In Marfa, an Art Destination With Few Artist Residencies, One Curator Is Turning a Historic Home Into a Hub for Creatives

The inaugural show organized by Yvonne Force Villareal features Will Cotton's pink unicorns.

Will Cotton and Yvonne Force-Villareal in his show at the Brite House. Photo by Makenzie Goodman.

Add this one to your bucket list, artists: Brite Force, a new invitation-only artist residency, has opened in Marfa, one of the art world’s most coveted destinations. Curator Yvonne Force Villareal established the program in the ancestral adobe home of her artist husband Leo Villareal, whose family was among the Texan city’s founders over 100 years ago.

“So many artists want to be in Marfa, but there are so few residencies here,” Force Villareal told Artnet News.

The residency debuted with a splash earlier this month during the Marfa Invitational Art Fair with a series of new works by inaugural artist-in-residence Will Cotton, a longtime friend of the couple. Last August, Cotton spent his time in the remote Texas desert—travel time from New York is approximately 16 hours—visiting the Big Bend Ranch Rodeo in neighboring Alpine.

“Initially, the image I had in mind was purely the cinema cowboy—John Wayne,” Cotton said. “But this was a working rodeo. These aren’t show cowboys, they are ranch hands performing really complex tasks.”

Will Cotton at the rodeo. Photo by Christina Hejtmanek.

Will Cotton at the rodeo. Photo by Christina Hejtmanek.

Photographs he took of the cowboys at work formed the basis for a new series of paintings, now on view by appointment at the Brite House, pairing cowboys with unicorns painted in the artist’s signature saccharine pink. (Cotton also rented a cotton candy machine and photographed cotton clouds under the Marfa sky in the Brite House’s backyard.)

“It’s combining the mythology of the American West cowboy gunslinger with this pink unicorn, which is these days really the domain of young girls,” Cotton added. “I wanted to force the feminine, even though paradoxically the unicorn has this very long phallic horn and is this very androgynous beast.”

(“It’s pretty hard to do a cowboy painting post-Richard Prince,” Force Villareal said, “but Will figured out how to do it.”)

Will Cotton, <em>The Cowboy</em> (2022). Courtesy of the artist.

Will Cotton, The Cowboy (2022). Courtesy of the artist.

As the Brite Force initiative grows, Force Villareal hopes to expand the residency beyond the visual arts to include poetry, writing, and music. The only requirement is to show up and get to know the house and the city.

“I want to build a relationship with the artist and our family and the local community in Marfa,” Force Villareal said. She may ultimately work with a curator to help select residents; around five artists will be invited each year.

Will Cotton shooting cotton candy clouds at the Brite House. Photo by Christina Hejtmanek.

Will Cotton shooting cotton candy clouds at the Brite House. Photo by Christina Hejtmanek.

Her own relationship with the city dates to 1998, when she and Villareal visited his family during their engagement.

The trip helped plant the first seeds for Prada Marfa, the oft-photographed Elmgreen & Dragset public art installation commissioned by Force Villareal’s organization Art Production Fund with Ballroom Marfa in 2005. The piece is a locked Prada store in the middle of the desert, at once utterly absurd and perfectly at home in the desolate environment.

The Brite House in Marfa. Photo courtesy of Brite Force.

The Brite House in Marfa. Photo courtesy of Brite Force.

In the years since, Force-Villareal has spent more and more time in Marfa, especially since purchasing the Brite House from the Brite Family Trust in 2014. The couple worked with architect Louis Yoh and interior designer Fernando Santangelo to painstakingly restore the home and its guest house.

“For a long time, it was empty,” Force-Villareal said. “Nobody lived here. We did so much work to bring the house back to its full glory.”

Artists in residence will have free rein to install their work in the main house, which features a carefully curated collection from six generations of Brites and Villareals.

Will Cotton's piece <em>Rejection</em> (2022). Photo by Makenzie Goodman.

Will Cotton’s piece Rejection (2022). Photo by Makenzie Goodman.

Villareal’s Marfa roots go back to great-great grandfather Lucas Charles Brite, who started working as rancher in Big Bend rancher in 1885 and bought the Brite House in 1902.

The new program allows the couple to strengthen their relationship to the storied artistic community, which continues to grow decades after artist Donald Judd first put down roots in the area.

(The Brite Force residency debut coincided with the opening of “Cosmic Reefs,” a show of Villareal’s sold-out first NFT project, on view at the Marfa brick and mortar of Eric Calderon’s digital NFT art platform Art Blocks through September 2022.)

A historic photo of the Brite House. Photo courtesy of Brite Force.

A historic photo of the Brite House. Photo courtesy of Brite Force.

“We have been welcoming a whole plethora of people, from locals who have always wanted to come, to friends and family, to art world, curators,” Force-Villareal said. “And the best thing is the dialogue with the art… building on the history of this home and adding something to it.”

“Will Cotton: Marfa” is on view by appointment at the Brite House, 601 North Ridge, Marfa, Texas, May 4–September 2022. 

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