Artweek Volume 21, #3
Chas and Eddie Paint the Baja at Joseph Chowning Gallery
There are no radical artistic statements, no dazzling personalities in the exhibition of sixty watercolors by six artists at the Joseph Chowning Gallery. The small-scale, low keyed watercolors are as unassuming as the title of the show, Chas and Eddie Paint the Baja, referring to artists Charles Garabedian and Eduardo Carrillo. But behind this seemingly unimportant facade lies an important key to the practices, creative processes and influences of a significant group of contemporary California artists whose work is intimately connected to Baja California. The link with Mexico stems from their mutual love of painting.
These little watercolors contain a great deal of history. The core group of Carrillo, Garabedian, Roberto Chavez, and Louis Lunetta, all come from the east Los Angeles barrio, and were all students in the art department at UCLA in the late 50’s and early 60’s. At the time, Carrillo begin making trips to the Baja to visit his grandmother in San Ignacio. In the days before there was a paved highway through the peninsula, the trip would take close to ten days over sandy and rocky trail. Carrillo would come back with tales of the wild, desolate landscape, the brilliant light, the pure waters, of his encounters with the indigenous of the interior and the fishermen of the coast. He would tell of his Spanish ancestors who landed with conquistador Ernan Cortez; and their descendants mixed with the Indian, French and even Norwegian settlers to produce Carrillo’s parents and relatives- the Zunigas and Carrillos of San Ignacio, Santa Rosalia and La Paz- who greet the visitor with such warmth and hospitality. Over the years, friends from his student days at UCLA would accompany Carrillo on his trips, or visit while he and his wife Sheila, ran El Centro de Arte Regional, which they had founded in 1966. The core group has continued regular trips to lower California since, enjoying the change of culture and topography and making ceramics, painting, films and videos. Watercolors of the Baja by the group marked the inaugural exhibition in 1961 of the Ceeje Gallery on La Cienega Boulevard in Los Angeles. This gallery supported the young artists of the “rear guard,” those who, like Carrillo and his friends, were impervious to the trends and pressures of the mainstream art world.
The current San Francisco show spans the period 1971 to 1989 and includes groups of paintings from various periods, series, and locations in Baja.
The trips to Baja were normally restricted to men and the rare exception is Cheryl Yaney, whose work is also included in the show. Her customary idiom is abstraction, which also sets her off from this group of figurative artists. In her happy attempt at depiction in her four watercolors, she lays bright washes of dense blue on sparkling white paper to describe sea and beach. They are exclamation points of discovery: of new terrain, subject, style and of medium.
Carrillo’s thirteen watercolors are markedly dissimilar, each one an explosion of familiar terrain, the topography of the lower California peninsula and the techniques of academic painting. As a long time lover seeks to find new ways to please his mistress, so too Carrillo seeks new means in each of his watercolors to depict his beloved Baja. Light and form are his primary concerns.
Dawn at San Francisquito, with its scrubbed surfaces, large opaque organic floating shapes and mottled Vuilliard colors, is like an abstract Nabi painting, while
Side View of the Mission of San Ignacio is descriptive and dense in detail. Light, color and perspective have their play in Drying Dates, while form and character come to life in the portraits of Tio Beto, Vibora, and The Big Book in Espanol. This is Carrillo’s territory, and the subject is inexhaustible for him. He attacks each work with deep knowledge, intimacy, love and exuberance.
Roberto Chavez’s works, on the other hand, are not as involved with the particularities of place and persons as they are with atmosphere and affecting imagery. The paintings are small, almost reticent, a quality which enhances their mystery. An unforgettable image is Chavez’s glowing white sphere of a moon in a swirling, endlessly- modulated deep night sky. It is a prophetic and eternal presence, conjured up magically with the sparest of means. In these small landscapes, he has captured the monumental desolation of the deserts and beaches of Baja, reducing their essence to a miniature format. There is humor and tragedy in Chavez’s Dodge Piece, and poignancy in El Nino, the depiction of a crude wayside shrine.
The naif or fauve element is strongest in Lunetta’s paintings with their pencil under drawing, their spontaneous, stylized shapes and use of bright colors. Loreto is a souvenir of the lush tropical port on the gulf which he visited with Garabedian in the late 70’s and early 80’s. The portrait, Un Joven de Todos Santos, is strikingly beautiful, as is Night on the Sea of Cortez, which is reminiscent of scenes depicted by the romantic Italian artists of the nineteenth century.
Carrillo’s older brother Alex Carrillo was the pioneer who in the 50’s first drove to Mexico from Los Angeles via Matamoros, across the border from Brownsville, Texas. Of all the group, his is the longest standing relationship with the territory and people of Baja. Alex’s portraits are also the strongest and most incisive. Done in a graphic style, mixing pen and ink outline and watercolor, his Don Beto and Conocido are compelling images. Puzzling, eclectic and visually seductive is his small, semi surreal abstraction, Conversaciones Con Don Beto, with its lively organic forms and miniaturist patterning, and its sliver of multicolored painted frame, which creates a double margin of white paper and sets off its sensual deckel edge.
Charles “Chas” Garabedian’s paintings are perhaps the most recollected and formally coherent of the group. A master of illusions, he relishes the freedom of the medium coupled with the physical remove from the everyday care that a trip to Baja brings. “Watercolor frees you from responsibility,” he says. Abandoning himself to the landscape, he uses color and wash, effortlessly depicting the scene before him. This is most evident in the Rancho Buena Vista series. In Rancho Buena Vista #10, with a few gestural strokes he captures the huge fish as they swing from their ropes, stark trophies in the victorious display all fishermen relish. Deftly, he orchestrates silver, grays, teal and midnight blues to contrast the fish against the pale yellow, orange, and violets of sand and sea. San Ignacio #5 displays a fascination with spacial effect, with the patterning and rich detail of an oriental rug. In San Ignacio #6 Garabedian delights in describing the surfaces of translucent glass in watercolors, and humorously presents the icon of Baja’s beach towns: a lineup of the ubiquitous beer bottle. Garabedian’s surrealist, visionary element is most evident in San Ignacio #7 (Butcher Shop). With complex layered space, reduced shape and pattern, distributed colors, and jewel-like details and accents, Garabedian creates a visually exciting, magical world in miniature. The image is enticing enough to be a travel poster.
Besides overtly celebrating the Baja, their friendship and love of painting, the watercolors in this exhibition pay tribute to the tradition of plein air painting, as practiced by the Chinese philosopher/artists, and by the artists of the Barbizon school, the Impressionists and Post Impressionist. Remembered here too is the itinerant illustrator/artist or the Beaux Arts students and artists of the British Royal Academy in the nineteenth century who, like David Roberts, documented the sights along the Grand Tour.
The contemplation of the little watercolors in the San Francisco show can lead to many more insights and even to unexpected experiences. A comparisons of works by the different artists reveals mutualities, interchange, borrowings that are also evident in their monumental work. The watercolors provide a vicarious access to the quasi-ritualistic voyages of Eduardo Carrillo and Garabedian, Chavez, Lunetta and to the less frequent trips taken by Alex Carrillo and Cheryl Yaney in the Baja. They describe the visions of the group that regularly makes the pilgrimage into the barren barren waste of the peninsula much like the Desert Fathers, the first anchorites of the early Christian era who repaired to the desert of the Sinai and Egypt for spiritual cleansing and renewal. Perhaps it is the purity of a place like the little traveled, obscure, raw and primal landscape of the Baja that allows for clarity of vision, for spontaneity and human bonding. The watercolors bear witness to the profound and complex connections of man, nature and the creative drive.