The history of art in Southern California isn't linear; it is a fluid, multi-angled continuum made from the personal experiences of many artists from myriad backgrounds. So to trace the trajectory of Southern California art, Artbound is creating a collective timeline comprised of the decisive events that shaped artists' creative development. We hope that in the space between these personal histories, an impressionistic view of Southern California's art history will come into focus.
Today we talk to Los Angeles artist Salomon Huerta.
Tell me a little about the Hispanic Art in the United States Catalogue?
I didn't grow up with art. My only exposure with art was the murals in the housing projects where I was raised. But they were kind of like naïve murals, they were not really like master murals, but that was my exposure to art. So when I saw the hispanic art in the United States catalogue, and I saw the work of John Valadez, that was the break point in my life when I realized that I could be an artist. Because I saw a Chicano doing work that was equal to the other artists that were mainstream.
Tell me about your exposure to art growing up in the housing projects.
There were murals in the Ramona Gardens Housing Projects by the L.A. Streetscapers, by Wayne Healy, by Carlos Almaraz, and other artists. So these are the murals I would see everyday walking around the projects. That was my experience, like I can do this. But it was the John Valadez book that really shifted me.
What was in particularly about John Valadez that spoke to you?
His technique and the ability to capture the moment that he was expressing. The guy is like a realist, surrealist. Realist meaning he captures what's real, what people can relate to but he expresses it in a surrealist kind of way.
When you were talking about John Valadez, you said it was the first time that you saw a Chicano that was given the same fame as other artists. What do you mean by that?
The majority of Chicano artists are not included in mainstream art and that is because they do work that only caters to the Chicano communities. But John Valadez's work caters to the masses so I was able to see it in the same way I was seeing Cy Twombly or Francesco Clemente.
It was not just formally, but also the subject matter that intrigued you, that it was a little more universal?
It was universal. His voice transcends the Chicano voice. He may start from an experience of being a Chicano but then when he starts doing the art, he transcends it to a universal space where everyone can relate to it.
And that's an integral part of your work?
Yeah, but I let go of that Chicano thing a long time ago. I'm proud of being Mexican--I have a mustache still, I have a Quetzalcoatl tattoo. I just think of myself as an artist.
How did the Helter Skelter show in 1990 influence you?
I have a big ego that I always have to put in check. But when I saw that show, I kind of say that everyone just let go of their ego. They did these massive big paintings. I label big paintings as when you're really expressing your ego, and when I saw those big paintings, I think it stimulated a part of me that I can do that. Because my last year at Art Center I did a painting that was 7 by 16 feet, that was my first big painting. I just went for it. So when I saw that, it inspired me that I can do that and I love the work Manuel Ocampo, Victor Estrada--the work was amazing.
Let's talk about these massive paintings. What was it about them?
They're big and they put you at awe. It's great that a painting can make you feel at awe. What I've learned about the ego is that you cannot go into the studio as an artist and say, I want to do a big painting. That's ego. The work determines how big it is going to be. When I have an idea, I look at it and this feels like it is going to be this big. So now the work that I'm doing now feels that it is going to be big because that's the only way it can be expressed and I allow myself to save these ideas for later cause I didn't like the idea of making a big bang into the art scene and then how are you going to top that when you get towards the end of your career, or not towards the end but as you start to evolve. So I said to myself, "I am going to come in slowly, make my mark and then as I mature, then really make my bang."
Early in your career you painted the backs of people's heads and they weren't huge canvases, but they were huge heads, so there was a sense of volume that was really big.
My head paintings were small but they carried a lot of weight in terms of how they were expressed and how I isolated the head so you could only focus on the nuances of the back of the head and what makes a portrait. But what gave the back of the heads presence and weight and scale is that how they were painted. I've learned that when you use very little painting medium, light goes in and floods out from the painting. When the painting has a sheen, light hits the painting and reflects and it just bounces off. But when there is no sheen, light goes in and floods out and it gives it an aura. And that is what gives it presence. That was an accident. I'm not that great.
How did the 1992 L.A. Riots influence influence you?
I was raised in the housing projects where it is a hyper-reality. Things happen every day. Once a week, for sure, someone gets stabbed or something. Once a month, for sure, someone dies. Every day you get together towards the evening with your friends just talking about what happened. It's like being inside a movie and you're like interacting with the movie. It's literally a hyper-reality. The night before the riots, I was talking to a friend of mine who lived in El Sereno or somewhere over there and I was telling her about what I see the cops do in my community and she was denying it. And I would go, "No, no, they're crazy, they just come in here and they're using our neighborhood as a testing ground to train their rookies." They would do crazy stuff and they know people were not going to complain, no lawyers or whatever. She was in denial. We were fighting for about two hours. And then the next day was the riots and then the next day after the riots, my friend calls me and she says, "What a coincidence." I go, it's no coincidence, the only difference is there was a camera. I see that everyday. The only thing is that if there was not a camera, there would have been no riots but I was seeing that every day in the projects.
How did that inform you?
For me, it was just like seeing my reality on T.V. so it was more like now everyone knows what happens in this environment. But not living in the projects anymore, those things don't happen. I mean the way people reacted wasn't right but it exposed something that had to be exposed.
Did your work respond to that?
No, my work was already responding to what was happening in the projects because living in the housing projects there were many days that my life was a threat, and having my life being a threat where you were going to get shot, or beat up, or stabbed, it opened my awareness so much where I can read people's energies just by the phone. I can read people's energy from the distance so I can read danger coming from a distance. But that awareness has helped me to capture the inner essence of what I'm capturing. I think being raised in the hostile, violent environment and the constant shock, you have to be alert. It opened up things in me that allowed me to capture stuff in my art that to me is like second nature and other people have to work for it.
How did Obama's election change the art world and affect you?
When I saw Obama running for president, I really didn't believe he was going to make it. And then when he became president, I was like, "oh my god." At that moment, I saw a cultural shift where now African Americans, like that whole stereotype of what is attached to being African American was literally like poof. Because it is just a cultural conditioning, so it was literally going to fall off. And I also knew within the art, now African American artists were going to have more freedom and I have some African American friends and I saw their shift in consciousness and I saw their freedom to just express themselves without any weight from the past. I think it's cool that he's president and I'm looking forward to when there's no color.
I'm looking forward to when everyone is just like a little kid and just seeing who's in front of you for who they are, who they truly are, because I remember still being in kindergarten, I never saw a white person, Asian person, or black person, I just saw a person in front of me. It wasn't until I came into the projects when I started to see a black person, a Latino. I was dating a Latina from Texas and she said, "After 3 months of being with you, now I see a black person, a white person, and an Asian." And it was my energy. It was nothing we talked about, it was my energy. And after we separated she goes, it took me 6 months to just see people, to decode, to decondition herself to getting back to how she was.
Your new body of work has something to do with this context that you're talking about.
My new body of work is I chose an African American woman. I think, inside of me, part of me wants to get off this grid of cultural conditioning of who we are. So my challenge with her, you know she is a beautiful woman, is just to do a portrait of a beautiful women. And my challenge is for the viewer to just see a painting of a beautiful woman, but not see a painting of an African American women. If you go to Europe, that's not an issue you know, it's only here that's an issue.
What about The Matrix? How did that affect you?
When I saw the Matrix, I was a graduate of Art Center, it stimulated me. I don't know what it did but it connected me to my higher self because from that point on I was like overly stimulated visually, because that was the first movie that came out that really pushed the boundaries of what you can do in film. And I think that movie has changed all films from that point on. For me, it stimulated me to visually go for how I want to express myself in terms of color, in terms of the moment and composition. I have a lot of friends that are artists that talk about that movie, how it inspired them to create.
What do you think your legacy is going to be?
I don't think about that. We die, we come back, so I can come back and see my painting when I come back and that'll be great. I don't think about that.