In Conversation with José Luis Cortés: Latinx Performance Artist + Painter on his new show 'En Blanco y Negro: Gay & Boricua'
Gallery Gurls talks to José Luis Cortés, a Latinx artist who explores male eroticism, sexual fantasy and drug culture through various mediums - painting, performance art and film. Born in Philadelphia to Puerto Rican parents, Cortés moved to Puerto Rico at the age of three and later relocated to New York in the 1990s. Cortés immersed himself in New York's pulsating gay nightlife scene, which further fueled his work and development as an artist. In his own words Cortés speaks about his career trajectory, those early years in New York and his most recent solo exhibition 'En Blanco Y Negro: Gay & Boricua'. You can view a performance from the exhibit here. The show ran from June 12 to July 25, 2015 at Taller Puertorriqueño ( in conjunction with GALAEI) which helped celebrate the 50th Anniversary of the Reminder Day Demonstrations. Cortés is also a member of Visual AIDS, an NYC-based art non-profit dedicated to AIDS activism, support and advocacy through the visual arts.
Gallery Gurls: Much of your life has been spent divided between two islands -Manhattan and Puerto Rico - how do these differing physical and cultural landscapes affect your work? Manhattan as this gritty, concrete metropolis contrasted against Puerto Rico's serenity and nature?
José Luis Cortés: I love both islands! I love the beaches, the mountains, and the centers of our small towns in Puerto Rico. What is not to love about New York City and its island of Manhattan? In the beginning of my career as an artist I was inspired by Manhattan’s grids. The paintings were mostly self-portraits and contained X's which functioned as targets. On the other hand, I also created a series of paintings called “Casas de Cemento” (cement houses), inspired by the memories of my childhood in Carolina, Puerto Rico. I used to admire the urban setting of the neighborhood where I grew up in and where I rode my bicycle around as a child. I loved the original facades from when they were built in the 1960s, which became some of my favorite paintings. While I enjoy the serenity and nature, I actually do not use them in my work. Perhaps they are in the photos in the newspaper, but I concentrate in the urban aspects of New York and Puerto Rico in my paintings. A large part of my work consists of paintings highlighting architectural aspects of buildings and houses both in New York and Puerto Rico. The changing qualities of the urban environment fascinate me in both locations. For example, what used to be Times Square in New York, it no longer is. Meanwhile, in Santurce, Puerto Rico, old abandoned buildings are being painted passionately by dozens of muralists and urban artists.
Newsprint has been a signature surface in your work throughout your career. Your range is so broad - from still life, landscapes to portraiture. I love the sexually explosive 'Parati' (2000) but I'm equally enamoured by the fashion still life 'Sale Rack' (2012). Talk to me about the weight and significance working with newspaper holds for you.
Often people come to me worried about the fact that my art is on newspaper that it won’t last. I tell them that the only way they are going to exist is the way they are. Newspaper also reflects the changing nature of urban landscapes. It is like skin; it changes color with time, it wrinkles, it fades. There is also a strong personal significance of newsprint. When I was a child, my father, Gaspar Cortés and I had a strong bond that was laced with newspapers. We had a fascination with a news magazine on TV, as well as with printed news. I read two newspapers every day, both in Spanish and in English. I remember reading them out loud over breakfast as my family listened to the latest news. Another important aspect of my using newsprint to paint is that my father used to sit down to watch me paint. He was very supportive of my work. Tragically he was murdered. It was after his death that I started using newspapers to paint, and I believe it is a way of paying him tribute. Another influence for using newspaper was the DADA movement and their anti-art view. In newspaper, particularly the New York Times, I could find everything I was looking for. It was like a microcosm for me of the world, from colors to love, crime, art and politics. I decided to paint using only black and white paint in my quest for a unique style, and at the time the NYT started using a lot more colors in their publication which made my paintings more and more colorful.
"Newspaper also reflects the changing nature of urban landscapes. It is like skin; it changes color with time, it wrinkles, it fades."
You first came to New York during the 1990s and became an active participant in the gay nightlife culture. During the time while you performed at Eros (legendary all male burlesque theater) you started to document a soon-to-be vanishing New York. Can you expand on this period in your life and did it lay the groundwork for your developing career?
It all started with a dare from a friend. He challenged me to go ahead and get a job at Eros. The adventurer in me went right ahead and asked for a job. I remember walking through those doors and thinking my art is going to drastically change from this experience, and it did. The Eros theater was one of the first gay porn movie houses in the U.S. Aside from showing porn movies it also had live shows and in which I participated during its last year before it closed. This, and many other theaters closed because of Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s “disneyfication” of the Times Square area. There were four live shows which started daily at 11 am. Because I would spend the whole day in the neighborhood, I would walk around on breaks and started taking pictures of this iconic section of the city, which was disappearing right before my very eyes. I recall taking photos of many closed down movie houses. I once took a picture of an abandoned theater on 42nd street, and two days later it was a pile of rubble. It became clear to me the importance of art as a tool of documentation. During my time at Eros, I took hundreds of pictures of the interior of the theater, my co-workers and the Times Square area. My stage name was 'Iván', to which the DJ later added 'El Terrible' (The Terrible), becoming 'Iván El Terrible'. As I stripped naked in front of an audience, I was actually getting prepared for the art performances I would do later in my life. Shortly after starting work as a stripper, I started painting a series of works based on this experience which included works of many other theaters as well, such as The Liberty, The Play Pen, and The Amsterdam, among others. This series of paintings from the 1990’s were and still are after all this time some of my most important works because they consist of a time capsule painted on newspaper of an era gone by.
Let's talk about your latest solo show 'Black & White: Gay & Boricua' which ended last month at Taller Puertorriqueño in Philadelphia. This show is incredibly important on so many levels - it's a return to your Philadelphia roots and you draw from personal experiences to shed light on the gay Latino perspective. The exhibit also celebrates the 50th anniversary of the Reminder Day Demonstrations and took place during Pride month, fresh off the landmark SCOTUS ruling. What do all of these historic factors mean to you?
Going back to the city where I was born, as a mature gay Puerto Rican artist meant a huge deal for me. The fact that Taller PR is located in North Philly, where I spent the first three years of my life was also of great significance. I had the privilege of working with Rafael Dasmat for over three years selecting the work. The exhibit has several sections or stories. One is the “Sex Ads” series, based on actual sex advertisements from gay publications in cities where I have lived or visited such as New York, Berlin and London. Another is “Casa de Cemento” (cement houses), inspired in the neighborhoods where I grew up in Carolina, Puerto Rico, which highlights the original facades of houses and buildings from the 1960’s which are disappearing with time. There is also the “Crystal Series” which are storefront paintings of small party supply stores which all share 'crystal' as part of their names such as Crystal Favors, Crystal Party and Crystal Palace, utilized as a metaphor for the crystal meth epidemic, especially in the gay sex community. Finally, there is the Times Square series, which highlights my time as a stripper, and of course, the grid painting and sculpture performance installation. Being part of this city-wide celebration of gay pride and activism was of immense satisfaction and importance in my life. It was also significant for my art in these times of accomplishments and more acceptance for our community. I was Taller PR's artist-in-residence for close to a month and taught three workshops to young people. I was also aided by GALAEI's Executive Director Elicia Gonzales, which was very empowering. I was more than pleased with the way they hosted my stay and with all the support I received from both the El Taller PR and GALAEI.