On March 12, just four days before we received the shelter in place order in San Francisco, I had the chance to visit gallery artist Emilio Villalba’s home studio as he finished preparations on his upcoming solo exhibition, Back Home, originally scheduled to open in April.
Due to the current situation we have rescheduled the exhibition to June of this year. Nearly all of the paintings are currently in the process of being photographed and we plan to offer fans and collectors a full online preview in the coming weeks. To be notified when the preview is available, please reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org.
In the meantime, please enjoy this recent discussion with the artist!
BP: Right, so let’s get started.
EV: Alright yeah, the pieces are all pretty much just kind of stacked in here. This is the first show, because of the space in here, I'm not painting with them up. All my other studios have had all the pieces up while I'm working on them, you know.
BP: Do you think that's making things more difficult?
EV: For sure, I think I'm doubting myself. If I'm working on a painting at the moment that I don't think is that good, or it’s not going so well, it freaks me out. Whereas before, I had all the pieces that were completed around me. And I would think, I know where this is going. I could see that it was going to work out. They were something like a reference to me.
BP: Tell me about this piece.
EV: I definitely feel like I opened up a new approach with this one, and all I did was I added a layer of white to this. So it's just like one huge white layer first, and then I painted on top of that.
I forced myself to go thicker in a way. Whereas some of the other ones, you know, I paint the portrait first, try to go thick and then paint a thick background. This was painted on top of a thick white coat of wet paint. And then with that I just tried my best to like, hatch everything.
So it was a very difficult painting to make, I guess, but in a fun way. And the reason I did it was because all the non-portrait pieces are like this. They are all more heavily painted, and I’m carving some of the shadows in, right, as opposed to just like trying to paint everything. This is not saying that they're as perfect to the concept as possible. They are still illustrative in a way. But they're not necessarily..like.. it's not 100 percent cake. Not everything is just super thick.
BP: So they started out so stark, like these desolate white tile landscapes. And slowly, piece by piece, they are being inhabited with your memes, these elements and objects of your life.
EV: Yeah. For sure. That’s a good way to put it. I think it did start off kind of shy, you know, and then they slowly started to get more character, more actual life, you know.
I think this was the first one that I actually put a plant in.
BP: Was that because they were a bit more experimental in the beginning?
EV: Yeah, I think they were in the very beginning they were like these sci-fi versions of my apartment. I would try to find little bare corners of the apartment that felt sort of.. not numb, but stale a bit, and try to come up with something to put life into a stale corner.
Also we had just moved to the Richmond district and the pieces from Symbols of Death, Signs of Life didn't really work out anymore there. They were a little too colorful for the Richmond. We were also trying to be more minimal with our lifestyle, so we weren't really you know, buying things to fill the apartment with. I think the paintings were a reaction to our new sort of apartment and lifestyle and neighborhood too.
BP: So do you think moving right in the middle of the series changed it?
EV: Absolutely. Yeah, for sure.
BP: But it's still so similar in a way because it's so San Francisco, the architecture, in terms of the apartment.
EV: Yeah, and some you wouldn't even be able to tell, you know, like that one was it from the old apartment. That one is from the new apartment from here, from our bedroom. And then this from the old apartment, but painted here. But I think, after the move I got a bit more aggressive in terms of the approach.
BP: Tell me more about the title of the show, Back Home
EV: Back Home works as a pun on the 'return to form' aspect of my work, meaning, this body of work is going back to my roots. A lot of musicians have their return to form album, in which they either go back to the first garage they recorded in, or strip their sound back down to their original instruments without any extra production effects for example. So for me, my return to form is painting scenes and objects that represent my life.
BP: What inspired this direction you took?
They are very personal and quiet. The direction was inspired by our new apartment at the time, which was in the Richmond district, an area of San Francisco that is more residential and foggy. Everything was grey. We didn’t have a local bar, or friends visiting every day, so I spend a lot of time alone at home, painting and staring at the walls, haha.
I also really inspired by a few artists for the series, Manet, Lucian Freud (obviously), Mary Cassatt, Alice Neel, and Van Gogh.
So, I keep going back to those artists. They all have similar qualities, and then differences. You know, like, I wanted some areas to be thicker, and then I wanted other areas to be a little bit sort of...wonky. I didn’t want them to feel like I was trying to be photo-realistic. I wanted them to look like thick oil sketches, with a very fresh feeling, and an effortless look.
So this is, I feel my most Alice Neel piece.
BP: Totally, I also see Manet in the portraits, and I keep going back to Thiebaud.
EV: Yeah, well, I mean it's so hard with the white paint to not think of Thiebaud. I never think of Thiebaud.
BP: So it’s not cake at all?
EV: Haha, maybe he and I are on a sort of a similar path with what we wanted. Not comparing myself to Thiebaud, but I'm just saying in terms of goals or whatever, like… you want the paintings to feel like Paintings and to still be technically sound.
EV: With Thiebaud, it's like he wanted to do these sort of academic paintings, but then make them to fit a wall and have some sort of concept. And he's a nerd too, you know. They’re all perfect. Everything’s sort of perfectly placed, almost like a movie set.
BP: Bruce McGaw, an old instructor of mine used to say, “let the paint be paint”. So I think about that comment a lot when I look at your work, and especially work like this.
EV: Yeah, that’s a cool way to put it. I definitely think I was trying to do that, but not in a forced way. It's not like I was trying to make every single stroke sing, which I feel like it might be a little overload. You know, you want the moments for them to shine a little bit. You’ve got to leave room for that cherry on top. It’s not like I know ahead of time, exactly where those moments will be, except for the highlights.
With this series, it’s so architectural that in certain moments it feels like I'm actually creating the piece rather than painting it. For instance, painting this two-by-four right there. Like… I actually feel like I'm painting a two-by-four. You know what I mean? And sometimes, you don't even need a value change, it’s just the direction of the brushstroke that carves that shape out.
And then I have this one. This is one of the last photos I took when the apartment caught fire. This is just one of the doors that we had, not the medicine cabinet, but it's a cabinet above the sink in our kitchen. It was like a spice rack or whatever, and we had that sticker of our friend’s cat who passed away. [My friend] he was just…. He's been putting that sticker everywhere. If you go to a bar, like, that sticker is in the bathroom.
And then Bear at the old apartment.
And then this is a quick study of Michelle, which I’ve thought so many times, to paint over it, but I just liked the simplicity. Again, Alice Neel.
This is the very first one, and I actually think this might be my favorite one of these, though that little toothbrush one is my favorite. And it wasn't like I was trying to make it sci-fi or whatever. I just wanted to make a Richmond painting of me, you know?
It’s been fun painting these, it’s been a wild time. I've been finding little windows to paint this entire show here at home. And you know, this whole series has been different, with the fire, and the move, traveling. All the other shows, I've dedicated four to six months in the studio painting every day. And this series has been done in these sporadic sprints.
BP: Well you've covered more square feet of canvas than any other show and it feels like you are tying everything up at the end with this piece.
EV: Yeah, I think with this piece here, I feel like it's really going to make a big accent on the show.
BP: I can’t wait to hang the show.
EV: Yeah, I'm hyped man. I think it's going to be more cohesive in a weird way than the other shows, like the other shows were just designs on a wall. I feel that with these pieces in the gallery, it's almost like going to recreate an environment.
BP: There’s a lot more color than I realized, I guess I'd been so focused on the tile paintings.
EV: I kind of hit a wall with the previous direction and yet I still wanted to incorporate color. The only thing I did differently to my palette was everything became a local color. So whatever the object was, it was painted only in one color. So, for instance, this is the easiest example:
Everything's just black and white. So it's gray. And then toothbrush=yellow.
And then here, like flesh=red jacket=yellow. You know, everything is like just one color. I wasn't really trying to paint an object and show all the different colors that reflect on it. It was just very simple. So that's how I ended up doing a lot of monochromatic objects, and that really is the thing that sort of ties the palette together.
So there's like little moments of being able to sort of cheat with color, and those cheating moments are what creates the focal point.
I did some work on paper, too, some hands like this, and there's another one. I think the drawings are going to look so cool.
They were actually tough to do because I've never really worked with chalk before. So I just kind of jumped in and tried to create like with oil, you know, painting light.
BP: It’s so different than when I visited you at the beginning of the series.
EV: Yeah, right. It's crazy. I can't believe that this even happened to me. I mean, this direction. Originally I was thinking about like fifteen or twenty pieces, and then with the new gallery space I just started going bigger.
BP: I know we made a tough decision in delaying the show until June. What are your plans until then, now that we are all sheltering in place? I imagine it is a gift to have a home studio at a time like this.
EV: It’s a really tough time for everyone right now, and I got lucky that you guys had an open month in June. I know many artists affected by the COVID-19 situation that didn’t get a postponed date, their shows were just canceled. Hopefully, by June, it will be somewhat safe to have an opening. I’ve been working really hard on this show and would love for my friends and family to be able to see the works in person all in one space. My studio space is in my apartment, so I am painting every day still.
Emilio Villalba: Back Home
Opening Reception: Saturday, June 6, 2020, 6:00–9:00 pm
Exhibition Dates: June 6–July 2, 2020