Julio Mejia: The Embassy Room
by Brad Barnes
But few people would be shocked at the images, by today’s standards or those of 20 years ago, when he took them. They look like they might have been plucked out of a time capsule from the 1960s or 1970s, when they could’ve raised more eyebrows.
Those photos would become the inspiration for a new series of work from Mejia called “The Embassy Room” — large, silver gelatin black-and-white nude photos distorted, filtered and obscured with ebbs of acrylic paint that he’s thinned and deconstructed to nearly its breaking point.
It’s a spirited and independent set of work that the 54-year-old artist hopes pays homage to the independent spirit of his original models.
“I don’t want it to sound vulgar,” Mejia says of the original photos. “These were just free, wonderful souls, and they were in a space where they could just relax and be themselves.”
Years later, his assistant stumbled on the photos and pressed him to consider a series based on them. It was daunting and almost nonsensical. He thought, “I’m an abstract artist. I’m not a photographer.”
Others encouraged him as well. Thumbing through the stills, one woman told him, “Man, these girls, they’re living life. You don’t see that anymore. These people are saying, ‘This is just who I am.’” Drawn to the expression of spirit she saw in those earlier models, that woman, a classical musician, agreed to pose for a new crop of images.
Many others followed suit, and Mejia began taking pictures with those who came to his home in the north Georgia mountains to relax. Those guests would inevitably end up in his Embassy Room, a lounge with walls bedecked in letters, certifications, citations and other ephemera from the artist’s time working at the U.S. Embassy to Peru. And it’s there that he would emulate those photos from two decades before.
The work is a more documentary-style peek into the life of the artist, and, as such, might surprise those who are familiar with Mejia’s earlier abstract expressionist creations, with their Big-Bang layers of sunbursts, neons, and cerulean.
“This is a personal, deep lifestyle of mine that I’ve never shared with anybody,” he says. “The Embassy Room almost becomes a studio, a living space, a sanctuary. All this is documentation.”
And for all the life that’s evident in front of the lens — women playfully vying for a pistol, or belly-down on a bed and peering at the camera through binoculars, or unsuccessfully hiding behind thin curtains — there’s been a lot of life in the fellow behind the camera, too.
He was born to a Peruvian father and Chilean mother. He grew up in New Orleans, but as an adult he settled near Atlanta, where the Georgia mountains reminded him of childhood years spent in South America. He professes a love of old-school finery like wine, whiskey and cigars. His grandfather was Gabriel Chula Clausi, a famed bandoneon player, composer, and Argentinian tango director whose dogged pursuit of art inspired the grandson’s own determination. Mejia cites his time with the U.S. Embassy as a primary influence in his earlier work, even as his Embassy Room is the primary influence of the new pieces.
The abstraction is still present in the new work, interplaying with the photographs and pushing the boundaries of both what can be defined as abstract expressionism and what can be defined as documentary photography. Washes of sepia or opaque baby blue give the base images the appearance of lineage. Dapples of copper-red make some feel like film cels snipped just as they began melting off a reel. Lava-lamp blobs form wobbly frames around figures in some and so fully obscure others that body parts are hard to discern.
The distortions serve a twofold purpose.
First, they give the underlying photos a gauzy quality that evokes the fuzziness of 20-year-old recollections, “to show that the memory’s fading.” But they’re also a way of protecting the subjects, who were friends and not professional models, “almost like veils,” he says. “Now, instead of hiding a memory, I’m dressing them just a little bit.”
Putting paint to the film was not an easy move for him.
“These began as black-and-white silver gelatin prints, which is almost unheard of these days. In a sense, the material is so beautiful that I didn’t want to mess with it. Once you touch it, you’re destroying the image,” he says. But he took solace from the work of Robert Rauschenberg, who famously created a new work by erasing much of a drawing by master artist Willem de Kooning. “He erased this beautiful drawing to create a new piece. I’m erasing what used to be, too” — but doing so by addition rather than subtraction.
The thinned paints spill over to the back, making the white side of the print its own distinct work of art.
The acrylic paint used atop the exposed images became an experiment for him as well. He stretched, thinned and warped the structure of the paint before applying it, much as a molecular gastronomist deconstructs food to analyze and reproduce its essence in new and exciting ways.
“I see what the paint is made of, what kind of pigments are in it, what elasticity it has. I keep pushing it and pushing it,” he says.
“I’ll make that paint scream before it does what I want.”
Mejia’s work is featured in prominent collections and has exhibited at the Cultural Patrimony of Peru Permanent Collection, Foreign Ministry of Peru; Tubman African-American Museum Permanent Collection in Macon, Georgia; Pomona, California’s Latino Art Museum Permanent Collection; The City College of New York Permanent Collection; and the permanent collection of the United States Southern Command.
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Brad Barnes is a Georgia-based freelance writer and former journalist whose work has won numerous Associated Press and state press association awards. He is the co-founder of The Dew Abides, a website devoted to simple, creative living, which you can visit at www.thedewabides.com.
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