Art of Engagement: Visual Politics in California and Beyond

Peter Selz
with an essay by Susan Laundauer
University of Berkeley Press in conjunction with the San Jose Museum of Art, 2006


In 1979, using ceramic tile, Eduardo Carrillo (1937-1997) created a remarkable mural, forty-four feet long, as a commission for the city of Los Angeles. Born in Santa Monica, Carrillo studied at UCLA with Stanton MacDonald Wright and William Brice, and also spent a year in Spain, where he came to admire the paintings by Hieronymus Bosch, Diego Velazquez, and El Greco in the Prado, as well as the work of Giorgio de Chirico. As he matured, he combined the Spanish and Mexican Baroque traditions with European modernism, achieving work of highly personal authenticity. In 1966 he founded El Centro de Arte Regional in La Paz, Baja California, which he directed for several years. There he helped revive the regional crafts of ceramics, leatherwork, dyeing, and weaving for the production of fine salable items. In 1972 Carrillo joined the art faculty of the University of California, Santa Cruz, where he remained until his death in 1997. In 1976, as a gift to the community, he painted a mural based on the theme of birth, death and regeneration, in a vaulted passageway near a downtown shopping mall in Santa Cruz. The mural was obliterated, however, by a bank that later acquired the property, the manager claiming he had no idea of the value of the work. Carrillo’s ceramic mural for Los Angeles was done on a curved wall in front of the Church of Dolores, close to Siqueiros’s mural Tropical America on Olvera Street, in the original Mexican section of the city. Entitled El Grito, it commemorates the Mexican revolt against Spain in 1810. Father Miguel Hildalgo y Costillo, Mexican Creole priest, launched the revolt with his cry for independence, known as El Grito de Dolores. Leading an insurgent army in the early fight for independence, Hildalgo is said to have carried the banner of the Virgin of Guadalajara, but was eventually defeated by royalists. Hidalgo was defrocked and shot. But his grito, calling for the freeing of slaves and the redistribution of land was not forgotten. In Carrillo’s mural Hidalgo is the central figure. Next to him we see a woman carrying the standard of the Virgin of Guadalupe, and farther to the right Native men with arrows, women carrying baskets of corn, and children at play. Spanish grandees flee on horseback, and a black flag displays a skull and crossbones. The luminous glazes of the ceramics, predominantly in blue and ochre, endow the work with an amazing glow. Carrillo’s later paintings, shown in a solo exhibition at the Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento in 1986, were often preoccupied with images from Mexican mythology, history, and contemporary culture. Painted in closely hued vibrant colors, these depictions of human drama convey a sense of mystery, reminding the viewer of Surrealist imagination.

View book at University of California Press 

Mexican-American Artists

Fourth Decade: I, 1937-1940 – Eduardo Carrillo

by Jacinto Quirarte
University of Texas, 1973

A teacher at Sacramento State College since 1970, Ed carrillo was actively involved in the chicano movement in Los Angeles a few years ago. In the summer of 1970 he painted a mural in collaboration with three Chicano artists
– Ramses Noriega, Saul Solache, and Sergio Hernandez- in the Chicano library at the University of California, Los Angeles. He later painted another mural in a Sacramento barrio. Now he is more introspective about these things. His recent works reflecting nonpolitical points of view are more related to artistic problems. He is concerned with the appearance of objects, their surface configurations, and their identifying textural qualities.

Carrillo, born in Santa Monica, California, in 1937, attended Catholic grammar and high schools in Los Angeles. He entered Los Angeles City College in 1955 and transferred the following year to University of California, Los Angeles where he studied until 1959. He received a Departmental Award at City College and the Art Council Undergraduate Award at the University of California. From 1960 to 1961 he studied drawing at the Circulo de Bellas Artes in Madrid, Spain. In 1961, he returned to the University of California, Los Angeles, where he received the Bachelor of Arts degree in 1962 and the Masters of Arts degree in 1964.

During his last year in school Carrillo was a teaching assistant. He later taught art at the University of California Extension in San Diego from 1964-1966. He left the country again in that year and went to La Paz, Baja California, where he founded and directed the Centro de Arte Regional until 1969. He and his wife taught ceramics, weaving, and dressmaking to local teenagers. He returned to the States in 1969 to work as an art instructor at San Fernando State College. Since September of 1970 he has taught at Sacramento State College.

Carrillo has exhibited widely since 1962 at the Ceeje Gallery and other places in Los Angeles, and other southern California cities. Since 1966 he has exhibited in Hayward and Sacramento, California. Outside of California he was included in a group exhibition, “Painters of the Southwest,” held in Houston in 1963, and in a juried show in the Palace of Fine Arts, Mexico City, in 1968. His most recent one-man show was held at University of California at Santa Cruz in October 1971.

While in Spain in 1960 and 1961, Carrillo became very interested in the works of Hieronymous Bosch, Diego Velazquez, and El Greco. Carrillo’s works of that period are in fact quite reminiscent of some of Bosch’s paintings, for example, his triptych known as the Garden of Delights,
now in the Prado Museum. Carrillo’s paintings are comprised of imaginary landscapes and figures.

Carrillo stopped painting for several years during his stay in Mexico, preferring to work with ceramics. He returned to painting, however, during his last year in Mexico. These works are all based on observable objects found within his immediate surroundings. “We lived in a one-hundred-year-old house (adobe) that belonged to my grandfather. I did paintings of the different rooms and my wife.”

Upon their return to the States in 1969, Carrillo became involved with the Chicano movement at the University of California, Los Angeles. His collaboration with other Chicano artists in painting a mural and his experience with actual violence during the Chicano Moratorium of August 1970 in Los Angeles-beatings, tear gas, and jail- eventually led to his disillusionment with the Movimiento. He has since become very interested in painting the effects of light falling on different materials. “I have moved away in idea from Movimiento concerns recently because I think that racism is the world’s number one problem and Movimiento breeds racism. I want to embrace the world, and La Raza is busy building a medieval fortification.”

Carrillo’s meticulously painted landscapes of the early sixties-oils on wood panels- are comprised of vast open areas in which are found lakes or seas, architectural and, on occasion, animal forms. These imaginary landscapes are broken down into various spatial fields, with the frontal plane invariably sharply delineated by man- made walls, staircases, and towers, serving as a proscenium, to which objects and terrain within the middle and back planes are related. His Subterranean Garden has a thin double walled precinct in the foreground in which are placed a number of unusual geometric structures. In the center is a conical structure with smoke coming out the top and a rectangular one with notches.

On the left side is a partially empty rectangular depression (pool?) with a staircase at one end. Within the double walls are evenly placed trees whose foliage can barely be seen rising slightly above the walls. The foreshortening of the walled precinct, based on a single vanishing point located slightly above the opening in the center, demonstrates the elevated position of the viewer. The tilted middleground is comprised of rolling hills, abutments, roads, and evenly distributed trees (six on each side). There is no variation in the spatial intervals between them. Another walled precinct, found a little beyond this middleground and foreshortened according to another eye level, creates the effect of a ground again falling away into the distance. The orthogonals of the two precincts break the visual surface along diagonals in contrast to the series of planes found in the middleground and the background- the water, hills and trees.

Carrillo’s Cabin in the Sky is evocative of the same type of feelings. But, now, the placement of totally unrelated objects within a similar spatial arrangement- the large shell in the middleground and the profile representation of the large rabbit to the right of it-gives this work an even more unusual aspect. This is further enhanced by the celestial cabin amid a turbulent sky. The usual grounds-front, middle and back are now relegated to the lower half of the painting, with the sky taking a much larger portion of the visual surface. The extreme foreshortening of the temple, which gives a strangely anchored effect, in the gravitational sense, contrasts sharply with the predominantly horizontal directions, or planes, of the terrestrial sphere.

Fortress at Turrey Pines is also based on a series of walled precincts within the frontal plane, whose configurations appear to be dictated by the artist’s
imagination and the needs of the painting. The middleground gives way almost immediately to a great expanse of the extreme background.
The representation of objects within the landscape in all three paintings demonstrates the use of various eye levels within each. Yet, even with these similarities, the definition of the horizontal in each is dictated by the needs of the theme. In Subterranean Garden the sky is a mere sliver, while in Cabin in the Sky it takes up half the visual surface. In Fortress at Turrey Pines the sky takes up one-third of the painting.

Carrillo’s most recent works are equally meticulous in their representation of objects. However, the vast expanses of the imaginary landscapes now give way to close-up views of specific locations, like the exteriors and the interiors of a home- the front and back yards, a kitchen floor, chairs, tabletops. A good example is Testamento de el Spiritu Santo. The same spatial habits are retained but more circumscribed to the frontal plane, in which the numerous objects are placed. This is also the case with his House in Venice and Backyard. Both present a vertical plane of the house-the front and the back- on the left as a limit to the foreshortened extension of the foreground. A narrow section on the right allows the artist to open up the tightly enclosed cubical space of the foreground. This device is also used to show other homes and automobiles on the periphery. There is a strict adherence to horizontals and verticals in House in Venice, which is partially retained in Backyard. The tunnellike effect of the carport in which the Volkswagen bus is parked is de-emphasized by the inclusion of the gate and the fence leading to the backyard. Although Carrillo studiously restricts his selection of subjects to these almost snapshot types of views of his immediate surroundings, he takes these and presents them in a tightly knit compositions that are spatially based on a series of planes that constantly echo the frame, along vertical and horizontal directions.

The habit of relating a foreshortened ground plane to a vertical wall plane, with an opening to the right of the visual surface, is also found in his painting of a chair placed in front of a large chest.

The painting entitled Fisheye is a faithful representation of a tiled floor on which are placed three plates, with the center one turned over. The octagonal-shaped tiles and the lines placed perpendicularly to each of the four sides of the tiles that are parallel to the frame are used in a subtle way to define the tilted plane of the floor. The octagonal shapes are foreshortened, as are the vertical lines that represent the orthogonals of the linear perspective used. The overall pattern is beautifully contrasted by the inclusion of the three plates along a diagonal starting on the upper left and extending beyond the lower right.

Carrillo has a keen sense of space- the substantive part, I believe, of his paintings. It is the arrangement of the numerous objects within the controlled spatial frameworks that is evocative of the dreamlike scenes in which human beings are rarely included but whose presence is indicated by the objects. This is as true of his earlier imaginary landscapes as it is of his more recent blown-up details of his immediate surroundings, within the home and its exterior.


Remembering Eduardo

A new exhibit at the Sesnon brings forth the stunning vision of the late Eduardo Carrillo

Julia Chiapella
Santa Cruz Sentinel
March 13, 1998

If there ever was a contemporary painter for the common woman and man, it was Eduardo Carrillo.

A painting and drawing instructor at UC Santa Cruz, Carrillo died suddenly last year at the age of 60 shortly after being diagnosed with cancer.

His sudden death shocked and saddened the local art community.

In a memorial tribute to Carrillo’s lifelong work as an artist, the Sesnon Gallery at UCSC’s Porter College is displaying a collection of his work in an exhibition titled “Eduardo Carrillo: Memorial Exhibition” It runs through April 25.

Carrillo spent his career as an artist in the University of California system but he was far from your typical academic. With his background and beliefs firmly tied to his Mexican ancestry, Carrillo moved easily between the halls of academia and the fields of farm workers.

He had one foot in the world of superstar painter and one sandal in the paisano world of “lettuce pickers” said longtime friend and nationally known art critic John Fitz Gibbon. He could move in both arenas.

Certainly, his paintings reflect a passion for his ancestors and the Chicano landscape. From the brilliant flat light portrayed in “Santoa Abarotes‚Äö√Ñ√∂ to the Aztec and Spanish skirmish portrayed in “Warrior” Carrillo’s paintings echo both the sublime atmosphere and the violent interface between Europe and the native Aztec or Mixtec people.

But Fitz Gibbon says that Carrillo’s agenda was never overtly political.

“There are many (Chicano) artists who have political agendas and usually for the right reasons, but their art is kind of a litany of complaints about this country and the selfishness, greed, and oppression that visited upon people of Mexican descent by the power hold,” said Fitz Gibbon. “Eduardo wasn’t exactly like that. He had a social agenda but his vision was basically a constructive vision. He didn’t have a political ax to grind”

Fitz Gibbon first met Carrillo in the late 1960’s when he hired him for the art department at Sacramento State of which he was chairman. He wanted to make a national presence of the school in the art world as well as diversify the department by hiring women and people of color.

Fitz Gibbon heard about a Mexican American working in Baja.

“He had established a workshop on an acre and a half of scrabble ground on the outskirts of La Paz” said Fitz Gibbon. “He brought in people who knew how to weave, carve wood, build a kiln. He created a kind of artisan workshop, in so doing he created employment to dozens
of families who were destitute”

Carrillo, Fitz Gibbon said, always looked for situations and created opportunity. Though he taught art at UCSC he always had time for the Mexican laborer in the Salinas fields.

Pamela Bailey, director of the Sesnon gallery,said that, for her, Eduardo represented generosity. He gave of himself as an artist wholeheartedly and without hesitation.

“He didn’t hold back,” said Bailey, “because he simply knew that there would be more where that came from.
He trusted his gift as an artist and he trusted the world to receive it”

The Memorial Exhibition reflects Carrillo’s uncanny ability to reinvent himself. Eclectic but technically fastidious and always passionately earthy, this collection of paintings presents work from the 1960’s up to the year of his death. It displays the wit and melancholoy that so frequently make up the two sides of the Mexican coin.

He constantly searched for ways to transform the material into the numinous. “He gave you that paradigm of spiritual truth in his form,” said Fitz Gibbon, “more deduced from an ideal realm than from a pure realm. That’s how us art critics talk”

Taking the breath of his form from the Italian painters from the 14th century as well as the proto-surrealists of Latin culture, Carrillo let his paintings bubble up from the unconscious. Born in the barrio of east Los Angeles he had an unpretentious savvy that easily drew both the privledged and the disadvantaged to his side. Fitz Gibbons claims his attitude was bred by the values espoused by his Mexican relatives love, openness, generousity of spirit and a humility that is not found in the States.

“Everybody loved Ed” said Fitz Gibbon who says Carrillo will take his place near the top of American artists. “He was a remarkable touchstone.”

To “Live Our Own Dynamic Epoch”: Eduardo Carrillo at Joseph Chowning Gallery

Eduardo Carrillo at Joseph Chowning Gallery
Katherine Cook
Artweek, October 11, 1990

Eduardo Carrillo, like many Mexican-descended people in America, is striving to redefine patterns of relating to community. In the current exhibition, Mentiritas (Little Lies) at Joseph Chowning Gallery, this struggle is evident. Born in Santa Monica and educated in the United States and Spain, Carrillo has moved between Mexico and California during much of his adult life, forcing him to examine closely his relationship to both Americas. The diversity of style and content in this show of more than twenty paintings and watercolors, ranging from landscapes and single object studies to enormous, mural-like canvases may itself reflect the multiplicity of processes that can result from emotional and intellectual turbulence.

The Hermit/St. Anthony is an unsettling painting in which a seated, skeletal-like figure fixedly stares at an object; overhead a luminous palm protects the scene like a celestial umbrella. The title recalls the story of St. Anthony, a second century early Christian who sequestered himself for twenty years before founding the monastic movement. In the painting, the artist seems to be setting a mood, heightened by his predominant use of incandescent, pale-yellow tones and concern for light, which suggests a state of deep contemplation before action.

Pulling the Plants is a landscape painting in which the muted background supports the busy foreground action. Angular, simplified figures struggle with enormous bright-green plants whose leaves resemble splayed human palms; they seem to almost grab at the participants. The uprooting of these plants acts as a metaphor for the more personal conflict this artist is attempting to reconcile.

In marked departure from the rest of the show are two large mural-like paintings, The Buccaneers, and Two Brothers Fighting, mounted in the foyer of the exhibition hall. The style of these works are reminiscent of Mexican muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros, especially the latter work. Here two muscular male combatants are depicted locked in fierce battle; behind them stands a mysterious priest-like figure whose outstretched arms seem to command spiritual symbols to float upward. With these paintings, Carrillo conveys an ideological sympathy with Los Tres Grandes (Orozco, Rivera and Siqueiros) artists of Mexico. Painters, not writers, were at the heart of the 1920’s intellectual vanguard of the Mexican Revolution. Carrillo seems to follow their lead by painting the internal revolution that exists today in the Chicano community.
Like the Mexican muralists, Carrillo sees himself as a “cultural worker” in solidarity with the people.

In striking juxtaposition to these works are two small paintings, The Street Painter and The Letter. Each depicts
solitary, eerily disenfranchised figures whose sombreros resemble halos. In The Letter gut loneliness spills onto the frame which bears deep red gashes along each edge. Again, the internal and external struggle is apparent in both the form and content of the entirety of the exhibition. In another small painting, The Bubble Cafe, the artist concerns himself with geometric planes and intersecting rectilineal surfaces. Carrillo tells us that this scene is taken from the Santa Cruz boardwalk. The geometric forms evoke thoughts of Diebenkorn and his Ocean Park series. Interestingly, Diebenkorn’s Santa Monica studio, where this series was completed, was not far from the birthplace of Carrillo.

In The Artist Dreaming of Immortality at His Grandmother’s House, the artist gives us a bird’s-eye view of the small town of San Ignacio in the Baja region of Mexico where the artist’s family originated. Cadmium red hills dominate the background with larger-than-life trees jutting out from the foot, all encasing an idyllic scene of village life. Color becomes a symbolic factor in viewing all of Carrillo’s work. It becomes even more significant when considered within the historic content of Mesoamerican traditions where color not only conveyed emotion but designated specific gods, direction and time.


Eduardo Carrillo at Joseph Chowning Gallery
Marc Van Proyen
November, 1992

Almost all of the figure paintings are frontal portraits of individuals who (by virtue of first name titles) seem to be known to the artist, and here, Carrillo shows himself to be an astute observer of the way in which the human face functions as a telegraph of complex and sometimes even contradictory attitudes.¬†Take the smallish painting titled Doyle (1992). We have the kind of close-up inspection of a man‚Äôs face the we might associate with the more well known paintings of the British painter Lucian Freud ‚Äì a face that seems to be in the midst of some kind of self confrontation, or perhaps in the grips of a willful resolution to such a confrontation. ¬†But it is also a brilliant exercise in how subdued chromaticism can achieve its own vibrancy without lapsing into simple formulas of shade and tint. Another large painting, Ruben(1992), draws back from an examination of the sitter’s face to the ways in which his total body language communicates an attitudecasual defiance, and here, it is large, broad brush strokes that are the painterly mirrors of the person portrayed.

Two small paintings of tree dotted hillsides capture that pecular autumn atmosphere of Northern CAlifornia by using chromatic understatement to subvert obvious postcard sentimentality, while a series of still life paintings really catch Carrillo putting down his painterly chops. Many of them are comprised of objects that echo a festive exoticism, but there is a somber, disquieting mood, present as well, one that makes the still life form quietly redolent of uncanny things-that-might-come. In this pecularly aesthetic attributed, Carrillo finds his painterly heritage in the Nabis painters of turn of the century Paris, such as Pierre Bonnard, and Edouard Vuillard. In Carrillo’s case, however, there is virtually no linear distortion of form, which adds to the mysterious interplay of color and tonality.

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.


The Return of the Desert Fathers: Chas and Eddie Paint the Baja at Joseph Chowning Gallery

Esther Vecsey
Artweek Volume 21, #3
January 25,1990

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.

Hand to Hand Combat

The Oakland Museum hosts Mano a Mano: Abstraction and Figuration,  16 Mexican American and Latin American Painters from the Bay Area.
Esther Vecsey
The Daily Californian
March 31, 1989

The term “mano a mano” means “hand to hand” in Spanish. It’s a colloquial expression for a close confrontation, or hand-to-hand battle between opposing forces. Mano a Mano is also the title of a museum exhibition that opened recently at the Oakland Museum. In the context of the exhibition, “mano a mano” assumes a metaphoric meaning for what happens in the creative arena, according to Rolando Castellon, director of the Mary Porter Sesnon Art Gallery at UC Santa Cruz. Castellon is the curator of “Mano a Mano: Abstraction/ Figuration, 16 Mexican American and Latin American Painters from the San Francisco Bay Area.” Castellon is nationally known for his tireless efforts on behalf of Latino artists.

In a talk to the docents of the Oakland Museum, Castellon, who was born in Nicaragua and emigrated to this country over 25 years ago, told of his efforts to bring to public attention the achievements of Latinos. In 1969 Castellon, himself a painter, and a group of Bay Area Chicano and Latin American artists, founded the Galeria de la Raza to provide a regular forum for Latino artists, who are generally excluded from mainstream galleries and the art establishment. In the initial lecture of a series connected with the exhibition, Castellon said he first conceived of this exhibition in 1969.

Castellon said he is primarily interested in the early, pre-Spanish conquest origins of the artists of Mexican and Central and South American origin. It is that aspects of Hispanic culture that he feels plays a principal part in their creative process. Castellon’s declared mission is to reestablish a direct link with the rich artistic heritage that was extinguished by the Spanish conquest of the New World. Castellon is planning an international symposium on the theme of Pre-Colombian and Post-Colombian art to demonstrate how the indigenous past survives and is revived in the culture of peoples of Mexican and Central and South American origin.

Castellon commented on the current surge of exhibitions with a “Hispanic” theme. He said Hispanic Art in the United States, at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and several other exhibitions traveling nationally , fail because they show only figurative work by contemporary Latino artists. “Somebody decided that we all do that-the emotional, figurative,” Castellon said in reference to the stereotypical notion that the contemporary Latino creative impulse is fueled by only the naive, primitive folk art tradition. Castellon decided that this was the moment to organize an exhibition to demonstrate the wide range of stylistic and conceptual concerns of Latino artists.

Castellon chose Mano a Mano to emphasize the variety of artistic vocabularies that Latino artists use, which can be distilled to the opposing genres of figurative and abstract. In conceiving Mano a Mano, Castellon envisioned a juxtaposition of abstract and figurative artists in the installation. The idea was not realized at the Oakland Museum, so an important aspect of the exhibition is marred. The original intention of the curator to group and hang the works in opposing pairs, by artists, is now reflected only in the catalog.

The theme of confrontation, the “mano a mano” of the title, is presented in conceptual form only, by arranging illustrations of the paintings to appear on facing pages of the catalog. Eight full-page spreads illustrate Castellon’s premise that the style of the paired artists may be totally disparate, but their color, light, mystical themes and structural qualities resonate with a seminal strain that binds them together, a pre-conquest Indian sensibility shared by the artists because of their ethnic origins.

In the catalog the monumental abstraction “Tlayoltevian,” by Gustavo Ramos Rivera is juxtaposed with Eduardo Carrillo’s “Las Tropicanos.” a mural-size oil on wood; Jerry Concha’s abstract “Yahmenami” is shown opposite Yolanda M. Lopez’s powerful figurative icon of “Nuestra Senora Coatlicue,” and so on through six more pairs.

The oppositions and the affinities that Castellon sees in the works of the artists in this exhibition are subtle and complex. Castellon said he relates the idea of the confrontation of two bullfighters to his original concept for the exhibition: in the corrida, mano a mano is “a traditional ritual where artistry, courage and mysticism come together and the two protagonists fight a duel, not to prove their superiority over one another, but to emphasize the human capacity to transcend the tragedy of life. In art, the artist enacts a similar struggle alone with destiny.” This idea is carried from analogy to metaphor, to “show the confrontation of two opposite directions in contemporary art- abstraction and figuration…”

It is unfortunate that the Oakland Museum didn’t carry out Castellon’s original intention for the exhibition. It is also unfortunate that the reviews never reflected upon the complex issues Castellon raises. Because this exhibition, whose premise is so much more subtly conceived by a Latino painter-curator coincides with the rash of showings of art by Latino artists. Mano a Mano has been lumped with them. Each exhibition may strive to correct the injustice done to Latino artists by the art world establishment in this country, but by presenting the artists in an ethnically determined grouping, the curators run the risk of generalizing and “ghettoizing.” thus defeating their own purpose.

In the very busy and lucrative machine of today’s art world , simple categories and labels are preferred to complex philosophical agendas. Thus the complex issues of Castellon’s exhibition are lost on the critics and reviewers and the issue of ethnicity becomes the main focus for the journalists who have written about it.

The racial, ethnic, political, cultural, religious, economic, social and aesthetic baggage that the artists in Castellon’s exhibition carry is fraught with contradictions. In Mano a Mano and in the intelligently and sensitively written catalog, much of this cultural baggage is explored. In the catalog each artist is treated individually and comprehensively. The paintings on exhibit are powerful works, proving that the artists are not limited by their ethnicity. Their work is valid and strong, in the global context of contemporary art. Their work should be judged on its aesthetic merits, not within the narrow confines of ethnic category, which shows of this kind inevitably perpetuate, no matter how well intentioned.