The artist Javier Piñon grew up in Kingwood, Texas, a suburban enclave of Houston that, in the 1970s, billed itself “The Livable Forest” to attract families fanning from the oil-fueled metropolis. Kingwood had the trappings of a “suburban hell,” Piñon remembers — escape from which etched a migration to Austin, Providence, New Orleans and eventually Williamsburg, where he has resided for 17 years. But, in the woods beyond the backyard fence that hemmed his childhood home, Piñon began exploring two roles that have come to define him. Distilled, Piñon is a collector and a maker. “I’ve always collected bones and weird little bits of rocks and sticks, stuff like that. And that’s kind of where my collecting started,” he said, looking around his studio, located one floor above the apartment he shares with his wife, the fashion designer Mara Hoffman, and his two-month-old son, Joaquin, on South 4th Street.
Piñon’s studio is loaded with remnants collected by the professed “dumpster diver,” evidence of his curiosity, which has a puerile boundlessness, and his ability to find bits of value in others’ oddities. The furniture, broad tables and industrial filing cabinets filled with clippings from old books and magazines, was found on the curb or for minimal cost at second-hand stores. He recently came into a set of fascinating-looking wooden doll’s arms at a Massachusetts flea market and a sizable collection of old German photo magazines, which might form the basis of his next series of collages. His bookshelves neatly contain titles like “The World in 1975” and “The Atlas of Snakes of the World.”
The two idioms marry in his wonderfully intricate collage work, in which his love of nature, fantasy and mythology are also infused. The pieces are composed of disparate images repositioned (such as a cowboy riding a stack of chairs) and repurposed into an entirely fresh design with regenerated meaning.
“I think it’s a little bit about tweaking our existence, exerting your free will on your surroundings to create a world you feel you can relate to,” Piñon said. “Because I walk out that door and can’t relate to half of what’s out there in day-to-day life and, for a lot of people, I think that’s part of what makes us all so crazy. We’re just looking for something we can connect to and relate to and call our own. And so few of us have it. But I think we all have the ability to make it. Put out into the world those things that you want and you will get them back.”
Piñon’s work straddles a divide between the innately human and deeply personal, resulting in pieces that tantalize the viewer and are inextricably reflective of the artist. His work has dealt with broad themes — love, self pity, heartbreak, vanity — and often depict a human interacting with the collage’s setting. But it also always seems to find a close association with Piñon’s own life, perhaps because his creative process is such a personal enterprise.
“It’s about opening yourself up to the experiences of life,” Piñon said of his approach to art making and life. “And meeting people and feeling, whether you can explain it or not — and I certainly can’t — but feeling some connection that makes you feel like there’s something else out there. I’m not a very religious person. … I don’t feel a need for any kind of organized religion. But I think all of us have that question or this feeling — it’s part of what makes us human is to have that. There’s something very real about experiences like that.
“And I have that happen in the studio all the time. I feel like these little moments of matching things up, making these pieces out of so many different, weird parts from everywhere and having them coalesce into one piece, I think it’s a little bit of magic. I feel like it’s magical. That for me, I feel the ‘Babylon’ work was a little bit of that. A little song, if you will, to that idea of the spirit in life, the spirit in work, the spirit in people, the spirit in nature. … And directly inspired by Mara and this process we’ve just gone through in having a baby, which is its own magic in a very intense way.
During our conversations, Piñon referred to himself as an artist in transition. His work has reached a point of layered meaning and detail in his most recent show, “O Babylon,” not previously experienced, in part because his artistic process has become more spiritual, his art more integrated with deeper meaning. At 41, happily married and a father, his life has taken on new meaning through his intimate personal relationships.
“I think of my art practice as a very domestic process,” Piñon. “There’s an intimacy to what I do.”
Piñon has, with the creation of a family, come to understand more intimately that he must create work that satisfies the maker in him but also the public can relate to. He hopes that not only the thematic elements of the work, but also the process that goes into its creation — the weaving of richly colored images cut from old books and magazines and pieced together in thoughtful arrangement — will resonate.
“That’s high praise for me: If someone looks at a work and goes, ‘Wow. How did he do that?’” Piñon said.
The collector and maker in Piñon have always thrived through making art, by capitalizing on his curiosity and creating narratives by hand that are a representation of life.
“It’s my nature to put things in their place. I like an ordered world. I like a structured world,” Piñon said. “This, for me, kind of satisfies that drive, too. All these things litter the walls and the tables and the floors, and then to finally put it all together into one perfect, complete image is super, super satisfying. I can’t tell you. That’s maybe the drug aspect of it. It centers me. I can take a breath.
“It’s super, super, super satisfying to take this mess and to make something clean and beautiful out of it all. I don’t know what it is, but it’s literally a physical response. Maybe all artists have it, just making work that you look at it and feel satisfaction at what you’ve done, but I think for me it’s a little more pathological.”
To see more of his work click here.