Interview: Jason Villegas
Ed. Note: I’m pleased as peaches to present the following feature on artist Jason Villegas and his magnificent multi-dimensional artwork. Below you’ll find an insightful interview by Dan Rosplock, alongside exclusive portraits shot by Landon Metz. Don’t miss our unprecedented giveaway of Jason’s original art piece!! – Graham
Like energy and matter, meaning cannot be destroyed, only redistributed. The symbols in Jason Villegas’s artworks are the children of complacent capitalist icons born into an unpredictable environment. As such, they retain something of the glamorous impact of their forebears, yet their uncertain future has forced them to become more versatile. These are cyborgs, war machines, strange hybrids and channelers of mystical energy suited for survival in any scenario. Villegas is one of those rare creative personalities who seems to be able to reform any cultural construct or market force no matter how concrete or abstract into something more resilient, useful, and, above all, beautiful. He recently took some time to talk to us about such diverse topics as globalism, mainstream Bear aesthetics, and how he came to be a master seamster.
How did you first learn to sew and work with textiles? Have these skills evolved as you’ve applied them to your art?
I taught myself to hand sew, which is what I did (along with hot glue) to create my first fabric works. I guess it came from my interest in thrift store shopping and an interest in personal fashion style. In high school, I shopped for second hand clothes and would alter and add on to things– so it was natural that it made its way into my artwork once I started making sculpture as an undergrad at the University of Houston. I actually learned how to machine sew when I worked for Anthropologie in Houston doing displays. So yes, the use of fabric has evolved in complexity and skill and now if I glue I use fabric glue. It was sad to hang up the hot glue gun, but I had to grow up eventually.
One of the awesome things about your work is that it doesn’t treat symbols like lifeless things with fixed meanings, but as entities that travel, serve a variety of purposes, produce waste, and sometimes give birth to mutant offspring. What kind of process do you go through trying to capture this constant flux in a physical form?
I like to think of the motifs I use as biological entities functioning on micro and macro levels. I love the idea of evolution through time and the crazy amount of variations that are produced. I try to imagine that my cast of characters and symbols function in a similar way, so each time I make a new body or series it’s another variant or mutation of the previous image. I watch a lot of David Attenborough!
Cartoon crocodiles, foxes, and tigers: you’ve given back these domesticated status symbols a bit of their feral nature and released them into the wild. Where has your work been exhibited and where does it end up? How have different contexts altered its form or meaning?
I’ve been fortunate enough to have shown at many art venues, from D.I.Y. shows to world class museums, often creating site specific installations and murals. Much of the installation work is temporary, so I always have planned a certain amount of instant energy that will later become trash. I’ve been very interested in using found and repurposed materials to create my art, so now that everything is going green I am happy that my work is in the same vein. Sometimes people find it odd that I put so much work into installations that are destroyed, but I enjoy the poetic death of the works that mimic reality’s truth that nothing lasts forever and that value and time are abstract concepts.
You have a series of missed connections-ish sketches of cute guys who have been “branded” by both their consumer identities coupled with a kind of “bear” aesthetic, as well as some that seem to have been partially absorbed by iconography and turned into a human/symbol hybrid. Do you think since queers have officially been accepted as a legitimate market demographic the development of our identity has been increasingly defined by these physical markers and material things?
I think that queers have come along way since the clones of the 70′s and 80′s and now there are a wide variety of subcultural groups within. However, whether accepted or not, I think it’s just human nature to want to fit in to some kind of human grouping. Advertisers will always be able to hone in and attack the right pocket books. Gays have a lot of money to spend on things other than children, so we are prime targets.
I come from Houston and always longed for a young “bearish” and culturally hip crew. Back home it’s all about woof and leather vests and guys who use “bear ” as an excuse to eat themselves to death. So it was refreshing to go to a bar like Nowhere in NYC and see a whole bar full of guys I thought of as “like me”. But a few years later I find that I have lost all interest in developing my previous notions of the perfect gay life. Behind the black framed glasses and expensive designer t-shirts, cool bears are just as trapped by their beards and bellies as the boring redneck bears in TX. I try to stay off the grid and I never have money to spend so I am a good candidate for an outsider perspective on material worth defining one’s existence. On a different note it does piss me off that the porn industry uses the “bear” term to sell movies of buff hairy guys. Hello! bears are chubby, I don’t care what your XXX box says! Thanks for letting me get that off my chubby hairy chest!
Since logos are pretty much the only trademark-able aspect of fashion, they tend to be pretty closely guarded by both companies and their devotees. Plenty of artists have been sued and even thrown out of exhibitions for using them without consent. Have you ever gotten in trouble, official or otherwise, for messing with these “sacred” symbols or is the integrity of these brands a lot more vulnerable than people think?
I have never gotten in any trouble for appropriating the animal logos…I think some are out of business so they are no threat, but I do always wonder if Lacoste or Le Tigre got wind of my work, would they care? I am actually looking forward to such an event, maybe I will become really well known if I get sued by Lacoste or maybe they would hire me to create a new series like Murakami.
My dream would be to make a functioning Lacoste Tank to roll down the streets of Beverly Hills or Madison Avenue. I have a love-hate relationship with fashion and am as interested and intrigued as I am horrified and saddened. It’s all so complex, with all the levels of humans it effects from Globalism and sweatshops to trust fund girls with eating disorders.
LaCoste, Le Tigre, and Louis Vuitton are some of the most frequently recurring symbols in your work. Have these brands in particular had any special significance in your life?
I use the Louis Vuitton in reverse as it creates my initials JV. It was the perfect symbol appropriation as it serves as super knock-off branding as well as an ode to Murakami and his involvement with LV and his furthering the blurred lines of commercial and fine art. The animal logos I use all follow the design of the Lacoste Crocodile, I am obsessed with these little animal appliques and how a mass produced ball of thread makes an animal symbol that increases the worth of basic clothing such as the polo. A polo without an applique costs $10… one with an applique $70. I enjoy playing with concepts of worth and value systems. I will admit the croc is cool, but I would never buy the expensive brand, although I do go into the shops as I am drawn to their aesthetic… enough to even get a black Lacoste tattoo on my arm. But mine has blood dripping from it’s mouth– I hope they will make that one day!
There’s an aggressive, almost militaristic undercurrent to some of your pieces which is nicely offset by a kind of intensely personal, almost cultish spirituality in others. Does this mean that you’re still somewhat optimistic about where the religion of capitalism might take us?
I actually don’t feel that optimistic about our current culture of consumption, which is why I guess I am obsessed by it’s horrific and absurd mechanisms. Yet, I don’t feel that it is my place to judge or object. My work is more a twisted mirror reflecting the patterns of capitalism and comparing that with natural mechanisms of consumption. I guess I feel our self-destruction is a natural process possibly to get rid of something that’s not working to make way for a new paradigm. I can’t help getting wrapped up in the doomsday predictions of 2012, I suppose due to my Christian upbringing which teetered on evangelism. So my parodies of spiritual iconography stem from that brainwash, but also as humorous and beautiful reflections of primitive understandings of God. Since God and War go hand and hand, I like the juxtaposition of war machinery with spiritual compositions.
Who have been your major inspirations?
I think my biggest inspiration is the work that comes out of Hayao Miyazaki’s Studio Ghibli… pre-Disney, that is. I love the complex simplicity of Japanese animation and grew up with shows like Thundercats and Voltron fueling my interest in animal hybrids and futuristic machinery. As far as fine art, I also like cartoonish works like those of Takashi Murakami, Claus Oldenberg, Richard Coleman, and Trenton Doyle Hancock. I also cannot ignore the early influences of works with commercial aspects like those of Andy Warhol and Jeff Koons.
What projects are you currently working on?
My newest series is using my cast of animals to create a 6-headed totem pole. I am creating a wide variety of these totems from 2D to 3D in many materials including an outdoor piece as part of the Socrates Sculpture Park Emerging Artist Fellowship. I hope to complete a dizzying amount to fill a space to create a bizarre forest of totem poles. I want to be scared sacred!