In February, the Houston Downtown Management District installed the latest featured artwork on the Main Street Marquee, a billboard-sized canvas affixed to the building face above the Main Street Market in Downtown Houston. “Twins,” a work by Houston-area artist Jasmine Zelaya, depicts a pair of female figures originally rendered in gouache, ink and silver leaf on paper. In the work, Zelaya celebrates femininity through the use of repetitive floral patterns and explores racial and cultural identity. “Twins” will remain on view through fall 2018 as part of Art Blocks at Main Street Square, a public art initiative encompassing a three-block pedestrian plaza that began in March 2016, curated in consultation with the Weingarten Art Group.
We asked Zelaya about her influences, from religious iconography to '70s punk music, and how she hopes her work connects with its new audience.
Tell us how your work explores themes like racial and cultural identity.
Race and identity greatly inform my work. In “Twins,” the two figures are both people of color, but many of the portraits I paint reflect various tones of flesh. I revel in the layering of washes to create rich browns and olive skin tones. They are a reflection of my own skin hues, but also portray a wide range of skin tones that I do not often see reflected in fine art.
Where does your interest in religious iconography stem from—your upbringing?
There are many things that influence my work which may not be apparent to others. As a child, I was drawn to the flat and highly stylized two-dimensional representations of three-dimensional objects, like figures in Egyptian wall paintings and icons in the church. Religious iconography began to influence my work as teen into young adulthood, again with the simple, flat rendering.
As an adult, religious iconography and sculpture have been great influences to me but are less obvious in my work now. In my portraits, the eyes are always my favorite part to paint. I am inspired by the glistening pink, watery eyes in religious iconography. “The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa” by Lorenzo Bernini depicts Saint Teresa caught in a religious rapture. This frozen moment is both painful and joyous. In essence, it is religious ecstasy. In “The Anatomical Venus: Wax, God, Death & the Ecstatic” by Joanna Ebenstein, an excerpt of Saint Teresa of Avila recalling the experience appears. It is quoted as follows:
“Very close to me...an angel appeared in human form...in his hands I saw a large golden spear and in its iron's tip there seemed to be a point of fire. He appeared to me to be thrusting it at times into my heart, and to pierce my very entrails; when he drew it out, he seemed to draw them out also, and to leave me all on fire with a great love of God. The pain was so great, that it made me moan; and yet so surpassing was the sweetness of this excessive pain, that I could not wish to be rid of it. ... The pain is not bodily, but spiritual; though the body has its share in it, even a large one. It is a caressing of love so sweet which now takes place between the soul and God…”
My goal is to subtly recreate this duality in my own work, joy and pain. Like life and death, they are synonymous. While working on these paintings I was affected by what I was reading and hearing on the news, and instances of struggle for persons of color, appearing on news media again and again. In a way, the work is too a response to the injustices that these individuals faced.
The teary eyes of the figures are a reflection and subtle commentary on my experience, and that of other women and minorities face on a daily experience. The music and performers outwardly serve as expressions of jovial or sweet song, or adoration in the case of religious iconography and sculpture, while below the surface dissent brews.
What is it about the music of the '60s and ’70s that inspires you?
I draw inspiration from the fashion and music of the '60s and '70s. In my studio practice, I listen to various kinds of music depending on my mood. I found that what I listened to most began to make its way into my work. During the time I began creating this recent body of work, I listened to a lot of upbeat music including disco and the Jackson 5 (who have long been favorites of mine). The sweet and youthful voice of a juvenile Michael Jackson moves me, as do the syrupy lyrics he crooned. I love vintage clothing as well, and I was inspired by the eccentric fashion of some of these performers. The array of graphic patterns and colors of the '60s and '70s, to me, read as paintings. When painting the shirts for “Twins,” they became mini-paintings within the painting.
In contrast, while creating my previous body of work, I was listening to a lot of punk music from the '70s and found that it greatly inspired my work aesthetically. I removed all color from my palette and worked with graphite in grayscale and black ink. The product was darker and gritty like the lo-fi photocopied flyers for punk shows I went to as a teenager.
What are you trying to say to those that view your work? How do you want them to experience it?
With portraiture comes a level of vulnerability and introspection. My hope is that the painting will create a dialog amongst viewers. The painting is a celebration of the things that I love and inspire my work: music, fashion, the tradition of portraiture and the language of paint in a modern context. It is also a social commentary.
If the viewer is paying close attention, they might wonder why it appears as both figures are teary-eyed. It’s very subtle in this piece but has progressively become much more prominent in my work. Cultural appropriation, commodity, social injustice are the all-too-real plight and struggle of all persons of color. While making “Twins,” there were many events going on that spoke of the injustices that people of color face daily.
Dialog brings awareness, and that is my hope for the viewer.
Why do you think it works within the setting of Downtown Houston in Main Street Square?
The beauty of the public viewing is that the high-traffic locale of the Main Street Marquee will bring a rich diversity of viewers. People from all walks of life will interpret it differently, and that is what I find most exciting.