INTERVIEW WITH PERRY VASQUEZ

Perry Vasquez on the set in front of Rodin's The Gates of Hell (Cantor Art Center) for the "Inferno" video shoot, April 27, 2016.

Perry Vasquez on the set in front of Rodin's The Gates of Hell (Cantor Art Center) for the "Inferno" video shoot, April 27, 2016.

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. 

 

HUMAN DYNAMITE

HUMAN DYNAMITE

This is a message to you artists struggling in the Trump age to survive spiritually and materially and to maintain that elusive vertical tension that literally gets you out of bed each day so you can continue down the difficult path you’ve chosen.

Read More

GATES OF HECK STUDIO DIARY: DAY 5

GATES OF HECK STUDIO DIARY: DAY 5

I like having Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt's Oblique Strategy cards in the studio.  Basically, each card is printed with a prompt, an aphorism or a single word. Pulling a card from the deck is intended to suggest an angle of attack or to introduce a random, contingent notion to help work through any creative block.

Read More

GATES OF HECK STUDIO DIARY: DAYS 3 & 4

GATES OF HECK STUDIO DIARY: DAYS 3 & 4

Everyone has different ideas about the impact of fashion on the arts and especially music. Naturally, performers are always trying to bring a unique look to their stage presence that authenticates the sounds they play and the words they sing (if there are words). I find that these considerations of fashion and clothing should also extend to the recording studio. When money is on the line, (metaphorically as well as literally speaking) I want the clothes I am wearing to help shape, not undercut, they way I perform. This is probably a throwback to my church-going days when we are all expected to dress up in our best clothes. This was part show of respect, part display and fashion parade. 

Read More

FLORBEZA: A PAINTING'S PROGRESS

FLORBEZA: A PAINTING'S PROGRESS

In January, I began a new canvas, Florbeza. It's based on a collage I finished in 2008. Yep, sometimes ideas take a long time to incubate. The challenge so far has been to keep enough variation and inventiveness within a restricted palette of yellow ochre, cadmium yellow, naples yello, burnt sienna, cadmium red and cobalt blue. I learned a lot from using these colors to create the effect of gold in a previous work called Heart of Gold.

Read More

WABI-SABI: FURTHER THOUGHTS An interview with author Leonard Koren

WABI-SABI: FURTHER THOUGHTS An interview with author Leonard Koren

For better or worse, the term "wabi-sabi" has entered the mainstream design and marketing discourse as a stand-in for the "real". It has come to signify the imperfect, the asymmetrical, the natural and the hand-made. The thinking goes that clients respond positively to the real because it is not false, and that by leveraging the real with wabi-sabi-type images and layouts, brands can make authentic connections with their clients while enabling them to sell more products and services. But what is wabi-sabi exactly and what does it mean? More importantly, who or what makes wabi-sabi? Does this medieval Japanese term help us think through contemporary design problems? Or is it just another historicized style thrown up by our continual need to recycle the past?

Read More

A PERFORMANCE AUTOPSY

THE GATES OF HECK GOES TO HELL
performed at Art SD 2014, November 8, 2014.  With Perry Vasquez, Aaron McFarland and Skyler Mic. 

by Perry Vasquez

Aaron McFarland and I first set our sights on bringing The Gates of Heck to Art San Diego back on April 30th of this year. (The Gates of Heck is a schlock-rock opera I wrote inspired by Dante’s Inferno and Aaron has been with me for every performance, providing eye-popping video mixes that greatly add to the nuance and fun of the show). On that day we arrived at the Balboa Park Activity Center to meet Ann Berchtold who organizes the Art Fair and who invited us to perform at the big VIP Party. We wanted to check out the space and see if it offered any possibilities as a venue for performance.

Read More

BUILDING BRIDGES IN BERLIN

BUILDING BRIDGES IN BERLIN

"Men build too many walls and not enough bridges."
-Isaac Newton

BERLIN – Curator Elisa Ganivet's Borders-Bridges exhibition marks the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. In her curatorial statement she writes her purpose is to "explore the wall as a symbol of the division between worlds and emphasizes the ruptures and stitches related to the contemporary migratory processes." The project I was invited to show, Keep on Crossin', is focused on US/Mexico border relations. In some ways Berlin is the ideal context for this project since the Berlin Wall has become a symbol of how political conflicts lead to rigid and inflexible borders of all kinds and how ultimately, those borders come down when enough bridges are built to cross them. For me personally, the experience of the Wall, and how artists responded to it, became a model for my own thinking about border art. In 1984, I met the West German author Peter Schneider whose novella, The Wall Jumper, is about a West Berlin man's fixation with the it. With humor and insight Schneider explores the stark differences between East and West through an examination of the main character Kabe's contradictory compulsion to jump the wrong way from West to East Berlin. Nineteen years later when I created the image of R. Carumba for the Keep on Crossin' logo the pose was borrowed from Robert Crumb's Mr. Natural, but its animating spirit was constituted with pure Schneiderian zeitgeist

Read More

ARTISTS ON ART AND POLITICS

ARTISTS ON ART AND POLITICS

How does an artist's work fulfill their hopes, desires, and fears about politics? This is an interesting question because to make art work in itself is already to be in a zone of dystopian or utopian impulses. Perfection and imperfection colliding with moments of clarity and confusion. In asserting control over the canvas, the score, the sculptural material or the performative gesture, we are moving from the potential to the actual. Many things obstruct the way. And while many artists are open to and even invite external factors to intervene the creative process, others try and keep it as hermetically sealed as possible. For me, this issue of control is inherently political.

Read More

KEEP ON CROSSIN' MIGRATES TO BERLIN

Several months ago I received a request from Elisa Ganivet to join my network via Linkedin. She explained she was working on her Phd in philosophy and that her interest was in political borders and how their impact was reflected in contemporary art. So we connected and I forgot all about it until a few weeks ago she contacted me again, this time with an invitation to show Keep on Crossin' as a part of her exhibition which now had a name, Borders-Bridges,  and a venue, Neu West Berlin

Read More

X-RAY VISION

This new painting is titled X-Ray Vision (24" x 36").  I'm continuing to explore dense compositions of smaller images collected under the contours of a larger form. X-Ray Vision is an amalgam of images of cowboys and indians cribbed from American mass culture, including television, comics and movies. The seed for this painting was actually planted many years ago in 2008 when my brother gave me a copy of Ward Churchill's book Fantasies of the Master RaceIt's fine collection of essays - each performing a deft post-mortem on various media stereotypes of Native Americans. Reading through the book you are struck by how brutally expedient Hollywood can be when it comes to mythologizing American history. It seems there wasn't an Indian alive who couldn't be reduced to a ridiculous caricature with only the slightest connection to reality. Churchill invites the reader to imagine the European counterpart; a Frenchman wearing Bavarian clothing, speaking with pidgin Spanish, living in a tree house and using a gondola to travel over water. The absurdities pile up faster then bodies at a massacre.