Creating Environments: Michael Villarreal


We had the privilege of speaking to Michael from his studio in Lincoln, Nebraska where he completed his MFA. Conversation is between Michael Villarreal, Justin Archer, and Ty Bishop. Originally published in Spring 2017.

J: Tell us a little about yourself.

M: I was born in Austin and grew up in a rural city right outside of Lockhart, TX, which is famous for its barbecue joints. It took me awhile to figure out that I wanted to further my education after high school. I completed high school in 2005, and two years later started at Austin Community College. I was there for 4 years, and realized that I needed to finally transfer to a university. I went to Texas State University because it was close to home. The people there were fantastic.

J: When you decided to go to college, did you go for art?

M: I’ve been making artwork since I was a child. I had a background in the arts, but when I started as ACC, I was thinking about graphic design or accounting. I was thinking about these professions because it was a practical job outlet after college.

T: It’s funny because I think a lot of artists have an experience like that. I didn’t grow up in a rural town, but I was told, “you’re into art? You should be a graphic designer”. It seems to make sense, but when you start a higher education in art, you realize they’re totally different paths.

M: Definitely. Up to my knowledge, I wasn’t too aware of what it meant to be an artist. Once I enrolled in a studio course at ACC, I was hooked. I was like “This is what I want. I wanted a piece of paper, I want an easel”.

T: What was the moment when you decided that art was something you really wanted to pursue?

M: It wasn’t until after ACC when I decided to go to Texas State University. I didn’t realize how wonderful the program was going to be. I thought, “I’m just going to go here and take more art classes.” When I went there, I still didn’t have an emphasis, but after my first painting course, I decided that painting was what I wanted to focus on. My professors support was outstanding. Tommy Fitzpatrick who works there was always by my side and talking to me about what it means to be an artist. It was them that pushed me to decide to move forward into a MFA program.

T: I think I’ve seen Tommy Fitzpatrick’s work in Dallas. He does these architectural type paintings?

M: Yeah.

T: Okay, cool. That’s your professor? That’s exciting.

M: Yeah, he’s represented by Holly Johnson Gallery in Dallas. It was him and Jeffrey Dell. He and Tommy were a big part of my decision apply for grad school.

T: Now that you’ve gone through an MFA program, how would you explain what it means to be an artist?

M: Maybe it’s too early for me to really know what it means to be an artist. Through undergrad, my professors were supportive of us exhibiting our work. That’s something that me and close friends have done throughout undergrad, and even grad school. After graduating from Texas State, I got to a point where I was starting to show in spaces I thought I would never show. As an undergrad, there was this one event I felt started it all called “Art on Lockhart”. My roommate and I removed the furniture and doors from the duplex we were staying in and filled up the walls with art by artist we invited. That was a turning point for me thinking as a professional artist-- exhibiting my work and sharing it with the community. Keeping a presence through social media is also an important factor for me. Having that presence and showing my activity, I ended up being able to show my work at Barbara Davis Gallery in Houston right after finishing my undergrad, and even built a relationship with Art Palace Contemporary Art Gallery. Putting your work out there is key. And, having a strong studio practice is important as well. Honestly, I don’t think my work would have got to the point where it’s at now if I was not in the studio constantly making new work.

J: You talked about showing your work having an effect on what you make. I visited my first art museum, the Nasher Sculpture Center, when I was in high school. After that, I knew I wanted to be an artist. However, I assumed that artists did nothing but spend time in their studio.

M: Yeah, it’s a balance between being in my studio and leaving to make connections. I’ve taken what I’ve learned about networking in Texas and put it to use in Lincoln also. It’s been a good time. Thinking back, I would have loved to have gone to the Nasher when I was younger.

J: In your older work, you use this really thick paint. I can see the idea of portrait and then distorting it to landscape and aesthetic imagery. Obviously, you went to grad school and that changed your work dramatically.

M: I came into grad school making the abstract paintings that came from simplifying the forms of the human figure. There was a point that I was making paintings of heads. I was filling up a canvas with tons of portraits of people I knew, and they would turn into these landscapes. They were a little disturbing. Thinking back on my early work, I wasn’t really invested in the subject I was painting, but in the material that made up the portrait. When I would complete a portrait, I would ask people to only look at small sections of the piece and say, “look at this brush stroke” or “look at what this is doing”. Materiality of the paint was always something I was much more interested in, and I began to think about how I could bring the material out and utilize it more. The only way I could understand this was to simplify the figure into forms which eventually became high relief abstracted landscapes. As I progressed through these paintings, I was infatuated with pushing the surface of the canvas. To my knowledge, paint couldn’t do this alone, so I started playing with plaster to build up the surface. When plaster became way too heavy, especially for larger works, my professor at UNL recommended I use pink installation foam.

J: What made you transition from making abstract paintings to these sculptures that are somewhat reminiscent of real things?

M: Eventually I became bored with making abstract paintings. I wanted to push them further off the wall and bring them into our physical space. I couldn’t realize that idea through abstract painting. One day, I made a panel and adhered some pink installation foam to it. From this, I carved out of the foam some rags and a broom that was sitting on my studio floor, and loved the outcome. I loved the idea of the repurposed object. Growing up, my father worked at UHAUL and he would rummage through the storage units bringing home abandoned objects like TV’s, couches, and whatever else you can think of. Those are what we used growing up. I wanted to take and push the idea of the how we think about the domestic object. That’s how I started making the work I’m doing now.

J: One of your pieces is a blue panel on foam sitting on what it appears to be actual cinder blocks.

M: In my work, there’s this conversation between my past as a painter and how I’m making these sculptures. That blue panel is actually a stretch canvas sitting on cinder blocks I fabricated myself. I painted subtle wood grain on the surface of the canvas, and you can see the individual grain if you go up close to it.

J: You painted that?

M: Yeah. There’s this tool called a graining tool. You run it through wet paint and it creates a faux wood grain. I purposefully made the canvas to look like the siding of a house. What I like about the piece is that you don’t get everything at once. You really have to observe it. I’ve had people think it is an actual wood panel, but then they looked behind it and discover it’s a canvas.

T: There’s a lot questions that your works provoke. One of them how material and memory coincide. Could you expound upon that?

M: All my work is derived from memories. Usually these memories are narratives from my childhood. When I begin to make a piece, I start thinking about an experience from the past. In particular, this piece here (moves camera towards a window blinds sculpture in his studio titled “Untitled.”)

T: Oh wow. The scale of that is much larger than what I was imagining from the photograph

J: Yeah. It’s like full window size.

M: Yeah it is. One thing about the window blinds I’ve made is I wanted to make this weird anthropomorphic look to it. I wanted it to feel daunting. I came about this one thinking about my father who was protective in this rural area I grew up in. When he was sleeping at night, he would wake up by the subtlest noises and look between the slats of the window blinds. I wanted the window blind to have a type of characteristic as if it was the things creating the disturbance. Some of the other works are derived from photographs. I have a family photo album that I’ve been working with. I think about photographs as replacements for memory. Somebody told me this: when you think back about something, you’re probably thinking about the photograph itself rather than the original memory. I like that idea when thinking about the next object I make.

J: What about the materials you’re using?

M: Much of the materials I use are primarily used for the construction of a house. Joint compound, installation foam, wood...using all these gives integrity to the idea that my dad built the house we were raised in. I try to keep my current work with the same materials that he might have used.

J: On your works, you list your materials very specifically. Why is that important to you?

M: The materials are important because I feel the process is important. I want the viewer to read the materials to get a sense of the transformation that happened— a reinvestigation of the material and the object being depicted.

T: Your work has seemed to always break traditional painting ideas and materials. I’m curious, how would you define painting?

M: I see painting as an open-ended conversation. You don’t have to be confined within the canvas. Through the history of painting, past artist have given me the permission to break all rules on what a painting can be. Lately, I try not to pin point myself as a painter often, but there are moments where I still do define myself as one.

T: You work is very contemporary. You’re breaking away from the canvas, you’re using non traditional materials, but there’s a classical component to it in that you’re making the viewer to think something look like something it’s not. It reminds me of this classical notion that painting was a window onto the world. I’m curious, how do you think about this during your process?

M: I never really thought about my work in a classical context. Usually my influences when making work come from the canonized artist you study in art history and even contemporary artists. One of the ideas that I’ve always been interested in is the painter who starts in one medium and ends up in another. In terms of the work, I want to create this idea of an environment you’re setting foot in. I want the viewer to forget about the reality they left behind when they experience the work I’m creating. At this point, I’m not satisfied with how much I’ve made. My thesis show was a bit sparse. My goals are to make and accumulate more sculptures of domestic items, and to create an environment through them.

T: So in other words, you’re not making things that reference the world, you’re creating a new world by these objects and the space that you create?

M: Yeah. That is the hope.

Ty Bishop