What is an ‘artist?’ Josh Vasquez explores absurdity, existentialism and expectations in latest exhibition at Flatline Gallery

In his current exhibit “These are not studies. I am not a painter,” at Flatline Gallery, Josh Vasquez challenges viewers to rethink their preconceived notions of what art is, what it should be and what it can be. 

Vasquez began the 330-piece collection in 2016 during his time as an undergraduate student at Cal State Long Beach. What was meant to be a semester-long marathon of creation stretched into a five-year project, the labors of which are displayed in his exhibit. 

As Vasquez matured as an artist, his view of art became less rigid. In trying to create such a large body of work, he began to toy with ideas of absurdity and existentialism. 

In his artist notes, he describes the body as “500 works in the form of a Camus,” a nod to the existential philosopher and author Albert Camus.

“The framework of the whole body of work it’s, you know, you do the task until it becomes meaningless and then you’re able to endow your own meaning to the work,” Vasquez said. “Honestly when I read that, it really described what I was after in so few words.”

The goal to create hundreds of pieces became a Sisyphean task for Vasquez, much like his experience as an artist. He grappled with the meaning behind his art in unison with his own existential awakening, which would later define the philosophy of his work. 

“It’s all kind of repetitive and cyclical and it’s never-ending,” he said. “It can oftentimes feel very daunting, but then you go back and you’re focused on the work, focused on the piece. The perspective changes.”

“These are not studies. I am not a painter: A series of 500 paintings” is a work in-progress by artist Josh Vasquez. Despite the exhibition’s title, only 330 works have been completed, a testament to Vasquez’s intention to continue to use the series to mature as an artist. (Elizabeth Munzon | Flatline Gallery)

His works from 2016 are abstract. Dark hues of brown and green are offset by bright turquoise linework. Like a child painting for the first time, Vasquez was grappling with what it meant to be an “artist.” In other pieces, browns and blues meld together into a cloudy mass that envelops each page. 

In 2018, the pieces become more textural with strokes of acrylic typography rising up from each sheet. Others are distinctly geometric with white lines jutting from every direction.

“I’ve spent so much time making—and really trying to kind of cancel out—a lot of the things that I’ve already tried,” he said. “My toolbox kind of gets smaller so I’m trying to think outside of the box. That’s what excites me the most about making the newer ones. I’m making some weird things that I think ordinarily wouldn’t necessarily be considered as paintings because they’re so materialistic.”

In later pieces, Vasquez explores the mundane with blocks of oil dolloped in cursive like icing on a cake. “You’re lovely :)” one states in gooey white paint. In another, cream oil paint is piped atop undulating layers of brown stating “I prefer chocolate.” 

In 2019 and 2020, his work moves away from the abstract. Detailed landscapes of Los Angeles sunsets hang parallel with bright yellow emojis and graphic typography. 

Artist Josh Vasquez explored different mediums for his current exhibition at Flatline Gallery, including piped oil paint. (Elizabeth Munzon | Flatline Gallery)

The exhibit is not a retrospective. Rather, the pieces serve as a physical embodiment of Vasquez’s growth as an artist—a five-year calendar painted in oil. (And any medium that piques his interest, including drywall.)

“Some of the newer ones don’t even have any paint on them,” Vasquez said. “A lot of these things are super experimental and kind of pushing my idea of what painting is and what it can be.”

The age-old question of “form or function” lays bare in the exhibit. Though art itself is integrally tied to its form, the body of work served an important function in Vasquez’s ability to mature as an artist. 

For the first few years, his work was integrally tied with his schooling at CSULB. It wasn’t until the third year of the project that Vasquez began to unlearn what he called a “compartmentalized” view of what an artist should be. He pays homage to the idea in the title of the exhibition, “I am not a painter.”

“You know, you make paintings. You’re a painter. And I don’t think that’s what I’m doing. I really feel, as corny and cheesy as it sounds, I don’t feel like I’m making paintings. I’m really making artwork, so ‘These are not paintings.’ This is artwork, or ‘I’m not a painter.’ I’m an artist.”

He referenced one piece in particular that challenges the notion of “art”—a piece of cardboard attached to a fragment of drywall.

“I would challenge the viewer to use that and kind of think ‘What makes this a painting?’ and really kind of reframe what your idea of a ‘painting’ or ‘artwork’ in general can be,” he said.

Artist Josh Vasquez began the body of work during his time as an undergraduate at Cal State Long Beach. (Image Courtesy Elon Schoenholz)

Although Vasquez has already spent years on the project, he doesn’t see an end in sight. He referred to the body of work as a “motivator,” a developmental tool that continues to challenge him to rethink his own preconceived notions of art. 

“I naively thought that I could do it in a semester,” Vasquez said with a laugh. “Obviously, it’s taken a lot more than that. It’s taken five years thus far. And honestly, I don’t know how long it’ll take to finish it.”

Josh Vasquez’s solo exhibit is on display at Flatline Gallery located at 6023 Atlantic Ave. in North Long Beach. Viewings are by appointment only and can be booked on Flatline Gallery’s website. Virtual tours of the exhibit are available here. The exhibit runs until this coming Sunday, April 4.

More of Josh Vasquez’s work can be found on his Instagram page @joshybehr.

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