Besides: A Studio Visit with Emilio Villalba in San Francisco
On the occasion of his solo show, Besides, opening at Hashimoto Contemporary in San Francisco on October 1, 2022, Shaun Roberts and the gallery visited the studio of Emilio Villalba to speak with him about his new work, drawing, painting friends and the inspiration of Joan Brown and David Park.
Where did the title, Besides, for the show come from?
This body of work began as looser studies with a gestural approach. I was experimenting with different surfaces and mediums. I was inspired by the art of the Bay Area figurative movement, specifically the works of David Park, Joan Brown, and Theophilus Brown. The title of ‘Besides’ originated from calling the show B-sides, like the term used in music to describe the lesser known works from an album or a recording session. Changing the name to ‘Besides' worked out because it can also be used to describe most of the brush strokes and placement of features and objects throughout my paintings. Colors are built up but what you end up with on the surface are strokes sitting next to one another.
You used improvisation when creating this body of work. What did that process look like when beginning a new painting? How has that exploration changed your studio practice?
All of my paintings in this body of work were painted from life or from photos, however there is still an element of invention and creation. What I refer to as improvisational is, in the past, a lot of my paintings were somewhat pre-designed with a sketch. There was still room for improvising throughout the painting process, but for this show I removed that step in the process. These paintings felt more like earned compositions because of the trial and error that occurred on canvas. Sometimes paintings worked out first go and other pieces have many layers to areas where either portraits or objects got painted over. I had the pleasure of meeting painter Jennifer Pochinksi in 2021 and her work inspired me to be more gestural and more energetic with each stroke.
You often paint the people closest to you, including your friends and most significantly your wife Michelle. Has painting these people allowed you to see things about them differently? Or do you notice something in them that draws you to wanting to paint them?
There is a challenge in painting people I know, because not only do I want to please them I want to be able to manifest a mood into the work to please myself. Painting Michelle has been such an amazing gift because there aren’t two paintings of her that are the same even if they were painted from the same photo reference. More recently when I paint people, I am not consciously trying to make it look like them, but rather searching for their character. I think the direction that my work is going in, specifically in capturing people and things, I am looking for a simplified statement with a thicker application.
The high level of intimacy in the work, specifically in the still lives, reveal your personal symbolism and iconography. Do you feel these scenes and items help define you? Are you trying to preserve their memory through painting them?
I have never thought of myself as a creative person or a storyteller, so painting objects that I encounter on a daily basis seemed like the way to go. A few years ago when I started painting objects mostly found in my room I was inspired by Bauhaus artist Georg Muche. I thought, why don’t I create an imagined room and place objects in it and allow the viewer to create a narrative. Painting objects has become just as fun as painting portraits because I am searching for the same qualities. How can I simplify these objects while accentuating the character? Some of the more collage style paintings have more of a diary entry feeling to them, in a sense where they can seem free form and stream of consciousness. I can manipulate them to be more minimal, like most are in this body of work, and some end up being a bit more chaotic. As far as the objects defining me, I am more interested at the moment in discovering a defining element in my work through the actual paint and the use of the elements of design, whether that be in the texture or use of color.
You’ve mentioned Joan Brown and David Park as artists you’ve been thinking about while creating this body of work. In this body of work you are abstracting figures in a different way. How have these artists influenced your approach to abstraction?
Last year my good friend Matt Gonzalez gave me a biography of David Park called “A Painter’s Life” by Nancy Boas. I was aware of him for years, but I hated the only painting I had ever seen by him, so I wrote him off. During the time I started reading the book, my Wife and I had just relocated to North Beach, where David Park spent many years teaching and painting out of SFAI, along with other painters, Diebenkorn and Bischoff to name a few. I felt such a connection with his life and his struggle to discover through paint. He has become my favorite painter and I think about his work every time I sit down to paint, whether I'm trying to emulate his brushstroke or scraping off the paint at the end of a bad session and starting over. For me, at the moment, he is my idea of the epitome of a painter.
In what ways do you feel you’ve grown as an artist from your last solo show?
I think that my paintings from this show in comparison to last year feel heavier, they are more patient and are not the result of chasing the final product. Like I said before, I think these compositions feel more earned, by trial and error. I think looking back at this show I will feel very proud of the amount of exploring and experimenting I did and think of it as a solid stepping stone into the next chapter. My goal is to paint forever and I think this year I have really started on a new path of allowing myself the freedom to try new things and not care so much about the paintings being perfect.
What would be your dream collaboration?
Painting with my good friend Tamsin Smith. We have collaborated on over 20 paintings in the last few years, and have displayed our work at Adobe Books in San Francisco. I hope we can collaborate more this year and next and hopefully have another show. I have learned so much from painting with her and have applied to it my personal works, slowly over time. The work we make together is completely abstract and not pulling from anything we know or see consciously. The results are new and difficult to critique and judge, but over time they always hold up. That aspect to me is fascinating, because the paintings aren’t something that can be faked or copied. There is a method to each composition, but each piece is unique and can’t be replicated by anyone else other than the two of us. I have tried to make my own version of the paintings without Tamsin and it is impossible.
Is there anything exciting you’d like to share with us on your horizon?
I am very excited for this solo show at Hashimoto Contemporary in San Francisco October 1st, and after that I will be showing in a group drawing show at Dolby Chadwick Gallery December 10th.
All photography by Shaun Roberts