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Justin Bua on living in an era in which more artists are on their smartphones than on an easel

Justin Bua on living in an era in which more artists are on their smartphones than on an easel
Jacob Rushing

In the same way that artists like Rembrandt, Diego Velazquez and Picasso were able to abridge an era through painting, California-based, New York-bred, Justin Bua (due tonight at SoGnar's Shedded Beats at Cervantes') has done so with the hip-hop generation. With a trademark style, Bua has transformed a lifestyle of lyricism into stunning portraits of jazz, hip-hop and funk, generational icons that tell a story and document a time that has otherwise been behind the scenes in smoke-filled rooms. We spoke with Bua recently about what it takes to be able to see into someone's soul in order to paint an honest portrait, and what it takes to be an artist in the modern era.

Westword: Let's talk about this lecture you have at Cervantes -- is this the first of its kind in Denver?

Justin Bua: I do a lecture, but it's really transformed into a somewhat one-man show about the burgeoning and beginnings of hip-hop culture. I get into how hip-hop culture birthed my work, and subsequently my work was really a representation from a social and cultural point of view about the beginning of hip hop.

You're in California now from New York, so how was that cultural shift from your view to the West Coast?

I use the example of daily meet and greet in NY, which we don't do. When you come to California and people are like, "Hey, man, how are you?" and [New Yorkers] are like, "What the fuck are you talking about?!" Coming from New York, you are on edge. People are in each other's face, so you have this bizarre, artificial shield to insulate yourself from the wear and tear of everyday life. You have so much space in California that you aren't used to.

When people come into my space, it was unnerving. It took a long time to getting used to green foods, organic foods, super foods, and yoga to mellow out. In New York, you aren't really used to that. A lot of people who say they are from New York are never really from the city. They are from West Chester, Long Island, but then they lived in the city for four years and try to claim it as their home, but when you are born and raised in New York City, you are on this treadmill, and you don't realize the affect it has on your nervous system until you get out.

Did that have a drastic effect on your style when you moved? It seems like that would come out one way or another in your painting.

It transformed my work from doing it... it used to be ignited by this sort of "fuck you" energy, and then my work later became ignited by peaceful energy and because I really wanted to do this, not because I wanted to show you. It was less confrontational and more of a celebration.

In your portrait work, did it change how you viewed your subjects?

I think it allowed me to go deeper into the soul of the sitter. I think the greatest portrait artist of all time is Rembrandt. He was really able to capture the soul and spirit and put that onto canvas. You have to somehow be peaceful in order to be objective to see what's really going on deep inside the sitter's soul. It's hard to do that when you have a negative energy. That affects the people who you are drawing. I still feel New York City is one of the greatest cities in the world, but I couldn't live there and see my style and artistry taking off any further if I was there. It's easy to get sucked into the madness.

I'm very familiar with a portrait by Diego Velazquez titled "Las Meninas." In that painting, he literally inserts himself into the painting, so I'm curious to know how you insert yourself, not literally, into your work?

I think my style has become part of who I am. Anything I do is going to have that Bua flavor. Can I do something purely classical that you wouldn't know is Bua drawing? Absolutely. I taught classic figure drawing at USC for twelve years. I was trained at Art Center Blah of Pasadena, which is the Harvard of art schools. When I do something in the spirit of Bua, it's going to have that indelible Bua style.

You hear the expression, "Oh shit, you've been Picasso'd." People know Picasso, especially through his Cubism, and more so than his Rose period, or Blue period, or his classical early period. His Cubistic painting is what he dominated. People know a Bua when they see a Bua.

There are a lot of imitators out there, and I do subscribe to the imitation is the best form of flattery. However, there are a lot of straight up imitators who make a living off of doing Bua-like work. I feel like your style is a deep reflection of your history and your experiences. That's why it has to be unique. You can't be just technical savvy, or creative, but a high level interpretation of both things.

I don't know who said it, but someone said that if you use your hands really well, you're a laborer. If you use your hands and head really well, you're a craftsman. If you use your hands and your head and your heart, you're an artist. That's where I am. I use my hands, and I use my head -- in other words I'm cerebral about it -- and I also use my heart. I let my intuition guide me. I feel like most people are one or the other.

Most, or all people?

Like Dali. I feel like Dali made great work, but I think he was a great craftsman, but not a great artist. To me, Picasso was a great artist. Rembrandt was the greatest, and I'm with you on Velazquez -- he was so good, it's almost sickening. He was John Singer Sargent's favorite artist, actually. John Singer Sargent did "Madame X," which is this mysterious woman leaning up against a wall in all black. He was an American painter who lived in Europe. He is one of the top five draftsman, up there with Michaelangelo. He talked nonstop about Velazquez.

Why is Rembrandt your favorite? I'm picky about using "greatest" to define anything, so I'm curious how you choose someone to be the best.

I live in Echo Park in L.A., and I overheard two hipsters saying, "Oh my god, he's so great." And I was like, "Oh, god." You can't throw that word around. It's like when Picasso got his first painting in the Louvre: They asked him where he wanted his painting, and all he said was "Put me anywhere, but don't put me next to Rembrandt. When you walk into a room that has a Rembrandt, all you see is the Rembrandt and your work is swallowed up."

If Picasso says that, it's presence. It's when that person walks into a room and has that presence. I got that vibe when I met President Clinton a couple times. It's that same thing. When you look at a Rembrandt, everything else goes out of focus. It's very impassioned and has wonderful texture. On top of that, it has that x-factor. It's that uncanny ability to catch that emotional quality of that person. It's one of those things you feel in your gut.

Do you strive for that in your portrait work?

I do strive for that, but I feel like I am unable to get there.

In a previous interview, I read that you believe the kings and queens of our time are these hip-hop masterminds, in the same way Rembrandt painted the actual royalty of the time. Do you think in the future we will look back and your work and think the same thing?

Let's backtrack: Yes, I'm documenting the culture from my point of view. I feel like some of my work has emotional depth, but maybe some of my fans think differently. I'm not half the painter that Rembrandt was. I can draw really well, and paint pretty well, and all I can do is my best. If you look at an artist like Lucian Freud's trajectory, he wasn't great when he was thirty, got better in his forties, then fifties, and then by sixty, he turned out to be one of the best of all time.

This is Sigmund Freud's grandson, by the way. When you look at that trajectory, you can see it's possible. Regardless, I am still documenting the culture. No one has done a comprehensive, visual documentation of the greatest -- potentially, the most influential -- people of our era. I'm trying to do that.

Are there times when you look at your subjects and struggle with being able to see them for a portrait?

You mean like a writer's block for a painter? I definitely do, but I think you have to work through that. It's a two-way street for an artist because the subject has to allow you to see them, and you, as an artist, need to allow yourself to see them for who they are. We come up with a lot of things in order to procrastinate, though. Like, I need to get a coffee before I work because I can't work without coffee, and then I have to meet someone somewhere, and then before you know it, it's four days later and you haven't done anything.

Picasso said -- this is the interview where I quote Picasso more than I quote myself -- but Picasso said, "How do you know you're inspired unless you have a pencil in your hand and already working?" Inspiration doesn't just happen upon you. You can't be a great athlete if you don't train. The same goes for painting. The problem is, most people are lazy. Because we live in this highly stimulated world, most artists are on their smart phones more than an easel.