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By Patricia Simón / Translation Blanca G. Bertolaza

  • For his proyect “Essay on mockery”, painter Toño Velasco began to portray anonymous citizens sticking out their tongues and making faces at the camera
  • Research and current events led him to portray the ones he considers responsible for this crisis

“The research process for Essay on mockery led me to ask myself who I would like to mock, who are the ones in charge of this big joke we are going through”. And the first one he did, “just in pink, white and blue colors, because I wanted it to be an absolutely cold face”, was German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Obviously, the second portrait, two meters tall and two meters wide, is dedicated to the face of the French President, Nicolas Sarkozy. Among his next “models” are some Goldman Sachs CEOs, “the ones truly responsible for what we are going through. They are laughing at us and it is our turn to laugh at them, to stand before them and be able to feel a lot of the things we are going through because of them, without forgetting that we are also responsible”.
Toño Velasco has many years of experience as a painter, but also teaching graphic design in the Superior Art School of Avilés, in interior design and other activities. We talk to him about art in Spain, how he uses the Internet to manage his works, and other subjects such as the crisis or the 15M movement.

Translation of the interview

My project is a big bid. It starts with me taking pictures of my friends and the people around me and there are always people who, are intimidated by the fact that you approach them with a camera and their reaction is to stick out their tongue. So I realized that I had a lot of pictures or friends and loved ones sticking out their tongue and making faces in my photo archive. So I began to ask myself why people make that face, the moment in which they might feel observed by a camera, they make that face, or maybe when they are in the dentist’s waiting room and a kid is staring at them and they break that silence making faces. So I began to develop that idea and asked my friends to send me pictures. At first it was a local thing, for me to see images that I wanted to reinterpret, to paint over putting in plasticity, putting in my own technique. In the end “Essay on mockery” is a series of pictorial portraits, but always based on photo portraits which I have either taken myself or that people send me on a website. Mockery exudes other things, it exudes a bit of rebelliousness, it exudes optimism. When you go up to someone with a camera and you want to mock them, people a lot of times feel intimidated, stick out their tongue, it is like getting undressed, as if you were undressing them. People don’t mind making ugly faces, in fact they make ugly faces on purpose, so that way they start to peel off layers of the mask we wear every day when we go to work, when we live our daily routine. And very interesting things come out. When someone distorts their face they are opening a door I walk through, and I reinterpret that expression my own way in my paintings. Almost two years have gone since this project started, and it feels great because it is turning into a global action. I set up a website where I invited people to send me these pictures and I’m receiving photos from all over the world. I’ve realized that this is a very positive action, it is a liberating action, it means for each person who takes part in this to laugh at themselves.

Right now we need to stop taking a lot of things seriously, first of all ourselves, because we are going through some really hard times, and we need to face them with optimism, because it is the only exit. Optimism is the only way we have, so mockery works for that. It is an expression that, like yawning, is contagious. That primitive form of communication when suddenly somebody yawns and the person next to them does too. Social networks for example are working that way. And, as you can see, these outlandish characters are normal people who want to provoke something in you, a reaction. Which is exactly what we need, to react.

The role of social networks in artistic management

Toño Velasco in his studio (Patricia Simón)

Social networks nowadays do a great promotion job. I use them a lot because I think that they are a great tool. Not to be hooked on them but… The saddest thing for a painter is to have his works piling up at home and nobody seeing them.

This project is called “Essay on mockery”. The word essay implies investigation, it implies a process. So as things happen in the world, or happen to me, the project takes on a life of its own and suddenly you begin to make different decisions. For example, who would I like to laugh at? Or, who do I think is laughing at everyone? Who are the ones in control of the big joke we are going through? So for the first painting of this that I call the ‘big joke’ I chose Mrs. Merkel. The next one, right here, is Sarkozy, and more are going to follow, because what I’m doing from my small domain, which is where I work, is to mock them. And I paint them in a huge format so that one day I can exhibit them and anyone can stand in front of a Sarkozy or a Merkel, or a Goldman Sachs CEO… Because they are the ones who really are making fun of us, so it is time for us to start making fun of them. Not to just make fun of them pointlessly, but to stand in front of them and be able to feel things about those people who are responsible for many of the things that are happening to us, without forgetting that we are also responsible for what happens to us.

So when you consider working on the faces of people you do not like at all, because I really don’t sympathize with them, but you work on them for hours, and you might spend a whole day working on Merkel’s wrinkles, on her eyelids, her eyes, her cheeks, the corners of her mouth… The time comes when you fall in love with what you are doing, no matter who it is about. Because if you don’t do it with love it is impossible to do a good job. So a time comes when I forget about who I am portraying and I am just enjoying the process of painting a pseudo-imaginary portrait, because in Merkel’s or Sarkozy’s case I’m just using photos from Google or from anywhere else. I look at those pictures but then I alter that face to achieve what I think is the real expression they would make because they do not exist. In Rajoy’s case I think there are a lot of pictures of him making faces and sticking out his tongue, but in Merkel or Sarkozy’s case you have to invent their tongue, change the structure of their faces but making it still look like them. It is really fun, in the end I become very fond of them.

I want these paintings to shock, because mocking is a shocking expression. When someone sticks out their tongue you might like it, dislike it, think it’s funny… but it shocks. And the colors have to work for that shock to be as big as possible. Each face, each character makes you use different colors, different materials, kinds of strokes. Some paintings are more diffused, the expression of the face itself leads you to using one technique or another. In that sense I do not plan or design anything beforehand. In ‘Ask for Angela’, which is the name of the Merkel painting, I only used white, pink and shades of blue on her face, because I wanted it to be a completely cold face, with no ocher or yellow shades that could give it a certain sense of warmth. Merkel’s face really is a pink, cold face, which kind of reflects the way I think this woman is based on the way she is behaving even though unfortunately I do not know her personally, and I would love to because she might turn out to be a really warm person.

I need to paint someone from Spain, and personally I do not think Rajoy has enough stature yet to mock him, to spend three weeks of my working time painting his face. Also since he is still almost new to office, he is doing what we expected, tearing apart the job market as if it were not torn up enough already, what we already knew, in short. So I will wait before painting Rajoy. And meanwhile I will occupy myself with Goldman Sachs CEOs, and those types of entities that are the ones deciding the destiny of every country in the world, and who have turned public debt into private debt, and the heads of the banks. For example, from Spain I would rather paint Botín than Rajoy, I think he is a better example of what is happening and he has just the perfect face to mock.

How to get around this crisis

Velasco showing the painting ‘Ask for Angela’, dedicated to German Chancellor Angela Merkel (P.S.)

On a normal day I usually start painting at 8 in the morning and finish at 9 in the evening. In between I give painting lessons too, but normally I spend 12 hours working in the studio. That means that I don’t go out much, I’m becoming sort of a hermit because we don’t have the means to lead the life we led before, so I am using this situation to concentrate on my work. So I am locked in here, open to everything outside, of course, but I use this time to work a lot and I am very happy, because I am developing what I have always really wanted. So in that sense, these times of crisis are giving me an opportunity that I am thankful for.

Even if we do not have jobs, I think we have to work anyway, we have to look for activities. If for whatever reason you do not have a job, dedicate yourself to your hobby, turn your hobby into something else. We have to take the initiative much more than before, now we cannot just sit still and complain. We need to become active on the street, and we need to work twice as hard. There is nothing else we can do. Either that or be left out.

15M Movement

Toño Velasco standing in front of his Sarkozy portrait (P.S)

To me it has been extremely important. Those videos they played at the beginning saying ‘open you eyes’, that is the main role it has had, to open a lot of people’s eyes that either were completely shut or did not want to open them. So in that sense the 15M movement has been huge, extremely interesting. Now I think that decisions have to be made. And maybe its own structure, with its assemblies, so careful with all parties involved, is preventing this movement from being as operative as I would like it to be. And when I say operative, I mean of course peaceful actions, because that has to be the first message it gives out. But I think the actions have to be much stronger. There is no strength anymore in a couple of people putting on a performance on the street, or in two or three hundred people protesting, the police hitting them, it is not even on the news anymore. Really, I wish I had the formula but… I think that the movement is going to transform, I am sure that it is going to change, it is going to grow. The issue here is that, the situation being what it is, you can call it 15M, you can call it ‘Indignados’, but what is clear is that people’s anger is growing. I wish that when all that anger explodes, it explodes with the 15M precepts, that they are peaceful protests and that they are thought through, not savagely, because some people are already starting to justify violence and we cannot allow that.

One thing is to be outraged because those peaceful demonstrations are violently put down, because it is unfair. It is unfair that, because they go out on the street, because a lot of people go out to express what they feel, some people come out and beat them, that is unfair. But it is predictable. What did we expect, that we could go out, camp out wherever we want, do whatever we want, try to get past them, or try to walk into Congress, and the police was not going to hit us? The police is obviously going to stop us. So we need to avoid that confrontation. And I know that there are a lot of police officers who, morally, agree with the movement. Naturally, because their children or relatives are unemployed, because they are going through the same situation. But it is their job, and right now they are not working for the people, they are working for the government, who is the one that pays them.

Art and the art market in Spain

In general, art is not important in Spain. Because the ones who really control the artistic world, the curators, directors of galleries, people from the cultural scene who run the exhibition centers, have moved art away from the people. It saddens me to go to big cultural centers with great exhibitions and to see them empty. But the problem there is the connection between the art they are promoting, and why people do not relate to the art exhibited on museums, galleries… They are empty, people do not relate. We need to make that connection with the people again. I think that the problem with contemporary art is that it wastes too many words trying to explain it previously, and art has to be first seen, felt and understood.

The artist, what this artist does is renowned, what this one does is not. This sells, this does not. And it sells because there is a group of people who decide that that is good, and that it sells. But, paradoxically, in most cases, the places where those people exhibit their work are empty. So something is going on.

Formation in art

There are a lot of children nowadays whose parents are artists, and I think there is a remarkable difference. First because if they come from an artistic environment, it will probably be a more progressive, more open, more liberal environment. I have mixed the terms progressive and liberal in the same sentence because it is that, less prejudiced people. A child who listens to music, sees paintings, watches films since they are young, is going to be an educated child. And culture is what has to save us from what is going on, and education too. Therefore art is essential to formation, and to the formation of adults too. Because sadly nowadays there are too many adults who have not had any contact with art. Art to them is some people who go to the opera. And that is art but there are other things. Art really is kind of a spark that has to make us wake up.

But if there is no communication, if the recipient does not feel anything, you are doing it wrong. We need to communicate, art has to reach people, if it did not, I would feel very disappointed, really.

I think a smile is a presentation card, it is an icebreaker. And mockery is not an implosion, it is an explosion. It is a provocation. For me to mock you, there really has to be a code, there has to be something, a relationship. When you see somebody mock you, when a friend sticks out his tongue at you, you share a different code with him, you become friends in some way.