In the 1990s, the LGBTQ community reclaimed the word “queer,” turning what was meant to be an insult into a point of pride. Artist José Villalobos has taken such reclamation many steps further, employing every sexuality-based insult in the book — in both of his ancestral languages — as markers of his own fiercely proud queer identity.
Joto Fronterizo, the title of a 2019 solo exhibition at Albright College in Reading, Pennsylvania, is perhaps the most brazen self-identifier used by Villalobos, translated as Border Faggot.
In performance art, sculpture, printmaking, and painting, Villalobos is bold and forthright in revealing the truths of his complex identity, one reason this 32-year-old San Antonian is enjoying significant success early in his career.
A different lens
The Joto Fronterizo title is a reference to growing up as a gay man in El Paso and frequently visiting family in Ciudad Juarez across the border. With a keen eye, the young Villalobos noted the flamboyant clothes worn by his musician father and other norteño performers, but realized that if he were to dress in exactly the same way, but perform as a gay man, he would be reviled as a maricón, a vulgar term referring to homosexuality.
“If you’re gay and you do the same things, you’re seen in a completely different lens. You’re seen in a very negative way, like you’re ruining the image of what macho is supposed to look like,” Villalobos said.
The artist uses this observation as a method for much of his work, made by subtly altering the common wear of mariachis, charros, and vaqueros to reflect the flamboyancy at the heart of the shiny baubles, bright colors, and angel-wing embroideries that characterize such costumery.
For one new sculpture titled Botas Para Llegar al Cielo (Boots to Get to Heaven), Villalobos simply cut the decorative embroidered shapes from a pair of black leather cowboy boots and folded them back, giving the appearance of a vaquero version of Mercury, the Roman god with winged feet. Mercury was seen as the patron spirit of transitions and boundaries, fitting for a genre-and boundary-crossing artist.
The Roman god was also charged with guiding souls to the underworld, rather than to heaven. The title of the work strikes an ironic note for Villalobos, who said some devoutly religious family members might see the underworld as a fitting destination for a homosexual person.
The sculpture could also be interpreted as revealing an Achilles’ heel — for either the artist, who others may see as an effeminate mariposa weakened by his condition, or by Villalobos himself, who sees the macho tradition rendering men incapable of expressing their true emotional selves.
For the 2018 Transborder Biennial at the El Paso Museum of Art, Villalobos created an installation titled Sin La ’S’ (Without the ’S’), suspending a group of cowboy sombreros, ringed with gold fringe, from the ceiling. The fringe on one hat is pink, representing the name “Villalobo” in singular form, symbolizing the artist as a gay man viewed by his religious family as incapable of extending the family line.
Villalobos fearlessly adopts such negative views of his identity. He created a fringed cowboy shirt emblazoned with the word “macho” across the back shoulders, the word “mariposa” hiding coyly behind the satin fringe. These costumes become part of Villalobos’s performances, his objectified body used to express the pains he and others like him have endured while suffering rejection, alienation, and abuse.
His performances incorporate self-abuse as a reflection of such pains, including Cultural Reminders, a video performance from 2019 in which Villalobos gets his upper feet tattooed with boot stitch designs, to the hard-to-witness Manos de Hombre of 2018, wherein the artist embroiders the word “hombre” across the palms of his own hands, a stomach-churning, negative homage to a test once routinely given to Mexican workers seeking to qualify as farm laborers in the U.S., called braceros. If they had callouses on their hands, Villalobos learned, they were deemed qualified, in part because effeminate men were assumed to lack them.
A recent installation in the Main Street window gallery of Artpace paid homage to one bracero named Porfirio, who Villalobos discovered through researching the history of Mexican homosexuality. Braceros were housed together for months at a time in large rooms with connected bunks, a situation that to Villalobos suggested ripe conditions for homosexual interaction.
The installation is a small recreation of bracero accommodations that reveals its full content after daylight, when neon hidden under canvas bedsheets lights up to spell “tu” (you) and “yo” (I) with a red heart, an admission of love between two occupants. When the words are connected, they spell tuyo, meaning “yours.”
During the exhibition, an unknown vandal smashed one of the windows with a brick. Villalobos is used to vitriolic actions against queer identity, and figures that might have been the motivation, but said he prefers to relate a brick through a window as a revolutionary act similar to the ends he is trying to achieve in his artwork.
A world of possibility
That language is at the heart of so much of Villalobos’s work surprises the artist, who in a recent Taller Talk with Ruby City Director Elyse Gonzales confessed to hating to read while a young student. After high school, however, Harry Potter novels provided a breakthrough; Villalobos saw the possibilities of “creating another world” through writing.
“Every time I read any fictional story, it reminded me of the power that words have to create this whole universe in your head,” he said.
He entered the University of Texas at San Antonio as an English major, but soon found his way to visual art through an art appreciation class. He eventually earned a bachelor’s degree in Fine Art in 2016.
Since then, his rise has been swift, with appearances in more than 40 group exhibitions including the Atlanta Biennial and upcoming Texas Biennial, a dozen solo shows, and multiple collections including the Smithsonian Archives of American Art, the Mexic-Arté Museum, and Albright College, where his solo exhibition brought together 30 artworks from five years of production.
Such shows are called “survey exhibitions” in the art field and are meant to mark a milestone in an artist’s career. Among other awards, Villalobos has received a 2018 Joan Mitchell Foundation Painters and Sculptors $25,000 grant, a highly competitive national award, and was later selected for a residency at the foundation’s headquarters in New Orleans.
The artist is not pausing to reflect on his short but already illustrious career, however. As he busily creates artwork for upcoming exhibitions, he looks forward to an opportunity to create a large-scale installation, and to one day create a children’s book about a boy who wears pink boots, in an effort to “dismantle this idea of how color is associated with gender,” as he told Gonzales.
Finding himself at the intersection of so many current tension points in society, as the gay American child of macho and tradition-bound Mexican immigrants who hold strict religious beliefs, in artwork after artwork Villalobos creates another world of possibility for others like him.