Joan Longas: Impressions of a Stranger in Southern California

The clear cool California Night (Shell Beach).jpg
"The clear cool California night" by Joan Longas depicts a Shell Beach liquor store.

To the average Southern California resident, the subjects of Spanish artist Joan Longas's paintings might seem strikingly familiar: Burger shacks. Liquor stores. Gas stations.

Longas's lush, neon-lit landscapes elevate the ordinary -- transforming everyday sights into spectacles worthy of notice. He treats a 19th-century Monterey lighthouse or a mid-century Pismo Beach motel with the same solemnity of a European cathedral.

"I am fascinated, as usually only an stranger is, with 'the ordinary vistas' natives probably take for granted," the Barcelona-based painter explained, regardless of whether the view in question is the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles or an isolated stretch of highway in Las Vegas. "This same fascination develops inside myself when I am abroad, in a way that I just have to go back and revisit places that evoke certain moods."

Longas showcases his decades-long connection to California in the exhibition "Impressions of a Stranger," running July 5 through Aug. 31 at the San Luis Obispo Museum of Art.

Joan Longas in his Barcelona studio | Isabel Fabregues
Joan Longas in his Barcelona studio | Isabel Fabregues

What sets Longas apart as a painter of contemporary realism, according to Ruta Saliklis, the museum's exhibition and development director, is his use of color, graphic design sensibilities and quirky subject matter.

As "someone who's coming here with fresh eyes," she said, he's able to sense the hidden truth behind the buildings and signage residents see on a daily basis. "We could drive past that (landscape) and not be amazed and say 'It's like that every day,'" Saliklis said.

Longas first visited the Central Coast in December 1983, tagging along on a trip with his then-girlfriend. He's returned to the region multiple times since then -- often to spend time with his only daughter, Cuesta College student Sophia Longas, who was born in San Luis Obispo nearly 20 years ago.

According to Longas, each trip to California lasts no more than three months. Still, the artist makes the most of each visit, crafting paintings with poetic titles that evoke the freedom and the solitude of the open road.

Longas recently talked about his paintings, his travels and the sense of kindred connection that continues to lure him to Southern California.

"They had left a part of themselves behind, and they felt light and free in the car" | Joan Longas
"They had left a part of themselves behind, and they felt light and free in the car" | Joan Longas

Who do you consider your biggest influences or inspirations as an artist?

That is a complex question to answer, because I think my influences are diverse, from many artists as well as from the teachers in my student years. But I want to point out, from the artists we all know, the sober atmosphere in each painting by (Diego) Velázquez, and his mastery of human body and flesh, and (Joaquín) Sorolla's skill in drawing, and his exuberant use of color. The elegance of the brushstroke by (John Singer) Sargent, and of course the whole thematic of body of work by (Edward) Hopper. No other artist has originated more literature than him.

Other than your daughter's presence here, what keeps you coming back to the Central Coast? 

I think I would have kept coming back to California even if I had no daughter. California is a beautiful state, and also very different from what we are used to back in Europe, but at the same time somehow familiar, because of the climate, culture and history. For example, the founders of California were my own countrymen. A few years back, I happened to meet the last descendant of Gaspar de Portola, the first governor of California in 1767, in a small village in the heart of the Pyrenees. Despite the barrier of the language that always reminds me that "you are a stranger," I feel at home every time I come back to California.

"Point Pinos" | Joan Longas
"Point Pinos" | Joan Longas

You mentioned that you associate certain places with certain moods. What mood does does this place evoke in you?

Some images and scenes leave a deep impression that outlasts the erosion of time. To go back to those memories is always a rescue action from oblivion, and for me in art the memory is everything. Most of the time those memories are imbued with a coat of nostalgia.

What attracts you to the architectural subjects that appear in your paintings -- burger shacks, gas stations, motels and the like? 

All these -- the highway, the gas station, the burger shack, the motel -- are places that you can find along the way when you travel, and they become part of the journey. In my opinion what is important is not so much the destination but the journey. What matters is not simply to be in Santiago (de Compostela) but to walk the way to Santiago. In a metaphoric way, our lives are what runs through between two points on a road. And these subjects in my paintings talk to me about travel.

"The night with its darkness attached to the windowpanes" | Joan Longas
"The night with its darkness attached to the windowpanes" | Joan Longas

Are you drawn to the same subjects in your native Spain?

These subjects attract me anywhere by their symbolism, but in my country are not as clearly visible. They are much more difficult to single out from their environment. And unfortunately they are not as pretty.

How often do you revisit the same locations as an artist?

I revisit as much as I can until they change and lose their symbolic meaning. Changes don't always happen for the better.

Talk about a few of the specific spots that you've painted on the Central Coast. What attracted you to those locations and why was it important for you to paint them?

There is a road that runs parallel to the freeway that I never get tired of contemplating, especially at dusk. And this is Shell Beach Road, the stretch that goes between Pismo Beach and Avila Beach, from where I've painted the Kon Tiki Inn, the Shell Beach liquor store, the Shell Beach Inn, the Palomar Inn and the Shell gas station. They all have their signs sticking their necks over the freeway, standing out with their bright colors in the nocturnal sky, in a quiet allure.

"Early Sunday Breakfast" | Joan Longas
"Early Sunday Breakfast" | Joan Longas

Describe the advantages of viewing Southern California through a stranger's eyes. What do you comprehend that might elude residents who see these landscapes every day?

It's only that a native might take some landscapes ... for granted, simply because they have always been there. For instance, I have not examined some of my own city's landmarks until the day I had to give a tour to visiting friends.

I just feel amazed watching the western skies, the beautiful neon signs, the roads and highways, the houses, the magnificent nature. And probably it's because all this is very different from where I come from for I'm a stranger.

You say your art invites observers to perceive another reality that underlies what's readily apparent. What reality do you hope that they perceive?

From the book "On the Road" by Jack Kerouac, there's a descriptive line when Sal and Dean make it to San Francisco that reads, "We can't go any further 'cause there ain't no more land." Let's take for example the painting of the gas station, which I titled with that same phrase. Behind the Shell station that appears in my painting there is nothing but ocean for thousands of miles until you reach Japan. One day I came to that realization and looking at the ocean, felt dizzy. California is the last end of the world. California is not only the geographic end of the continent, but I think it's also perceived as a metaphoric goal ("Go west, young man!").

The reason I painted that gas station was motivated by that understanding, and I would be satisfied if I knew that I've touched someone who suspects that this painting is about something else besides simply a gas station in the twilight.

"Afterwards they lay without speaking" | Joan Longas
"Afterwards they lay without speaking" | Joan Longas

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