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Arts & Culture

The California myth of artist Perry Vásquez

Artist Perry Vasquez sits in his studio in front of three of his burning palm tree oil paintings.
Courtesy of Sparks Gallery
Artist Perry Vásquez is shown with three of his palm tree works in his studio in an undated photo.

Palm trees are among the world's most cultivated trees, providing oil, fuel, construction-worthy fibers and food, according to the San Diego Zoological Society. But nearly all the palm trees you see around San Diego or anywhere in California are not fruit-bearing, they provide little-to-no shade, nor are they even native. There's just one variety native to California, the California fan palm (Washingtonia filifera), found locally in the Borrego Palm Canyon in Anza Borrego State Park.

Artist Perry Vásquez sees the palm tree as an apt symbol.

"Part of the early mythology of California was that it was sort of the last chance place for a lot of people for whom opportunities were not happening on the east coast — the idea that Southern California would be an oasis in the desert. Which is a very appealing image," said Vásquez from his home in San Carlos.

How to view Perry Vásquez's work:
"Oasis"
On view at Sparks Gallery through Jan. 9, 2021
Opening reception: Sunday, Oct. 17, 10 a.m. - 3 p.m. (RSVP here)
Open daily: Monday through Friday, noon to 7 p.m.; Saturday 11 a.m. - 7 p.m.; and Sunday 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.

"San Diego Art Prize Exhibition"
On view at Bread and Salt through Dec. 31, 2021
Gallery hours: Tuesday through Saturday from 11 a.m. - 4 p.m.

Vásquez has been creating large oil paintings of palm trees for the last four years. Sometimes simply set against a vivid sky, sometimes smeared with a thick mark of textured paint, sometimes it's a cell tower constructed to look like a crude palm tree, or sometimes the tree is ablaze.

It was when he saw a palm tree on fire that ultimately inspired this series.

"My attitude towards palm trees was kind of a cliche," he said. "You see them in paintings that people make of sunsets, of the beach. And then I saw a video of a burning palm tree, and I couldn't get it out of my mind. Looking back, I think wow, I wonder if that's what Moses felt like when he saw the burning bush."

It was enough to reframe the mythology of the palm tree for Vásquez, and consider what deeper meanings he could find there.

"You never really notice something until it goes wrong," he said.

Perry Vásquez's burning palm tree paintings
A series of Perry Vásquez's burning palm tree paintings are shown installed at Bread and Salt on Oct. 9, 2021.

The palm tree series is also a nod to the book "Under the Perfect Sun," by Jim Miller, Kelly Mayhew and Mike Davis, another takedown of the sun-soaked myth of the region.

Vásquez has worked in the San Diego and Tijuana region since the late 1980s, and now teaches at Southwestern College. He is a 2021 recipient of the San Diego Art Prize. He's showing works at the currently-on-view exhibition at Bread and Salt, and is also set to open a solo exhibition, "Oasis," at Sparks Gallery this Sunday, Oct. 17, 2021.

In painting the palm trees, they became almost sentient to Vásquez. "The format suggests a kind of human-type scale, the anthropomorphic quality. So I feel like I'm painting portraits. I feel like they're very individual," he said.

All told, Vásquez is showing some 75-80 works in town this month, combining the pieces installed at Bread and Salt with more than 50 works shown at Sparks.

Works from Perry Vásquez's "The Ideal Copy" series are shown in his studio in an undated photo.
Courtesy of Sparks Gallery
Works from Perry Vásquez's "The Ideal Copy" series are shown in his studio in an undated photo.

Those paintings of trees smeared with thick globs of paint? Those are iron-on prints of his works applied to canvas, with a flourish of paint obscuring the original work (and, mostly, the tree). The iron-on process is fraught with built-in flaws and discrepancies from the original. It's a series he calls "The Ideal Copy."

Another series (or "franchise," as Vásquez says) is his "Gates of Heck" works, based on the Rodin sculpture, "The Gates of Hell," and Dante's "Inferno" (upon which the Rodin work is based).

Vásquez swaps out Dante's characters with superheroes like Spiderman, Batman, the Fantastic Four, Phoenix and more — dozens of tiny figures.

Small works by Perry Vasquez
Small works by Perry Vásquez combine modern superheroes with mythic underworld figures, as shown at Bread and Salt on Oct. 9, 2021.

He also combines the superheroes with other underworld characters in what Vásquez refers to as "Max Ernst-style collages." In another series, he has even created text-based works featuring brief, absurd and surprisingly insightful poems.

In 2020, under the pseudonym Coconut Dalí, Vásquez wrote a series of songs inspired by his surrealist underworld paintings called "The Beatrice Suite." Instrumental tracks from the album play on loop with a video work installed at Bread and Salt, or you can listen here.

Music, in fact, was where he first found inspiration to become a painter. In the early 1970s, as a young teenager, he heard the song "Vincent," by Don McLean.

"I asked a friend, 'Who is this? I like this song, but who is this Vincent person?'" Vásquez said. Incidentally, his mother had just bought a book about Van Gogh, which he devoured at home. "I got pulled into it and I thought, Gee, that's what I want to do. I want to paint."