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Artist Julio Aguilera Runs With the Bulls
New York artist reconnects with his adopted city
Thomas Johansmeyer (tomj)     Print Article 
Published 2007-10-18 07:08 (KST)   
Liberty Bull.
©2007 Julio Aguilera
Liberty Bull.
©2007 Julio Aguilera
To Julio Aguilera, New York will always be Washington Square Park. Shortly after emigrating from Venezuela, he put his last $20 to work at the chess tables, walking away with more than $200 and a lifetime ban. Nearly three decades and countless self-reinventions later, he has decided to honor his adopted city with the sculpture series "New York Bull."

In New York Bull, which consists of 20 variations of the animal that he has come to identify with, Aguilera uses the stubborn and tenacious creature to render a visual description of his adopted home. The first sculpture in the series is "Liberty Bull," which has deep ridges along its shoulders, sinewy muscles and severe eyes. A cocked head and angled body show that this bull is determined to defend the concept it represents.

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Other bulls in the series take on lighter topics, including Broadway and Times Square, as well as the ubiquitous yellow taxi. Aguilera had fun with "BS Bull," which has a brown hue. "It's for the lawyers," Aguilera jokes. "And for that matter the artists."

Aguilera was aware from the start that combining bulls and New York could end in cliche, given the city's typical association with all things financial. In fact it is pretty easy to argue that the original New York Bull has been crafted already and sits across the street from 25 Broadway, a few blocks from New York's storied Wall Street: Charging Bull.

"That bull's an asshole," Aguilera says, because the emotional connection it should share with the city has eroded. "Now it's just another stop for a tourist bus."

What makes New York Bull different, he explains, is a clear relationship between the city, the animal and the artist. Personal, natural and metropolitan are fused into a set of shared characteristics that define them. "Bulls never retreat," Aguilera summarizes.

Aguilera has intimate knowledge of this trait, as evidenced by the travails that preceded his creations. He draws from his life, his city and his kindred spirit to deliver powerful sculpture that serves as biography as well as masterpiece. If Rodin had focused on the powerful instead of the downtrodden, he may have wound up with New York Bull.

What Made Aguilera Make New York Bull

In De La Concha, a Manhattan cigar shop frequented by Aguilera, the highlights of his life are public knowledge. Everybody knows that the easygoing artist has won four world bare-knuckle martial arts championships -- the first at age 17 and the last at 26, old by the standards of that community. And they know that he survived a tough divorce and a financial roller coaster. None of this is a secret to the people who know Aguilera.

But Aguilera tends to keep the details to himself. Few friends know that at age 17, he taught a martial arts class in a Caracas park, not far from an opulent self-defense studio. He marshaled the courage to enter one day, asking the owner how much it would cost to purchase the academy.

The proprietor laughed and threw out an absurd price, 60,000 bolivars. That afternoon, Aguilera proposed a deal to his students: "'Pay what you can afford,' I told them, 'and you can have a lifetime membership.'" Armed with a wrinkled pile of cash and checks, written moments earlier, Aguilera returned to the academy and told the owner that he would have the second half of the payment in six months. The shocked proprietor accepted.

Aguilera was forced out of the studio a year later in a deftly executed takeover. His next academy, purchased a few years later, never opened. The attorneys sold him a building that was not for sale. After three days of walking the streets of Caracas, unshowered and hungry, a former student recognized Aguilera, offering him a place to stay and a job as a street vendor. In a few months Aguilera had saved enough money to buy a one-way ticket to New York, where he would stay in the basement of his ex-girlfriend's parent's home.

In December 1984, Aguilera arrived on Long Island with the linen suit on his back and a few dollars in his pocket. As a gesture of gratitude, he spent the last of his funds to refurbish his hosts' kitchen. The neighbors noticed and Aguilera quickly found himself busy beautifying the interiors of Huntington, N.Y. By the time his ex-girlfriend, with whom he had rekindled his romance, decided to move to Los Angeles, Aguilera had banked enough cash to follow her.

As usual, Aguilera arrived in a new city with no way to earn a living. "I opened a martial arts school," he said after puffing his cigar, "I didn't know how to do anything else." Again this profession served him well. Aguilera soon had a chain of seven academies in the Los Angeles area. But he quickly sold them when the woman he followed out west, now his wife, decided to move back to New York.

The return was tumultuous. Aguilera did what he could to survive, even delivering pizzas. From a former self-defense student, he learned how to trade options on the Standard & Poor's 500 index. But the dot-com bubble burst, taking Aguilera's income with it. Shortly after, his marriage ended in divorce.

With art always lingering in the background as a hobby, Aguilera decided to turn to it for his livelihood. Painting and sculpting agreed with him, and within a few years, the martial arts champion-index trader-artist was the Venezuelan Consulate's cultural attache. He saw his work displayed in a variety of traditional and non-traditional venues, including Art Miami, Times Square's Marriott Marquis, International Expo and Davidoff of Geneva.

The Two Julios

The two media in which Aguilera works, painting and sculpture, deal with different parts of his life. Aguilera has lived through spectacular success and seemingly insurmountable challenges. More impressive than the highs is how he survived the lows, adopting the "never retreat" trait that one sees in New York Bull.

One sees the endless struggle in oil on canvas, with contrasting colors, violent strokes and swirls of confusion that put you in Aguilera's linen suit as his body absorbs the biting December air. In his sculpture on the other hand, one can see how Aguilera weathered the emotional maelstrom that has always wrapped itself around him. Deep detail etched into powerful figures conveys the survival instincts of a brute. What makes Aguilera tick has not propelled him to great heights; it has brought him through the pain and challenge, positioning him to succeed later.

New York Bull clearly is a nod to how Aguilera succeeded in one of the United States' toughest cities, but the connection goes a bit deeper. Every bull does correspond to a personal interaction that the artist has had with his 8.5 million-populous subject. He has shoved his way through Times Square, ridden a taxi and enjoyed the liberty that let him do both.

The first showing of New York Bull will occur at one of Aguilera's favorite "galleries" -- Davidoff of Geneva on Madison Avenue in New York. Some of the bulls are on display already, but a full show will be held on Nov. 14, 2007 at 7 p.m.
©2007 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter Thomas Johansmeyer

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