Palette of the Illicit: A Studio Visit With Martin Durazo

Last week I joined Martin Durazo in his studio at 1019 West in Inglewood, CA. Martin is one of this year’s recipients of the COLA Fellowship, which recognizes outstanding artists in Los Angeles.  The recipients each created work for a recent exhibition at the Barnsdall Art Center.  I sat down with Martin and asked him about the work that he created for the exhibition.

Martin Durazo: It’s an ongoing body of work called “Plata O Plomo”, which is a euphemism that drug traffickers use, which translates from Spanish to English as “silver or lead”. It’s the principle of offering somebody a bribe (which would be the silver) or the lead (which would be filling them with bullets, or killing them). I’ve been very interested in this thing called the “aesthetic of the illicit”, or the idea that in our society, all things illicit seem to be coded or identified through a very specific color palette, or by certain colors.  Whether it is the colors associated with all things related to the environment of drug trafficking or consumption or things to do with what one would call social subcultures, that is the color palette that I am drawing from for this body of work.

Virginia Broersma: So your interest in it is more abstract versus your personal experience, although you’re probably impacted somewhat by being in Southern California, right?

MD: Yeah, I would say that it has to do with things that I’m drawn to, but again, that aesthetic rather than just the idea of the consumption of things that are necessarily bad for you. It’s more of an interest to me as to why we are attracted to them; what is it that really attracts us to them? Is it just a feeling or is there an aesthetic that creates that feeling? And that’s what I’m interested in finding and exploring in terms of a visual artist.

VB: So how does that translate into your work?

MD: Well the Plata O Plomo is kind of self-explanatory. I did a body of work that the color theme is either this metallic silver or more like a dead color scheme, which then moved into these bright colors that used to be part of, I would say, the Mexican landscape for bars and nightclubs that would rely heavily paint colors that were electrified from black light. And then the idea is to put it all together in either a two-dimensional or three-dimensional situation and see what they look like in the light of day.

So again, it becomes like a third level or a tertiary presentation of what it started out with.

VB: What’s the most exciting part of the process for you? Is it the initial idea or…

MD: Sure, the research, (laughs) you know? It’s fun for me. I like to explore why people are attracted to these things. It doesn’t mean that I participate in all things illicit, but these things are of interest me. And there are ways without being directly involved; it can be through literature, film or journalism that I can learn about them without directly being involved. It isn’t so much an autobiographical situation. As artists I think we’re here to observe and interpret and so that’s where I’m coming from with this work. Although there’s naughty stuff that I do (laughs) that sprinkles a little flavor on it.

VB: What’s the most challenging part of the process for you?

MD: Wow, um… seeing it.

VB: Do you mean once the work is finished?

MD: No. Even from the beginning I started to see it, started to see things that made sense to me and then translated it into the imagery that would then become the artwork. In one way or another I’ve been working on this body of work for almost three years now. In that time I’ve done 2.5 solo shows/ projects that  explored this idea and now I see myself becoming more interested in, I hate to use the word, the spiritual side of encountering  things that are illicit or are pushing the boundaries of one’s mortality, and what does that then look like? I think that’s the direction of the work.  It’s becoming more ethereal, more spacey. I’m gravitating towards imagery that has to do with some kind of spiritual geometry, like images of pyramids or inverted pyramids that look like diamonds. Now I’m getting into a hexagon shape with has to do with this weird kind of mathematical spiritual.

VB: You had something in your installation at Barnsdall that looked like an Aztec or Mayan pyramid? Is that related?

MD: Yeah, again all those pyramids are broken down to something that’s very mathematical like those step style pyramids that pre-Columbian cultures were into. Each level had to do with a certain amount of years that led these different levels of consciousness. I can’t help but be interested in it because I found there’s this connection  for me as to why , let’s say, narco-drug traffickers have become increasingly violent insomuch as there is a ceremonial approach to the violence and the horror.

I started to try to build parallels, well, I started off with my interest being in the parallel of how do you survive in the face of that kind of threat, of kind of danger, and still hold onto your humanity? And now I’ve gone over to the other side and say, well, is this a cycle that’s happened before? And in Mayan culture there’s the history of bloodletting and human sacrifice – and in a very gory way – of pulling somebody’s heart out their chest while they’re still alive.  And sacrificing virgins and piercing their body, skinning people…so you’re seeing these horrific images show up throughout Mexico.  So I started to draw that parallel and that’s why you start to see these images and a little bit more literal in that last show with the COLA fellowship where I had that pyramid.

And to add another level to it, that pyramid was constructed on a reflective insulation panel which represents something that’s supposed to protect you, but is actually very fragile because it’s made out of foam. Its easily punctured or scarred, and it only protects you in a certain way, which if you think of the construct of a social landscape, you have things in place like the police that are supposedly there to protect you, but there’s only so much they can do to protect you, and when they’re not there you’re vulnerable.

And then on top of that surface I places those black handkerchiefs which I pulled from gay leather culture, which signifies rough trade, which is kind of that idea  of someone who is sexually aroused through bondage, and basically being tortured – willfully tortured.  So this is where I’m bringing together all these illicit signifiers to create one vision.

VB: Where can we see your work? Do you have any exhibitions coming up?

MD: I have a solo exhibition at Luis De Jesus Los Angeles, which will take place in January. That show’s going to be called “Points of Entry”. Again the double entendre of sexuality and this inferred… whatever you want to call it…and again this kind of spiritual entry into the next level, the next plane. So the exhibition will consist of a grouping of large scale paintings and a free standing interactive sculpture where you will be welcome to enter this environment….I don’t want to give away too much, but there will be some fun things inside of it.

Martin Durazo’s work can be seen online at and


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