Emilio Villalba Creates Contemporary Portraits Inspired by the Old Masters

Prolific, inventive and disciplined, Academy of Art University M.F.A. painting alumnus Emilio Villalba combines Old Masters influences with contemporary interpretation to power a thriving career. His distinctive, captivating work was most recently showcased in a solo exhibition titled I Don't See, on display at Modern Eden Gallery in San Francisco through August 5.

The exhibition’s 22 paintings evoke vulnerability and duality. Fragmented forms and faceless torsos appear against a backdrop of black. Instead of acting as an empty void, the blackness imparts a textural depth that suggests complexity. Collectively, the works make up a varied, yet cohesive, whole. Some portraits appear blurred, or seem to dissolve, while others show sharper features, prompting the observer to think about what comes into focus when, and why.


Academy of Art University M.F.A. painting alumnus Emilio Villalba. Photo credit:

“Some of the visuals, like the double eye, had to do with bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and everything that goes with them. I wanted to create some kind of anxious monster, in a calm way,” Villalba said.

Modern Eden has become home base for Villalba, who has participated in 10 to 15 group shows at the gallery since 2010. I Don't See is his second solo show there. The first, in spring 2016, included 30 pieces; a third solo exhibition is planned for late 2018. was in spring has participated in 10-15 group shows at the gallery since 2010.

The relationship between artist and gallery has developed into a true collaboration. “I’ll take my paintings in there, and we’ll lay them all out, look at them and talk about pricing and frames and future [plans],” Villalba said.

According to Gallery Director Kim Larson, Villalba, who boasts 139,000 Instagram followers, has become one of Modern Eden’s most popular artists. As of late July, more than half of the paintings in I Don't See had sold. “What’s special about Emilio’s work is that it’s vague. People can fill in the story themselves,” Larson said. “And the paintings are just beautiful to look at.”

Villalba’s success is all the more remarkable considering that before he arrived at the Academy to study painting, he had no background in the field. After earning a bachelor’s degree in animation from the Art Institute of California, Villalba, then based in Los Angeles, worked on projects for companies such as Nike, Visa and Pepsi. For the third Pirates of the Caribbean movie, he animated Jack Sparrow’s dreadlocks.

At home, as a way to unwind, he began painting experimental abstract watercolors. “I realized I didn't want to work on someone else’s art anymore. I wanted to explore something more,” Villalba said.

With drive to spare, but no portfolio or technical foundation, Villalba enrolled in the M.F.A. painting program at the Academy. He took undergraduate classes and put in extra studio time to catch up to his more experienced classmates. “That’s when I learned to dedicate 100 percent of my time to something,” Villalba said.

Although he started out as an abstract major, Villalba later switched to figurative painting. “I always thought portraiture was really old school,” he said. Then Mark Tennant, former director of graduate fine art -painting, introduced him to something different. “He was the one who showed me contemporary painters who were leading this new movement in figurative painting. It opened up a whole new world for me.”

Driven by a packed slate of upcoming shows, Villalba’s world continues to expand. This fall, he will send 10 paintings to the Miami Scope Art Fair with Modern Eden, followed next year by two exhibitions at Booth Gallery in New York City.

“I develop concepts pretty quickly because of deadlines. I think it's a good exercise to really push yourself,” he said. “I'm constantly working on stuff. The one difficult thing is to switch back on right after a show. I like the challenge.”

View Emilio Villalba's I Don't See collection online at