If you’ve spent time in downtown Phoenix over the last two decades, you’ve placed your eyes on the solo and collaborative mural work of artist Lalo Cota.
His richly colored, mixed-media work depicting Chicano low rider culture and Día de los Muertos imagery has brought numerous walls to life in the Roosevelt Row and Grand Avenue arts districts. Not exclusively tethered to those ‘hoods, his murals can also be found in other Phoenix neighborhoods.
Gallery walls? He’s covered many of those, too, with his distinct work, making himself an integral and vital part of Phoenix’s art world. Carly’s Bistro, Barrio Café, and the Phoenix Suns are among the businesses that have commissioned his work. He even had a namesake gallery in the Roosevelt Row district for a period.
Currently, Mesa Contemporary Arts Museum (MCAM) is honoring Cota’s work with Laloland, a retrospective of his work from the last 20 years. You can see it now through August 7.
You know an exhibition is inviting when the first thing you see is the show’s title across a bright yellow backdrop, and in front of that signage, a large-scale painted panel in the shape of a classic lowrider. Not just any sign, this one allows you to put yourself behind the wheel. It’s the perfect show selfie — you get to be a part of Cota’s art.
As you stroll through the show, it’s exciting to see the color and inspiration threads that flow through Cota’s work, yet each piece tells a clear-cut tale. La Carrera, which translates to The Race, could be a nod to La Carrera Panamericana. Also known as The Mexican Road Race, this historic auto event traces back to the 1950s. Though it only lasted a few years, it was revived in the late ‘80s and still occurs today.
In Cota’s piece, the devilish driver and his skeletal racing associate have their hands on the gear shifts of their respective vehicles as they cruise past graffiti-tagged walls that include Lalo’s signature on a billboard that’s part of the city skyline. In the distance, his unique sombrero-shaped saucers beam light down from above. The flame rising behind them and the smoke emitting from their hot wheels conjures up the smells and sounds of the race’s action and intrigue.
Subtly, but without losing one iota of importance in his approach, the two paintings above (and, of course, many of his other creations) remind us of Mexican culture’s pervasive impact and influence in the automotive arena — past, present, and future.
Jesus may have never looked as laid back — and that’s saying a lot — as he does in Cota’s Personal Jesus triptych. A larger piece featuring the historical and biblical figure is flanked by two smaller pieces, each with a slinky, white ghostly character. Jesus sits between them in an ornate wood frame with a cross as its backbone. His heart-shaped pendant is luminous, and his right hand has its first two fingers up. He’s either making a point or offering a mellow version of the universal peace sign.
Though the grainy wood cross with its exposed nails is a little gothic and slightly haunting, there’s an overall benevolence to Cota’s Jesus and a tinge of gentle humor. Like many Cota subjects, Jesus possesses lustrous eyes — vast, deep, and captivating. It’s one example of the motion his work exudes. His style is energetic, and his subjects are inviting. They become more intriguing as you study their saucer-y eyes and vivid expressions. His cars bounce and pop from the surfaces on which they are painted.
The desert landscape is often present in Cota’s work. There are cactuses, sometimes intensely green, other times soft and shadowy. Then there’s the sky. You’ll find that varying from heady blues to outrageous gold tones, outlining the magic of its different moods.
“Through bold colors and elements that celebrate our state’s rich Mexican heritage, Lalo truly captures the Arizona flavor of Chicano identity while subtly commenting on our complicated relationship with new immigrants. A popular muralist, Lalo’s work is probably very familiar to many living in the Phoenix metro area, and the iconography he uses is very recognizable and relatable to those that are part of a Mexican-American community,” Fairall adds.
Lalo Cota creates unique work that offers his takes on Mexican cultural and societal aspects by merging his style with an affinity for Mexican folk art. Laloland is a well-deserved retrospective for one of the Valley’s most prolific artists and an excellent opportunity to soak up the art made at different points on his timeline in one space.
Laloland runs through August 7 at Mesa Contemporary Arts Museum, 1 East Main Street in Mesa. Admission is free. Visit the website for hours.