In Miami, illustration is everywhere. It brightens otherwise decayed street corners with pops of color and flourishes of paint. Scribbled words are scrawled across sidewalks and street signs. Miami's artists have brought the city into a different cultural stratosphere, one that uplifts and inspires. But they pay a price to do so, often struggling to make ends meet and sometimes breaking the law to hone their craft.
Meanwhile, an ocean away, Spain's illustrators are up against even more difficult circumstances. That country's deep economic recession has swallowed up formerly abundant opportunities for artists there. But an enterprising group of young Spanish illustrators didn't get discouraged. They got creative.
That creativity — both on the page and in business — is what drove Spanish journalist and cultural historian Mario Suárez to take a deeper look at an up-and-coming generation of Spanish illustrators. In "Spanish Illustrators: The Color of Optimism," an exhibition debuting Thursday at Centro Cultural Español in downtown Miami, Suárez brings together 28 groundbreaking Spanish illustrators whose work has transcended the traditional media and infiltrated a global social vernacular.
Though the participating illustrators each have a unique viewpoint, they do have one thing in common: They're all remarkably young. "The youngest illustrator in this collection is 26 years old, while the oldest is just 41," Suárez says. Just 38 years old himself, Suárez wanted to capture this moment in Spanish art history. "I'm part of this generation, which is why I feel it's so important to see them together at once and get their message to the international public," Suárez says. "It really is one of the most unique generations of illustrators in Europe because of the freedom they have to create."
The cultural climate in which these artists work is particularly important context in "The Color of Optimism," Suárez says; the art has evolved to survive Spain's recession. "These illustrators began working and creating during a very strong crisis in Spain, which has really affected the creative and cultural industries in our country," he explains. So rather than fighting their circumstances, the artists seem to have embraced them. "They're using a different kind of artistic language, utilizing social media to build a following and, hopefully, a career," Suárez says.
In organizing the exhibition, Suárez selected key works by some of Spain's most admired illustrators, while asking others to submit new works specially for the exhibition. Though not every artist has chosen to concentrate on the economic struggles inherent to life in Spain, others have been inspired by it. For example, an untitled work by Paco Roca depicts a group of identical men — dressed in khaki slacks, button-down shirts, and dull-red ties — crammed together like sardines. Some use the others to lift themselves up; others have simply given up.
"It's a metaphor for Spanish work culture today," Suárez explains. "Either you're stepping on someone else to reach the top, or you feel hopeless."
Another artist, Paula Bonet, tends to focus on the indelible spirit of women. In Mujer Iceberg, Bonet depicts a forlorn yet resolute woman, her lips and cheeks tinted a bright pink, her hair long and flowing. An iceberg, painted in shades of blue watercolors, is imprinted on the skin of her chest.
"Bonet seeks to represent women as powerful — icy in their heart and firm in their convictions," Suárez says. "Despite her sadness, she's serene, and you can see that her suffering almost appears not to faze her." Bonet's work has achieved international fame through a loyal social media following of young women who are drawn to her ultrafeminine oeuvre.
Others are inspired by more subversive cultural traditions that have influenced Spanish life. Ricardo Cavolo, living in Barcelona and inspired by Balkan tribal culture and the circus community, often draws portraits embedded with iconography. In Anatolia, Cavolo incorporates a third eye, a burning heart, spiderwebs, and swords in a portrait of a circus performer with side-swept black hair and an inky black mustache. In Hand, Cavolo again uses the burning heart and third eye, along with stars, diamonds, and a pierced skull. "Cavolo's work seeks to elevate marginalized traditions into the mainstream," Suárez says.
Mainstream popularity is another trait these illustrators share. Cavolo's work, for example, has set a precedent within indie tattoo culture, with its recognizable symbolism and outsider style. In Mexico, his work is often imitated because it features gypsy-like images that closely resemble Mexican cultural heritage icons. Another artist, Gabriel Moreno, who draws women adorned with tattoos inspired by nature, boasts 600,000 followers on Facebook and is heavily referenced by illustrators across the globe. Their acclaim, Suárez says, is what sets these illustrators apart from other artists. "Imagine that a Spanish illustrator is literally dictating artistic tendencies across Latin America," he says. "They're that big."
Having achieved internet fame, most of these artists have gone on to be featured in prominent magazines and ad campaigns. Ironically, the underground nature of Cavolo's work hasn't stopped the artist from collaborating with Converse and Urban Outfitters. Moreno is frequently featured in the Los Angeles Times and El País. The work of another young illustrator, Conrad Roset, inspired an album cover for Lady Gaga; the piece depicts a ghostly woman's face smeared with rainbow-colored ink on her eyes, cheeks, and lips. Art publisher Taschen, which in 2011 began publishing a biannual volume of illustrations titled Illustration Now!, has featured a Spanish illustrator on the cover twice in the past five years.
Suárez says Miami is an especially apt place to host this exhibition; the city has historically been short on opportunity, yet today attracts bold and colorful street artists and illustrators. It's his hope that, in viewing the show, local artists might draw on the hopefulness inherent in Spain's illustration movement.
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Despite damning odds, he says, "these artists have achieved optimism through their work. They've made us feel like whatever we're going through isn't so bad."
"Spanish Illustrators: The Color of Optimism"
Thursday, September 1, through Friday, October 14, at Centro Cultural Español, 1490 Biscayne Blvd., Miami; 305-448-9677; ccemiami.org. Admission is free. Open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday.