Art | Artist Steven Vasquez Lopez
Interview with the SF Artist
San Francisco–based artist Steven Vasquez Lopez is no stranger to hardship. His mother, a seamstress who crossed the border seeking a better life, and his father, a welder/mechanic and first-generation Mexican-American, taught him the importance of hard work, family, and rising above diversity at an early age. Both of them helped build a foundation of perseverance, and Lopez’s work—intricate and delicate—shows the results of this inspiring upbringing.
“My mom has been sewing since the age of about 13. It’s inspiring for me to think about her story and how she decided to start working so young in order to earn her own money. She was seeking independence at an early age. When I think back, the conditions of these sewing factories could not have been great and most likely many were not legal or regulated. I’m fascinated with the conditions people, specifically immigrants, will endure for low-wage jobs in order to changes their lives and get to the U.S., only to be treated like second-class citizens or, even worse, forced to leave. How crazy to spend most of life working hard, doing jobs most American’s won’t do, and to hopefully get to a better place.“
With his pursuit of a career in arts, he followed that same discipline, determined to make a name for himself. After high school, Lopez became the first of his family to attend four-year university, UC Santa Barbara, where he played hard, yes, but also studied hard. “I started out as a business economics major and changed to studio art during my sophomore year. That’s when I really started to understand contemporary art and the conceptual side to art-making, largely influenced by artists like Lari Pittman, Jane Callister, Félix González-Torres, Philip Argent, to name a few. My senior show for the honors program consisted of large, hard-edge acrylic paintings on wooden doors from Home Depot that explored the circle of life and death.”
From there, he kept pushing toward his goal and worked as a program assistant for a creative and performing arts fellowship program in UC Riverside. “I’ve been lucky to keep myself within the arts and surrounded by artists. I chose the San Francisco Art Institute for my MFA because of its amazing history, reputable faculty, and the city—I love SF! Also, my uncle Gustavo Vasquez is a filmmaker and attended the undergraduate program years ago. SFAI both transformed me through its rigorous critiques and helped me develop my work technically and conceptually. I really learned to question everything about my process, ideas, materials, etc. I abandoned painting for the first year of grad school and just worked on conceptual ideas with JD Beltran, Keith Boadwee, Jeremy Morgan, John Priola, and Amy Ellingson. After I had fleshed out most of my ideas, I attacked painting and drawing again and received the Murphy and Cadogan Award from the San Francisco Arts Commission.”
Since then, Steven has received high acclaim from art critics, continues to produce works that inspire artists and collectors alike, and has a number of shows scheduled for the year in prestigious galleries throughout California.
When did you start making art in your current style, and how did it evolve?
Two years ago, I started the series Some Strings Attached and Shelf Life. Both are based on plaids and textiles. Some Strings Attached are drawings made with Micron ink pens on paper and are more abstract textiles that have moments of unraveling. I was working on laborious paintings and needed a faster process to hash out new ideas. I started to take a sketchbook with me while traveling for work, and this is when the series evolved. I started to merge my obsession with precision drawing and intuitive disruption of that, which is the unraveling portion. I hand-draw each line or “thread” and create a plaid pattern. It’s all math, and I have to just count in my head the pattern while placing each colored line onto the page one at a time. I love this process. It’s meticulous and laborious. Each drawing is different from one to the next; I only approach them with limited guidelines.
Patterns, patterns, patterns. What symbolism or statement are you revealing through your work? Clearly, I’m obsessed with plaids. I own a lot of plaid clothing: dress shirts, shorts, pants, bow ties, and scarfs. I like the idea that each plaid is a different uniform of its tribe. The very first plaid appeared in a painting called “A New American Folklore, 2008,” and I used “Plaid 75” from the uniforms of the Catholic school I attended. The later works of plaid come from my clothing, and many I’ve started to just invent and design myself.
Plaid has a big history in many cultures and religion. My plaids are appropriated as a way to call attention to the various sources of information that are a recipe for who we are. I love the tedious and meticulous process of making the work. I’m constantly challenging myself to make it more complicated, bigger, and take longer. It comes from my family history of hardworking people. I want to feel like a machine, that place when you’re making work and you just go on autopilot for hours.
How does your sexuality and cultural background play a part in your art?
That’s a good question. And as cliché as it may sound, my work feels like I’m standing naked in front of people. It’s invasive and exposes many layers of my life. It’s not as obvious as my early works that included the figure and appropriations of adult gay magazines, particularly muscle bears and pretty boys. I guess because the work is an investigation in my identity through pattern and color, it inevitably comments on my life as a gay man.
The structure, architecture, and geometry of the work hints at my sense of masculinity, while the vibrant color palette is my more flamboyant and playful side. I like to believe it’s a more sophisticated display of sexuality. Don’t get me wrong; I certainly have a crude and raunchy side to my lifestyle, but I’ll save the obvious for another time. There are a couple tongue-in-cheek moments in the work that at a second glance is much more obvious and sexual. It’s hard not to look at bananas and think of an erection.
You’ll also notice there are some close similarities in the color choice that exists in serapes, an authentic Mexican blanket. I grew up with these in the house on the kitchen table. I also think this obsession with textiles come from my childhood sitting next to my mom while she would sew. I’ve always had a close connection with my mom and have been able to talk to her about everything in my life. She’s honest, real, and understanding. We have the best conversations in her sewing area. It’s where I get my dose of therapy and advice. So, fabrics visually make me feel good and comfortable, take me back that place. Although my work is about me and my identity, it’s a bit of tribute to my family.
I hope the art community finds the work important and refreshing. It’s a voice that I don’t believe has had a larger platform yet. I’m an educated, gay Latino artist who has a story to tell and wants to be a part of the conversation in the contemporary art world. I think the art community wants to see work that exposes who we are, asks questions, and has a point of view.
What impact do you intend your work to have?
I hope to inspire people that hard work and real honest soul searching pays off and is fulfilling. As a young kid, I absorbed pop culture like a sponge, and it can be a very dangerous and influential part of growing up. Today, we see young kids trying to be celebrities based off no talent and full of entitlement. Where did my generation lose its motivation and passion to be curious? I’m proud of how far I’ve come, the labor involved in my studio practice, and the ideas within my artwork. It’s an honest depiction of where I’m at in my life.
I also hope that the spectrum of both gay and Latino artists expands beyond homoerotic images or graffiti and murals to discuss these two points of identity. It’s much more complex than that, and there are many contributing layers to shaping who we are.
UPCOMING SHOW ACCIDENTAL MOMENTS SOLO SHOW AT CES CONTEMPORARY April 5–May 6, 2014 Opening: Saturday, April 5, 2014 cescontemporary.com/portfolio/accidental-moments