by Manu SharmaSep 27, 2022
A lady screaming at the top of her lungs, her face a mask of rage; her hair appearing as though to be electric with ire. A portly man firing a handgun while contemplating lunch; his skin the same too-rich shade of pinkish-red as his food. The personification of death itself: The Grim Reaper, standing in a barren landscape, seemingly not immune to the scorching heat—these are just some of the many strange sights to behold when engaging with the work of Luis Perez-Banus, who was born in Mexico, but shifted to the United States of America when he was nine-years-old, and currently resides in Boston, Massachusetts. Banus has a BFA in illustration from the Massachusetts College of Art and Design, and his work crackles with a bizarre energy that threatens to affect the viewer with its grim portents, and perhaps if one looks closely enough, a bit of good humour as well. The artist prefers not to divulge too much when asked about the strangely unsettling work he creates, and even expresses surprise when told that it can be quite frightening. He tells STIR, “I never intended for my work to be perceived as scary. My intention is to have work that is shocking or bizarre, yet in some way, pleasant to look at. At least that’s my goal. However, he does take joy in the difference of interpretation, saying I think that it’s wonderful that a piece of art can make a person feel differently from others and even the artist. I love the fact that I can present an artwork and the viewers can make up their own minds.”
When discussing the humour within Banus’s work, one piece, referenced above, comes to mind: the artist’s portrayal of a stereotypical first-world male, which was referenced above: Banus’s subject is comically large; even grotesquely so, but to be certain, that grotesqueness is comical. The artist’s work echoes a distinct sense of Ralph Steadman-ness, with his use of a red splatter for a gunshot rendering the piece nigh-audible. And indeed, just like the famous English comic artist’s depictions of the strange people he met on his adventures through American consumerism, Banus’s subject is equally a victim of his own excesses; looking not unlike the food he consumes. His skin is the colour of raw meat and his hand not occupied with shooting appears as though to inch languidly towards his next meal. The piece is all-irony and pokes fun at some of the absurdities of our time. However, Banus himself does not indicate any conscious attempt at emulating Steadman, instead expressing a deep affinity for the likes of Van Gogh and Claude Monet. He says, “The college I attended happened to be a few blocks away from the Museum of Fine Arts. I would go there often during my spare time. Sometimes I would skip class to go there and admire or study the works. Through that museum, I began to grow a heavy interest for the impressionist movement. These painters changed my perspective on the possibilities of art, as well as my approach to art making.”
While Banus’s explanation might not click with viewers instantly, a more thorough exploration of his oeuvre may lead one to find traces of an Impressionism of sorts. The key difference between the artist and the older greats is this: while the Impressionists sought to build a sense order through their strokes, Banus is actively subverting it. His work feels like a series of explosions, each barely contained and coming together to detonate a piece in place.
The artist chooses to remain cryptic when discussing the origin and growth of his technique. He tells STIR, “Most of my techniques have been acquired through the years. Some are self-taught, some learned from others, and some have been discovered purely by accident. Ink was the medium that I started with, and is my primary medium. It lends itself perfectly to a fast-paced style.” One can certainly imagine the artist throwing splotches and splatters of ink onto his sheet, only to have faces form and scowl at him; foreboding certainly, but filled with a strange allure, inviting him into their world as he creates it. There resides a certain innocence within Banus’s work, further past the frantic and bizarre hysteria of his explosive gestures. It can be found in the artist’s innate fascination with mark-making, that both children and seasoned practitioners who are looking to shed the dogma of formal training sometimes show within their work. It is quite simply, the human need to scribble away and see what comes of it. The artist acknowledges this, and says, “Mark making is one of my primary interests when it comes to drawing and painting. It keeps the journey interesting.”
The artist mentions that he moved around a lot growing up, and that he believes this has influenced his outlook on life. Leading a transient lifestyle often lends one to become something of a people-watcher. This brings us right back to Steadman, as he too studied the denizens of bars and pubs, exaggerating their gestures and mannerisms to comical degrees. In this regard, Banus takes things much further, deftly blending his actors with the worlds they inhabit. In fact, it may be very interesting to see the artist extract more detail out of his scenes, or play with radically varying levels of chaos within his work. Some of his pieces hint at the possibility of the artist exploring this direction, with one in particular feeling especially affecting: Banus’s actor sits hunched before a laptop in a manner so extreme, he seems painfully contorted. What really deepens this work’s impact is the fact that viewers can make out the contours of the human figure, prompting them to wonder if a person could really end up looking like that from too much time spent working at a terminal. Or more worryingly, if they might look like that. It makes the artist’s work uncomfortably relatable, and even more intriguing as a result. While we explore Luis Perez-Banus’s work he leaves us with these cryptic yet heart-warming words, “Life can be harsh, but it can also be beautiful, so stick around.”