Saturday, August 10, 2013

The Oddball at Station: A Talk with Angel Quesada

Virginia Billeaud Anderson

He began with an apology for his “rambling mess of thoughts,” but a rambling mess of thoughts I reminded Angel Quesada can wield a considerable mess of information. Quesada is one of twenty-one graffiti and mural artists exhibiting in Station Museum’s Call it Street Art, Call it Fine Art, Call it What You Know, and after seeing his mural I contacted him to ask a few questions.

Station chose the artists it said because their works are recognized in public spaces across Houston, and reflect “the politics of claiming access to the city environment.” I’m unsure why, but those words brought memory of our Montrose home’s spray-paint defacement by a young artist who according to a witness entered our property accompanied by his mother. It was painful to watch my husband pressure-wash the brick, and would have been comforting to think artists distinguish between public and private spaces when “claiming access.” Inevitably nothing will lessen the sadness I feel in Rome when encountering lovely stone facades assaulted with paint.

The murals at Station are astonishing. Although some might find the incessant political chatter a bit tiresome, form is finely rendered and colors are exhilarating. Overall, one is overwhelmed by the artistic skill, and by the unbridled energy that enlivens the museum’s interior.

Angel Quesada, Aura Rising, 2013, Acrylic, Latex and Aerosol, Approximately 12’ x 12’. Photo by Alex Barber

Virginia Billeaud Anderson: Open to alternative realities, I’m stopped in my tracks when I detect metaphysical leanings in contemporary art, and here you are entitling your Station mural Aura Rising. In your philosophy, what are auras? Metaphysicians imagine them as ectoplasmic emanations that signal our incorporeal essence and have colors that can be detected by the psychically adept. Do you actually see auras? Tell me what you believe about that.

Angel Quesada: My background as a musician, Martial Artist (Tai Chi) and Feldenkrais Method student has informed my image creation and is part of my mental toolbox. My ultimate goal is to unite the various facets of my world experiences. My interest in color stems from numerous sources: anthropology, traditional music, and physical movement. As per your question about auras, I think all living things emanate an energy field. Some call this a "vibe" which I understand to be a frequency that most sentient beings can perceive on some level. It’s interesting to ponder the idea of an artwork imbued with an aura. What immediately comes to mind is the Mona Lisa, an example of a non-machined, hand-made artwork holds power that interacts with the gaze of the viewer. It exists in its own space on the earth-shared space for all to see and to become lost in its narrative. I think that pop-art has helped devalue the aura of art; it echoes mass production, designed and replication by machines. Why produce another copy of what a machine can make? Why deny the hand of the artist? I see art as the first kernel that nowadays sparks redundancies and iterations, disseminates a common denominator with less personality. To see an end product, evidence of labor, is exciting and part of my working process.

VBA: In his review of the Station show for Glasstire, Bill Davenport called your mural an “oddball” among the others, and certainly it is different. The critic thought he saw a “multi-mandala,” and mentioned its “floating eyeballs.”

AQ: If Bill Davenport called me an oddball, it’s a huge compliment. "Oddballs and Eyeballs" has a good ring, so maybe I should re-title the work. The museum exhibition impacted my process. I tried to hold fast to the notion that I was creating a work that could live out of doors, but came to appreciate that Station was a good place for a more intimate viewer/participant exchange.

VBA: Your artist statement indicates the mural is a counterpoint to the urban landscape, which you called “a monotonous brown hum punctuated by lame advertisements that prescribe to me the values and products I should desire.” And that its energy and vibrating color combinations you imagine as a totem lifting up spirits. Do you equate the art’s totemic lifting of spirits to a meditative tool? Is your mural meant to facilitate self-knowing and higher knowledge? Station’s curators connected its colorful patterning to spirituality.

AQ: I loved what Jim Harithas posed to museum visitors, it resonated with me. He said Aura Rising was painted by a holy man, and that if you stand facing the painting and allow its vibrations to permeate your body it will heal you from the inside.

In regards to energy, I can only speak to that with which I'm familiar. I know about "CHI", or energy, as cultivated and sensed in the practice of Tai Chi, Feng Shui, Acupuncture, and other such practices. From my study of Tai Chi I learned to not distinguish energy types, rather to perceive the varied qualities of energy.

There are basically two forms of energy that we can integrate, the energy we inherit from our parents (pre-natal) and the energy all around (cosmic chi) which we harness through Tai Chi, Yoga, working out, etc. In our daily lives we experience this "flow" of a contiguous field of energy. It activates our pleasure centers as we become united with it and enjoy our lives. Energy "flow" is also experienced through art, work, love, sex, music, drugs, and exercise. All of these realities are valid in the worlds of creativity! I believe the psychically adept are more sensitive to nature, thus interested in these perhaps archaic but essential traditions which are found in many forms of geomancy.

My initial exhibition proposal imagined a political narrative in the form of a great big head. In its current state it acts as an exorcism of the monotonous grey outside of doors, and inside our minds. Station’s wall called for something different than my initial plan, so the head turned into a sun, which, in three stages rising also references the earth, the human plane and the ethers of the universe (or the place God begins). The eyes are remnants of the head I proposed to the museum. Aura Rising was indeed a meditation. It was created as a social painting. It is a wild animal that would lives in the concrete jungle. Aura Rising received its name towards the end. It is like a poem about science, movement and the body, a sutra or talisman to affect the energy pattern that surrounds us. Like a Totem meant to ward off evil intellect and its trappings, the work celebrates color and fights against a quick read.

VBA: If the head evolved into a sun, which in three stages rising references the earth, the human plane and the ethers of the universe, it seems Davenport misinterpreted the “multi-mandala,” but perhaps he wasn’t entirely in error about Hindu iconographic inflections in your art. I saw in your portfolio a painting of the god Shiva with the lotus flowers that symbolize letting go of worldly desires. Indeed you state in your biographical material, “I accessed all of Asia.” Davenport undoubtedly appreciated the connection between the sun and the mandala which in Hindu Vedanta philosophy is a meditative tool. The eyeball motif holds meaning for devout Hindus, who when praying at Banaras direct their prayers to the sun and call it an eyeball in their prayer. Hindus believe that one who dies in Banaras breaks the bondage of death and rebirth and is transported immediately to the side of Shiva in paradise. For followers of Buddha, the mandala symbolizes the cosmos and enlightenment, and the Buddha preached his Noble Truths at Banaras.

AQ: It was very cool to see the work from my day job at the Houston Arts Alliance’s Folklife and Traditional Arts Program surface in the imagery at Station. While painting Aura Rising I was designing an exhibition called Anointed and Adorned: Indian Weddings in Houston that included Rangoli art, so it’s natural that influenced my hand. I'm interested in artworks which allude to the phenomenon of energy, and the concept that Gods and their pantheons have always been ways to incarnate different qualities of energy pervades the Hindu religion. You referenced the Trimurthy (Shiva), which was commissioned for a Hindu temple in Austin, and resided there for over fifteen years. Upon my return to Texas after 12 years of being away a friend informed me its stretcher bars had warped and it was about to be disposed of. Worshippers believed the canvas became distorted because the god residing in the oil painting had left! I promptly collected the painting and fixed the stretcher and now it is at a friend's home in Austin. Interestingly, while painting it I was not allowed to eat meat, nor allow a menstruating woman to come into the studio.

VBA: Do you work with a preliminary design or sketch? Your materials are acrylic, latex and aerosol. Was any brushwork involved? Describe the process.

AQ: I begin painting without an initial sketch, working freestyle with a basic mental narrative and respond to the color in front of me. I try to work quickly, intensely and then walk away, and go do something else, which is important to keep a fresh perspective. It’s necessary to shift gears to sense what is coming out of me and remain cognizant of what color is referencing, some references are retained - many discarded. Example, I pair colors symbolically and according to color theory, such as EARTH: green, copper, brown, blue, purple; SOCIAL: orange, red, yellow, green, magenta; HEAVEN: yellow, beige, gold. I do not incorporate black into the design so the colors will remain pure and unfettered. I did use black and white for the "eyeball" motif as well as 20 colors to make the work impactful and visceral. When painting I meditate on patterns of line and color that are beyond the design, which might be perplexing, but it’s important to allow for the painting's aura to disrupt the rational.

I am physical when I paint, and enjoy the scale that requires me to move my entire body, and I’m unconcerned with rendering a perfectly clean line. What’s important is that the energy is clear. Symmetry, guides, but I’m not tied to it. And I restrict myself to basic marks: circles, zig-zags, wavy lines, arcs, dots, interlocking s-shapes, all within the constructs of the mural tradition of Adolfo Best-Maugard. When painting I integrate Tai Chi practices into the mark-making.

VBA: One difference between you and the other muralists at Station is that you have been formally trained. Time spent at university art schools makes you an exception to the museum’s curatorial assertion that the exhibiting artists “mastered an art that lies outside the academic and commercial tradition of fine art.” Say something about going from academic training to making murals/street art in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Austin and Houston.

AQ: To be honest I don't have any degrees and, pointedly, art schools don't really teach much to students. I learned mostly from being in the company of great artists and minds. My interest led me to attend 5 different art schools and read the hell out of artist books, which is where I got most of my education. Art school only buys you time to make work and build relationships. My interests are too numerous to simply go the path of Art School, Graduate Degree, Gallery Representation, Teaching . . . I am happy doing art that I enjoy although I do wish I had a bit more time to pursue other opportunities related to visual and performing arts, such as audio-music, composition, performing; production- theatre, curatorial projects, exhibition design, marketing, visual- murals, printmaking, fashion; Healing Arts- Martial Arts, Yoga, meditation; as well as opportunities to connect to different cultural groups by way of these methods. Many twisted paths brought me to this point, made me who I am today.

VBA: Another thing that makes you an oddball at Station is the fact that your mural lacks content. Where Daniel Anguilu mixed abstraction with stylized architectural and pre-Colombian flavored animal motifs to defend “all humans who have left their homeland and are now labeled illegal,” and Michael C. Rodriquez chronicled the killing of Iraqi children by drones, and Lee Washington’s expertly devised portrait of Hugo Chavez voices doubt the Venezuelan died of natural causes, and another mural references the Sandy Hook school massacre, another the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, and so on including cartoony skull head figures with grenades and tanks, Aura Rising is devoid of political and social commentary.

AQ: I believe a "spiritual" work such as Aura Rising is highly political in a street context. It is art that stirs nothing that I consider not to be political.

While I respect my contemporaries’ choice of creating politically charged work and their immense talent in doing so, political art can be somewhat predictable, causing the message to get lost. I wanted to create something timeless using a language to which anyone could relate. I've been making art for over 25 years and am uninterested in trying to get people to listen to what I think is right, so I simply paint what excites me.

VBA: Yet your initial mural design was narrative.

AQ: In keeping with Station’s mission of providing a platform for political dialogue, I thought I would address a reality close to home. In Laredo and Eagle Pass where I am from, there are atrocities perpetrated in order to communicate with the powers that be. My first sketch summoned the beaches of Acapulco where about two years ago decapitated head were washing ashore. The design was a seascape in which heads are dwarfed by an ominous body of water, a dark abyss. That felt a bit forced so I devised just one head in a colorful style to make a beautiful dark joke about our love of violence. My sketch for it is actually behind Cecil's Pub on West Gray.

VBA: The Mexican mural painting tradition, stylistic elements of which you previously mentioned, is inherently political. It was unsurprising to see Station’s gallery notes cite the early-twenties muralists Orozco, Siqueiros, and Rivera, call them “revolutionary,” and by implication link them to the exhibiting artists. Orozco believed art was at the service of the worker. Rufino Tamayo seemed to recognize proper Marxists in his backward look at the muralists who “wore overalls and mounted the scaffoldings.” Station has in the past exhibited muralists from Mexico who were grounded in this history. In 2008 I mentioned in an article the ASARO collective (Assembly of Revolutionary Artists of Oaxaca), which during the Oaxaca citizens’ uprising created murals to inspire resistance to government forces specifically with barricade erections and by commandeering radio stations. Do you consider yourself part of that tradition?

AQ: I’m linked to it stylistically. It is possible Jim and Alan saw the piece I did at Lawndale last year which had stylistic affinities to the plein air school of mark making found throughout Mexico. Its stylistic components were formalized by the early century artist Adolfo Best-Maugard who in his role as "Minister of Drawing" brought visual art to pueblos and remote areas for nationalistic purposes. He elaborated seven basic marks that identify Mexican artisan creations, and he was extremely important in shaping the evolution of Mexican art at the beginning of the century. Diego Rivera did a portrait of him.

VBA: Station’s exhibition title seems to acknowledge confusion or blurriness between graffiti, street art and murals, and I gather from our talk Angel you are uneasily reconciled with your “street art” being inside the museum.

AQ: In my imagination I created the mural with the intention of it being outside as a slight to the landscape, to charge empty blights of lame uninspired or forgotten buildings. The notion that it is actually living inside the walls of a Museum cannot be denied, but the fact is Street art minus the street is just art. Nevertheless the street and the energy are there at Station, the aliveness of youth is there. The fact that Station endorsed us is extremely important. That is revolutionary and I am proud.

Many of the themes in the exhibition were graffiti inspired, that is, what one would expect to find from a long evolution of "writing". The law is what deems it "graffiti", and that is of course illegal. Many of the artists in the exhibition came out of this street-culture, they learned to ply their skills as a way of staking out a piece of real estate, this type of mark-making comes from deep within. An urge to "write" graffiti is simply uninhibited. I believe it becomes a badge of pride. On the streets it's a way to get respect from peers in an otherwise non-academic context, with graphic source material being comic books or consumer-based advertising, i.e. magazines, etc and is honed through efficient technique. The walls at the museum had very little pure graffiti and the notion of street art has, in my opinion evolved beyond what we all assume to be street art.

I was arrested for painting on public property in 2009 and that is now on my record. It was deemed graffiti by the letter of the law. What I have always been interested in is the environment of art. Where does it exist and who gets to see it? Outside versus inside!

VBA: Body movement and sound are extremely important to your art, which aligns you with the pioneers of graffiti art who decidedly crossed mediums – the early graffiti artists were musicians, dancers and performance artists. Take as an over-used example Basquiat, who made films, co-founded a rock band, performed in music videos, and served as a producer for hip-hop records, activities which paralleled his graffiti writing, signing and painting. You express yourself through martial arts and theater, and appear to be equally dedicated to both. So important an aspect of your art is this extra dimension, I’m inclined to feel as if the fact that it cannot be adequately covered in a short article does you a disservice, but this is Pan, not a book.

AQ: When I paint I combine my movements into the painting – thirteen years of Tai Chi go into the mark making. My interest in color relates as much to sound as to body movements. I believe that the frequency of sound corresponds to color, and that by pairing certain colors a third harmonic can be achieved. To keep the purity of the color and to leave the frequency in place, I made it a point in the mural to not use any black (except in the "iris"). This intensifies the viewer’s experience. One can look at the painting closely or from afar, it is two different works. I tried to imagine seeing the work from a passing car on some abandoned wall yet up close you see the aspects of a meditation. I wanted the viewer to see traces of the human hand that created it.


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