ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Nico Salazar’s”New Flexico” captures the spirit of his home state muscled in the thunder of hip-hop.
On view at Santa Fe’s Keep Contemporary, the exhibition showcases his anime-meets-cartoon-style inspired by Japanese pop culture, street art layered in echoes of New Mexico.
“In hip-hop culture, the word ‘flex’ is showing your skills or what you’re proud of,” the Albuquerque resident said. “I just thought it would be a cool name for the show that rhymes.”
Born and raised in Santa Fe, Salazar studied art at the Institute of American Indian Art. Delving into the history of pre-contact native tribes inspired him to do some family digging. Part of his clan hails from Pecos.
“I started talking to my grandma more,” he said. “My grandma grew up Spanish-speaking. My grandma grew up picking herbs along the Pecos River. They would plant saint statues under the trees to bring the rain.”
That ancestral legacy kaleidescoped with the traditions and customs he absorbed during stints in California and Hawaii. (His father was in the Navy.)
He describes his art as New Mexico life with a supernatural twist.
Salazar’s career took off when he was asked to design a room for Meow Wolf’s “House of Eternal Return,” a 20,000-square-foot immersive art exhibition designed by the collective.
“It’s completely covered in character drawings,” he said. “I worked on that for two years. I also helped build the house.”
People and galleries began asking him for commissions.
A more stratospheric level of confirmation occurred when he was working on the Plaza while he was still studying at IAIA. He was setting up easels for tourists and children to sketch.
“I would draw to try to bring them in,” he said. “One day Paul McCartney of the Beatles saw me drawing and he said it was lovely. He asked me where Loretto Chapel was. I think I was drawing a Loch Ness monster. The last time he walked by he threw me a peace sign.
“I thought, that was a moment,” Salazar said, “… to have somebody see my work and say it was cool.”
His imagination drove those artistic instincts.
“I’d make up characters and scenarios with my toys,” he said.
Today he has distilled his style down to black and white marker on paper.
“I love black and white,” he said. “It helps me challenge myself to push the composition. I like to make the eye move around the canvas.”
His “Balloon Bae” came from a trip to the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta. His family got VIP passes to the event because his mother crewed for the Smokey Bear balloon. The first run of 50 prints sold out in one day. With the Balloon Fiesta postponed due to the pandemic, he’s slating a second run of prints as well as producing T-shirts with the image.
His print of Zozobra taking a selfie emerged from this year’s Santa Fe Fiesta.
His drawing of a warrior woman straddling a roadrunner is another fan favorite.
When the pandemic ends, Salazar hopes to travel to Japan and meet with friends from his last show there. He’s also working on the new Meow Wolf installations slated for Denver and Las Vegas, Nevada.