Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Abel Alejandre Knows Your Secrets

I can't quite put a date on the first time I saw Abel Alejandre's art. Over the past ten years, his work has just seemed to permeate my consciousness. He arrived, fully formed,  with a master's hand, and a brilliant mind. I so swiftly placed him in the brain file alongside Goya and Caravaggio, that it feels now like Abel has always been in the art history books. He's just one of those artists, where the the greatness is so apparent that the art settles inside of you on a molecular level, as if it's always been there.

I do, however, remember the first time I met Abel. A couple years ago, I was invited to a private life drawing session. The names on the invite list were all pretty impressive, heavy hitters. But the most intimidating name on that list was Abel's. It was a terrifying prospect, and the coward in me wanted to bow out. But passing on a chance to sit in a room and draw alongside Abel Alejandre wasn't an option for me. So, I went. When I arrived, there was Abel, in the center of the room, sitting at a little folding drawing table that he'd built himself, pencils and pens lined up, paper at the ready. He looked like an eager student on the first day of school, but also like a General in the war room, ready for battle. I introduced myself, and fawned over his work like a fanboy. He could not have been nicer, but his pencils were sharp, and the drawings he executed that night cut my sloppy scribbles to shreds.

If you're reading this, it's safe to assume you already know that Abel is murderous with a pencil. His graphite drawings are exquisite, painstaking wonders. But that's just half the story. Abel's latest work, Public Secrets, opening April 9th at Coagula Curatorial, is a series of paintings that explore myths, and conspiracies, the underbelly of our delusions. Abel let me visit his studio for a preview of the work. Above the entrance of his work space, a sign warns you, "Art Maker". The first piece I saw was a small, rectangular board with three cockroaches. Each roach was carrying something on it's back, like mules hauling contraband. A pencil. A cigarette, He explained the conceit of the show, that everyone has secrets. That some secrets we keep hidden, and others we reveal unwittingly. I thought the piece was scratchboard, but every single work in the show is actually a painting. Hundreds of tiny white marks on black gesso. Abel paints exactly as he draws, obsessive, diligent, intense. It's really hard to wrap your brain around how good he is, especially when you learn that he is largely self-taught. There was a thought balloon over the lead cockroach, but it was blank. I asked Abel what it was going to say.

I don't know yet. I've already erased it three times. I'm not a big fan of (pauses), I like the work to be accessible, but I don't like it to be so literal that it's like talking down. I hate talking down to my audience. So, this is about contraband, an underworld. This one's going to be carrying a bullet. I was gonna have him saying something about the shadow government.

Abel stepped into the other room, and started to pull out the other pieces in the show, as my jaw dropped.
The whole series is about secrets, conspiracies. I've come across so many people, in my personal and professional life, who keep talking to me about conspiracies and secret narratives, about Trump, 9/11 was an inside job, UFOs. It was just so pervasive, and it kept occupying my mind.
This is about American consumption of un-American drugs. They can't get it to us fast enough. We keep using whatever they deliver.

So, this series is really, you know, I was thinking about families who, now that they're here a second, third, fourth generation, they've kind of become legitimate Americans. But if you go back a couple generations, maybe they were involved in the drug trade, and it's that sort of access to money and routes that may have helped them to get here. But then this becomes a family secret. So, I was thinking of those sort of things that we hide from our friends, or maybe our siblings, or our children.

This is a portrait of my mother, who started me on this path of secrets. When I was a kid, she would tell me, 'Be careful what you do out there, because there's a little bird that tells me your secrets.' I always looked at it like a metaphor. But it was something I heard my whole life. You know, there's a little snitch in the neighborhood that's keeping an eye on me and ratting me out to my mother. So, the way I would visualize this, all these people, hiding in trees. It just created this image. They're doing surveillance. So, I grew up trusting nobody, trusting nothing for what it is. Everything has some other symbolism. In Spanish really, especially in my family, nothing that is ever said really means what they're saying. They can never say what they mean. Everything has a significance to something else.

That's a bird of paradise. For me, all things beautiful, like flowers and plants, are not to be trusted.

This has to do with Ebola. In Africa, the CDC would go in there with all their garb to protect themselves from being infected. So the witch doctors saw this, and adopted that menacing mask to distance themselves from the virus. None of it was functional. It was all sort of ceremonial. So the witch doctors would come in with these makeshift costumes in order to eradicate the disease. It was such a striking and beautiful gesture. They're trying to understand something, and this is the way they've re-contextualized. They have built a narrative that it was these people (the CDC) who brought in the disease. So, this part of the conspiracies.

This is my father, and I've turned his sombrero into a space ship. He's one of the people who always told me, 'Don't believe anybody. Everything is bullshit. Don't trust anyone.' But lately, he's been telling me of alien conspiracies.

They Walk Among Us

Every person that I know who spouts some sort of conspiracy theory, I hear all the time, 'You know they walk among us.' This is an artist, Mario Ibarra.

The show will be hung with the pieces butted up against each other, so it's like a mural. They're all gonna be having a larger conversation. This will be at the bottom, holding up the narrative. He has the weight of all these stories on his shoulders.
The way I've internalized the conspiracies, the secrets, the hidden agendas, what have you, is that people who believe these things, can not just believe one thing. A person who thinks 9/11 was an inside job? Guaranteed, you talk to them long enough, they also believe in ancient astronauts. They may believe JFK conspiracies. So, what I find is a lot of people make connections with contradictory conspiracies. There's an invisible connection that they all have, in their mind. All these people carrying these ridiculous stories; the true history, the untold history, the secret history. All these things are connected somehow. So, that's why I wanted to have these pieces all be connected, although they're individual pieces, they can also be connected.

Abel's weapons.

I should tell you that the photos here are just tiny details of the work. There is a common fear among artists that if you show your art on social media before a show, no one will come to the opening. So, for now, I have to tease you. But trust me, the caliber of Abel's latest is extraordinary. I doubt very much if I'll see a better show this year.

Public Secrets
Opening reception April 9th, 7-11pm
Coagula Curatorial
974 Chung King Road
Los Angeles, Ca 90012

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Artist of the Year: Valerie Pobjoy

At the end of every year, I like to geek out and compile a list of my favorite (and least favorite) art of  said year, Sadly, I just couldn't do it this time around. Maybe I'm just getting cranky in my old age, but for me, art in 2015 often had the unholy stink of "meh" all over it. In large part, I blame our collective 8 second attention span. Truly talented artists are being forced, by sheer economics, to create work that is vapid, garish, cute, and hollow just to get a moment's glance before you check your phone again. I don't know how we are going to deal with this problem and still be able to create anything meaningful. But I'm holding out hope. There was one artist this year that stopped me in my tracks, every time I saw her work. Valerie Pobjoy is a revelation. She is taking classical techniques and standing them on their arcane heads. She applies a masters' hand to the grime under our feet, and, wait for it, makes us actually feel something.

In October of 2014, I was in a show at Flower Pepper Gallery. Valerie was in the show too, and her paintings grabbed me by the throat and wouldn't let go. I immediately asked Nicole Bruckman who this girl was. I was soon introduced to a tiny stick of dynamite, poised to blow up all your preconceived notions of what art is, and what it can do. I've been lucky enough to show alongside Valerie at a number of shows, and she humbles the hell out of me every time. Imagine if Delacroix and Sargent were alive today, and entrenched in the Black Metal scene. It's quite a leap, I know, but they would certainly have a response to the glut of Ryden-lite art being continuously vomited up in gallery after gallery. Pobjoy is that fantasy fully realized. She can render a urinal at a metal club utterly alluring, without losing any of it's bleak, harrowing nature. She is extraordinary at capturing the hardened despair of concert-goers, and hangers on, People on the outskirts, searching for a moment of contentment in a brutal riff, a sense of community, a bottle or a dog.

I visited Valerie's studio last week, and in spite the presence of 3 chickens, and a cat, the place is pretty clean. She keeps her brushes immaculate, a trait I've found rare among artists. Her work is hard to photograph. She frequently employs delicate, soft edges to figures. It's not exactly blurry, but there's a slight haze that my camera didn't know what to do with. There's also masterfully executed textures that beg to be seen in person. But you may be seeing less of that in her future work.
I’ve kind of lost my boner for texture. I feel like it was becoming a crutch almost.  Like, ‘let me make this really cool by making the texture really weird’, as opposed to having it actually be interesting. It was becoming a crutch. So, I haven’t really been playing with texture as much as content.
Spend a few minutes with Valerie, and you will bear witness to a keen intellect (and sense of humor) that belies her 26 years.
I had all these commissions in a row. You know, painting people’s kids, portraits of Dads, stuff like that. I started having such an existential crisis, and feeling like I was so boring. I wasn’t putting out what was in my soul, you know? I decided that I need to go to grad school. I need to move away from L.A. I felt like the most boring person in the world. I came to the conclusion that I just need to paint a toilet. I just need to paint something gross.
I was pretty shocked to learn that she'd never even used oils until she was 21.
When I was 17, graduating High School, I decided I wanted to go to art school. I went to visit the Academy of Art in San Francisco.  When I got there, there was a bunch of teenagers that were just like me, like rebellious and Goth, and I thought, ‘Man, this is just a phase! I’m not an artist.’ So, I left thinking, ‘I’m just going to go community college, figure myself out, and make sure it’s not just a phase.’ So, I started studying to become a vet. But every time I would study, I would draw, instead of take notes, and it was like, clearly I just want to draw. I had been at Santa Monica College for a few years, and I was just so bored. I wanted something really challenging to happen. I went to Art Center because it had the reputation of being the hardest school. I talked to an admissions guy, and showed him my sketchbook and he said I needed to do oils and figurative. So, that’s when I started with oils.
Valerie studied under Sean Cheetham, names Shaun Berke as her mentor, and sites Lucian Freud, and Edgar Degas as huge influences. You can't pin her down on a favorite metal band, although she offers Metallica as a default answer. She used to do graffiti as 'Punk Rock Pussy' (don't try to Google that). She's the kind of art nerd I adore, eager to show you her comic books and record collection, and she says she'll never stop painting her brother's dog Holly.

I really loathe when people attempt to compliment an artist by saying they're gifted. It's so dismissive of the hard work that they put in. But it really is crazy that Valerie is as good as she is at 26. She is able to convey so much raw emotion in the most unlikely settings. I look at how she renders the metal kids at shows, and grand symphonic orchestras play in my head. There are sad, lurid tales being told in the silence of the seedy urinals. There's a theatricality, a noir at work in the simplest of her portraits. She's honors the history of art in her technique, while creating wholly new content. It's really exciting to think that she's just getting started, She's one of my top 5 working artists, and she created my favorite works of the year, by far.

You can see Valerie's work for yourself this Saturday night (12/12015) in "Wish List 3.5" at Gabba Gallery.

She will be one of the artists featured in Flower Pepper's 4th Anniversary Show on Dec. 19th.

Also, if you hurry, there was one drawing left at Daniel Rolnik Gallery, last I checked.

Johnny Rotten


This is oil paint on a Post-it note. I'm not even kidding!

Holly on a Post-it note.

Chair oil painting.

Chair sculpture.

Paper mache metal dudes.

DOGT detail.

Gaahl embroidery.

Holly, from my private collection.

Paper mache sculpture.

Holly, the day of my visit.

Holly, the very next day.

Texture detail.

Valerie with her chickens.