ustin Favela is a Las Vegas native with Guatemalan and Mexican roots. He uses bright, appealing pop-culture imagery—things like oversized nacho chips, cardboard low riders, and wall-sized pictures made of cut tissue paper, piñata-style—to critique cultural stereotypes. For his solo exhibition, 20Twenty, at Test Site Projects, he’ll also show prints that respond to work by Los Angeles art-world heavyweights from the 1960s such as Ed Ruscha and Donald Judd.
I talked with Favela this morning about what it’s been like to make artwork and think about culture during the pandemic and during recent weeks, as civil rights issues and conversations about race have been met with mounting levels of urgency.
How has 2020 going so far?
Um, it’s going. It’s happening. We’re living in really awful times, but also really important times. It’s a roller coaster of emotions, 2020, so far.
Has your artmaking practice changed during quarantine?
Yeah, most of my work in the recent years has been interactive installations with community members. I’ve been traveling across the United States, and I’ve even had shows in the UK, and all that had to stop. I haven’t really traveled since March, and I was supposed to be on the road pretty much all year this year. So yeah, definitely a lot of changes.
With your work, it’s so important to be out there in cities and towns, talking to people, working with communities. How are you adjusting inside your own head to not being able doing that?
March and April was a time for me to really reflect and think about my practice and what it’s about and what I actually want to do. For a long time, I was just taking whatever opportunity came up and kind of going with it. Slowing down has really made me think about what I actually want—which I’ve never had the privilege of doing. … And I haven’t really had a studio practice in a long time. Reestablishing that has been really interesting.
Your show at Test Site Projects—is it a response to the craziness of this year?
Originally, I named it “Test Site 2020” to reflect the election year, because even when we came up with a name a long time ago, I knew this was going to be an important year politically. But I had no idea that there was a pandemic afoot, and then a civil rights uprising. So, the title of the show just keeps getting heavier and heavier as as the months go on this year.
Let’s talk about some of the work in the show. I’ve seen you respond to a lot of different things going on in culture, but I’ve never seen you respond to white guys from the ’60s like Donald Judd and Ed Ruscha.
I talk about academia a lot on my podcasts [Latinos Who Lunch and The Art People] and how we’re only really taught white art history most of the time. And white history in general in the United States. So, when I first actually started making work, and when I was in school, my first pieces were replicas of old white men’s work. It all started at UNLV because there was this prized Frank Stella painting in one of the theaters that was actually a fake. I made a cardboard version of it and called it “This Is Not a Frank Stella Painting.” And that was the beginning of my investigation (or appropriation) of what I call the “great whites”—the great white minimalist artists. And now that’s kind of spilled into the land artists, because that’s also ridiculous, and usually old white men that do that. So this is kind of like going back to my roots. … Artists like Donald Judd, Richard Serra, and Ed Ruscha are artists that I actually have grown to love their work, but in the beginning, the first thing I thought when I saw images of their work was “Wow, I can’t believe these people can get away with this.”
So, art school students are presented with this art history canon and pretty much expected to respond to that canon, right?
Yeah. … The joy that I find in doing it is to make fun of these artists that are held so high on a pedestal. There’s this reverence for these artists that is really ridiculous. … I think a lot of them would love that we’re making fun of them because they didn’t take themselves too seriously. I’m sure Donald Judd wouldn’t like it. He was a very serious dude. But, for example, I just did a replica of an Alexander Calder at the Amon Carter [Museum of American Art in Fort Worth, Texas.] And I basically made an exact replica except with cardboard and made it look like nachos because they’re all triangles. And people love it. So, it’s this dilemma. … Do people love it because it’s an Alexander Calder replica? Or do people love it because I’m making fun of it? There’s this thing that happens, where it’s like, “Is my work important just because I’m commenting on the white canon?” I’m like, “Oh, am I really making a social commentary that I want? And are people understanding that? Or are they just seeing their favorite artists remixed?”
This quarantine … has really given me the time to think about my work in that political sense. I feel like I’ve been really playing it safe my whole art career. And I feel like it’s time to get a little more radicalized in my work and actually say what I’m saying, because when you leave it up to interpretation, people will see what they want to see most of the time.
Do you mean you’re going to do more work to frame the conversation?
I think so. I’m already doing that when I do lectures or on my podcasts. But it’s a good time right now to be crystal clear about your intentions. I’m definitely thinking about that. … I think before, I was so worried about over-politicizing my work because I didn’t want to lose opportunities. But I feel like I am established enough now and confident in myself now that that’s not something that I need to worry about.
What have the last few weeks been like for you as the Black Lives Matter movement has gained more traction, and issues that people of color have been talking about for years and centuries just got more audible to more people. What are you seeing?
It’s very eye-opening. I’ve been talking to a lot of social justice workers and activists over the years, and I already know about systemic racism. And the way that we treat black people in America is just disgraceful. It’s very telling to see all of these folks finally waking up to it, and then also disheartening at the same time to see a lot of these people online, for example, on Facebook, doubling down on their ignorance.
On top of that, I’m very privileged as a cisgender, white-passing Latino. I’ve been working on my own community, the Latinx community, that a lot of times does not acknowledge their privilege and also erases AfroLatinidad—black Latinos—from the umbrella of Latinidad. There’s a lot of racism within our own community that we need to work on. So, this is all very overwhelming, especially if you have male-privilege and white-privilege guilt, you know? I’ve taken the last few weeks to work on myself, have difficult conversations with my family, and look at what’s happening in Las Vegas, and see how I can be helpful in a positive way.
For people who plan to visit Test Site Projects to see your work, are you and the gallery handling the reception any differently than usual, given that the pandemic is still on?
Absolutely. People are going to be required to wear a mask, even though a lot of people think that COVID-19 is over. It is not. Please be careful, everybody. I think I’m mostly going to be hanging out outside, and then letting people in a few at a time. … There’s going to be a food truck and everything. So, I think it’s going to be a little bit easier to manage the flow.
What’s coming up for you next as an artist? Do you have your next project planned?
Yeah! This slowdown in my calendar has allowed me to really start making smaller works and work on a lot of commissions that I’ve been putting off for a long time. I’m pretty busy with that. The next thing I have scheduled is in October at the Amon Carter museum of American Art. We’re doing a big family fiesta, but I don’t know. I don’t want to say it’s going to happen. Because—who knows?
A reception for Justin Favela’s 20Twenty exhibition is planned for this Saturday, June 27, 2-7 p.m. To view the show before Saturday, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call (702) 706-8512. To learn more, visit Justin Favela’s website and Test Site Projects’ website.