Review: Tripping with Emilio Villalba in New York
Too much can be made of the difference between the art scenes associated with different cities. So, let’s begin by simply celebrating the arrival of a great San Francisco-based artist for his first solo show in Manhattan at one of the great bi-costal galleries, Hashimoto Contemporary. Hey New York: meet Emilio Villalba’s People & Things. You’re in for a treat.
Villalba is a prodigious talent. With six solo shows in California since 2016, a collaboration with the iconic fashion house Valentino, and an impressive global following, Villalba continues to push the conceptual sophistication of his presentations with each new exhibition. Technically skilled enough to replicate the pinpoint nuance of Renaissance masters, Villalba expands beyond the strictures of realism, consistently shifting his practice into a decidedly of-the-moment gear. This show is no exception and displays the artist’s gift for fusing a painterly flair with pop commentary, street sensibility and expressionist figuration.
People & Things brings together 9 large canvases densely populated with, as the title suggests, objects and individuals, in part or in whole. These paintings assemble Rube Goldberg-like pyramids of imagined and actual sights, sounds, and sensory inputs. The cans of beer Villalba has enjoyed, the albums he’s spinning, the film canisters and cameras that are his wife’s art practice; these float alongside vignettes with the family dog (“Bear”), historical art references, and the disembodied eyes for which Villalba is well known, Candle sticks with dripping wax (iconic representations of the passage of time) and car bodies stacked atop one another are collaged with abandoned tires and socks with or without a lower limb to fill them. Replicas of the carved and painted masks from an earlier time in Mexico, which likely were precursors for today’s luche libre wrestlers, loom. Masks forever beckon the question: who are we really? What articles or experiences endure or penetrate as we roam through our interior lives and the neighborhoods we’ve recently been confined to. What’s a treasure and what’s a cast-off? How often does the march of days turn one into the other? Which people and which things really endure?
Also presented are a series of a dozen lyrically loose close-cropped portraits. The viewer likely will not recognize these personages. They are the artist’s immediate circle of intimates, his “friend bubble,” if you will, as all of these paintings were created since Covid-19 caused a constriction of social interactions. Looking into the emphasized eyes of these strangers and following the marks that comprise the shadows and shapes of their faces, we feel a keen intimacy. Research suggests that if you stare at anyone eye-to-eye for 10 minutes, it can induce an altered state of consciousness. The surrealists certainly took this view. These works have that effect, but the feeling they induce is warmth. The quirks of the people portrayed become charming and are as much about the easy comfort of being together as signifying appearances. Such should be the way with close friends.
Two of the offerings are assemblages of six small square canvases displayed in two rows of three: Selfie Black and White, 2021 and Michelle Orange, 2021. Like the classic puzzle games that may have been their inspiration, the viewer may seek to work out some semblance of the expected order. These works in particular feel analogous to the struggle many are undergoing to try making sense of a new “normal” and to reconstruct how we might reorder our lives in the days ahead.
Of all the “things” that appear in these paintings, the cars are a fresh phenomena for followers of Villalba. Classic chassis, like the masks, seem to harken back to his childhood in Southern California. Car culture is not an exclusively West Coast phenomena, of course, but it’s an association as strong as yellow cabs are to the streets of Manhattan. Memory is a strange phenomena. Some things come back to us, just as others fade away. Villalba has a knack for consistently holding the viewer’s attention with both what he chooses to paint and how he layers individual elements into a compelling whole. The viewer's eyes will weigh how he loads the brush and lays down a grid of experience. We travel along, following a map of the artist’s mind. Tripping into either realm is an intriguing place to linger. —Tamsin Smith
Emilio Villalba is a Mexican-American painter living in San Francisco. Born in Chula Vista and raised in Southern California, he grew up interested in drawing and art. He created a career in Los Angeles as a visual effects artist where he animated television commercials and film. After 2 years in the industry, he left for San Francisco to study fine art. He’s now focused on exploring painting figuratively, pulling inspiration from both old masters and contemporary artists— from Velazaquez to Alice Neel and Basquiat.