XAVIER LOPEZ JR ~ Interview Exclusive
My friend and fellow artist, Xavier Lopez Jr, is the co-curator of Echo Echo Gallery in Greenwood. He can regularly be found coordinating shows for his own gallery space as well as collaborating with me and other artists to create art events elsewhere including Urban Light Studios, Art/Not Terminal Gallery, and the Piranha Shop. Xavier writes the "Alternative Art Blog" for the Seattle Post Intelligencer, he's been involved with the Monty Pythonesque art group “Predators of the Wild," he paints murals all around town, and his work has been featured in online and printed publications, on magazine covers, as well as in multiple art venues around the Northwest and beyond.
I first met Xavier at Echo Echo in the underground art warren that is the Greenwood Collective. It was February of 2012, and I was still in the process of exploring art neighbourhoods in Seattle outside of Pioneer Square. I'd come to support some friends who had work in the "Sadie Hawkins" show at Home Suite Home, another gallery space in the Collective, and I stumbled upon Echo Echo quite by accident. At first glance, Xavier seemed rather eccentric, dressed all in black with a wild halo of curly hair, gesturing expressively toward a painting hanging behind him—a portrait of a young girl that somehow managed to look simultaneously adorable and creepy. After a few minutes of conversation, I discovered not only that Xavier was the artist behind the painting, but that beneath all of the black was a rare and refreshing depth of kindness, perception and sincerity. After learning that I was an artist as well, he invited me to exhibit at the superhero themed group show ("From Heaven to Hellboy") that he would be curating in July at Urban Light Studios. He had fantastic things to say about the artists and the show at Home Suite Home, and since our first meeting that evening, I have never known Xavier to be anything but positive, helpful, constructive, and supportive towards fellow artists and every element of the art world that he encounters.
Xavier is one of the most unique and creative individuals I've had the pleasure of interacting with in the Seattle art community, and for those of you who do not already know him, I'm happy to introduce him, in his own words, here.
ASS: Every creative mind starts somewhere; when would you say you were first exposed to art and the notion of art making?
XLJ: My dad was part of the Chicano Art Movement in California when I was a kid, and so I kind of grew up with art around me. I was also probably one of the first generations of what would come to be called latch-key kids. I have interviewed lots of artists and many of us, from Weirdo to Solace Wonder, we kind of grew up with TV as our guardians, teachers etc. We watched lots of cartoons and read lots of comics and I personally spent a heck of a lot of time watching old Batman episodes, daydreaming and drawing outside of the margins. But two things were very important to that period—the first was that my parents were kind of crazy, something that wasn’t clear to us kids until much later. The second was that for some reason as a child I could not tell the difference between what was alive and what was non-living. I thought all my action figures were alive and just waiting ‘til I left the room to live their lives and that all my stuffed animals were also living. My dad used to do puppet shows for us kids, where he would take stuffed animals and make them talk to us and look at us, which didn’t help with the confusion—my brother, who is much smarter than I am was never fooled—but I wasn’t so lucky. Add to this a song that we heard that went “You’re nothun’ but a nothun” and I spent much of my formative years confused about what was unreal and what was reality. All of this comes up in my paintings and sculpture, but especially in my performance art.
ASS: Did your perspective shift as you grew up?
XLJ: As an undergrad I had two very important professors, Michael Sarich and Robert Morrison and in many ways they were like two important sides of the mind—the id and the superego. When I started out in the art department, I was an oil painter, but I have also always been a rebel, and my mouth was always getting me into trouble. I remember once I questioned something that Mike said in front of the class and I ended up making him so mad that he would later tell me that if he had had a gun on him at the time that he would have shot me. We later became good friends and he told me that he learned to really respect me and my art praxis—but it was a bit touch and go there for a while. Bob on the other hand taught me how to think about art and what it meant to be an artist and especially what it means to have a heart. He always said—artists help each other, if you are ever in a position to help a fellow artist it is your responsibility to do so. I have always taken those words very seriously and have gained a reputation as someone who goes out of his way to help other artists—especially those in the underground. After a few years of working with Bob as a sculptor, my teachers were all very proud of me when I was accepted to UC Davis—it was really hard to say goodbye to them.
ASS: That was where you went to grad school, right? What was your experience of UC Davis?
XLJ: Grad school was weird. I was accepted to CAL Arts, San Diego, Chicago and Davis. My girlfriend at the time also got accepted to Washington and Davis, so we decided to go there. But their facilities where much smaller; I was expecting a much more intellectually rigorous program, and it just seemed like the main sculpture teacher there was burned out. At the time, I had turned away from painting and was doing a kind of expressive conceptual art, influenced by such artists as Bruce Nauman, Jonathan Borofsky and Marcel Duchamp—even so at Davis, I made friends with the painting instructors and snuck into all of Wayne Theibaud’s painting courses. He was awesome—a lovely gentleman with a quick smile and Orville Reddenbacker’s sense of style. In other words--he was always dressed in a bow tie. Also, if you ever get a chance to meet him, make sure that you ask him to tell you one of his infamous jokes. He knows the most amazingly funny, dirty jokes and the disparity between his impeccable presentation and that unexpected naughtiness might just blow your mind.
ASS: So you started as a sculptor, but now you're doing mostly painting. What prompted the change in media?
XLJ: I have been painting for five years, more or less. I sort of forget sometimes. It’s been kind of a whirlwind. I started working at the same gallery that Ryan 'Henry' Ward and Jonathan Wakuda Fischer started at—the Orange Splot—which was an amazing experience. Kevin McKouen, the gallery director was excellent to work with; he basically just told us to experiment and try to sell as much as possible. But mostly he just let us play and hone our crafts—that’s very important to starting artists—to have a safe place where they can find out who they really are. I started working in my current style though, because an ex-girlfriend who I was madly in love with at the time asked me to do a portrait of her on a coaster that she had lying around. Everybody loved the painting and kept telling me to take it to a gallery. Strangely enough, on the day we broke up, the owner of the gallery next door to her apartment saw me on the bus and asked me to become part of his gallery—the Orange Splot. That’s where I met Ryan 'Henry' Ward and the rest as they say is history.
ASS: You've mentioned that your art started out as highly conceptual, but your recent paintings have a decidedly different style than your older work. Is there any sense of contradiction there?
XLJ: Actually, not at all. It is something that slowly dawned on me only after looking back on a bunch of the work over the years. This may sound silly or obvious or whatever, but all of the work is connected. It is connected through me—the same issues, obsessions etc. come up in all of the work. Issues of identity, the real versus reality, the void—crop up in all of it. Yes the new work is more retinal—a term that Marcel Duchamp used to use aggressively—but ultimately, even in his work the connections between the conceptual and the visceral were never as clear as he may have wanted them to be. Nothing is pure; the universe doesn’t work that way.
ASS: Do you also see a connection between your visual, tangible work and your performance art?
XLJ: I’m especially amazed how the same issues are played out in my performance artwork—where everything is even more visceral, more immediate. But, ultimately it is all the same dialogue, the same narrative—the mode of communication is what changes as well as the audience’s ability to receive/perceive it. I have become known in this city as what I call a 'Sub-Pop' artist, but that is just part of what I do—I am an artist and any means of communicating my experience of this absurdist comedy called life is fair game. Ultimately, that’s what I think artists do—they are like the blind men experiencing an elephant from several angles. No one of them experiences the same thing, but as long as each one is honest to their experience, each will present an accurate, viable, important representation of some very small part of the same elephant.
ASS: So what is Sub-Pop Art? Is it a reference to the record company of the same name that played a part in the Grunge movement in the early 90's Seattle music scene?
XLJ: [laughts] No, this is Sub 'Pop Art'—as in something beneath 'Pop Art' or a kind of abject 'Pop Art.' It is Seattle’s own kind of 'Pop' which is a bit more visceral, a bit more street, a bit more 'wheat-pastey', lyrical, whimsical and immediate than some of the other schools of art and includes such artists as myself, Maggie Harbaugh, Ryan Henry Ward, Andy Miller, Tnglr, Hera Won, Jonathan Wakuda Fischer and many others—many, who may not even consider themselves to be part of the movement. It is art that, while it may seem to be friendly, even saccharin sweet at times, in fact has much more going on and might even be considered to have a dark side.
ASS: Do you consider your work to have a kind of 'dark side'?
XLJ: So I’ve been told. A few people have even told me that they love my work, but that they would be afraid to have the work on their walls. Kids and teens love my work, I know that. I have never been able to see the darkness that some talk about—I mean in comparison to others like Chet Zar or even others in our scene here, my work is downright friendly. One of my friends, Carl Faulkner of the X17 Gallery, once took me aside and told me that my work is truly frightening, however, in a way that many of the other artists' pieces are not—that there is something there—a madness or the void that in some ways appears to be more menacing even than some of the more obviously 'Goth or 'Dark Wave' artists—who he said appear formulaic in comparison.
ASS: Do you think that this perceived 'goth' style has limited your audience?
XLJ: I do very well for myself—especially with my fellow gothim and even have my art in and on the cover of a few 'Goth' magazines –including an upcoming issue of Dark Seattle. I imagine that there are kinds of artwork that will always scare some part of the audience no matter what. It can’t be helped—you just try to do the best you can do and hope others like it.
ASS: I'm always interested to hear where the artists I admire find their inspiration. Would you say you have any artists who inspire you, or art heroes?
XLJ: The initial heroes remain the same. Marcel Duchamp is perhaps Zeus in this pantheon, followed by Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, Jonathan Borofsky, Mike Kelley, Paul McCarthy, and Matthew Barney. But now they have been added to by the likes of Ron English, Walt Disney, Todd Schorr and even Mark Ryden. While many may see these camps as having nothing to do with each other or see the more retinal work as being retrograde like the Pre-Raphaelites—I see them more as being the culmination of an age and proof that post-modernism has been concluded, and that we exist in a new era.
ASS: How would you describe the 'new era' of art, the era in which we now find ourselves?
XLJ: These new artists are like the original Mannerists—they have learned all the tricks of the past generations. They are tired of their older brothers copying the moderns in order to be taken seriously and are now doing their own thing. They are busting through every taboo and revitalizing an art world that has been stuck contemplating its own artistic navel for far too long. Once the Conservative theorists, masculinists etc., stalled the feminists, queer theorists and especially the identity theorists—everything got caught up in a loop and this is us finally breaking out—some things will be the same, but others are completely different. The new Mannerists, or whatever they may be called—the post-post moderns are a movement, or more likely a non-movement, that is based more on individuality and far less upon a school or a technique or worse—a one-line gimmick. That’s what killed the post-modern—it became so high concept that it became a caricature of itself—like the 80’s action films, it died of bloat. This movement starts out that way, with that as its amniotic fluid, with irony and all the tenets of post modernity being its mother’s milk. The result is something that exists beyond honesty because honesty died a very long time ago. As I said, before nothing in this New School is pure.
ASS: I've talked with other artists who say that Seattle is small for a city, and that, consequently, the art scene here can feel confining. Have you travelled much outside of Seattle and California?
XLJ: I've explored many places, travelled internationally and lived in France, Germany, and England. But honestly, I love Seattle.
ASS: What is it about Seattle that keeps you coming back?
XLJ: I think Seattle underestimates itself, underestimates its importance, coolness and just how much the rest of the U.S. looks up to us. We are the rebel state that always has something cool to share with the rest of the world. We are a state of outsiders and rebels and it gives us a different outlook than the rest of the states. We are Portland’s cooler, older brother. At the same time, we really care about the planet and our place within it, and we keep on rebuffing those that would do damage to it. The Seattle art scene will be important and not just to those of us living here—we just have to believe and work together.
ASS: What do you hope to accomplish as an artist?
XLJ: There’s the macro and the micro—on the micro, I just want to be able to make a living. I’m tired of not being able to afford shit. On the macro side of things—I want to change the world, I believe I have a lot to say and I just want to say it. Truth be told, the world itself is already changing, its just a matter of rolling with it.
ASS: What would you consider your greatest achievement to date?
XLJ: Ultimately, I am most proud of the murals that I have been doing for the White Center Chamber of Commerce and the West Seattle Lions Club, working alongside people who are actively trying to make their communities better. People like Mark Ufkes, Jimie Martin and Harvey Rowe have seen ways to make their communities stronger, through the use of art and it has been amazing working with them and I will be finishing up one of the murals that I started with them in the spring—that will be great fun and hopefully will make a lot of people smile!
ASS: What sorts of projects have you been working on this past year?
XLJ: I have been in several magazines, including Hi Fructose (in an ad, nothing major, yet) and Mad Magazine, Catapult, Vex and Kultur as well as a few books, including a couple of Welsh anthologies and the Seattle Street Art books. I have shown in Los Angeles, New York and France. I have co-curated several big art shows with lots of cool people and artists, including one exhibition with a California gallery, The Hive in October. But honestly, it’s not about any one great achievement, but rather to keep working and having fun, meeting cool people and always working to make my art-skills stronger and to be open to new experiences. It is as they say, about the journey.
ASS: Speaking of the journey, what's on the horizon?
XLJ: The future is very bright indeed. More shows in LA, books, an upcoming article in Dark Seattle Magazine, another Hive Gallery exhibition next month with Zachary Sofia, Yvette Endrijautzki, yourself (Braden Duncan), and Nathan Cartwright (of the Hive Gallery). And always more murals. Ryan 'Henry' Ward and I have a few surprises in store together that should shake things up in Seattle and beyond. This year is definitely going gangbusters and I am excited by all the possibilities that seem to be cropping up!
You can find more of Xavier's work here:
Seattle P.I. Blog
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