Hugo Crosthwaite

Artist, Tijuana / Mexico // July 2013
Each finished detail leads to another and another and of course a narrative begins to appear. This narrative is usually something that comes up organically as the drawing unfolds...

Now looking back on the start of our WESTERN EDGE trip, I see that the feeling of big adventure kicked in right around the moment that Klea and I stood on the San Diego side of the United States-Mexico border waiting to meet Hugo’s manager, Pierrette Van Cleve. Because numerous folks on either side of the border recommended that we do so, we had left our car behind in San Diego and were heading into Tijuana for three days of studio visits. Pierrette was our ride across the border. We had never met her before but while exchanging scheduling emails she had generously offered to escort us to Rosarito Beach to Hugo’s studio.

Along that 35-mile drive we somehow managed to get off-course more than once and all the while we listened to Pierrette’s fast and loose commentary on a wide variety of subjects that included her thoughts on the shoddy condition of Tijuana’s roads, the difficulties of single motherhood, the performative aspect of life, today’s new breed of feminism, and what it’s like to always feel like an outsider. She came to all subject matters with a wild and wacky mix of enthusiasm, comedy, poignancy, and bewilderment. To call Pierrette a “character” would be too cliché of a statement— but sitting in that car of hers, as her fervent voice boomed out the open windows and into the world, I couldn’t help but think that she was like no one I had evermet, and that I would remember that moment forever.

When we arrived at Hugo’s family home, we found him in his studio working on large-scale drawings on canvas for his upcoming participation in the 2013 California-Pacific Triennial exhibition that just recently opened. Though much less exaggerated in manner, like Pierrette, Hugo is an easy talker. We discussed his childhood spent in his family’s curio shops and the visual aesthetic that those surroundings imprinted on him, and we also talked about his recent five-year stint in New York and what it has been like for him to be back in Tijuana, making art. My conversations with Hugo seemed to expand outwardly, like concentric circles. Often he would answer my questions from a personal, intimate place but then his ideas would widen out into history, politics, and culture… but always the center stayed the same— very personal, very specific.

Hugo’s work mirrors his conversations— it is so singular, distinctive and personal and yet it manages to reach out far beyond its place of origin. His voluptuous, sometimes grotesque figures seem to push against the edges of canvas or paper and immediately reveal the particular kind of rawness, claustrophobia, and melodrama that so often characterize a border town. But Hugo’s everyday “theater” of Tijuana people loitering on street corners, in doorways, in bedrooms and cars… could actually be anywhere, because the stories being told, the questions being asked are relevant to all of us. In order to be universal, you must pay close attention to the specific.

How would you describe your subject matter or the content of your work?
I’m a draughtsman. The most important reason I make art is my love of drawing, something I have practiced since very early in my life. The subject matter or content in my work is derived from my practice of drawing. The process in which I work is one where I draw something and get it to the point where I consider it to be finished and then I move on to another detail and proceed as such until the entire work is finished. Each finished detail leads to another and another and of course a narrative begins to appear. This narrative is usually something that comes up organically as the drawing unfolds and can be determined by whatever I hear or feel and is often prompted by news I’ve heard on the radio or television.

Also there is a personal aesthetic that always seems to come through my work, one that is influenced by movies and artwork that I like. Movies have always been quite influential— Blade Runner made a huge impression on me aesthetically, particularly in thinking about urban environments. It’s dark, baroque, crowded… and in many ways that was why I wanted to live in New York— I wanted to experience what it was like to live in a layered, overpopulated city with subways systems and skyscrapers and tons of people on the sidewalks. I wanted to live in that visual aesthetic for a while and really take it in.

What mediums do you work with?
I work with pencil, charcoal, ink and more recently acrylic paint. I make drawings on paper, wood panels, canvas and walls.

In general my work has always been big, but when I moved to New York I began working in sketchbooks for the first time because I obviously didn’t have as much space. So I just started filling up these sketchbooks and I realized that I don’t actually do “sketches”— I couldn’t leave them alone, I had to finish them so they are in fact quite articulated. They became like little stories that I had to complete, sort of like visual diaries. Once I started doing the sketchbooks I began working with ink and now I’m really engaged in keeping up this work; it’s become a daily practice. I’ve noticed when I’ve included sketchbooks in my shows people have really been into them— people seem excited by them, so that’s been great to witness. So my time in New York (where I had been living for the last five years before recently coming back to Tijuana) was quite informative for my work, in many ways, but certainly this sketchbook work has been new and important.

You grew up in Tijuana— how has your personal history worked its way into your art?
I was born in Tijuana and lived in a curio shop in Rosarito Beach. My entire childhood was spent taking the public taxi everyday up to Tijuana for school and then coming back in the afternoon to work in my father’s curio shop selling handicrafts to American tourists. I learned English in this way and was constantly surrounded by a very baroque setting of colors, figures and textures. Ceramic pots, cartoon figures, glass and iron works, all portraying angels and demons. A way for me to fight off childhood boredom was drawing.

Your work isn’t necessarily explicitly political, but it does speak to the realities of a border town: cultural, social, and economic collisions are definitely present in your work. How are these issues explored in your work?
Tijuana is part of my personal aesthetic. Its realities, for better or worse, are part of me. My drawings also reflect things that I’ve seen and experienced in other places, in Atlanta and New York, cities that I have lived in. I don’t necessarily set out to explore specific subject matter in my work. I mostly just try to keep to what I honestly like to see in my drawing. I usually just make up things as I go along.

I’m interested in the myth of Tijuana and my work does address it at times. People have lots of associations about it because it’s a border town— drunkenness, sex, corruption, sin, chaos, etc. For me I don’t think of Tijuana that way… but now I recognize that when I was growing up so much of the economy was dependent on the U.S.; there was a lot of looking to the north for opportunities and that created a kind of subservient role for Tijuana. Now things have changed, in this past year the usual spring break madness of tourists just wasn’t what it used to be. Some people say this is a dark time, no American dollars are coming in, but to me this is a good time because Tijuana is turning in and looking at itself again and so the culture here is changing, growing, and developing in a different way. It feels like a really good time for me to come back and work.

I recently finished an installation for the 2013 California-Pacific Triennial that was based on the carpa theater that was popular in the 1920s and 30s in Mexico. After the Revolution these vaudeville-like acts toured the country and were well-loved by the urban underclass— the performances often revealed (in a comedic manner) the way in which the system was failing the public, so they were quite political and questioned things like class structure, authority, and corruption.

Do you intend your work to challenge the viewer?
I try to do the best work I can with each drawing I make and I am confident that good work will always inspire and move the viewer just like the work of artists I admire inspire and move me. It makes me very happy when someone else identifies with my work, where they see something that relates to them in a personal way. I think that when you tell a good story there will always be someone that appreciates it.

But I am of course examining bigger ideas and stereotypes in my work— myths of the wild, wild, west… notions of Tijuana, ideas regarding morality, gender, identity, violence, etc.… I’m interested in all these things because I have questions about these topics and I hope that my viewers can engage with these questions along with me.

What are you presently inspired by— are there particular things you are reading, listening to or looking at to fuel your work?
At the moment I’ve been thinking and dreaming about Julio Cortázar’s short story La Casa Tomada it’s a story about a brother and sister who live in this old house that is being taken by unknown and unseen persons, instead of confronting them they retreat from one side of the house to the other until they are forced to leave the house by the front door. This story gives me a sense of urgency. A beautiful fear that reflects my ambition of unseen projects to come— I want to make the best drawings I can possibly make, and I always believe that my best work is in front of me.

Is there something you are currently working on, or are excited about starting that you can tell us about?
I have just finished a series of drawings on canvas and a mural for an installation for the California-Pacific Triennial at the Orange County Museum of Art.

How do you navigate the art world?
I do the best work I can and trust that this work will find its public. Fortunately, I have encountered wonderful supporters that have helped me navigate the art world.

Here in Tijuana it was simple in a way— you get invited to shows, people want you to be involved and you can approach people and show your portfolio and ask for opportunity. But then I went to New York and tried that same approach and I couldn’t even get past the receptionist. It is so hard to get people to see your work there. I had to get more creative and strategic with my approach and I did, and luckily for me it worked out and I was able to get Joe Amrhein at Pierogi Gallery to take notice, and then this created a dialogue. Then Luis de Jesus Gallery Los Angeles asked to show my work in LA, and those experiences made me realize that sometimes it’s not always about the work just being good, it’s about getting your work in the door and getting the right people to see it.

Do you see your work as relating to any current movement or direction in visual art or culture?
Which other artists might your work be in conversation with? I didn’t really know there where art movements until I was 26 years old and was forced to take art history as part of my graphic design studies at San Diego State University. There my love of beautiful drawing was reinforced and I became an admirer of most of the artists from my 19th Century Art History book— Francisco José de Goya, Théodore Géricault, Ferdinand Victor Eugène Delacroix, etc… As time passes and I see more art, I understand that really important and relevant work is not always found in what is most recent or what is labeled “new.” But a few of the contemporary artists that I admire are Neo Rauch, Kara Walker, William Kentridge, as well as others that practice excellence in drawing.

Do you have a motto?
I don’t really have a motto. I think we are more complex than one single rule to follow or live by. I try not to be so orthodox, after all artists are supposed to be free. But I do want my grave to read Hugo Crosthwaite— Gave his Life to the Pencil.

Are you involved in any upcoming shows or events? Where and when?
California-Pacific Triennal.

Where can people see your work?
Luis De Jesus Gallery in Los Angeles
Pierogi Gallery in New York