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This Artist Saw A Lack Of Diversity On Gallery Walls. So She Painted Portraits Of Her Queer And Latinx Friends

Shizu Saldamando's work spotlights the beauty and dignity of queer people hanging out.

In one of Shizu Saldamando's recent paintings — Martin Sorrondeguy, the musician, photographer, and filmmaker best known for fronting influential hardcore band Los Crudos — appears shirtless, one hand tugging on his black suspenders, the other holding a champagne glass against torso. The bottom half of his body is enveloped in a voluminous, blue skirt that billows out to the edges of the wood panel upon which its painted. As the skirt turns upward, the shades of blue lighten towards frothy white tips. It looks less like clothing and more like a wave that will crash upon him.

"He has amazing presence and power that he reciprocates mutually with the audience," Saldamando says of Sorrondeguy, who is also sometimes known as Martin Crudo. "It's this really incredible exchange of energy and I view the wave as the audience and the energy that they co-create."

"La Sashiko" by Shizu Saldamando. Image courtesy of the artist.

Through lovingly-made portraits of friends and family, Saldamando's art explores identity, representation, and subcultures.

Her works are slices of life, often documenting artists whose work is imbued with a punk DIY spirit. They’re first captured in photos, then they become references for her paintings and drawings. The image of Sorrondeguy is based upon a photo Saldamando took of his birthday party. Her portraits are almost like an analog Instagram, capturing fleeting moments in pencil and paint.

While her acclaimed fine art graces museum walls — she has been shown everywhere from the Smithsonian and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, to her latest show at the Charlie James Gallery — she also has found work as a tattoo artist, which she continues to do today.

"It allowed me to reconnect with a lot of people and a lot of friends that wanted tattoos and still liked my work," she says. "It created a really nice social circle for me too, which is what I try to draw from in my art."

"Martin's Cincuentañera" by Shizu Saldamando. Courtesy of the artist.

Saldamando, who is of Mexican and Japanese heritage, grew up in a politically-conscious San Francisco household with activist parents. She started making portraits in high school, and continued when she moved to Los Angeles.

While it may not be obvious, there is a political streak running through her work. Saldamando's subjects are frequently people of color, often Latinx, and include LGBTQ people of color.

"These are mainly children of immigrant families; people who have suffered historical trauma, but still deal with the pain — and own their pain and own that trauma — and create their own thing, and their own networks, and their own scenes with other like-minded people who have gone through similar struggles," she explains. "I think that's a big thing too with people who get into certain subcultures. You're looking for extended family. You're looking for some sort of connection with people because there is a sort of pain that you carry for whatever reason, whatever trauma that you're carrying, and you can find this catharsis out in nightlife and out in clubs."

[quote position="full" is_quote="true"]Just because they're not a rock star or they're not organizing farm workers doesn't mean that they aren't perfectly amazing.[/quote]

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Los Angeles' music and club scene was bursting with activity for young people whose interests weren't quite mainstream. Goth clubs, Britpop dance parties, and rockabilly shows were part of Saldamando's social life. She would bring a small camera with her. "I was never sure how they would come out," says Saldamando of the photos that she took in the days of film. "I would get them developed and whatever came out, came out, and then I would draw them."

Moreover, Saldamando's work spotlights the beauty and dignity of ordinary people hanging out with friends.

"Especially with people of color, I think that there is this tendency to want to create a cult of exceptionalism," she says. "Just because they're not a rock star or they're not organizing farm workers doesn't mean that they aren't perfectly amazing, valid people in their own right and that's what I think a lot of what my drawings and work tries to show in its own way."

Detail of "La Ever" by Shizu Saldamando. Image courtesy of the artist.

In her latest show, she returns to her portraiture roots. "I had this need to start painting again," Saldamando says by phone.

In fall of 2016, the L.A.-based artist had her first child. While she was pregnant, she had been drawing, but not painting. "Then the baby came and that was a real whirlwind — the first kid I had — and I didn't get to make art for a long time," she explains. "I wanted to do some more paintings just out of my own desire to return to creating and making art because I had been in this mom role for so many months and I felt this intense desire for so many months."

[quote position="full" is_quote="true"]I wanted to make sure that I was still connected to different communities.[/quote]

Throughout her career, Saldamando has sought to strike a balance between the art world and the communities that have impacted her life and work. She earned at MFA California Institute of the Arts and, after that, aimed to "unlearn" what's taught in grad school.

She mixed gallery and museum exhibitions with shows in spaces like community centers. "I was very unapologetic about showing different contexts and not being very calculating about only showing in institutions," she says. "I wanted to make sure that I was still connected to different communities because I was finding that, as I was showing in more institutions, it was taking me away from what I was originally really inspired by, which was friends and people that weren't a part of those institutions."

"La Maya" by Shizu Saldamando. Image courtesy of the artist.

Saldamando's documentation of subcultures wasn't by design, she has simply been telling the stories of the people who surround her through art.

These days, she says, when she goes out, she sees artists photographing the scenes, documenting their lives as they happen. "There's more of a generation of artists who are actually recognizing the beauty of their own personal life," she says. "When I was growing up, I didn't really see artists doing that."

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