Interview: Vhils and the Things We Leave Behind
Lisbon, Portugal based artist Vhils has been working around the idea of permanence, and the evolution of urban centers, for over a decade. From street poster collages to literally drilling portraits onto the sides of buildings, he created a conceptual body of work that not only challenges the idea of removal, but creates a visual identity to the city that defies traditional mural characteristics. In a way, he is reminding the viewer of the things that can be eradicated, and that the things we leave behind, physically or emotionally, have a place in the world.
I wrote this description of Vhils' work for a soon to be released catalog, but the descriptions held well and true and he walked me around a preview of his newest exhibition, Annihilation, which is the inaugural show for Hong Kong-based Over the Influence Gallery in their newly minted space in downtown Los Angeles. Much of what Vhils showed me were extraordinary works, based on ideas of permanence in the cities that he has either lived in or worked in, and the unique ways he combines these experiences into canvases, cement pieces, styrofoam works and even new works on old doors that are the standouts of the show. With an impressive cement portrait cut-out as you wander into the gallery's main space, Vhils then unveils a series of large paper works that were created from collaged old billboard printouts and street posters, all joined together and expertly cut out to depict cityscape view of downtown Los Angeles. They are impressive in their sheer size, but also the detail by which the artist has joined found posters from Lisbon, Hong Kong and Los Angeles, repainted them white after turning them into one large canvas, and then cutting out the images to show a cohesive portrait (see below). As someone who has followed Vhils' career quite closely, it is some of his most impressive work to date.
Below is an interview with Vhils we did on the occasion of Annihilation, which runs at Over the Influence, 833 East 3rd Street in Los Angeles from February 23—April 1, 2018.
Evan Pricco: Part of me has always found that your work is at its best in places that are a bit "older," you know? Los Angeles and California in general has a ton of history, and so many different cultures, that it can sort of make up for that "newness" of only having developed infrastructure for about 150 years. What do you particularly like about Los Angeles, because you have a few street pieces that are still here, from West to East actually.
Vhils :I did some research on Los Angeles and how it developed throughout the times for this show and it has a very interesting history. Despite being relatively recent (especially for someone coming from Europe), it has lots of different layers relating to many different cultures, as you pointed out, and this is what I like working with. To me, it's a city of contrasts and tensions, of energy and strength. I've visited quite a few times over the past few years, and every time I'm back here it feels somewhat different and special. Of course, it embodies both the best and the worst features of our present culture, and it is also a city of excess and extremes, but I find that the grittier and more complex a city is, the more interesting it is to work there, as of all these residues leave a unique imprint on its walls. It's precisely this substance that I look for when working in a city, going deep into its formative layers in search of its essence, of its identity.
I asked you this question recently when we talked, but what mediums do you find yourself drawn to most these days?
I'm still drawn to all the mediums I work with, as I like to keep pushing each to its limits, delving deep into its core and viscera. I've been very focused on the work I've been doing with concrete cast sculptures and I've included a few in this exhibition. These are derived from the styrofoam Diorama Series I've been working since 2012 (in the gallery above) but where this is a very delicate material, concrete has that brutalist nature that I really enjoy working with.
How much time are you spending in Hong Kong these days compared to Lisbon, or even just being out on the road?
I've definitely been spending more time in Lisbon this year, whenever I'm not on the road. I still have a small studio in Hong Kong where some new projects are being hatched.
Let's talk Annihilation. Why that name?
The title comes from the reflection I've been developing with my work in recent years on the impact by which the dominant model of development, and the new global culture it has given rise to, are having on the different identities and cultures in the world. It stems from the tensions between local and global realities, the erosion of cultural uniqueness in the face of this overwhelming process of globalization that has opened up a new Pandora's box, the consequences of which we all ignore. This is especially true with regard to the sustainability of this model that has been imposed on a world with limited resources. It seems to me that we're absurdly sacrificing both our own existence, and that of other species, and the planet, for short-term material comfort. Annihilation is all about this destruction of our essence, our identities, and our cultures.
You have worked with Over the Influence in the past in Hong Kong, and now get to kick off their massive new space in Los Angeles. When you do a gallery show, especially in a 7,000 sq foot space, how do you prepare for this? When did you start working on the show?
Prepping for a show involves many stages, from coming up with the original concept, to starting to conceive the type and number of pieces I want to work with, sketching and creating renders, and then getting my production team to get the ball rolling in terms of logistics, setting up a work calendar, spatial planning and design, sourcing materials, scouting locations for walls, etc. For this particular show, the process started roughly one year ago, even if all the while we're still working on other projects. The closer we get to the opening date, we tend to give priority to the show. This is my debut exhibition in LA and California, so I really wanted to get things right and make a good impression. Here, I also have the added honor and responsibility of being the first artist to showcase work in the new Over The Influence gallery.
You are finishing up a mural with Shepard Fairey at the moment. I feel like this is a nice return of favor from the wall he did in Lisbon... you have any other walls you will do in LA this week?
Yes, besides the wall I just finished with Shepard I'm working on two other walls which I'll reveal as soon as they're finished. Shepard is an amazing and unique artist who's been a huge influence. Being able to spend time and work with him first in Lisbon, and now in LA, has been both an enormous pleasure and a huge honor. I'm absolutely stoked with the work we've been able to do together. His dedication and devotion to the movement is unparalleled. His ideas and his activism are both inspiring and vital in the world we live in. He's been one of my main references since I began painting in the streets back in 1999. Besides this, he's simply a great human being. I can't praise him enough.
Again, we've talked about this before, but there is this ghostly quality to your work. There is something about your aesthetic of the "things we leave behind but never forgotten." You are really connected to this aesthetic. Can you perhaps tell us a little bit about why that connection exists?
Perhaps it's because most of my work comes down to a search for a lost essence, something which can be symbolically retrieved from the depths of the material culture that shapes our identity in this day and age. I like to look at this new globalized urban paradigm we're following, and try to reflect about this loss of identity, perhaps even a loss of soul. The result, especially when carved on a wall in a derelict location, can be perceived as somewhat ghostly. It's like I'm releasing these life-imbued images that are trapped in these walls and other materials. I do believe that walls can absorb traces of events that take place around them and these end up adding more layers to their surfaces. To me, art is a means to an end. I use it to try to contribute positively to this chaotic world.
Did you watch the NBA all star game? It was in LA this past weekend...
Not all of it but I managed to catch a few moments. It was interesting, but most people seemed to be focusing mostly on Fergie's rendition of the national anthem. What was that all about?
See more of Vhills work here.
Stay tuned for updated images from the installation in the coming days.