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New York Times bestselling author and creator of the popular Work/Craft/Life newsletter, Neal Bascomb tells the story of Brooklyn based artist Emilio Perez on finding success, losing his flow state and rediscovering it through a new medium…

Emilio Perez

Emilio Perez in his Bushwick studio. Photo by Peter Koloff.

It was 2005. Emilio Perez, the son of Cuban immigrants, was nursing an early-morning hangover in his paint-speckled loft in Bushwick, an industrial neighborhood in Brooklyn, NY. The phone clanged. Micaela, a curator who would become his life partner, was on the other end of the line. She was in Verona, Italy, preparing for the opening of a new gallery.

“You’re in the show,” she said. “Another artist dropped out. You have to make a 60-foot-long piece. You have a week.”

Emilio muttered, “Oh, okay,” before she hung up the phone. Then he set to work.

At the time, Emilio was a 33-year-old artist. He was already represented by galleries in Miami and Houston. He was neither scrapping by, nor reaching the aerie heights of the art world. In sum, his big break had yet to come. An eager talent. He was that. Confident too. “I was incredibly cocky, thinking that I was the best artist on the planet. I just had the attitude.” He also followed a unique process in the creation of his paintings that gave his works a vibrant, three-dimensional character.

On wood panels, usually very large ones, he would first use oil-based paint, covering it completely with dark atmospheric colors. Then he painted over this background with several layers of white latex paint, essentially leaving himself with a blank canvas. On top of this, he made a loose energetic painting that served as a kind of roadmap for what came next. With an x-acto knife, he cut and peeled away these layers of paint in swirls and patterns to reveal the moody base layer. He loved “the expressive quality of the material, the looseness, the accidents that happen, and the immediacy of the mark.” Everything was done “with a kind of intuition, of being in the moment, in the flow. Ultimately, I was pulling an image out of chaos.”

The last-minute show in Verona was a “huge success.” Emilio sold the site-specific painting he had created and a “bunch of other paintings” that he brought over with him. The momentum continued. On Emilio’s return to New York, a director from the Galerie Lelong asked to come to see his other work. The gallery represented some of the world’s most successful contemporary artists. A studio visit from them was akin to a New York Yankees scout coming out to see a young pitcher throw. If they wanted to sign you, welcome to the major leagues.

In December that year, the director climbed the three, dilapidated flights of stairs in Emilio’s Bushwick building to reach the loft. He walked around, stopping at one painting, then another. Emilio told his story, what he intended with his dream-like work.

“What galleries are you interested in?” the director asked.

Emilio stumbled out a response. Galerie Lelong was not exactly on his radar.

“Well, what about us?”

“Yeah,” Emilio said. “That’d be good.”

With Lelong’s representation, Emilio began selling paintings almost as quickly as he could produce them. They were sold to wealthy collectors and museums alike. Private commissions poured in, as did the money, press, and accolades. “This is it. I had arrived,” Emilio thought. “It only goes up from here. All I need to do now is make paintings, everything else will be gravy….”

Emilio Perez Studio

I was always very creative from an early age. I was very curious, taking things apart, putting them back together, exploring. When I was younger, we would always take trips to the Chesapeake Bay, and my mom collected these giant clam shells, take them home, and paint birds upon them. She always had these oil paints around. I can still smell them when I think about it.”

His parents, Jose and Maria, fled Cuba during the 1961 revolution. Jose was a lawyer. Maria studied economics. They lost everything to come to America. They moved to Jackson Heights, NY where Emilio was born, the third and youngest child. “My dad comes from the old generation. He’s definitely patriarchal. He is very domineering, and we were always at odds.”

Jose worked for Chase Bank. When Emilio was five, the family uprooted to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. After a couple of years, they returned to the United States and settled in South Miami. For much of his youth, Emilio spent a lot of time by himself. At first, he drew and created pastiches of art to entertain himself, to keep away the boredom, for something to do. The older he got, the more it was a vehicle of escape. He could sink himself into a drawing, everything else in the world disappearing. No overbearing father. No loneliness. No confusing feelings over “Am I Cuban? Am I American?” Emilio let that drift away, and there was only his hand, pen, paper, and the whirls of movement he created.

During his teenage years, whether he knew it or not, being an artist became his identity, something that was his own. “In South Miami, I basically had two separate lives. My home life was Cuban. We spoke Spanish. It was very strict and disciplined. My parents were total squares. In my life outside, a lot of my friends were Americans. They had freedom. Their parents were hippies.” Emilio always saw himself as the artist in the family, “the creative one.” He then carried that realization outside the home. “I believe, subconsciously, I started to recognize that if I put all of my effort into my art, then I can actually build an identity that is 100% mine, which can encompass the Cuban part of me—and the American—and kind of make that a whole.”

Identity was one thing. Working as an artist was another. His father made it plain that doodles on a page couldn’t put food on the table or a roof overhead. At the very least he should study something useful like architecture. Emilio had different plans. “I decided at a very early age to be an artist. I never deviated. This is what I’m going to do, and I’ll make it work.”

Emilio Perez mural

Tatiana was the first person to believe that Emilio could make a living from those doodles. A high school art teacher, “she was the real catalyst, the one who kind of set us on our path.” Emilio had a tight-knit crew of fellow artists at his school. During their senior year, they took most of their classes with her, and she gave them the freedom that fueled their passion. “We were all so into making art. We’d get surf, then get high and just do weird, crazy things. We’d go out to the mangrove forests and just draw the roots going into the water. One day, my friend James was about to move, and we basically painted the entire inside of the house with our art. Every single wall.”

On Tatiana’s advice, Emilio and his crew went to art school, several to the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, NY. Because of the 1987 market crash, Emilio’s father had “basically lost everything, including our house. I had to take out a bunch of loans for Pratt. I was so broke.” Unable to afford the cafeteria meal plan, he secreted out trays of food underneath a cardboard architectural model. He worked odd jobs, one making Greek friezes that sold out of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Another, he rollerbladed around his neighborhood, handing out coupons for free chicken at a local restaurant. The rollerblades were helpful, particularly for fast getaways in some sketchy Brooklyn spots where gunfire was the usual background noise.

After two years, Emilio quit Pratt. Money was too tight; he constantly felt unsafe. He returned to Miami. When his father picked him up at the airport, they started fighting. This was neither the time, nor did Emilio want to hear, an “I told you so” about art school. Emilio stayed the night in the one-room efficiency apartment where his parents had moved. “I just remember laying there on the sofa, hearing my dad’s snoring on the other side of this paper-thin partition wall, and I’m just saying, this is the lowest point in my life, and I don’t’ know what to do.”

Emilio hustled. Supporting himself entirely, he got more odd jobs and an apartment to call his own. Then he pushed for a meeting with the dean of the New World School of Arts, affiliated with the University of Florida. “We just kind of hit it off. And Mel Alexenburg, this imposing Orthodox Jewish guy with a big white beard, he gave me a full scholarship. Just like that.” Emilio asked Mel to throw a gallery exhibit at the school that featured his work. One of his professors, who had ties to the New York art scene, bought a painting. “That really built confidence at a time that it was needed.”

One of his strengths was his ability to make connections and talk about his work. “I got nothing to lose, and everything to gain. So why would I be embarrassed or scared to speak about what it is that I do? If this is really my path, what I’m supposed to do, how can I be shy? A lot of good things have always happened from being open. Nothing good has ever happened from being closed off.”

Soon, he networked his way to New York and started on a new process of art that thrilled and offered that escape into his work that he so craved. It also led him to Galerie Lelong and his big break.

Emilio Perez in the city

In 2015, after almost a decade of success, Emilio and Galerie LeLong parted ways. “The relationship ran its course.” Earlier thoughts that he was set as an artist with such a tiger in his corner were gone. “In the end, I was completely unrealistic. That’s just now how life works. If anything, the stakes got higher.” The split, like any such, cut at his confidence.

Over the next few years, Emilio continued with the work that had made his name. He kept selling new pieces and doing public work projects, including a permanent mosaic installation for the MTA/NYC Subway station. He won coveted residencies, participated in the Havana Biennial, and even splashed his swooping art across screens in Times Square for the Midnight Moment installation.

But he had grown tired of his reductive, cut-away paintings. “The process became so automatic that I could make one of those with my eyes practically closed. I beat it to the ground, and I felt like I did everything I could with it.” Worse, the flow state and escape that he once found in his art was gone. He wanted a different path. “I’m in a unique position. I can make that choice. No one’s telling me what to do or not do. So, I was like, why am I making these things that I think people want to see. That’s not why I started doing this in the first place. It was to please myself and for the escape.”

Shortly before the Covid pandemic, Emilio experimented with oil painting on canvas. In all his years as an artist, he had never really pursued this straightforward method. “It was a huge leap of faith. I’d made my career with a very specific type of work.”

It was a slow, stuttered start, but he found the escape again in putting brush to paint to canvas. “The process of painting is like life. With my other work, I could cut something away and make it vanish. In these new pieces, even if I wipe off some paint or try to cover it, the ghost of your past is always going to be there. You can try and erase it. You can change it….but you still have to live with it. It never really disappears, and so I have to live with each one of my decisions. There’s something to be said about accepting those decisions, those accidents, those mistakes. The process is akin to what it is to just be a human on the planet.”

This new direction was challenging and demanded all his attention. He worked glacially in his studio. He was learning and evolving as he went. But the disappearing into the work was back. He sold a few of his new paintings, but the proof would be in a new show featuring a whole gallery of his oil paintings. In spring 2022, he ordered a fortune’s worth of linen canvases and set apace for a scheduled fall opening in Miami.

Emilio Perez paint palette

One day followed very much the next. “Wake up. Breakfast and coffee. Then I go to the beach to surf for a couple of hours. Usually Rockaway Beach. It’s the easiest and quickest. If I can get in the ocean, it’s a good day. Physical activity clears the head. Then I come back to my studio in Bushwick. Have lunch, chill, and then start painting in the late afternoon. It’s really nice when I can open the windows, it’s sunny out, and the light’s coming in. Maybe I’ll crack open a beer, put on some music, and occasionally take a break on the conga drums. I’ll work into the night. That’s my most creative time. I don’t need much.”

The inspiration for his new series came from a journey to Cuba a couple years before. “I was working on a project for my second Havana Biennial, and everything just seemed to go wrong. My materials got stuck in customs. My three-week work schedule got cut down to one. I went to this really dark place. I started thinking about paradise. We have this idea of an idyllic place, but in my experience, there’s always a dark undercurrent that is happening. I wanted to explore this whole idea.”

He began with what he hoped would be the anchor piece of his show, a painting of a jungle landscape that he had sketched while on a later trip to Puerto Rico. The vista featured a perfect mix of light, darkness, and perspective.

First, Emilio painted the 7×6-foot canvas with a light brown wash. It was easy journeyman work, something to prepare the canvas. Then he drew a very loose sketch in pencil of the jungle, partly mirroring what he had seen. His first earnest brush strokes created loose shapes of green on the canvas. More shapes in different color tones followed. The pencil sketch soon disappeared, just a starting point. Often, he would spend an afternoon and evening staring at the canvas, contemplating what was next, maybe adding only a few brush strokes. Other days, he would cover large expanses. Slowly, an impressionistic, almost surreal representation of the jungle came to life. A little more shade to one area, a bit more volume to another, some heightened detail to the next. Parts of the canvas remained largely empty, and he put strips of white tape on those that still needed attention.

Even before he finished, he moved on to other paintings in his new series. He wanted all of them to tie subtly together, to create a certain “mood and vibe and consistency” that ran through the whole exhibition. He aimed for it to be a whole experience, even if the paintings would only live together for a short while in the gallery. The key, however, was the anchor piece. It was the first work that people would see, and it had to “suck you in.”

Day after day he worked on it, even if only for a short spell, adding here, smoothing the colors out there. “I’m constantly petting these paintings, massaging them. One brush stroke may finally be the one that suddenly balances the whole thing, and then you’re done.” Emilio likened the process to meeting someone new. “I’ve always seen the work as a conversation between the maker and the final piece. If it’s a good painting, it’s a good conversation. You know, it comes naturally, it’s not weird or awkward. There’s an intuition there. And like a good conversation, it ends naturally.”

Emilio continues to have those talks. He plans to entitle the show: “The Land of In Between”. It speaks to the paradise-lost theme of his work, but also to his journey as a painter.

“I found that excitement again, but it’s also scary. It’s my career. I don’t plan on doing anything else for a living. This is it. You have to take the chance.”

Emilio Perez landscapes

ETCETERAS for Emilio Perez


The Questionnaire

What turns you on creatively, spiritually, or emotionally?
Progress.

The word you would like to hear most about your new show?
Amazing.

The word you would least like to hear?
Well, that’s not going to happen.

If you were reincarnated as a plant or animal, what would it be?
An owl.

What other work would you like to do?
Oh, that’s easy. I’d love to be a chef.

What’s your most marked characteristic or quality as a person?
It might be my ego.

What is your greatest weakness?
I’m very, very self-critical.

Your dream of happiness?
It’s not money, but it’s stability.

What would be your greatest misfortune?
To have to get a job.

What natural gift would you most like to possess?
I really wish I was a better surfer.

Do you have a motto of your own, or one you like?
Stay in motion. As long as you’re doing something, you know, making a brushstroke, adding color to a painting, if there’s any little bit of progress, then you’re actually doing something.

If heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the pearly gates?
Yes, you can come in!

Outtakes on what Emilio loves about showing his work, advice for young artists, what irks him at museums, how creating art is like skiing, and whether he’s a ‘Cuban artist’

I like the visceral reaction when people see my work. I like having people connect to something that I’ve made. It’s the best compliment that you could ever have.

When I talk to students, I always say that it’s important for them to work. If you’re gonna say you’re an artist, that means you need to make work all the time. That doesn’t mean you need to show me that you had an exhibition here or you sold a piece there. But you need to be producing. All. The. Time. Because in producing, you are building your skills, you are building confidence. And when somebody comes along and says, ‘Hey, what are you working on?’…you actually have something to say. If you’re not doing this stuff on a daily basis, then you’re gonna have a hard time answering that question. And that one conversation, that one interaction, it could be the moment that takes you to that next place.

You know those little boxes that explain a piece of artwork in a museum. If I have to read a long big text about some conceptual art, and when I’m done reading it, I still don’t know what the hell I’m looking at, it’s probably all bullshit.

Often a drawing will be made first, before the painting, to figure out what it will be, I kind of turned that on its head with my cutting technique. I let the painting inform the drawing. And so by working that way, I’m reacting instinctively to these brush marks. It’s kind of like skiing. When you’re going down a mountain, you are reacting intuitively to the terrain that’s in front of you. At the skill level that you have, right now, everybody’s going to have their own line and their own way of going down the mountain and that’s individual to you. Even if you tried to take that same line again, on your next run, you could come close, but it’s never going to be the same one. So there was something about this idea of making something that is completely unique and in the present and ultimately creating a work that has a lot of energy and a lot of movement. That was what I was drawn to

There’s a lot of Cuban artists within the contemporary arts. It’s made to be this kind of exotic thing. But I never lived that experience in Cuba, and for a long time, I thought it had nothing to do with me. Now, I think that my Cuban heritage actually has much to do with the fact that I committed to becoming an artist in the sense that I needed to have my own identity when I felt neither wholly Cuban nor American.

To learn more about Emilio and his work, check out his Instagram @emilioperezart or visit his website at emilioperezart.com. His upcoming exhibition will be at the Fredric Snitzer Gallery in Miami, Florida.

First published on Work/Craft/Life. Many thanks to Neal Bascomb for allowing us to share his work on MoMa UK. Do check out his excellent newsletter for more stories of ordinary people doing extraordinary things.

Neal Bascomb