How artist Arthur Peña’s work saved his own life

by | Art, Culture

A curious argument

by JUSTINE LUDWIG

For Arthur Peña, art-making is a form of penance. He relishes the grueling process of his work, explaining, “when I am painting, I am warding off death.” Many of his works deal directly with morose themes worthy of memento mori, yet rather than expected macabre subject matter, they appear visually playful, rendered in seductive color palettes and a distinctive minimal visual language. But behind this facade lies deep personal significance. A body of work begun in 2012 that Peña calls “coffin paintings” relates to the scale of the hospital bed in which his cousin spent her final days. Each piece is lovingly assembled from segments of wood painted in different color gradients and then screwed together in a crude manner that points to the presence ofthe fabricator. When Peña talks about his work, he references friends in jail and friends who have died. For him, his controlled creative practice is the best possible option for how his life may have gone. It is the alternative to a darker path that he could have just as easily followed—an alternative to being self-destructive.

Growing up in Oak Cliff, art did not regularly find its way into Peña’s life. At 8, he went on a field trip to the Dallas Museum of Art, where he encountered Rothko’s Orange, Red and Red.When his teacher asked what he saw, he said, “I don’t know, but I feel sad.” This deep emotional connection to art is precisely what the University of North Texas and Rhode Island School of Design graduate continues to strive for in both his painting practice — his works have been shown at the Barry Whistler Gallery, RE Gallery and Circuit 12, plus the Dallas Contemporary — and in his roving concert series andmusic label, Vice Palace. In contrast to his penitential approach to painting, Peña sees Vice Palace, founded in 2014, as a celebration of life. Vice Palace takes its name from a musical written for the legendary drag queen Divine, loosely based on Edgar Allen Poe’s short story “The Masque of the Red Death,” and wherein the main character, Divina, hosts a massive hedonistic party at her villa before everyone gets the plague. The play took place in a series of rooms, each dedicated to a different vice; Peña co-opts this idea in his DIY undertaking. Staged in different spaces around Dallas, Vice Palace fully transforms each venue through performances that have featured George Quartz, Party Static, Street Sects and Stefan González (Orgullo Primitivo) and Rat Rios, to name just a few. These performances have been aptly described as entering a “death house to listen to saint music.” Peña aspires to the sublime.

The Wants and Needs of a Fearful Life, Peña’s forthcoming exhibition at the Latino Cultural Center, will focus on new work and will also be supported by a Vice Palace concert. He conceives of his exhibition as a devotional space and has big plans for creating a highly controlled, contemplative experience.The exhibition will consist of a series of paintings begun in 2012 that he titles attempts, each work building upon the last. Peña is attracted to working with “something real.” In the past, he has used his own sheets, bugs found in the studio, drywall, razor blades and nails. His most recent body of work is composed of layer upon layer of ombré squiggles created through single brush strokes. This dense painting style completely takes over the surface ofthe work. Peña arrived atthis technique when washing his brushes and discovering the interesting color gradients that had built up from past paintings. These works, in conjunction with his coffin paintings, mark a return to oil paints after 10 years of steering clear of them. Working in oil, Peña now finds himself grappling with the weight of history — a challenge he seems eager to take on.

JUSTINE LUDWIG is the director of exhibitions and senior curator at the Dallas Contemporary. Her professional experience includes the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati and the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. She has an MA in global arts from Goldsmiths University of London and a BA in art from Colby College in Maine.