Graduate Student Uses Undervalued Art Forms to Create Meaningful Art

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This post was updated on February 23 at 10:42 p.m.

Nehemiah Cisneros’ art bursts with an engaging aesthetic.

As a graduate student in fine arts, he said he was influenced by undervalued art forms such as tattoo art, graffiti and pop surrealism. Although he draws inspiration from many things, Cisneros said he was mostly inspired by the artists from the 90s superhero comics he grew up with, such as comic book artist Todd McFarlane. “The Amazing Spider-Man”. Cisneros said he remembers photos of him drawing spiders at a young age and believes his initial style remains present and flourishing in his current work.

“I’ve been drawing since I was a year old,” Cisneros said. “This creature-esque aesthetic has always been present since I discovered comics. It was the first art form I discovered on my own, with skateboard graphics.

Cisneros said he grew up during the Lowbrow Art movement in Los Angeles. Cisneros said the movement is generally recognized for its surrealism and underground visual art, and he pays homage to this style by drawing from underrepresented facets of art, ultimately creating his own narrative arc to be openly interpreted and enjoyed by the television viewers.

Cisneros said his first personal connection to art happened with comic books and skateboard art. These influences, such as pop surrealism, are still present in his work today. (Anya Yakimenko/Daily Bruin)

[Related: Graduate student’s art exhibit speaks on diasporic communities through soil]

As an artist, Cisneros said he pushes his pieces to strike formally and visually upon immediate impression through his distinct, saturated, and hyperbolic visuals. His biggest piece to date, “Another Day In Paradise,” is named after a common, witty phrase that was exchanged between him and his peers in school hallways, Cisneros said.

Making sure your piece is culturally relevant is also a fundamental step. Specifically, “Another Day In Paradise” challenges and expresses many sociopolitical and cultural phenomena relevant to LA today, Cisneros said. The painting includes references to gentrification, the competing struggle for visibility, and the marginalization of certain demographic groups. Returning to Los Angeles after attending college in Kansas City, Missouri, Cisneros said he wanted to create a painting dedicated to the city.

“What I wanted to do was paint on familiar parts of LA, this cross street (in ‘Another Day In Paradise’) being Western (Avenue) and Santa Monica (Boulevard) in East Hollywood, and I tried to challenge myself to turn the architecture into something as fantastical as the characters I was painting,” Cisneros said.

Cisneros
Cisneros’ painting, “Another Day In Paradise,” depicts various nudges to Los Angeles culture on a 108-inch by 64-inch scale. (Courtesy of Nehemiah Cisneros)

Measuring 108 inches by 64 inches, “Another Day In Paradise” is a piece with different themes to unbox, Cisneros said. It captures the dark undertone of the Western Avenue and Santa Monica Boulevard area with tongue-shaped streets, Cisneros said. Elements of nihilistic sarcasm are also present, as he said, the explosive airship “THE WORLD IS YOURS…” is a pop culture reference to a scene from the movie “Scarface”. The billboard in the upper left corner of the painting is from Tommy Wiseau’s film “The Room,” Cisneros said, acting as a hint to the ruthless game of making a name for himself in Los Angeles.

“(Wiseau) financed (‘The Room’) himself and he paid in the early 2000s to have (a) billboard of his face and film set up (in) LA,” Cisneros said. “So (the billboard is) people have influence to chase themselves.”

Salim Green, a graduate fine arts student, said Cisneros’ pieces such as “Another Day In Paradise” set him apart from his peers because of his ability to saturate his work with life. Green has said that his own style is abstract expressionist work, but he enjoys the fun and imaginative nature of Cisneros’ art, as it deviates from his own.

“His imagination goes like 100 miles an hour, … and that’s what strikes me most about (Cisneros’) work. … There’s a level of imagination that I’ve never really seen before,” Green said.

Notes are taped to the wall of a studio filled with Cisneros' work.  Cisneros said his pieces engage conversations about gentrification and marginalization, especially in his Los Angeles home.  (Anya Yakimenko/Daily Bruin)
Notes are taped to the wall of a studio filled with Cisneros’ work. Cisneros said his pieces address topics such as gentrification and marginalization, especially in Los Angeles. (Anya Yakimenko/Daily Bruin)

[Related: ‘For the Love of L.A.’ exhibit showcases local artists, reflects on social issues]

Additionally, Green said there were a slew of easter eggs in Cisneros’ paintings and references to his personal life growing up in Los Angeles. Digesting a Cisneros piece such as “Another Day In Paradise” feels like a treasure hunt among an assortment of components and characters, Green said.

Another peer of Cisneros, fine arts graduate student Tyler Christopher Brown, said that Cisneros is a philosopher in the vernacular of comics because his work contains both fragments of reality and his imagination. His style is an anomaly of deciphering the root of certain pieces — questioning what’s real and what’s not, Brown said.

“He creates these paradoxical formations of hybrid characters that take inspiration from African traditions of painting but then incorporate comic book language,” Brown said. “He’s exceptional at creating these surreal environments that you can’t escape, like a tongue rolling down the boulevard in Venice that’s either going to consume you or consume you.”

Ultimately, Cisneros said he enjoys being around other artists and like-minded people, learning something new every day, and sparking conversations that might otherwise distract him from the worries of school, like finalizing a piece. He said he hoped that through his art, viewers could pick up on his aesthetic and nod to popular culture. Cisneros has also stated that he aspires to question the methods in which illustrative art forms can hold the same cultural relevance as fine art. Currently, Cisneros said he is in the process of upgrading each painting to accommodate his changing intentions and interpretations as a student.

“That’s how I work – I’ll see something, whether it’s images from art history or something newsworthy or related to popular culture, and then I’ll merge and paste those things together,” Cisneros said. “It shifts their meaning and context into what would be perceived (as) my own personal aesthetic.”

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