In the studio with Juan Arango Palacio. We met with Juan to tell us more about growing up in Pereira, Colombia, their greatest influences, and unexpected sources of inspiration.
When did you first begin to see yourself as an artist?
I’ve always loved drawing since I was very young. There is a specific memory of when I realized that I have a talent that not everyone has. While attending primary school in Colombia, my third-grade class held a drawing contest; the prompt was “the wild.” I drew a lovely illustration of all kinds of animals and plants: a pair of lions, a chunky elephant, and a long-necked giraffe. I won the contest that day, and my teacher knelt right next to my desk and told me that I had been given a creative gift, and that I had to use it. Ever since that teacher inspired me with her words, I’ve seen myself as an artist.
Where are you from and what was your upbringing like?
I was born in Pereira, Colombia in 1997, and I was raised in a traditional Catholic home. I attended Catholic school, and was raised in the post-colonial context of contemporary Latin America. Heteronormativity was the norm, and my queer identity had to remain a secret. Catholic art has had a huge impact on my work. I saw paintings in a Cathedral before I even knew what museums were. I drew inspiration from the paintings’ baroque dynamic compositions, the saintly depiction of bible characters, and the chiaroscuro atmosphere that dominated the works.
Paint us a picture of your artistic journey. What inspired you to first pursue, and then continue to practice artistic work?
My Practice has always been rooted in drawing, and drawing is what kept my creativity alive during times where art-making was the least of my priorities. I always kept a sketchbook as a child, and my parents kindly gifted me sets of colored pencils, crayons, and drawing pads that I would use to make colorful drawings. I enjoyed making drawings for people– I would make drawings for specific family members or friends and loved seeing their reaction upon their first glance of the work. I then had the opportunity to take art-making more seriously, in my advanced placement art classes in High School in Texas. This is where my pivotal moment happened. I came to a crossroads where I had to choose between a more ‘practical’ career like engineering or architecture (as my parents hoped) or a career in the fine arts. I made a commitment to myself that I would study art and thrive doing it, and I am happy to say that I am very proud of the career I’ve built for myself.
What’s the message of your work? Where do they come from?
My jungle paintings are tied to a specific memory I had while attending catholic school in Colombia. A classmate and I confided in each other that we were queer. Our school was located outside of the city where we lived, and it was surrounded by luscious forests. During recess, we would venture into the forested areas and comfortably be ourselves in each other’s company. We kissed, talked about being queer, and for the first time, did not have to worry about being judged. The jungle became a place of sanctuary for us; it became our safe haven. My jungle paintings are an ode to that space, and they are painted the way they are because I don’t quite remember exactly what that space looks like. The abstract expressionist quality of the work is referencing an immigrant’s blurred memory, a hazy divine apparition, and the foggy atmosphere one may find at a queer nightclub.
Who & what are your greatest influences?
I really enjoy looking at strong painters that make big paintings. I am very inspired by the compositions of Kerry James Marshall. When it comes to bold paintings, there is no one like Julie Mehretu. Her paintings are quite literally monumental. I am inspired by her incredible mark-making and her keen color sensibility. There is also a huge influence from when I delved into an investigation of Modern Latin American art. The vivid murals of Rivera and Ziquieros. The intimate paintings of Frida Khalo. The animated characters of Wifredo Lam. The lively scenes of Tarsila do Amaral. These artists and many others have inspired me to carry on the culture that I was born into, and to bring a part of myself and my identity into everything that I make.
An unexpected source of inspiration?
My friends. Ever since moving to Chicago and being constantly surrounded by other artists, I have found inspiration from my friends and their artwork. We are a tight-knit community of artists with similar interests and similar aesthetics, and I love watching us grow and make things every day.
What do you want people to take from your work when they view it?
If nothing else, I want viewers to be visually stimulated by my work. I want viewers to fall in a trance when they look at my paintings. I want them to be hypnotized by the material quality of the paint and by the dynamic flow of the compositions. For those who do know the context of my work, I want them to feel safe. I want my paintings to be a monument to queer people.
What events in your life have mobilised change in your practise/aesthetic?
The most significant event in my life that has influenced my work is the series of migrations that my family took from Colombia to the United States, and throughout the American South. My whole world-view was changed, I had to learn a new language and leave behind the culture I had grown up knowing. This allowed me to see things from more than one perspective and has propelled my work into a space where cultural icons and geographical landmarks are melded together into a rich vocabulary of imagery. I definitely love experimentation especially when it comes to materials. I use oil paint, acrylic paint, I’ve gone into the realm of fiber arts, and I like to implement unusual materials like rhinestones and embellishments onto my works as well.
What are your ideal conditions or catalyst for creating a “good” piece of work?
Good music! Lots of my pieces, especially the narrative ones, are derived from Cumbia, Reggaeton, and Vallenato lyrics. I always have to have music playing out loud, a hot cup of coffee, and a sunny day to really get my creativity flowing.
Tell us about the inspiration behind one of your works?
Payaso a Caballo was inspired by historical painting. A man on a horse is traditionally seen as a portrait of authority and dominance. I wanted to not only challenge this notion, but also ridicule it. For me, clowns are symbols of queerness, vulnerability, and an archetype that doesn’t take itself too seriously. I placed this character on the horse to claim my own stake in the hetero-male-dominated world that is historical painting. At the same time, I am placing this archetype in my queer jungle sanctuary to fully appropriate the imagery of ‘man-on-horse’ into my own visual vocabulary.
Something in the future you hope to explore?
I am looking forward to adding ceramics to my practice soon! I have worked with ceramic in the past but never in an illustrative or figurative way. I look forward to seeing how my imagery translates into the three-dimensional realm.