A San Antonio native who grew up on the city’s South Side, Samuel Velasquez is a prolific millennial generation painter who had his first solo exhibition in 2012. A collection of his work is on display now at Freight Gallery through Jan. 4. In his vividly colorful and intricately detailed narrative paintings, Velasquez creates imaginative fantasy scenes using a psychedelic aesthetic sensibility, an approach that links him to a tradition that I documented in the 2010 book and San Antonio Museum of Art exhibition “Psychedelic: Optical and Visionary Art” since the 1960s.
Today, this trend can also be observed in works by many of the artists who are featured on the pages of Juxtapoz, one of Velasquez’s favorite art magazines. For many of the younger artists who paint this type of imagery, an important role model or cult hero is the pioneering visionary artist Alex Grey. The night I interviewed Grey about his life and art at SAMA, Velasquez was one of the lucky 200 who waited in line for three hours and got to sit in the auditorium. Another 300 or so watched us on a live feed in the outdoor courtyard. Grey has in fact influenced a number of young Latino artists in our area, including Albert Alvarez, Christian Amadeus Rodriguez, and Manuel Salazar. The conversation can be viewed here.
Although Velasquez drew a lot as a child, he did not consider becoming a professional artist until he took a painting class at Palo Alto College taught by Lloyd Walsh, one of San Antonio’s most respected artists who is known for oddball allegorical paintings of weird animals or quirky still life subjects. Encouraged by Walsh, Velasquez went on to study at UTSA, where he earned his BFA in 2012, and was then discovered immediately upon graduating by local painter, muralist and teacher Alex Rubio, whose work I included in the Psychedelic exhibition. Excited that he had come across a significant new talent with enormous promise, Rubio became Velasquez’s mentor and organized his debut solo exhibition at the original R Gallery, then located in the Lone Star Arts District.
One of Velasquez’s earliest paintings, “Gorillas and Tykes” (2009) depicts a scene that looks like it might have derived from a science fiction movie, as it shows a combat between alien beings who look like they could have walked off the sets of sci-fi classics such as Planet of the Apes or Star Wars. Velasquez is indeed a Star Wars fan who has seen every episode, but he is not interested simply in visual storytelling. Like most artists today and like George Lucas did in scripting “Star Wars,” he seeks to imbue his scenarios with deeper layers of meaning. In Velasquez’s case, sources of knowledge and inspiration include scholarship in the areas of research by the likes of Carl Gustav Jung, Joseph Campbell, and Terence McKenna.
Having started out at Palo Alto as a psychology major with an interest in abnormal behavior, Velasquez learned about Jung’s concept of universal archetypes from his studies. For Jung, who believed in the collective unconscious, images that appear in dreams as well as in disparate cultures and civilizations convey similar symbols and meanings, hence they are evidence of universal consciousness.
Campbell, whose works were introduced to Velasquez in a literature class, is well known due to the six-part PBS documentary “Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth,” which first aired in 1988 and is widely available through online media. Influenced by Jung, Campbell observed parallel patterns in the structure of myths from various cultures. The myth that fascinated Jung most and which has had a large impact on Velasquez is known as “the hero’s journey,” which involves suffering and setbacks on the road to enlightenment and bliss. In recent popular culture, the hero’s journey has been the basis for the narrative structure of the “Star Wars” movies (Lucas’s acknowledgment of this has been widely publicized).
McKenna was a student of shamanism and pioneering advocate of responsible use of natural (as opposed to synthetic) psychedelic substances. His ideas were highly influential on the rave culture of the 1990s. In his lectures, which Velasquez has read and watched online, McKenna described his hallucinations when experimenting with DMT (N,N-Demethyltryptamine), and assigned the name ‘Tyke’ to faceless elf-like beings that he encountered during his metaphysical journeys. Hence the Tykes referred to in the title of Velasquez’s painting are the spherical creatures who look like little Sputniks who are fighting gas-masked gorillas for control of a terrain populated with mutant plants that are a cross between strawberries and mushrooms (perhaps they are competing to be caretakers of John Lennon’s “Strawberry Fields”).
McKenna’s influence can also be found in Velasquez’s paintings “The Conversation” (2010) and “Seated at the Threshold” (2011). In The Conversation, a captivating work with swirling formations reminiscent of the clouds in the Sistine Ceiling, Velasquez sets up a dialogue between the imagined psychedelic world and the known natural one. In the hot orange foreground space, alien creatures engage in mysterious rituals while, in the distant nighttime forest viewed through a cavernous opening, a rabbit and deer react fearfully to visit from a Tyke who has the power to move back and forth through the transitional passageway between everyday reality and psychedelic consciousness. The cluster of animal forms spilling from the Tyke’s mouth as he begins to communicate with the forest inhabitants are based on McKenna’s report that, every time a Tyke speaks, a new reality is produced.
Compositionally, “Seated at the Threshold” shares stylistic affinities with the drawings and paintings of the early Surrealists, whose biomorphic images are often seen morphing from one thing into another. Yet similarities with these historical predecessors end when we consider Velasquez’s sources. Inspired by a podcast of a man describing his out-of-body experience, the painting’s narrative depicts an entire universe of flora and fauna, sea shells, plants and animals emerging from the mouth of a Tyke, shown in the left side of the composition emitting radiant light that accompanies the birth of a new and sumptuous universe. Throughout the painting, Velasquez has created a visually enthralling sense of “other-worldliness,” using a palette of bold colors accented with touches of golden luminosity to engage us in his spectacular imaginative vision. Through sheer visual splendor, Velasquez calls attention to the beauty and preciousness of living organisms.
In a number of paintings from 2011-12, mutation and hybrid themes take center stage in Velasquez’s fantasy worlds, with works such as “A Scream in to the Void” and “Fixated on Eternity” calling attention to one of today’s most pressing issues, the effects of climate change and pollution on the environment. In “A Scream into the Void,” a hungry whale appropriated from Disney’s “Pinocchio” acts as a metaphor for a force that has the power to destroy nature. Occupying the upper half of the composition, he is about to devour a floral garden, while tortoises and elephants scramble for safety. Concurrently, tiny microbes that look like colorful asteroids permeate the atmosphere, possibly carrying seeds of disease and decay. Taking us further into the cycle of destruction and rebirth, “Fixated on Eternity” reveals a hopeful outlook that characterizes Velasquez’s approach to environmental evolution. In this somewhat whimsical painting, displaced animals (including long extinct dinosaurs) have been transported to a foreign universe where some are shown struggling and others are at ease as they adapt to new conditions.
Influenced by McKenna’s lectures about the coexistence of multiple realities, Velasquez believes in the cyclical nature of growth and change, and that transition from one state to the next, including from life to death, is simply an exchange of one reality for another.
Velasquez’s philosophical outlook on nature can also be applied to human relationships, as evident in his latest paintings, several of which are on view now at Freight Gallery. In the new series, Velasquez employs the myth of the hero’s journey to work though his personal trauma of a breakup with his fiancé. In “Shattered” and “Nothing’s Sacred,” cartoonish protagonists—surrogates for the artist as well as for anyone who has ever experienced heartbreak— are shown coping with worlds disintegrating around them. In “Shattered,” a tearful spaceman sulks on a floating island that is adrift in space, with crumbling architecture, a landscape that drips blood into the universe, and splashes of splattered paint expressively echoing his anguish. But what do we make of the sunshine in the distance? While it could refer to the once joyful moments of the ended relationship, it might also signify a fresh new union waiting to be discovered. Similarly, in “Nothing’s Sacred,” despair is contrasted with hope. While pain and suffering are represented by devilish rats clinging like parasites to a tormented figure with Mickey Mouse’s body and a pyramid for its head, the figure’s all-seeing eyes envision cheerful rainbows and Disney‘s Fantasyland castle.
In the narrative painting “Inner Gloom,” Velasquez blends elements of McKenna ideas and “Star Wars” to remind us of the adage that “when one door closes another one opens. “ In this example, the wounded hero is the tiny spaceman in the foreground who is pondering his discovery of a new treasure, a little house that symbolizes the next episode in his journey through life. Looking like Neil Armstrong enjoying the thrill of his moonwalk, the force is surely with him. And the wise owl watching over him knows this too. With hell and falling buildings making their way towards the outer universe, a rosier future must certainly lie ahead.
*Top image: Samuel Velasquez. Photo by David Rubin.