People & Things & A Little Grunge: A Conversation with Emilio Villalba
I love that in the conversation with San Francisco-based artist Emilio Villalba, we talk a little bit about being messy. A little grunge in the application as he puts it, when referring to what inspires him today. That he cites Alice Neel seems right on the spot, as Emilio bends our perceptions ever so slightly, turning something familiar into a newly discovered body angle or expression. We chatted as he was set to board a plane east to NY, where he will open his new solo show, People & Things, at Hashimoto Contemporary on July 17th.
Evan Pricco: I think we all have to start somewhere around here, but how would you say this body of work started for you? Where does People & Things begin?
Emilio Villalba: This body of work evolved from my previous show in 2020 titled, “Back Home” which was in San Francisco. The works featured all single scene paintings of mostly interiors of my apartment and portraits of myself and my wife and dog. The paintings, in retrospect, dealt with scenes that I think depict moments of being lost in thought or searching: a painting of the wall, tiles in the shower, groceries in the kitchen etc. The actual paintings however, meaning the surface and application, were much more interesting to me during that period. I was exploring new ways to apply paint and render form, as well as exploring different ways to use color. I shifted back into canvas as well, which added a fresh change up to my set up which was painting on wood. The earlier works for this new body of work, People and Things, was intended to be a continuation of “back home” which began with painting portraits in the same fashion, exploring ways to apply paint but I also started distorting the shapes and drawings a bit more, I wanted the portraits to be cohesive with the tile paintings from before.
This new show feels both more lush and dense and also very much in your face, literally. What were some of the themes you were exploring?
After working on a few portraits, I was inspired by Alex Kanvesky’s method of painting on top of painting, or at least that's what his work looks like to me, and I decided to look for things that belonged on the floor. Paintings of the floor had been a theme from my previous show, but I decided to use multiple objects that might not belong together, much like the Bauhaus 3d artists would, in order to create a new narrative, maybe one that could be non-linear. The first painting I completed was “Shopping Cart, Wheel and Feet” and the theme was the first things I thought of that belonged on the floor and that were nearby. At the moment I was riding my bike every day, and we lived next to a grocery store. I looked for a common theme through the objects and I thought wire or wire-y, so I elongated the shoes and feet, and made the tire wonky and noodle-like. From there, the works slowly have been evolving from the more minimal approach of my previous show to fuller and more dense pieces.
I have been going back and forth on this with myself, but at times I think this work feels almost more ethereal than your past work and also I have moments where I think the work has a darker, more personal tone. Where are you at with it now that it's getting ready to be shown in NYC?
I think my work has always bounced back and forth from feeling light and dark, and maybe that just has to do with my personality. I think I am entering a new state of mind or phase in my work, where I want the things I paint to not necessarily feel attached to me in a way, even though they are personal objects or things I encounter or people I see on a day to day. I want that to be my goal for this next year or chapter of painting. Every time I have a body of work ready to ship or I see it in a gallery space, there are moments of celebration and also moments where I feel I can evolve from or work from. I still feel very naive as a person and as an artist, but I’m trying to learn as much as I can, and wherever I can.
It was mentioned that you were looking at Velázquez and Rembrandt when you were making this show, as well as contemporary painters John Wentz and Alex Kanevsky, and I was wondering how research works for you?
For this show in particular, I wasn’t looking at Velazquez or the old masters as much as I was looking at Alice Neel, and how colorful and easy and playful and wire-y her paintings are. There are a few paintings in this body of work that might pay a heavy homage to her pieces, but I’ve never been into just copying. I have had so much influence from so many painters these last 10 years from Manet, to Basquiat, to contemporary painters like Terry Powers. I sometimes get nervous about my ideas and work, and then I turn to the immense world of art history that we have and look for answers and look for reassurance.
Did any moments over the last 18 or so months change your approach to art-making, or maybe a better way to say it, creative thinking?
I think spending so much time indoors and in my studio for the last 18 months has been a blessing and a curse. I am extremely blessed that I was able to paint as much as I did and keep the creative flow going as much as possible, but at the same time maybe it started becoming a bit of an echo chamber. There are a lot of things I missed from going to see art in person at galleries and museums that I missed so much. I love stopping by the SFMOMA just to look at the Gerhard Richter pieces. I feel like I can paint whatever I want every time I see his work.
At this very moment, what is your favorite painting (not your own) that you draw inspiration from?
There are two paintings that are lingering at the moment, one is Jackson Pollock's Male and Female, 1942 and Vincent Van Gogh's Self-Portrait with a Grey Felt Hat from 1887. Both of them have what I’m craving at the moment. A little grunge in the application, the blues and the drawing like brushwork.
At this very moment, what is your favorite painting of your own that you draw inspiration from?
This is going to sound like a cliche answer, every time I complete a piece it's the one that’s fresh in my mind and I’m wanting to jump from. I believe that all my pieces have a direct link from the previous painting. Maybe I will start painting multiple pieces at once.
How are you feeling now that People & Things is set to open, the world is opening up a little and you have this new pace to your life?
I’m ready for it, I’m ready to get on a plane, I’m ready to see art in New York, see the Alice Neel show, hang out with friends, meet new people, and I’m really excited to get back to my studio and paint more.
People & Things will be on view at Hashimoto Contemporary in NY from July 17—August 7, 2021