Sebas Velasco: Beauty in the Bleak
Working from his own reference photographs is crucial in the creative process of Spanish artist Sebas Velasco as he seeks to immortalize the unseen and intangible. Focused on capturing the atmosphere of a particular place, usually Central or Eastern European suburban environments, Velasco portrays the beauty of banal, sometimes grimy places. Using his painterly technique and masterly expressive brushwork, Velasco extracts the ambience, taking it to a large wall or canvas, and with an eye trained to observe light contrasts and reflections, he captures Jarmusch-like imagery in diametrically opposed settings. Preserving an authentic feeling of place, his murals and oils document identity before the grasping hand of globalization stamps its inevitable imprint.
Sasha Bogojev: What draws you towards portraying urban night settings?
Sebas Velasco: Several things, but I guess one has to do with a primary attraction towards the night atmospheres and how powerful the electric lights explode in the darkness, like sort of an island of protection. At the same time, this feeling is pretty ambiguous, because there is still a lot of solitude in these sort of images. I have memories of when I was a kid, in the car, going somewhere with my parents. I felt a lot of interest and attraction to the lighted and colorful signs of gas stations and roadside night clubs along the highway. I also enjoy the sight of buildings with different illuminations or dark windows. It feels like they give us a mosaic of different stories going on inside each room.
How much time and effort do you put into getting the reference photos you use in your work?
I do enjoy having a good reference picture. I don’t have much technical knowledge of photography, so I have to look more into that. What I normally do is take a lot of photos, so a few of them from the same session are usually good. At the same time, the bad, accidental and rough ones will sometimes have elements that lend themselves to a painting. I occasionally even make trips or smaller excursions around to take these pictures. Also, if I paint in a foreign country, I always photograph a lot.
What is the idea behind including characters in your work, especially the murals?
Partly it's because I love the portrait as a pictorial discipline, and in murals, the portrait has a strong communication with the viewer. I'm usually looking for individuals with certain physical attributes that make them more suitable for painting. If I'm lucky, I might also find a story or background of the person that interests me as well.
There are a lot of architectural elements in your work, too.
On one hand, that’s because of its capacity to reflect society and political changes. The socialist urban development in Eastern European cities interests me, especially. On the other hand, I feel sensorial reasons and strong feelings when looking towards those big block housing complexes. I think this attraction appeared a long time ago. I remember when I was very small, that the parts of my hometown with “big” buildings called my attention a lot, especially this one neighborhood that had some kind of outside corridors that joined different blocks. Also, sometimes I think that painting buildings as background when collaborating with my graffiti friends is also related to this obsession. But when I started portraying them is when I began to investigate more. I guess some artists are interested in talking about certain themes so they pick the most accurate media to tackle them. In my case, it's a bit the other way—through painting, I'm trying to understand better what I am dealing with.
What is it about football fan culture that attracts you?
Well, I love both to watch and play, although I'm shit at it, so I guess it comes from there. I see it as an international language which allows you to play or initiate conversations with people all over the world. I admire the people who call for a different way of consuming football, taking it away from the big business and trying to get it back closer to its social origins. Also, I’m intrigued by the people who make connections between culture and football. When I was studying fine arts, it was even kind of frowned upon to like football. However, in the graffiti or mural art scene, people seem more open about it. Actually, we are discussing the possibility of organizing some kind of “wall painting and playing football” project together with some international muralist friends.
You travel frequently with the purpose to take reference photos. What are some of the places you enjoyed, and how do they compare?
I've taken a lot photos in central and eastern European countries like Poland, Ukraine or former Yugoslavian republics. I find those particular places inspiring, and, as I was pointing out, it is very interesting to check the traces of the socialist past and the fast transition towards market society through architecture and urbanization. Actually, I remember when going to the arcades as a kid to play a football video game, I would always choose Yugoslavia as my country. I had no idea about anything, but the name was very cool. I find this entire region especially interesting when comparing these places with Western world. Take the neon signs as an example. I find it fascinating how they had a strong presence in the socialist Poland, but with different purpose and aesthetic than in the west.
You've recently worked on a unique project about Sarajevo. Tell us more about it.
Yeah, I've worked on a book called Na ovom mjestu, which means “On this place”. It all began with a painting I did inspired by the view from the apartment of my good friend in Sarajevo. We found out later that some tragic events happened at that same place. My friend wrote a great text which accompanied the painting when it was exhibited in a group show. We both enjoyed this connection and decided to create a book consisting of paintings of mine and texts and poems by both Bosnian and Spanish artists, all of it inspired by Sarajevo.
How did it feel for you to portray a place with such recent tragic history?
From the artistic or aesthetic point of view, I reckon that I am more interested in Sarajevo as a post-socialist city rather than as a post-war one. On the personal side, however, I try to read and listen as much as possible. It feels sad and incomprehensible how this place ended up in such a terrible situation during the Yugoslav secession wars.
Are you trying to pass on a message or tell a certain story with your work, and if so, how do you pick which side of the story to tell?
No, I don't have specific messages or stories in my paintings. Sometimes there are signs which can lead to some thoughts or interpretations, but I like the images to be open for interpretation. For instance, I might have some preference to represent places that are not the usual center of attention, such as the outskirts of the city. On a bigger scale, this probably connects to my preference to represent eastern European cities, isolated from the main economic powers in Europe. Actually, this might even match with the spirit of some of the portraits, too.
How do those Eastern European night settings compare with Hopper or Jarmusch aesthetics, which I remember you having referenced in the past?
I was reading an article about Jim Jarmusch which speaks about “American insomnia," all these kind of solitary isolated spaces, inhabited by sleepless outsiders. In Hopper's paintings, this concept could be presented in opposition to the “American Dream” or the “American way of life”. Anyway, I feel that this attractive night aesthetic of bleakness is something very American. I find it interesting to notice the number of these sort of spaces when you travel to the central-east European region, something I don’t find that easily in Spain. I can think of two possible explanations for this parallelism: one is that maybe both capitalist and socialist systems shared the same way of exploiting the territory and its resources, thus producing the same type of adjacent lonely areas, and the other has to do more with the fast way in which market society takes over the post socialist city.
Do you have a preference between murals and studio works, and if so, why?
I don’t know. In the studio is where I spend most of my time. This is where I have more space for deeper experimentation and riskier paths. In San Sebastián, I have the luck of sharing the place with other good artists and friends, so that makes the experience even nicer. On walls, you have more technical and time limitations, and also they are exposed for everyone to see. The canvases are seen only by the ones who choose to do so. It sounds contradictory, but even if it feels limiting that the walls are exposed to everyone, that is also their advantage because of the capability to reach people.
Which artists would you name as being influential for your artistic development?
Antonio López García is someone that I think has been pretty influential for my work. Going a bit back in time, there is this period at the beginning of the twentieth century with all these “fresh realistic” painters, like Ilya Repin, Anders Zorn or Joaquín Sorolla, to name a few, and you can also go back to the old masters, like Goya and before Rembrandt or Velazquez. I also enjoy other painting styles which are different from the type of thing I do, and a lot of other stuff besides painting itself.
Coming from a strong, painterly background, how do you feel about the fact that it was the murals that put your name out there?
I'm not sure. When I think about an artist that I like, I think about their work as a whole. So I would prefer that it be the same for me.