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Artists have long tried to capture the curves and valleys of the American West on the canvas, through the lens, and these days, using more unconventional mediums. In the early to mid-1900s, late environmentalist and photographer Ansel Adams immortalized many a snowcapped mountain and jagged cliff in his famous black-and-white imagery. Today, Las Vegas–based, mixed-media artist Justin Favela portrays these peaks with vibrant color in his textured pieces carefully crafted with piñata paper.
Visitors can see the contrasting—yet complementing—work of these two visionaries in concert at Denver Botanic Gardens’ recently unveiled exhibitions, Ansel Adams: Early Works and Justin Favela: Vistas in Color, which both debuted June 11.
These additions to the York location not only spotlight the natural beauty of the American West but also prompt conversations about the concepts of home, exploration, and cultural expectations.
“As a Latinx artist, I found myself—when I was in art school—being expected to make work about my identity, as most people of color are expected to do, and I wanted to push back and make commentary on how ridiculous that is,” Favela says. “So I started making these outsized piñata sculptures.”
His dive into the visual arts was an unexpected one. A tuba player, Favela received a music scholarship to the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, but soon made an inspired shift. “I took an art class, and it was a drawing class funny enough,” Favela says. “I just loved learning and getting better at that skill. Then I took a sculpture class, and it was over after that.”
From piñatas that represent the seven deadly sins at Meow Wolf Las Vegas’ Omega Mart to colossal Tex-Mex cuisine at the Houston Center for Contemporary Craft, Favela uses a playful medium that’s simultaneously a social statement and, well, a little silly.
“Piñatas are about celebration, but they’re also about destruction, so this kind of tongue-in-cheek joke turned into something: a symbol that had so many more layers that I could really make work about,” says Favela, a recipient of the 2018 Alan Turing LGTBIQ Award for International Artist.
For Denver Botanic Gardens, Favela designed an immersive, large-scale installation that envelops visitors in textured, kaleidoscopic landscape scenes—of course, using his signature piñata paper. The paneled piece—a connecting trio depicting real-life deserts— is an homage to his kin’s residence. “It’s basically a collage of the Sonoran Desert, the Chihuahuan Desert, and the Mojave Desert, which are the three deserts that represent where my family lives geographically,” he says.
The installation adorns the walls of the Bonfils-Stanton Gallery as a floor-to-ceiling mural, inviting visitors into the vistas of his heritage. “Favela’s knowledge, wit, and artform together bring forth an important dialogue about identity and who belongs in a landscape or who is represented by a landscape,” says Lisa M.W. Eldred, head curator of art at Denver Botanic Gardens.
Favela’s dynamic desert installation was commissioned to complement the nearly 40 early photographic works of Adams on display next door at Denver Botanic Gardens’ Freyer-Newman Center. If Favela’s murals are sweeping snapshots of the terrain, Adams’ photographs are their zoomed-in counterparts. “These smaller-scale early works by Adams are intimate and reveal his eye for composition and tone,” Eldred says. “It’s impressive how the grandeur of massive landscape can be captured in smaller prints.
Favela considers it an honor to have his whimsical work in conversation with Adams’ images, which are on loan from the private collection of Michael Mattis and Judith Hochberg. “He’s iconic,” Favela says. “It’s amazing to be showing in a museum alongside him.” And as tempted as you may be, leave the bat at home. This is one piñata they prefer you soak in, rather than swing at.
Ansel Adams: Early Works and Justin Favela: Vistas in Color are on display at Denver Botanic Gardens (1007 York St.) until Oct. 1. Access to both exhibitions is included in the price of admission.