The conversations one has as a viewer with the installations, sculptures, and multi-media compositions are filled with depth. Through a collection of varied angles of craft, the artist proposes themes of spirituality, selfhood, and a whole lot of leather. Esteban Ramón Pérez derives inspiration from an upbringing of threads and needles, to generate a body of work that is masterful and deliberate through that very practice. The viewer swims in feathers, religious iconography, gold, and leather, feeling fabulous, yet buried deep in thought. Read below to learn more about the artist, his upbringing, inspirations, passions, and unique body of work.
Cosmic Aspirations, 2020, Enamel and soot on wood, peacock blade feathers, pheasant wings and tail feathers, machete, Mexican Squirt bottle, nails, screws, metal ball chain, stainless steel wire, 84 x 42 x 44 inches, Courtesy of the Artist
Tell us a little bit about yourself. Where are you from originally and when did art first enter your life?
I was born in East LA, I was schooled in Rialto, CA, and I grew up moving around the Inland Empire.
Art entered my life through my family first and community second. My dad’s a jack of all trades and master upholsterer; when I was around 5 he started his own upholstery business out of our 2 car garage in San Bernardino, CA, and at a young age I became his apprentice. My dad’s also a Lowrider; he taught me how to work on cars and how to identify classic Chevys. He’d take me to lowrider car shows and cruises – that was my earliest intro to painting and sculpture. Painting in the form of candy paints, pinstripes, abstract shapes that contour the body of the lowrider, metal flake and gilded leafing. Sculpture in the form of customized upholstery, chain steering wheels, kinetic hydraulics, and custom engraving on chrome body parts such as spoke wheels, bumpers, bezels, moldings, ornaments, and accessories.
My community was filled with murals depicting scenes of ranching, Mexican folklore, and Pre-Colombian and Catholic iconography. Graffiti bombs on freight trains parked on the train yard or on the tracks by my house mesmerized me. The local swap meet was filled with objects made with images of pop and folkloric art; I’d get to see birds, bootleg CD’s designed with fan art, and pretty much any novelty a kid can want.
Reina de la Noche, 2020, Rooster tail feathers, steer horn, terracota pot, 36 x 40 x 18 inches, Courtesy of the Artist
Does your background influence your current body of work? How?
I’d say definitely.
My parents are Mexican immigrants who both moved to the U.S. at a young age. My dad raised me with the understanding that I’m a Xicano, his stories of his early life experience really shaped my interests and have ultimately influenced my practice.
As an apprentice in my dad’s upholstery shop I was taught how to cut and sew, how to deconstruct a piece of furniture, how to rebuild it, how to upholster it, and how to detail it. I learned how to use hand tools, industrial tools, and how to make use of alternative materials – things that are not commonly used in upholstery – a method known as Mickey Mouse or Rasquache. I developed a sensibility for fabrication, patterning, and color through being exposed to a great amount of different types of furniture, fabric, and material.
Aside from upholstery, my painting has been influenced by lowriding. I use large and fine airbrushes, auto-body tape, fluid paints, and metal flakes in reference to drawing and painting I’ve found on lowriders cruising around my neighborhood.
Where do you source your materials and how do you choose to use certain fabrics over others?
I mainly source my materials from my dad’s upholstery shop. The way I tend to choose one material over another is through attraction, mood, and visual purpose. I’m attracted to and so often use materials like leather, velvet, feathers, agave fiber, and others.
Leather scraps became my main material of choice in grad school. After upholstering a chair, sofa, or car interior with leather, we’d always have scraps; we never felt right throwing these scraps away so we’d put them into a box. Over the years we’d accumulated a large amount of scrap – scraps with all kinds of colors, textures, factory finishes and processes: smooth, pebbled, oil tanned, veg tanned. I’ve always been attracted to leather, it smells and feels good, it’s nice to look at.
Along with the extensive amount of colors the leather industry produces, the range of the material’s use and customizable qualities, the histories the material is imbedded with (art, industry, and life of animal), the polluter waste that’s a consequence of it’s production (especially if it’s chromium-tanned), my family’s practice of up-cycling, but most importantly the fact that leather is a skin derived of a body and it deserves respect – are all reasons for my choice in using leather.
Gallo de Pelea, 2020, Leather boxing gloves, pheasant and rooster tail feathers, sisal twine, 52 x 18 x 14 inches, Courtesy of the Artist
Has your work always taken on the style it currently embodies?
Formally it’s recently taken a new life, but with concepts that have been consistent in my art practice.
I recently graduated from Yale University School of Art Painting and Printmaking in 2019. After my first semester there I decided to put aside paint (as a focus in medium). I was surrounded by 40-something other painters in that program and was quickly overwhelmed and put off by the conversation around painting and it’s formal qualities.
That’s when I reached out to my dad and asked him to send me leather scraps from that box he had, and any other material remnants he could spare. He agreed, and with that I made a new and diverse body of work that looked different from anything I’ve done before, but inline with concepts and interests that I had been investigating through paint previously.
El Gallo Negro, 2020, Leather boxing gloves, ancho chiles, pheasant and rooster tail feathers, sisal twine, 64 x 24 x 18 inches, Courtesy of the Artist
Are there any Art Historical movements or individuals that impact your work?
Some of the art that’s had a significant influence in my work could be found on the streets and in homes around Los Angeles, CA.
When I first started painting I was looking at everything and anything I could find in second hand art books from a local bookstore (shout out to Joey, previously at Claremont Forum, for the hook up with books, with help in writing, and my first exhibition). I was looking at: cubism, fauvism, expressionism, abstract expressionism, pop art, minimalism, land art, installation art – at the same time I was cross referencing it with my main influence at the time, the Chicano Art Movement.
I’ve been interested in the intersection between Mexico’s and USA’s modern and contemporary art movements – like those referenced in Vida Americana at the Whitney. There’s a lot of crossover that doesn’t get covered in art history. I don’t remember learning of any Mexican, Xicano, or Latin American artists in my art history course at CalArts, or in my second hand art books. But there’s Jackson Pollock’s relationship to David Alfaro Siqueiros and his drip gestures, the Albers and their influence from an infatuation with Mexican indigenous art, – Philip Guston, Aaron Douglas, Charles White, Jacob Lawrence, and so on. When I was looking at ab-ex, 60’s pop, or minimalism, it felt familiar somehow, and I think that was part of my attraction to those movements.
A particularly important moment for me was in the summer of 2017 when I ran into (the Oaxacan master) Francisco Toledo’s wool sculptural paintings at The National Mexican Museum of Art in Pilsen, Chicago. I had just graduated from
CalArts, and was in Chicago for an interview with the School of the Art Institute of Chicago’s MFA painting program; when I saw Toledo’s work it tripped me out, mesmerized me, and I couldn’t escape the feeling his work left with me. It left with me a desire to find a formal alternative to painting on canvas.
Another similar moment was seeing Jack Whitten’s sculptures at the Met Breuer in the fall of 2018.
Capullo De Mariposa, 2021, Leather, push broom, sandbags, wood, 68 x 48 x 32 inches, Courtesy of the Artist
From where do you find inspiration?
I find inspiration in a multitude of people, things, images, and happenings. I came across articles in LA and New York Times two summers ago, right before the fire season had started in So Cal, and they had written about prisoner firefighters. Women and men who were on the front lines of these fires all around So Cal, protecting some of the most expensive homes on hills, and as a result some of them would be injured, some lost their lives. As payment, they received less than $1 an hour. It prompted me to start a piece about the fires I grew up seeing every season.
What is a day in the studio like for you?
I have a morning ritual – make coffee, put on music, burn something, read/write a bit or draw before getting to larger work. I’m usually working on a composition with leather scraps, sewing scraps together, painting on the suede of the leather, or scarring the factory finish side with a custom tattoo rig. If not that, then I’ll be working on a sculpture, study, or drawing.
Distorted Myths (Popo y Izta), 2019-21, Urethane on leather, metallic flake, nickel plated upholstery nails, pheasant pelt and tail feathers, peacock blade and bleached tail feathers, wood, 11 x 8.5 feet, Courtesy of the Artist
How do you begin a work, what is that process like?
It depends on the work. It’s kinda hard to accurately explain how I’m thinking at the start of a work. Sometimes I can just see a work finished before starting it and I’ll try to work towards that vision. Other times I go through a brainstorming process . Sometimes I take certain steps – like if it’s a leather piece I can start with the palette. If I’m working monochromatically I’ll gather a pile of similar colored scraps, and start working out a composition with them on the wall. If I’m already thinking of an idea or particular subject matter at that point, I’ll start gathering up research around what I’m thinking about and print out a few images to tack onto my wall as a scope. Then I’d figure out how to attack it from there – possibly by considering how the work would exist in a space or how it’d be displayed and with what.
DNA, 2019, Leather, Zepol and vintage Everlast boxing gloves, Mexican national
football team badge and uniform catchphrase (Somos Guerreros), heavy bag mounts and chains, 12 x 12 x 1 feet, Courtesy of the Artist
What do you have coming up for the future?
I’m currently a studio fellow at NXTHVN, it’s a special place with a focus on community, mentorship, and career development; I’m really excited to be working here until May – shout out to the NXTHVN fam! We’re working on our fellow group show that’ll be exhibited in June at James Cohan Gallery in Tribeca, NYC. Got a couple of other projects cooking that I’ll be announcing soon.
DNA, 2019, Leather, Zepol and vintage, Everlast boxing gloves, Mexican national football team badge and uniform catchphrase (Somos Guerreros), heavy bag mounts and chains, 12 x 12 x 1 feet, Courtesy of the Artist
At the end of every interview, we like to ask the artist to recommend a friend whose work you love for us to interview next. Who would you suggest?