Luis Vasallo: New Classic
Written for my blog Vigo Expo
When I first saw Luis Vassallo’s (Madrid, 1981) work, it took me back to the Menil Collection in Houston. His recent paintings feel like a mix between the museum’s Magrittes and Picassos and its ancient Roman, and Greek artifacts. Luis’s paintings lay out his artistic influences and pay homage to iconic pieces and players from Western art history. But they also do something else. The effect of this melding of art history with design produces work that is familiar, foreign, and fresh all at the same time.
The Study of Painting
The kinship I saw between Luis’s recent work and the Menil Collection turned out to be right: the first thing he showed me in his studio were the detailed sketches that he made at the Menil two years ago on a trip to Houston. Museums are for Luis places of study, and he is an especially attentive student. One detects notes from Henri Matisse, Yves Tanguy, and Giorgio de Chirico in his work, but also artists from farther afield like Wifredo Lam and Tarsila do Amaral. Luis makes sketches from the art he sees at museums and later sometimes copies them in paint to “learn how they’re made.” His museum sketches may also morph into work of his own. Although some of his paintings’ titles drop clues about his point of origin, the line between where Luis’s inspiration ends and his own hand begins can be intriguingly ambiguous. Luis’s painting Bañistas-Matisse (Bathers-Matisse) (2015), is based on Matisse’s Bathers by a River (1909-1916). When the piece was exhibited, viewers were perplexed. Had they seen the painting before? Was it a copy or an original? The painting becomes stranger precisely because it is familiar. Do we enjoy the painting because it refers to art that we already see as ‘valuable,’ or because the compositions and forms that he cites are timeless? Luis presents us with levels of creation. He asks how much the artist must invent versus imitate to be admired.
And there is much to be admired. Luis’s work is driven by his own aesthetic goals. Even though he is asking big, conceptually unsettling questions, Luis’s work remains light and joyful in its execution. Luis is a professional designer, and he has a knack for putting together a compelling image. With their brilliant colors, curious forms, and balanced compositions, the visual design of Luis’s paintings are undeniably pleasing. And like design, they have a way of seducing that is somehow more direct but also harder to detect than other media. His works are like the products that we incorporate so seamlessly into our lives that we don’t know how we ever lived without them. Luis’s vibrant colors and floating, funky forms bring to mind another Spanish artist-designer, Luis Seoane. Like Seoane, Luis is interested in the push and pull between figuration and abstraction. Final pieces are so harmonious as to seem effortless; they hide the carefully considered planning that precedes them. Unlike Seoane, who experimented with textiles, murals, and other forms, Luis the artist is completely dedicated to the world of painting and drawing. And that position has been a point of controversy for Luis in today’s artistic context.
Today there are always new ways to make and engage with art; painting is not the only option. Luis says that where many types of art coexist, even if they conflict, it is a sign of a rich culture. But he makes no bones about his stance; Luis loves painting’s material language and the genre’s long legacy. Painting is also a gesture of resistance against what he is missing in contemporary art. Luis wonders if the visual austerity in much of today’s art work (conceptually-based or not) represents a new sort of iconoclasm. He believes that this tendency panders to academic institutions, hypes trends, and restricts audiences. Luis prefers to look for inspiration in artists from the past who ”didn’t have doubts; you see the works and they don’t need anything else.” As pleasing as they are to look at, Luis’s paintings and drawings form an argument for particular mode of art making where intuition and form are key. Although art has changed alongside advances in technology, science, and culture, our impression of progress is dubious to Luis; our centered on defending his practice in relationship to history. “History can realize changes but they are not quantitative,” he says, “can you say that Picasso is better than Tintoretto?”
Luis is captivated by painting, but his paintings are captivated by sculpture. “The history of painting involves objects in space,” Luis says. Indeed, many of his canvases create a picture space where voluminous, corporeal objects lean and stack in buzzing but balanced harmony. The forms and their formations recall the figurative sculptures of Constantin Brancusi, Henry Moore, and Eduardo Chillida. But objects exist in the case of Portable Cabinet (2015): a series of forty pencil drawings of vases, figurines, and other artifacts from the Met, Quai Branly, Orsay, and Prado museums are hung onto a wood folding screen. The piece condenses time and space as it arranges items from ancient civilizations with his own preparatory sketch imagery (some of which we can trace in his subsequent paintings). Here Luis is back at the museum, examining the objects that fueled his 20th century European predecessors while formulating his own output.
When does a variation on a theme become its own work? Always looking backward and forward, Luis’s work pushes the space between quotation and confrontation. “In folklore, art, and culture, creation from nothing doesn’t exist,” Luis says. One of his clearest influences is Pablo Picasso. El préstamo (The Loan) (2015) is a series of drawings and paintings that rework Picasso’s studies from the 1950s and 60s of Diego Velázquez’s Las Meninas (1656). The Loan is a playful homage to two ages of Spanish painting, and an astute assertion of Luis’s aspirations; Velázquez and Picasso are two of the most famous artists to represent Spain to the outside world. But when I ask if Luis understands his own Spanish identity through painting, he says “it is more important to work with what is around you” than to identify with any specific nationality. But with so many ages of art and architecture representing different iterations of Spanish life throughout Madrid, perhaps it is impossible to ignore these antecedents. And speaking of nationhood, Luis argues that politics and culture may commingle, but “we must have artists who aren’t involved in politics, or for whom it doesn’t manifest in their work.” Looking inside themselves and out to the world is the artist’s great privilege, and examining the past and imagining the future is the artist’s essential function. Luis cites Joan Miró as an example of this, and Picasso: “I don’t think Picasso was thinking” in the traditional sense when he was painting, he says. But Luis is thinking all the time, and he uses his passionate intellect to honor painting all the more. Epoch comes from the Greek word epekhein, which means ‘to stop and take up a position’; that is exactly what Luis does when he paints.