Crocker Catalogue Essay

Crocker Art Museum
Sacramento, California
May 17 – July 20, 1986

During the past fifteen years Eduardo Carrillo’s paintings have evolved from small richly-painted still lifes and landscapes to monumental and austerely painted figural compositions that draw upon Pre Columbian mythology and evoke the dry landscape of Baja California. Although his recent work in many respects represents a strong visual departure from his paintings of the early 1970’s, they have many elements in common, among them a concern for evoking spiritual qualities and the depiction of light as a mystical presence.

Carrillo, who was born and raised in Southern California, studied at the University of California at Los Angeles, where he was introduced to serious art making by the strong example of his teachers— who included Stanton MacDonald -Wright and William Brice— and fellow students, among them Charles Garabedian, Tony Berlant, Lance Richbourg and Ed Moses. He interrupted his studies for an extended visit to Spain, where Carrillo helped restore the church altar at San Francisco Grande in Madrid and saw paintings by Bosch, El Greco and Velazquez.

Carrillo returned to UCLA and as a graduate student exhibited surrealistic paintings at the Ceeje Gallery, which showed vigorous figurative work by Los Angeles area artists during the 1960’s. After he graduated he moved to San Diego to teach at the University of California extension and then to La Paz, Baja California. In La Paz, the home of his ancestors where many of his relatives still reside, Carrillo made ceramics and directed a regional art center.

In 1969, while he was in Mexico, Carrillo was invited to join the faculty of California State University, Sacramento. At CSUS he was influenced by the work of other faculty members, including Joseph Raffael, Jack Ogden, and Irving Marcus–who he describes as painting like “Dutch masters”–and by the politically active Royal Chicano Air Force, whose members included Estaban Villa, Jose Montoya, Richard Favela, Stan Padilla, and Juan Ishi Orozco.

Carrillo began to paint again, and set about recording compact motifs, such as the interior of his H Street house, from life. Works such as Cathole, Sonoma(1971) document both the artist’s intense visual analysis of his subject and how he has distilled nature and emphasized elements, such as the horizontality of the log, that reinforce the structure of the scene. Suffused by a mystical light that characterizes other works of this period, Cathole, Sonoma is painted in the “black oil” medium adopted from Northern Renaissance artists, in which multiple layers of wax and oil glazes create a sumptuous tonal effect.

With After the Party, also of 1971, Carrillo began to develop more complex figural images using models, an interest he pursued for several years. Again, the subject is taken at in part from nature, but the frontality and central placement of the female figure attest to the artist’s concern with composition and with creating more monumental visual statements.

In 1972 Carrillo accepted a teaching position at the University of California, Santa Cruz. His move to a new environment may have accelerated his turn away from painting from nature in favor of the new emphasis on creating from his imagination and inventing forms. The allegorical La Luz y la Musica (1973), in which figures painted from models are placed in an imaginary landscape, is a transitional work. Its spiritual subject, conveyed through two of the central figures -one who sees the light, the other who hears the divine music- is an ongoing concern of the artist and contrasts with more violent, carnal themes in his other works, particularly the mural paintings.

Although Carrillo began painting the murals as early as 1962, mural painting took on an increased importance in his work after his move to Santa Cruz. Between 1973 and 1976 he directed three mural projects there, and in 1979 Carrillo created a major ceramic tile mural in Los Angeles in honor of Father Hildalgo. His research on Father Hidalgo, facilitated by new publications on Mexican muralists, further informed the artist on Mexican art and stimulated his interest in learning more about Pre-Columbian art and beliefs. In 1980 Carrillo undertook a two year study on ancient Mexico. About the same time he began to make regular pilgrimages to La Paz to better understand the culture of his ancestors.

The outcome of these explorations has been a series of paintings dating from 1982 in which Carrillo combines Mexican Indian mythology and the traditions of Baja California in compositions that are at once personal and universal. These works are anticipated in Los Bucaneros(1974), which alludes to the artist’s reputed French pirate ancestors who were stranded on the coast of Mexico. By 1982 Carrillo was creating images such as Sor Juana, an ecstatic portrayal of a 17th century Mexican nun, who as a poetess, an intellectual, and a socially- conscious individual, has served as a source of inspiration for the artist.

These paintings culminate with such compositions as 55 Gallon Drum (1983), which depicts four figures standing around a fire in an oil drum. This is a common evening occurrence in Baja California and the incineration of the day’s refuse serves as an occasion to tell stories, resulting in the transmission of culture in the manner practiced by primitive societies for centuries. The composition is tightly structured with four large figures- allusions to the four directions of Pre-Columbian myth- assuming hierarchical poses and illuminated by the intense light of the fire.

On one level Sacred Twins(1984) shows a horseman in a fantastic landscape; on another level it refers to the Aztec deities Tezcatlipoca and Quetzalcoatl, who represent the duality of night and day. In contrast, more earthly activities-indulging in another glass of wine and hand of cards in an extended break between periods of intense work- are shown in paintings such as La Otra, one of many images derived from the artist’s participation in the life of rural Mexico. These paintings indicate the range of Carrillo’s thematic concerns. Their opaque yellow and light earth tones convey the remote, arid landscape of Mexico, and simplified forms endow the subjects with a monumental presence. They also share rhythmic forms and intense juxtapositions of light and shade, means Carrillo uses to effectively realize his ambitious aesthetic and expressive intentions.

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