I recently enjoyed the opening of New World Old Child, a solo exhibition by Nicolas Torres’s at the Mission Cultural Center for Latino Arts. An appropriate exhibit for the space, seeing as how Torres’s work often comments on change in the Bay Area, and the city’s mission neighborhood has arguably been the blunt of this transformation in recent years.
Torres is easily one of the first people that come to mind when thinking of my favorite current Bay Area artists. With what I view as a subtle sense of humor, Torres creates work that has a deep connection with the past and questions if the new is automatically better than the old. The politics of growth in a neighborhood, city, etc. and how it affects the residents that bare witness to it. His work reflects an honest appreciation of the integrity of the working class – which is a challenge to successfully execute when ART is often amused by a higher class.
So Nicolas tell me about the inspiration behind the work for New World Old Child…
Much of my work is inspired by this city’s lower prole society, its value systems, and its outlook in the face of extinction. I wanted New World Old Child to tell a story of some sort, a story of when the traditional are viewed as unadaptable. It is a nostalgic presentation of what I love about this city through depictions youthful pastimes and neighborhood tokens. Órale!
Yes, I see that a lot of your work has an implied nostalgic feeling, from your photo and ephemera collages Family Tree, to the framed TuLan menu. How do you use this sense of nostalgia to your advantage in your work?
Ultimately I think my nostalgia pays homage to what was there before me, and I think this is one of the reasons that the curator (Maurizzio Hector Pineda) saw my work as a good fit for the neighboring gallery which is exhibiting the alters show for Día de los Muertos. I also believe it allows my work to be personable, and hopefully accessible. This show is a blessing to be housed in the MCCLA. They have docents that give tours of the artwork to over 5 classes a day. I think over 1000 children have already seen my show and they are getting a kick out of it. This truly warms my heart and I can’t think of a better reason to make such work. Though a joke I’ve been making is that I’m waiting on a good art review in the Balboa High Student Newspaper. One student actually asked the Docent if he could stick some chicle under my Gum Under the Table piece, and the Docent allowed him to contribute to the piece. When I first heard that the Docent had allowed the student to do this I was slightly put off, but then upon reflection it made total sense, and I now feel the piece is truly complete.
Well art can’t really get more accessible than that now can it? I have an affinity for work which viewers can give and take from. New World Old Child reflects a sense of youthful deviance so I guess it just comes with the territory… You grew up here in the Bay Area and as your work suggests, you’ve seen a lot of changes in the bay. Tell me about what you’ve witnessed. Do you view this flux in a more or less negative way?
I’d have to say negative. I know there are a lot of people that do not agree with me. You often hear that change is good, or that change is growth and growth must be good. These are obviously generic beliefs that we all have, and it is much too simple to find examples where both are the opposite. In any case whatever side of the fence you reside on, the fact remains that the more corporate this city (any city for that matter) becomes, you will have outsider money influencing the structures and environments of our lives. I do hold onto that prior belief that change and growth can be good, but I have always felt in my heart that the change should come from within the community. Call me old school I guess. San Francisco at this time does not seem to be affected by the bad economy, so they say, but obviously with the rise you have the fall, and its not always just big bank takes little bank. Values change, and a new comer may feel much more comfortable walking into a business that is also new. So I guess besides the obvious new developments that cater to mostly high proles and up, I would say that most of the changes I’ve witnessed are value based. There is a huge quality of life movement in San Francisco, and it can be very partisan.
Exactly, and quality of life is measured differently from person to person. You had also mentioned before that you want New World Old Child to not just be about what was disturbing you, but what you were holding onto. Can you elaborate?
Its important to me that people know that I’m not just a curmudgeon against change, but that I have a deep appreciation for the underdog. It’s just the way I was raised. My father was that way, my older brother, and all the kids I ran with felt the same way, well most of them did, at least the good timers. I like this exhibit because it speaks about a working class and the children raised under it. There are smiling faces in photos and vandalistic but fun youthful pastimes, and although there are some vexing images, I feel they may bolster positive questions.
My immediate favorite piece in the show was Da Nooder. Tell me about how this piece came about…
Da Nooder was a piece that I had in mind for quite awhile now, though the title I stole from a friend. Tulan is a very sacred place to me and I have been loyal customer for some time. My good friend (and good artist) Eric Kneeland took me there back in the day, and he took me there because his buddy Jonathan Lim took him there prior to that, so it was passed to me with history, and anyone who eats there can feel the history by the grease on the walls. I remember seeing how they would stack their fried noodles above the fryer and I always thought they were so beautiful looking. I kept telling myself that I was going to ask if I could just buy a ton of the stacks but I never got around too it, but as my show was approaching I decided to go after work, get a meal, leave a generous tip, and then ask if I could just buy a gang of their noodle stacks. As I’m walking up to the door of Tulan I see a health department notice on the door, and I realized they had just been shut down an hour before I walked up. I knocked with panic on the door (I was pretty upset), and the owners’ son let me in. I talked with the son and told him how much I loved the place, and how sad I was to see such a thing happen. That place had about twenty employees and they still haven’t reopened. Have these people just been without work for over 2 months now? In any case I eventually told the son that I was hoping to obtain the fried noodle stacks, and it just so happened that they had a days yield of them in a garbage bag. The son convinced his father that I was using them for art and was not going to eat them and so they gave me the whole bag. So there I was, ecstatic and upset at the same time walking down market with a garbage bag full of fried noodles. I dripped a grease trail all the way back to my house by Otis and Mccoppin. My house smelled like Tulan for three weeks. I think it’s my favorite piece too.
That’s actually really crazy. Timing is everything I guess. One reason I admire your work is because, by default, you are a young artist creating in an urban environment, yet your work never feels “trendy.” It seems very well thought out – as opposed to spontaneous and flighty, but it is not overly concerned with fitting into any sort of specific medium, and your work is far from pretentious. What is your approach to art making?
First off thank you, if that is true then I definitely take pride in that, though I sometimes am concerned if it’s a curse as well. I think one of the reasons this happens is because I rarely look towards the art and design world for influence. That is to say I don’t look at popular practices to make me a better artist, I look at them because I like art, even though I think that it is undoubtedly a very selfish act much of the time. In fact I work at the MOMA as a preparator and I’m reminded daily of how ignorant of art and its history I really am. I’m taking steps to improve this though, and working at the MOMA has definitely helped.
I never studied art, I studied philosophy, so it is much easier for me to sit around and think than constantly apply. I have a basic understanding of craftsmanship and work with various materials, but the intimacy with the materials are not so important to me, it’s the ideas behind them and how I can use them to convey a certain point, or stir up certain questions. I have a lot of artist friends that are the opposite. They work with specific materials over and over until they own them. I think this type of practice is amazing; it’s just not for me. That isn’t to say that those types of artist do not inspire me, they do, and I think they help me have a cleaner aesthetic. This helps because my work often covers gritty topics, so it’s nice to be fresh n clean. Yadadamean?
You have any favorite spots in the Bay that still exist that you’re willing to share with us?
Hmm, there is a very small diner on Oakdale called Victors, actually the sign says Georges, but its only because its located right by a loading dock and a huge truck knocked off his old sign, and so he just found a used sign that said Georges diner instead of Victors diner. The owner Victor is why I go there, he is totally cool. I have some art on the wall too.
Thanks for the in on a good spot Nick!
Check out NEW WORLD OLD CHILD at Mission Cultural Center for Latino Arts up until November 30th
And keep track of Nicolas here:
The Mission Cultural Center is proud to present New World Old Child, a new solo exhibition by Nicolas Torres open to the public on October 20 through November 30. With all new work comprised of video installations, sculptures, photographs, and found ephemera, Torres blends together small narratives of a time he deeply admired through depictions of youthful pastimes and symbolic neighborhood tokens. Torres expands his conceptual practice in this solo exhibition while making ties to much of the narratives seen in his previous work that often focus on the struggles of lower class city dwelling.
“I’ve often said nostalgia gets the best of me, and it does, but it also brings out the best in me. What’s ugly is that it makes me fear change, but ultimately I feel it’s a fair exchange for the art it inspires me to create and respect it pays to a past”
Torres was born in San Francisco and raised throughout the Bay Area. He received his BA in Philosophy from UC Berkeley in 2008. Since then much of his work has focused on San Francisco and the changes of its inhabitants, environment, and ideals. Through a variety of practices he produces social commentary on urban blight and on those who suffer and benefit through its renewal. Torres has exhibited in San Francisco, Detroit, and Barcelona.