Artist of the Month: Jose Villalobos

Jose Villalobos is a groundbreaking visual artist. Jose has generated a sizeable buzz here in Texas using textiles and performance to tell deeply intimate and personal stories – building on age old narratives with fresh and disruptive perspectives. We met with Jose just a stone’s throw from the Riverwalk in downtown San Antonio. We talked about Hamilton, flamboyancy, and Norteño machismo.

Jose: Yeah, Hamilton is in town, so it’s been interesting lately.

Jason: (laughs) it is sold out?

Jo: Yeah, its definitely sold out. People are really excited for it. 

Ja: Have you gotten to see any of it?

Jo: I haven’t! There is a bar inside the theatre though - that’s what I do there, I’m bartender – where you can see the stage. Maybe I’ll get to work some shifts inside the theatre, and I’ll be able to see the play! 

Ja: How long have you been in San Antonio? 

Jo: Since 2008. I came out [in San Antonio] when I was 23, I’m 30 now, so what is that 7? 7 years right? (laughs) I’m originally from El Paso though. 

Ja: Do you visit El Paso often? What made you want to leave? 

Jo: I try to go about three times per year! My family lives there. 

The art community just wasn’t very strong. People just aren’t into art as much there. There was just a lot more opportunity here in San Antonio and the community was stronger. 

I didn’t start [doing art] until I moved here. I got my degree at UTSA.

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Ja: I notice in your work these recurring themes of suspension and expansion. Repetition. Can you speak to that a little bit?

Jo: Yes. Definitely. I don’t know, I’ve just always liked when things are hanging mid-air. For me, it was a way to present my art where it wasn’t just on a wall, you know? The expansion that you are talking about – that’s deconstruction. I’m physically deconstructing masculinity. 

Ja: Ah I see!

Jo: I use items that signify masculinity in Norteño culture and I literally deconstruct them. It’s just so funny because in Norteño culture, men will wear these really flamboyant pieces – decked out in pink and fringe – but if I wear those things, I’m considered a faggot. 

Ja: So in your experience of Norteño culture, you would characterize the men as flamboyant?

Jo: (nods) Mhmm. Yes. There’s definitely a strong sense of machismo and what you wear is definitely a part of that. It’s all very performative. Within the boundaries of the house, [a man] might be tender with their families and loved ones, but then they put on these clothes and once they walk out that door, it’s all about performing masculinity. I mean I guess we’re all performing though. 

Ja: That’s interesting, there seems to be this element of inside versus outside – the tender, vulnerable part of yourself as opposed to the part of yourself that you “put on” to present to everyone. Where is your “inside” and where is your “outside”?

Jo: Hmm. That’s a good question. I’m not sure!

Ja: Do you think of the museum, or your exhibition spaces as your “inside” or your “outside”?

Jo: Definitely my outside. I’m literally doing performance pieces. I definitely prepare an image to present to people. But it is vulnerable, though. Yeah, I don’t know.

Ja: Your work also seems to have a very tactile element. I’m thinking of the piece where you hammered a stamp into your head…

Jo: (laughs) Yeah. I mean, my art has always been that way. I started out sculpting – doing ceramics. My work is so much about my experience, so I’m definitely a part of the piece. I’ve hammered into my head, I’ve forced myself to throw up…

Ja: The vomit pieces!

Jo: Yeah. I don’t want to destroy my body or anything though. I need it for my art. I want to be able to continue to make my art. 

Ja: There’s a certain level of honesty in your art – it interacts with humanity head on. Has it always been that way? Do you ever feel too vulnerable?

Jo: It felt that way at first, but then I got used to it. But it’s important. As a queer person, I have to share my art. 

Ja: How does your family respond to your art?

Jo: My mom doesn’t get it. (laughs) She didn’t grow up going to museums, they didn’t really have that stuff growing up. So, she doesn’t really understand it. Even my sisters.

Ja: Does that feel alienating? 

Jo: Not really! I’m okay with it. There was this one time… I was back home in El Paso and I was talking with my mom about whether or not I would want to have kids – which would mean I would adopt. Then my sister butts into the conversation saying “If you’re gonna have kids, you’re gonna have them the right way!” 

I just went off on her. Like, what the fuck is the “right way”?

Ja: Wow!

Jo: Yeah. Yeah.

Ja: Can you speak a little bit about your involvement with Clamp Light? 

Yeah! We’re just trying to make the space inclusive to all artists – especially artists who haven’t had the opportunity to show their work. I think that’s important. I’ve been there for quite a while now, since 2015. 

Ja: That’s cool!

Jo: Yeah! Every month we have a different artist. We have an open call and we all get a month to either curate or show.

Ja: Is there anything about your work that you would want people to know that isn’t evident upon seeing or experiencing it?

Jo: That’s a good question!

Hmm, I source all my clothes from this flea market right here off I-10. For me, it’s very important that the clothes have been worn by real people. 

Honestly, I think the work speaks for itself! Taking these objects of power and masculinity and protesting toxic masculinity in the [Norteño] culture.

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Jose Villalobos is a groundbreaking visual artist and recipient of a Joan Mitchell Foundation grant. Follow him to keep up with his work. Photos by Eileen Wu. Portions of this interview have been edited for clarity and sensitivity. 

Jason Ikpatt