ARTINFO’s Yasmine Mohseni sat down with artist Mario Ybarra, Jr. shortly before the opening of “Double Feature” at Honor Fraser, his first commercial gallery exhibition in six years within his hometown of Los Angeles. Ten years into his career, the artist takes stock of his new work, patronage in L.A., and how to survive as an artist in the city.
You have a solo exhibition opening tomorrow at Honor Fraser; how long have you been working with the gallery?
This is my first show with Honor Fraser. I started working with her last summer. I haven’t had a Los Angeles gallery represent me for a while, so it’s nice to be back home.
What is the show about?
The show consists of two different projects: one is the “Scarface Museum” project, which I’ve been doing [different iterations of] since 2005. The second is “Universal Monsters.” They’re both based on a series of portraiture. Scarface is a kind of a portrait of my childhood friend Angel Montes, who idolizes the Scarface character. Angel got in trouble and went to prison for eight years for moving narcotics across state lines. That was the start of looking at this Scarface anti-hero character. L.A. curator Cesar Garcia organized the show, he’s a young curator in his mid-20s — it’s funny for me that I’ve been around long enough now for people to have seen my work only on slides or on the Internet — and he hadn’t seen my work [in person]. He was interested in bringing the Scarface project, [which] started here in L.A., back to an L.A. audience. The first version was a small sketch and it’s grown and been to New York, Zurich and France. And now it’s coming back home. “Universal Monsters” is a self-portrait series where I take on the identity of different famous monsters like the Invisible Man, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. I had been working so much on portraits of other people that I wanted to do self-portraits. It’s odd for me to look at myself as a kind of character or caricature and how in my own character certain points of monstrousness come out. For example, the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde paintings come from me having type two diabetes. When my blood sugar drops, I get what I’ve been calling “hangry,” which is hungry and angry at the same time. The first in the series was this diptych called “The Invisible Man.” I was the Invisible Man in my 3rd-grade elementary school Halloween parade, and I think it was because my mom was always working, so she didn’t have the chance to take me to go buy a costume or to make me a costume. So it was really improvised: I was in a sports coat with an Ace bandage wrapped around my head, sunglasses, a hat, and gloves. It was really cool because, even if I didn’t win any prizes, I really thought I was invisible.
Much of your work is inspired by childhood memories; is this the case with “Double Feature”?
Yes, there was a place called the Carson Twin Cinema that I used to go to when I was a kid, it’s also the theater Quentin Tarantino went to as a young person. It was a ghetto theatre just down the street from the house, so we’d go all summer to watch double features for $1, which we’d watch five or six times. This exhibition is also rooted in film [and film history]. With the “Scarface Museum,” it’s about an interpretation of the film, and “Universal Monsters” is taking on these kinds of characters from film. [People] go to the movies all around the world but especially here. My style and psychology is informed by film.
In the past, your portraiture and self-portraiture has often been created through the use of objects. But in “Universal Monsters,” you introduce actual self-portraits. Is the figurative a new interest for you?
Yes, I guess that’s a stylistic change because say, the “Scarface Museum” started out with performances and my friend Angel’s collection of objects that his wife was trying to get rid off, which I kind of rescued. All the iterations [of “Scarface Museum”] have been through correspondence: using mail and photos of him in prison to develop a portrait. So, it’s through the exploration of materials that the portrait was formulated. I’ve done that several times since, not only with portraiture but landscape work or sites, like my barbershop installation at the Tate Modern [“Sweeney Tate,” 2007]. I make portraits and landscapes but they’re about people and places. Those works [from “Scarface Museum”] are older. With “Universal Monsters,” I was looking at movie posters, images of monsters and I started watching a lot of movies. I was interested in the way [monsters] were developed as characters through a singular image. And I was interested in going back to this realm of illustration so I started doing paintings to represent that. But there are going to be a few works that aren’t just flat works or paintings. I was also interested in what kind of memories these things and [characters] held. The first VHS video that I begged my dad to buy me when I was little was Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” and the making of. There was the whole sequence of the transformation [of a man into] a werewolf [which] fascinated me when I was a kid. I used to watch it over and over. I always thought I had the really good skill of shaking my hand as though I was transforming into a werewolf. So there’s going to be a video of me transforming into a werewolf.
So with this show you’re transitioning from creating a room of objects to singular objects like paintings and sculptures?
I’m trying to, that’s why I made paintings and traditional sculptures for this exhibition. It’s kind of a return for me to a more traditional [artistic process]. I had a collector in Texas tell me ‘Oh Mario, I’ve been following your work for a while, why don’t you make some things I can collect?’ That was like five years ago and I’ve been struggling with what he meant. The rooms and installations I make are full of things. It’s hard from me to see the singular image; I’m always lost in some big picture, like in some wide-screen version. I think it’s also related to the pace at which I’ve had to work over the years. My schedule has been so booked over large amounts of time and I’ve had a lot of shows back to back in far-away places. I need to step back from that dashing around and have a steady production to see how the ideas can be brought to life over time [and] have a sense of growth or maturity or sense of place. Since I now have Honor to work with here, and I have galleries that I work with in other places, I feel like I’ve established some kind of foundation from which I can build off of for the rest of my career.
You’ve traveled and exhibited across the world, how do you find the LA art community different compared to other places?
I’m at a crossroads with it all right now. I think in the past [the L.A. arts community] has had a deep-rooted system with the art schools, [all artists] come out of them and they announce your lineage, it’s like your debutante ball! You have your first show, your MFA show, through the school. And your lineage is contextualized by your teachers. I think the commercial scene is still just growing. A long time ago in the ’60s and ’70s, La Cienega Boulevard [the main street in the Culver City arts district] was first having its art scene with [people] like Ed Ruscha, and [then] it must have lulled. It was growing but not exponentially. When I started being around art, it was happening in Santa Monica and, with my generation, it moved to Chinatown and then it came over here [to Culver City] again. It’s still growing and maturing. We have a lot of commercial galleries, what we need is more collectors and people dedicated to art. That’s what [L.A.] needs is more patronage. It has patronage on a very high level, like The Broad museum, but that’s on such a high-up level and it’s one person. And Peter Norton was starting an extensive collection, but I don’t know how much he’s still collecting.
In your opinion, how has this lack of patronage affected the artist’s career in Los Angeles?
I think the gap [from lack of patronage] is being filled by the artists themselves, with all the artist-run spaces around town. That’s how we started Slanguage [an influential artist collective focused on arts education, community-building, and interactive exhibitions]. There’s such a need for a space that isn’t commercial but one in which the artist can develop and feel connected to, but it needs some kind of patronage. That’s how LACE and Control Room started. But where’s the patronage for these spaces? If they don’t become a non-profit, then they try to rely on selling work, they don’t have the patronage to even pay rent. The other day, a guy said to me. “People always say pray for the poor. Pray for the rich because with one gesture they can change a lot.” There’s a whole professional class of creative people [in L.A.] who have some wealth and could help out.
You’ve decided to close Slanguage after 10 years; what is the next step for you?
I’ve been teaching since I finished graduate school in 2001, so that’s 12 years. Now I’m at a crossroads in terms of what I should do: if historically the artists that came before me and were successful in Los Angeles took teaching jobs because it buttressed their production whereas there were no commercial galleries or institutional [venues] to keep them working. Could I, with my generation, start breaking that chain? That’s what I’m thinking. From my own personal perspective, for me to be a [good] teacher, I need to be generous and it takes a long of energy. Do I want to do that? Do I try to take a position where the majority of my time and energy is directed at teaching or do I want to pull back and focus on my work? And, I’m in the position right now where I have the opportunity and foundation where it’s possible for me to do that. A teaching job becomes a goal in the trajectory of being an artist here in Los Angeles. If I was in London or New York and I was a successful artist there’s no way I would be teaching.
What are you leaning towards?
I don’t know. Right now, I’m thinking it’s really scary because there’s an uncertainty to it but at the same time it’s exciting because I’ve been doing all this legwork for the past 10 years.
Do you feel like “Double Feature” is a test for what path you want to take – teaching versus being a full-time artist?
No, I can’t rely on that to influence my decision. Of course, it’s a question I’ve asked myself.
Did you always know you wanted to be an artist?
When I was a kid I wanted to be two things: a psychic detective and Indiana Jones. Those are my two favorite things ever! I guess artist was runner-up to those things.