If looks could kill, the art of Brian M. Viveros would be downright deadly. Then again, you should expect nothing less from an internationally acclaimed artist who collects human skulls. The women in his meticulously crafted artwork don’t take shit from anybody, but the SoCal-based artist adds layers of symbolism and meaning to the paintings that make them truly profound. Viveros, who also makes films and collaborated with Nuvango on art-themed fashion, opens his new show Tougher Than Leather on October 12 at Thinkspace Projects gallery in Los Angeles. The artist, who collaborated with Timeless Vapes on a limited-edition battery + case package in connection with the show, helped PRØHBTD see the deeper meaning in his artwork. Naturally this involved talking about human skulls.
What do you see as the defining characteristics of your female characters?
Above all else, for me, the defining characteristics in my work are my signature eyes. The eyes tell all. They’re crucial to me and often take the longest to execute technically. If you look long and deep enough into those portals, she’ll tell you her story. The eyes are always the most important element and require a juggling act to balance a nuanced expression that is both beautiful and pained. They are offset and balanced by the body’s physical pose, the powerful stance that captures the defining moment of her strength and power. It’s all about beauty and strength edged by vulnerability—the moment you’re arrested by the eyes, you’re entangled in her world.
What are some common characteristics found in most average women that you hope retain in your characters?
I think that ultimately it’s their uniqueness. I like that the girls in my work are all different characters, and I try to harness that feeling of idiosyncrasy. Individuality is always the most interesting thing in real people.
How would you define eroticism through the prism of your artwork?
I’d say that the erotic dimension in my imagery is defined through the combination of vulnerability and strength. These are thedefining characteristics of the DirtyLand girls. They’re enticing because they’re victors, no holds barred, but it’s the combination of their vulnerable, at times wounded, beauty and the ruthless strength of their dominance that is undeniably sexy.
Was there a female figure in your life that helped shape your view of what a strong, tough and sexy woman should be in your artistic world?
There are two very strong women in my life who have believed in me and have helped me to become the crazy madman artist I am. So to answer that, it would have to be my mother and my wife. Both inspire me endlessly by their beauty and strength, and their presence unavoidably finds its way into my work.
What would it be like to date one of your female characters?
It would be a blast! Just don’t do them dirty or it’s curtains for you! If you piss her off, she might just cut your head off and wear it on her head as a helmet! (Laughs.) Could be my next painting…
How would you describe the DirtyLand where many of your female characters reside?
It’s like Disneyland turned upside down with explosives detonating in the background. You have to wear your best helmet and smoke like you’re on fire to be a member of this DirtyLand gang—it’s definitely not a place for kids or somewhere to get your PG-13 kicks. It’s the real deal. It’s fiery, frenzied and hazardous, where the warrior women rule, donning helmets and bloody wounded war paint. Explosions go off in the background, you dodge the ricochet of debris and emerge victorious from the smokey sooted clouds as blood red rose petals fall from the sky passing you by. It’s a war zone that you can walk through untouched, standing tall as a champion, while smoking a cigar. It’s a land that says, “Say it loud!” Be dirty, be strong and be whatever the fuck you want! Welcome to the DirtyLand, the dirtiest place on earth!
The helmets and the headgear play a prominent role in your artwork. Is there a specific symbolism associated with these items?
The helmets have always been symbols of protection in my work. As a kid, I would play guns and wear them, they made me feel safe and impervious. Figuratively, it’s like putting on a mask or assuming a protective identity—you go somewhere else when you put on a disguise. There’s also something about the contact pressure of the enclosure and the feeling of security you get when wearing a helmet. It’s comforting to me. Protect your heads, kids! Most of the recurring objects you see in my work like the helmets, wrestling masks and boxing head gear are drawn from my childhood and have personal significance for me.
The cigarette became a signature item early on. What does it symbolize to you?
That smoking is best enjoyed in the morning with coffee! (Laughs.) No, in all seriousness, it really is the best. I’m kidding… sort of… I’ve quit smoking cigarettes now for more than five years. At my last big sold-out LA solo show, Matador at Thinkspace Gallery, I had some works in which the girls weren’t smoking and hadn’t the cigarette. The imagery goes wayyyy back and first started in 2000. It was just something that was a part of me and my life back then. I did smoke a lot at the time and wanted to include it as a kind of iconic signature, a stamp or shorthand to be reiterated in everything I did as a recognizable element. I knew some people wouldn’t like it—it was intended to be irreverent. It did make people question it and compelled some controversy, which I think is always a good thing. Art should do that, after all. At this point, I feel like, if it works with the image, it will make its way in, but if not, I’m not just including it de facto anymore. I don’t feel the absence takes away from my girls or the work. In fact, sometimes it adds something without it. The collectors and fans don’t seem to mind that some of the girls want to be on a healthier kick and quit! (Laughs.)
In your mind, are the characters only smoking tobacco, or are some smoking cannabis joints?
Tobacco, I haven’t done the joint series yet! If and when it does, she’ll be just as badass as the others, maybe just with the distinction that she’ll be a little more comfortably numb.
What are some of the most bizarre items you have collected?
Hmmm, I think to some, collecting human skulls may seem bizarre, but I don’t know, I like them. I collect a lot of different things from toys to strange head gear and old vintage helmets. I’m always looking for boxing headgear, aviator stuff, matador stuff, samurai helmets… Ultimately, I’m addicted to headgear! For a while, I was collecting these rare horn caps. They’re huge! And pretty surreal looking, not to mention hard to find. I used them as models for my larger-than-life sculpt BullHeaded, created in collaboration with the good folks at Pretty In Plastic.
Where do you acquire items for your skull collection, and are they mostly animal or human skulls?
Mainly human skulls that have been passed off to me by people who didn’t want them anymore. One contribution to the collection was made by someone who was looking to get rid of a haunting that gave him the willies, so, of course, I gladly took it! I’ve found some at flea markets, and there’s one, in particular, I’m looking to add to my collection for Christmas. Truth be told, I also fight crime late at night in cape and helmet… the casualties make for some killer skulls. (Laughs.) It’s a dirty job, but somebody’s gotta do it.
You launched a collection with the Toronto-based fashion company Nuvango that puts your artwork on jackets, dresses, leggings, shirts and even throw pillows, among other items. What were the creative keys in taking your artwork and applying them to fashion in a way that the original vision and ideas still resonate?
The creative keys for me is the right creative timing and energy. More importantly, working with a great group of people that really understood my art and had just as much energy, passion and ideas to do something unique and special that still felt like my DirtyLand world. Creativity thrives when good people work together, and that’s what makes this line very special. They were open to all my input and ideas. The elements, the red roses, the bullets, my helmets, everything was brought to life on a different higher level. Even the presentation photo shoot done for the website is awesome! I’m just blown away by what Nuvango’s team was able to do with my art and some of my concept sketches I was able to flesh out for the line. I’m very proud of this Viveros Capsule Collection and hope everyone enjoys it, wears it and gets dirty with it. The collection is available now exclusively at Nuvango.
I have to imagine you took part in many Dia de los Muertos celebrations. Which was your favorite, and any recommendations on where people should celebrate it?
Oddly enough, my birthday is on Dia de Los Muertos, November 2nd, Day of the Dead. So every year there’s a celebration on that day for me, but I have yet to celebrate and experience it in the way I’d like to. I’m always so busy with projects and shows, but I’d like to plan a trip to Oaxaca for the day. It looks amazing, and some friends have told me I’d really dig the Day of the Dead celebration out there. I do check out the LA Day of the Dead sometimes at Hollywood Forever Cemetery, lots of cool stuff and visuals to take in.
Tell me about the short- and long-form videos you have been writing and producing. How would you describe your cinematic style, and what types of stories are you trying to tell?
My films are very personal to me. I’ve been making them since 2005 when I shot my first short Dislandia. My style is very surreal, visually haunting, associative and dreamlike. There’s no talking in them, and they’re visually cast in very muted colors. They have a timelessness to them as nothing is easily placed temporally. They’re intentionally historically ambiguous and ambient, and ebb in and out of time-based clarity to convey a sense of lost and found, if that makes sense. I don’t really think about the story I’m trying to tell, they’re not prescribed, it just kind of unfolds in this organic way. I’m acting as more of an observer when I direct: I show drawings, create a set of variables and let the actors figure it out and react to the moment. My films are nothing like my paintings. It’s an entirely other side to me that I have to exorcise. It’s weird because they call me, like a compulsion, something goes off in me, and I have to just make one. I’d say, comparatively, they are best described as avant-garde films. That’s where my heart really lies, in the surreal world like Maya Deren’s Meshes of the Afternoon, my favorite film. Some of my other films are Southern and Tercio De Muerte.
You were making underground comics during high school. How would you describe your art and storytelling back then?
Wow, the thought of this makes me smile. Back in those good old days, it was all about the shock value for me. Before shifting into the fine art realm, I was really into gore and underground splatter films. My art style then was shaped by a lot of brush and ink work, and the storytelling was very detailed, hyper-violent and surreal. When I was in school, there weren’t very many kids into what I was into. I hated school… I thought it was a big waste of time. I needed something that I could control, I needed to create my own worlds and say whatever the fuck I wanted to, so publishing my own underground comics was that outlet for me. I love comics still.
Did you ever get in trouble at school for any of your more erotic art?
Not really, I mainly did what was expected of me when it came to making images for art class and trying to get a good grade, but I was always doing my other naughty-naughty work on the side. I did draw my music teacher nude in class once and she caught me. Fucking hilarious! She grabbed it from me as I tried to hide it. I was sent to the principal’s office in hysterics… I couldn’t stop laughing! I clearly remember trying to hold in my laughter! Kids, don’t draw your music teacher naked, you’ll end up in Saturday school.
David Jenison (email@example.com) is Editor-in-Chief at PRØHBTD. Studio photo by Birdman.