I Love LA: Marc Trujillo

Whether it is Palm trees, California houses, fast-food or Lindsay Lohan, the imagery of American pop culture is a growing source of inspiration for contemporary artists. Each week, Artsper will be presenting you an artist for our “I Love LA saga”. The artists selected are Los Angeles based or themed.

Today, I chose painter Marc Trujillo. Established painter in Los Angeles, he teaches at Santa Monica College. He received a Master of Fine Arts degree from Yale and is also a Guggenheim Fellow in the Arts- Marc Trujillo – John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation. His oil on panel fast food trays still lifes immediately caught my attention. I thought it was a great idea to use such an old traditional genre of still life for such a modern subject. Nachos, fries or KFC wings, the colors harmonize beautifully. These canvased trays are oil painted a traditional and academic technic his Flemish predecessors used during the 17th century for their still lifes. Intrigued by this peculiar character, I wanted to know more about his paintings. Turns out fast food is not his main subject. He also produces stunning imagery of North American landscapes, from gasoline stations to warehouse stores and shopping centers. So let’s find out if Marc is more of a Taco bell or Burger King kind of guy.

Combo #1 16x20 inches oil on panel 2015 Marc Trujillo

Combo #1, 2015

Claire: Los Angeles inspires you from suburban landscapes to gas stations or shopping malls. Do you find in these places quality and beauty that others would often miss?

Marc: One of the main things that interests me about these places is that they could be anywhere in the United States.  Los Angeles is a relatively new city, and a lot of it is much like the rest of the US.  I’m originally from Albuquerque, New Mexico which is high desert, but shares a lot of the kind of places I like to paint with LA.   Auden said that ‘Poetry is the precise expression of mixed feelings’, which I think is true. As an American, I share some cultural shame about these places, but I’m also into them.  The visual spectacle of these large expanses of concrete and steel is compelling to me and gives me a little frisson that makes me want to paint them.

C: Ed Ruscha said “I’m interested in glorifying something that we in the world would say doesn’t deserve being glorified. Something that’s forgotten, focused on as though it were some sort of sacred object.” Would you say this quote fits the ideas expressed in your work?

M: Not exactly, I like that quote, but glorification is too one sided for me, although you could make the argument that painting something in oil is an inherent glorification, in which case I’d have to agree completely.  I think it’s more interesting to parse out a difference I have in my work from this statement. I’m not trying to convince the viewer that these places are great, or to present a critique.  I want the experience to be balanced because that’s what keeps me engaged the longest as a viewer.  If I realize that a work of art is preaching to me, then all possibility for interaction is over. The work is an exploration of my mixed feelings about my own culture.

C: One could say Los Angeles is your canvas, would you say this canvas has changed through the years?

M: North America is really my canvas, and Los Angeles is a great place to find these typically North American kinds of places.  I’ve found that one of the things that European visitors like about LA is that it’s the least European major city in the US.  LA was built for cars; the vast sprawl you get here is very different from cities like New York and San Francisco where a car is actually a hindrance rather than an aid.  New York is still the frontal lobe of the US, and New Yorkers have a fondness for dismissing LA, but LA is the only city in the US that doesn’t measure itself against New York for validation. Borges said that the east invented the west, which was true when he said it in literature and art, a lot of the legends that defined the west were written in the east, and the Hudson River school painters like Albert Bierstadt made paintings that defined how people pictured the west.  I think now you could make a case that the west helps define the east as well, a lot of the images that define New York for people are in movies and television which are mostly made, or at least post-produced , in LA.   While I do love Los Angeles, the places in my paintings are carefully not actual LA-specific- for example you won’t find any palm trees shown in the paintings. This is to avoid touching on the viewer’s fantasy life, which is narrative poison for me.  Being from the desert, a palm tree reads as ‘its vacation!’ or fantasy happy ending to me. Living in LA does necessitate parsing out a distinction between art and entertainment- and for me the tipping point between art and entertainment is that entertainment articulates people’s fantasies for them and hands them back to be swallowed whole.

8810 Tampa Avenue 26x33 inches oil on aluminum 2015 Marc  Trujillo (1)

8810 Tampa Avenue, 2015

C: There is great strength that comes from your paintings by using oil painting that is such an academic and traditional medium for such modern subjects. Could you tell us a little about your relation with this medium?

M: A lot of what painting is has been defined for me by the old masters and I make the paintings with pictorial strategies and even techniques, like underpainting in what the Dutch called a dead color layer, which I’ve taken from these artists. An important part of my work is bringing this long, slow, careful way of looking to bear on these places we’ve built to pass through quickly, places that are designed for you to get what you need and go, as opposed the architecture of say, the Palazzo Pitti in Florence. Dostoyevsky said that ‘looking forward we die too soon and looking back we die too late’.  We spend a lot of our lives in this condition, this little existential sliver where we think about what we’ve done in the past or what we want to do in the future instead of being in the living moment; the places in the paintings are like architectural instantiations of this state of mind.  Painting is a powerful form in its own way, ‘Landscape with a Stone Bridge’ by Rembrandt in the Rijksmueum in Amsterdam is the reason I didn’t go to graduate school for film.  While film is a more socially powerful medium, there is something moving about the human scale of painting, and the actual touch of the artist in front of you, painting addresses being human in an intimate way that film can’t do in the same way.  Painting and film are different forms, and the reason for making a painting needs to have something to do with what painting is.    That said, I do like film as well and construct the paintings like one-frame movies, doing a grisaille in acrylic first to work out the composition, which functions like a storyboard, then building the set in the painting, lighting it and casting it, placing the figures where they will lead you through the painting the best.


example of underpainting technique Marc uses

C: I love your series of fast food trays, these paintings are worthy heirs of the great 17th century still life masters with a pop culture twist. How did you come up with the idea?

M: Merci! The first painting I did like this was of an in-flight meal, in and airplane, you’re trapped looking down at your meal, and I was interested in the viewer looking down at the meal, as you experience it, rather than looking at it from the side like a metaphor for landscape, I wanted it to be YOUR meal.  Once I got started, I got caught up in the possibilities and have kept it going with only plans to expand.

C: Taco bell or Burger King?

M: That’s a tough choice, although I have more distinct childhood memories of Taco Bell than Burger King, and for the pure visual variety of the menu, I’d have to go with Taco Bell. A lot of the things are almost a metaphor for paint- thick chunky beans, sour cream, fake cheese and hot sauce are all like different viscosities and colors of paint, which makes them a natural subject for oil painting.

Combo #8 13.5 x 20 oil on panel 2010

Combo #8, 2010

C: What are your projects at the moment?

M: I tend to work within my larger area of investigation, which is this sort of North American purgatory, places that people don’t go to be there. The side projects, like the fast food still life paintings or the drive-thru paintings are subsets of that larger subject.

C: Who would you like to paint if you had to do a portrait?

M: It would make me nervous, but why not the Pope?  Or maybe the Queen of England? I like this Pope, and there’s a great history of painters painting the Pope, although I would be setting myself for comparison with Velasquez, and he’s an aesthetically unimpeachable benchmark of what painting can do and be. I could become a footnote to Velasquez, which is how it actually works in art, you can’t ‘stand on the shoulders of giants’ as Newton said.  Newton could stand on the shoulders of giants because science is cumulative, whereas art builds on precedent, but is not cumulative.  So when you beg a comparison by doing something another artist has done, you run the risk of becoming a footnote.  This question is timely to me, as I’m going to Rome this summer, and one of my students who also works as a journalist at a substantial publication asked if I’d like to meet the Pope.  I said of course, how could I not be interested in an opportunity like that?  I’m not sure if it will actually happen, but Rome is so staggeringly rich with art that I’m very excited to go either way.  I have done a couple of portrait paintings, one of my friend David Simon, the best sculptor I know. I painted a portrait of him in his studio and he did a portrait bust of me in bronze.  This led to another portrait trade with Sean Cheetham, who is the best portrait painter I know.  I really liked the challenge of trading portraits with these artists.  They have both done great self-portraits and know exactly what they look like, so the stakes were high for me to get it right. So, so far I’ve only done portraits of other artists as barter, David and Sean have both appeared in my other paintings as well

C: Is there any French personality or celebrity you like? Are interested in? Would like to meet?

M: Sophie Calle and Marion Cotillard come to mind right away, although I guess Cotillard is more of a proper celebrity. Which ones do you know?  My wife and I consider the French way and style to be a good example, and we do get to Paris when we can. Can I choose from the dead and have lunch with Rosa Bonheur, Corot, Delacroix, Stendhal or Lautrec?  There’s so many great French artists and writers that I’ve learned from and I have academic roots that go back to France.  My teacher Andrew Forge at Yale’s teacher was William Coldstream, whose teacher was William Tonks, whose teacher was Ingres, whose teacher was Jacques Louis-David.  No pressure, right?

Chek out more of his work here 

5901 Douglas Avenue 11.5x19.5 oil on panel 2010

5901 Douglas Avenue

14522 Burbank Boulevard 25x32 2010

14522 Burbank Boulevard


Combo #3


Meal #6


Meal #2