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Painter Patssi Valdez on capturing energy, an L.A. fashion installation

Painter Patssi Valdez wants to do a fashion show in L.A. -- with fashions made entirely from paper

Tilting goblets. Tipping pedestals. And floors that seem to roil and whirl. The brightly saturated interiors painted by Patssi Valdez are the very opposite of still life.

Then again, nothing Valdez has ever done could be accused of being dull. In the 1970s and into the '80s, she was a founding member of the East Los Angeles art collective Asco, which staged wild street performances and created its own cinematic Goth film stills. The group was the subject of a 2011 L.A. County Museum of Art retrospective, which then traveled to Mexico CityAmsterdam and, in a slightly re-conceived format, Nottingham, England.

Since the 1980s, Valdez has steadily painted, primarily female figures and visions of domestic settings, all of which seem just a little enchanted. This independent work has been shown in myriad museums and galleries, including LACMA, the Orange County Museum of Art, the de Young Museum in San Francisco and the Bronx Museum in New York.

Now she has a new series of works in a solo exhibition at the Offramp Gallery in Pasadena, as well as a smaller selection of paintings on view as part of a group show at Sullivan Goss in Santa Barbara. The artist, who lives and works in Echo Park, took some time to chat about the new works, as well as the Jean Cocteau film that inspired some of them, the fashion show she staged in Europe and the dream project she would like to bring to L.A.

The Offramp show is titled "Somber Hues," yet your palette seems as bright as ever.

I've been trying to get away from the brighter palette for years, but the more I try, it just comes out. I've started using earth tones and a lot of greens and browns. And the few small paintings I've done, they were a bit darker than in the past. So when I looked at them, they looked sort of somber in hue, so that's why I titled it that. One of my goals was always to do an off-white painting, but I've sort of given up trying to get away from what comes naturally.

You're known for your paintings, but the gallery show reveals a focus on small-scale watercolor-based works. Why the switch?

I've been making gouaches for a very long time. A lot of time, they serve as studies for possible paintings. It started off as something I did because it wasn't as intense as painting. I could just play with the medium. [But] last year, I went to Europe like three times, and right before [one trip], I tore my meniscus. When I came back, I couldn't really walk. A large painting — it's a huge commitment. But with these [gouaches] on paper, if they don't work, you can just tear them up. Plus, I really love doing them. They feel very intimate. 

In fact, a lot of what you depict are interiors and domestic settings. But these rooms always seem to be in a state of motion. Where did that come from?

When I was doing all of the social/political work with Asco, I was a little naive. I was trying to change the world. But afterward, in therapy, I started to look inward. That's when I did "The Kitchen" [1988]. And then it moved on to various rooms in my home. In a way, they were metaphors. I wanted to deal with issues, things that had happened in those rooms, turning dark things into interesting and beautiful places.

After therapy, I started working with a Chinese healer and learned a lot about energy. He was an amazing man, a surrogate dad to me. So I started to imbue the energy that we as individuals emanate into these environments. I try to imbue them with motion and movement. Nothing in the world is static. Nothing is solid. Everything is always in flux and in motion. And I started to be fascinated by that. So I just try to capture the feeling I get from certain environments, certain objects. People say stuff like it's about witchcraft — and they can say what they want — but it's not about that at all. It's about energy, the energy of a place and the energy that people leave behind.

I read that it was a favorite film that inspired some of the work in the current exhibition at Offramp. What film would that be?

"Beauty and the Beast" by [Jean] Cocteau is one of my favorite films. And my piece, "The Red Rose," is an interpretation of a scene from that movie. Cocteau was a brilliant artist. I think he would have fit right in with the Asco group. He didn't limit himself. He did opera and film and drawing. When I saw that film, I just loved it: the mystery, the grandeur, the gowns and her bedroom! And I was in love with the Beast. I loved his cape and gloves and the ending where they ascend into the sky. It's such a magical piece and such a creative use of materials.

Did your recent travels through Europe with the Asco exhibition inspire any of your recent work?

I was really influenced by a few things I saw in London at the Victoria and Albert Museum. They had an incredible collection of jewels there. And at the National Portrait Gallery, I saw all of these paintings of kings and queens. I'd love to go back and just spend a year or two there and just study those paintings. I've always been attracted to royal paintings. I have no idea why. But it's probably something about the beauty, the craftsmanship, the visuals. I think of all those stately homes I visited, and the attention to detail and design, the grandeur of it.

It's interesting, because it kind of goes back to my youth, when I never had very much money. That's how Asco paper fashions got started. I always wanted these beautiful things and my mother couldn't buy them for me. So I would invent my own glamor and my own fashion from plastic jewels and ribbons and things that were cheap, but nice. That's always been a part of me.

You did a paper fashions installation and runway show for the Asco exhibition at Nottingham Contemporary in England.

The curator for that show approached me and said, "What would you like to do?" And I said that I wanted to do a paper installation and a paper fashion show. So I went to Nottingham and stayed about a month, working with an assistant to create these paper fashions. I had been to one of these stately homes and I was in England so I wanted to do a queen gown — a black queen. I did dresses for a Black Queen, the Virgin [of Guadalupe] and an Aztec Queen. We made all of the pieces and we had a full runway fashion show — with no rehearsal. I really loved working with paper again. It was fabulous, but nobody back home could even see it. I would love to do that here, a paper fashion show for L.A.

What are you working on for your next project?

I'm still trying to figure it out, but one idea I have goes back to those decadent quinceañera dresses that border on the hideous. There's a shop near where I live and the gowns are so over-the-top. I wonder how the ladies who make them come up with the color choices. In the U.K., you have the queen gowns. Here, you have these. And they almost mimic those gowns of royalty in an interesting way. They're so hideous, they're gorgeous. I need to research it. Should I go sketch them? Do I make paintings from the pieces? I don't know exactly what I will do, but I think the goal for now is to start a series of paintings about quinceañera dresses.

"Patssi Valdez: Somber Hues" is on view through Jan. 4 at Offramp Gallery, 1702 Lincoln Ave., Pasadena. The group show "Agoraphobia: Portraits of American Interiors," is on view through March 1 at Sullivan Goss, 7 E. Anapamu St., Santa Barbara.

Find me on Twitter @cmonstah.

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