Perched on a bar stool and leaning against a wall at SADE gallery, Mario Ayala explains what first inspired his interest in art: “My dad is the beginning to me. He’s a truck driver, and he was always drawing.” As a kid growing up in Inglewood, Ayala collected the drawings his father would make on the back of receipts gathered throughout the workday. “I always thought they were amazing. He would draw in ballpoint pen-drawings of dudes by their cars, a bunch of Latina girls, pit bulls…” he smiles, looking down at his Blue-Nose pit bull puppy laying at his feet. Ayala continues, “I would wait up for my dad to come home and he would give me a drawing.” This small ritual between father and son laid the foundation for Ayala’s artistic practice.
Flanked by his two dogs, a cigarette between his lips, Ayala exudes an unmistakable gravitas. For an artist who has garnered so much attention by the age of 27, he is naturally soft-spoken and entirely unpretentious. Ayala’s friends, SADE co-owners Alberto and Brian, sit beside us, often chiming in to make sure Ayala’s achievements aren’t overshadowed by his compulsive humility. The four of us—sitting on subwoofers as makeshift chairs, eating strawberries, and drinking Perrier out of plastic cups— share an animated, pin-balling conversation about Ayala’s art.
Los Angeles is a shapeshifting muse for Ayala. Hanging out with his father’s “car junkie” friends sparked his interest in the iconography and technique of car painting. Inspired by lowrider culture and airbrush artists at swap meets in East LA, Ayala was able to fuse his technical training with the artistry he saw in his environment. “Some of the more conflicting moments as an artist are moments when I talk to a painter and they say my work doesn’t meet a certain caliber of what art should be,” he says. “When I show my work to an actual auto-body painter they’ll say, “Well that’s not really our type of painting.” He looks faux-exasperated and grins, “So I guess I’m not really “either/or,” but I’m using both fields of painting and making it my own.”
Responding to Ayala’s comment, Alberto says, “There’s a song in Spanish that goes, “No soy de aquí ni soy de allá,” meaning ‘I’m not from here and I’m not from there.’ I think for a lot of parents or first generation immigrants to the US you get that feeling. You’re really not from that space—your family or your origin country, and you’re really barely from here. It translates in the work a lot.”
Ayala’s work is a beautifully rendered dialogue between all of his seemingly disparate influences. In reference to his painting, entitled Spare, Ayala explains, “A lot of painters I enjoy are German painters from the 19th century, and even the tire painting is a reference to a Konrad Klapheck painting from the 1950’s. It’s also a reference to tire-shop paintings that people put in front of their stores to advertise. I grew up across the street from Randy’s Donuts in Inglewood, and you just happen to call a tire a donut.” Alberto adds that Ayala’s work isn’t just reflective of a “historical narrative,” but what he calls a “hysterical narrative,” which he defines as “this over- saturation of present day media, where we have access to everything: ten tabs open on your phone and computer, listening to the radio, driving our cars...” He adds, “Looking at the tire painting, how could it not be this kind of fever dream reality that we’re all coming to terms with?”
The elements of Ayala’s “fever dream” are deeply embedded in the fabric of Los Angeles, but are often unseen in contemporary gallery spaces: a collage of car iconography, anthropomorphic dogs, pop culture, and religious motifs. In reference to the two dog sculptures currently on view at Club Pro Gallery, Ayala describes them as “LA’s gargoyles.” Dogs are a common sight in East LA neighborhoods, whether lazing on the front porch of a house, or surprising you with a bark from behind a chain link fence as you walk by. “Pit bulls and Rottweilers are often associated with protection. Their body and facial features resemble those of gargoyle’s seen on the facades of old cathedrals.”
Although Ayala does not identify as particularly religious, there is an underlying presence of religious iconography in many of his paintings. “Like many Mexicanos and Cubanos, I grew up in a Catholic household. My grandparents practiced Santería.” Ayala gives me a quick primer on the pantheistic belief system. “Santeria is the combination of the Yoruba religious practices in Africa and Catholicism, which was brought to Cuba by the Spaniards. The Catholic imagery used in Santeria was a way for slaves to combine and hide their traditions and religious figures.” For Ayala, these motifs are less theological and more tied to the aesthetic and emotional entanglement with his family. “How many times I’ve passed by a car that has an airbrushed Jesus on it or a verse pertaining to a family member. That’s all really beautiful... a lot of it is just as magical as it was when I was a kid.”
Over the course of our meandering examination of Ayala’s influences, the conversation always returns to his father. “I can’t emphasize enough how much of a bond I have with my pops,” he tells me. When I ask how his father inspires his current practice, Ayala takes out his phone and opens their text conversation. “He constantly sends me memes, mostly inspirational memes with Tupac in the background.” He thumbs rapidly through their recent messages. A dizzying volume of exchanged memes fly across the screen. He stops on one, smiles to himself, and says, “Oh, this is a good one: ‘I know my worth, do your thang, I ain’t mad at cha.’ I like that. That’s inspirational to me. You can put that down.”
Written by Andie Eisen