Cowboy boots, hats, fauna and sparkles collide in the vibrant scenes painted by Chicago-based Juan Arango Palacios. It’s a wonderful marriage of colour, motif and symbology, all of which have been plucked from Juan’s past experiences: their queer journey, growing up in a Catholic culture and migrating from Pereira, Colombia throughout the American South. Raised in a traditional Catholic family, they attended Catholic school which greatly influenced their understanding of art. “I first saw art not in an art museum, but in my city’s cathedral, and that’s where my understanding of colour and imagery started to be shaped,” Juan tells It’s Nice That
Since a young age Juan has been aware of their queer identity. They recall a pivotal memory in school where, located just outside of the city of Pereira, they were surrounded by fields and forests. “One of my friends and I would venture out into the jungle and share moments of intimacy – kisses and whispers about our secret queerness,” they say. “These tender moments turned the jungle into a sanctuary – a safe haven – where I could freely be myself and comfortably bask in my own existence.” It’s moments like this, coupled with their family’s migration to Southern Louisiana, Texas and Florida over the course of ten years, that gives their work a deeper meaning. It’s also why Southern African culture takes centre stage in their paintings, an area in which they derive queer symbols from as a “form of reclamation and self-empowerment”.
A few years down the line and Juan went on to study at School of the Art Institute in Chicago. They graduated in 2020 and made a concerted effort to involve themselves in the queer and art communities in the city (of course succeeding). Resultantly, they’ve had work shown in numerous exhibitions across the US and more recently expanding overseas. Their practice, too, is one that’s been refined with such care that it aims to address the lived experiences of “ambulant queer identities that have been marginalised within a diaspora or migratory context,” as written in their artist’s bio. So when observing their works, you start to notice more than the buoyant colour palettes and intricate symbology; there’s much to be unearthed beneath the painterly layers.
Other influences arise predominantly from music, like traditional folklore Colombian Cumbia – a musical rhythm and dance from Colombia – as well as contemporary Reggaeton lyrics. That of which serve as catalysts to the compositions and narratives employed throughout their paintings. “The figures are inspired by people in the queer community that I am part of and that I consider my friends,” says Juan, who’s also influenced by queer internet culture, queer fashion and tattoo culture. “My visual vocabulary is made up of characters and archetypes that I’ve encountered throughout my life: cowboys, clowns and chorus are all fantastical supporting characters and symbols in the epic that seeks to empower a queer narrative.”
In a recent piece entitled Baile Caliente, an artwork featured in their solo exhibition Como Ángel en Cielo at New Image Art Gallery in LA, Juan has painted in a deep and intense tone of blue – a shade that’s moody and dramatic yet utterly captivating. Cowboy boots and bare feet fill the frame, while a thick rope hangs between them in an intentionally ambiguous and metaphoric display. “This monochromatic composition features an intimate dance of boots and feet that is indicative of the latinx queer club scene here in the United States,” adds Juan, stating that this is their means of reclaiming the queer symbology they lacked growing up. “Not only are these the boots that men wore as symbols of strength and flashy masculinity in the South, but they are also the same boots that queer latinxs’ wear to nightclubs while dancing Rancheras and Reggaeton with one another in an intimate setting.” There are many more paintings like this – even tapestries – where place, memory, people and the archetypes that surround them are explored.
Juan’s future is looking full to the brim with plans. Not only are they set to exhibit at the Cambridge Art Association in Massachusetts, they’re also holding their first international group exhibition titled Salon at London’s Guts Gallery. It doesn’t stop there either, for they’re also “eagerly” awaiting a month-long residency at the Macedonia Institute this coming February. By way of their current works, it’s clear to see that Juan utilises the medium of paint to understand the world around them– making sense of past and present through the artful stroke of a brush and, in turn, sharing their findings with the viewer. “I want my audience to be captivated by my work,” they conclude. “I want the viewer to sit with my work and get lost in its haze of colours. By pairing mostly monochromatic colour palettes with dynamic compositions, my images are not immediately clear at first glance – the viewer is made to spend a few extra seconds deciphering what’s in front of them in the same way that our eyes take some time to adjust to the darkness of the night sky.”
“Most importantly, however, I want to address a queer audience. I want to make queer folks feel safe, loved, prosperous, empowered, represented and recognised in my work. It’s an ode and monument to queer people who live their lives on their own terms.”
Juan Arango Palacios: Caballero (Copyright © Juan Arango Palacios, 2022)
About the Author
Ayla was an editorial assistant back in June 2017 and has continued to work with us on a freelance basis. She has spent nearly a decade as a journalist, and covers a range of topics including photography, art and graphic design. Feel free to contact Ayla with any stories or new creative projects.