Sissy No Fool: An Interview with Marcel Alcalá at SADE

Curate LA
9 min readDec 5, 2019

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Originally from Santa Ana, CA, Marcel Alcalá (b. 1990) is a queer Chicanx artist that just recently returned to Los Angeles after a 2-year stint in Brooklyn, NY.

Marcel Alcalá and My Version Of Olympia, 2019 [Photo by Svet Jacqueline]

Known for a multi-media practice including performance, sculpture, drawing, and styling, their new body of work deals in large format oil pastel narratives and explores themes of identity, gender, class systems, iconography, navigating the art world + so much more.

We recently visited Marcel Alcalá at their current exhibition Sissy No Fool at SADE Gallery for a walkthrough and casual chat:

Shelley Holcomb (Curate LA): Let’s start with the press release. Can you explain the poem?

Marcel Alcalá: “Sissy No Fool” is just like me being confident with myself as a result of growing up being called a “sissy” for so long. I’m taking the term back. Spinning it. It’s not me literally defending my gender but flowing with my gender. He, she, they, I’m open to all. I wanted to name the poem the same as the title of the show, it’s like a motivational speech for myself.

Shelley: There’s noticeable growth in the works too. They’re quite literally much larger than works you’ve made in the past.

Marcel: Honestly, yeah. I’ve been working on a lot of oil pastel works, which you see here. There’s like a couple of different routes that I’ve been taking and it all stems from the idea of the clown and the Payasa parties I was throwing. I kind of started my art practice through the use of the clown and performance.

Shelley: I remember the McDonalds performances.

Marcel: Yeah, those were called “McPoems”. So doing stuff like hosting performances at the McDonald’s here in Silverlake and around town and then later doing it in like Chicago and in Europe. That was a means to kind of troll the norm but most importantly to take up space. It was also a great way to meet other artists, performance artists, poets, and musicians when I first moved to L.A. And so I got to curate this super iconic situation in the Play Place and discover new works from different people because I always learn a lot from people that I surround myself with. Emily Lucid is one of those poets, who actually wrote the press release, she’s one of my favorite writers.

So through that experience and doing performances, that’s where I started using the idea of comedy vs. tragedy and the concept of the clown in my artwork. The smiley face and the sad faces being easy archetypes to understand emotion. That duality. And it’s the same with gender. So a lot of these works deal with that.

Marcel Alcalá at SADE Gallery [Photo by Svet Jacqueline]

Shelley: So the Payasa trope, you said that it’s kind of like your way of trolling?

Marcel: When I first started Payasa, it was a form of trolling. I was living in the suburbs after college because I was super broke. And I was like “how can I be a part of art discourse when I’m so secluded?”. So I would dress up as a clown and post it on my Instagram and through that, I would get hired to come into L.A. to do clown performances. So I basically would fake that I was going to work as a clown online and then slowly institutions and parties like Mustache would hire me to do performances. And then I was like, “Okay, like what is my actual IRL performance?” So I would start writing poems, using music scapes, and collaborating with my group of friends who called themselves The Gurts, to create these situations and like time-based performances by using makeup, dance, and sound.

Shelley: And that was all pre-drawings.

Marcel: That was pre-drawing, yes.

Shelley: So then you started doing the drawings, and I feel like when you started you were just drawing your friends, right?

Marcel: I was doing portraits of all of my closest friends doing selfies. And that was the first series. Then after those, I moved to New York and I was starting to meet new people, but still didn’t feel like I had a close family as I did in Los Angeles. So then I realized how I wanted to try creating my own narratives in the work, not just portraits of people.

Marcel Alcalá in Lincoln Heights [Photo by Svet Jacqueline]

Shelley: Yes, I feel like in these new works there’s so much more symbology and the use of landscapes.

Marcel: I am still interested in doing portraits of people, but this show, in particular, is definitely from just the last year and it’s me processing what’s been happening in our culture. There’s a lot of conversation about class and conversations about land ownership and about “what is the border?”. Lots of questioning with no real answers TBH. For me, the current concept of the border is weird because it’s existed for so long and now it’s a topic of extremity, but I’ve had family who’s been blocked from coming from the US for like 30 plus years. Like this has been happening for a very long time. It’s literally a part of my culture.

My grandma, for example, her parents came pre-Depression to work the copper mines in Arizona from Jalisco. So technically she was born in the US. When the depression happened, they had to move back because they had nowhere to go, they tried moving to Northern California but ended up going back to Jalisco when she was a child. There she met my grandpa and had a dozen children, including my mom. And so my family has had that conversation for generations, everyone’s kind of like born on one side or the other and then figuring out how to meet each other literally in middle.

So it’s just like a common conversation. And honestly, I’m glad that we’re having this conversation to this extreme because it is very important.

Shelley: Totally, most people don’t even think about it, unless it’s something they see on the news. It’s not something that’s embedded in their family dynamic like yours.

Marcel: Yeah. I mean like crossing the border from Tijuana to San Diego is quite literally that duality I’m talking about in these works. I see how people are being treated in Tijuana and then you go to San Diego, which is such a white space and such an intense industrial city that has an army base there.

I’m into the extreme, I’m into just being like shook, you know. And sometimes it’s like I’m addicted to being shook. I want people to see what I see. Drawings are a good way at subtly feeding serious information, ‘cuz they are cartoon-like.

Shelley: So earlier you spoke about the concept of a Quinceañera, specifically pertaining to this piece. Can you expand on that?

The Battle (Quince con Poder), 2019 [Photo by Svet Jacqueline]

Marcel: Yes, so this piece is called “The Battle. Quince con Poder”, and I’ve always been obsessed with the concept of a Quinceañera. In Latin culture, it’s when a girl becomes a woman and when I say “becomes” I mean, that’s when the Virgin was pregnant at 15. I had always wanted one but I was a “boy,” so later in my life at 21 in Chicago, I had my own. In this piece, I really wanted to make her feel excited because she is a stand-in for me and other Latinx femmes. I drew her first and then was like, “what is she on top of?”. Initially, it was going to be super gruesome and bloody, but in fact, you can’t really tell if they’re dead bodies that she’s sitting on. They just kind of look like dummies. They’re like faceless white-passing managers in executives suits. So it’s thinking about, “are they like dead pile or are they an actual mountain?” A mountain of developers.

Shelley: And in this other piece, what about this central figure which feels much more indigenous than the others?

In the Midst of the Inner Spirit, 2019

Marcel: This piece is called “In the Midst of the Inner Spirit” and it was actually the first piece that I made for the series. It’s basically just that, what I think people like me’s inner spirits look like. It’s on top of this prehistoric pedestal in what could be Texas because the back mission looks like the Alamo, but in some parts of the piece, there is no specific place, it’s all just super surreal.

We see the wall again, but it looks into something that could be could be beautiful, except here is a willow tombstone next to it. There are also childlike chalk drawings, reminiscent cave paintings, on the sidewalks, a police station on fire and the quintessential home. I’m obsessed with the idea of Manifest Destiny because it’s iconic trash. To me, surely a house would be really nice to own, but like, when am I ever going to own a house? Because it doesn’t feel like I can have a house right now.

Shelley: Is there is a reason that you didn’t include much sexual content in the works in the show? I feel like that’s kind of your M.O. or how I know you, at least.

Marcel: I didn’t want to do it for this show. I make so much work that’s like that so I wanted these particular works to be a little separate than those. More story-like. I bet my next show will be extremely sexual considering I start my residency at the Tom of Finland Foundation DEC 1st through the end of February. There will be an opening for that work at the Residency on the 22nd of Feb.

Marcel Alcalá at SADE Gallery [Photo by Svet Jacqueline]

Shelley: So Is there a central theme to this whole show?

Marcel: I think these works exist on their own. They’re all super emotional and like they just come out spontaneously when I see the piece of paper. I think at the end of the day, the show is about a queer Latinx person just navigating through the world. Notes of my everyday experiences.

When I was studying art at SAIC, I felt really disconnected from my body, I was making conceptual work that I thought art was supposed to be. Minimal absent of true expression. Then when I graduated and was broke, I realized I had been denying myself of my truth. I’m a Mexican-American queer sissy from Santa Ana, my family’s from Jalisco, and I’m not a fool. I can create colorful works because I like to play with vibrance. I’m just a colorful ass bitch. Period.

Amor Eterno, 2019 and Bathroom Mirror Check-Up, 2019
Cult of the Souls AKA Trade Pool, 2019

Sissy No Fool is on view at SADE Gallery through December 8th, Saturday and Sunday 1–6pm, with a closing reception Dec. 8th 7–11pm featuring performances by Marcel Alcalá, Emily Lucid & Liz Lee, and DJ Marilyn. Check out more of Marcel here: @marcel_alcala

Photography by Svet Jacqueline, Dress by Natasha Newman-Thomas.

Shelley Holcomb is an independent curator, artist, and founder of Curate LA, living and working in Los Angeles. Find them here: @shelleyhol

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Curate LA

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