E is for Eduardo Carrillo

by John FitzGibbon

from California A-Z and Return
The Butler Institute of American Art
Youngstown, Ohio. 1990

Because I wanted to hire the best Hispanic painter I could I was down in La Paz, close to the tip of Baja California. This was more than 20 years ago. I had looked around the Southwest and Colorado for a couple of months before Tony Berlant(who else) touted me where to find the painter who would end my search. Either that, or Tony wasn’t in the know.

Ed Carrillo and his young family were living cheaply down in Mexico, with Lance Richbourg in attendance. Lance claimed he was down there on a grant from the Mexican government to provide love-interest on the playa for all the American senoras and senoritas whose menfolk were doing their deep-sea fishing on 3-day manhood tests and tequila competitions way out in the ocean past Cabo San Lucas or up in the Gulf of California. Strictly wishful thinking of course because that role was being supplied by the short dark and handsome men who all along the Pacific littoral dive from tall cliffs and air-ski behind power boats with the aid of a parachute.
Carrillo on the other hand actually got grants from both stateside and from the Mexican government, journeying several times to the capital to plead his case in the labyrinthine bureaucracy. One thing he accomplished, with the aid of an older cousin who was police chief in Las Paz was to rid the area of a self-contained compound established on the Pacific shore, eighty miles north, by retired FBI and their like. This fortified enclave was a last refuge and an arsenal (including not just automatic rifles and small arms but bazookas, grenade- launchers, and various anti-tank weapons, not to mention mines, generator-powered surveillance systems, small airstrip, oodles of barbed- wire and camouflage.) Paranoia can often be touching. With the pathetic logic of super patriotism, these dry-as dust human beings had abandoned their country to play cards and swap tales in a foreign desert, while awaiting the take-over of America from within by co-religionist senators and congressmen of the pope in Moscow (abetted for certain by commie Berkeleyans like myself, the notorious James “Pink Djinn” Melchert and Carlos “Carlos” Villa,) Carrillo used the small starter grants plus whatever he could borrow and barter to set up an Arts and Crafts Workshop on an acre of vacant lot on the dirt- streets outskirts of town. La Paz, before the road went through, was a somnolent city of about 30,000 with a bank, jail, a supermercado, a drugstore, movie theatre, couple of cantinas, and three musical-tappeted taxis whose drivers automatically got lionized by the local ladies. Unemployment ran right around a third, the perennially impotent federal and state governments could offer little help; the only money coming in arrived by airplane in the pockets of the tourists and sportsfishermen; and if you weren’t a guide or a bartender you tethered yourself on the drugstore corner all day, like a mule chomping tomatoes.

In this situation Carrillo made a real difference. The Center for Regional Arts that emerged from his efforts was an all too isolated instance of the triumph of a 60’s spirit of communal activity. Value began to flourish in a dirt barren a chicken wouldn’t bother to scrabble in. They fenced the perimeter, they put up adobe workshops and made benches and worktables. They built kilns and constructed looms, using manuals and learning as they went. A lot of the techniques they needed lay outside Eduardo’s competence. Where he was lacking he brought in teachers from the mainland. The emphasis was on taking a craft item from the very beginning, from the fleece on the sheep’s back, to the shearing, to the carding, spinning, weaving dyeing and finally the marketing at a store the Carrillo’s set up on the airport road, a shop where visitors could bargain in English for goods with Sheila Carrillo.
The simple integrity of the humblest Mexican craft item has always been a wonder to me. The cheapest bar coaster, fired a hundred at a time, has something winning, a touch of honesty and even holiness, weird as that is to say. Ed’s Centro turned out serapes, embroidered blouses, striped cotton rugs, mugs, copas, and plates, patchwork and handpainted ties, leather goods of all sorts, straw hats and baskets, cut-paper decorations, pipes and flutes, everything under the bright blue sky. These things had formerly been brought in by train and ferry from the great Guadalajara market. Carrillo managed to give people basic skills that are atavistic throughout Mexico but in La Paz, as in many locales, had withered. He took dozens of people off the street and gave them an income and a sense of worth. He himself received a nominal salary and the grace of God that descends on every unselfish act.
I omitted to say that had stored his painting at a friend’s house against my visit. I never saw them until the day before my departure, and the manner in which he finally showed me them was so memorable and so influential on my subsequent efforts to do some “Event” art myself, that I will leave it for telling elsewhere.
Naturally I’d decided right off to offer Carrillo the job he wanted it. All the best Hispanic painter business just evaporated in the late night talks with Ed and Lance (who would come in from the cantinas cussing his latest strikeout with the fish widows.) It would have been the greatest surprise in the world to me if Ed’s painting had turned out to be feeble. Indeed they were nothing like I’d seen. To my mind, the consistent originality, presence, and degree of intuition in Carrillo’s work put him very near the top of American painters, and that assessment falls considerably short of his own ambitions which are not focused on American art nor on Mexican but on the Old Masters. Now and again I’ve made my preference for his art quite clear:
Literally unnoticed at this point on the national scene Carrillo is to my eye, the best Chicano painter. He is the best realist painter to come out of the city of Los Angeles, in a field which includes his friends Mx Hendler and Lance Richbourg, and when the history of 20th century art is written, he could be any kind of painter. For Ed, matters are seldom capable of simplification. The conquistadors disembarking from their galleon in a recent Carrillo painting struggling ashore carrying not only arms, cannonballs and the like but also tv sets, a torah, and other anachronisms! In Ed’s travesty the Conquest is revealed to have been more insidious and pervasive than ordinary political accounts have made it out, and conquerors and conquered, in Ed’s world, turn out to be deeply and convincingly compromised.

Yet because I could hardly admire Hendler’s work more than I do, and because at his best Richbourg, currently hotter than ever, is the equal of any painter, I don’t really want to make any invidious comparison. Unless it’s to note, as I shall below, that I prefer all of what I call the OTHER LOS ANGELES artists( they include Garabedian and Berlant) to the figures one normally thinks of as LOS ANGELES-meaning Irwin, Bell Ruscha, Moses, and so on,artists who have received the major attention over the years and who are by and large quite fine performers in their own line. It should be noted further that there are crossovers between the two groups, just as you’d expect. Garabedian always shared a box at Hollywood Park with Irwin and the latter is bound to prefer, say Hendler’s work greatly to, say, Bengston’s. Moreover, in the early days, Ed Carrillo lived in the same quarters as Larry Bell and the two Los Angeles artists shared kitchen privileges. That Los Angeles refrigerator had the hamburger on one shelf and the chimichangas on the other.
The Coatlique of our painting is the Mother of all the Aztec gods, the god of Deception being the pertinent one here. Eduardo had been thinking of his son Ruben, fresh from high-school and in the throes of his first serious love. A nice young lady had been giving Ruben the short introductory course in grief, and let’s not doubt, the nice young man would soon enough be returning the favor. The hammock here, in which they grope for each other is of course a net, in this case identified with the woman. Since the painting can (and is meant to) be read vertically just as well as horizontally, we learn that turnabout is fair play. Ruben, by the way, was the cameraman for the recent video production Ed did on the shark fishermen at San Francisquito on the Sea of Cortez- El Mar Bermejo, as it is called: the vermillion sea. Thew film records visits that Ed, in company with Garabedian and others, made to the area. It deals with vitality, fearlessness, endurance, and unlimited appetite which sharks have and many men have, and it deals with honor which some men have and which is irrelevant to sharks.
Carrillo has been through a number of considered, purposive changes in his (always) representational manner. He was milking de Chirico, early and late, at the nadir of that artist’s reputation and at a time when the Italian postmodernists were milking their mothers.¬†He can do eyes-on realism with the best of them, meaning Hendler and theibaud. In another vein his many stylizations of the world “out there” have added an honorable dimension to the history of shape- invention in our era. Ed has always been a deliberately wooden figurepainter- his people have a ligneous life, like trees. This is no harm, unless you are no respecter of painters like Georges de La Tour.
When Carrillo was painting California scenes in the early to mid 70’s he pressured oil paint to take on a wet juicy shiny salivating appearance. In the last dozen years his vision has turned more and more to Mexico. In keeping with an experience in Baja when he almost died of thirst and dehydration, the surfaces of his canvases now enjoyed a dried out, absorbed quality- as dry and gritty as a Twachtman, as dry (to change metaphors) as abobe. Surfaces are matte now, as in our example: colors are light, there is an emphasis on the objectness of the canvas, on the rough fabric showing through. Instead of seeing into, through, films of paint the eyes must now stop at a surface that is as dessiccated as the desert itself.¬†The washed-out, over exposed quality of light in our canvas literally reflects the noon day brilliance of the Baja sun which can throw off your perception of dark and light. The drier, the hungrier for moisture these canvases become, the more spirituality they take on. Of all the painters who can hear the grace notes from the noumenal world, none betters Carrillo at making them available to us. Everyone knows the old saw: Poor Mexico, so far from God, and so close to the United States. Carrillo’s paintings make it clear that this stands the truth on its head: Fortunate Mexico! So very, very far from the United States.

Feliz Mexico — Where the gods are everywhere.

— John FitzGibbon


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