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Souther Salazar / Souvenir Collector

The Portland artist says his fantastic worlds need nourishment to grow.

Interview By John Dugan, June 14, 2013

Studio potos by Michael A. Muller; Images courtesy of Jonathan Levine Gallery


Souther Salazar's "Souvenir Collector" runs through this Saturday at New York's Jonathan Levine Gallery. As big fans of his painting, drawing, and sculpture, we thought it a great time to catch up with the now Portland-based artist who invites us to roam through playful, fantastical worlds in every piece.

NoMa: You made comics and zines as a teen. What were those like? Did they set you on a path to where you are now?
Souther Salazar: They were mostly terrible, experiments in collage and storytelling. But it was a good path to stumble upon. Sitting at my desk and making things always felt natural, but taking those things and then sharing them with other people was a bit alien. I grew up in a small town… through comics and 'zines I found a way to connect with something that seemed bigger than my own small world, but still inviting enough to join in. If I had never found that, I don't know that I'd be sharing paintings and sculptures today. 

You just moved to Portland. What's the attraction for you? Why the move and do you like it?
Before moving here, I lived in California my whole life; split evenly between the Bay Area, the Central Valley, and L.A. It was hard to leave California, but every time I visited Portland it won me over a little more. I made some good friends, and met my wife Monica here. And then, after getting married, we traveled around the country for six months, trying out different cities and wondering where we might land. When we weighed the options, Portland still won in the end. It's a little ridiculous, but mostly in a good way. There's good stuff around every corner. I love the crazy green forests and the sense of community of so many people trying to do what they love.

"Water Tower Collection," 2013

You work with clay and three dimensions in the "Water Tower Collection." Do you feel a pull to doing more objects?
I love making objects. It's my favorite way to procrastinate when I'm stuck on a painting. It's like my hands get to tell my brain what to do instead of the other way around. I've made 3D stuff in every show, but this was the first show where I tried to focus these informal pieces into more cohesive collections. 

"Blue Jay Feather," 2013

What do you like about painting on hexagonal wood panels?
When Monica and I made "The Trading Tortoise," his shell was made out of hexagons, mainly because that's how tortoise shells are, and because it was helpful to have a shape we could repeat easily. I thought of everything with this show as some sort of souvenir, as a way to hang onto a memory that is great, but fleeting. Like with the sculptures, I just wanted to have something tangible, to remember what I saw, and to remember that these things happened. Through the Tortoise, we had all these great adventures, heard all these great stories. I wanted to frame some of those memories inside hexagons as a reminder of the tortoise that helped make it happen. 

"We Don't Know Where the River Goes," 2011

The work has a dreamlike quality to it, with various narratives implied. Do you come up with narratives first? Or do they occur to you later?
They tend to accumulate in layers. I can't usually finish anything in one setting. So each time I come back to work on something, I feel sort of like I'm a different person, in a different place. Sometimes I have very specific goals and narratives, and I may think I know what the piece will be, but it never cooperates fully. I've tried sketching first, not sketching at all, sketching in the middle… but I always have to adapt to the process of each particular piece. I just have to try to help it go wherever it seems like it wants to go.

"Souvenirs," 2013

Do these worlds you create keep living on after you make a series? Do you revisit them?
They keep on living. And I keep revisiting. Sometimes I think of making work sort of like a collector, and my job is to keep adding to it and building it up and trying to find the missing pieces to make it come together. Sometime it's more like a garden, it needs nourishment and sustenance to grow however it will grow, and I just need to pull out any weeds that want to choke it down. 

Are the worlds you create all connected? Or are they kind of alternate realities to each other?
They are all connected in the sense that they follow the same logic. Like when you dream...The real stuff gets mixed in with the imagined stuff. Your mind goes to a 1000 different places, chasing distant memories or hopes or fears or just replaying the days events in a new and strange order. If you could stay inside you know it will just keep going, worlds within worlds as deep as your mind can go.

How are your latest works different in terms of creating a world than say 2007's "Space Cadets," your first solo show at Levine? 
I think for that first show, I was maybe living mostly in my head. Now I feel like I have found various ways to live more in the real world around me... to focus and engage before trying to bring it all back inside. 

See more of Salazar's work at southersalazar.com