Alvaro Sotomayor

Painter, Amsterdam // July 2012
For me the story of the medium is as important as the form it takes.

Alvaro’s reputation preceded him. When I was recently in Amsterdam a good friend told me about an intriguing colleague at the ad agency he works at, “this guy turned the garden house behind our office into an art studio and he paints bulls, only bulls! Hundreds of them, it’s wild!” After a chance meeting with the jovial painter of bulls, I found myself visiting Alvaro’s studio. The transformed garden house is tucked behind Wieden & Kennedy’s stylish row house office and is stacked high with used paper, cardboard and wood – any discarded material he can paint on. Alvaro’s energy and enthusiasm, for seemingly everything, is palpable. At moments this frenetic quality was electrifying and at others it made me tired just to watch him ricochet through his space and ideas. Whether inspiring or exhausting, his innate positivity is undeniably charming. Grinning, he said to me “other people have a mid-life crisis, but I’m having a mid-life celebration.”

Alvaro has worked in a variety of forms, but for the last several years he has been painting bulls. In particular, his Toro series of portraits depict the 69 bulls that have, in the recorded history of Spanish bullfighting, succeeded in winning a bullfight and killing a matador. As a Spaniard this subject is both personal and political. He calls these bulls “heroes” and is driven by his own disgust at a national pastime that finds entertainment in the suffering of animals. There is a simultaneous cultural critique, playful humor and genuine adoration in his portraits of bulls. Looking around his studio, there is something both beautiful and compulsive about the sheer quantity of animal faces – like a herd of beasts looking back at you.

Note: This week’s studio visit was a solo adventure, so the intro was written by Klea rather than Nikki. Nikki will be back next week.

When people ask you what you “do”, how do you answer?
I’m a Creative Director at Wieden+Kennedy and I am an artist.

Do you have a day job? What is it? What does it mean to you?
Yes I do. I help companies and people find their own voice when it comes to communicating what they do. It translates into films, experiences, and printed material. To me my job means a lot. It forces me to think practically and concisely, broad and local, without barriers of language and culture. It throws you into a whirlwind of possibilities and you need to find your way home every day. That practical, survivalist mind-set makes my art stronger and more powerful.

What mediums do you work with?
Any object that someone discards as trash captures my attention. Cardboard, paper, canvas, wood. Promotional books…it’s like giving life to death. For me the story of the medium is as important as the form it takes. Everything is handmade. There is no machine involved apart from the process that made the raw materials. It’s like an ultimate journey to a primitive self. I tend to paint black and white with no retouching. Life and death. Like the battle a matador has with his bull, I have it with my subject. What stays, stays. I seem to need a record of every decision I make. Like a conscious and historical recollection of an artistic journey.

How would you describe your subject matter?

What themes seem to occur/reoccur in your work?
The status of human consciousness and the figure of the bull. Focusing on the 69 bulls that have killed a Matador in Spain has taken me through a journey of rediscovering strength, nobility, fertility, tenacity, pride and bravery. I’m opposed to the views of men who want to appropriate the bull from its natural state, through a humiliating game. At some point in learning about this I discovered that the bulls all have names, strange names like Cappuccino or Vice President, knowing that animated them for me. I paint them in a series because that’s the way they are killed; often five bulls will be killed in one afternoon’s entertainment. I find the bull’s form through the act of painting it and by repeating a picture over and over I can reduce it down to one single line, one fluid motion. This simplification has allowed for speed and for the bull to become a graffiti tag, but I only tag the bull on street signs that have the forbidden symbol.

What are you currently reading, listening to or looking at to fuel your work?
Right now I am dueling with color. So anything that has clashing colors captures my eye. Let it be a skirt, a shop window or some random happy accident in life.

What does having a physical space to make art in mean for your process, and how do you make your space work for you?
It’s life. I love having this space for me to meet myself. But this space is the garden house at the place I work and, like life, can be gone tomorrow. There is no guarantee for it to continue. This rush affects my work and makes me fall forward. I need this space and this space needs me. It is hard to find the time to break away from work and focus on my artwork, or visa versa, but little by little I am getting better at both.

Has there been a shift or change in your life or work that has lead to what you’re making now? Do you see your work as autobiographical at all?
My work is not autobiographical, it is a conversation about how humans are overstepping their position in nature. Back in the end of the 90s I made some pictures for a campaign against bullfighting that reversed the role of the bull and the man. you can see it here. These photos mobilized people and inspired flash mob actions for years to come. When I saw how one spontaneous action of generosity leads to another, I was hooked. It took me a decade to continue the fight with the Toro series. And it is almost done. Now I am awaiting the opportunity to do a solo show with all of it together. I want my work to help or repurpose; it’s about meaning and materials.

Is there something you are currently working on, or are excited about starting that you can tell us about?
I am in a moment of transition, both moving on to color and to a totally different subject. I am exploring one giant mural scene that depicts humanity and all its emotions. It’s a bit of a state of the nation, kind of a question. It is called: “El Naufragio Universal” (The Universal Shipwreck) and it uses one single, continuous line to depict a shipwreck in the middle of the sea with all variations of humanity caught together.

What are your biggest challenges to creating art and how do you deal with them?
The biggest challenge is time. The way I create is very systematic and mediated so I write it in my calendar. So everyone knows that on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays from 6PM till midnight I am painting. If I can squeeze some extra time in, that’s great, and if I cannot make it to my scheduled time then that’s a nice reminder that I am on borrowed time. It works for me at this stage of my life.

What are you most proud of?
My daughters and my wife and how lucky I am to have been born and raised the way I have. There is a great sense of giving back all the good that I’ve received.

What advice has influenced you?
Every birth hurts— by me.

What do you want your work to do?
Make people stop seeking fun and entertainment at the expense of others.

How will you know when you have arrived?
There seems to be no finish line.

More of Alvaro’s work can be seen at:
And he can be contacted at

His work will be exhibited in two upcoming shows in Amsterdam and London. Dates and details TBA.

Something new. We made a video!
Edited by Dana Laman and shot by Klea McKenna

Huge thanks to Eric Kuhn and Robin Landy of Oakland-based band Silian Rail for providing the music.