PRØHBTD fave Jota Leal might not drop acid, but the Venezuela-born artist creates surreal portraits worthy of a Hunter S. Thompson road trip. The portraitist recently released About Face: The Art of Jota (reviewed here) that showcases the many pop culture icons—from Clint Eastwood and Babe Ruth to Mick Jagger and George Lucas—that he’s transformed on the canvas. Speaking of the Star Wars creator, the artist shows a particular affinity for the characters Lucas created, and Jota took the time to explain why.
Many of your paintings deal with prominent characters from science fiction movies. Star Wars, Star Trek and Flash Gordon in particular come to mind. Do you feel that narratives based in the fantasy world lend themselves better to your fantastical style?
That’s a good question. Now that I’m thinking about it, yes, I feel so, but we don’t really need an already elaborated premise to do things. That’s basically our job as artists, to take an idea and transform it, adapt it to our language and [find] ways to express it. But it is true, when we push some boundaries, people tend to react, sometimes in panic or even in fear about the unknown or about what is not formal, or normal. When we portrait a Martian, for example, people are more open to digest it because the Author or Director already did the work for us. In these cases, we are playing with ideas and minds in a more flexible setting.
What was the first Star Wars character you painted, and what drew you to that character?
I do not recall. I’m pretty sure it was Darth Vader or maybe one of the Stormtroopers. Star Wars is such an iconic franchise. I was too little when they came out, and to be truthful, I never was a big fan, but growing up, the cult was out there, and the movie was playing frequently on broadcast TV. With so much exposure into the adventure, you cannot help but feel pushed to recreate those figures and in someway be part of it.
One of my favorite paintings is the Mathew Brady-style portrait of the Darth Vader family. What inspired you to take this particular angle with the image, and what are the deeper themes of the image?
Well, I’m an old soul, and not just now that I’m almost 40. Since I was a kid, I was always attracted to this old world: the style, the cars, pictures in sepia, the movies and even the music. I’m also a portrait artist—or sort of [one]—and I love the magic of capturing in my own way the souls of people in a canvas. Having said that, when I had the need to paint Darth Vader, not being a “still life” painter was a dilemma for me. A helmet and a mask were not my idea of a portrait, beyond all the meaning the figure itself evokes. The week I painted it was Father’s Day, and the image of him with a “Worst Dad” cup was playing around. So, all these ideas and feelings got together, and everything developed in this concept of the dysfunctional family with the bad dad. Everything made crazy sense in my mind, and the idea to do a family portrait with the siblings as babies, of course, couldn’t be done as anything but “Old Picture.”
Chewbacca with robotic enhancement… do you know something about The Force Awakens that we don’t?
I did hear there were ideas of Chewbacca with a robotic arm for this movie, but no. I just painted Chewbacca on an AT-ST.
Your Han Solo image has a Wild West feel to it, yet I noticed that many of your Wild West images portray famous gunslingers without their guns drawn—Wild Bill being a notable exception. Is there a reason behind this?
I think it is there in the movie, and it was an intentional idea of George Lucas to bring this Wild West feeling to the movie, especially for the Han Solo character. I didn’t think about it when I painted him, but I’m sure it was something that was always there, tacit.
Among the Star Wars images, you mostly paint living beings and expressive characters. I did not see RD-D2, for example. Is this intentional?
Well, as I said, I rather paint people than “things,” but of course there is always a way to do it. As with the Darth Vader [painting], I know eventually—when the time comes and I feel it is something I want to try—I will figure it out and do it. I also feel, for example, that I want to paint all those spaceships the way they look in my head. So there is always a possibility.
Did the Star Wars movies have a big impact on you when you were growing up?
The Star Wars impact was probably felt more indirectly. Star Wars influenced many, many films. It changed the film industry for good. It allowed many of the films I love to happen. Before Star Wars, movies were self-contained. Star Wars started movie merchandising and movie pop culture. It got people to start buying movie stuff, like posters and portraits, which is something I relate to.
What are your expectations for the new movies?
Basically a good story. That’s everything.
Venezuela has incredible natural attractions. What place in your home country feels most like visiting another planet?
I think “Los Médanos de Coro” (The Coro’s Dunes) is the closest thing to Tatooine. I can see myself finding the Sand People there. The Moon of Endor woods is like [Mount] Roraima, with Roraima being even more out of this world and magnificent.
Jabba the Hut appears to smoke in Return of the Jedi, so besides Jabba, which Star Wars character would most likely smoke cannabis?
The writer of Episode I. What was he thinking?
If you had to paint Darth Vader smoking cannabis, what type of image would you create?
If I had to paint it, I’m pretty sure Darth Vader would be smoking cannabis without his mask or helmet on, the way he appeared at the end of Return of the Jedi. Not looking like Hayden Christensen, for sure.
David Jenison (email@example.com) is Editor-in-Chief at PRØHBTD.