This Friday, Brooklyn-based artist Tamara Santibañez will unveil Landscapes, a collection of large-scale paintings focusing on a single inanimate object: a black leather jacket. Taking a modern, sexy approach to a classic is a recurring theme in Santibañez’s work, and Landscapes, showing at L.A.’s Slow Culture gallery, represents a focused step in her evolution as an artist long inspired by punk, fetishism and Chicano tattooing. She sees the eclectic but surprisingly cohesive collection of themes and techniques that she likes to explore as a form of a self-portraiture, as well as a way to tackle more universal ideas about sex, gender and cultural identity. And she considers the paintings in Landscapes to be her most revealing work to date.
The enlarged, photorealistic leather rippling across the canvas in warm, oily detail is simple but beautiful. To Santibañez, it’s also extremely personal. “I primarily paint objects that are my own and have seen years of wear,” she explains. “The leather jacket is a way to sort of map my own body as a form of self-portraiture.”
We sat down with Santibañez to discuss everything from her early obsession with black metal, to queer DIY tattooing, to the leather jacket’s power to transform a basic ballpark frank into a “punk hot dog.”
From black and gray Chicano-style tattoos of bandolier-wearing mujeres to illustrated Black Lips posters to paintings of BDSM masks, the symbolism of subcultures has always been at the center of your art. What are you focusing on right now?
My work has always been about identity and symbols and icons, but lately I’ve been focusing specifically on sexuality, gender and power, and in a more personal way. The work for this show is definitely in that vein.
Landscapes is your first solo show on the West Coast, and your first time exhibiting a recent foray into oils.
I was doing works on paper with watercolor for a long time. I hadn’t painted with oils since art school, and I just started doing it again over the winter. This is the first body of work I’ve done in oils and also the largest paintings I’ve ever done.
You recently did a capsule collection with OBEY that included a hand-painted leather jacket. What about the leather jacket appeals to you so much? If I think back, I’ve probably been obsessed with leather jackets for years. I was a punk at a young age, and a leather jacket was never something I could afford. And it was really hard to find vintage because I’m really petite. And then I was vegan for eight years so I wouldn’t wear leather, which maybe is why I like it so much now. So then I got the jacket that I have now. But even then, even before I had the jacket [featured in Landscapes] I would collect tons of images of leather jackets—customized leather jackets from old motorcycle clubs or gangs from the south Bronx, punk vests. The customization was something that was really appealing to me. Even when I was going to art school, when the art I was making then was really goofy and juvenile, I was obsessed with the way you could take an item like a leather jacket or like a studded vest and put all these different things on it and remove it from its context and the associations were still really legible. At the time, my drawings were more graphic novel kind of illustrations. They were very Garbage Pail Kids–kind of gross-out caricature style. But I would draw like a hot dog wearing a leather jacket. And I was like, “This is so amazing. This is a punk hot dog now.”
You’ve been a resident at the legendary Saved Tattoo in Williamsburg for multiple years, and tattooing is a recurring theme in your work. What about it inspires you?
It almost goes without saying that tattoo is a language of symbols and images. There’s so much you can learn about a person from the tattoos that they have. I read this quote once that’s the reason I originally went to school for fashion design. I think it was in Vogue or something. It was about how Anna Wintour’s look is so iconic that if you just had her haircut and her sunglasses walking down the street, you would know it was her. That’s what I’ve been probing in my work for a long time. Me, for example. You could take away my body and leave only my tattoos, and a lot of people would still know that it was me. Tattooing is rich with symbolism in so many ways. That’s a whole other conversation that you could delve into: The ways that images have changed, who practices tattooing, how the images are changed by different practitioners, how the same themes carry down throughout it. Especially now, because I think there’s a really interesting thing happening with more DIY tattooing and the decentralization of tattooing from professional shops, which I think is really cool because it opens up tattooing to a lot of people who have been excluded from it historically, such as queer people and people of color. That sort of brings it back full circle to the things that originally got me interested in tattooing.
Music is clearly a big influence, especially punk and metal. What are some of your favorite bands and records?
There are certain records that I always come back to—music that I love or correlate with a particular time in my life. I will always love the Ramones. That was probably the first punk band I loved. The Descendents. The Wipers. I used to be super into metal. I was into any band that had an extreme name. Cannibal Corpse. Dying Fetus. I definitely went through a black metal phase, as I think everyone who’s into metal did. Now I listen to more electronic or noise or industrial stuff that I thought was too weird when I liked metal.
Who are some other artists, living or dead, that you admire?
Nancy Grossman is a major one. Betty Tompkins is a painter whose work I’m referencing kind of heavily for these paintings in Landscapes, specifically a series of paintings she made in the late ’60s and early ’70s. They were these huge paintings of intercourse, like zoomed in, fucking. I love Christopher Wool a lot. I’m a big fan of Robert Longo and Raymond Pettibon. Also Chloé Kovska and Sandy Kim, who are also good friends of mine. I actually just saw a really great show at Maccarone in New York before I came to L.A. called Coming to Power: 25 Years Of Sexually X-Plicit Art By Women. Pati Hertling and Julie Tolentino were the curators and it was all the heavy hitters. Marilyn Minter. Cindy Sherman. Lynda Benglis. Nancy Grossman.
Speaking of provocative art shows, is there a particular way you imagine viewers interacting with your paintings in *Landscapes?*
What I’m really interested in is people’s sincere reactions to the work—how people’s own experiences inform their reading of the work. Some people don’t have the subcultural language to totally understand the nuances of some of the objects that I paint, but they don’t have to. I sort of like that better. Like, gay semiotics: You don’t understand the hanky code. You’re not meant to understand it. And that’s OK, because it’s a separate world and a separate language. So I like seeing people engaging in it who might not understand 100 percent of the themes that I’m dealing with and be able to confront it on their own terms.
Landscapes runs September 30–October 22 at Slow Culture. Details here.