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