By Noma Faingold

“I love routine, but I hate repetition.” – Artist Emilio Villalba


Former Richmond District resident Emilio Villalba’s small North Beach apartment is filled with natural light, vintage vinyl (including plenty of his favorite, Lou Reed) and carefully curated mid-century furniture. Paintings and sculptures line the white walls of his living room, created mostly by artist friends, some who share the same representation, Dolby Chadwick Gallery of San Francisco. At first, it seems he would rather talk about their work than his own.


The distinct smell of wet oil paint beckons from the adjacent room, the studio where 39-year-old Villalba and his artist wife, Michelle Fernandez Villalba, work. She is painting a small, intricate piece at an easel, while he is knee deep in a series of large paintings, which are super thick with layers of paint and densely populated with stylized (almost abstract) everyday objects, like a Budweiser beer bottle, a can of corn, a calculator, a basketball hoop and an old phone. He refers to the series as “collages,” but they’re really not – the composition seems too random. He also calls them “minimalist,” but he happens to view Jackson Pollock’s work as minimalist, too.

Emilio Villalba in his studio (in his apartment) in front of one of his latest paintings,  Everything Is Something, No. 9.

“When I first discovered Jackson Pollock, I thought his paintings looked punk,” Villalba said. “It took me years to understand Pollack. There’s so much going on but it’s meditative. It feels more beautiful and elegant now.”


Villalba recently finished the six-by-five-foot work called Everything Is Something, No. 9. He is preparing at least 10 paintings and some works on paper for his next solo show in September at the Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art, in Overland Park, a suburb of Kansas City.


Each of the large Everything is Something paintings takes eight weeks to finish, even though Villalba paints virtually every day. A lot of layering goes into them. They take at least three months to dry.


“It’s not what you paint, it’s how you paint,” he said. “They go through many stages. I like what happens to the shapes because of the thick paint. There’s something really nice about painting thick-on-thick.”


When Villalba starts one of these works, he has no concept, no agenda. Just a feeling that guides him. Most of the objects featured come from his immediate surroundings, including from his daily walks in the neighborhood. If he sees a fork on the ground, he might photograph it and it could become part of a painting. Other reoccurring objects, like an Apple computer or phone from the 1980s, he draws from memory. He likens the paintings to journal entries.


“I don’t think these paintings mean anything other than they’re a representation of me through still life,” he said. “The way I paint them, I feel like I’m putting myself into them, tweaking them, re-interpreting them and arranging them on a canvas.”


Villalba, who was born in Chula Vista, California, remembers being good at drawing at a young age, even though the only art in his home was a Henri Matisse print from the goldfish series and a print and coffee table book of folklore surrealist Marc Chagall, a favorite of his mother. 


His parents are Mexican and Villalba was used to living in the somewhat diverse cities in Southern California of Montebello and Tustin until the family moved to a new development in Orange County called Aliso Viejo. He was already a shy child, and the sterile suburban surroundings was a culture shock. 


“I grew up very dorky. I had glasses, braces and a bowl cut,” Villalba said. “I had very few friends. I spent a lot of time by myself reading and drawing.”


In the last couple of years of high school, Villalba started to come out of his shell. In his first year of undergrad studying animation at the Art Institute of California in Santa Ana, he discovered artist Jean-Michel Basquiat through the film, “Basquiat,” screened in a class. “I saw that movie and it changed my life,” said Villalba. “I tried to quit school, but my parents wouldn’t let me.”


After graduating, he worked in the animation field for a year but hated it because it was essentially a desk job. He quit and moved back in with his parents for a few months. His father advised him to paint and build up his portfolio to get accepted into grad school.


“I went to a landscape painting class at a community college and quit after one day. I knew this is not how I want to paint,” said Villalba. “I did have a drive, though.”


He admits all the paintings he made that summer were like a combination of Chagall and Basquiat.


“It was Chagall’s floating figures mixed with Basquiat’s style and words,” said Villalba.


The Academy of Art brought Villalba to San Francisco, where he earned his MFA. He currently teaches part time at Cañada College and has taught art at several Bay Area institutions since 2011.


“I love teaching, but it can get in the way,” he said. “I like being able to paint full time. I don’t even take naps.”


As his style continues to evolve, he’s picked up more artistic influences, including with his most current thick work, Gerard Richter, David Park and Stanley Whitney. For his portraits, Lucian Freud has been an inspiration. He is also drawn to such Spanish masters as Diego Velázquez, Francisco Goya and Pablo Picasso. The Bauhaus movement has also had an impact on him.


“Every year, I have a new hero,” he said.

Danae MattEmilio Villalba’s painting of his wife, artist Michelle Fernandez Villalba, provided by the artist.

Just as significant in what informs Villalba’s work are his surroundings. When he lived in the Richmond District in 2019, his paintings had a neutral palate, including gray and white interiors. “There was a quiet, intimate, domestic kind of feeling with a touch of sci-fi and surrealism in those,” he said.


When he moved to the Mission District, he started painting with more color.


“Every time we moved the new environment helped direct the work,” Villalba said.


Even the painting he was invited to create by his artist friend Chelsea Ryoko Wong of San Francisco, based on The Peaceable Kingdom series by Edward Hicks (1826), for the upcoming de Young exhibit, Lee Mingwei: Rituals of Care, Feb. 17-July 7, has a local spin. Portraits of his wife Michelle, Wong and a self-portrait are in the mix, as is a shipping container in the background (replacing a boat in the original painting).


“It’s very exciting. I haven’t had a piece at the de Young before,” said Villalba. “I’m going to the opening.”

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