Pink Toilets, Beer Bottles and Blow Dryers: Victoria Suescum puts her ‘Folk Pop’ into context

Courtesy of McNay Art Museum
As a teenager growing up in Panama, Victoria Suescum experienced one of her first real-world art encounters in the unlikeliest of places: outside a hole-in-the-wall bar.

A far cry from the paintings she’d seen in books, the artwork in question was a six-foot beer bottle being painted on the exterior of a bodega.

“[The painter] was putting the sparkle on a little drop of sweat on the beer bottle,” Suescum recalled. “And I was blown away. … [That] was the first time I saw somebody actually make magic.”

The irony of this memory isn’t lost on Suescum, a widely exhibited artist who’s made a name for herself with exuberant paintings that recreate — and riff on — quirky, hand-painted advertisements that grace beauty salons, hardware stores, restaurants and other small businesses in South Texas, Mexico and Latin America.

Born in Washington D.C. and raised between the U.S. and Panama, Suescum relocated to San Antonio in 1989 when Panama was under the rule of Manuel Noriega.

“[Noriega] was getting very violent because, as we are going to find out in this country, dictators don’t like to lose power,” Suescum said. “I left Panama because it was so violent, and I didn’t want to become a statistic. … It’s a long story, but to make it short, I ended up at UTSA.”

While earning her MFA there, Suescum experimented with various styles and themes. The jungle scenes she’d painted in Panama gave way to a black-and-white period sparked by the dictatorship she’d escaped.

“I worked on that until about 1996,” she explained. “And then I had a son and it changed my outlook on life. I started [painting in] monochrome and then slowly built my way back to a full palette.”

Courtesy of McNay Art Museum
Around that same time, Suescum began to photograph hand-painted advertisements as source material for paintings she calls “tienditas.”

Interpretations of low-tech signs she’s captured in Texas, Mexico and Panama, these playful paintings pay tribute to the unassuming products and services they depict — raspas, paletas, tacos, tires, toilets, hairstyles, manicures and more, often accompanied by Spanglish phrases — as well as the overlooked tradition of hand-painted signs and the largely anonymous creators behind them.

“I celebrate these images,” Suescum said. “I study from them as seriously as I was taught to study Bonnard or Matisse or Renoir or Rembrandt.”

Although Suescum has exhibited everywhere from San Antonio’s bygone Museo Alameda to the Venice Biennale, her recently opened McNay Art Museum exhibition “Folk Pop” marks a milestone in her career. Housed in the McNay’s Charles Butt Paperworks Gallery, it’s also something of a departure for the museum as Suescum’s unframed works are fastened to the walls with thumbtacks.

During our preview of the exhibition, McNay Curator of Collections Lyle Williams described the paintings as “memory triggers” he hopes will resonate with viewers.

“As a kid growing up in South Texas, I would often spend weekends in Nuevo Laredo,” Williams said. “I remember walking on those hot sidewalks and smelling those smells and looking at these signs. … I wanted people to have that sensory-overload experience like you do in Mexico … smells and visuals and everything. I wanted to have that sense of environmental immersion. Of course, we can’t pipe in the smells.”

click to enlarge Victoria Suescum, Esteak, 2014. Matte acrylic on paper. - COURTESY OF MCNAY ART MUSEUM
Courtesy of McNay Art Museum
Victoria Suescum, Esteak, 2014. Matte acrylic on paper.
In hopes of learning more about the inspirations and stories behind “Folk Pop,” we scheduled a Zoom interview with Suescum, who is rightfully animated by recent developments in her career. “The planets must be lining up for me,” she said. Beyond her McNay show (on view through January 10, 2021), Suescum is in the planning stages for an exhibition at Galería Mateo Sariel in Panama, an international Latin festival at Austin Community College (where she has taught for the last 14 years) and a guest spot at “Brilla,” a leadership development program designed to empower Latina high school students in New London, Connecticut. Condensed excerpts from our conversation follow.

Has your work always been inspired by hand-painted signage?

No. … It was around 1996 that I started photographing the tienditas. … One of my absolute favorites actually went to Honduras for a symposium about women in the arts in Latin America. … That summer, somebody all along the Pan-American Highway had been painting pink toilets (laughs). It’s just hilarious to me because as I’m painting these things, I’m thinking a lot [about] what went through the mind of the person who created the image. So, somebody painted a pink toilet and somebody else says, “Oh that is a really good idea. I want a pink toilet on my hardware store.” Isn’t that crazy that someone would think a pink toilet is what [they] need to get customers through the door?

Do you see the tradition of hand-painted signage diminishing?

That is really an interesting question, because you would think it would be completely replaced by digital images. But every single year that I go back to Panama or take a drive through the West Side, I see new ones. … So, they’re continuing to be made. What I think is very important is that they tug culturally at one’s heart. … I think they sell the product in a way that a photograph cannot. Because they’re very welcoming. I see those images and I know I can afford what’s in the store. But indeed, for example, Frutería Los Valles here in San Antonio, used to have the most fabulous painting of aguas frescas all across the top. And they just replaced it about two years ago — total photographs. … So, there are fewer made as media becomes more affordable, but they’re definitely continuing to be created.

What are some of your favorite examples in San Antonio?

I love the mattresses — twin y queen. His and hers — who knew? It’s actually a set of [pink and blue] mattresses, and it’s a big deal in several places. … I love it when I see an idea repeated. … One of my top-notch favorite images is a little salt shaker pouring chile on a corn cob. And [it] still exists at Frutería Los Valles — they haven’t gotten around to repainting the side of the building, thank goodness. … Blow dryers [are another San Antonio favorite]. … The thing about the blow dryers is, I think they are the subject matter that art history missed. You know, we have odalisques, and still lifes of fruit, but art history skipped the blow dryer.

How did the McNay show come about?

I’ve known Lyle [Williams, McNay curator,] for a very long time. … And I invited him to my studio about two years ago. … And so, it’s something that has been in the works for a long time. Can I tell you something that’s really important to me? For a long time [after] I got to San Antonio, my work was politically minded. And when I was in Panama for the dictatorship, I was doing protest art, painting on the streets, all kinds of stuff. And so, when I started working on these colorful paintings, I thought, ‘Oh, they’re not political.’ But what’s really interesting is that especially in this climate in the United States right now where we’re being told go home, and people don’t want me here … you know in what way my work is very political that matters to me? If we — people from Mexico and from Latin America — are being called rapists and murderers, the only people who can really believe that are people who don’t know us. But if people then get to know us, then there is a glimmer of hope that they will learn to value us. By merely existing right now, I’m a political statement. But my work at the McNay, by celebrating these painting that come from the poorest neighborhoods and putting them in one of the most expensive art salons, it causes people to value them. If there can be any healing, this is my little drop in the bucket.

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