As Farley Aguilar stood in a room overflowing with art fans among 14 of his large, bright paintings at Little Haiti's Spinello Projects, his mother, ironically, tried to slip him a little cash. This was the opening of Aguilar's third solo exhibition with the gallery, and not only is there an extensive waiting list for his work but everything on display was sold out even before that day. "She still hands me $20 every time she sees me," the artist says with a laugh regarding this sweet parental gesture.
When Aguilar was around 10 years old, his parents were working long hours at The Flyer, a neighborhood newspaper. He was left alone quite frequently at home with a bag of Combos. This, he says, turned him from a "normal" kid into one who sat scared in the dark when the power went out thanks to tropical weather conditions. In the house alone, he obsessively planned out complicated games, statistical charts, and 20-year career highlights for his favorite baseball players. It was around then that he began stuttering, an affliction that has since resolved itself.
At Southwest Miami Senior High, he retreated into his own world. He loved driving his car at night to get away from his house, where the TV was always blaring.
Around that time, he got into Nietzsche and Dostoevsky but was earning straight F's in class. He had access to University of Miami libraries because his older brother, Bayardo — with whom he later worked doing taxes — was attending the school. "I enjoyed those mornings when I would go to the UM law library and just sit there in the total stillness and be able to have a volume of something and have nobody around. You can't get that back when you're older. You always have people around you."
But Aguilar is a lucky guy, because he realizes he can still reconnect with that quiet and carefree feeling making art. That he can make money doing it, he chuckles, is "ridiculous."
Aguilar is tall, with a scruffy face, always capped with a black chapeau, his neck framed with a slender scarf. At his side, you'll often find his lovely and vivacious dancing bride, Kizzy Gonzalez. A spark of pure brilliant luminescence, comfortable in her physicality, she's the perfect match for the sometimes-reclusive, deeply cerebral Aguilar.
Born in Nicaragua, Aguilar is totally self-taught, something that benefits his arresting and haunting creations in every way but also makes his astounding success that much more of a beacon of light in a dark art room.
I've been friends with the couple for almost as long as I've been an adult. So when we settle down for drinks at Gramps bar in Wynwood, no one's feeling uncomfortable. But, ever the worrier, Aguilar admits that an interview like this might have made him nervous a few years back. These days, he's almost gotten used to the accolades and attention of just about everyone, from the media to big-time collectors like Michael and Susan Hort and Beth Rudin DeWoody. Aguilar sells out art fairs like Volta and Scope.
At some point after several drinks, I compare his work to the Smiths' music. The brightness and bold-but-playful lines imply a joyful scene, but then suddenly, you realize there's someone being lynched in broad daylight, and wait, is that a bloody deer carcass? Aguilar assesses his art thusly: "If it's one-dimensional, it's terrible." And "Invisible Country," his latest exhibition — the first Miami has seen in three years and whose title is taken from an Italo Calvino novel — is anything but flat. The thick stripes of paint in disparate colors make up scenes that are complicated not only in their design but in the emotionally charged and often creepy crowd scenes they capture.
His gallerist, Anthony Spinello, seems to agree with the whole Morrissey-Marr musical marriage comparison. "Although the works may appear dark in content to most, they seem to captivate the viewers. Perhaps they respond to the color palette at first but may have a deeper personal connection to the narratives."
Aguilar is dedicated to the craft in a way that most can't dedicate to anything — even a cable carrier. He's constantly producing and perfecting his technique. He can't imagine doing anything else; even exhausted after periods of nonstop work, he wants to return to painting. "What else am I going to do, go to the beach? I don't understand those people," he laughs.
He used to paint at home, drink in hand, but now he has a studio in the "clothing district area" of Allapattah. Though he and Gonzalez once spent time out in the party circuit, they now prefer to spend their cash traveling. That's the only time he says he doesn't make or think about making work.
"Last year was tedious, because everything I wanted to show was sold off," he says. "So I had to start from scratch over and over many times. Then the Orlando Museum of Art bought another, and it kept dwindling. It's very nice — I'm not complaining. But it's very difficult, because I like to plan." He already has the images for his next show ready in his head.
For artists starting out, he instructs, it's about practicing all the time. "You always have to get better at fundamental stuff," he says. He's never satisfied with his work. "Certain elements of space, I just have to get better. I'm just disappointed with certain aspects of it."
Aguilar says that even when people hated his art early on, when he was still experimenting with mixing paints and learning to draw, "it never crossed my mind to stop. And I'm so sensitive and such a pussy. I was like, 'You know what? Just give me some time, just give me six months, give me a year.' And every time, it gets better and better."
Aguilar is more than happy to offer these lessons. "I think the basic point for the kids is, don't give a flying fuck if you have an idea of something you think is interesting. It never crossed my mind that this was a bad idea... I come from nothing, nobody, nothing. I have no art connections; I didn't go to art school... People gravitate to your work or they don't."
"Invisible Country" offers something different from what he's shown locally in the past. The application is harsher and more complex. It's "darker and rougher," he explains. "I want to make something that's organic but not this sleek, advertising-looking art." Before, he featured more "flashy" ceremonial rituals. "Invisible Country"'s messages are still disturbing but more implicit.
He's mostly working on a large scale with characters that appear as if they're being viewed through infrared monster goggles with swirled faces and emotional stances. Aguilar critiques tense social situations and a mob mentality. "Usually my characters are all staring at the viewer that's staring at them. I think that confrontation is interesting, because I'm always staring at people — I really have no interest in interacting! — and I think it's very clear in all the pieces."
The larger canvases feature life-sized forms, which give the feeling that either you're what's for dinner or you're part of the mob itself. It's uncomfortable except the work is so stunningly beautiful.
He's added elements of language to the paintings. The Marriage doesn't look loving at all; it seems like a Conehead bishop is being sworn in at a court scene where one creature has the words "fuck you" scrawled on its body.
Fantasy creatures used to pop up as victims in his work. Though that element of the superweird has been toned down, these are still freaky folks. A former star of the Weekly World News, Bat Boy appears in two paintings. In The Pack, he's identifiable in a crowd with his pointed ears and the words "Bat Boy" scrawled on his figure. In another, a group clutches protest signs reading "Fuck Bat Boy"; another calls him the "symbol of evil." In the foreground, an angry man with sharpened nails is in a passionate and angry crouch.
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A group of country people lean on one another and stare into your face in Horsemen, while "nigger bbq" is written over their heads. Even without a full face, one guy looks inbred. He has a penis painted outside his drawers. A nearby family portrait with a gun that says "I <3 mom" hovering on the wall with oval framed ancestors also has a dad with a stylized dick on display. This is a newer element of Aguilar's work: The monster people now rock out with their cocks out. You can't ignore the playfulness, the satire, the humor in his sinister caricatures.
Aguilar is a technophobe who doesn't own a cell phone. He's also a cinephile who uses classic films to resolve issues in his paintings. While recently watching Ingmar Bergman's 1982 film Fanny and Alexander, he was struck by a particularly "cheesily done" scene that stuck out in this serious fairy tale. "It was so not right; that's what I like about it."
Something that would otherwise look ridiculous really managed to get an emotional message across to Aguilar. "[Bergman] understands that it doesn't hit as deep in people's psyche if you do it in a direct line. You have to do it in a different way." With his work, Aguilar has picked up the director's deeply probing psychological baton and is running with it around the track, again and again, straight into your heart's head.
Farley Aguilar's "Invisible Country"
Through March 9 at Spinello Projects, 7221 NW Second Ave., Miami. Hours are noon to 5 p.m. Tuesday to Saturday; spinelloprojects.com; 786-271-4223. Admission is free.