When Juventino Aranda tells someone he went to art school at Eastern Washington University, he is usually met with the response, where is that? Even those who live in Washington State may not be familiar with the city of Cheney, where the school resides. Few would also likely associate the nearby town of Walla Walla, where the artist works today, with contemporary art as much as they would with the wine and farmlands for which the area is better known.
Yet, the quickly rising Aranda, who graduated with his BFA in sculpture in 2010 and whose multimedia work stood out in several large group shows in the Seattle region this past year, said the isolation is only physical: “Because of the connections of the Internet and easy air travel, we can make art anywhere we choose. We don’t have to be in those bigger cities.” The professors he encountered at Eastern Washington University brought their experiences from New York and other parts of the world to the classroom in ways that Aranda internalized. He travels frequently to New York and Los Angeles and digs into the online collections of museums as part of his process. The outward-facing nature of his practice is a testament to the success the artist strikes at balancing his internal concerns with those of the larger art world and beyond.
The origin of the Rothko-esque color fields painted on Pendleton blankets for which Aranda is becoming known embody the history behind his practice. Raised by a family who labored as migrant workers in Eastern Washington, the blanket mill in nearby Pendleton, Oregon, had always been part of his consciousness while growing up. Despite being “fascinated” by its presence, it wasn’t until an encounter with artist Matthew Day Jackson that he began integrating the blankets into his work.
In 2011, Aranda worked at the Walla Walla Foundry, a workshop and fabrication site that has brought artists as varied as Paul McCarthy, Maya Lin, Kiki Smith and Jim Dine to this quiet part of the state. During a visit to Day Jackson’s studio, Aranda encountered a Pendleton blanket pattered with skulls that the factory created in reference to Dia de los Muertos. The blanket penetrated Aranda’s consciousness, eventually prompting him to tour the nearby factory that had fascinated him during his youth. The experience reminded him “of my own community, the Latino community, where we are still the help… We’re still kept behind the scenes, used as the labor force and not as the people at the front of the business.”
Following his visit, Aranda began using discarded blankets from the mill as canvases that he fuses with painted forms that evoke Rothko’s color fields. The resulting patterns of oranges, reds, and blues buzz with the competing familiarities of their appropriated sources. The tensions built into these works allude to the way a perspective from the largely white, male cannon of art history can drown out other voices and sources, which in turn have their own histories as complex as that of the Pendleton blankets. Aranda’s titles add narrative elements that bring out some of those complexities, such as When All You Have Left are Limes, Make Margaritas, Nod, and Smile, and Old and Faithful since 1848 (Yellowstone). The pointed commentary embedded in these words reinforce Aranda’s goal to create work “that doesn’t hold back. I make work that I feel is pretty, but I don’t make work that is only a pretty face.”
Although he has focused more on the Pendleton works in recent years, the artist will present both paintings and sculptures in his first show with Seattle’s Greg Kucera Gallery this January, titled “Weed the Lawn and Feed the Roses.” As Aranda prepares new work for the show, this includes some work that he created in the past, but is rebuilding as it finds a renewed sense of urgency in the present. All is Not Quiet on the Southwestern Front is a sculpture the artist first built in 2011 that resembles a blue police barrier missing two of its legs, leaning precariously into the floor. After recreating the piece this summer in response to the incidents of police brutalities seen around the country, he will resurrect it again for this show, in light of the election. His newest sculpture will also appropriate one of Donald Trump’s red baseball caps and its “Make America Great Again” slogan. “I want to create work that is a relic of future history,” Aranda says. For now, viewers fortunate enough to encounter the artist’s resonant relics in the New Year can expect an engaging body of work—which despite its sumptuously handsome façade, looks to reflect contemporary society on multiple levels, through a historically-informed perspective that is very much his own.
“Juventino Aranda: Weed the Lawn and Feed the Roses” can be seen at Greg Kucera Gallery, in Seattle, WA. January 5 – February 18, 2017.