The artistic works of Jota Leal are fun, imaginative and playful, but there is no denying that certain portraits seem forged in the hallucinatory images of an LSD-fueled, pop-culture binge. In real life, the Venezuela-born artist does not drink or consume any drugs, but his eye for the fantastical manifests in surreal portraits of flamboyant music artists, extreme film actors and Wild West outlaws. Jota, who moved to Texas in 2012, found inspiration more than a decade earlier living in Spain and embracing its artistic heritage, and a portrait of Catalan surrealist Salvador Dalí graces the cover of his new art book, About Face: The Art of Jota. Many of these images can be seen in living color at Morpheus Fine Art, the Las Vegas-based gallery that represents the artist. Jota’s appreciation for pop culture and history is evident in his art, while this interview glimpses into the depth of his thoughts and imagination.
You graduated with a degree in electrical engineering. Have you had the chance to combine your knowledge of engineering with your skills as an artist?
Unintentionally perhaps, like a mathematician version of Jason Bourne using a subconscious sort of acquired knowledge, solving daily conflicts of forms and ideas in the process; literally with a different perspective, more rational within the irrational, in a calculated spontaneity. I think actually it translates in my paintings, but being an engineer didn’t make me into a heartless robot—it only gave me more tools for understanding, methods and some discipline. The same way that my artistic skills helped me go through all subjects and theories in my studies, the capability to literally draw the math problems or the situation made everything clearer. There has been always this restlessness in me to create things and make them work, and I think it was at that point where both worlds collide, the dreamer and the builder.
On a quick note, I did use my “protoboard” as a canvas in my college days—the resistors, capacitors, LEDs and little cables the colors and lines.
Your website references artists like Honoré Daumier, Max Beerbohn and Al Hirschfeld, but is it fair to say that Dalí influenced you as well?
A lot. There are little hints of his works that you can of course see reflected, sometimes even as a tribute that makes a “pictorial quote” of the Master, but what influenced me the most was his freedom. He let me know that I was allowed to be free, paint my imagination out, and of course do it well, with style and in the most technical way. There were previous surrealist artist, but he had an infinite genius, with a completely new vision, a different language and all the nerve. After Dalí, everything was possible.
What emotions does the instability in Venezuela provoke, and do you channel these feelings into the artwork in a particular way?
Pain, rage and helplessness. It affects me a lot, it’s always in my thinking, my family, my friends, my people, my beaten country. Back in Venezuela, I used to work for a political magazine and a few national newspapers. In those days, I used the pencil as a weapon and my drawing as an instrument to fight back. [Over time,] those little windows to express were shut up and becoming pamphlets of propaganda or were getting closed by the government and with them my job and means of making a living. There was no real social network in those days, but stubbornly I found ways to keep doing it. I always believed the freedom was close, but I was wrong. Betrayed, tired and with an exhausted soul I felt the need to breathe, to express a different part of me. Right now it is through my art where I find the balance to keep my lucidity. I haven’t given up, there are still many ways to keep fighting.
When choosing a person to paint, is there a particular emotion or look on the face that tends to draw you in?
It is always about emotions. Of course, there are captivating faces, with special features that draw you in, but it’s about the character, the personality and the idea of discovering and capturing that essence, transferring to the canvas. What I see and what he or she makes me feel, so it is beyond physiognomy, as I always say [it] is about souls. That’s what makes me choose, that need to portrait the person through arguments of sensitive, based in admiration, nostalgia, love or fascination. From time to time, someone will see a “particular” face with strong features and turn to me telling how good that person would be for a painting, but it doesn’t work that way for me. When I paint someone, it is not about exaggerating or mocking—that is the least of it. It is way more complex than that. It is delving into my mind how the person appears in my memory, an ephemeral and vague idea that later I need to solve, coalesce and make work. And yes, the face is certainly important, but I find it critical to see footage of the person if possible. I need to see how they talk, walk, stand, all the information converges as a result.
You refer to the Rolling Stones as Prodigal Sons in one of the paintings. How does the painting convey the idea of prodigal, and in what ways can being a prodigal be a good thing?
The title was a last minute thought, I didn’t plan it, so we shouldn’t get too thoughtful about it. In my early years, when I started my journey as an artist, The Rolling Stones were an obligatory subject in your portfolio. Yes, the silly ideas you believe when you are a kid. I wasn’t a Rolling Stone fan, I liked a few songs those years, but they weren’t the Beatles. In one point of my life I decided I will never ever portrait the Stones again. And yes, silly ideas you believe when you are a grown up. So, when I found myself doing a new piece of them, it felt like the Prodigal Sons were back home. Prodigal in their case could be a good or bad thing depending on the person. Having said that, in later years, I started to have more appreciation for their music and their influence, and that was a big difference.
With the images of actors, they are often portraying characters in more violent films. A Clockwork Orange, Taxi Driver and Scarface come mind. The same can be said for the Wild West portraits. Do you feel your style lends itself to depicting darker characters?
Well, I think it is not a coincidence that actors often would rather play darker characters. Generally, they are richer and deeper. So yes, it definitely translates in the attempt to portray them. I don’t consciously choose darker characters, I don’t plan it, it simply happens. We have to remember it is a character the actor is playing, so it is impossible to disconnect the real person in the portrait, so in those cases it is double the work of perception and creativity, but always worthwhile.
Many of the music artists featured in your paintings are big cannabis smokers. Do you think that cannabis possibly helped unlock their creativity in any way?
I don’t think marijuana improves creativity, but the illusion of it, and those are two different things. Of course, if you have an altered state of mind, it will drive you to different ways of thinking, to connect unrelated ideas, and yes, it could be maybe considered a way of creativity, but it is not. It is simply propelling one to be all over the place until something coherent makes sense—usually when one sobers up.
You singled out Mailer, Vonnegut and Vidal as three American writers who inspired you. What about their works influences your worldview and art?
It would be adventurous to say that a few novels and a couple of plays influenced me or my art. Yes, it feels awful to admit if we are talking about three of the most influential American writers of the last century, but I’m not being pretentious. To the contrary, I wish I were devoid of criteria to assess a great book, I can enjoy it, get submerged in the narrative and yes, why not? Get some awareness along the way. But beyond their work were their characters, their clarity and intellectuality, what influenced me more, what moved me at the end to do a portrait of them. I maybe don’t agree with every position, but they were so clear and strong in defending their ideas that I can only have respect and admiration. As I said before, it is emotion that moves me to paint. The simple idea of having Vidal and Mailer sharing a scene was more than enough, and of course Vonnegut is my favorite of all three, and I couldn’t miss including him. Knowledge is always useful, it allows you to be wiser in the decision making, or at least feel more confident in every step. As an artist, everything becomes an exploration, the constant striving to find inspiration in every source. That is the infinite task.