By: Monica Uszerowicz
If New York has been accused of consistently mourning its past, then Miami has been accused of forgetting—obliterating—its own. Locals know this isn’t true, but rather a fallacy imposed by the people who’d like to re-tell its story. The reality, then, is that the face of Miami’s neighborhoods is in constant flux, sometimes by choice and often by force, but the cultural history is rich, dynamic, and ultimately unforgettable—if one does her best to preserve it.
Painter Michael Vasquez, known for his gigantic, towering portraits of the neighborhood kids and gang members he befriended growing up in St. Petersburg, Florida, is an unwitting expert at humanizing—realizing—what feels like myth to an outsider, gang life notwithstanding. The only child of a single mother, Vasquez found familial connection in the streets, and went on to document it all rather vibrantly, casting his friends in massive paintings and showcasing them throughout the country, including a recent show at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery alongside five other Latino artists. The exhibition’s title, Portraiture Now: Staging the Self, is telling: Vasquez has spoken at length about community as self—the ways in which one’s identity is shaped by the company he keeps. Though Vasquez makes no appearance in his own work, they’re as much self-portraits as they are fervid homages to the characters within them.
With his latest series, Neighborhood Reclamation, Vasquez examines not the people in a neighborhood, but the neighborhoods themselves: their homes and yards and trash and colors. Though they are, to be brief, landscapes, there’s something subtly disjointed about their scope—a result of Vasquez’s tactically compiling photos of Little Haiti and Little River homes, turning the snapshots into handmade collages, then digitally scanning the composites and utilizing them as reference points. Some of his houses feature yards from another street; a gate belonging to one home gets placed in front of another; barren lawns are given trees from a neighbor’s house; sidewalks are added to homes that might’ve otherwise jutted into the street. This, he explains, is an act of improvement, one that maintains the individual integrity of each building. “I’m taking these segments of properties and almost trying to improve them,” he says, “trying to instill some hope and potential.”
At a moment in Miami that feels critical (gentrification and impending environmental disaster loom at an intersection of immeasurable artistic and literary growth), Neighborhood Reclamation raises pertinent questions: What does it mean to reclaim a neighborhood? Does its earnest portrayal serve as an act of reclamation? Who lives in these neighborhoods? And can one’s neighborhood function as portraiture? Set up in the Museum’s gallery so as to mimic a walk through a community—the works are arranged not on the wall, but free-standing, like small buildings—Vasquez’s scenes present a Miami just like the one we know, but rearranged to infuse it with hope. We spoke with Vasquez ahead of the show’s premiere—see below
R17: When did you start creating work? Were you a child?
MV:Yeah, my interest in art started in the second grade. There was a classmate who could draw very well, and the thing to draw at the time were Ninja Turtles. This kid would always draw Ninja Turtles in class. Of course everyone loved his drawings and would crowd around his desk and cheer him on, and ask him for them when he was finished.
It’s funny how kids do that. I remember wanting to keep pictures my classmates had drawn or asking them to draw little things for me.
That’s a funny point, how we have that desire to collect art instinctually. I liked the recognition that our peers gave to him; I decided that I was going to learn how to draw, and the way that I was going to do that was through practice and checking out books from the public library, specifically the Draw 50 series by Lee J. Ames. There were so many titles: Draw 50 Horses, Draw 50 Athletes, and so on. Also, there was Stan Lee’s VHS tape How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way. That’s where my interest in art and drawing started. It was drawing specifically—not painting or sculpture.
Ever since then, I wanted to be an artist, but as a second-grader, you don’t really know what that is or what that means. But to me, it meant a relationship to the things that I liked—in this case, comics or animation—and that followed me through my life as my interests grew and expanded. It went from wanting to be a comic book artist, then an animator, and then a designer, and ultimately led me to pursue a degree in graphic design.
I didn’t know what graphic design was, really; as a seventeen-year-old, I thought that’s what I wanted. I later changed my major to Electronic Intermedia. It’s essentially a major in which you learn computer skills, but as a tool for making fine art—as opposed to design or commercial art.
I want to talk about the title of your series, Neighborhood Reclamation. The gentrification of Little Haiti and Little River is happening rather rapidly. Tech companies are moving into Overtown, and parts of Little Havana are being referred to as “Brickell West.” It gets even more complicated when you remember that, for example, Lemon City became Little Haiti in the 1980s. Is this series part of the conversation about Miami’s changes—especially as they relate to questions of ownership?
I was thinking more about the community that’s already in these locations—not like, “Here’s a bunch of abandoned houses that a developer could buy and knock down to build condos.” It’s more about the community that already exists, that’s certainly under-served—poor communities, whose properties show signs of neglect only because the resources aren’t there. I’m thinking about empowering the people of the community to reclaim it—as opposed to, “This is open territory for someone else to come in and rejuvenate this neighborhood for us.”
It’s more about us, or the people in the neighborhood. Through a little bit of hard work and elbow grease, things could come together and improvements could be made, which I symbolically did through the process of collage [before painting the works]. I didn’t do this with the intention of making them look like chic Miami properties—I wanted to retain their history and present them in a positive light. And not just the properties, but the communities. It’s not the history of a building—these concrete blocks that were brought together to make this house. It’s about the community, the people, their history. People’s lives played out on these properties: it’s a life, a home.
In an interview with Miami Design District Magazine, you addressed the fantastical size of your images and how that relates to the realism within them. In what ways is Neighborhood Reclamation about both fantasy and reality?
It’s a matter of me being able to create these improvements, albeit through collage. The things that I’ve done with the properties are fantasy. This isn’t real—I can’t do that. It’s probably not going to happen that way. But it’s optimistic. I wanted to paint these with compassion and with hope.
The Dalai Lama says that compassion is the radical act of our time…
The Dalai Lama knows his stuff. I think compassion is so important—one of the most important human emotions. It’s the umbrella of so many other positive and warm feelings.
The work is arranged in the gallery to be viewed as if you were walking through a neighborhood. As Miami Dade College’s description of the show explains, you are asking the viewers to become pedestrians, and if we travel off the path, we’ll be faced with the backs of the exposed canvases—blanks. Tell me about this decision, and why you are interacting with the viewer in this way. There’s a metaphor here but it’s also nice to make two-dimensional work very physical.
First and foremost, because of the nature of the space—it’s very long and narrow—I didn’t want to hang paintings on the wall. I’ve been actively pursuing ways of presenting paintings, beyond hanging them on the wall, through installation. I’m probably most known as a painter, but installation is certainly one of my favorite mediums. It can provide everything that a painting can, and then some. The idea of creating an environment for this show was important, because I wanted to talk about community. Keeping the paintings freestanding points to the way that erected homes actually exist on a street. I could place them in a way that would create a winding path and immerse the viewer within the space, making them feel—first—that they’re in this neighborhood, and secondly, hopefully, part of it.
As for the backs of the canvases: It’s a reminder that this isn’t real—these improvements and everything else that I made are a front. But it depends on your perspective. That’s the key: the viewer’s perspective. It provides that duality—the front, which presents this idea, and the back, which presents nothing.
In another interview, you mentioned that sometimes, the company one keeps could be seen as one’s identity. Your portraiture of others represents part of who you are. Can one’s neighborhood be seen as portraiture, too?
Absolutely. I look at this show as a portrait of a neighborhood. In representational painting, there are only a few options—portraits, still lifes, landscapes. Almost everything in representational painting could be filed into one of those categories. This [series] is taking all three and making a hybrid. They’re basically landscapes, and within the landscapes there are moments that could be considered still lifes or objects, but collectively they come together to create a portrait of a neighborhood.
And a people, too.
Exactly. One could imagine who could maybe live here.
Was the process for these works in any way different from the sort you use to create portraits? I’m speaking to both the physical process of creation, but also the headspace you’re in.
The physical process of making them is very closely related to my general practice, in that I collage together photographs I’ve taken and use that as a reference material. I’ve done works where I use a single image that I’ve shot as a reference, but there have been many works that incorporate this idea of collage, of different elements coming together. The approach to the actual application of paint is certainly similar to what I usually do. I wanted to invigorate these properties, though, through my use of mark-making and color. I’m extracting the usual subject of my work from their environment. Instead of presenting the subjects, I’m presenting their environment.
“Neighborhood Reclamation” will be on view Friday, May 29th through July 12, 2015. A Director’s Preview will be held on Thursday, May 28th 2015 from 6 p.m. until 8 p.m. at MOA+D located within the College’s Historic Freedom Tower. The preview is free and open to the public.