Searching High and Low
José Villarrubia's Art Was Still a Work in Progress Until He Returned to his First Love--Comic Books
Now a professor of illustration at the Maryland Institute College of Art, Villarrubia spends much of his nonacademic time today coloring superhero comics for the so-called Big Two comic-book publishers, DC and Marvel. Even in the increasingly hip comics world, it's a pursuit that is decidedly uncool. Coloring is extremely labor intensive, involving hours of painstakingly detailed work, and it doesn't win one much attention or many accolades; colorists are generally listed just above letterers in comic-book credits. "It's more a craft than an art," he says.
The physical distance between the downtown Manhattan art galleries and the offices of the big comic-book publishers in midtown is a short one, not even a half-hour walk. The distance in all the ways it supposedly matters--culturally, artistically, attitudinally--is almost unfathomable. But Villarrubia's ability to easily move between the high- and the lowbrow, and his wide range of artistic and cultural interests, has served the 42-year-old native of Spain well. He has been able to call himself a professional artist for about 20 years, and his career has mostly flourished.
His success may seem unusual in the context of the modern art scene, but not when compared to recent stars like Gary Baseman, J. Otto Seibold, and Chris Ware, who similarly cross back and forth between comics, illustration, animation, and fine-art galleries willy-nilly. "That line between 'low' and fine art is very, very blurred," says Dan Nadel, editor of The Ganzfeld, an annual journal that covers illustration, graphic design, comics, and other "low" art forms. "But that's been the case forever. It just seems that now, certainly in the past five years, that's truer than in a long time."
Even after his considerable successes as a painter, a photographer, and a computer-based artist, more people than ever will see Villarrubia's art later this summer, when it is featured prominently in two books--one, Voice of the Fire, a novel, the other, The Mirror of Love, an epic poem--written by Alan Moore, the famed comic-book creator behind such seminal graphic novels as Watchmen and From Hell.
As much as any other local artist, Villarrubia epitomizes the current model of the working artist. Many art schools, including MICA to a great extent, are still set up to foster the old academy model, in which a student learns a single art form--painting, sculpture, photography, etc.--and then is expected to spend his or her career in the studio, obsessing over that discipline, never doing commercial work or changing mediums. But as the fine-art scene has become increasingly polyglot, and especially since the collapse of much of the traditional fine-art market in the early 1990s, fewer and fewer artists are following the old rules. They are, of course, teaching, but also unabashedly designing magazines, putting out clothing lines, and doing commercial illustrations. Even coloring comic books.
Dressed in jeans, sneakers, and a V-neck T-shirt while sitting on a couch in the living room of his Mount Vernon apartment/studio, Villarrubia laughs at the notion of his epitomizing the working artist. But he agrees, of course, that he is a working artist, and says that becoming an artist was his childhood dream.
He came to Baltimore in 1980--he had been an exchange student in Randallstown in the late '70s and made friends here--in part to escape political turmoil in Spain. At the Madrid university where he was studying art, strikes by both students and instructors frequently shut down classes. And despite the death of Francisco Franco in 1975, the country was still emerging from the fascist dictator's oppressive shadow, which included anti-homosexuality laws. "Under Franco, you couldn't talk about politics, sex, or religion freely," Villarrubia says.
He also came to the States hoping to get a job as a comic-book artist at DC or Marvel, whose comic books he read while growing up. After graduating with a bachelor's degree in fine arts from MICA in '83, he sent out his portfolio. The comic-book publishers rejected his work, but Villarrubia took it in stride.
"I had three gods back then--Richard Corben, Neal Adams, and Moebius," says Villarrubia, who is soft-spoken with a strong Spanish accent. "But I couldn't draw like any of them. I knew it was very hard to become a cartoonist, so I just moved on."
He moved on to Towson University, from which he graduated in 1986 with a master's in painting. Like most of his classmates, Villarrubia planned to follow the old rules--maybe do some teaching, but mostly he wanted to hole up in his studio and paint. And for a while he did that, becoming an adjunct painting instructor at Towson, finding local representation with the Gomez Gallery, and exhibiting at group and individual shows.
Even during his years as a student, however, it was obvious Villarrubia was not one to follow traditional paths. He frequently butted heads with his professors over his desire to do paintings influenced by classical art--especially Renaissance and ancient Roman artists and those influenced by them, like the Pre-Raphaelites and Symbolists of the 19th century--rather than modern and conceptual art. "I was a stubborn student and I knew what I wanted all the time," he recalls of his time at MICA. "The people we were told to look at--Edward Hopper, Pierre Bonnard--I just didn't jibe with. I wanted to work the way I wanted to work."
One might be quick to pin Villarrubia's art at the time--"mildly" homoerotic, classically influenced drawings and mixed-media works--on his homosexuality or even his nationality. He says, however, that his inspiration came mostly from his thorough classical studies, but also the dynamic anatomy of comics and fantasy art. (His first art book was one of Frank Frazetta paintings--"There's a lot of eroticism in his work," Villarrubia says. "His men are erotic, but so are his trees and clouds.") Villarrubia was also influenced by early-'80s pop culture. "The New Romantic thing, it was the best fashion," he says. "I mean, Adam Ant dressed like a pirate. . . . It was just grand. I wanted my art to take you somewhere else, not to be a reflection of life. My being gay and being Spanish only played a small part."
At least one of Villarrubia's friends disagrees on whether his ancestry influences his work. "He has a deep, raging passion," says David Drake, Villarrubia's friend of more than 20 years and occasional collaborator. "It's part of the earth in Spain. And he channels that into his work. He actually wants to give you that pain, love."
At Towson, master's candidate Villarrubia again found himself at odds with his professors. He says that one instructor told him that his work "looked like men's cologne ads," which was meant as an insult but that Villarrubia took as compliment: "I said, 'Which ones?'" "They wanted me to justify my work by a very specific fine-art standard. I wouldn't do that," he recalls.
Not that he learned nothing in college, of course. During his second year at Towson, Margarida Kendall Hull, a Washington, D.C.-area artist from Portugal, arrived as that year's visiting artist. "Thank God," Villarrubia says. "She was somebody who pushed me where I wanted to go."
Kendall Hull pushed him to follow his dreams of painting mythological themes in a contemporary context. "I had been under modernist painters, but she pushed me to go as baroque as I wanted to," Villarrubia says. "Instead of shoehorning me, she put herself in my shoes. . . . 'Put more leopard skin there, more silk here. The more extravagant, the better.'"
At this point in the story, Villarrubia is likely happy that his "artistic family" has not yet been mentioned. It always is, "right near the top," he says, but it must be. His MICA mini-bio reads, in part, "Jose Villarrubia was born in Madrid, Spain. He comes from an artistic family: his father had an advertising agency and his mother, Luz Jimenez-Momediano, an art gallery. She is now a documentary photographer. Two of Jose's brothers, Alvaro and Alejandro, are established photographers as well."
When asked about it, he winces and squirms in his seat. "My mother says, 'It's always the same,'" Villarrubia says, noting that, while she dabbled in painting while he grew up, his mother didn't open her gallery until years after he left home. It wasn't his family's artistic leanings that fostered his choice of career, he says, but their encouragement and his own desires.
"All children draw. I never stopped," Villarrubia says. "My mother always made sure we had plenty of paints and crayons and stuff around. In school, when I was 12, the art teacher called me up and said I had to get my mom to stop doing my homework for me. I said, 'I'm sorry to tell you, but my mother doesn't draw as well as I do.' I was a very confident little kid."
That confidence, and especially the stubbornness that leads Villarrubia to wave off the things he can't help--his family, sexuality, and nationality--and focus on the things he has taught himself, helps explain how he has changed directions so often during his career.
Aside from giving up his comic-book dreams for painting, Villarrubia's first major gear shift came around 1988, when he pretty much stopped painting and started taking fine-art photographs. The switch came as a surprise to many, as he had studied the brush and palette ever since he was a boy and had built a budding career as a painter. "Once I figure out how to do something, I don't like to do that anymore," he says.
Drake has a perhaps better explanation for his friend's frequent artistic turnarounds. He says Villarrubia is always searching--whether consciously or not--for ways to make his art reach more people.
"José is a very forward-moving person," says Drake, a Harford County native who is now a nationally known New York-based playwright. "He wants to give things to people, he wants to share. He moved from painting to photos to the computer, and, therefore, a larger and larger audience . . . rather than going the other direction into sculpture and other esoteric things."
Drake is quick to note, however, that Villarrubia's career path is not as calculated as he makes it sound. "He is never driven by capitalism," he says. "José is not interested in that big money or big fame."
Villarrubia was also becoming more influenced by gay-themed art at around the same time he was moving into photography. He recalls finding a book of Robert Mapplethorpe in the early '80s, while still in school. "Mapplethorpe was not just homoerotic but pornographic and fashion, but it was still fine art," he says. "I was intrigued--and aroused." In his first post-college exhibition, he quickly discovered homoerotic art's ability to shock. At the Life of Maryland Gallery in 1986, authorities removed Villarrubia's "Icarus," a male nude painting, from a show before it opened. "A little dick goes a long way," he says.
For his first foray into photography, Villarrubia recruited his friend Stephen John Phillips, an instructor at MICA, who taught him techniques and the technology. Another friend, Eric Zafran at the Walters Art Museum, put him in touch with New York's Wessel O'Connor gallery. "That was the home of the original Queer photography show," Villarrubia says. "That was an offensive word back them, and it got them a lot of attention."
Villarrubia's homoerotic work, indeed, earned him much attention and critical acclaim. "José Villarrubia's 'Danse Macabre,'" a photo of a man and a skeleton in an erotic embrace, "deals partly with AIDS and partly with the psychology--and historical myths . . . the links between youth, beauty, and death," wrote Daniel Brown in the October 1989 edition of Art Academy News. "The glory and beauty of youth cut in its prime, captured gorgeously in this Cibachrome image, relates not only to AIDS but to Apollo, to Icarus, to medieval morality plays, to Lord Byron, to Oscar Wilde, to the decimation of youth in the Great War."
His work was flamboyant and theatrical, taking delight in the male form. It was inhabited mostly by handsome, buff men dressed as angels, some deadly serious and others with ironic grins, and, later--in intentionally kitschy scenes inspired by the "physique" photos of the 1940s and '50s--jungle boys, Roman warriors, and sailors, all in G-strings, of course. Villarrubia's elaborate, dynamically colored photos found a niche in New York's gay art scene; they were less threatening than the work of, say, Mapplethorpe but more dramatic than the scene's many straightforward portraitists, and, like the work of David LaChapelle, borrowed from both painterly and photographic traditions. And they came along at a time when gay art, especially the male nude, was at the peak of its cultural and financial popularity.
"There was an explosion of art in the gay community in the '80s," says Drake, who has written several gay-themed plays, including The Night Larry Kramer Kissed Me. "There was the activist community, the legacy and energy of Keith Haring, and, heck, the Madonna interview in The Advocate. There was an explosion of male sexuality in the midst of a male gay health crisis."
"That opened a lot of doors, being in SoHo, in New York, in a beautiful gallery," Villarrubia says. "Everyone dressed up for openings, sales were really good, and it was very glamorous. [Wessel O'Connor's owners] were crazy about my work, they put me in collections in Europe. I was in the right time at the right place."
The art market soon started going south, however. Due to the recession of the early 1990s, galleries across the country closed; Wessel O'Connor went to by-appointment-only status in '96. "The art world collapsed," Villarrubia says. "I continued doing fine-art stuff for a while and showed in Baltimore. The reviews were good, but it was very expensive to produce art unless I was selling a lot."
Things were so bad that when, in March '95, an interviewer for the Washington, D.C., gay paper Metro Weekly asked him what he was going to do next, Villarrubia says now that he "had no idea. I couldn't afford to exhibit again."
Then he and Phillips took a PhotoShop class together. "It was 100 percent clear to me, that's what I had to do," Villarrubia says of computer-manipulated photography. While he was "completely lost" during the first week of classes--he had never really used a computer before--he soon approached Walter Gomez of Gomez Gallery, and told him about his new ideas. For one, he wanted to find a larger audience, to move away from homoeroticism and use the computer to create images even more classical, more mythological, than his male nudes. Gomez was enthused and immediately scheduled a show for September '95.
"This was June," Villarrubia recalls. "I had to do something that wasn't embarrassing to him or me. But I did the show, the reviews were good, it sold well."
Besides homoeroticism, his new work also moved away from the irony and conceptuality of his angels and kitsch series and, while still filled with rich colors and male bodies, was much less flamboyant. While one could read this as Villarrubia dropping what Drake calls "his health art" just as new, powerful drug cocktails were beginning to bring the AIDS crisis under control, his friend says he suspects the artist's mythology- and religious-themed digitally manipulated photography was more what he wanted do all along.
"He's not interested in abstracts," Drake says. "He is a classical artist. He loves the story."
"[Drake's plays and Alan Moore's comics are] very moving, in a very simple way," Villarrubia says. "My work now is much more emotional and narrative. I work very hard to make it emotional without it becoming melodramatic."
Around this same time, in the mid-'90s, Villarrubia found his teaching career at Towson falling apart. "I had excellent student evaluations, good relationships with my peers, I was active throughout the campus--I was doing posters for the dance and theater departments--and I had a very active professional life," he says. "However, that never affected my standing at Towson at all--at all."
Instead, around 1996, the then-chairman of Towson's Visual Art Department started steadily decreasing Villarrubia's teaching hours. "The politics were just crazy, and I'm not interested in politics and never have been," Villarrubia says. "I'm just not that kind of guy."
The loss of teaching hours at Towson and the increase in cost of doing fine art was a double blow for Villarrubia. "Things were not working out the way I thought they would," he says.
Instead of doing what many artists, writers, and other creative types do when they find themselves broke and 15 or so years into a career--that is, find a job in advertising--Villarrubia's stubbornness kicked in, and a little luck came his way. Before losing most of his Towson hours, he had begun picking up some teaching hours in 1997 at his other alma mater, MICA. He worked at getting more and more hours at the art school and taught at both Towson and the Maryland Institute for a couple of years.
"Eventually, after three or four years, I got a call from [MICA's] associate dean with an offer to go full-time," says Villarrubia of his invitation in 2000 to become a professor of illustration at the art school. "I never applied for the position, so I was flabbergasted."
The things he did "right" at Towson--building relationships, showing work, curating, etc.--weren't what got Villarrubia the MICA job, however. Following up on his childhood dream of becoming a comic-book illustrator did. In 1992 he had curated a show of comics illustration at Maryland Art Place, where he had displayed the work of acclaimed comic-book penciller Jae Lee, who, after becoming "great phone friends" with Villarrubia over the next couple of years, asked him in 1994 to color his series Hellshock.
"In our phone conversations, he was always complaining about the coloring in comics--that is was well-done technically, but that it was garish, that the colorists obviously had no painting background," Lee says over the phone from his home in New York. "At the company I worked for then, Image Comics, the creators were responsible for hiring everyone, so I asked José to color [Hellshock]."
Lee says Villarrubia's coloring adds "life and emotion" to his "clean, cold" linework. "It didn't look like anything else out there," he says. "He brought an artistic sensibility, intent, into the [mainstream] comics field. Very rarely did these two worlds collide--superheroes, or whatever, and fine art--before José. But now, he's influential."
Indeed, Villarrubia's computer-produced pseudo-watercolors (and, at first, actual watercolors) are sumptuous, adding mood and drama to whatever he works on. Lee and Villarrubia ended up working on several comics series together, including Inhumans, The Sentry, Fantastic Four: 1234, and, most recently, Captain America: Ice. And since 1999, his coloring skills have won Villarrubia great acclaim in the comic-book industry and given him the chance to work with about 40 other cartoonists, including his teenage hero Richard Corben, for whom he colored the Cage miniseries.
"All these years I'd been a professional illustrator, and I didn't even know it," Villarrubia says. "All of a sudden, all this comics stuff . . . became an asset. It was nice, because I never did it for that. Everything I've done, I've done out of a love, out of passion."
While Villarrubia loved the chance to work in comics, something was missing: The freedom to do the work he wanted to do. "This comics coloring thing was going great, and I was looking really good professionally, but I hadn't done any fine art for two years or so," he says. "I was getting away from complete freedom."
Several things he had done over the past few years were lining up to give Villarrubia back that freedom, however. In 1998, he finally fulfilled a longtime promise to Drake and approached him to work on a theatrical production, an adaptation of Alan Moore's epic poem/comic about the cultural history of homosexuality, Mirror of Love. Moore had originally written the piece for a comic-book benefit anthology in opposition to Thatcher-era Britain's Clause 28, a law which banned many references to homosexuality.
"I thought it was beautiful, and it made me cry," Villarrubia says of Mirror of Love. ""I had been friends with David [Drake], and he was always, always, trying to get me to perform something. I faxed it to him and, that night, saw [Gabriel Shanks] from the Theatre Project, who was wanting to get more nontheater people to do stuff for them, and was bugging me to do something. And I said, 'Guess what?'" Theatre Project booked Mirror of Love for its Queer Café 2 in June 1998, and Villarrubia took on another art form--acting.
"David decided I had to be nude, so I went to the gym for the first and last time in my life," Villarrubia recalls. "That was the easy part. David taught me the basics--the hard part--diction, body movement, faces. After we performed it, I thought that was that."
Not so. In 1999, DC Comics published Veils, a graphic novel about a woman married to an abusive nobleman who finds herself initiated into an Arabian harem. It was written by Pat McGreal and illustrated by Villarrubia and Phillips using digitally manipulated photographic artwork. Villarrubia sent it to Moore, who, he says, found Veils to be "psychedelic, in the best sense of the word--that it revealed the psyche." Moore, who had also seen a tape of Villarrubia's Queer Café performance, told him he'd eventually like to work on a magic-themed book or graphic novel with Villarrubia, but that, he says imitating the eccentric Englishman's deep voice, "It's not gonna happen for a few years."
The comic-book writer, however, was able to offer the artist a chance to work on Promethea, his comic-book series often described as "Wonder Woman done right."
"It was really up my alley," Villarrubia says. "There was fantasy, mythology. I asked him to, and Alan allowed me to illustrate the Prometheus legend." He illustrated the dozen or so pages of Promethea he worked on in a similar style to that of Veils, an extremely labor-intensive process. "One of the panels had 46 layers of imagery," he says. "It's many days worth of work per panel."
Weary of the time-consuming graphic-novel work, he went back to the drawing board.
"I had read Voice of the Fire, and really liked it, but I thought the British edition was pretty shabby," Villarrubia says of Moore's first novel, originally published in 1996, in which the voices of 12 Northampton, England, residents, including Moore, relate 5,000 years of the darker aspects of human history. "So I offered Alan an illustrated edition of Voice of the Fire" in 2000. Moore agreed, and Villarrubia recruited Marietta, Ga.-based alternative-comics publisher Top Shelf Productions to put it out. He also got Top Shelf to commit to an illustrated edition of Mirror of Love.
"Chris [Staros, Top Shelf's publisher] thought Mirror was going to be a comic," Villarrubia says. "But I saw it immediately fully realized in my head--one of my computer-manipulated photo illustrations per stanza, 40 in all. These books are similar to, but a modern update of, the illustrated books of years ago. . . . I like to think we're reviving a genre, the illustrated book for adults."
And over the past two years, working on these two books has been Villarrubia's fine-art project, in which he gets to avoid editors and deans and be truly expressive and free. For Mirror's many illustrations, he has traveled to several European and U.S. cities. And for Voice, he spent one memorable day in May 2002 rambling around Northampton and the nearby countryside with Melinda Gebbie, Moore's girlfriend. There, he says, he took "lots and tons and tons and tons of pictures, a lot of photos," though the new edition of the novel will feature only 13 illustrations.
Moore also got his first look at some of Villarrubia's work for Mirror during the latter's Northampton trip. "[Moore]'d look at a picture and just start t o say the stanza it referred to," Villarrubia recalls. "Some it took him a minute to figure it out, but he did. It was awesome."
Moore says he is equally enthused about bringing Voice and, especially, Mirror to larger audiences. "It was comics in a kind of poetic format--a eulogy to gay culture," he notes over the phone from his home in Northampton. "But it was crammed into eight pages, and perhaps suffered for it. Gay culture really demands something more elaborate than eight pages in black and white. I hope it gets the reception it deserves. The culture has changed in the past 15 years or so, so it should."
Infamously choosy about collaborators and particular what goes on in each page, Moore says he gave Villarrubia so much freedom on these two projects because "José is on such a similar wavelength . . . that there was really no need for me to oversee it. We kind of like the same things. We have quite decadent sensibilities--color, texture, the classics."
The two Moore books are a culmination of Villarrubia's 20-plus-year career to date, combining many of his interests: classical art, photography, gay themes, and comics. Indeed, in his photo illustrations for Mirror of Love, Villarrubia has to attempt to cover the entire human history of homosexuality, from the Spartans and Catholic oppression to Oscar Wilde, gay pride, and AIDS. And to do so, he mostly leaves behind the purely figurative work of his past and shoots landscapes, closeups, and even some nearly abstract scenes.
"I long to be more like them," he says of the narrative artists he admires. "Everything is so structured. I really respond to that in classic writing, even in paragraph writing. I'm trying to do that in my work in a visual way, balancing lighting, chiaroscuro, classical allusions."
Villarrubia has used these techniques and the things he has learned over the years to create a niche for himself, a way for him to produce the work he wants and make a living at it, to be a working artist. He says these are lessons he now passes on to his students at MICA.
"I started out teaching very young," Villarrubia says. "In the beginning, I had a lot of enthusiasm, but I was very inexperienced and I didn't have a lot to tell [my students] about the professional world. I had to learn it on my own. And the longer I teach, the more information I have to pass on to them."
While he notes that art schools could do a better job preparing their students for the world of the working artist, Villarrubia places just as much blame on the "typical artistic temperament."
"It's being a bit of a dreamer, being an artist," he says. Such a temperament is not ideal for a businessperson, he continues, "but that's what you are."
Villarrubia says he is honest with his students about the world outside of school. "The fine-art business is really, really tough," he says. "It's extraordinarily rare to support yourself just with your art. If I got good representation, good reviews, I thought I could make a living--and I learned that's not the case. You have to be flexible, you have to find the work, wherever it is."
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