Photos courtesy of Santiago Pérez
Santiago Pérez did not have a lot of toys growing up.
“So I played with nails,” he says, laughing.
That may be one reason so many of his fantastical paintings feature toys, or at least creatures that could be toys.
“Maybe painting is a wish fulfillment,” Pérez says. “You have to think as a child in some types of paintings in order to bring out as much as possible unfiltered, or raw or pure feeling.”
Now 69 and a fulltime painter since retiring in 2000, Pérez, who lives in the mountains south of Tijeras, has become a fixture on the New Mexico art scene. His influences range from Hieronymus Bosch to Robert Crumb and even include pre-Colombian designs. There is also a hefty dose of popular culture and music in his work.
Pérez was born in San Antonio and grew up on ranches and farms in South Texas. He learned to draw from watching cartoons and Westerns on TV, as well as the actual cowboys and horses in his surroundings. He drew on paper grocery sacks, feedbags, pieces of wood, and even sheetrock his father brought home.
His parents encouraged him, he says. “They said it was a gift from God.”
He went to college in San Antonio at what is now Our Lady of the Lake University and became a teacher before joining the Air Force. His plan was to use the education benefits to attend art school. Instead, he stayed in the Air Force for 24 years, but he continued to do art.
Pérez was stationed in West Berlin for three years, which gave him access to European masters and contemporary artists, as well as the surreal experience of living in a city divided down the middle during the Cold War. This brought out his darker, expressionistic side, he recalls.
While stationed in Colorado, he became part of the former Sandy Carson Gallery in Denver in the 1990s, a big boost to his career. Carson brought him to the attention of corporate collectors and he created large-scale installations of his paintings for companies throughout the U.S., including the Hyatt Regency in Denver and Microsoft in Seattle.
He moved to Albuquerque in 1994—and eventually into his fantastical surrealism phase, creating paintings of imaginary worlds populated by characters that are both wondrous and absurd. “You can’t remain that crazy for very long,” he says about why he moved away from expressionism. “You will blow your head off or start taking mind-altering chemicals. Although I think painting is mind altering in itself.”
Settling in the East Mountains may have been an unconscious choice, he says, born of his childhood in the country. “It’s just a lot of trees, less noise, less urban despair.”
He says of his studio, which is a short walk down the hill from his house, “This is kind of my brain here.” Shelves crammed with hundreds of volumes about artists that run the gamut from Caravaggio to Frida Kahlo to Andy Warhol share space with tomes on baseball and books by authors like Anne Sexton, fantasy novelist Italo Calvino, and poet Amiri Baraka.
Here also are the raw materials for the fantastical characters that populate the intricate universe Pérez has developed over the years. Those include egg men, giant heads, endless variations on Diego Velasquez’s La Infanta (the subject of many of his works, including the famous Las Meninas) and Pérez’s signature “mergatroids,” mysterious creatures sporting long beaks and wrapped in cloaks. The name was inspired by cartoon character Snagglepuss, who often exclaimed “Heavens to mergatroid!”, and the beaks were inspired by the masks doctors sometimes wore during plague outbreaks in the Middle Ages. They often contained herbs or spices to filter out contagion.
“In a way these characters move through the world with that kind of attitude, not wanting to be infected by the world,” Pérez says. “But they’re part of it, you know? They’re fools.”
There is a sly humor to them as well, he says, pointing out that long noses connote lying or fabrication. “It’s an oblique commentary on art [which is] not completely truthful. And every painting has a bit of a lie in it in what it purports to say it’s doing or depicting or exposing. That’s just the nature of the medium.”
Pérez loves to delve into artists and artistic movements, but he is just as likely to eschew in-depth analysis. “Does art have to be deep?” he asks. “It can be easy. You don’t have to have a PhD and have 20 critics explain it to you.”
While music is a major creative catalyst—his egg men were inspired by the Beatles’s “I Am the Walrus”—so too is literature, including fairytales and fantasy fiction, as his 2004 work, Horn of Gondor, a nod to The Lord of the Rings, attests. It features a child dressed as an altar boy standing on an alligator, while behind him a toad in a tuxedo holds a hoop aloft as a dog sporting a fancy circus hat jumps through. A doll-like figure pops out of an armadillo to hold the horn. A tiny prairie dog creature plays accordion in the foreground.
And that is only a small sample of what is going on in the painting. Are the toys really alive or is the scene a manifestation of the boy’s imagination? Pérez does not offer a definitive answer. The carnival atmosphere is a recurring motif. It’s fun, but it can also be a little disconcerting or downright bizarre.
Mary Martin only sees the whimsy. She owns a gallery in Charleston, S.C. and has carried Pérez’s work for years. She says his paintings make her smile. “It is a world of make believe where the characters and inhabitants of the paintings are just like the people in my childhood showing an innocence and imagination most of us leave behind as we ‘grow up,’” she writes on her gallery webpage.
Even his earlier work, which focused on Western imagery like cowboys and bucking horses, feels like fantasy. Of course, as Pérez points out, much of iconic Western art is fantasy.
“That is our American myth, the myth of the American West and cowboys are part of that.” He goes on to talk at length about the mythology inherent in everything from Clint Eastwood movies to the monumental paintings of Thomas Moran and Albert Bierstadt that helped fuel romantic notions of the West.
Then there are Pérez’s landscapes, of which Roy Sumner Johnson, owner of Sumner & Dene gallery in Albuquerque, is a big fan (he featured a few in an October show of New Mexico churches). Johnson says that while Pérez can be childlike he is also deeply intellectual. And he is extremely supportive of other artists. When Sumner & Dene did an art showcase in August at the Albuquerque Convention Center, Pérez was happy to share a booth with other artists.
“That’s not what most artists do,” Johnson says. “They usually fill the booth with their work.” He will also do things like rent the Fine Arts Gallery at EXPO New Mexico and invite a bunch of artists to create a show with him.
Pérez could have created a whole series of books based on the surreal universe he has developed over the years, Johnson adds, but the artist says he’s actually beginning to move out of his fantastical phase. Or maybe he’s moving into a new iteration. He recently performed an original poem as part of his installation called J. Robert Oppenheimer’s Nuclear Pancake House for the show Black Hole/Atomic City (State of Decay) at the Sanitary Tortilla Factory in Albuquerque in August.
“Maybe I’m trying to make the fantastical real in my own activities—no longer leaving it on the canvas,” Pérez muses. “Artists sometimes just stay quietly behind their artwork but sometimes you have to act out.”
Santiago Pérez shows locally at Nüart Gallery in Santa Fe. He will also be part of a January show of American and Haitian artists, which looks at Haiti ten years after the devastating earthquake, at the African American Performing Arts Center in Albuquerque. To learn more about his work, log onto santiago-perez.com.
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