigrant neighbourhoods. I want to see different communities. Because in the end, only an immigrant can understand an immigrant, no matter where in the world you come from. So, I always feel some sort of strange connection when I see other immigrant communities. We see each other.
You have discussed your view that paintings should exist more as living objects than intellectualised museum property. What kind of life do you hope your paintings will have after you finish them?
I actually have dreams about a distant future when people will put together all my paintings from specific series. It would be amazing to see all the Pájaros del Atlántico paintings in a show. Because they were not made to be together at first, but somehow, after having different lives, being owned and shown separately, they will have this new life as a fully realised project. That’s what I meant: a painting needs to be seen, it needs to travel, to be alive in the eyes of different people in different contexts.
Your descriptions of love, and the moment in which love strikes, are so relatable. You discuss the investigation of Corazonada parisina as “a moment of confusion: is this person going to break my heart?” How do you capture this experience of love on canvas? I really feel it in Don’t You Remember? That Day in Tempelhof and also Don’t You Remember? That Night in Tel Aviv. Can you talk a bit about these pieces?
I’m very transparent in the way I use my personal love life in my paintings. If my personal life makes it to the canvas it is because I really need to make sense of some feelings, giving them a form, some kind of resolution, and it helps me go through the situation. It is like a self-discovery process.
Corazonada parisina is a self-portrait about the fear of getting closer to someone new. You don’t really know where the thing is going, right? You just have this bubbling feeling inside your stomach. Have you ever thought about the expression ‘falling in love?’ You feel like you are literally falling. No control over your feelings. Usually, when I’m capturing (or trying to capture) one of these moments, it is because I had a conflicting experience about it.
In Don’t you remember, I wanted to capture these scenes from the same relationship, the beginning of it, the moment of falling in love and the end of it. So I ask my lover this rhetorical question: don’t you remember? How we fell in love in Tempelhof, Berlin and how we dramatically broke up one night in Tel Aviv? It was a beautiful 2-year-long relationship, but the breakup was so sudden and traumatic. I felt like someone just kidnapped my best friend and lover and took them away from my life. It took me years to actually start the paintings. I needed a certain distance to paint those images.
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How did you begin the process when you were finally ready?
I draw a lot and I am very organic with this medium. But a painting is a more calculated scene. You must think through composition, colours, etc. So, when I’m ready, I go back to my drawings and start the painting. For this particular one, the process was almost cathartic. When I saw it on the canvas, I felt relieved. The pain was finally gone. I gave that story to the world. It doesn’t haunt me anymore.
What are you working on now? What should we keep an eye out for?
At the moment, I’m working on my next show in London at Eve Liebe Gallery. It’s inspired by my city of Barranquilla, and the time I spent there this year. It was amazing because I couldn’t go during the pandemic. So, being back there I was so appreciative of every little thing: the coconut water, the food, the nature, the music, etc. I fell in love with the beauty of my country all over again and was inspired by the everyday stuff and idiosyncrasies of the Caribbean. It’s kind of a visual love letter to my hometown. I can’t wait to show it.
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