2021 San Diego Art Prize winners embody the binational experience

The Ideal Copy Series by Perry Vásquez
(Photos courtesy of San Diego Art Prize)

Founded in 2006 to honor San Diego’s homegrown artistic talent, the San Diego Art Prize was originally awarded to two established artists and two emerging artists. Those artists would then be paired up to work on a joint exhibition.

Now awarded simply to those whose “outstanding achievements in the field of visual arts merit the recognition,” this year’s recipients vary in age and medium, but collectively represent not only what it means to make a profound statement with their work, but also a statement that is uniquely localized.

And this year what they all have in common is each explores the binational experience of the San Diego/Baja California region in their own unique ways.

“It was really exciting when we came up with all four names, because what they represent is a celebration of a binational region and all the multifaceted ways that an artist can live or work on both sides,” says Chi Essary, the Art Prize curator and administrator. “For me, it was really exciting to see it as a celebration of the region.”

Artist: Hugo Crosthwaite

"Ensueno No. 5" by Hugo Crosthwaite
“Ensueno No. 5” by Hugo Crosthwaite

Born in Tijuana to a San Diegan father, Crosthwaite grew up and still lives in Rosarito, Mexico. A San Diego State University graduate, his figurative drawings and murals, mostly done in black and white graphite, have become nationally celebrated representations of the border life and experience.

Why he was chosen: Perhaps no artist of this year’s winners so starkly conveys the binational experience on both sides of the border quite like Crosthwaite. Blending fantastical elements and intimate portraiture, his drawings seem otherworldly, yet remain grounded in real-life issues. His work has been collected by everyone from the Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego to National Museum of Mexican Art in Chicago.

What he’ll be showing: Crosthwaite plans on creating some painted “murals on site” for the Art Prize exhibition, as well as screening “What Would I Know? / Yo Que Sé?,” a collaborative music video piece he worked on over the last year with local band The Color Forty Nine and Rubén Albarrán of Café Tacvba. The Romeo & Juliet-inspired video features hypnotizing drawings and animation from Crosthwaite.

“At the end of the film, love triumphs,” Crosthwaite says. “The couple just flies away and leaves behind this notion of a border; this notion of two countries and things that are trying to divide them.”

What’s next: He has some video pieces and accompanying works at the Tijuana Triennial at Cento Cultural Tijuana (CECUT). Shortly after the San Diego Art Prize, he will begin a portrait commission for the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, D.C. as part of the institution’s Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition, which Crosthwaite won in 2019.

Artist: Beliz Iristay

Art by Beliz Iristay
(Zeynep Dogu)

The Turkish-American artist specializes in ceramics that blends traditional and contemporary styles to make bold, declarative statements about politics, gender and human rights. She lives both in San Diego and in the Guadalupe Valley just outside of Ensenada, Mexico.

Why she was chosen: Iristay had previously been on the San Diego Art Prize list of nominees in 2015, but has since shown at multiple exhibitions in San Diego, including collaborative shows at the Athenaeum Music & Arts Library, Bread & Salt and, most recently, at the Mesa College Art Gallery. She considers herself a “border artist” who tackles major issues with the beauty and grace of the ceramic medium.

“I’m happy, of course, that my work is being recognized In San Diego,” Iristay says. “It feels like a confirmation of my success and that I’m going in the right direction. It’s really great.”

What she’ll be showing: Iristay says she has been “experimenting lately” and plans to show some new works as well as some older pieces that have been previously exhibited outside of San Diego.

“My work has be a navigation of the different experiences that I’m living,” says Iristay, who recently crafted a series of ceramic inhalers after being diagnosed with COVID-19. “Being Turkish, becoming an American and living in Mexico, all these mixtures have been flourishing in my work.”

What’s next: Iristay is “very excited” about a retrospective exhibition at the Riverside Art Museum in 2022, where she will be showing almost all of her work as well as creating a new installation.

Artist: PANCA

Panca La Sentimental

A Chula Vista native, Paola Villaseñor, who goes by the moniker PANCA, has been creating pop-surrealist murals and paintings all over the region. Recently moved to Golden Hill after living in Tijuana for over a decade, she blends bizarre caricature and vivid, geometric designs which can be seen everywhere from O.B. to the alleys of TJ.

Why she was chosen: PANCA has become arguably one of the most ubiquitous artists on the San Diego scene. And while her work, with it’s vivid colors and outlandish designs, can often be seen as decidedly of the street-art style, her work subtly explores the darker elements of binational life.

“I always try to highlight the binational life and the process of what I do,” PANCA says. “We can give off whatever image we want to give on Instagram and make it look all great and stuff, but for me, I want it to be raw. That’s what TJ taught me: to keep it as raw as possible.”

What she’ll be showing: At the Art Prize exhibition, PANCA will be showcasing three recent pieces as well as creating an entirely new piece in one of the rooms.

What’s next: She just wrapped up an artist residency at The New Children’s Museum, where she created “El Más Allá,” a fantastical installation that serves as a playground complete with slides and surrealist sculptures, some of which are on sale on her website. In December, she’ll have a dual exhibition with Tijuana artist Seth Sullivan (aka Art Pusher) at the PSKaufman gallery in Los Angeles. Still, PANCA says she’s “100 percent just devoted” to getting new stuff up on her online store.

Artist: Perry Vásquez

Palm Tree at Sunset by Perry Vásquez

Vásquez primarily grew up in North Carolina, but has been living in San Diego since the late ’80s. Since then, he has created multiple series of works in a variety of mediums — everything from large-scale paintings to music and video projects — that explore the human condition.

Why he was chosen: From his early “Keep on Crossin’” pieces to his most recent works of burning palm trees, Vásquez’s work explores the dark undercurrents of our otherwise paradisiacal region. From the horrors of immigration to San Diego’s cozy relationship with the U.S. military, he casts a critical eye on all aspects of the San Diego/Baja experience via his clever mix of surrealism, impressionism, pop-art and lowbrow art.

“Living here gave me and presented me a set of regional realities that I could adapt to and relate to,” Vásquez says. “The border is a place filled with contradictions, paradoxes and for me, those are the most interesting questions: the ones that can’t be solved.”

What he’ll be showing: Vásquez plans on showing a selection of his works from over the years, including prints and music videos from his “Gates of Heck” series. The video pieces will be projected in the Not an Exit gallery space inside Bread & Salt. There will also be some of his burning palm tree paintings and some pieces from a new series of text-on-canvas works.

What’s next: In addition to the Art Prize exhibition, Vásquez will open a solo show (“Perry Vásquez: Oasis”) at the Sparks Gallery downtown, which will feature his signature palm trees, as well as some experimental self-portraits.

San Diego Art Prize

When: On view 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays. Through Dec. 31.

Where: Bread & Salt, 1955 Julian Ave., Logan Heights

Phone: (619) 851-4083