Cande Aguilar Creates Art at a Cultural Crossroads
Carving out artworks that explore the juxtaposition of Mexican and American culture in a unique BarrioPop style
When we first launched D Emptyspace, we didn’t know what to expect. How would artists interact with the app? Would they use it as we expected or find new ways to share their art?
When we saw what Texan artist Cande Aguilar was doing with his gallery space, we knew right away that we’d found our next interviewee. By layering photos behind his artworks to customize the gallery walls behind his artwork, he really made the gallery space his own.
Aguilar lives in Brownsville, a city in south Texas that borders Mexico both physically and culturally. His distinctive BarrioPop style combines found images and symbols from pop culture into multimedia creations. Working on large wooden panels from his home studio, he’s created an impressive body of work that comments on the complex juxtaposition of Mexican and Texan culture.
What led you to decide to be an artist? Was it something you knew from a very young age or did your passion develop over time?
I was raised by a musician (dad) and a music lover (mom). My dad was in a well-known conjunto band and used to take me along with him to the gigs. I grew up listening and watching master conjunto accordionists, thinking back, it was like as is a painter watched master painters Van Gogh or Picasso create. The accordionists were real masters of their art.
Music was sort of like a doorway into the arts for me. Some of my first memories of visual art are of my uncles doodling on school paper, drawing lowrider cars, I just remember my little four-year-old brain realizing that drawing existed and thinking “wow, that’s something that you can do?” It turned out to be an important moment that would lead me to becoming a visual artist.
“Growing up I never thought I would be a visual artist. I thought that I would follow in my dad’s footsteps and my life would be music.“
In high school, I took art classes, but didn’t really think about it seriously… In the back of my mind, I was already jamming on stage with my dad in my godfather’s conjunto band (Gilberto Perez y sus compadres)!
I ended up creating a band after high school with a couple of close friends and stuck with it for about 9 years. Then, in 1998, I began to sketch, picked up pastels and oil paints in between gigs to make little drawings, more or less a year before our lead singer quit the band to have a family. That’s when I knew my life as a traveling musician had ended.
Eventually, I got to the level where I wasn’t just squeezing paint directly from tubes but mixing colors and stretching my own canvases to create a more accurate representation of my imagination. That’s when my art really started to take off; the transformation from musician to visual artist was complete and I had my first solo exhibition in 2001.
Do you have a routine or space that helps you get into creation mode?
When I started, I would actually paint outside. I had a little cargo van with my materials in there. And so every evening, come eight o’clock, nine o’clock at night, I would pull everything out from my van, put it outside and work through the night.
Nowadays, I work in our garage that I converted into a studio space. I tend to work only at night when everyone is asleep. I have 4 kids, and with all the distractions during the day, it’s difficult to get into the swing of things. So yeah, lately I’ve been working from about 9 pm onwards.
When I walk into my studio, sometimes the creativity flows quickly. I just pick up a brush or whatever medium I’m using and go. But other days it takes a little while to get started. I just sit around in the studio absorb the work I’ve done so far and enjoy what I produced the night before. The art always sucks me back in, and by the time I know it, a few hours have passed and I’m happily covered in paint.
“When it comes to actually focusing and trying to carve out some kind of image and form some kind of connection from my imagination to the surface of the work, it takes some time to myself.”
Your artwork is so textured, so detailed, so intricate. Do you specifically curate the types of surfaces you display it on?
That’s something that I’ve been recently doing at my exhibitions. I try to change the atmosphere as much as possible. I try my best to give the viewers a certain context of how the work can look in a different environment.
It’s funny how that worked out on D Emptyspace. I just tried to customize the space, and it worked, and I kept thinking, “I can really play with this!” One of the main reasons I really like the app is because it helps me put the work within a virtual context. You can see what the paintings could potently look like next to each other, like sketching out a model or floorplan. The app works as a practical tool, a lot of fun for me and exciting for the viewer.
What’s it like to make a living as an artist, setting up exhibitions, and balancing everything?
Some time ago I was kind of feeling sorry for myself and thinking, “man, nothing’s happening even though I’m having a bunch of shows I thought things aren’t the way I would like them to be,” so I thought “I’m not going to attempt to enter or make any shows. I’m just gonna paint, and keep making the art.”
And then all of a sudden, a few days later, I get an email from a dealer in New York who was interested in my work. And now I have my first exhibition in New York City, keeping me really busy and hopeful for the future.
Those ups and downs are part of the mystery and enjoyment of being an artist. When you want to give up, but then something happens and you know you just need to hold on and keep going, it’s not easy “making a living from making art”
“Even if art wasn’t commercially viable, I wouldn’t be able to stop painting. Even if I go a few days without spending time in my studio, I can notice my mood starts to shift. Art has a real hold on me… I have to work.”
Can you talk us through what you were thinking when you created this piece?
This painting is of our international bridge here in Brownsville TX that connects the United States and Mexico. It’s known as el Puente Nuevo or The New Bridge in English.
I transferred an image of the Millennium Falcon from Star Wars flying over the bridge. As I do in many of my paintings, I juxtaposed mainstream pop culture icons, and/or appropriate from art history to form a sense of belonging because, in this region, we are not really considered “American” or even “Mexican”… it's kind of like living in a cultural limbo.
So when locals see this particular painting they might think, “Oh, that’s our bridge from here, right? And, that’s the Star Wars spaceship”, making it interesting to them.
On the other hand the painting dives into the immigration issue we have. The Millennium Falcon has always been a symbol of hope in the Star Wars story and so flying over the bridge is kind of bringing hope, amidst all the negative immigration stories.
There’s this stereotype of the tortured artist, the starving artist, the outlier of society… What do you think about that?
I’m a family guy, I have four kids, a 16-year-old, 14-year-old, a 10-year-old and a three-year-old. So, as you can imagine, I consciously have to remain sane. I have to (and want to) function as a normal person for my family.
You can get lost in this in this artistic vision or whatever you want to call it. A lot of people become over eccentric and can’t handle normal life.
“I’ve always felt that I have to maintain a foot on the ground, that I can’t just come in my studio and forget about everything. That’s really important to me.”
Have your kids and life as a “family guy” influenced your BarrioPop artwork?
When my 16-year-old was around 5, she made this fantastic little stick figure drawing. And so I blew it up and used it to create one of my most recognizable paintings.
Along with her drawing, I appropriated local icons, the childhood image of Christopher Robin, and brought in a landscape from one of Vincent Van Gogh’s paintings. To me, Vincent van Gogh’s artwork has always been very peaceful, even though he was known to be socially challenged.
That stick figure and Christopher Robin are singing a duet, they represent the sister cities of Brownsville and Matamoros. One side the US and the other Mexico. Back when I painted this work, the violence first started flaring up in Matamoros, and I was kind of in denial. I didn’t want to accept that bad things were happening in Mexico, just around the corner. And so the title “Land of Peace” came up.
With my most recent BarrioPop work, I’ve been incorporating my kid’s old coloring book pages by transferring them onto my work. It’s a technique (image transfer) I’ve used from the very beginning and draws inspiration from the work of Robert Rauschenberg. I should add that my kiddos have profoundly influenced my work and continue to do so with their individual personalities.
If you could give every aspiring artist one piece of advice, what would it be?
Don’t stop working. Don’t stop. Don’t stop doing the artwork, don’t stop practicing it. Because it’s true what Picasso said about inspiration…
“Inspiration exists, but it has to find you working.” — Pablo Picasso
You have to just go in there and do it. Just go in, in your studio, or wherever your work and go at it. Eventually, you’ll develop your own voice.
Keep working, even if you don’t want to show your work to anybody, as long as you know you can do it, and you do it for yourself. That’s, that’s fine, too.
Do you see technology changing the way we appreciate art?
Back when I started in early 2000, I used to work on my pieces and put them aside for later exhibitions. Nobody would see the work until months later when I was going to have an actual show.
Technology has changed that. Now I can make a work, photograph it, and publish it when I want. Even if I only get three viewers on Instagram, at least somebody’s going to see it right away.
To me, that’s the moment where my art comes off of life support and takes a life in its own right.
So yeah, social media has definitely changed the way artists create and viewers interact. When somebody comments, either negatively or positively, there’s always something to learn. And I think that becomes part of the artwork.
Tell us about your upcoming exhibition in New York? Are there any other exhibitions planned this year?
Cande Aguilar’s exhibition “barrioPOP” will be held at 81 Leanard Gallery located at 81 Leanard Street in New York from September 5th to September 28th. You can grab the show info on Aguliar’s Instagram page (@barriopop).
It’s the first show that the gallery will host; it’ll be a double debut. One for me and one for the gallery, so it’s pretty exciting.
I have another show, coming up in Lubbock, Texas at the Louise Hopkins Underwood Center for the Arts. You can catch that one from October 4th to November 30th.