Studio Visit: Michael Vasquez, Miami

Michael Vasquez Studio, Miami, January 2012

TA: When did you decide to go to art school and become an artist and why?

MV: I can remember wanting to be some sort of an artist ever since the second grade. I was in a combination class consisting of second and third graders, and there was a kid in the third grade that could draw popular cartoon and comic book characters rather well. Kids would crowd around his desk and watch him draw, and then fight with each other over who would get the finished drawing. I liked that idea of putting pencil to paper and creating something that people liked, wanted, and respected. So I started drawing and have wanted to be an artist ever since. At first it was things like a comic book artist, or an animator, then in my teen years I decided that I wanted to become a ‘designer.’ I had no clue as to what kind of designer, but that’s what I wanted and went to New World School of the Arts to major in Graphic Design. At some point in my sophomore year, I realized there were young artists in Miami that were making great work and being recognized for it. This was the first time I was ever exposed to something like that. These were my slightly older peers, and suddenly the idea of becoming a ‘real artist’ became accessible. I ended up changing my major to Electronic Intermedia. It was kind of like the safe road. A fine arts major and application, but with the added bonus of learning a lot of the computer programs.


TA: What is it like to be a young artist in Miami today?

MV: That’s a tricky question. Miami has been very good to me. I earned my BFA in 2005 at New World School of the Arts. This was a good time for Miami. Real estate was booming, people were spending (and making) money, and through Art Basel Miami Beach’s yearly presence, the art scene had grown and strengthened. People seemed to have an eye on Miami, and were taking its’ art and artists seriously. However, now things seemed to have slowed down a bit since the whole financial crisis and the collapse of the real estate market. Museums are in need of funding, the art ‘scene’ is diluted with bad galleries and artists that show up once a year for Art Basel, and we still lack a respected MFA program. But rent is reasonable compared to other American hubs, and the weather is great; of course! I love Miami.


TA: Which artists have informed or inspired you?

Michael Vasquez Studio, Miami, January 2012

MV: This list seems to change all the time but there are a few in here that always make the list:

Chuck Close, Jenny Saville– both for figurative / portrait painting and mark making.
Hernan Bas – for his eclectic painting approaches, and his use of the narrative.
Bert Rodriguez – for his meaningful work about the human experience.
Red Grooms – for his collages, reliefs, and installations.
David Hockney – for his photo collages.


TA: When we first got to know your work in 2006 we were touched by the autobiographical subject matter of the paintings. Can you tell us more about your childhood, your relationship with gangs, and how it has all defined your work?

MV: My work is inspired by my personal experience growing as an only child of a single parent mother. While sometimes things are translated verbatim from my own personal story, there are also times when things are exaggerated or down played to better communicate what I’m trying to express. This is one of the liberties we have as artists; we can control and alter things to better suit our needs and intent within the work. I think, to some degree, art needs to be inspired by personal experiences. This creates authenticity and emotion in the work.

Ultimately, I investigate the allure of a neighborhood street gang through the perspective of a boy growing up without a father figure, which is basically my childhood story. I didn’t have siblings either, so when I became old enough to ‘venture’ out in to the neighborhood, I latched on to the relationships I had formed with kids who happened to be affiliated, in, and / or connected to a local gang. The idea of a ‘gang’ and it’s accompanying set of values seemed to offer everything I was looking for. It was like an extended family that embodied a level of masculinity and toughness far beyond my mother’s capability.


TA: How do gang members feel about becoming the subject of your paintings? Do they sometimes visit your studio and see the finished paintings? 

MV: The majority of the people in my work are friends that I’ve had since my early teen years, and many of them have moved on from the gang lifestyle. Regardless, the response is generally always great from everyone. They like the idea of being immortalized via an art work, and of course the monumental scale in which they are represented. The scale of the paintings plays a role in the intention of my portraiture in that the viewer is forced to look up to these people just as I did growing up. My guys like that too, that collectors and ‘high society’ art patrons are forced to look up to them. On the other hand, I have had a falling out with someone a few years back. It was an unfortunate situation with its’ own set of unfortunate circumstances, but sometimes, especially within a street mentality context, things change when money gets involved.


Michael Vasquez Studio, Miami, January 2012

TA: Your technique has evolved a lot since your last show with a number of recent works created with mixed media and collage on paintings. Tell us more about your current technique, and the work you are currently completing for your third solo show at the Fredric Snitzer Gallery in Miami.

MV: The new work is very different in terms of medium and execution from works I’ve made in the past. I will not be showing any paintings in my exhibition with Snitzer, which may surprise a lot of people. I am by no means abandoning painting. I will forever make paintings, but I have been working on finding ways to utilize the photographic part of my process more directly. Most of my paintings are based off of photographs I have taken as ‘reference material.’ I have thousands of miscellaneous photos that aren’t necessarily good individual images, but I found that when I take a piece from this one, a section of that one, and a figure from another, etc…and collage them together, I can control and create entirely new and surreal worlds and imagery that are directly related to my body of work.

With this show, I first created a very long, almost narrative in orientation, panoramic collage using elements clipped from 75 or so 4×6″ photographs. Its imagery explores the idea of the gang being constructed by a group of friends, symbolized through images of teenagers building boxes and forts amidst the interiors of wrecked construction sites. Within all that, there seems to be a main character who is going through some sort of initiation, or rite of passage. I have been thinking about the title “Rites of Passage” for this show. A rite of passage is considered to be a ritualistic event that ‘marks the transitional phase between childhood and full inclusion into a tribe or social group,’ as quoted by Arnold van Gennep in his book “The Rites of Passage.” Arnold van Gennep described rites of passage as having three phases: separation, transition, and reincorporation; all of which seem to play out in the collage.

Once I made the decision that this collage was going to be the basis of my show, I began thinking about the images being scaled way up, printed, then re-collaged onto the wall of the gallery. I created a scale model of the space to see what this looked like on the wall ‘in the gallery.’ When I was collaging onto the model’s walls, I had some sort of epiphany about addressing the SPACE of the gallery by collaging the elements in SPACE rather than flat on the wall. Almost like a relief photo sculpture; an installation. Some elements are on the wall, some are reliefs, some lean, some are on the floor, some break plains etc…

I want this installation to have evidence of a heavy hand which relates back to the nature of the imagery and original collage. I want the viewer to know that it was constructed with minimal tools and know-how. The massive images have all been cut and tiled by hand using 13 x 19″ photos printed with a consumer level desktop HP inkjet printer. They are mounted on 1/2″ foam core and in some cases braced or framed from behind using raw, wood 1×2″s. It is aggressive in both construction and the way it occupies and intrudes the space. It has an attitude that resonates through content, imagery, materials, and execution.


Michael Vasquez “Rites of Passage” at the Snitzer Gallery in Miami,

February 17th to March 17th 2012.

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