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Inspiration For Brutal Beauty

Inspiration For Brutal Beauty
Tijuana-born artist Hugo Crosthwaite gives visitors a look at the fragility and beauty of humanity in his solo exhibition, Brutal Beauty: Drawings by Hugo Crosthwaite at The San Diego Museum of Art. He discusses what influences him as an artist on These Days.

Public Info:

On view from Saturday, Feb. 27 through Sunday, July 18 at The San Diego Museum of Art, Brutal Beauty: Drawings by Hugo Crosthwaite focuses on the artist's rendering of the human figure. Crosthwaite's figures reference baroque, surreal, film noir, popular culture, daily life and recent history.

A retrospective of Hugo Crosthwaite's work, Dark Dreams, will be on exhibit at the Noel-Baza Gallery in Little Italy Saturday March 6 through March 20.


MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): Drawing is the foundation of many paintings, but drawings themselves don't always get the respect they deserve. One artist who is bringing new attention to the art of pencil and charcoal drawing is Hugo Crosthwaite. His masterful figure drawings display beautiful and grotesque images of people in often strange relationships to each other and to us. Crosthwaite has also become known for creating drawings in public, only to slowly pixilate them out of existence. We'll find out more about that and about his exhibit at the San Diego Museum of Art, called “Brutal Beauty.” Hugo, it’s a pleasure to welcome you to These Days.

HUGO CROSTHWAITE (Artist): Thank you. It’s wonderful to be here.

CAVANAUGH: Now you’re from Tijuana and I wonder if growing up in Tijuana and Baja, how that influenced you as an artist.

CROSTHWAITE: Well, Tijuana to me has this wonderful esthetic of chaos. It’s just these buildings and these – it’s a city that hasn’t been planned. It’s just something that grows organically pretty much like the way I started working or taught myself how to draw, basically just from creating a detail and moving from that detail to detail and creating this narrative, pretty much like the city, I feel, grows – grew. You know, like even my house where I grew up was basically just my father had a curio shop in Playa de Rosarito and it basically was just a store and a backroom, and we lived in the backroom. But then as time progressed and we got a little more money, we would build rooms into it so then it was basically this organic house that would just grow from detail to detail, construction to construction, room by room until at some point it just stopped and it became this sort of labyrinth of a house, you know, so my mother would always say, you know, like, you know, it’s a hard house to figure out because there’s no real front entrance. You know, you could enter the house through several parts.

CAVANAUGH: It’s like a living thing.


CROSTHWAITE: Exactly, exactly. And that’s how – You know, I feel like that’s basically like the visual esthetic that I grew up with, you know, this whole notion of this very organic look to it, this very improvised look to it. And my drawing has a lot of that, has this esthetic of this very improvised drawing and this narrative that I’m pretty much just making up as I go along.

CAVANAUGH: Now, you say you taught yourself to draw?


CAVANAUGH: How far along did you go with that before you started to get some formal training?

CROSTHWAITE: Well, you know, when I was growing up in Tijuana, I had, you know, I had no notions of art. You know, I did not know that I would be – that I was making art or that I would be doing art. Basically, I was just drawing as play, as a game. And one of the things that I – my father had in his home, in my home, was, well, these, you know, these were very popular books. Everybody had them. They were these volumes of, you know, Cervantes’ “Don Quixote” and Dante Alighieri’s “Divine Comedy.” This was these volumes that came out in the fifties and they had these beautiful, beautiful illustrations by Gustav Doré, the French illustrator. So then I remember as a kid, I would, you know, I would just look at those books and just look at those illustrations, look at those images and just being captivated by, well, by the black and white imagery, by the line, you know, the intaglio line in them, and then also the dramatic subject matter, you know, the – You know, I wasn’t too interested in the volumes of heaven in terms of Dante Alighiere’s “Divine Comedy” but the volumes of hell had all these images of, you know, naked bodies being tortured. You know, just beautiful imagery. And even if, you know, I was – I remember, I had no real grasp of what was going on in these illustrations, the story, but just the image itself, just these very baroque compositions and very dramatic imagery just really caught my attention.

CAVANAUGH: Because, you know, many of your drawings are of people and they’re connected to each other, they’re touching, they’re in odd connections to each other. Sometimes they’re literally giving birth to each other. And I’m wondering, what does that represent? Does that come from those Doré engravings that you saw as a child?

CROSTHWAITE: Well, I think it’s this basic – Basically, I feel that it’s this – me falling in love with the human figure and these very baroque compositions. So then, you know, the way I taught myself how to draw was by copying details. You know, I would draw an eye and then from an eye, the other eye, the nose. That would compose the face, and once you have a face you’re beginning to tell a story and then I would draw the neck and the arm, and so basically I’m constructing these figurative pieces. But then, of course, you know, like when you’re constructing and making something up, it’s not something that you have preplanned. So then if I would draw a figure that suddenly had no arm, well, it wasn’t something that was missing an arm, it was basically that the arm was never there, you know. I just finished, you know…


CROSTHWAITE: …that figure at that point because it looked good. It looked, you know, well on the piece. And, of course, if it starts giving birth to something else or it starts connecting to something else, it’s basically these, you know, it’s a narrative that’s coming along and these, you know, creatures that I’m creating that are basically telling the story. And the figurative drawing is a way of expressing this story that’s basically, you know, unfolding through the drawing.

CAVANAUGH: I’m speaking with Hugo Crosthwaite and we’re talking about his drawing and his exhibit that’s on display at the San Diego Museum of Art, “Brutal Beauty.” And, Hugo, why do you choose exclusively or almost exclusively to draw, to create, with charcoal and pencil?

CROSTHWAITE: Well, like I mentioned before, I had no notion that I was going to be an artist or I didn’t know anything about art when I was growing up so I had no – you know, I didn’t know there was paintings. I didn’t know, you know, anything about technique or formal technique in drawing and painting. And, basically, well, the black and white is the materials that I’ve been using throughout my life.


CROSTHWAITE: It’s just the pencil and the, you know, and the charcoal which were the most immediate materials and the cheapest even that you can get anywhere. And – But also, you know, I just fell in love with this mark, you know, with the black mark on a white surface and creating these images, you know, which, to me, just, you know, they fill me up. They – I find them beautiful.

CAVANAUGH: Do you ever feel some pressure? Have you ever felt pressure from art teachers to go into painting?

CROSTHWAITE: Well, yes, you know, once I was, you know – Once I, you know, grew up and was going to school, you know, I knew that drawing was going to be a part of my life. But then, of course, you know, when you reach high school you have to make a decision about a career so then – You know, when I was growing up, it was all drawing, there’s only two options, you know, architecture or graphic design.


CROSTHWAITE: And architecture has math, so then I went for graphic design, you know, that’s what I thought would, you know, be like my career. And then once I started studying graphic design, you know, I studied in Tijuana and then came to San Diego and was studying at Southwestern College and then moved to San Diego State. And then, of course, there, you know, that’s where I started taking art history courses. And through those art history courses, I learned, oh, for the first time, basically what painting was, what, you know, the life of an artist and, you know, and how art is made and how art is, you know, is so important. So then that’s where basically my consciousness came of not being a graphic designer and wanting to be an artist. Then, of course, as I was taking courses here at San Diego State, you know, I took a painting course and of course that came, you know, that’s where I got introduced to painting but I, you know, I – There were too many jars and liquids, you know. You know, it’s – I had been doing drawings so long and had this esthetic in me that I had been developing and I didn’t see it as something that was going to become a body of work but it was just a, you know, my esthetic that I grew up with and the thing that I loved to do, and I never really took onto painting. But printmaking was another thing. You know, I took a course here at San Diego State of printmaking and I felt – that took me back to the Gustave Doré illustrations and…


CROSTHWAITE: …the image of the line and the print. And, basically, there I changed my major from graphic design, you know, just to take more art history courses and to be able to take the last year, to be able to take another printmaking course.

CAVANAUGH: Oh, that’s…

CROSTHWAITE: I changed my major but I never really studied painting or drawing, not as much as I would’ve liked to. And…

CAVANAUGH: Well, you know, some art teachers say your first paintings are nothing more than good drawings ruined anyway. Let me ask you about this piece that you’re creating at the San Diego Museum of Art. Tell us about this wall drawing.

CROSTHWAITE: Well, the wall drawing came about very recently. Usually when I’m doing a piece it takes months for me. In my studio, I’m creating this piece, I’m doing a drawing, I’m creating this narrative. But then when I was in New York, in Brooklyn especially, all these nonprofit spaces would have suddenly galleries. You know, would have, you know, exhibitions. So then, you know, I would – they would invite me and I would participate but, of course, at some point then I had no work to show. So then I came up with the idea, well, I’ll do a wall drawing. That’s simple to make. I just, you know, they give me a wall and I just do a wall drawing. And then – and that’s basically me improvising an image in a short amount of time. I usually would have like, at the most, two weeks to do a piece. So then also that sort of awoke in me this ambition to do something nice and impressive but then also do it quick and fast. And for that I had to thank a lot my experience in working on sketchbooks where there I was – I felt I was more free to explore imagery and to explore concepts that were more immediate. And basically what I wanted to do was basically what – the same improvisation that I do on the sketchbook, to do it on the wall drawing.

CAVANAUGH: Right, right.

CROSTHWAITE: But then another aspect to it was that, well, these pieces were going to be destroyed at the end. You know, once the show ended, they were going to get whitewashed because nobody was going to buy the wall or the wall, you know, it’s not a gallery, it’s not a – They were these nonprofit spaces that would disappear in six months. So then I thought, well, you know, this whole notion of the destruction of the piece, I thought, well, that could be part of the drawing. That could be – The death of the drawing could be precisely this unraveling of this narrative. So then that’s basically when I came up with the whole notion of deconstruction, you know, like this. I’m constructing this narrative, I’m constructing this drawing in two weeks and then the last five days or so I would deconstruct the narrative. And the way I wanted to do it was by painting these white squares onto the piece and basically unraveling the narrative by, you know, pixilating the image out of existence.

CAVANAUGH: Covering over in a very planned way.

CROSTHWAITE: Yes, yes. And it was precisely because the way I work is very improvised. I’m, you know, like I mentioned, I’m making this narrative as I go along so I don’t even know, for example, the piece that I’m doing at the museum, I don’t even know really how it’s going to end. You know, I’m also excited to find out how it ends. So I’m making this narrative and just improvising this narrative. But then, of course, once you have the narrative done, now the destruction of it, now it is a planned piece because now I am choosing, okay, I’m going to destroy this and destroy that, destroy these others precisely with the whole notion of trying to break the clues that would link the story or that would make the story more relevant, you know, to the viewer. And the way I came up with this whole notion of pixilation was precisely because my drawing is very organic, it’s this line – You know, I don’t pre-sketch anything, I don’t project the image on the wall, it’s just basically just this freehand drawing that’s done on the wall, very organic. And then, of course, the destruction would be like a – would have this very mechanical feel to it. This…

CAVANAUGH: Right, very, very, very planned, very, very planned out so that people can see it step by step by step. I want to let people know, by the way, if they want to see you – if they want to go online and see how you’ve been creating this wall drawing at the San Diego Museum of Art, you can go to the San Diego Museum of Art website and there’s a video there that shows, day by day, how this drawing is proceeding. Tell us, though, if you would, where are you in this creation now at the San Diego Museum of Art?

CROSTHWAITE: Well, I feel right now that I’m at a halfway point. You know, I started creating this drawing about ten days ago and I feel I only have like ten days left. So then I do feel that I am at a halfway point and basically I just – You know, I knew I was coming to the museum to do this piece and so then I, you know, and coincidentally I was, you know, before I came here to San Diego, I had just finished reading Charles Dickens’ “A Tale of Two Cities.” So then I had this notion that I wanted to do something that basically would sort of be my version of “A Tale of Two Cities.” You know, have a – You know, in Charles Dickens’ book, Paris is burning and London is thriving and here is what would be this notion of, well, Tijuana is burning and San Diego’s thriving and… And I thought that basically because I was giving myself two weeks to do this piece, it would be two characters that would be confronting each other. And so then the first day I came in, I just started with a figure on the left, you know, I did the face and then – and then came this notion of a mask, a luchador mask on the top and – but then it had this, you know, face inside of this luchador mask so then there’s this – already these two characters there in the same body and then they had – and then I started working with this, you know, with the torso and the arm and it started resembling to me this piece by Goya, one of his black paintings where you see these two images, these two brothers or these two twins, clubbing themselves to death, clubbing each other to death. So then I thought, look, it would be like these confrontational figures that are, you know, fighting. But then as the drawing progressed, you know, one of the images that I thought I – you know, that figure, that first figure that I was working on that would sort of represent Tijuana had this bravado look to it. And the image is dropping an AK-47, you know, the cuerno de chivo, which I thought, well, that’s the weapon that usually you hear on the news in terms of Mexico, the drug wars and the drug murders that happen. And the weapon of choice for these people is the cuerno de chivo, the AK-47. And now I’m working on the left side figure and it started, you know, started becoming almost like the twin brother of this other piece.


CROSTHWAITE: And then also I thought, well, these aren’t two different people. I thought this could be the same person but basically they’re carrying within them the imagery and icons of the baggage that they carry. Could be one from Tijuana, could be one from San Diego, it could be the Mexico-American, which is also like my situation. I’m, you know, I’m a Mexican citizen but then I recently became an American citizen so I have this dual nationality and dual identity then that’s part of me. And – But then also it’s going to have these – And also it came, you know, now that I’m working on it, just last – yesterday that I was looking on the drawing, it also started reminding me of that image of the “Two Fridas,” you know, that painting by Frida Kahlo…

CAVANAUGH: Yes, Frida Kahlo.

CROSTHWAITE: …the “Two Fridas.”


CROSTHWAITE: Which is basically this whole notion also of double identity. You know, that painting by Frida Kahlo has, you know, her in the native garb, you know, Mexican native garb and then her also in a colonial kind of aristocratic kind of garb. And then there’s this arterial heart, you know, two hearts that are connected by this artery.

CAVANAUGH: The vein, yes, yes.

CROSTHWAITE: The vein and she’s cutting the vein.


CROSTHWAITE: But then I came – and I thought, well, I can go back to the whole notion of “A Tale of Two Cities” and I thought about the title, “A Tale of Two Cities” in Spanish, la cola de dos cuidades, you know, but changing, you know, the word ‘tale’ to ‘tail’ as in an animal, its appendage, you know, that the tail, so it could be, you know, la cola de dos cuidades, the tail, one tail, of two cities. So and I thought it could be this character that basically has this one tail that connects both, you know.

CAVANAUGH: So this is how these works of yours are created. It’s – You go in with a certain idea but that idea changes…


CAVANAUGH: …and morphs as you actually create the work of art.

CROSTHWAITE: Of course. Of course. And it is basically, you know, it’s – I have this initial idea but then like I just explained, it’s just – it keeps changing. As I’m progressing with the details, other ideas start, you know, coming in and I’m basically creating the story. I could, you know, when I first started the piece, I had no idea that it might reference a Frida Kahlo painting. Basically, I was just thinking about “A Tale of Two Cities.”


CROSTHWAITE: Charles Dickens. And now I’m already referencing, well, “A Tale of Two Cities,” I’m referencing Goya, and now I’m referencing Frida Kahlo, that was yesterday so then…

CAVANAUGH: Everybody’s joining in.

CROSTHWAITE: Yeah, and then who knows what’s going to happen next week. So…

CAVANAUGH: Now, let – Now, this particular work, Hugo, is not going to be pixilated out of existence.

CROSTHWAITE: No, no. You know, those – that – the whole pixilation out of existence was basically, well, me destroying the piece because in the end it was going to be destroyed anyway, you know. But for the museum, you know, it was a wonderful museum. Amy Galpin, the curator, and Julia Marciari-Alexander, the Deputy Director of Collections, they really did a lot to get this show done and they asked me precisely, well, you know, are you – am I going to destroy it completely?

CAVANAUGH: Umm-hmm. Right.

CROSTHWAITE: And I thought, well, you know, I’m going to leave it at a halfway point where you can see the process of me creating this narrative, you know, you can go every day to the museum and see how it, the narrative, is changing, how it’s changed from last week to what’s happening today, how it’s going to be different by next week. And then at the end comes the pixilation, which is going to be at a halfway point so then the art viewer’s going to be seeing a different piece every time they go, you know. And then at the end, it’s just going to be left with this piece that, you know, it’s left to the viewer to unravel what happened, you know, before.

CAVANAUGH: What is it like drawing, creating that, with people watching you do it?

CROSTHWAITE: Well, that’s very interesting. You know, I – you know, usually my work is, you know, as a paint – as a draftsman creating works of art is usually very isolating. You know, I’m in my studio, I’m alone for months, just basically creating a piece. And the whole notion of drawing in public was very appealing to me. I thought, you know, this is – usually I never get the chance to talk to the viewer or to the people. Usually, the piece goes out and it tells the story. Here, it’s basically this interaction where the three of us are having a conversation now. It’s me, the piece and the viewer. And they have questions, they have comments, and I’m there to answer. And it’s so – And I think it’s a wonderful dynamic, you know, it also gives it to me this whole notion of almost like a performance piece when I’m there every day, I’m working, I’m creating, improvising this piece but then also I’m on display, basically.

CAVANAUGH: Yeah, you’re part of it.

CROSTHWAITE: Yeah, I’m part of it and creating this drawing and then also, you know, this – I really like this whole notion of demystifying the creative process. Usually, you know, one sees a work of art and they have questions or they would love to see how it’s done and I’m basically there at the museum doing it, you know, drawing it and you can see the materials that I’m using and see that it is not that complicated, really, to make a drawing.

CAVANAUGH: You know, I think a lot of actual artists are daunted by the kind of drawing that you do because that kind of level of draftsmanship is not something that a whole – basically missed out by a whole generation of artists. Do you find back in New York that other artists are very keen on watching how you create these pieces?

CROSTHWAITE: Well, they do because when I was working on these nonprofit spaces and doing these pieces, they would just come and just look…


CROSTHWAITE: …and that’s why I knew that, you know, people wanted to see…


CROSTHWAITE: …somebody draw, you know, because basically when I was in New York I didn’t see much draftsmanship. There was just…


CROSTHWAITE: …basically all these installation, video art, all these other kinds of works that are really interesting, but they were really interested in the process. You know, they would want to see what materials I was using and how I was basically, you know, like – also deconstructing the piece. You know, a funny thing was that, you know, somebody came to ask me, you know, when I was deconstructing a piece, oh, you’re using the grid. Isn’t usually the grid the first thing you do when you’re working on a mural? And I thought – I was thinking, you know – And I remember thinking, well, you know, it’s funny. This is basically, you know, the – You know, the deconstruction part, the painting part, is basically the antithesis of what one usually thinks about painting. You know, this whole notion of drawing being the birth of a painting, and here the – I thought that, well, finally I’m a painter also. You know, at the end I’m painting these squares…


CROSTHWAITE: …and I’m using paint as the deconstruction, the destruction of the piece. And then I’m also using the grid, like this whole notion that, you know, it’s basically working the mural in reverse. You know, I’m using all the tools…

CAVANAUGH: Right, right.

CROSTHWAITE: …that are usually done to plan a piece, I’m using them at the end and I’m using them to destroy the piece.

CAVANAUGH: Finally, Hugo, because we’re amazingly running out of time, you say, of course, you live and work in New York now.


CAVANAUGH: That’s your home base. But you’re here in San Diego working at the San Diego Museum of Art. And, of course, you’re going to go back and I would imagine check out Tijuana. What is it like going home now?

CROSTHWAITE: Well, you know, I haven’t been home in quite a while and it’s wonderful to go back and just basically to reacquaint myself with this, you know, this esthetic that’s – that I’m always carrying with me. Even when I’m in New York, I feel that I carry this beautiful esthetic of what to me is Tijuana, this very improved, chaotic beauty that it has. And so then I’m looking forward to going back to Tijuana and just, you know, being back, you know, in the city I grew up with and just basically seeing this decaying beauty.

CAVANAUGH: Do you think you – it will inspire your sketches?

CROSTHWAITE: Oh, yes, it already has. You know, I’m already sort of dreaming, you know, in my sketchbook.

CAVANAUGH: Imagining what it will be like.

CROSTHWAITE: Imagining, uh-huh, I…

CAVANAUGH: Now when is your – you said that your piece at the San Diego Museum of Art is going to be finished on…?

CROSTHWAITE: Well, I started it on February 25th and I’m thinking of finishing it by March 16th or so. But I’m having a lecture on March 14th at the museum at three o’clock where I’ll be basically, well, talking about the whole process of the drawing and the narrative that I’m constructing. Basically by there, it’s going to be close to a finishing point, so then I’ll be able, you know, to see what’s, you know, how the work is concluding.

CAVANAUGH: It’s amazing to me how people talking to you while you’re creating this work doesn’t distract you.

CROSTHWAITE: Well, it is a distraction.


CROSTHWAITE: But then also for me the whole point of doing this is precisely to have this interaction. You know, that’s why when I’m working I don’t have my iPod on or my music on. Basically, I’m there to precisely – I’m working but I’m also – I’m listening. When somebody comments something or have a question, I just turn around and answer it.

CAVANAUGH: That is fabulous. And what a really remarkably unique thing to do. I appreciate you coming in here and talking to us at such great length and depth about your creative process. Thank you so much.

CROSTHWAITE: Well, thank you so much. Thank you.

CAVANAUGH: I’ve been speaking with Hugo Crosthwaite and “Brutal Beauty,” the drawings of Hugo Crosthwaite will be on display until July at the San Diego Museum of Art. His wall drawing, as you heard, is being created now and possibly will be completed on the 16th. And this weekend, a retrospective of Hugo Crosthwaite’s work opens at the Noel- Baza Gallery in Little Italy and that exhibit runs until March 20th. If you would like to comment, just go online, And coming up, the Weekend Preview as These Days continues here on KPBS.