Jean-Pierre Villafañe took a drag from his cigarette before he introduced himself with an accent that I recognized as my own: Puerto Rican. In September 2022, standing outside of a bar in the East Village, I asked him if he was visiting from the island. He shook his head no and told me that he had been living and working in the city for the past eight years. That night, the now 30-year-old artist was out celebrating the opening of his exhibition “Outside and Aching,” at the ATM Gallery NYC, on the Lower East Side.
The ATM Gallery NYC exhibition displayed Villafañe’s carnival-like paintings of figures mingling in both sensual and bacchanalian ways. His work caught the attention of Michael Cecchi-Azzolina, a New York maître d’ turned restaurateur, who commissioned a mural from Villafañe for his new restaurant in the West Village, Cecchi’s, which opened in July.
While he was brainstorming the design of the restaurant’s mural, Villafañe says, Cecchi-Azzolina gave him a specific vision to work with: “He told me that he wanted people to take one look at my mural and want to have sex in the bathroom. And that’s exactly what my art is about: a party within a party.”
Villafañe first began painting parties during the pandemic, when large gatherings were strictly forbidden. His inspiration struck when he noticed how apartments in New York City had not only become schools, offices, and restaurants, but also cramped discotheques, which he represented in compact compositions done in oil on canvas.
“Instead of painting people with masks and in isolation, I painted confined parties because that was my experience of the city at that time,” he explains. “Even after everything reopened, we are all still on top of each other.” The theatrics of Manhattan inspired his nine paintings on view at Embajada gallery’s exhibition at the Armory Show, which takes place in the Javits Center next week.
Villafañe often incorporates the city and its dwellers in his work. Sometimes he draws inflamed lips and eyes on his figures to reflect the Botoxed faces that walk past him in SoHo. He frequently depicts his raucous figures in uniforms, such as suits and other work attire, because he once saw a doctor in scrubs do a line of cocaine with a skater, and he knew a Goldman Sachs banker who would dress in drag after work.
“I wanted to have those characters I saw in real life represented in my work,” says Villafañe. “And I think my openness to seeing different people come together came from growing up in Puerto Rico, where I would go to Las Fiestas de San Sebastián, for example, and see the governor, teenagers, priests, musicians, activists, and many other people just partying together in the street.”
A San Juan native, Villafañe grew up surrounded by various types of people and by many forms of artistic expression, mostly because of his mother. He spent his free time at her salsa classes and her ceramics studio.
“I think my openness to seeing different people come together came from growing up in Puerto Rico.”
Villafañe started painting murals thanks to his mother. “One day we drove past this very long wall that had seven graffiti artists working on it. They were a full spectrum of people, young and old. And so we were at the stoplight and my mother pointed at them and forced me to get out of the car and go talk to them,” he explains. “She said she wouldn’t let me back in the car if I didn’t.... I was 14 years old.”
From that day on, Villafañe spent his teenage years painting murals. Art quickly became a way for him to break away from the rules at his all-boys Catholic high school, where teachers called him “the Antichrist” because of his hyperactivity. And then art became his currency to avoid suspension from school. “They were going to kick me out, then the dean and I made a deal. He said that if I made the art for all the school tournaments, they would let me stay.”
In 2011, after graduating from high school and attending the Savannah College of Art and Design, Villafañe decided to pursue a degree at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, and he has been in New York ever since. He tried working at an architecture firm, but he lasted just three weeks before quitting to pursue art full-time. Having never been trained professionally in fine art, Villafañe had to channel his experience painting murals back home and adapt it to the blank canvas in works that reflected his new environment.
“In my work, I’m trying to represent us transforming our identities. I’m still young, I still go out, so I’m going to keep representing life as I see it now,” he says. “Maybe that changes in 10 years. But for now, there’s a lot of decadence, a lot of cosplay, a lot of role-playing, and a lot of people pretending to be another person. It’s our day face and our night face.”
The Armory Show will go on at the Javits Center, in New York City, from September 8 through September 10
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Carolina de Armas is an Associate Editor at AIR MAIL