How Painter Sayre Gomez Captured the Polarized Heart of Los Angeles

The painter and multimedia artist Sayre Gomez moved to Los Angeles from his native Chicago in 2006 to attend graduate school at CalArts. Now 42, he’s celebrated for his photorealistic L.A. landscapes that capture the city’s diverse, ever-morphing nature. His latest gallery show, “Heaven ‘N’ Earth,” is on view at Xavier Hufkens in Brussels, Belgium through March 2.

Isimeme “Easy” Otabor, owner and curator of the Anthony Gallery in Chicago, met Gomez in Brussels to discuss his path as an artist and how he came to love the idea of L.A., even as the city itself sometimes depresses him.

GQ: What is it about L.A. that captures your imagination?

Sayre Gomez: There’s a ton to unpack. L.A.’s history is pretty fascinating to me. It’s also arguably the most commercially photographed city in the world, but not in the obvious, “postcard” way like the Eiffel Tower or the Hollywood sign. I’m more interested in its kind of “use value”—L.A. really is the background in almost all commercials and movies. Hollywood uses the city like a giant set.

The city’s diversity is striking too, right? From the grit of Skid Row to the beauty of its parks.

Exactly, it’s the contrast.

The juxtaposition—

It’s more than just the juxtaposition. L.A. is almost universal in its role as a backdrop. Even if someone has never set foot here, they recognize it. You could shoot a snowy mountain ski/snowboard ad and then drive a couple hours and shoot the beach for a surfing summer ad. The city’s geography is so versatile. The way it’s manipulated and used in media is intriguing. Downtown can convincingly double as New York or South Pasadena can easily be small town America.

How do you go about choosing the specific scenes you want to capture in your paintings? Is it a deliberate search, or do you stumble upon these places by chance?

It’s a mix of both, really. A lot of my inspiration comes from my daily commute between my house and the studio. Sometimes, it’s as simple as waiting at a red light and noticing something about a strip mall that I’ve never seen before. The city is constantly changing, and that really feeds into my work.

Change really is the only constant.

There’s this suite of paintings I did inspired by these 99 cent stores windows that I noticed in 2008. They’re two blocks from my studio, so I pass them daily. When they were brand new I thought about painting them but never did. Over the years they began to crackle and fade and they became much more interesting. When I realized how much they had transformed, I decided to make them into paintings. And a few months later I drove by and saw that the store painted over them. So I’m really glad I made them.

Some of your paintings remind me of scenes you’d see from a car window. Do you actually enjoy driving, or has it become something you’ve learned to appreciate because it’s part of your routine?

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