For LA Artist Ozzie Juarez, Art Is the Vehicle to Create Community

Rusted metal gates have been reimagined into striking figurative paintings in an earthy shade of orange that juxtapose bold block text with dramatically rendered images of horses on battlefields, flowers, pre-Columbian mythology the Mexican flag emblem of an eagle with a serpent in its beak atop a cactus, and even characters from Dragon Ball-Z. Each canvas is adorned with barbed wire, locks, and hinges in places they don’t belong.

These rustic portals bring together a roughness with a softness, and make up Los Angeles–based artist Ozzie Juarez’s latest solo exhibition, at Charlie James Gallery in the city’s Chinatown neighborhood. The aim is to question our current reality.

Portrait of Ozzie Juarez in a black suit standing in front of one of his works.
Ozzie Juarez. ©2024 Carlos Jaramillo

“I come from a background of painting graffiti, and these are basically pieces but inspired by sonidero typeface,” Juarez told ARTnews, referring to the graphic design from albums Mexican DJ’s play in the exploding music subculture. “These are taken directly from bands that already exist so it’s all kind of collaged. The whole idea is these fences were found already on the block; they’re supposed to look familiar. But again, it gets you thinking, Wait, this is not real. Where would this be? Where would you even find this? What would this even be guarding?”

The works get their distinct look from a heavy acid-rust process that Juarez accidentally stumbled upon through an experimental acid formula he spritzed on top of the metal. It didn’t work at first, but the next day produced an incredible orange color. That process also partially lends the exhibition (on view through March 2) its titled, “OXI-DIOS,” a portmanteau that combines the Spanish words for oxidize (oxido) and god (dios).

Juarez said he sees gods in the animals he paints, as well as in the epic couple of pre-Columbian myth, Iztaccíhuatl and Popocatépetl, whose story of star-crossed love features in one of the exhibition’s paintings. According to the Aztec legend, Iztaccíhuatl was a princess who fell in love with Popocatépetl, a great warrior. Her father, the emperor, sent Popocatépetl to fight in battle at Oaxaca and, assuming he would not make it back, promised him Iztaccíhuatl as his wife upon his returned. When Iztaccíhuatl was falsely told of Popocatépetl’s death in battle, she died from grief. Popocatépetl, returned and took her body to a grave outside Tenochtitlan. In return, the gods covered them with snow and changed them into mountains.

“There’s something beautiful about having the barbed wire on these super rustic fences next to a typeface that’s so beautiful, and the figures are so soft,” he said, adding that their compression within the canvas “encourages a push and pull in the paint.”

View of three artworks on metal, each had affixed to it barbed wire, door hingers, and locks, as well as block text behind it. From left, the imagery is characters from Dragon Ball-Z, the Mexican flag eagle with a serpent in its mouth atop cactus, and a horse jumping.
Installation view of “Ozzie Juarez: OXI-DIOS,” 2024, at Charlie James Gallery, Los Angeles. Courtesy the artist and Charlie James Gallery

A self-identified DIY punk kid who received his BFA from the University of California, Berkeley, Juarez’s earliest artistic influences came from working weekends at the swap meets in South Central Los Angeles with his parents. He still obsessively visits swap meets, a weekend ritual that allows him to explore the visual language of the city, from his distinct vantage point as an artist born and raised in Los Angeles.

“There’s something about supporting these vendors and this kind of lifestyle—these vendors are not there to make a fortune,” he said. “They’re there to have a good Sunday and maybe make twenty bucks, maybe make nothing at all, and that’s how I grew up with my father. Sometimes we made five bucks, sometimes we made 300 bucks. It doesn’t really matter, we’re out enjoying the day, learning some sort of work ethic, rising early, working, coming back. It was all part of my upbringing.”

His latest works, which seem to collapse time in a single tableau, also find inspiration in what Juarez sees when he visits a swap meet. “I’ll see something that is made 5 years ago next to something that is made a hundred years ago—[things] that you’ll never see next to each other [outside a swap meet], but they’re next to each other,” he said. “There’s something about the mindless composition that these vendors put these things out in that clicks to me. I take a lot of photos when I’m there and I take my compositions and color palettes from the photos as well.”

People gaze at a trophy made from silver metal that combines stylized icons of cars as well as Aztec symbols.
Ozzie Juarez’s commissioned trophy for the NASCAR Mexico Series race. Courtesy NASCAR

Those connections between old and new can be seen more directly in a recent commission Juarez did for the NASCAR Mexico Series race, which was unveiled at the LA Memorial Coliseum on February 4. In the design, a four-sided pyramid transforms into a champion cup, to which Juarez paired modern imagery like stylized sports cars with six Aztec symbols, including the Tlaltecuhtli, the Mesoamerican deity who is usually depicted as having splayed arms and legs; Olin, two interlaced lines; and the Aztec glyph for flame.

To accompany his solo show, Juarez has curated a large group show, “Angelitos de Plata,” in the gallery’s downstairs space. Inherent in the making of that exhibition is Juarez’s commitment to fostering community and empowering other artists, which is also evident in his founding of Tlaloc Studios in South Central in 2020, an artist-run studio space  that he rents out to fellow artists.

View of an art exhibition with a vase on a plinth showing Sonic the Hedgehog, as well as around a dozen works by different artists hung on two walls.
Installation view of “Angelitos De Plata,” curated by Ozzie Juarez & Tlaloc Studios, 2024, at Charlie James Gallery, Los Angeles. Courtesy the artists and Charlie James Gallery

 “When I decided to put ‘Angelitos de Plata’ together, I invited friends I already worked with, who are directly in my circle or who inspire me,” Juarez said. “These are all the people in the last three years who have been close to me and have changed the way I look at art making and the way I look at art.” He added, “I came from that idea of bringing community together and just the love for art, the love for my friends. I always want to be the best friend to all my friends and help them out.”


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