As a visual artist, Juan Jose Cielo (2015 Visual Arts) chases the extraordinary in the everyday. His paintings imagine spatial landscapes, rendered in a realist style but portraying objects and scenes from his wildest imagination. Within these celestial tableaus, Cielo depicts stereotypical LatinX figures who look more like caricatures of American lore than actual people. Cielo places these figures in dialogue with hyper-futurist objects to bridge a gap of alienation—one in which he, as a young Colombian-American, feels light-years away from his home country, unable to claim either his new land or his old home.
“As an immigrant, you learn about your culture at a distance,” says Cielo. “But it’s precisely because I grew up at a distance that I’m reflecting on it so much. For some that experience is fraught and painful, and for others it can be very rich. I think it’s the in-between where the magic happens.”
Cielo has straddled that liminal space his entire life, migrating from Medellín, Colombia, when he was four and settling in Kendall, Florida. His penchant for the extraordinary might have to do with the fact that being out of the ordinary wasn’t so uncommon in his family. Though no one in the brood made art in the strictest sense, his father was a comedian; because of his dad’s creative pursuits, Cielo grew up working ticket booths, backstage at theaters, or in the green room during radio and TV tapings.
He lived in Miami until 2015 when he graduated from the New World School of the Arts, and promptly after moved to New York, where he still lives today. A Cooper Union graduate, Cielo recently received the YoungArts Jorge M. Pérez Award, an unrestricted grant of $25,000 that Cielo says feels “incredibly validating, because there is so much of the personal in my work.”
His work expands what LatinX immigrants can imagine for themselves, as we all make a collective race toward the sublime. He describes his starting point as a place of missing out: Cielo often fantasizes about the things we’ll be able to achieve in space travel long after he’s dead. He likens that longing to what anyone living outside of their home country might feel, channeling it into lofty scenes of life in another realm. He sketches apocryphal objects resembling rockets or ships or planes, and embeds them with Latino iconography from the mid-century. Before he begins painting, Cielo will often build out models of the crafts themselves to help him give the painting a material quality. Most of his works are informed by travels throughout Colombia, where he mines centuries-old towns for their cultural and local habitats and then re-imagines what they might look like if they were located in space.
Paintings like “Yo no soy marinero, soy capitán (I am not a sailor, I am the captain)” (2022) delve into sci-fi from a LatinX gaze. His subject standing on a cobblestone road and donning a wide-brimmed hat peers out from under its shade at a futuristic vehicle. “Pueblito” (2018) makes equal use of traditional Colombian culture and the vast expanse of space, with a series of long wooden tables set under a painting of a night sky.
Other recent works shift outside the realm of painting and into photography and film. As part of a residency with the Mars Desert Research Station in Utah, Cielo is both projection-mapping grid-like designs onto the desert sands and taking portraits of himself decked in a spacesuit. These images represent Cielo’s journey of self-discovery—miles away from his homeland, and navigating into multidimensional unknowns.
“When you’re at a distance trying to build your identity, you’re really paying attention about what defines what,” he says. “You want to share or explain away all the things you experience as a person existing outside your home country. Space travel is kind of like that.” For Cielo, the possibilities seem limitless.
About the Author:
Nicole Martinez is a cultural producer, writer and editor based in Miami. She is the associate director at Fountainhead Arts, an artist residency dedicated to elevating and supporting artist voices. Her writing has appeared in Cultured, Hyperallergic, Art Newspaper, Artsy, and others.
Follow her on Instagram: @niki_frsh