For Jason Villegas, creating art beats robbing banks.
By Rich Arenschieldt
Animistic prints, collages of fabric, depictions of husky men in various stages of undress, and whimsical creations all serve to voice the creative mind of visual artist Jason Villegas, currently exhibiting his work at the Contemporary Arts Museum, Houston (CAMH).
CAMH’s long-running “Perspectives” series, designed to feature new and emerging talent, spotlights the artist in Perspectives 167: Jason Villegas, debuting a new site-specific installation to mark his first solo museum exhibition, on view through November 1. Villegas’s installation combines wall murals, soft sculpture, performance, and video and marks a significant artistic and emotional homecoming.
“This is very exciting for me as a young artist,” Villegas says. “Many artists have used this Perspectives series as a springboard for their careers. Other local artists who have exhibited here are currently doing very well, nationally and internationally.”
A native Houstonian, Villegas attended Lamar High School and received a BFA in sculpture from the University of Houston. Though now living in New York City, his formative years in Houston were challenging. “Growing up in a Hispanic family without any artistic references was difficult,” Villegas says. As a teenager, both his cultural and sexual identity were challenged. “As Mexican-Americans, my parents actually downplayed that heritage while I was growing up, preferring that we acculture into American society.”
Additionally, in spite of Villegas’s early realization of his sexual orientation, his parents, seeking to reinforce heteronormative standards, essentially dismissed his coming out at age 15. “When given the news, my mother told me, ‘You can think about robbing a bank, but that doesn’t mean you have to do it.’ She was hoping things would change and asked me to ‘wait a year.’ A year later I told her that I had actually decided to become a bank robber.”
This family-imposed repression of self and sex served to make Villegas especially sensitive to issues of identity, both personally and on a global scale. His artistic journey has mirrored his personal development. Villegas’s physical features (he describes himself as “chubby”) would place him in the “cub” category within the LGBT lexicon, but he didn’t discover that moniker easily. “I always felt subcultural growing up. I had trouble finding my way, even within the gay world. Amongst my circle of slim, young men, I was always regarded as ‘the overweight friend’ in my group. It wasn’t until some years later that I discovered an active ‘bear’ community.”
The artist’s self definition has influenced his creative output, but is not its sole feature. “Some of my friends have pushed the bear aspects of my art more than I have,” Villegas says. “In the last two years I’ve started doing some bear paintings, celebrating that particular physique. In a recent show at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, I animated a portrait of a bear who had posed for me. I am happy to bring that aspect of my work to those specific audiences, but I must also be true to all of my own creative instincts.”
Villegas has a multitude of methods for his artistic expression, many of which are evident in this exhibition. His primary inspiration comes from the unlikely combining of primitive themes and easily recognizable animistic marketing logos, many of which are found on popular clothing. “Important aspects of this exhibit include the animal logo, the polo shirt, and re-purposed clothing,” Villegas says. “These elements take several forms. Painting, sculpture, video, and mural are all represented. Fabric portraits are an especially good combination for me right now. This show at the CAM involves so much cloth that there’s been a lot of cutting of fragments for incorporation into these pieces.
“In addition to fabric, one of my primary means of expression for this exhibit is found items. I scour thrift stores for various colors and patterns using, among other things, animal logos and items that are associated with a kind of spiritual animism. I combine these aspects with pop imagery which helps to make my work somewhat more marketable.”
Commentary regarding the global marketplace also is prominent in this artist’s work. “I’ve combined luxury items with objects from impoverished parts of the world. This juxtaposition of things that are created in the third world and then shipped and sold within developing countries interests me,” Villegas says. “At one point I worked in a clothing store on Madison Avenue. That provided me insight into what wealthier individuals really wanted to possess. Oddly enough, merchandise tags that come with items occasionally inform my work.”
The utilization of disparate elements, within a single work or exhibition, challenges audiences, something Villegas is happy to do. “I would prefer that people would not see one of my works and assume that’s emblematic of my creative output. I like to differentiate the physical space of an exhibit and utilize items that are not instantly recognizable as art. Much of my work doesn’t fit into a specific genre. People often tell me that I’m not immediately definable. This is great; I’ve never wanted my work to be a picture on a wall that people would just casually walk by.” With a portfolio that includes such titles as “Hamster Infanticide,” “Cosmic Anus,” and “Infant Blue Whale With Skin Disorder,” that’s not likely to happen.
After his exhibit at CAMH, Villegas travels to more showings of his work, then returns to New York. “After a few more exhibits, I’ll be spending time in the studio and applying for various grants. I’ve been showing my work for about 10 years, and exhibitions are very important to me. It is vital to me that my work gets seen, but not necessarily sold. I continue to dedicate a significant amount of time to studio work, and I let those efforts speak for me.”
Though Villegas fits perfectly within the TBLG (talented bear loving gay) demographic group, in a community obsessed with labels, artistically, this thirty-something cub prefers to remain a vagary.