ART & INSTAGRAM: Spanish artist Coco Dávez

For an artist not quite yet out of her 20s, Spanish artist and Instagram star Coco Dávez is doing pretty well. Named in Forbes Magazine’s ’30 Under 30’ list of names to watch out for in Art and Culture, she has already worked with global brands including Chanel, Prada, Puma and Bombay Sapphire, has had a book of her work published in Spanish with the English version due out soon, and is about to hold her first UK show at London’s prestigious Maddox Gallery.

The series of works which have made her name, and are about to be exhibited, is entitled Faceless – a boldly colourful series of Pop Art-inspired paintings of leading figures from the worlds of art, music and popular culture. However, each figure is painted without their facial features – leaving them recognisable only from their clothes, hair and silhouette. We see Picasso wearing his trademark Breton striped shirt, David Bowie in his Aladdin Sane incarnation and Grace Jones – complete with razor-sharp, geometric hair, as well as many others, including Kurt Cobain, Victoria Beckham and Steve Jobs and fictional characters such as Mad Men’s Don Draper, Tintin and Popeye.

Full of vibrant, sunny oranges, yellows, reds and blues, the paintings reflect the influence of the French Fauve painters – Matisse, Dérain and Dufy as well as Andy Warhol with his iconic celebrity screen-print portraits. The style has a pop art aesthetic but they are also highly graphic and indeed commercial, reflecting Dávez’s background as an illustrator.

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So how did a 29-year-old artist from Madrid, without any formal art training, reach this point? The answer lies with Instagram. Dávez currently has over 140,000 followers on Instagram and the social media phenomenon has been the making of her career, almost from the start. “95 per cent of my career and connections have come about through Instagram,” explains Dávez, whose real name is in fact Valeria Palmeiro (The name Coco was based on her favourite character from the children’s TV show Sesame Street, whilst the surname, Dávez, was inspired by a friend.)

Dávez was born and raised in Madrid and took drawing classes as a child and teenager. Her father was a keen art enthusiast and one of her formative moments came when he took her to see Picasso’s vast Guernica at the age of nine, and the staggeringly powerful painting left an indelible impression. However, she eventually gave up drawing classes and art to pursue a career in photography.

In contrast to the situations typical of the 19th and 20th century, when aspiring young artists often needed to go against their parents’ wishes to pursue a career as an artist – art being considered a bohemian and déclassé pastime and therefore unsuitable as a profession for respectable ladies or gentlemen – Dávez’s scenario was the reverse. Her sales and marketing executive mother and businessman father actively encouraged her to pursue her art, so giving up painting and drawing was her stand against them. “It was an act of rebellion against my parents,” she explains. “I wasn’t getting on with them that well at the time and so I wanted to look for another outlet for my creativity.”

She was already interested in the world of fashion and photography and, in 2010, at the age of 21, she came to London for nine months, to work as a photographer’s assistant. Whilst there, she started posting images on Instagram.

Initially she used the social media site to post personal photos, like most people, but she quickly realised that it was in fact what she describes as “a 24-hour shop window in which I could show my work to the world”.

Once back in Madrid, the drawings she had begun posting on the site came to the attention of Rodrigo Sánchez – art director of Spanish national newspaper El Mundo, who offered her work as an illustrator for the paper’s weekend colour supplement. For the relatively inexperienced Dávez, it seemed a staggering suggestion and so surprised was she by the offer, that her initial reaction was to say ‘no’ and tell him she wasn’t qualified for the job. Sánchez, however, persuaded her, and she began working for the paper regularly whilst continuing to paint and post more of her own work on Instagram.

She was soon being contacted by major brands and started working as an illustrator on campaigns such as the launch of Chanel’s ‘Gabrielle’ perfume, a perfume launch for Prada and a series of lipsticks for Dior.

It was during this period that she also chanced upon the idea for the Faceless project. “One afternoon, I was playing around with colours and painting and I did a portrait of Patti Smith in acrylics,” she explains. “The result was very bad and I didn’t like it at all, so I painted out her face and it was at that moment that I realised the picture was still recognisable as Patti Smith. I thought ‘Wow – how interesting!’. Some people’s images are so deeply etched in our memory that you can still recognise them even without their faces.”

“I liked that idea very much,” she continues, “so I started doing more of them and putting them on Instagram. I wasn’t sure if people would like them or not, but very quickly it became clear that it was a success.”

The rest, as they say, is history. She was soon featured in GQ magazine, Spanish Vogue and the aforementioned Forbes article, whilst a major Spanish publisher – Editorial Planeta – approached her to create a book of the Faceless works. A contact from London’s Maddox Gallery followed and in May, Dávez’s London show will be held at one of the gallery’s four London locations, in Westbourne Grove.

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Left: David Bowie. Left inset: Elvis. Right inset: Frida Kahlo. Right: Victoria Beckham.

This is no mean feat for an artist so young. The Maddox Gallery is a powerful force in the art world (as well as four London locations, Maddox also has galleries in Gstaad, Switzerland and Los Angeles) and its chairman is James Nicholls – a well-known investment art specialist with powerful celebrity connections. (You may also have come across him presenting TV documentaries such as The Queen’s Paintings and in his role as an art expert on British Airways’ in-flight programming).

In a telling sign of our times, through social media and its global audience, Dávez has managed to bypass the traditional art school route into the notoriously difficult-to-navigate art world. The same has happened frequently over recent years in the music industry, with musicians who would previously have had to spend years gigging in small, sweaty clubs to gain the attention of record labels, now doing so through the likes of Youtube, Bandcamp and Spotify.

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Left: Pablo Picasso. Right: Don Draper.

Dávez herself is clearly driven, and she cites a quote from Walt Disney which has informed her approach to her life and career: “Ask yourself if what you’re doing today will take you where you want to be tomorrow” suggested Disney. Dávez tells me: “I try to remember that every day. If I look back, I can see that every stage I’ve been through has been valuable and worthwhile in some way. I was always very clear that I wanted to go in this direction (towards art, illustration and art direction) and every step I’ve taken has been heading towards that.”

“I’m growing and learning,” she continues, “but I’m still moving forward all the time. I started out working on my own: now I’ve got a team who work with me and a much larger studio space than I had before. I’ve also got foreign clients, so I see it as a natural evolution.”

‘“I want to be known as an artist,” she concludes, “not just in Spain, but abroad too.” She is clearly well on her way.

Coco Davez’s Faceless show is at the Maddox Gallery, 112 Westbourne Grove, London W2 5RU from 10 to 31 May.

Faceless is published in English by Ludwig Editores on 10 May.

TEXT: EDDI FIEGEL

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