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Salomon Huerta

Artists Portrait by Salomon       Huerta

interview transcript

Date of Interview: Jan 16, 2001
Location: USA
Topic: Interview in artist’s home in Van Nuys, CA.
Interviewer: Bill Kelley Jr.

LatinArt:  How did you develop the visual language of your portraits?

Salomon Huerta:  The reason I turned the image around was to be more obscure and to hide the identity of the work and to hide my own identity because my early work was being ghettoized too much. Even when I was painting white people it was being ghettoized, so I figured that if I turn it around, then it’s up to the viewer to figure out what’s going on and it leads to more of an open language instead of a Latino language. It was more of a challenge to myself, and when I saw how people responded to it, I just went for it. Then for a time I stopped, but saw that the reason I was stopping was I was afraid of people only seeing me paint heads. But then realized I don’t have to stop and that I can do as many as I want. I then got into painting the houses. They are in many ways like the portraits. The face of the house stays the same whether you show the front or the back.

LatinArt:  The houses work on various levels. Can you talk a bit about them?

Salomon Huerta:  The idea comes from my interest in the building of jails near barrios. I wanted to paint the jails, but that didn’t work in the paintings. I noticed how the houses in the neighborhood were being remolded just because there was a jail know, they were trying to beautify the neighborhood. Somehow, then these houses didn’t fit the community. I thought that was really interesting and I felt that there was something there and so I decided to just get started. I was feeling that if I paint them it would just unfold, and it has. These houses have really defined themselves.

It’s really about me being confident; confident to articulate what I’m seeing. Before I was like, "can I do this?" because it was so new, but now I just go for it. I think it’s going to be really strange. If I do get a house it will be strange. It won’t be your typical house. I want it to look kind of weird and cold but inside I want it to be warm and full of life.

LatinArt:  We've talked before about the importance of space, of one's own space. I know you’ve been interested in owning your own there any connection?

Salomon Huerta:  I think...yeah subconsciously, maybe the idea of having my own place is there...yeah, there's something to that.

LatinArt:  Any new projects your working on for the future...anything in development?

Salomon Huerta:  I’m always working on several things at once, but I always work on those things that are clear, and those ideas that aren’t I put on the backburner. I want to start including landscapes with figures and I want to do it in a way that I haven’t seen done. I want them to deal with borders, but I don’t want it to be too obvious. I’m looking at fields, at water, I’m looking at people swimming. I want these people swimming to be ambiguous though. Is he swimming? Did he fall off a boat? Is he drowning? So, yeah, I want it to be ambiguous but also romantic. Not too romantic that I’m glamorizing or exploiting it, but I want it to be attractive.

LatinArt:  Aesthetically attractive?

Salomon Huerta:  Yes, I’m always going toward that because it’s important that the painting sells, because obviously if it doesn’t, there won’t be a next painting. My paintings, when they get big, cost a couple of thousand just to paint. So, I make them as attractive as I can to pull the viewer in. Then when I pull them in, they see there’s something tragic going on. But I want to make them as sensuous or luscious as I can. I look at magazines. I look at movies. I look at videos. I look at ads to see how they tricked you to buy this product and I try to use the same technique.

LatinArt:  I find that layering of meaning kind of cool. I can see Salomon in the background pulling the strings, but the investigation into why we want and buy beautiful things...why their so sexy to us, is very interesting.

Salomon Huerta:  Yeah, there’s nothing wrong with it. Even if you own a business or you're a lawyer or if you run a all has to be appealing. That’s not all of it though, that’s a small part of my work because once you get past the colors you still have to deal with what’s there.

LatinArt:  I’m interested in your painting technique and your choice of colors. Can you talk a little bit more about this?

Salomon Huerta:  To get the colors to work like that I use very little medium. I try to get the color right the second or third time. The first layer is very thin and is more like a wash. I use very little medium because I want the purity of the color, when you add medium you're extending the paint and your spreading the color out. You can still get vibrancy and luminosity, but it requires more layers. I like the idea of pure color on the canvas and I spend a lot of time mixing the color. I get my colors out of fashion magazines, movies, and interior magazines. I get to the point where I start predicting which colors are coming next. Since I paint fast, and these colors last a few years before their discarded, I can have a show go up with a very contemporary palette. I’m always looking for new colors. I look at the home page of porno sites and see that they use these hot pinks, and I’ll think, "where else are they using these colors?" Then I’ll go to Japanese fashion magazines or toy stores and I’ll see the same colors. You have to understand that these colors are not me. I couldn’t live with those colors, nor are they a reflection of myself. It’s me responding to what I’m seeing.

LatinArt:  You’ve mentioned how you try to avoid being ghettoized. I’m sure you find your work being read in various ways as a result of your ethnicity, both socially and formally. Can you speak more about this? Do you feel the need to reconcile these approaches?

Salomon Huerta:  I realize when I’m painting these things that there’s a lot going on. I’m thinking about mug shots. I’m thinking about the obsession that the dominant culture has with the "other." How I articulate that is by painting these figures with so much detail and clarity to reflect how closely these people are looking. I’m also thinking about confrontation. How you can be in a line and you can be so close to someone but there’s nothing going on between you, there’s nothing there. You think, man! I’m so close to this person but there’s nothing there to make them nervous or make them interact. You then become the aggressor or the voyeur...especially with the standing figures. When I paint the African-Americans it’s because I know it’s going to a "white" gallery and they’ll have a particular relationship to it.

LatinArt:  I noticed the clothing or hair on your figures carries a certain level of ambiguity, sexually as well as ethnically. Could you speak more about this?

Salomon Huerta:  The shaved heads, for example is to put everyone in that same category. I also do have women and I’ve painted many women, although not as much as guys, and the reason for that is that in a male dominant culture, the guy is somehow neutral. When you paint a woman it becomes something else. I do have some paintings where the gender is in the middle, and it’s obvious. I avoid painting women because I don't want to talk about women’s issues. I’m more interested in the idea of the suspect or confrontation. I guess it’s about me and I’m talking about my experiences. I can’t really talk about the female I don’t go there. When I do paint women I try to make it so you don’t know if it’s a guy or a girl-only to satisfy the male and female viewer. I’m not taking either side; I’m down the middle. The clothing is somehow neutral. The shaved head is somehow neutral. The view from behind is somehow neutral. I kind of neutralize it so you can focus on other stuff that’s going on.

LatinArt:  I see your work as an interesting exercise in seeing. Not only as an interest in what you see and what you bring to the work, but also on a greater level, an investigation into who you are as viewer and participant.

Salomon Huerta:  A famous black activist once said, "I question who I am because I’m black." As Latinos we do the same thing. We question our identity a little more than white know the ads are white, their heroes are white. They don’t have to reason why they’re that color. My goal with these paintings was for the viewer to question his own identity. I don’t know if I pulled it off, but a lot of other stuff came up, you know, things you can’t control because we bring so many things to each painting from our past.

LatinArt:  Your career is on a definite upward projection. How does all this national and international exposure affect you now?

Salomon Huerta:  Yeah, now it’s really going to start. It’s great, but it’s not me - it’s the work. When I’m there, then yes, I’m part of the experience, but when I’m not at there, then it might as well show locally. When I go to some opening somewhere overseas and I see that I don’t know anyone and that their language is different, then it might be strange. I’m a little afraid as I’m getting ready to show in New York, but fear or no fear it’s going to happen, and although it’s the U.S., New York is almost a different type of place. They might look at me like, "who are you?..what are you doing over here?" I know that they protect their artists and that they’re more critical with outside artists. In a way I’m not really a threat because there are a lot of better painters out I’m ready for the bad critique. If the work is somehow inviting; if it represents L.A. but isn’t threatening then I’ll get a fair critique.

Exhibiting there is kind of like a dream, it was a goal, but it was more of a dream. The fact that it’s happening in one of the best galleries in the art world...well, I figure if I’m going to fall I’m going to fall from the top. I figure I have nothing to lose.

These shows have really affected me in ways I didn’t expect. They’re removing things from my body that allows for new experiences. I used to think, "how am I ever going to get married. I gotta’ do what I gotta’ do...I’m too selfish." But this experince is somehow saying, "you got what you wanted, now make room for something else in your life." I didn’t feel like that would ever be possible, but that’s what it’s doing and now I feel like I’m being emptied out, and now I need something else.

What’s great about what I do, or even what you do, is that you share with other communities. Also, helping other artist out is like another dream of mine. I’m organizing some non-profit fundraisers, and with out a doubt I’ll raise a few thousand dollars and give it to another artist. This is really important that we go out of our way to help others the same way we’ve been know, return the favor. I’m also a strong believer in creating more competition among the arts; the writers, the artists- everyone in the visual arts- so we have a healthier culture. We’re not going to survive with having more politicians. I mean, we have a lot of young Chicano lawyers and doctors, but what they don’t realize is that those people you get to see only when you’re in trouble. So you need something to transcend, to enlighten, to celebrate life...or just to help you be aware. Yeah, we need all of it- and the more money I make the more money I’ll put in this foundation I've created. This is also teaching me a lesson about give and not think about, "what am I going to get out of it?" It’s going to be a life long ritual where I’m not worried about waiting for my good karma. (laughs)

LatinArt:  Your trained and known as painter. Do you have any interest in working in other media?

Salomon Huerta:  I think video is something that has interested me. I love film. I love movies. I would like to do a short movie. I don’t see myself doing anything long. That’s the only thing that’s popped into my head. Maybe at first I’ll do it to educate myself and show my friends and see what they think. Then, if I get brave I’ll put it in a gallery. Whenever you try something new you encounter new problems. As long as you’re positive and you pursue the medium you can have that challenge for the rest of you life. I’ve visited painters that have been working for thirty years, and they still have that same drive.

LatinArt:  I guess that’s the challenge...staying in love.

Salomon Huerta:  It is a relationship. I’ve realized that. Ultimately you have to get involved with what inspires you and what keeps you alive. What’s great about a painting is that you can tell it all you want and even put it away in the closet and still have love for it the next day. (laughs) It is unconditional love, you know, it doesn’t talk back. (laughs) Well, I shouldn’t say that because it does. It does talk back, because when things go bad...but, you know that you don’t have to respond right away.

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