A World Away: Chas and Eddie paint the Baja

Esther Vecsey
The Daily Californian, January 1990

Baja California is the long thin land mass that stretches into the Pacific Ocean just below San Diego. Although it is an organic physical appendage of our State, whose name in Spanish is literally “lower California,” Baja is worlds removed from ours by the Mexican border.

For Eduardo Carrillo, a respected West Coast painter and professor of art at the Baskin Visual Arts Center of UC Santa Cruz, Baja ia a vitally important aspect of life. Carrillo’s parents come from Baja California, proud descendants of the Spanish conquistadores who landed at La Paz with Hernan Cortes and intermarriage with the native Indians, the French and Norwegians who settled in the peninsula.

Born in East Los Angeles, Carrillo started going down to Baja to visit his grandmother some 25 years before there was a paved highway. The trip would take close to 10 days over sandy and rocky trail. Carrillo soon began painting in San Ignacio. In 1966 he and his wife Sheila moved there. They founded El Centro de Arte Regional which operated until 1969.

The 60 watercolors now on view at the Joseph Chowning Gallery in San Francisco are pictorial records of trips between 1971 and 1989 taken by Carrillo, Charles Garabedian, Louis Lunetta, and Roberto Chavez.

These artists make up the core of a group of close-knit friends formed at the UCLA Art Department in the late 1950’s. They came from the barrio of East Los Angeles; Ed and Bob are Chicanos, and even though Chas’ ethnic background is Armenian, and Louie’s Sicilian, they all had the common experience of social and economic disadvantage, and a passion for making art.

The watercolor landscapes and portraits at the Chowning Gallery are in the age-old tradition of plein-air painting, done on the spot. The small scale and simple technique of watercolor involves observation, and allows for immediate depiction and spontaneous expression.

The strong visionary and surreal aspects in the work of these artists owe much to their close personal connections and to their experiences in Mexico. The Baja seems to trigger seminal reactions and memories for these artists. In his vivid watercolors of the “Rancho Buena Vista” series Garabedian begins with a sure eye and deft handling of nature observed. Inspired by the landscape and by the process of watercolor, his visual fantasy soars. Subtly and stealthily, he distorts space and shape, inverts perspective, and embroiders reality with rich jewel-like color and pattern. The scenes are pure Mexico, but in the fiber of Garabedian’s work there is a lingering memory of oriental tradition, specifically of Armenian rugs.

Lunetta’s studies are fanciful, stylized and eclectic. His dramatic nocturnal view of Baja, “Night on the Sea of Cortez” recalls scenes of Mount Etna or Vesuvius erupting. Chavez’ paintings are direct, affecting icons of the primal landscape, the elements and the culture of Mexico.

Carrillo’s watercolors combine the traditional European academic concerns of form, light and color with the search for meaningful content. He refers to the works of the modern Mexican masters Rivera, Orozco and Tamayo, whose works Carrillo knew. He also references El Greco, Goya and Rembrandt.

This show is a tribute to Baja which has been the catalyst for the creativity and male bonding shared by this group of artists. Their mutual attitude toward painting, their background and formation, their continuing influence on each other are recorded in the landscapes and portraits of the Baja.

The small scale, rather unassuming watercolors in this exhibition document the enduring and closing friendship between renowned California painters Eduardo Carrillo, Charles Garabedian, and the other. The works in the exhibition reveal the important role the culture and topography of Baja California, and Mexico, has played in their lives and how these have affected the work and thinking.


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