The "Work of Art" Exit Interview: Mark Velasquez

The "Work of Art" Exit Interview: Mark Velasquez

After having seen a close-up of his gruesome scar on national television (caused by a gastrointestinal explosion!) ARTINFO was eager to talk with Mark Velasquez about how he felt taking off his shirt on the roof of the William Beaver House, and about why on earth he would shoot photographs of scantily-clad ladies hooded with American flags, and also about how much Norman Rockwell would have loved Photoshop.

What have you have been up to since the show?

Oh jeez. I just published my first photo book of six local models I work with in my small hometown, presenting not just the crazy images that we came up with together but also writing about them as real people, and their problems, and their sad experiences, and whatever. Making them real people is what I do. So many people look at my work and just see it as, "Oh, he’s just some pervy guy who likes seeing women in their underwear." I see it as really getting to know these models — who aren’t models, they’re just normal girls — and presenting them in a very glamorized way, saying basically that anybody can look like this. So I’ve done that. Me and my business partner are also working on a bi-monthly magazine. And I’m working on a new ironic calendar for the small burger place where I work.

So you weren’t deterred by the judges’ criticisms?

I just keep making art. It’s funny, I had talked to Simon [de Pury] briefly after all this had ended, and he said, "What have you been doing since?" And I said, "making art — why would I have stopped?" So it’s back to the grind. If anybody thinks that reality shows are going to A) make them rich overnight or B) ruin their life, they have to keep things in their proper perspective.

You talk about glamorizing the women in the photographs you take, but what about the fact that a lot of the women in those images are bound or gagged, and that they're mostly undressed?

Well, the "bound" concept is a specific one about the Abu Ghraib prison, because those people were bound. I was basically commenting on that specifically. But if you look at most of my images, women have the power. Women are either mocking the men, or men are looking like idiots while ogling the women. I try to make the girls be as powerful and strong as possible in this world. Unfortunately, women aren’t given as much power, and I think that they deserve it.

For the images that you made on the show — and also it seems in the ones you did before — you heavily rely on Photoshop effects. How do you see those kinds of images fitting into the trajectory of photographic art-making historically?

With technology right now in general, if a digital photographer says he doesn’t use Photoshop, he’s lying. But in that same vein, Ansel Adams would spend hours upon hours in a dark room, dodging and burning and cutting and pasting — literally cutting and pasting — to get his image to look as right as possible. Norman Rockwell would take thousands of reference images and then draw them all together, to make one cohesive image. If Norman Rockwell were alive today, he would be doing it in Photoshop. I mean, that’s what an artist does. So it’s funny when the established art world says Photoshop is not real art. In another fifty years, there will be whole shows at the MoMA about Photoshop. It’s just another tool. To rely on it is horrible, though. I love cameras from the 1930s and 1940s, and I still am able to get good images from them because I think I’m a decent photographer. But it’s like anything else — you should be able to have something as a crutch.

You think of yourself primarily as a photographer?

On the show, I think I did a few sculptures, and I did a painting, to one degree of success or another. I can use a lot of other materials. I can draw and paint photo-realistically. I can weld. I can carve wood. I can do all of these things — I’m not defined purely by Photoshop and photography. But to say any material is not valid or not worthwhile, I think, says much more about the maturity of the person saying that.

In this week’s episode, there was a big revelation about your medical history. What was it like to have the story of how your stomach exploded aired so publicly?

You know, all of us human beings have issues with our body, and have issues with not wanting to be quoted for fear of having diarrhea ofthe mouth. We all have our issues. My issues are all of those things but mainly my body issues. But ever since having it all exposed to cameras, for a reality program, I’ve been able to sleep much better at night. Who knew that all you had to do was confront every single one of your major fears on national television and all of a sudden you make peace with it all? I’m not a big fan of my man-boobs being shown to a small child in Iowa, but at the same time, I’m okay with it. As an adult, I’m hoping that the world won’t judge me for being a full C-cup, or whatever.

Ryan McGinness, as a guest judge on the most recent episode, made a big deal about how important it was that you were starting to make work that was more about yourself and about your personal history. Is that a direction that interests you at all?

Unfortunately, being a guest judge, he was unaware of what the other judges were aware of, which was our past work. My scar especially, but most of my personal issues or whatever, I’ve dealt with in my work 10 or 12 years ago. Once an artist gets over something, he moves on to the next thing. So to say, "Oh you should make more personal work" — I’ve done it. And I think I did it pretty well. Why would I want to do that again? I’m not going to do it again just to appease judges on an art show.

You’re done making art that’s about introspection? It didn’t seem like  the other contestants were.

A lot of the people on the show were pretty young, and as the challenges progressed, only the younger people remained. I think as a younger person in general you still are trying to work out issues about how you view the world, and how you see yourself. I’m at an age now, thankfully, where I think I’ve figured out most of that stuff, so I don’t need to explore it through my art — I’ve done it already. I respect Ryan [Schultz]s work, and I like what he does, but he didn’t realize at that point what I had already learned before. It’s just a matter of awareness.

Each of the contestants seems to have been brought on to represent some kind of stereotype. A lot of that is obviously played up in the editing, but did you have the sense on the show that you were meant to be fit some specific mold?

That’s something that all of us contestants talked about the very first day. Some people agreed with it and some people didn’t. My opinion is that we were all stereotypes. We wouldn’t be there if we weren’t stereotypes. I’m the chubby small-town kid who is one generation away from field workers, and who flips burgers. Ryan is the crazy art weirdo from Chicago. Erik [Johnson] is the tough tattooed guy. Trong [Nguyen] is the Vietnamese New York artist. Your goal as a contestant, I think, is to prove that you’re more than that. Yes, we’re all stereotypes. Jaime Lynn [Henderson] is a sweet girl. But she also can prove that she can do other things and has different interests. It’s important to show that you are more than just a punch line. But at the same time, we all have to realize that we all are one-line jokes. And the sooner you come to that realization, the sooner you can make peace with it and move on and prove yourself. I feel fine being pigeonholed as the chubby, sarcastic Mexican guy. That’s kind of the role that I lead in my life.

Everyone seems to be peeved at Miles Mendenhall for being so conniving. You agreed with Erik when he first introduced this idea, but did you continue to be bothered by Miles or anyone else as the show got more competitive and people got more catty?

If you actually go through the tapes, you will never see someone like Nao [Bustamante] or Miles and me in the same frame. I’m a pretty decent judge of character; I can sum people up fairly well with a degree of accuracy. Right away, the very first day, most of us could tell that Miles was acting, along with certain other people in our group, people that I wouldn’t normally want to socialize with because we have a difference in lifestyle. And so I just didn’t hang around those people. Through editing, unfortunately, they only show that half way though, people were thinking this about Miles. No, we were thinking about that from day one. So, the fact that Erik is the one who said it — more power to him, that’s great. If I have a problem with somebody that I know I can never change — like I can never change somebody’s personality — I just walk away from that person. I try not to be so confrontational, simply because I choose to pick my battles for things that I think are a little more important. That’s just the way it is. There’s more to my life and my work than how Miles acts.

Do you feel that whoever wins the final challenge will actually be, in any sense, the next great artist, as promised by the show's title?

I think that the title in general is just marketing, and people have to realize it’s a television show first. But there’s no such thing as the next great artist. That’s like saying, who’s the best musician in the world? What’s your favorite food? What’s the best food on the planet? You can’t say that. It’s a marketing tool, and it’s a television show, and that’s fine. Whoever wins will have $100,000 in their pocket — or really like 60 grand after taxes, I’m sure. And they’ll hopefully have a good show at the Brooklyn Museum, and that’s great. Good for them. But then, what are they going to do the next day? That’s the hardest thing. The way I’ve always looked at work by artists is that you’re as good as your last piece, but you’re also only as good as the body of work you leave behind when you’re gone. You can’t have three pieces and say, "This is my art." You have to be able to deliver and be consistent. Any person can knock a home run in a baseball game, but if you play 400 games, and you’re consistent and you get on base every single time, that’s what makes a Hall of Famer. It all depends on the personality of the person who wins. If they are grounded and stay focused, they’re going to be successful. If they start believing the hype and get full of themselves and lose their sense of individuality, that’s going to be a problem.

The show is certainly commercially minded in some ways — it has to maintain an audience, and it has sponsors. Was that ever worrying to you?

My work is geared towards doing editorial work, being in magazines. With a lot of the newspaper work I have done, the image ends up getting cropped or turned into black and white when you wanted it to be in color — all of those things. I’m used to not exactly compromising my vision, but having my vision be edited. So all of these people who are very focused on, "This is my work and it’s pure and how dare you question it" — grow up. What did you sign up for? I’ve seen other people on the show that I won’t name having a really hard time with that concept. And it’s like: Have you been awake the last 10 years of life? So much of the world has been commercialized; you just have to make it your own. And if you can’t, that shows that you can’t adapt to the times, which again, is a character flaw in my opinion. If you are going to rail against a situation by wanting to change it when you can’t — no one gets anywhere by screaming at a rainstorm, you know?

Was there anything that you would change about the piece that got you eliminated if you were to get a second crack at it?

I would have liked to make the piece that I wanted to make. Which I actually did when I got home. I don’t think it would have been judged any differently, but at least I would have really enjoyed making it and having the world see it, instead of making a self-portrait, which I was kind of forced to do. A self-portrait is a very different thing to make than a piece about heaven. I would never consider making my face a concept of heaven.

So you left and you made the piece that you had originally envisioned? Was that cathartic?

Yeah, I sure did. I’m an artist. It’s what I do. It’s not a hobby, it’s a lifestyle. I wake up and I have ideas in my head, it’s not like, "I’m going to work, and making art today." It’s who I am as a person. I remade the piece with one of my local models who is dying of Lyme disease and is a 22-year-old kid and yet she’s been given two years left to live. So I’ve been taking photos of her that are revealing and sad, but I think they’re also visually beautiful, and she really likes them, and appreciates me taking them.