Texas Studio: Jose Villalobos

In my first brief conversation with San Antonio-based artist Jose Villalobos regarding his 2018 Luminaria artwork, La Carga de Tradición, the artist was incorporating dance-based performance with wearable sculpture. At the time, one of his most recognizable works was a series of leather botas sliced along their decorative seams and taking flight with the help of clear hanging wire. A subtle undercurrent of violence was subsumed by the work’s beauty. Only a year later, at Austin’s Blanton Museum of Art, Villalobos performed Lengua, which featured the artist attaching a cow’s tongue to his own with string and dragging it across the scrawled initials of people whose gender and sexual identity resulted in their eventual murder at the U.S. border. The performance culminated in Villalobos slicing the appendage into pieces—an action that mirrored the violent excision of the voices of these Latinx individuals from the world. “I will say that my work has gotten more somber,” Villalobos confirms. Beauty is ever-present in his iconography, but the ante has been raised to the level of the sublime.

Pain in performance art is not a new phenomenon, but performance pieces so tied to a specific psychological and physical landscape have more in common with artists like Ana Mendieta than Chris Burden. The pain has a point. In Mendieta’s recorded performances, she literally situates herself within the landscape, using the constant shifting of natural cycles to describe dichotomies like fragility and strength, violence and resilience. Villalobos says, “I’m “tied to this land, to talk[ing] of my experience through this landscape. I’ve always made work about the border, being raised [in El Paso] and always seeing Mexico.” He assumes a similar attitude as Mendieta regarding the terrible contrasts of having a body in the world, but Villalobos’ locale is one as much defined by the general feeling of menace in the air as by terrain itself. “When I was a kid, the femicides were at peak,” he explains, speaking of the hundreds of unsolved murders of Mexican women in Juarez in the ’90s through today. “They would find body parts or never find anything.” The landscape, and the border itself, was a site of pain, and one especially excruciating in a patriarchal culture of machismo.

Villalobos seeks to scrape away some of the whitewash atop multiple, intersecting histories. Like whitewash, layers over generations accumulate to similar effect. “My grandfather was a bracero. They were only given a short-handled hoe.” he says. “I was raised in both cities,” Juarez and El Paso, equally.

A foundational element of Villalobos’s body of work is about “queerness and how I relate to it.” There’s a sense that to be recognized one must “be blonde, blue-eyed, muscled, and also racist,” he says. He spools out a quick history of the lesser-known anecdotes from which he draws inspiration. “One of the gay braceros cut off the powerlines to sleep with other men. Marcia P. Johnson, a trans black woman, was the first to throw a brick at Stonewall.” These things are “never mentioned in queer history.”

The othering within the queer community and without is why Villalobos has turned to depictions of pain as a universal method of communication. In A Las Escondidas, the artist is dragged behind a horse into a rodeo pen, and then dons and removes various pairs of high heeled shoes as he lifts and stacks 50lb bales of hay. He struggles and sweats, literally slicing off the various pairs of high heels before graffiti-ing the hay bales with queer slurs. He concludes by stuffing the hay, scarecrow-like, into his fringed shirt, carrying with him both the exhaustion from the performance and the extra weight of gender and sexual oppression.

Villalobos relates a story about a woman who told him that she just couldn’t connect to his work because the queer experience was not familiar to her. “We all know what it is to be pinched,” he says. “Physicality is a process I use because we all have endured something. When people see that physicality, there starts to be a connection. The pain in the work is not just physical pain. Trauma comes in different forms.”

The artist’s ability to expand his audience is increasing. In 2018, Villalobos was awarded a $25,000 unrestricted grant from the Joan Mitchell Foundation, and when we spoke he had just returned from a residency with the institution in New Orleans. “I feel that I’m creating my work for everyone. As a sense of awareness about what is happening, what has been happening, it can be education, remembering, empathizing. I create this for people,” Villalobos says. “It’s very important, the ability to make an image that causes some kind of reaction.” In 2023, he’ll test the public’s reaction further with a solo exhibition of his work at Museo de Arte Ciudad Juárez.

While Villalobos is tapping into universal feelings of discomfort and attraction, what makes his work stand out is its specificity. From vaquero style shirts and boots to the sleek, industrial, custom-truck inspired sculptures in his 2022 Flight! Gallery show Trokiando, Villalobos demonstrates his intimate familiarity with the signifiers of a certain brand of machismo. We are all invited to participate, but the work sings in a harmony all its own.