Visual Arts


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.

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Heather S. Lineberry