You probably won’t recognize most of the faces in Shizu Saldamando portraits. But you’re not supposed to.
The seasoned Los Angeles-based portraitist isn’t interested in depicting celebrities or activists. Rather, she renders her Latinx and other of color in the artistic, queer, and punk scenes of LA faces rarely honored in the museum and gallery settings where her drawings end up hanging.
Saldamando subjects are typically removed from their original context, sometimes portrayed on a blank canvas, a wood canvas covered in gold leaf, or, on occasion, a floral bed sheet hanging on a wall. With sweaty, drunk, tired, loving expressions, they stare back at you, frozen in a moment and, often, an emotion. It’s up to the viewer to fill in the blanks about where they are or what moment they’re in—a job that’s, importantly, easier for those who are familiar with the subcultures she portrays, and easiest of all for those who actually participate in them.
Growing up in the Mission District of San Francisco, Saldamando says she didn’t really see anyone that reflected her own personality until she moved to LA, where she instantly found other people of color who loved The Cure and made art. At backyard parties, rock shows, and club nights, she began photographing intimate moments as they unfolded throughout the night and later using the photos as references for drawings. Now, she focuses on the creatives in LA that influence her own practice—like model and artist Gabriela Ruiz a.k.a. Leather Papi, Limp Wrist and Los Crudos singer Martin Sorrondeguy, and the organizers behind Chicas Rockeras, a rock camp for girls in Southeast LA.
As someone of both Latinx and Japanese background, Saldamando captures the complexity of her figures' identities as well as snapshots of an often-overlooked creative scene in a way that feels authentic rather than voyeuristic. And in a political climate that consistently paints overly simplistic and negative pictures of Latinx communities, Saldamando's work feels even more necessary.
We spoke with Saldamando about why and how she chooses her subjects, depicting people of color in portraiture, and what it’s like to make this work today.
Interview has been editing for length and clarity.
The curatorial statement for your most recent solo exhibition likened your work to that of David Hockney and Alex Katz. But on the other hand, you’ve talked in the past about specifically not privileging a white audience in your art, which sets it apart. Where do you think your work fits within contemporary portraiture?
The Alex Katz or the David Hockney reference was more in tune with artists portraying their own life regardless of gender or color. They're really famous artists in the canon that document their own sort of scene, whether it be old money from upstate New York or whether it be other artists in the studio. That's what they’re kind of known for, right?
For me, that’s what I see my work as doing, documenting my circle of friends that I hang out with… that's where that parallel came in. And that parallel speaks more true than, let's say, a comparison to somebody like Kehinde Wiley or somebody who just takes people off the street and brings them into the studio without having a personal relationship to them.
Obviously with the recent presidential portraits having been done by Wiley and Amy Sherald, there’s a lot of focus on the conversation about POC artists creating portraits of other POC to display in prominent places where diversity is lacking. What are your thoughts on this conversation?
A lot of people of color take photos of, let’s say, someone that’s interesting and another person of color and they're like, “oh, let's draw them,” but then they’re not friends with them. They don’t have a rapport with them already established. I think it's important to know the person—specially now, at this stage of my career. I can't just take a picture of whoever and then draw [them] without their permission. The power dynamic in that is just not right. There's a certain level of respect you have to give to who you are depicting… In the current climate, there are so many images of people of color and their bodies that are being exploited and shown in media. It's a very triggering image of violence and crime and stereotypes. And it's very easy, I guess, to consume all these images. I view painting and drawing as a way to meditate with the subject and a way to honor that person.
This political climate is so full of stereotypes and xenophonia. How has that affected what art you make and your process making it?
When I was younger, I did take pictures of people I didn't know and then I would ask them if I could draw them casually… now I’m more hyper aware of the politics surrounding image makers and disseminating images and information. I don't want to portray crazy famous celebrities or activists. Because I feel, in this day and age, there’s this idea that there are good immigrants who are actively contributing and law abiding and actively participating in capitalism and we should honor them and let them stay in our country. There’s this notion that we have to prove our humanity as people in order to be treated with respect. And that's just ridiculous. There's something so sad about that. I've always said “no, I'm going to draw my friends that drink and party and are perfectly flawed in their self medicating way to deal with traumas.” And they're still deserving of equal rights—and maybe you can relate to that even if you're not Latinx.
Have the reactions that you’re getting from people changed post-Trump? Do you think your work is even more impactful now?
Coming out of grad school there was this pushback of “painting and drawing are done, it’s kind of over, so you should really think about doing more video work or you should be doing something more compelling.”…I think people took it for granted, maybe, that they were just portraits. And now with a lot of artists that I know, the younger generation of like five years, I really feel, for the first time in my career, this kinship and mutual admiration.
How do you carve out a space for yourself and your work? And how is that different now than when you were younger?
I've always just created my space by depicting my life through portraits [of] who I’m hanging out with. That's the way I choose to take up spaces. By saying “yeah, these are people I choose to depict and I, for whatever reason, admire.” It’s very personal, it's very narcissistic like, why, would anybody just want to see portraits of my friends? Who would want to do that except for me? And that's the way I’ve done it. I've been really privileged because I have an art degree. So I've been tapped into a larger art world there’s been a lot of museums that I've been fortunate enough to show in… [but] I've always tried to connect myself with other communities that aren’t associated with institutions. That’s been a really great way to stay grounded.