Interview: Jeff Soto

Jeff Soto recently opened his newest exhibition, “Turning in Circles” at the Riverside art museum last weekend. Many of Soto’s works include references to the natural world and organic phenomena, whether in his titles such as “Cold Ice Age,” “Butterfly Swarm,” “Wild Growth,” or within visual iconography, ranging from plant-like root tendrils curling around the frames. Yet within these seemingly pastoral suggestions, Soto overlays a grid of human technology, destruction, violence. Highly influenced by graffiti, illustration, murals, comic book art and other forms of non-traditional visual expressions, Soto creates a fanciful hyper-colored world that playfully examines the age old battle between man, machine and nature, played out through technicolor characters and settings. 


SL: Can you talk a little bit about your creative process behind the works? What’s typically the evolution of a work, from the inception of an idea to its creation? 

JS: After every show I go through a sort of artists’ block where I feel like I’ve said everything there is to say and my ideas are exhausted. I’ve found it’s a normal part of my cycle and I’ve learned to work with it but the last time was particularly challenging for some reason. For months I struggled, I was lost, all my ideas spent. Then for pure fun I started drawing with my daughter and it opened me up to the randomness of making art with a two year old. I started seeing things differently and I feel my whole outlook on art making may have changed. The ideas started coming to me pretty easily. 

Typically I work on a central theme or idea first, then draw for a couple months, take notes, gather references and finally work on the paintings. I used to be a fast painter, but I am slowing down and enjoying it. I think for a while the planning stages were most important to my work, but now I have more interest in the painting process and keeping things interesting and surprising at the end. 

SL: As far as technical aspects to your work, why do you choose acrylic on wood to work with? 

JS: It’s what I’m most comfortable with, which is actually a good reason to abandon it for a while and work in a different more unfamiliar medium. More and more I’ve been experimenting with wet mediums on paper and that’s been fun. I guess acrylics are preferred because they dry fast and things can be changed on the fly pretty easily. 

SL: I read that you have a background in graffiti, as well as illustration, murals, and comic book art- can you talk about how your experience in this broad array of visual expression has informed your practice? I sort of see manifestations of each of them within your works. 

JS: My early exposure to art consisted almost entirely of mass media and pop culture, things like science fiction movies, comic books, skateboard graphics and then later graffiti from around my neighborhood. These were the things I was exposed to and the things that influenced me. It wasn’t until I was 18 that I started to see work in galleries and museums, so I think the whole notion of “fine art” as opposed to “commercial art” never really made sense. I decided to pursue both. 

In college I started reading art magazines and learned that “low” art and “high” art rarely mixed. So for a while I experimented with the more cerebral forms of art- clever video and photography pieces, I painted abstract works, I made found-object sculpture and even did some performance art. I wrote extensively about each piece and explored the conceptual side of my work. I’m sure all of this played a part in my development. 

Ultimately though, I craved that feeling of creating a different world and I had a love of the visual image. I think, more importantly, painting and composition came very naturally to me, whereas my conceptual ideas needed more work. This led me down the path of commercial illustration, which was a better match for my skills. Later I started getting back to my roots and started painting. All of this- the commercial work, the graffiti, the conceptual pieces, they all play a part in what I do now. 

SL: Who are some of your influences, and what do you appreciate most about their aesthetic? What were some of your favorites from Basel? 

JS: My influences have been all over the place for years. I think because I’m such a visual person I tend to give the workmanship or skills of the artist slightly more weight than the concept behind the piece. Not saying concept is unimportant of course, but if the piece is not interesting to look at as a first read, I usually pass onto the next one. It can work the other way around too. Pieces which are purely visual and are not really addressing anything feel a little unfinished and cold. Great technical skills can produce the worst art. 

I guess I’m drawn to painters and sculptors that mesh both concept and visuals successfully. This year I’ve been looking at the Clayton Brothers, Sven Kroner, Ian Francis, Taylor McKimmens, Dave Kinsey, Dave Choe, Robert Hardgrave, May Hayuk, and many more. Some of these painters are using landscape in new ways, which is something I’m interested in. They’re all doing their thing and mixing solid visuals with concept. 

I saw too much art in Miami to pick favorites right now. I’m still digesting the information. I will say that it seemed like galleries were playing it safe compared to last year. The pieces on display were smaller, and there were more “sure sale” artists. It wasn’t as inspiring as the work I saw in 2007.

SL: Many of your works include references to the natural world and organic phenomena, whether in your titles such as “Cold Ice Age,” “Butterfly Swarm,” “Wild Growth,” or your visual iconography, the plant-like root tendrils curling around your frames. Yet within these seemingly pastoral suggestions you usually situate them within a grid of human technology, destruction, violence….what do you think about the age-old theme of “man vs. machine?” 

JS: I think it’s more about Man Vs. Nature. I have deep love and respect for nature and it’s beauty. Much of my work deals with environmental issues, and how things today will impact future generations. We have done things to scar and destroy the environment in the name of progress, especially since the Industrial Revolution. We’re living in an interesting time where we as humans are starting to understand and we’re making attempts to turn things around. And we may have waited too long. 

SL: There seems to be some sort of inherent, epic narrative within your works. Through rough repetitions of characters and character variations, they form a sort of iconic alphabet. Do you devise mythologies for your world, or what story do you think your panels are spelling out? 

JS: I see my paintings as more of a slice in time. They are sometimes narrative, but usually they’re more about a feeling or an idea rather than telling a story. I don’t come up with mythologies for the characters I paint, I see them as part of the overall landscape, and in some ways they’re functioning as self portraits. 

SL: You’ve done a few collaborative projects with Scion- one of them being customizing a Slammer Scion Xb. That must’ve been every little boy’s dream, to design a car, no? Can you talk about your design and your inspiration behind it? 

JS: I was never a “car guy” really, so I didn’t know how to approach it at first. I originally wanted to do a “green Scion”- switch the engine to bio-diesel or something like that, but decided it’d be more suitable to go in a complete opposite direction and make a tough fast hot rod. I always liked the Bonneville Salt Flats racers and I liked the look of a slammed hot rod so we went for it. There was no deep concept behind the car, we just tried to make it look cool and have it be functional. It was fun working with car mechanics, it was like hanging out with my brothers. 

SL: You are also part of their Installation 5 tour– what has this experience been like? 

JS: Scion has been great to work with. They’re giving back to the art scene and creating opportunities for artists, and yeah, they are also doing it to gain “coolness” and street cred for their cars but I don’t have a problem with that. I actually wish more corporations would work some art events into their advertising budgets. It used to be more common. 

SL: Some of your works are featured in a re-contextualized salon-style hanging, the installations, or clusters and networks of your paintings organized directly onto the wall- how do you organize and install these works? How do they differ when presented in this fashion, than in traditional hangings? 

JS: I was working on this idea in college- breaking away from the traditional rectangular format and making work that was more reactive to the surroundings. My work spilled onto the floor and wrapped around walls. It spread from floor to ceiling and sprawled out at you. That was years ago but I still experiment with non-traditional presentation. I’m very interested in ephemera from my past- scraps of paper, drawings, photos, and small dimensional objects. It’s almost like a three dimensional collage. 

For my newest and largest installation, “Earth Sun and Moon” I spread the piece out over 60 feet and it’s made up of around 80 pieces. I was attempting to take advantage of the huge space the museum gave me and let the piece grow outward organically. 

SL: What are some of the texts, philosophies, concepts that inform your work? If you could give a couple quotations that hold relevance to your aesthetic, what would they be? 

JS: I read up extensively on contemporary art in college and now have a large library but still haven’t found the texts that describe what’s going on today. There’s a new book out by German publisher Gestalten, called The Upset: Young Contemporary Art, and they did a small section about my work. I think it does a good job summing up what this new movement is all about. It’s a pretty broad spectrum so it’s tough to nail down. 

SL: You recently opened an exhibition, “Turning in Circles” at the Riverside Art Museum this Saturday- can you talk a little bit about your pieces included? 

JS: I live locally and in some ways was a product of Riverside- I went to public school here, I started out at the local community college before transferring, and I ended up living here and starting a family. It shaped who I am. So when Daniel Foster, the director of the museum, asked me to do a show I thought it’d be nice to give back to this community. Growing up here, there were not a whole lot of things to see in regards to art. That has changed in recent years and I was happy to get invited to share my work with everyone. 

It took over a year to plan out the exhibit, with most of that time taken up by preliminary drawings, jotting down ideas and playing with watercolor sketches. The paintings were all finished in the last 4-5 months. The show deals with a few things but in particular the cycle of life that we all deal with- we are all born, some of us have kids, we live our lives and die, then our children follow the same cycle. There’s something so epic about this, we’re just a small sliver in time but while we’re here things seem so important. Visually I focused on imagery from my life, things I remember from my childhood, stories of the Soto boys’ upbringing. There’s many references to my family as well, including our house we all grew up in, pets that are long gone and images from the neighborhood landscape. 

SL: What other projects do you have coming up? 

JS: I have a solo show in London coming up in May at Stolenspace that I’m excited about. I’m also part of the New Image Art 15th Anniversary exhibit coming up early in 2009. The biggest and most important “project” is we’re expecting baby number two! Ultrasound shows it as a girl, so the only two boys in the house will be me and Nacho, but then again he’s been neutered. I will be very outnumbered! 

For more of Jeff Soto’s work, please visit: 

Jeff Soto 

Image Credits: 

Images courtesy of the Artist 

New Work at Riverside Art Museum 
from the “Turning in Circles” exhibition 
2008 

New Work at Riverside Art Museum 
from the “Turning in Circles” exhibition 
2008 

New Work at Riverside Art Museum 
from the “Turning in Circles” exhibition 
2008 

New Work at Riverside Art Museum 
from the “Turning in Circles” exhibition 
2008 

New Work at Riverside Art Museum 
from the “Turning in Circles” exhibition 
Installation View 
2008 

New Work at Riverside Art Museum 
from the “Turning in Circles” exhibition 
Installation View 
2008 

“Life” detail 
approx. 15′ x 15′ 
mixed media 
2004 

“Supernova”, detail 
approx. 30 ” x 15′ 
mixed media 
2006 

“Jennifer” 
46″ x 44″ 
mixed media on wood and cardboard 
2003 

“Life”, setup shot 
approx. 15′ x 15′ 
mixed media 
2004 

“Life”, detail 
approx. 15′ x 15′ 
mixed media 
2004 

“Riversider” 
69′ x 31′ 
mixed media on wood 
2004 

“Life” 
approx. 15′ x 15′ 
mixed media 
2004 

“Supernova”, detail 
approx. 30′ x 15′ 
mixed media 
2006 

“False Revolutionary” 
21.5″ x 20″ 
acrylic on wood 
2006 

“War Cloud” 
18″ x 12″ 
acrylic on wood 
2007 

“Thunderclouds” 
30″ x 30″ 
acrylic on wood 
2007 

“Think Of The Future” 
30″ x 36″ 
acrylic on wood 
2007 

“Don’t Grow Up Too Fast” 
72″ x 42″ 
acrylic on wood 
2007


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