Layers of Meaning

Emerging artist Giovanni Morales blends stencils, nostalgia and spray paint into more-than-portraits

What if you could look in a mirror and see all of yourself—worries, memories, deepest secrets—overlaid on your reflection?

In a sense, this is what Giovanni Morales paints.

Layer by layer, the 33-year-old builds vibrant psychological portraits. The polished exterior life that Morales has spray-painted onto the foreground is simplified and idealized, a literal cartoon: Roy Lichtenstein-esque beauties. But behind that semi-transparent veil, the background reveals a more substantial reality—it’s like the difference between the perfect Facebook profile photo and the way you really look. Inner turmoil is shown through old signs, texts that you can’t quite read piling on top of themselves like thoughts rushing through a reeling brain. Even in such mental nakedness, there is still an element of mystery. Like all complex cinematic characters, Morales’ can’t fully understand themselves or be understood.

But the longer you look, the more you will see. This is true for the six paintings in Morales’ new exhibit, New Thrills, his second at Brett Wesley Gallery (his first was in October, and it sold out). And it’s equally true for his art on display at the owner’s nearby bar, Artifice. That’s where Morales got his first break after gallery director Victoria Hart discovered him at Vegas Streats a couple of years ago. Back then, the First Friday regular often sold art from a spot in front of Gypsy Den. Hart has since encouraged him to move from small to large paintings. At about 3 by 4 feet, the pieces in New Thrills are Morales’ largest yet.

After repeated viewing from varying distances, some of the secrets in Morales’ paintings reveal themselves. Morales calls the images that emerge—such as a tyrannosaurus rex or a skull or Batman’s sidekick, Robin—“Easter eggs.”

“It’s really a wonderful act of discovery within every piece. That’s what I think people love about it,” Hart says. “Like this piece over there [“Her Last Fling”], there’s an alligator in there. Well I didn’t even see that till the other day, when a lady pointed it out. I’ve been looking at this work for a week. And then she pointed out the one alligator, and I’m like, ‘But look, there’s another alligator!’ She’s like, ‘No!’ And I go, ‘Yeah, yeah, here it is. See its teeth and its eyes?’ And she started cracking up.”

A self-described “’80s child” who is “stuck in the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s,” the Las Vegas native finds inspiration in sources that have an element of nostalgia. In a time when technology races ever faster forward, Morales prides himself on living offline and under the radar. He doesn’t Tweet, Facebook or have a website, even if that keeps his art from a wider audience.

Morales admires Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol, asking himself, “How do you reinvent that, and make it new for a new generation?” To find an answer, he looks backward to the late comic-book illustrators Jack Kirby, Al Williamson and Wally Wood. And he looks forward to contemporary street artists, such as Banksy. He draws from multiple cinematic eras: the grandness of old movies, such as the original Ocean’s 11; the aesthetic and moral ambiguity of film noir; and the surrealism of his more modern favorites, such as The City of Lost Children, Pan’s Labyrinth and “all the Kubrick movies.”

“I try to just combine all those elements together,” Morales says, “with ’40s, ’50s, new style and hand-painting collaged together somehow. [It’s] controlled chaos, where you’re discovering something all the time.”

Morales is also a big fan of old signs. “Everything used to be hand-painted,” he says. “It’s kind of like a lost art now. [I’m] kind of keeping those things alive.” In order to do so, Morales hand-paints typography and then distresses it so that it looks like a wall that’s been rained on. Then he repeats the process, creating layer upon layer, mimicking walls bearing multiple generations of signs. “I’ll do a really intricate font, sand that down, add another font on top of that, maybe sand half of that out,” Morales says. His weatherizing process is a product of experimentation and can include anything from applying water to having people stomp on the paint.

Morales’ favorite part of the creative process is cutting the stencils. Or, as he says, “The art is in the cutting.” He enjoys “zoning out” while making the precise cuts necessary to achieve the clean lines. To Morales, who does this step last, “it’s the reward at the end of the painting.”

In terms of subjects, Morales gravitates toward women. While intensely private about his personal life, he does reveal that he was raised by his mother and grandmother, and his upbringing instilled in him a deep respect for the female gender. Whether Morales’ past inspired him or he just likes a pretty face, the subject choice has struck a chord with viewers. “[New Thrills] has been overwhelmingly successful,” Hart says. “People just love the whole ‘crying girl’ thing.”

When this gallery show is behind him, Morales will return to his “bat cave” to continue making art. He wants to explore more paper cutting, with an eye on kirigami, the Japanese art of paper cutting. He also has plans for a collaborative furniture project. While Morales is characteristically low-key about his future, Hart is ebullient. “He is so talented,” she says, eyeing a potential future where his renown reaches beyond Las Vegas (and one where he would embrace social networking). “He could be in five galleries and sell out. I mean, I’m two nights into the show, and everything’s gone except for the Clint Eastwood piece. And that doesn’t happen with all my artists.”