Visual Arts

Spray Painter

If you are un patron des arts, hip to the street-artist-cum-gallery-phenom tip, you've probably seen Basquiat five times and even own a Keith Haring tie you picked up at the Museum Store at Scottsdale Fashion Square. You may have even heard of "Lalo Land," the installation at Thought Crime Gallery in Phoenix.

But Lalo Cota, a soft-spoken painter-sculptor in his first legitimate show, is not Basquiat or Haring. And this is not New York in the 1980s -- the graffiti scene created by the world's two most notorious graffiti artists. The scene that those artists gave birth to is now an established microcosm, which nurtures artists rather than artists inventing it. Cota's work represents an evolution from the initial shock of graffiti's -- and hip-hop's -- emergence from the streets.

Cota is a graffiti writer of national renown within such circles. With this exhibit, he establishes that he is a painter first, and a graf writer second; this is not some abrupt leap from street expressionism to gallery hipsterism. "I grew up painting," explains Cota, who was born in Navojoa, Sonora, Mexico, 25 years ago.

He moved to Phoenix when he was 7. "I picked up graffiti later in life; it's the most influential of anything I do, but I've always been a painter. I think that the only people that have trouble [with the concept of going above-ground, gallery-style] are the writers that can't change from that, they're stuck in that mindset."

In viewing "Lalo Land," there's no question that Cota's life revolves around graffiti; graffiti informs every piece on display, most of them paintings done with spray paint, or acrylics on objects such as cabinet doors. There are a few canvases and several sculptures made from Krylon spray-paint cans and random "junk" such as action figure limbs and toasters.

New pieces will be up for the First Friday Art Walk on January 5.

In his studio at the house where he lives with his mother and two younger siblings, Cota points out a large canvas, spray-painted with a cartoon image of a spray can with mouth agape, screaming. "I call that one My Friend to the End," he says, laughing.

A week before the December 15 opening, Cota was still working on many of the pieces that are on display. Except for a few paintings, every piece is work he's done since scheduling the exhibit in October; it's designed to be a purist documentation of his current repertoire, not art he's done in the past.

In the world of street graffiti artists, some consider it a cardinal sin to spend time spraying canvases to be sold in galleries rather than painting freight trains or walls that will be seen by thousands of people whether they like it or not. About a year ago, Cota decided that he wanted to pursue art as a career, as it already encompassed every facet of his life. "My goal is to be remembered," he says. "This is the only way I've figured out to keep on living. I think I put enough energy into my work that if you've never met me, then you could see what type of person I am or what I've seen through examining my work. Where street art comes in is that I like to travel, and since my goal is to be remembered, I paint where I travel -- it's proof of my existence."

This recent expansion of his immortality into more formal areas of the art world carries with it new concepts for the developing young artist. His pieces include his first incursions into sculpting; most are centered on cut, glued, welded and otherwise mutilated spray-paint cans. Like his paintings, which often feature skulls and monstrous images, the Krylon cans assume fiendish personages; there's a Buzz Lightyear body with its head replaced by a can cut with jagged teeth, not quite finished ("I think I'm going to put the Buzz head in the can's mouth," Cota says contemplatively). Another is a vintage Krylon can -- from the period when the preferred paint was manufactured by Borden, not Sherwin-Williams as it is currently -- with monster action-figure arms and legs attached, only a spray tip for a head, and the ball still rolling around inside.

"I've always had a fascination with sculpture," Cota explains. "It was just easy to start with cans. And garbage -- found items. You see something and pick it up because you know you could use it eventually. If something doesn't come to mind 'til later, you have it."

Cota's muse is strictly of-the-moment; he doesn't sketch his paintings first, even when he's doing the commissioned pieces that provide the bulk of his income. Recently, Cota completed a backyard wall piece for a Chandler home's pool scenery; the half undersea/half above-the-water panoramic piece is stunning with its multicolor sunset, sea turtles, dolphins, plant life and waves licking the false horizon. "Some of my favorite stuff ends up good because of the randomness. I try to visualize it. I just paint it -- I think that's the only way to put your true energy into it."

When his flow of inspiration is lacking, Cota is usually at home in his studio, preparing backdrops to be used later. Scattered around his backyard are paint-splattered easels; one has a primered 4-foot-by-4-foot canvas covered with X-acto blades, Sheetrock, razors, a thin cleaver and keys glued on for texture. It's been sprayed with hues of yellow and magenta, dripping in places.

He doesn't know what else will end up on the canvas -- maybe a self portrait. "I haven't seen anything on it yet," he says, staring at it passively. "I just have to let the paint tell me."

Cota's use of razors and the like as texture isn't the only technique that's unorthodox. He uses spray bottles of water along with the spray paint -- the water both rejects the paint and slows its congealment. It can also create a glassier smearing effect that's documented in "Lalo Land" on a series of four skull paintings on matching cabinet doors, two in yellow and green tones, and two in red hues.

"I'm still experimenting, still looking for what I really want to do," Cota explains when asked about his artistic future. "I know what I want to do right now, but all my stuff is real simple. Instead of doing a page in a book, I want to do a whole book that's a story from beginning to end."

Although Cota's determined to follow the path that he strikes in "Lalo Land," he doesn't plan to exhibit in installations such as this regularly. "I've been having a good time, just because I'm into the pressure," he says. "The pressure gives me ideas that I've never had before. But I'd like a year in advance to come up with stuff. If I can do this with a little time, imagine what I could do with plenty of time."

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Brendan Joel Kelley