As a Chicano artist working in California at the start of the new century, I am compelled to look beyond traditional Chicano art concepts and embrace new methods for creation. I am still strongly influenced by my Mexican and California Chicano cultural heritage, but I include digital, Web, and installation work to my traditional methods of drawing and painting as my way of updating my artwork and bringing it closer to a contemporary global audience. As the Chicano culture changes, so must our artists, we must express these changes within our artwork in a way that reflects our individuality as people and our ideals as artists.
There are many elements that go into my art making, some of these are physical and some are digital. My physical work includes paintings and installations, and my digital work includes 2d hardcopy and my Web site, http://www.elpayaso.com, where I create Web pieces that display my thoughts on art and contemporary culture.
In my current paintings, I have been exploring the early panel painting technique of monochromatic underpainting with oil glazes in an attempt to revitalize my artwork by exploring pre-modernist techniques of realism and painting that relies more on drawing than color theory or physical tactile qualities. I have been painting portraits of post-colonial California using art historical narratives and visual references as a guide. These portraits are of Chicano people who sometimes do not realize their own history or culture; they are portraits of San Bernardino people lost in the melting pot of a small Southern California city.
In Memory of a Rabbit
Acrylic on canvas, 1995, 36" x 48"
I create my artwork in series and these series can last a few years or a few months. I worked on my Love Tiger series from 1994-1997, producing many paintings and drawings on the subject of the Love Tiger and hidden identities. The Love Tiger series was inspired by a Mexican folk costume that I bought in Mexico. This costume was created out of a painted canvas jumpsuit and a large carved wooden mask with mirrored eyes, boar's hair, and teeth. It represented many things to me. The idea of how a costume is used to conceal and at the same time to express an ideal was very interesting to me. My tiger paintings became a visual metaphor for how we wear culture or express our identity. We all wear costumes of some kind to express our culture and beliefs or simply to change our identity for a short while, and the narratives of these paintings represented this for me. My Love Tigers on the surface looked to be passive and beautiful with their bright colors and hearts painted in their eyes, but they were also aggressive and dangerous with their sharp teeth that could bite. At the time I was working on my tiger paintings, I was working as an artist-in-residence at Patton State Hospital for the criminally insane in San Bernardino, California. I had been awarded a California Art Council grant to work with the patients at Patton, and I found the situation of teaching art in a mental hospital very interesting and unique. One day we had the patients work on paper bag puppets as their project for the day. Their therapist asked the patients to hold up their puppets and talk about what their puppets were about. These patients were withdrawn and silent during this art workshop and had been isolated from the rest of the hospital because they could not cope with the other patients. They were considered fragile. As they stood up and talked about their puppets, I became aware that they were talking about themselves through their puppets. I began to think about them as Love Tiger subjects and how they used the puppets to describe the reality of their identity in Patton. One of the patients held up his puppet and said, "In memory of rabbit, who was locked up in a cage and had no friends, he had no mate and he died." I was moved but at the same time inspired by the sadness of this patient's words. I made several large drawings of Love Tigers standing with paper bag puppets on their hands, but this is the only painting I created from this experience at the hospital.
Burden of Culture and History
Installation with paintings and works on paper, 2000
For my MFA exhibition at the Claremont Graduate University, I worked with the idea of creating conceptual Chicano art. I am both a painter and a digital artist, and I am challenged to bring the two together for some exhibitions. For my MFA project I created "The Burden of History Project" as a way of displaying both of my interests of painting and digital art in the same gallery. This exhibition included many elements: panel paintings, digital works on paper, and a computer playing my Internet Web piece, "The Burden of History," http://www.elpayaso.com/bur1.htm, on my Web site http://www.elpayaso.com.
These elements are arranged in the gallery on the wall, I called these arrangements "Information Stacks," and they can be arranged in many different ways depending on what elements I want to display of my dissected Chicano identity. The elements were in the gallery as my way of displaying what I was extracting from my old Chicano identity in my attempt to create my new anonymous Internet identity. This exhibition worked on a few different political levels. On the surface was an exhibition by a Chicano artist who was describing how to rid himself of history and culture by integrating his identity into the anonymous world of the Internet and the World Wide Web. But what I was really working for was an exaggeration of what was expected of me at CGU, and that was to rid myself of all references to race and culture in my artwork so my artwork could easily fit into the general art market. This is what I was told, so I created the perfect recipe to achieve this goal, or so it seemed. Fortunately, I am old enough to know better and I have been making artwork for over twenty years, so it is really impossible for me to give up my cultural references that easily. On a different political level, what I was working for in this exhibition was a way to create a new type of Chicano art, very conceptual in nature but at the same time full of art historical references that could reach back in time before modernism–that is, anything before the Impressionists. If I was really going to reach back in time, I wanted to refer to the Early Renaissance before the Spanish Conquest of Mexico. What I was aiming for was a kind of artwork that tried to minimize the influence of modernism and referred to early painting styles and art, but at the same time have contemporary digital and Internet art as its main influence and contemporary Chicano culture as its core. The Burden of History Project is not what it seems; if you look closer it is very Chicano and full of humor. Most of my latest work looks historic and academic, but just under the surface it is more complex with humor and mixed metaphors using traditional techniques as a conceptual element. You can see this Internet project on my website http://www.elpayaso.com and click on The Burden of History Project button.
Spaz As an Angel
Oil on panel, 2000, 24" x 24"
This painting was included in my exhibition "The Burden of History Project" as one of the elements I used for my Information Stack, The Burden of Culture and History. This work is painted on a birch panel with a monochromatic acrylic underpainting of burnt umber and white; when the underpainting is finished I went over the image with oil glazes. This painting has many references to early European panel painting and is conceptually rejecting Modernist painting by returning to Early Renaissance techniques of panel painting, but it becomes contemporary Chicano by the use of subject matter and the portraits depicted.
The subject of this painting, Spaz As an Angel, is one of my art students from the art department of San Bernardino Valley College, Eric "Spaz" Mehra. I have returned to painting portraits lately, and Spaz has been one of my best subjects to work with. He is involved in the youth culture of San Bernardino and radiates the kind of positive energy that has evolved here on its own, fifty miles away from the larger urban area of Los Angeles. He is the perfect example of a contemporary Chicano/Latino youth in a city like San Bernardino, involving himself with the music and art of the younger generation. As an art instructor and artist, I believe it is important to involve younger artists in my work and expose them to the larger art world and developing ideas on art-making that contain aspects of popular culture they can identify with–artworks that begin to describe their reality.
My work recently has been about San Bernardino, the people and the city itself. I am creating San Bernardino Chicano art, artwork that is about a small Southern California city and the people and cultural collisions that occur here.
Oil on canvas, 2000, 48" x 72"
With this painting's narrative I was working on bringing together different aspects of the conflicts between Chicanos and native-born Mexicans that take place here in San Bernardino every day. This painting is describing the assimilation battles that we go through in our never ending quest to flesh out the definition of what home or homeland really means. This battle is internal and external, and we can accept the battling of cultures or try to work and resolve some of the differences. As Chicanos, Latinos, or Mexicanos we understand the battle, while the larger Anglo majority still places us all together in the same category of cultural character, not realizing that we are so different from one another. But whatever side you may claim, we all have different descriptions of this battle depending on where we come from or live on this battlefield map of the southwestern United States.
I have used the vehicle of Early Renaissance painting and narrative style to describe my concepts about this assimilation battle. I have used the monochromatic underpainting and oil glazing techniques of Renaissance artists in this painting as a way of art historically connecting to the past, but I use contemporary imagery as the narrative. This is important to me and to my latest artwork. As a contemporary Chicano artist I have felt a need to reject the past 500 years of painting and art history in an attempt to recover a little of what was lost of my native indigenous soul clouded by years of Eurocentric American art education. So I have been working with old painting techniques as a way of bringing a different evolution of art and culture of my work. What if an early Renaissance artist like Fra Angelico had magically arrived in Tenochtitlan seventy years before Cortez did, what would the Mexicas' art have looked like when Cortez arrived? This is what I am working with as an artist; I am working with aspects of art history and visual metaphors in my work, rearranging art theories and history in different ways to create new work. My use of painting and digital images in installations combined with these ideas is what I think of as my Chicano conceptual artwork.
The painting Assimilation Battle is heroic looking–it is painted as a history piece might be, but there are also humorous overtones. There are many visual metaphors throughout the painting that deal with assimilation and culture, some are Chicano and some are Mexicano. What the general American population fails to recognize is that Chicanos and native-born Mexicans can be very different people who sometimes don't get along with each other. There are battles every day between the old immigrants and newer ones. Cultural battles change the shape of the community and the faces of the people who live in then. Here in San Bernardino I experience these battles, at school and out in the community, and I think it is an important subject for Chicano artists to address. I have thought about assimilation in my work for many years, but this painting expresses my thoughts in a way that leaves room for interpretation by the viewer.