March 27, 2007

“The Cultural Overspray of Victor Gastelum”

The mark of a truly unique artist is when one can distinguish an artist’s work instantaneously. A simple glance at one of Victor Gastelum’s pieces and there is no mistaking that they are his. Mexican, working class and punk influenced, Gastelum’s work has his historical DNA scattered all over it. One can feel the influence marked by watching hours of Mexican wrestling and digging through old photos albums. The eyes carry the weight of comic books, Teen Angel magazines and punk rock in his sketches. As much of a private person Victor Gastelum is, his artwork reveals it all.

The days of growing up in a Mexican family in Wilmington, Ca, an industrial wasteland located in the South Bay with its vast oil refineries, where the men in their welding protective gear come home from work and classic cars roam the neighborhoods, the stories are present in every inch of Gastelum’s work.

His technique consists of blending composite forms of cultural images; converting them into stencils and spray-painting multiple layers of color in order to get a distinctive feel on each piece. He uses the overspray, which most stencil artists try to avoid, and formulates it into a component of the artwork as well. Sometimes, the image includes commentaries that bring light to the subject at hand, but mostly, the image speaks for itself. It is minimalist and modest like the artist himself, yet speaks loudly on a gallery wall, on an album cover or as a backdrop to a play.

“One of my teachers would always put down the Art Center Students”
In the late 1980’s, Gastelum went through the 2 year Commercial Art program at L.A.Trade Technical. It was there that he acquired the basics of production before the days of computers. He learned how to layout artwork by hand, how to use stencils, and manually reproduce designs for the fashion industry. Because of the nature of the school, some professors discouraged students from the fine arts in order to become successful in the commercial arts. “One of my teachers would always put down the Art Center students,” Gastelum recalls. “He came from a military background and even though he went to Art Center himself he thought that the creative arts were useless. Still, he was one of my best teachers and I learned a great deal from him.” It is then that Gastelum started using his newfound skills and integrated it into his own art and would soon get his start by designing flyers for punk shows and helping local bands with their album artwork.

“…He Never Looks Back”
After L.A. Trade Tech, Gastelum started a design job in the garment industry. Frustrated with the limitations of the work, he took a chance and brought his portfolio to the infamous SST Records, home to many influential punk bands such as Black Flag, the Minutemen, and The Descendants. They liked his work and eventually hired him as an in-house graphic designer. For his first project, Gastelum had to work on a 12” for the band, Black Flag. Growing up on the eminent punk band, the job was both an honor and intimidating.

Silkscreen cover by Victor Gastelum for “Faster, Jim.”
“I remember creating the artwork with the classic Black Flag look, the Raymond Pettibon style of artwork. I liked what I had come up with and showed it to Greg. [Greg Ginn, founder of SST Records and member of Black Flag] Greg hated it. He basically ‘art directed’ me into creating what he wanted. In the end, I didn’t like the artwork but Greg was happy with it. I learned when you are a designer you can’t assume what another person wants based on their past. Greg Ginn was a person that never looked back. All that classic punk rock was in the past for him and he was on the move for what was next.”

It was during his time at SST Records, that he met the man responsible for the classic Black Flag design and a significant influence on Gastelum’s artwork, venerated graphic artist Raymond Pettibon. A meeting that has since developed into a mutual respect for each other’s work and one that has lead to a working partnership. They have since collaborated on an original ink and spray paint piece and a lithograph published by Hamilton Press for a bound book entitled “Faster, Jim.” At the moment, they have possible plans for a comic book.

But, it is with the band Calexico that Gastelum has gathered ample praise and recognition for his artwork. Gastelum’s relationship with the group started when he worked with Calexico founding member Joey Burns at SST Records before the band formed. The relationship between Calexico’s cinematic music and Gastelum’s cultural portrayals of life work symbiotically.

Gastelum’s artwork and Calexico’s musical resonance have been considered to be one in the same by fans and critics, much like the relationship between Raymond Pettibon and the early SST releases. In fact, The Boston Phoenix had written a preview for a Calexico show. In it, it spoke more about Gastelum’s artwork than the upcoming concert. Gastelum realizes the impact the band’s success has had on his artwork. “Because the band has gone everywhere, so has my artwork. People all over the world have seen my stuff because of the band.”

Other works
Gastelum has also been known for his pieces based on Mexican wrestlers. One of his most famous pieces, “Dos Caras A.D.,” was conceived at the revolutionary Self-Help Graphics, a breeding ground for up and coming Chicano artists once run by Sister Karen, a catholic nun who encouraged the arts in East Los Angeles. “In 1996 I met Sister Karen. I showed her my work and she suggested I take some of their print workshops. I made a serigraph there in 1997. She died while I was printing that and that’s how I came up with the title. The piece had originally been titled ‘Dos Caras’ and after Sister Karen passed, in honor of her, the piece was changed to ‘Dos Caras, A.D.’”

While most artwork based on Mexican wrestlers comes off as campy, Gastelum’s pieces reflect respect for the genre, one that only comes with years of appreciation for the sport. “I spent many weekends watching the Mexican wrestling movies on T.V. It is much different than the wrestling that is done in the U.S. American masked wrestlers are obsessed with keeping their identity secret, like a superhero. In Mexican wrestling, the mask is taken off and the wrestler is a common person, your neighbor, your teacher, a gardener, but yet, still a hero.”
Water and Power

A recent project for Gastelum was to create the artwork for the acclaimed production of “Water and Power” by Chicano Performance troupe, Culture Clash. “Water and Power” is a play based on the relationship of two brothers and the politics of Los Angeles. “Richard Montoya (member of Culture Clash) collects my art. He felt my art would work well for the play. I went back and forth with Culture Clash’s production company on concepts. I gave them a few ideas, which they used, but they wanted images of the two brothers. I used a photo from my wedding with myself and my brother dressed in suits and created an image from that. They liked it, but since one of the brothers was a cop, they wanted me to have one of [them] dressed in a policeman’s uniform. So I worked with it and turned the image of my brother into the cop. Richard liked it. He especially liked the detail of the piece. The cop had a radio on his chest in order to make the cop look more like a real cop. That detail is important for that piece, as it is a look particular to the L.A.P.D., part policeman and part paramilitary soldier in black. Without that detail the policeman in the image could easily have been mistaken for a security guard. The funny thing is when I showed my brother the artwork he got upset. He said, ‘Why do I have to be the cop? I hate cops!’

Recently Gastelum has been using images that he finds in newspapers or from photos that other people take. He says that he doesn’t like using his own photographs because he feels that once the image is shot, his artistic statement has been made. Therefore, “I find it easier to use photos that other people take and make something else out of it.”

Victor Gastelum’s last show was at the Overtones Gallery in Venice, Ca. Currently they are selling his prints.

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