Back Home: A Conversation with Emilio Villalba
It takes guts for any artist to switch their style or pursue a new concept, especially so for a young talent, and even more so when success is achieved in a signature repertory. Yet Emilio Villalba seems to be adept at the creative pivot. After developing a unique method of deconstructed portraiture, luxury giant Valentino collaborated with him, releasing a line of fashion items incorporating his unique sole-eyed, crimson lipped images. Soon after the San Francisco-based artist switched things up for his last 2018 solo show, Symbols of Death, Signs of Life, where he completely abandoned portraits for surreal assemblage within a world of interior spaces and personal artifacts.
A year and a half later, Emilio Villalba is about to present his new solo show with the timely titled Back Home, scheduled to open June 6th at Modern Eden, and the work, once again, marks a new adventure. Wielding his mastery of painting and appreciation for traditional materials, the artist directs concentration on familiar home environments and moments. Integrating every iteration of white through drawing and sculpture, he has created a domain of universal vignettes, inviting us to savor their humble beauty on canvas, panel, and paper. So intrigued by yet another daring departure, we got in touch with Villalba to glean more insight into this new body of work, as well as talked about the fortuitous timing of shaping a show that celebrates life at home.
Sasha Bogojev: When did you decide to go with this title and imagery for this exhibition?
Emilio Villalba: The title for the show and imagery was decided after completing the first painting in the summer of 2019. I named it Back Home. The title worked with the concept of painting as well as the imagery, an attempt to return to form (going back to my roots) and it was a self-portrait from my bathroom mirror. I had been painting surrealistic images for about 5 years and felt the need to strip it down and start fresh again. I challenged myself to create interesting and fresh paintings from mundane and boring scenes and corners of our apartment. How can I make them interesting and still be my signature? I chose to paint every object in the scene a local color, and just shift the darks and lights for rendering and form purposes. Each painting evolved a bit from there.
What was the motivation to embark on imagery so different from the last solo show?
I felt that I was diving too far into my "prog-rock" phase lol. When I started this body of work last summer, I was telling my friends this was my Neil Young or Bob Dylan phase, haha, bringing it back home.
You seem to make shifts from show to show, right?
The change is reactionary to my life and what's happening or happened. Last year we changed apartments and neighborhoods three times, I ruptured a disc in my spine, and was relatively immobile for a few months; then to top off the year, our apartment caught fire!. The compositions and format of the paintings I was producing before weren't fitting for the mood and direction I was trying to express. I needed to change the images in order for my paintings to be me. Plus, I was trying to open up my brushwork, so that there could be expression in those shapes rather than just the imagery.
After bursts of colors and visuals in the last show, there is a limited color palette and imagery this time. Was this purposeful?
The walls in my apartment are white, so it really started there. I'm sure I could have found more colorful corners and compositions from the apartment, so in that sense, choosing the scenes to paint was very intentional. However, it's not until you see the works in person, that you will see how color plays a very important role. Sometimes, just a brush mark of color here or there is all they need. To me, when I think about the works, I think about color more than I did with my previous series. I think the color matters so much more when they are minimal pieces. It's like looking at a Mondrian vs a de Kooning or a Signac or someone who uses color a lot more and all over the place. You'll remember the exact colors on the Mondrian vs all of the colors you see on the De Kooning; saying there aren't focal points of color on a De Kooning, but the color is mixed in there with a bunch.
Yeah, these new images seem minimal, yet they are painted so masterfully. How exactly did you go about selecting the images and detail?
Lately, I've been really into minimal pieces by other artists. There are always little trends happening, and there is so much art accessible online. I wanted quieter pieces. But then, there are my expectations of what a "good show" should look like, so I tried my best to merge the two. How to paint an image of the corner of the wall, and capture the essence of staring at it, and make it intriguing as a painting. I really had to be patient with the work and trust myself that this is the direction I wanted to explore. I always think about an interview with David Bowie, who said, "There aren't bad ideas, just poor executions."
There is a lot of technical expertise in your ability to create excitement with white tiles and a smidge green.
I like to think of these as thought-provoking pieces. The sizes of the works went larger, in order to bring the viewer in and have them start longer, as if you were really staring at tiles for 5 minutes or whatever. I stare at the walls every day, in the bathroom, in my room, in the shower. I'm in my head all the time, and these pieces are honest and true to that concept. It was a very simple concept to keep painting. I know composition, all I have to do is stare at my feet or the ground.
Depiction of perspective seems to be connecting thread among these works. When did this become such a strong interest of yours?
I wanted the viewer to feel lost in the illusion of the work, so most of the compositions are from my perspective or first person. The funny thing is, I tried really hard to make the paintings wonky and not realistic and I've been getting so much feedback about how real these paintings look. My intention was to make the application of the paint thick and sketchy so that they didn't look still.
The last show was very personal, but this one feels even more intimate as it discloses such private moments and scenes. What is your motivation?
My art has always been about sharing my world, with little hints of how I feel about it. I wish they were non-objective views about the things that surround me, but they are infused with love or sadness, I suppose. I recently looked back at art I was making before art school, and the compositions were very similar to my "Symbols of death, Signs of life" show, but the images were fueled by objects found in my parents’ home and in our suburban community, lol. Rabbits, lawnmowers, mailboxes, and cookie-cutter homes. I would write things on them like, "isn't life great?" or "don't leave me." To me, I knew what I was saying, but it seemed a bit more cryptic in the works. I didn't want someone to look at the painting and think it was a cry for help. They were just my version of the "blues." People sing the blues to let it out, make them feel better, so therapy, I suppose.
Was your collaboration with Valentino the official retirement of the eyes series of work?
I love painting eyes, and will be painting eyes for the rest of my life, I hope. I'm always discovering new ways to paint eyes and learning how to express my current fascination with the medium through them. The bags were actually painted while I was working on this new body of work, so I had to switch gears back to that style. The difference was obvious the moment I sat down to paint them. The style on the bags requires a very focused, technically sound, approach, which is much more time consuming, due to the blending and perfection of the edges and all. I recently painted two pieces for the new Blake Mills record, called Mutable Set which returned to that style.
How did it feel watching the world moving indoors as you were painting such a distinct body of work?
The timing was a bit surreal. I actually was about finished with all of my paintings when the shelter-in- place began, but was able to create another five to ten pieces.
Were you, at any point, worried that people might see the concept as opportunistic as everyone else moved Back Home?
No, my paintings have never really been political or commercial in the sense of taking advantage of a moment or incident in order to sell pieces or grab attention. These pieces are very personal to me, simply paintings of myself, my partner Michelle and our dog, Bear. If I had started the pieces after the shelter- in- place, I would have never painted a bathroom, especially with toilet paper in it. Haha. Perhaps I would have painted skies and windows. But, there is always context, just like a photograph without explanation. People are going to see what they want to see in the narrative.
Is there a painting that is especially dear to you?
All the pieces are, really. My favorites are the ones with Michelle. I was really able, I think, to explore paint application and subtle misplaced proportions on her portrait to create different emotions. Also, any piece that features my toothbrush—I brush my teeth a lot and I get lost in thought when I do.
How much did the Covid-19 pandemic influence the plans for this show and are there any works in it that are direct results of the situation?
The show was scheduled for April 2020, so it would have been canceled; but luckily, the gallery had an opening in June. Modern Eden Gallery in San Francisco recently relocated to a larger space, so I was really excited about these larger pieces filling the gallery. These paintings were intended as a body of work and meant to be viewed in person. I hope people are able to enjoy them in their new space. None of the paintings are a response to the stay at home order; the pieces are all self-reflection or studies of my partner Michelle and our dog through my eyes. If you take a look at the compositions, they are representations of moments lost in thought, some a bit more dynamic than others.
Do you already have ideas for the next body of work, or do you still want to explore these types of images from the past?
After a big body of work like this, (there are 50 of these paintings), I take a little "vacation" from the works and explore other things, but I have no idea. I'm not trying to come up with a new series or direction. The hard part is trusting myself. Usually, all I have to think about is what kind of paint do I want to hang on my wall, or gift Michelle.