Chad Deal, of the San Diego Reader, wrote this interview on the occasion of the release of The Gates off Heck. I am reprinting here in it is original length.
On Good Friday, artist and musician Perry Vásquez released a concept album designed to prod at the listener’s sense of morality, justice, and personal responsibility. The Gates of Heck began as a visual arts project in 2008, when Vásquez re-invented Auguste Rodin’s “Gates of Hell” sculpture with Rodin’s tortured souls replaced by comic book superheroes and pop culture icons. The collage was distributed as a silkscreen print and, starting in 2012, a canvas painting that took two years to complete.
While Vásquez–a teacher at Southwestern College, director of the Southwestern College Art Gallery, and founder of artist collective Border Corps–illustrated The Gates of Heck’s 120+ figures, he also composed a ten-song adaptation of Dante’s Inferno that would be recorded with Matt Resovich (The Album Leaf) on guitar/percussion and John Meeks on drums. Engineered by Resovich and mastered by Francisco Eme, The Gates of Heck is an acoustic guitar-driven minimal blues odyssey that runs Dante through the modern day tribulations of corporate greed, border politics, and Comic-Con.
Chad Deal: The song "Shade" invokes US/MX border imagery in the context of Dante's circles of hell. How does the border resonate with concepts of purgatory, heaven, and hell??
Perry Vásquez: The experience of the immigrant resonates with the hero's journey throughout the classics beginning with Homer's Odyssey onto Virgil's Aenead and of course with Dante's Divina Commedia. The test is not only against the harsh environment but also the limitations with one's own physical body as well as one's character. The border is populated by the ghosts, or shades, to use Dante's term, who died along the journey. It's a haunted place. Naturally, the immigrants destination is close to heaven. What else would motivate someone to put themselves through such a difficult passage if not the promise of something better in life?
CD: The Gates of Heck has been nine-years in the making. How are titles such as “Bourgeois in Hell” relevant to current events? How have their meanings changed over the years? And what does that say about our ascent into heaven or descent into hell?
PV: Greed incurs Dante's wrath like few other vices because he saw it as the root of moral and political corruption in his own society. In 2008, when I first began this project, society's anger was directed at wealthy bankers and other Wall St. types who brought down the housing market. Today, the meaning of corruption hasn't changed but there is a new cast of villains, some of who have been swept into power by the Trump administration. Add those to the ones leftover from 2008.
CD: As illustrated in your painting of The Gates of Heck. Superhero characters from your youth are what you choose to project onto Dante's (and Rodin's) Hell?
PV: My first exposure to superheroes was through TV. I loved the Batman show growing up in the 60s and to a lesser degree the Spiderman animated cartoon. The Batman shows stands out in my memory the most. The writing was camp. It pushed Batman's moralizing character to the point of ridiculousness. The whole thing was wrapped in that pop art style of the day. It was TV imitating art imitating comic books. Wild! The theme song was great too. It was a riff on surf songs and music for spy films which were popular at the time. It had a twelve bar blues progression so it was very hip. Great stuff. The song's "Gates" and "Gates II" were written to capture that 60s rocking' sound.