The Land of In Between
The Reinvention and Adventures of an Abstract Artist
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….”
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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.”
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