Artist Abdul Vas’s School of Rock

Abdul Vas, ‘Brian Johnson Dodge Charger’, 2021. Courtesy the artist

As his multidisciplinary, immersive experience opens at Madrid’s WiZink Center, the painter discusses his enduring love of race cars, roosters and AC/DC

Abdul Vas was born in Venezuela, and now lives between Ho Chi Minh City and Madrid. Many of his artworks are influenced by music, NASCAR, baseball, American trucks, and his own universe, called Kippenland. One subject Vas returns to frequently is the history of rock’n’roll, from Chuck Berry and Tina Turner to the Beatles and the Eagles.

AC/DC is another favorite subject, often giving his artworks their titles. The band is now the inspiration behind his new immersive experience Rock’n’Roll Raiders, which promises all the thrills of a live gig, complete with spotlights and a Peterbilt truck. The exhibition will be recorded with HD cameras, including a 35-mm Panavision. It opens on 25 February 2022 at Madrid’s WiZink Center before heading off on a worldwide tour. We caught up with Vas to find out more about what it means to create art out of (in his own words) the ‘greatest rock’n’roll band of all time.’

Abdul Vas, Angus Young Rock‘n’Roll Raiders, 2021. Courtesy the artist

ArtReview What are you listening to right now? Do you listen to music when you’re looking for inspiration and new ideas?

Abdul Vas Right now I’m listening to the Eagles, Tina Turner, Chuck Berry and AC/DC. There are days when I can listen to just one song, on repeat, for about 11 hours straight. When I’m looking for new ideas, I’ll put on some AC/DC or Chuck Berry songs, and think of Richard Scarry, and then everything starts to flow. Richard Scarry is a genius on the same level as Leonardo Da Vinci.

AR I’m curious about how AC/DC became so important to you. Has the meaning of their music changed for you over time?

AV The first time I heard AC/DC I was about 6 years’ old. For me the meaning of AC/DC’s music hasn’t changed. It’s like breathing, it’s something I need every day. I have asthma and often I can’t even breathe, and I live with that perfectly fine. But AC/DC’s music can’t be missing from my life. What I do is capture the energy of AC/DC, from my perspective, and convey it in painting, though it’s a very difficult path, since its essence is uncontainable. AC/DC equals Power.

Abdul Vas, Brian Johnson Demon Fire II, 2020. Courtesy the artist

AR What’s it like working within the traditions of painting and portraiture – ultimately, a primarily material practice – while making art about something as ephemeral as sound? Do you consider that a challenge?

AV For me, painting is a way of making music. In my mind I see images that are transformed into small guitar riffs, then there is my unconscious, which gives me a series of sounds during the creative process. Each brushstroke is like a musical note that will be engraved on the canvas. Brian Johnson gives me an energy that I can’t put into words. I’ve painted him over and over again using very basic stroke techniques, and sometimes hitting the canvas hard with the brush. I need to capture the energy that his music gives off. I want to capture the voice of Brian Johnson on the canvas, I want to paint that sound.

I greatly admire Francis Bacon, who, 300 years after Velázquez, was obsessed with his portrait of Pope Innocent X, and painted it repeatedly over the years. He painted him with characteristics that we tend to find in all his work: deformed, screaming, reflecting pain, torment, existential anguish. Bacon was obsessed with Pope Innocent X, and I’m obsessed with the vocal power of Brian Johnson.

AR Do you think painting and rock’n’roll exist on the same continuum of creativity, or are there interesting and productive differences?

AV In the ’60s and ’70s there was art rock, which was a term used to describe a broad subgenre of experimental rock music pursuing intellectual ambitions. At that time there were many artists who wanted to give rock cred. I think that rock and painting have a lot in common, even though they are expressed in different formats. With Rock’n’Roll Raiders I want to eliminate that border that separates painting and rock music.

AR Why do the characters in your paintings often find themselves in racing cars?

AV There is no meaning. I simply let myself be carried away naturally by something that I feel attracted to. Nothing else. When I was a child I liked to read The Adventures of Lowly Worm, and Busy Busy Cars and Trucks, by Richard Scarry. The theme of his stories is very present in my painting. The look of NASCAR cars, especially those from the ’70s and ’80s, is incredible. These muscle cars are perfect for putting my characters behind their wheels.

Abdul Vas, Brian Johnson Thunder Guts, 2021. Courtesy the artist

AR And these characters also possess rooster-like characteristics… Indeed, the shape of the chicken is a frequent motif in your work. Why do they keep popping up?

AV Chickens and birds, in general, have greatly shaped my pictorial approach to my work. I have created my own universe called Kippenland in which only birds or beings with bird beaks and Pekingese dogs exist. NASCAR and AC/DC are the fundamental structure of this universe.

AR OK. We should talk about the venue for your new show: Madrid’s WiZink Center, which has its own venerable musical history, hosting bands like Queen and Nirvana back in the day. What led you to choose it as the site to kick off Rock’n’Roll Raiders?

AV The idea of showing at the Wizink Center, where the rock gods AC/DC have played on several occasions, was proposed to me by my manager because of the central theme of my work. He told me that instead of doing the typical conventional exhibition, why not do a tour of exhibitions at large venues where rock’n’roll stars have played? It will be a unique experience for my art to be exhibited in stadiums in the purest style of a great rock’n’roll concert.

Abdul Vas, Angus Young Power Up, 2021. Courtesy the artist

AR It’s an immersive experience that promises to recreate the intensity of a live gig. How are you going to do that?

AV Rock’n’Roll Raiders is a rock album that contains 16 themes in pictorial format, oil on Belgian linen. Each work was conceived as if it were a song. With these paintings I will convey the energy and euphoria that is felt at rock concerts, visually and musically. Doing this painting exhibition in a stadium is something new, different from what we are used to.

AR And do you think there are perils in art as spectacle? Or do you embrace the idea of art as entertainment?

AV I see the danger in what art is today: almost everyone is doing the same thing, many artists are following rules or adapting to trends that are not going to immortalize them as artists either. I just want to do a rock’n’roll concert with paintings, whether you want to call it art or entertainment. What I’m not going to do is a boring exhibition that asks people to decipher my paintings. Let There Be Rock.

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