“Pinta algo bonito….”
Way back, in the sixties, when I was in college, I would sneak into a prof’s office and sit there rapt, looking through his art magazines. I ran across the work of Gene Davis, the “stripe” painter. For the first time in my life, before any cultural notions of “Chicano” were on the horizon, I reacted to works of contemporary art from a cultural standpoint. “These are like serapes!” I said to myself. It was an epiphany of sorts though I didn’t realize it at the time. Eventually, during my last year in college, I started doing some hard-edge “masking tape” paintings that were nothing like serapes or the Davis “stripe paintings” though that technique did inform what I was trying to do and years later, the technique led me to my own “Serape Series”.
In the early eighties I initiated my first stab at a “serape” series. By then I was well into the pachuco paintings and I think these first serapes were a sort of response to pleas from family, friends and acquaintances unschooled in art to “paint something pretty.” I’m convinced that there is something very culturally Mexican American in this type of request and it is fair to say I’m in the business of addressing these types of cultural concerns at whatever level.
The first ones were fairly plain, the basic color progressions separated by broader areas of color, as in the most touristy serapes seen in border-town mercados. I liked the results and even had my first gallery show ever with them in San Antonio. To be honest, I thought that the art was so pretty, the show would sell out, but ….¡nada! I went back to my Bato/Pachuco series, which was starting to be noticed in the art press and shown in respectable venues. On and off, over the ensuing years, I would return to the serapes and do variations, some quite satisfying. Some I liked a lot had a bit of figuration pertaining to the theme though I don’t feel I ever achieved complete satisfaction with what I was attempting. still, I felt there was something there.
Very recently, I have returned to the series, changed my technical approach, pared the serape idea down to the essentials and have gotten very satisfying results. Instead of isolating the serape part in a color field, or on an unpainted ground as in the early ones on paper, I started utilizing the whole appropriately proportioned canvas or paper so as to create a whole painting as an object. It is probably the closest I’ve come to “pure” painting, for its own sake. The new variations in dark, somber tones, painted on trapezoidal shaped canvases, became the serape-derived “Tlacuilo Stele” series. The only hint of culture is a simple Mesoamerican design motif. These paintings seem to be up to something as they sit there glowing quietly on the wall. In ancient Mesoamerica, a tlacuilo was a highly repected artisan, perhaps a worker on stone or perhaps a scribe or artist.
In the art world, cranking out formulaic art work is frowned upon. In my own way, I’m doing just that because the formula is a requirement, though “cranking out” is an overstatement in my case. I think of it as “process” art because this type of work requires a formula that has to first be figured out proportionally and chromatically and then executed to get an expected result though the actual result can stray from the expectation and surprise. The chips fall where they do and that is the beauty of it. The mentioned “process” is arguably somewhat conceptualist but not to the point where the idea behind it is more important than the result. Also, the final defining layers of paint are applied in a brushy but consistent fashion that imparts a human touch to the thing.
In the spring of 2023, the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) of New York City acquired, for its collection, three of those early “serape” paintings on paper in a deal that was initiated and brokered by Ruiz-Healy Art, the art gallery, San Antonio/New York that represents me.