CHICANO IN SPITE OF HIMSELF
Heather Lineberry will be taking over the job of art critic at New Times. She has a master's degree in twentieth-century art from the University of Texas at Austin, and for the past two years has been involved with a major contemporary gallery in Los Angeles, the Karl Bornstein Gallery. She has also worked as a free-lance writer and curator.
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Roberto Gil de Montes did not participate in the Chicano mural movement that began in the Sixties and is still going strong. Nor did he participate in the Chicano Power movement brewing in his neighborhood in East Los Angeles at the same time. But still, he is a Chicano artist--he was included in the blockbuster exhibition, "Hispanic Art in the United States." And even though his background doesn't strictly fit the Chicano stereotype, his paintings often do. Figuration, narrative, strong color and lush surfaces are all associated with Hispanic art, and all are found in Gil de Montes' work. His colors--undiluted reds, oranges, yellows and blues accented with black--mirror those used throughout the history of Mexican art. These colors can be traced from native folk art through the modernists Frida Kahlo and Ruffino Tamayo to the contemporary East L.A. artists.
Gil de Montes' figures are simplified and rendered with vigorous brush strokes. Their extreme frontal placement within the picture space and their participation in fragmented narratives recall the paintings of his Chicano friends and contemporaries, East L.A. artists Gronk and Carlos Almarez. Up until now, Gil de Montes' paintings have paid further, specific homage to his Mexican origins. Their narratives derive from corridos, popular songs in which, according to the artist, "death and disaster are the common elements; suicide and stabbings in the heart de rigueur." Dogs, jaguars, dancers and deer-- creatures invested with cosmological significance by pre-Columbian peoples--appear frequently in his paintings. And carved, appliqued frames surround these images in the manner of Mexican retablos, small, votive paintings of saints.
But Gil de Montes' latest body of work, on display at Marilyn Butler Fine Art in Scottsdale, has moved away from these obvious references. People were looking too much at the frames and not enough at the paintings, Gil de Montes apparently thought.
These new paintings, done from late 1988 until the present, are moving toward a simpler narrative format. Like so much figurative art of the 1980s--consider Francesco Clemente, Georg Baselitz, and Eric Fischl--they contain one or two figures engaged in mystical and psychological dialogues. Gil de Montes' earlier vibrant color remains, however, as does his vigorous brushwork and his interest in shamanism. "Fortune Teller," painted in 1988, is the earliest piece in the show and has the obvious references to Mexican mysticism typical of his earlier work. A large male figure with a red face mask and a red striped shirt confronts the viewer. Beside him is a coffee table and a drink complete with an olive. Out of the smoke of his cigarette a vision of a woman materializes. She looks like the folk dolls made from fabric scraps on sale at Mexican bazaars.
This strange painting with its implied narrative may derive from a corrido; it undoubtedly testifies to the heightened mysticism still prevalent in Chicano communities. The rag woman's appearance also makes an interesting comment on the relationship of man and woman. As the woman emerges from the smoke, so Eve emerged from Adam's rib.
This primacy of the male is typical in Gil de Montes' work, where males play the dominant--sometimes the only--roles, and often openly display their sexuality. There is at least one exposed phallus in this exhibition, in a smaller watercolor discreetly hidden in the backroom, and another fellow in his briefs. Gil de Montes could be commenting on the myth of Hispanic machismo, or making a general comment about male sexuality.
One of the most understated yet compelling images in the exhibition is "Young Fool" of 1990, one of only two paintings in the exhibition with the decorated frame common in his earlier work. Against a solid dark background stands a young man, simply dressed and simply painted, facing the viewer frontally as if on review. On his head is a green pointed hat. The shallow space of the painting, the uncompromising background and that telltale hat all contribute to an emotionally compelling image. Who hasn't felt that raw, adolescent embarrassment? All the art historical baggage that accompanies the figure of a clown has something to do with poignancy the "Young Fool" compels. Most notably in the work of Picasso, the clown has represented the artist as outsider in his struggle to be recognized and accepted.
Also included in the exhibition are several still lifes and garden scenes. (Gil de Montes' two subjects merge only once in a piece entitled "Two Men and a Garden.") You've seen the foliage in the garden paintings before. These green elephant leaves and seductive red jack-in-the-pulpits have been featured in the work of Frida Kahlo and of contemporary artist Patricia Gonzalez.
In Gil de Montes' "Jardin de Noche," the flora fades in and out of an impenetrable background and seems to be metamorphosing in front of your eyes. Sometimes the plants disintegrate into abstract organic forms or, more aptly, floating blobs. These murky pieces are not always successful. It was Gil de Montes' figurative work that was included in the long-overdue mega-exhibition "Hispanic Art in the United States," organized by curators from the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., in 1987. It traveled to major institutions around the country, and included an eclectic array of thirty contemporary painters and sculptors. The exhibition, the first step toward bringing these artists into the museum mainstream, demonstrated the variety of styles in Hispanic art and the persistence of more traditional formats.
Gil de Montes moved to Los Angeles from Mexico when he was sixteen and did not join the Chicano Power movement in the Sixties because, he said, "Chicanos here were struggling with their identity. I finished my formative schooling in Mexico, so I knew who I was. I didn't need to discover my past." It was only later, when he returned to Mexico for a couple of years, that he realized his compromised position in the United States. He then consciously turned his attention to painting Chicano life. At the age of fifteen, James G. Davis had his foot smashed under a train. There went this Midwestern boy's dreams of being a quarterback. While he was holed up in bed for months, Davis started to draw. It was then that his eyes were opened to the dark side.
As soon as he was up and around, he started wandering and painting. One of his first trips was to Mexico, where he was influenced by the people and culture, in the way that Paul Gauguin was influenced by the mystery of the Tahitians. While living in Mexico, Davis met the muralist Diego Rivera, but he absorbed neither Rivera's socialist politics nor his visions of the Mexican folk.
Instead, Davis was inspired by the turmoil and violence of the revolutionary images of Francisco Goya and the decadence of the court portraits of Velazquez, both Spanish artists. Davis' work thereafter set out to record the history of our detached and unconcerned society through personal and fanciful narratives.
His recent paintings, on display at the Riva Yares Gallery, look like scenes from "The Berlin Stories." Strangely dressed figures hang out in exotic bars, as in "The Gold Bar" and "OOOMMMAAA," or in fragmented interiors. The paintings are large and complex in their imagery.
The feel of decadent Berlin between the wars may derive from Davis' most recent travels. For the past five years, he has traveled extensively in Europe, his main purpose being to view the masterpieces of European art. He spent a summer in Berlin living in assemblage artist Edward Kienholz's studio. (The California artist frequently works in West Germany, where he is extremely popular. His work shares similarities with Davis' in its exposure of the decay of our "advanced" society.)
Davis' alienated figures and dark interiors are reminiscent of the paintings of second-generation German Expressionist artists, like Max Beckman, who are all the rage these days. "Kurfurstendamin Fantasy" appears to be a homage to Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, an early expressionist who was fascinated by the painted women and suited men of the streets of industrial Berlin. The Kurfurstendam is a major street in Berlin, and "damin" is a misspelled play on the German word for women. Hence, street women. In Davis' huge canvas, female figures in glittery dresses short at the hem and low at the neckline entertain male visitors.
At the top of "Kurfurstendamin" floats a nude female torso, an eye and a mouth. At the bottom edge sits a realistically painted hamburger. Inserted in the middle of the canvas is a black-and-white print of the male and female figures in the painting. Davis also adds collage elements, like a pair of panties or a lace doily, which break the two-dimensionality of the painting.
These layers of reality compound the symbolism of the paintings and are aided by the accompanying prints. Hung beside the paintings, they are more spontaneous expressions of the same subject. For instance, the print "Nocturne, Madrid" depicts a murder on the streets of Madrid witnessed personally by Davis. Around the body are gawkers and in the shop window stand oblivious mannequins.
Conversely, the painting "OOOMMMAAA" appears to be a men's club with images of nude women floating on the walls. The gathered men seem to be detachedly discussing the murder, the print of which is inserted again in the painting. And all around them drifts their discussion: "OOO," "MMM," "AAA." Although he has always been a wanderer, Davis' formative years were spent in Wichita, Kansas. Early on, he organized a radical artists group, and he has never stopped being a painter's painter, both in his intentional references to art history and in his organizing activities. These days he resides in Oracle, a community for artists and writers, and teaches at the University of Arizona.
Over and over in the catalogues on his work, Davis stresses his ultimate faith in humanity, and conveys this belief through the beauty of his line, color and composition. Nevertheless, his paintings are close to the apocalyptic visions of German Expressionists; Davis' figures, like theirs, languish their way toward Judgment Day. Paintings and works on paper by Robert Gil de Montes will be at Marilyn Butler Fine Art, 4160 North Craftsman Court, Scottsdale, through April 28.
Recent work by James G. Davis will be at Riva Yares Gallery, 3625 North Bishop Lane, Scottsdale, through April 30.
"I finished my formative schooling in Mexico, so I knew who I was. I didn't need to discover my past," Gil de Montes has said.
Davis' recent paintings look like scenes from "The Berlin Stories." Strangely dressed figures hang out in exotic bars.
THE ROTC PEACENIK ASU STUDENT STILL HAUN... v4-18-90
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