Terrestial Breezes and Solar Winds: A studio visit with Roberto Juarez
On the occasion of his show of small paintings at John Davis Gallery in Hudson, N.Y. I took the opportunity to pay Roberto Juarez a studio visit in nearby Canaan. This found him at work on a design for a domed wind tunnel for the University of Michigan School of Engineering. Juarez, who has been exhibiting in New York City since the early eighties, was represented by the Robert Miller Gallery for over twenty years, parting with them once Robert Miller himself had left the gallery, and then had two solo exhibitions at the Charles Cowles Gallery, only for Mr. Cowles to retire and shut up shop. He has been active with public commissions, meanwhile, since 1990. Public commissions, for Juarez, “are a way to continue to develop ideas that differ from my studio work such as nature based imagery that I used in the eighties”. They also “keep him going” when gains made through gallery representation are thin.
Michigan owns works by Juarez, which led to the commission. The artist plans on using the actual surface of the dome to create his design, which will include alternating bands of special high gloss and non-gloss paints and his trademark bisected circle forms. The circles, he points out, actually relate to the symbology used by engineers when measuring wind currents. Juarez exudes excitement about the project.
His show at Davis of small oils on cardboard and canvas was a welcomed opportunity to exhibit more intimately scaled works. New York City galleries typically want big work for exhibitions, making this the first opportunity to show small works, which he has made since childhood. “I think that’s why I’m an artist, because I really love painting. It something I experienced very young as a child. At the Art Institute of Chicago I remember going and seeing a Van Gogh exhibition during my very first visit to the museum and buying a book of the Sunflower paintings. Taking that home was just unbelievable. I remember thinking that this was what I really care about. Not even knowing what that meant, but knowing that everything else that was going on in my life wasn’t as important as that experience I had in front of those paintings.”
Juarez arrived in New York City over three decades ago from Paris, where he completed his thesis for UCLA and decided to not return to L.A. “It was the end of the seventies. My first show there was in 1981. I had been aware of what was going on in New York when studying filmmaking at UCLA as a graduate student. There was a resurgence of painting in the early eighties because of things that were happening in Europe and the response by American artists such as Julian Schnabel and David Salle. It was fun to be in New York in that period when all of a sudden people were looking at, and appreciating, painting, because the kind of painting I was doing was very lively, very expressionistic. It was not neo-expressionist. I think it was actual expressionism. I wasn’t trying to be ironic.”
Juarez began using tree and flower imagery in his work around then. He was trying to engage subject matter that he felt was stereotypical for a Hispanic and homosexual artist, adding lightness and humor to the mix. “There was a cultural aspect involved with using certain subject matter. I thought that because I was Hispanic to do tropical imagery was kind of funny. It was expected in a way even though it had nothing to do with what my culture was at that time, because I grew up in Chicago. It had nothing to do with this lush tropical experience. It was not what I knew about.
Juarez used this organic imagery because of its formal qualities. He wanted to discover a new way to paint abstractly. “People said you must study flowers; spend a lot of time looking at flowers. But I didn’t. I went to books. I was drawn to older books that had faded images of flowers. It was more about the form than the realism of the flower. There was a kind of humor that I enjoyed in going towards something that I thought was cliché–ethnic cliché. And that came from being a student in San Francisco and going to the Galería de la Raza, which was a Mexican/American gallery in the Mission District of San Francisco. There were certain prescribed things that were of the moment. And I remember showing my work, which consisted of drawings and paintings of televisions at the time, and they were like, Well! This isn’t Hispanic Art. I was using culture in a humorous way. I think it was a continuation of trying to understand what my place was in culture and to take the obvious and to use it to say something different, to say something about formal abstract issues that I really cared about. So I was working with the idea of expectations and also having fun with not fulfilling those expectations even though it seemed like I was setting it up as that.”
His interest in trees and flowers, which he explored throughout the eighties and nineties stemmed primarily from the formal qualities of these things, the branching forms. “When I did put in a branch it was as much about the diagonal or the line that the branch made and the connection it made in this kind of visual network, which has now kind of been stripped bare to just the network becoming this geometry of circles and overlapping forms.” His goal was to explore abstraction and form by focusing on these shapes and he was not interested in making representational or descriptive art even when he used recognizable imagery in his work. He was seduced by the beauty of the wildflower illustrations of Homer. D. House, which he used as a catalyst for his own explorations of space and form for a while.
Over the years Juarez’s imagery pared down. Although he does return to tree and flower forms on occasion, he now more typically works with networks of geometric forms: triangles, rectangles, circles. These invented compositions are filled with light and color, but they all suggest weightlessness and movement. All but one of the paintings in his Davis show included bisected circles. “They are intimate in scale. I was interested in showing my thinking process through oil sketches on cardboard instead of completed paintings. The purpose of the circles is to integrate and dissect the multilayered compositions. The color, due to the oil paint, is much more saturated and liquid in appearance, where it used to be dry. The casual format also allows for a new level of invigorated brushwork.”
Juarez noticed that he is once again playing with expectations about gender and sexuality in these small paintings, by using a lot of bright pinks and oranges. They have a sketchy quality to them, with bold brushwork that resists describing specific surfaces. In the bisected circle shapes Juarez traces various tubular forms, playing the crisp edged circles against the scratchy, hatched brushwork found in the back- and middle-ground planes. Many of the bisected circles are transparent allowing this brushwork to show through undermining the viewer’s ability to decide what goes in front of what, maintaining a constant state of motion and state of emergence and reconfiguration.
Juarez’s abstraction defies categorization as it is neither landscape, portrait, nor still-life. He says that his successful paintings, which exude a sense of elemental force, are “filled with wind”. They also suggest microscopic life forms, planets and astronomical imagery. So the wind in these paintings can be either terrestrial breezes or solar winds. Juarez has created spaces that allow him to experiment with shapes, colors, and lines in new ways over and over again. But his abstraction is not abstruse in any way, because it comes so persuasively from the artist’s direct experiences. His abstraction never feels noumenal, but is clearly the product, in each painting, of sensory perceptions.