The artist Karla Diaz transforms insomnia into dreamlike paintings

A brown-clad man stands in front of a row of trees, the color of his clothes and the robustness of his posture are reminiscent of the solidity of the forest behind him. To his left, a fire eater spits flames into a tangerine-colored sky.

If it all sounds like a dream, this is it. “El ´Árbol y el Tragafuegos” – “The tree and the fire eater” in English – was painted by the Los Angeles artist Karla Diaz and is based on her dreams and memories. The tree man? This is her, as the character she once embodied in a dream. The fire eater was inspired by “Dragón”, a man – and actual fire eater – whom she knew from her family’s home village in the Mexican state of Colima. His real name was José, and he hoped to become a truck driver one day.

“The tree and the fire eater” by Karla Diaz began as a dream.

(Karla Diaz / Luis De Jesus Los Angeles)

Diaz is a Los Angeles artist who is perhaps better known for her performance and social practices.

With fellow artist Mario Ybarra Jr. (who is also her husband), she founded Slanguage Studio in 2002, a hybrid community arts organization / art collective operated from their Wilmington studio. This project has facilitated art creation and mentoring opportunities for young people in Los Angeles, often involved in residencies and curatorial projects (including a Possible Worlds exhibition held in 2011 at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art).

Diaz has also worked as a performance artist with an activist orientation – especially on a long-term project called “Prison Gourmet” in which she recreates some of the impromptu meals prepared by prison inmates from detective officers, like a “tamale” from shredded Cheetos. (A production took place in the El Segundo Museum of Art in 2019.)

But her new watercolors, which can be seen until next week at the Luis De Jesus Los Angeles in downtown LA, emerge from a more intimate space.

In 2017, Diaz suffered a stroke that forced her to relearn skills that she had developed throughout her life. “I really had to learn how to draw and all of that,” she says. “It took a lot of physiotherapy and neurological therapy. … It’s so devastating. You wake up and suddenly you have to learn all the years of training and everything from scratch. ”

A vibrant watercolor shows three women, one of whom covers her face and holds a man's severed head.

Karla Diaz, “The Beheading of Juan”, 2021.

(Karla Diaz / Luis De Jesus Los Angeles)

The stroke also left her with persistent insomnia, for which she has tried pretty much every remedy, be it medication from her doctor or homemade concoctions recommended by friends. Frustrated by the persistence of her insomnia, she began to use the late hours of the night to paint – not with the intention of making a series of museum-worthy canvases, but simply to pass the hours she was awake.

She applied light splashes of watercolor to pieces of white paper and then used them as a background for ink drawings, which serve as a surreal record of her dreams and memories.

The artist says she has always been a vivacious dreamer and has long made notes of some of the stranger ones. “Sometimes I would wake up and write words to myself so that I could convey the feeling or the images,” she says. “For example, I was ‘scared.’ Or ‘dancing folclórico’. Or ‘I picked up a Metralleta [submachine gun] and started shooting people. ‘”

She began to draw from this archive for her insomnia pictures. She also began drawing from memory – of a childhood shared between Mexico and the United States, of her mother’s years of illness that left her bedridden, of the family photos that lacked mysterious bits, of the urban legends that she had heard while she was alive in Boyle Heights in the 1990s. Among them: that space aliens control the Goodyear airship.

The latter story is portrayed with a miraculous effect in the painting “Goodyear” from 2021. It shows the airship in front of an apocalyptic Los Angeles sky, aliens grabbing a helpless woman in a tractor beam while the police conduct a parallel seizure and arrest a young man on the street.

Diaz’s brilliant color palette is based on her interest in Mexican crafts as well as comic books. In fact, comics were formative – she read tons of them as a child. “I would get lost in these stories and in these characters,” she says. “I think that was an inspiration for me.”

A bright watercolor shows the Goodyear airship pulling a woman into its hold with a tractor beam and a scary-looking alien.

Karla Diaz, “Goodyear”, 2021, plays on an urban legend that the Goodyear airship is controlled by aliens.

(Karla Diaz / Luis De Jesus Los Angeles)

The artist says that the production of her insomnia pictures is less about meticulous research than about indulging in instinct.

It starts with a splash of color, triggered by an emotion or a memory. “I’ll say, ‘This color is like when I was a kid,’ or ‘These colors remind me of my mother,’ or ‘They remind me of my grandmother,'” she says. “Or maybe they remind me to eat a mango.”

From there she will draw – quickly. “There is a fuzziness, just like our dreams,” she says. “You get done in this instant way.”

And when she finishes she is sleepy. “On days when I don’t,” she says, “it’s so crazy – I can’t sleep.”

What began as a battle against her insomnia has evolved into something much deeper so that she can also cope with the helplessness and discomfort caused by the stroke. “It was very cathartic in a way,” says Diaz. She sometimes catches herself crying and laughing late at night.

It also freed her artistically. “I didn’t want to share this,” she says. “It was only for me in this therapeutic room.”

But by letting go of anticipation, she discovered dynamic uncharted territory – an area that started to attract wider attention when she posted the pictures on Instagram (@ karladiaz76).

One watercolor shows a woman in a glamorous red dress with a chicken in front of a shop called Pollos La Estrella.

Karla Diaz’s “Pollos La Estrella”, 2021, was inspired by a dream about a soap opera star and a chicken market.

(Karla Diaz / Luis De Jesus Los Angeles)

At a solo exhibition in 2018 at the now-defunct Creative Arts Coalition to Transform Urban Space (known as CACTUS) in Long Beach, Diaz showed a series of works inspired by old family photos. The pieces consisted of portraits of family members that she sewed directly onto canvas. These came about at a different moment when she was grappling with memory – that of family and parentage after her mother’s death. Based on formal portraits, these images were more distant, detached.

Diaz’s insomnia pictures are the opposite. Vivid, deeply saturated, and fully present, they act as a record of the villainous memories that preoccupy our minds and the memories (like muscle memory) that we take for granted. They are haunting and violent at the same time, funny and bizarre, and full of human emotions.

A sleeping woman hovers in a rainbow sky, a tube connects her to the flowers that surround her

“My Sleeping Beauty”, 2021, was inspired by the artist’s mother, who had been ill for many years.

(Karla Diaz / Luis De Jesus Los Angeles)

In this very personal gallery she presents half-human beings hanging around in a bar, a monument that is overturning, a family that is reckoning with the psychological effects of protracted drug violence in Mexico. A painting by her sick mother, “My Sleeping Beauty”, shows a resting female figure floating in a rainbow-colored sky. A feeding tube connects your body to a bright red flower, one of many that surround you like a halo.

“I wanted to connect that,” she says. “In the painting it is connected to the flowers. I wanted life and death to be connected. “

In our pandemic time, life and death have never been so visibly linked – a state that Diaz taps into fluently late at night, when she sits sleepless in front of a blank sheet of paper and reproduces the things that we may feel but find ourselves unable to speak.

Karla Diaz: Insomnia

Where: Luis De Jesus Los Angeles, 1110 Mateo St., Downtown Los Angeles
When: Until Oct. 30th

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