FREE YOUR MIND
Juan José Heredia takes on the New York art scene;
countdown to model-filled gallery opening starts…now
It’s not always the case that especially good-looking people are jerks. Not always, but often. Often enough that meeting a really, genuinely nice especially good-looking person is noteworthy. And when that genuinely nice especially good-looking person is an unguarded romantic who keeps a vintage briefcase full of love letters in his apartment and says things like:
“The idea of love to me is super tragic,” it’s hard not to reevaluate your opinions of especially good-looking people in general.
Enter Juan José Heredia.
Born in Mendoza, Argentina, Juan grew up in Miami. A surfer who’s seen swells in Portugal, Mexico, and Morocco, Juan started body boarding when he was 11; now, after moving to New York in 2005, he makes the trek to Rockaway Beach about three times a week. His first surfboard was a gift from a drug dealer – a friend of his older sister’s, Juan explains nonchalantly – but he insists it was a clean exchange. “I didn’t have to do anything,” he reassures, and adds, straight-faced, “I was too young to do any gang-banging at the time.”
Broad-shouldered and tall, with a mouthful of charmingly mismatched teeth, and a forward-falling mop of brown hair that requires constant attention to be kept out of his eyes (They’re hazel. Sigh.), Juan will be more familiar to readers of Vogue, Details, Arena Homme +, and V Magazine for his modeling gigs than for his skill on a short board. But Juan is a surfer first, and a model third. Second, he is an artist.
Juan wears his artistic leanings on his fingernails. They are paint covered, and his pants, ankle-baring ones he’s taken in himself, are specked with stray color. The traditional, embroidered work shirt he wears is from Guatemala and belonged to his mother; worn inside out, only glimpses of thick, hand-sewn red and yellow flowers are visible. Underneath that a girl’s black tank top, run through with silver threads, had also been flipped, creating a subtle impression of shimmer when the shirt hits the light.
Juan’s sartorial miscellany is reflected in his artwork, which is collage-heavy, delicately detailed, abstract, and otherworldly.
“I don’t like to keep things precious,” Juan says of his work. To wit, he’s been known to transport finished canvasses to and from his apartment by bike, folding them up and stuffing them in his backpack. Found objects receive the same anti-reverential treatment (Nylon covers take a particular lashing). His sketchbooks are works of art on their own, swollen with clippings and mementos torn and pasted to the pages, microcosms of a dark interior world.
Juan recently created that world in outsize form. The glass-roofed lounge on the bottom level of Delicatessen, SoHo’s latest see-and-be-seen brunch spot, features a wraparound mural he completed this spring. His eerily charming, distorted figures watch over the banquettes below, sharing billing with menu covers courtesy of Terry Richardson and staff uniforms designed by Charlotte Ronson. “Everything I feel is in there,” Juan says of the space.
Until recently, Juan’s artist-self was unrepresented. His designs could be found on hats and surfboards (he’s one of Volcom’s featured artists, a brand favored by boarders of all terrain), and his canvasses had made a few appearances around Manhattan. Not one to self-promote, Juan was content to work on his own in his Williamsburg apartment, reluctant, he says, to ever seriously consider his art worthy of more attention.
His sister (Maria, of the surfboard deal) thought differently, and it was through her that Juan met his agent, Kate Robinson. Kate, a freelance art advisor who trained her eye at Christie’s, had developed a friendship with Maria, her esthetician at an East Village salon. After several months of knowing each other, Maria broached the topic of her youngest brother’s artistic endeavors to Kate, who, at the time, had no interest in taking on any artists. Juan’s business plan, meanwhile, consisted of giving away his art to friends for free. Cue change of heart: Kate agreed to look at Juan’s work, and was surprised by the potential she saw. “There is something so sincere in what he does,” Kate says of her decision to take on Juan as her sole artist. “It would have been insincere on my part to pass it up.”
Juan’s business-savvy sea change is still in the works. “The potential of someone else seeing the work could fuck with you a little,” he says, admitting that he’s had to learn to “blank out” tributes from Kate. “I don’t believe in compliments,” he says matter-of-factly.
As for the future, well, that’s up to fate. “You know what the path is?” Juan asks when pressed about his artistic ambitions. “Honestly, in a sense, the word ‘path’ I don’t believe in. In life, you constantly experience that when you make plans for things, it has nothing to do with those plans, and dates, and times that you choose. It has so much more to do with fate, energy, life.” Coming from him, this laissez-faire philosophy manages to sound sincere, and not like some kind of hackneyed spiritualism; practicality aside, Juan’s willful naiveté is pretty sweet. “You always have fantasies about doing things,” Juan says, owning up to a few ambitions after all. “If you keep that alive, that’s how you progress.
How did someone so attention-shy end up booking a Ralph Lauren campaign? With reservations. From the beginning, Juan’s been ambivalent about his line of work, legitimate surfboard money aside. For one thing, there were the compliments.
“I didn’t understand that at all,” Juan says of the positive response to his teenage self. “I just didn’t want to hear anything remotely close to that.” At 16, Juan was walking in shows in New York and Milan, but his parent’s recent divorce – an adolescent rite of passage made no less easy by his father’s unexplained, long-term retreat to Argentina – made it hard for him to trust people.
“I’d go to castings and people would say, “You’ve pretty much got the job; all you’ve got to do is this….’
And I just couldn’t do it.” So he quit.
After a three-plus-year break in Miami managing a surf shop, Juan returned to New York and looked up the same agent he’d worked with before. After a shave and a haircut, he was back. “I’m a completely different person now,” he says of his decision to model again. “I like bringing a certain aspect of who I am into anything I do.” While Juan still has an uneasy relationship with his career – “I don’t really like talking about that stuff,” he says of the campaigns he’s booked and publications he’s appeared in. “It’s not an accomplishment in any way.” – the artist in him can’t resist a good collaboration. Take Bruce Weber. The two met through a friend – an assistant who had told the photographer about Juan’s artwork – and Bruce was taken.
A Polaroid shoot ensued, and Juan incorporated his drawings into the frames, turning the photos into multimedia artworks. “I don’t often get to communicate with someone like that,” Juan says of working with Bruce. “He’s an artist.”
Which brings us back to the Juan with the paint-covered fingernails. Despite his youthful unhappiness as a first-time model, the proof of Juan’s first few trips to New York is more than a collection of despondent headshots. Cold, away from the ocean in a place he didn’t want to be, the nascent artist in him found something to be inspired by.
“In all that badness, I couldn’t help but look around and see how old things were,” he recalls. “In Miami everything is so polished. If something’s old, they destroy it. I was so blown away by that.” Sketching and drawing – things Juan had done before with a throwaway attitude – acquired new value. “The only way I could convey my feelings without writing them was through figurative images. Expressing the way I felt internally – the way I looked at myself – was what I was drawing.”