Symbols of Death, Signs of Life: A Review of New Works by Emilio Villalba
Emilio Villalba @ Modern Eden Gallery
by Matt Gonzalez
At first glance, Emilio Villalba’s new paintings at Modern Eden Gallery seem to be a departure from the dramatic portrait work he has become known for. Thickly-painted black backgrounds overlaid with rich brushwork rendering distorted facial features, has given way to what looks like a less formal endeavor. Now, Villalba prefers a sparse array of subject matter strewn about the canvas, mostly objects from his day to day life as a painter, presented against a white background (in most cases), with many bottom-weighted, with a heavy block of white space, made to evoke a vintage polaroid photograph. While the scale may have shifted to depicting miniature portraits, and thereafter the addition of partial figures and objects, the painterly brushwork is still evident, assuring us that Villalba’s loyalty to painting remains unwavering despite his more minimalist and less populated canvases.
The work can be described as falling somewhere between an interior landscape and still-life, but still-life in a reductivist sense. Narratives are gleaned by studying the objects in the stripped-down compositions. In some cases, untethered vertical or diagonal hard-edged lines hint at architectural interior structures and wall divisions to evoke an apartment’s compartmentalization. It also serves as demarcation for perspective and various vanishing points.
Thereafter Villalba scatters the composition-field with mostly personal objects. He’s playing as a semiotician, telling the story of his domestic life and personal relationships through various symbols, which once placed in the painting, work as signs evoking the vicissitudes of life.
The semiotics employed by Villalba work in opposition to Jacques Derrida’s famous quip that “there is nothing outside the text”, thus repudiating the limits of any closed loop references. Villalba allows the painting-text to speak, but in choosing personal signifiers, such as the small Pomeranian (named “Bear”) he shares with his partner, photographer Michelle Fernandez, or the Kit-Cat Klock that hangs on their apartment wall, or artist monographs from his own library, Villalba creates personal cipers of meaning.
Some objects reappear. Cigarettes, for instance, abound. But not as nicotine dispensers. Here, they represent a measure of time. It’s a nod to the contemplative act of smoking which, when added up, resembles a prisoner marking the passage of days by drawing stick lines on a cell wall. In some cases, partial prone bodies lay in the composition as if taped-off at a crime scene, tempting us to check for the signs of life: a pulse, some breathing. Are the figures passed out from drinking or sleeping? There are also repeated eyes and red lips in the paintings, as if friends and viewers are themselves subject and simultaneously embedded in the canvas looking at us and participating in the questions posed. The Eye & Lips of Providence peer at us with the knowledge that everything painted is on exhibit. Even the history of painting itself is a theme as Villalba renders miniature paintings within his compositions with the faces of some of his artistic forefathers: Velázquez, Goya, and Manet, all making cameos.
The placement of skulls in various paintings references the vanitas tradition of 17th Century Dutch genre painting where symbols of death were presented in elaborate and lucious still-lifes as a reminder of human mortality. This tradition both emphasized the transience of life and the certainty of death, and also the struggle against the ephemeral existence we inhabit.
Vanitas deriving from the Latin adjective ‘vanus’ meaning ‘empty’. It challenged wealthy patrons who commissioned such paintings to reflect upon the fleeting nature of all things. Villalba’s show’s title Symbols of Death, Signs of Life makes the point directly. And here then is the takeaway Villalba gives us: the very things we celebrate as comprising a full life, that we surround ourselves with, also demonstrates our impermanence. These opposite truths, life and death, actually work in coexistence with evidence of one, being proof of the other.
Villalba further references this dichotomy by painting obsolete technology, such as the original Macintosh desktop computer released in 1984 (ancient by today’s standards, complete with a 3.5” floppy disk drive). But it’s not just that these relics are quaint now, it’s that they are dead. Or are they? Polaroids have made a comeback as has so much of ‘70s culture. 35mm cameras also appear in the paintings, both a nod to this cultural reappearance, and to his partner Fernandez’s own creative activity, posing the question, do these objects only have sentimental interest to us or is their life-span analogous to the trajectory of human lives?
Villalba’s primary use of black, red, and white for the background matrix of the paintings, also mirrors the ancient Maya’s reliance on the same colors (black, red, and cream) for clay slips, which decorated their pottery. It’s a subtle reference to Villalba’s Mexican heritage. There are also Mexican beer cans and bottles, identifiable from the Corona or Tecate labels, appearing in many of the painting scenes, nearly always tipped over as both a jocular reference and one reminding us that awareness of the human condition is closely intertwined with the act of intoxication.
This exciting series will no doubt mature and expand, further establishing Villalba’s stature as a painter worth paying close attention to.
Emilio Villalba’s Symbols of Death, Signs of Life at Modern Eden Gallery (801 Greenwich Street) in San Francisco’s North Beach neighborhood, runs through December 1, 2018.