Justin Favela, 28
A piñata is a singular party prop, made to be beaten into shreds. Its complex character — both celebratory and suggestive of violence — is what drew Justin Favela to push the bounds of the form, to figure out what happens to a viewer when you festoon unlikely plaster shapes (say, a life-size lowrider car) with ribbons.
Favela, a Las Vegas-based artist, is one of the subjects we picked from State of the Art, an unprecedented exhibit featuring contemporary art from across the country. For nearly a year, two staffers of the Crystal Bridges museum in Bentonville, Arkansas — president Don Bacigalupi and curator Chad Alligood — traveled thousands of miles in search of great American artists based outside of New York City’s art-world epicenter. It was a curatorial adventure unlike any that’s come before, and Favela was one of 102 people to make the final cut. His “Lowrider piñata” is currently on display.Last week, Favela ducked into a storage closet in Caesars Palace — where he works as an administrator at an art gallery — just long enough to share his recipe for making a giant piñata.
Setting up a studio visit with a renowned museum can’t be an everyday experience. How did you feel when Crystal Bridges first contacted you?
At first I was a little confused because I had just been in a group show in Fayetteville [Arkansas], right next door to Bentonville, so I thought for some reason they were friends of my friends. When Chad showed up to my studio, it took me a minute to figure out what was happening. I was kind of shocked and surprised as to how big a deal it was after they left and I looked up Crystal Bridges online. I knew that it was a museum in Arkansas with a crazy-looking building, but then I learned more.
Not knowing what’s going on must be kind of a blessing, though, because you’re not stressed.
It was a fun studio visit. I just kind of showed them my work. At the time I had just made a giant, 6-foot-long turkey for a lighting studio in town. I had that and all these piñatas hanging around. The car was there, but it was in pieces. It was flat because I had showed it earlier — I think the year before. It was just so big that I had to take it apart and save the parts.
How did it feel to know that broken-up piece made it in?
I was overjoyed, of course. I almost threw up. It was amazing. I just couldn’t believe it. I knew that they visited other people in Vegas, and thousands across the country. When I found out I’m the only person from the whole state that made it into the show, it was just overwhelming. It was very real.
When did you start making piñatas?
When I was in college. I’ve had a history with piñata-tying since I was a kid. I never really liked it, just because I was a calm kid, and piñata time is very celebratory but also very violent. Just the idea that we’re going to put a blindfold on you and you’re going to hit this thing and you’re going to perform for us. Can we just get the candy? What’s going on here?
One of the first piñatas I did was kind of morbid. I made a life-size donkey out of fabric and wire, kind of like papier-mâché. I hung it from the ceiling, and it looked like this droopy dead donkey. I kept thinking about the piñata as a way to represent my background. It’s a fun medium, and it’s about violence. When I initially thought about the car, my friends and I were just brainstorming what symbols would represent Chicano or Latino culture. Eventually, we thought of a lowrider car.
“When I found out I’m the only person from the whole state that made it into the show, it was just overwhelming. I almost threw up.”
How do you make a piñata that’s car-sized?
I’m really bad at numbers and measuring, so I took a photo of the car and projected it onto a wall. It’s the size of what a car is supposed to be. With the projection, I get the right measurements. For those tracings, I cut the cardboard out and start making the shell out of whatever I have — cardboard, Styrofoam and then papier-mâché to make a real piñata shell. [The lowrider] is 19 and a half feet [long].
What is about the piñata that keeps you hooked?
Most of the things I do are covering something up with something else, but covering it up and either decorating it or just making it brighter and more visible. So taking a donkey and covering it in paper, or taking a car and making it fluffy. It’s like covering up the truth, but at the same time, it’s highlighting that it’s not a real thing.
A lot of my work is very accessible. It’s very easy to understand. Everybody knows what a piñata is. So people already understand what it’s for, and just taking that, and kind of messing with it, is kind of exciting. I like to make people laugh, so when something as celebratory and fun as a piñata is made into something that makes you think of something differently, I think that’s what I like about it.
Has the exhibit changed anything for you?
This has given me the confidence to say, “Yes, I’m an artist.” Yes, I want to be an artist, and I want to do whatever it takes to be an artist.