Tony Ortega

I paint my surroundings, revealing the Mexican American experience through community, family and individual slices of life in the many sectors of present-day Mexican American society, both urban and rural. Very seldom do my paintings depict the individual as the main subject but rather as an integral part of the larger society, a patchwork of community life. It is the collective that is important; the primary focus in all my work. The people in my paintings don’t have individual features, they are faceless, yet each one is important in defining the group, the community interacting, participating in its many rituals, social settings, and groups functions, be they at work, play, school or at family celebrations. But more than that, each painting is only part of the total picture, the Mexican American experience, not an isolated phenomenon but an active, integral part of American society in the Southwest. For the Mexican American is a combination of two histories, two legacies that meet creating something new. My art reflects this cultural and historical confluence.

The blend of Mexican and American cultures is also reflected in the design and composition of my art. My work interweaves the western concepts of perspective, light/shadow, and overlapping of shapes with Mexican indigenous folk art design of simplified geometric shape, brilliant pastel colors, and inviting temperature creating a harmonious composition. My intent is to not to celebrate a particular culture but rather to form a bridge across cultures with Mexican colors and American environments, a recognizable mosaic of the Southwest.

Group activities of Mexican Americans caught in a moment in an American locale are a consistent theme in my work. Surrounded in color the Mexican people in paintings become part of the colorscape, not as individuals but as a community. I paint my community, my heritage, myself.

Chicano O Mexicano, 1994

This painting is a part of series of oil painting and collage on the rough side of masonite which I created from 1991 and about 1996. About that time I began observing graffiti and collecting posters, here in Denver as well as in my travels throughout the American Southwest and in Mexico. My work had always been about the Chicano/Mexicano environs, but then I began to collage flyers, posters and paint graffiti around 1991. I believe the addition of collage elements and graffiti in the paintings tell the viewer about the events and conditions experienced by these people. The flyers/posters give information on garage sales, celebrations, concerts, opportunities etc. occurring in the neighborhood or of interest to someone in the neighborhood. The graffiti (tagging) also depict what is happening in the neighborhood, from gang activity to people making their personal marks. I also added some of my own personal tagging to the paintings.

The painting Chicano o Mexicano illustrates the changing environment in Denver and the United States. The demographics of the neighborhoods change as more and more Mexican nationals come to live and work in the United States. When we come into contact with them, we can see how culturally Mexican we Chicanos are and how culturally Mexican we are not. The title provokes the question: How do we identify our Mexican brothers and ourselves?

Cruzando el Milenario, 1999

In 1996, I visited Self-Help Graphics in East Los Angeles and learned the silkscreen/monotype process. I found the spontaneity and the fluidness of this quick print making process interesting and inviting. I then returned home to Denver and began experimenting with this new medium. Cruzando el Milanenario is part of a series started about 1997. I began to incorporate my Chicano environments with overlapping icons and symbols such as the Virgin de Guadalupe, hearts, migrant workers, the Statue of Liberty etc.

For Cruzando el Milanenario, I use the concept of the crossing the Rio Grande (border) as a metaphor for crossing over into the new millennium. The Statue of Liberty symbolizes the United States and the possibility of renewed hope and opportunity. The demographics of the United States are changing as more Latinos come to the U.S. With each step into new millennium these demographic changes become more and more apparent.