Talking With Emilio Villalba About Anxiety, Abstract Painting, and the Art of Modern Portraiture

On first glance, the latest paintings by the San Francisco-based artist Emilio Villalba resemble Renaissance portraiture. It’s only when you look closer that you see how he’s subverted the conventional format of the Old Masters: his human faces are distorted and fractured, their facial features obscured or magnified. And unlike the classic portrait painters of the past, Villalba’s subjects aren’t popes or aristocrats, but rather “anyone who comes over to my apartment who is willing to pose.”

As his new show, “Lost Thoughts and Days Ahead,” closes in Los Angeles, we caught up with Villalba to hear about his interest in negative space, the decision to use family and friends as models, and the portrait as a tool for expressing the anxiety of contemporary life.

Artsy: Your portraits are inspired both by master works and by contemporary life. Could you elaborate on this? Where’s the intersection between the two?

Emilio Villalba: The master works were my introduction to portraiture. They’re also the way I became obsessed with human emotion and the way we’ve been conditioned by our cultures and upbringings. My portraits aren’t, in the traditional sense, trying to capture the identity or personality of my subjects. Instead, the process is about investigating or searching for an expression or mood that is familiar but distant. The distance is my attempt to dissociate any history I have with the models who happen to be my friends that I’ve shared experiences with. These pictures are personal, and reflections from my experiences, but meant to be enjoyed or interpreted in any way by anyone.   

Artsy: You use real-life models. Tell us about that process. How do you choose them? How do you direct them, or collaborate with them, as the case may be?

Emilio Villalba: Most of my models are friends and family, or anyone who comes over to my apartment who is willing to pose. I don’t really pick my models, though I do paint my girlfriend a lot. I do enjoy painting people I’m really familiar with, because I feel a freedom to really abstract their faces and push emotions. I feel less worried about what my friends will think when I convey them really depressed or anxious, because they know that it’s not them, necessarily. I usually have my models pose in very neutral and relaxed positions with very little guidance from me. I’m concerned with lighting and clarity of photos so that I can have solid reference to work from. I usually take about 100-200 photos per person and end up working with one or two. Subtle distances between eyes or adjustments in tilt can make a person’s expression change without having their reference photo convey that. When I photograph my subjects, I have no idea what the painting will look like.

Artsy: You once said that your work explores what happens when “the familiar is fractured and distorted by outside influence.” In your new body of work, many pieces depict a full human face. But others focus on a singular facial feature, like Know Me (2016) or The Terror (2016). The effect is nightmarish. Can you speak to this phenomenon?

Emilio Villalba: I really enjoy the negative spaces in paintings. It’s something that I enjoy in music and recently discovered in painting. I was in Los Angeles this last summer, and got to see an Odd Nerdrum piece that Kat Von D owns, and it completely opened my mind to the genre. The painting had a large amount of black space and a very small focal area. I really enjoyed how I was able to lose myself in the piece. And the painting wasn't forcing me to feel one way, which a lot of portraits tend to do. There was a welcoming feeling as well as mystique. The combination was very attractive. I compared it to the instrumental section of a shoegaze track or a Brian Eno ambient record.

Artsy: Your painting style has changed quite a bit over the years. Can you talk about this progression? How did you arrive at this point in your practice?

Emilio Villalba: My taste in art changes daily because I'm constantly thinking about art and looking at paintings. My progress in art evolved with my life experiences. I started looking at art seriously when I was 17 or 18, and then started painting around the age of 23 or 24. It’s been a very long process that I have truly enjoyed, but it’s had its ups and downs for sure. I believe that creating a cohesive series is all about making decisions.

Before showing at the end of 2015, all of my paintings felt like studies. I was constantly changing my approach and switching from abstract to figurative, and then mixing the two. All of my paintings were still very honest and representative of parts of my personality.

The work that I’m doing now is just the start of something that really caught my attention and I thought it was worth investigating deeper and for over a longer period of time. The older I get, the more interest I have in committing my time into something over a longer period and allowing things to evolve. I think it’s because I spent a lot of my younger art days starting things and finding a thrill in the beginnings. Now I’m addicted to looking deeper. I think that's where I will really be able to find and tell unique stories.      

Artsy: You’re known for your creative titles. Your new show is entitled “Lost Thoughts and Days Ahead.” Why?

Emilio Villalba: This title represented many ideas for me, but the one that sparked it was the idea of people forgetting what their task on hand was, or losing their thought process due to the distraction of future plans or planning. These paintings are snapshots and expressions that represent the anxiety that comes with the realization or awareness of feeling lost. This particular series deals with expressions in response to a particular societal pressure: marriage and starting a life. Pressures that are conditioned in some from childhood.


—Bridget Gleeson


Lost Thoughts and Days Ahead” was on view at CORDESA, Los Angeles, Jan 14th – Feb 7th.

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